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Coffee and Creativity on Mum's Third Shift


My name is Annie. I am an artist and a writer and I am also a mum to 3 young children. Creativity is a challenge to fit into my hectic life, but I try to do it every day.

My Work

I write short stories, science fiction and fantasy. Links to my writing samples, downloadable PDFs and list of e-books on Smashwords are above.

I also paint in oils and acrylics. Some of my art is based on Chinese and Japanese culture. Feel free to look through my portfolio for a sample of my work. If you have any questions, please contact me.

 To see my Art gallery: here

To see updates on my Tumblr blog, look below. The actual link is here

Annie's E-books on Smashwords 



An Eighth Shot of Espresso

Coffee and Creativity on Mom's Second Shift 

Have I Actually Had EIGHT Shots of Espresso before?

The most I’ve ever had is four. If you want your teeth to wiggle, that’s one way to do it.

Why An Eighth Shot of Espresso? During the day, I’m busy with real life: mum things, family things. I hardly get a moment in edgewise to work on anything creative. When the kids finally go to bed, it’s my second shift as a creative. I’m a night owl, so this helps a lot.

There are times when eight shots of espresso might be the only way I can stay awake. xD So that’s why I named this blog An Eighth Shot of Espresso.

If I ever get the nerve to actually drink that, I’ll let you know how it feels.

Posted 95 weeks ago

Snippet: The Deadly Card Game

“Hey, glad to see ya! Thought you wouldn’t show up!” Mac shuffled the cards again, his fingers twirling them easily.

“Yeah, well, I changed my mind,” Austin said.

“I’m glad you did,” Mac replied.

His eyes met Austin’s directly across the card table, his blue eyes to Austin’s brown. Mac’s dress code was comfortable, but casual, so he wore his lucky sweats. Bren, to his left, still had his knit cap perched on his head, like an obnoxious helmet. “Admiral” Drake proudly wore his flight jacket and “USS Enterprise” cap. Thomas the Nerd wore a ridiculous smoking jacket. Adela, the lone woman, a dark overcoat.

But Austin…Austin was different. A white polo shirt, tailored slacks, all nice and neat. Definitely not the type you’d find around the poker table in a seedy apartment.

Certainly not in Mac’s apartment. As Mac gazed at him, he saw a fellow predator. A fellow rebel. A fellow risk-taker. One of his own kind.

Austin saw the gaze and smiled.

“So,” Mac said, finally acknowledging the other players, “you all know the rules. Opening bet is fifty.”

Chips flew and landed in the center of the table. Austin waited till he was the last, then he placed a single chip. It was red, not yellow.

Five hundred.

“Cocky, are we?” Adela asked him as she batted her eyelashes. She deliberately took a deep pull of her Red Bull and placed it in her open chip box.

Austin’s smile widened. “Only when necessary.” There were chuckles all around the table, except for Thomas, who only glared at him.

Mac matched the smile. “Let’s start.”

Posted 245 weeks ago

Snippet: Confronting the Past

Some things don’t change, even after 25 years. They had never bothered to take down the signs, even after the tracks rusted in their fittings and the cars fell silent. The guardrail still stood tall, like an old sentinel., between the East and the West.

Between the Past and the Future.

Between my Fate and my Destiny.

The ramshackle huts of the Past lay directly past the tracks. My Fate had been linked to those huts. My mother, and her mother before her, had eked out a living by selling their souls for money and that was supposed to be my Fate.

Then I had crossed these tracks and caught hold of my Destiny. Now to face my Future, I must confront my Past.

“Well, better now than never,” I say and I walk over the rotting woods, past the watchful sentinel and into another world.

Posted 246 weeks ago

Link from SifaSeven...

Finally an ask-meme for writers! (source: maxkirin)

I’ll answer any question from this list :-) Always love to talk about the writing/creative process!

Posted 248 weeks ago

A Blast from the Past: The Silk Dragon (Nanowrimo 2006) Part IX

Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV  Part V  Part VI  Part VII  Part VIII

They’ve finally decided to join the party! Elisando exulted. The Fire Rangers threw bursts of concentrated fire, the Water Rangers pelted the enemy with frozen chunks of ice, the Earth Rangers drove pieces of the ruined monolith into the Dragons of the Void, and the Air Rangers called up the winds once more. The clean ranks of the Void degenerated into chaos as invisible hands upturned riders out of their seats, and dragged Dragons away from the arena. After the Spirit Dragons finished their initial attacks, they materialized and used their powerful tails and talons to shred the enemy into pieces.

A glow distracted Sisi from the battle above her. The base of the monolith was a perfect equilateral triangle, all of its sides fitted into each other, and this Triangle was filled with warm light. The scent of wildflowers tickled Sisi’s nose, and brought a sense of homesickness.

She patted Elisando and they dove towards the Portal within the monolith’s base. They both closed their eyes as golden light surrounded them both, and the sounds of conflict melted away into nothing.

The world disappeared.

Sisi had no idea how long they were suspended in the light. She didn’t want it to end, for a calm peace filled her soul as she drifted down, down, down. Elizando was silent, but Sisi felt her Dragon’s complete amazement. No one could harm her here, no one could hurt her.

And in the light, she saw images: Lupita presiding over an Azteca Festival, Link reading a book with his young son Tad, and Gan Zhou Bei riding at the front of a group of hunters. She saw one of the mighty “paddleboats” that Samuel had described for her; it churned the water around it as it steamed up the mighty Mississippi, wider and longer than the River where they had retrieved the First Key. She saw DW’s zoo of animals as they roamed its grounds as free as they were in nature. She saw Nurse Clara administering to wounded soldiers in a terrible Civil War. And finally, she saw herself, with a pack on her back and some kind of animal, exploring the world.

And they still drifted down, and the light became white clouds, and the white clouds became blue sky, and finally an expanse of green and gray materialized below them. The warm breezes guided them over the plains to the shadow of mountains, and she spotted a bright silver point of light at the top of the one of the mountains. As she and Elisando drifted close to their destination, a red and gold dot sat on the edge of a rocky shelf, and Sisi felt her eyes fill with tears.

Drianeh looked up and smiled, her sharp teeth gleaming in the light. She reached out to them as Elisando touched down lightly at the edge of the shelf. Sisi slid off the Spirit Dragon’s back and ran to Drianeh. The Fire Dragon’s arms went around her, and to Sisi’s shock and delight, the arms were solid and real, and she started to cry.

“You succeeded in making it this far, Sisi. Now you must complete your mission here,” Drianeh whispered. “Elisando and I will be here with you, no matter what happens.”

“Come, Sisi, all of Eternity awaits,” Elisando chimed in. 

Sisi nodded and let go of Drianeh, and with the Fire and Spirit Dragons on each side of her, she climbed up a dirt path up to the Throne of Thinking, a chair hewn from white rock, with a view of the valley below—

As she looked out, her heart started to beat faster, for the mists below her cleared, and a familiar sight greeted her. She had been here, a long time ago, with a map in her hand and dreams of seeing what lay beyond the valleys of the Sian Mountains. She reached for the box on her belt, and brought out the Singing Map. It unrolled at her touch and started singing,

“I’m the Map, and I will
tell ya what you need to know,
The final challenge you will go,
And we will love you still.”

“Thank you, Map,” Sisi whispered. She paused at the foot of the Throne of Thinking and had to shade her eyes from its glorious magnificence. It resembled her old vantage point high above Churros, but it was transformed into something else. The seat cushion was of silky yak-skin, upholstered in the softest yak hair and stuffed with something that smelled fresh and wonderful. The hard, cold granite was now warm, yellow-white marble, and there were recesses within each chair arm and at the top of the high back. Sisi reached a hand and traced the shallow indentations; as she had figured, the shapes of the holes matched the Keys she wore around her neck.
And suddenly, the Knowledge of What To Do settled into her brain like a summer wind. She brought out the Earth Key, the one that came from deep under the soil, and the one that Link had sacrificed his existence for. It had solidified to a warm bronze and slipped into its recess without a problem. 

“I call on the Power of Earth, the Power of the West, the Power of the Mountain Lion, be welcome here.” And a large ghostly cat purred and settled on the left of the Throne, at the west. 

Then Sisi drew out the Water Key, a sparkling blue sapphire like the River, and the one that Lupita had sacrificed for. She gently set it in the top of the chair, above her head. “I call on the Power of Water, the Power of the North, the Power of the Hummingbird and Wolf, be welcome here.” A glowing ruby-breasted bird alighted on the edge of the head of the chair, and a shadowy wolf took up sentry behind the throne.

Then Sisi drew out the Air Key, the one from the Crystal Monolith, and the one that Freya sacrificed her existence for. “I call on the Power of Air, the Power of the East, the Power of the Hawk and Eagle, be welcome here.” A pair of silver birds, a hawk and an eagle, alighted on the other chair arm, as Sisi placed the key within the chair arm opposite the Earth, in the East.

She blew out a breath as she straightened up to her feet. Air, Water, Earth. Where was Fire? There was no Fire Key at all. She thought for a moment. Fire, where am I going to find Fire? Wait a moment…She smacked a palm on her forehead. Yak brains, you are such an idiot, Sisi, the answer is right in front of your nose!

She had a Fire Dragon and a Spirit Dragon with her, the final Two Elements. Nothing was missing at all. The Universe was all here, and connected.

She spread her hands, and Drianeh took one, and Elisando took the other and they approached the Throne of Thinking, surrounded by the Guardians of the Elements and Directions, and Sisi closed her eyes and lowered herself onto the cushion.

And her senses exploded in a hail of bright stars.

She sat upon a milky river of stars, looking out at an Expanding Universe at her feet. The light of a million suns glowed brightly, and the spheres of many planets rotated in majestic silence. Hot red stars, cool blue ones, and everything in between; comets and shooting stars, black holes and pulsars. Sisi watched them unfold, live, and burn themselves out.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said a familiar voice to her right.

Sisi turned to it, and stared at the beautiful woman dressed in red, with golden sparkles within the folds of her gown. Her long brown hair reached past her waist, and she stretched her long legs in front of her. Her dancing amber eyes shone with love and mischief, and Sisi found herself mirroring the bright grin.

“Drianeh?” she asked.

Drianeh chuckled and replied, “It’s been a long time since I’ve worn my Human form. I’ve forgotten how it felt like. And yes, I used to be a flesh-and-blood Human, just like you, and the other Rangers.” She glanced down at her hands and flexed her fingers. 

“I suppose you’re entitled to be a little vain, Drianeh,” said another voice. Elisando sighed and linked his—human?—arms behind his head. His hair was whiter than Samuel’s and his snowy mustache and beard long and full. His sun-browned skin covered a strong, muscular frame. Sisi blinked as she stared at her Spirit Dragon.

“You come from Lupita’s people?” she sputtered.

“Several generations removed, I’m afraid, but her Azteca people’s blood run in my veins,” Elisando said. “I don’t manifest in my True Form often either, but I still do, on occasion.”

“So Dragons are…Rangers?” Sisi stammered. The shock of seeing them just like herself still rang through her brain.

“Well, kind of.” Drianeh took a deep breath and launched into her explanation. “When a Ranger dies, he or she gets to choose where they end up. Some choose to return to their worlds, some decide to walk the Star Road, and some get the choice to end up as a Dragon. That last choice isn’t open to everyone; I guess it depends what you did as a Ranger, and whether you joined Good or Evil.”

“And since the Rangers had been on a decline into their own civil war for eons, fewer and fewer Dragons choose their Rangers, and the Spirit Dragons lay fewer eggs,” Elisando chimed in. “And more Rangers end up on the side of the Void. It’s a great imbalance.”

Sisi watched wispy figures walking the Road of Stars and felt a surge of happiness for those free souls. Then there was a short rumble, and the stars in one part of the Universe exploded in an ugly cry of destruction, and the Universe shifted to accommodate it. For the first time, she noticed many such gaps, and they spread, slowly but surely, into the fabric of the Universe. That fabric, overworked and overstressed, began to tear in places.

“Is that what the Rangers of the Void want?”

Drianeh nodded, her eyes sad. “Yes. They want to empty it until it’s as cold and dark as they are.”

“How do we fix it?” 

Drianeh touched Sisi’s arm. “You helped bring the Rangers together against the Void; they’re battling them back even as we speak. That is the beginning, but now you must make a choice.”

“Am I dead?”

“No, not yet, anyway,” Elisando replied with dry humor in his voice. “The Elemental Familiars can heal all this, but they need a focus. For so long, there has been no one worthy enough to become this Focus, until you were picked by Drianeh and me. But to become this Focus, you must make the choice.”

“Return to the world I came in, be a Dragon or Walk the Star Road?”

“That’s right.”

“What if I return to the Sian Mountains?”

Elisando cocked his head in her direction. “It may not be the same world that you left. For all you know, you could be in a different time altogether, a stranger.”

“And if I Walk the Star Road?”

“Peace, eternal peace and rest for you.”

Sisi frowned at his words. “For me?”

The Spirit Dragon-turned-temporary-human shook his head. “You will be at peace, but the Living will be deprived of your Spirit, your courage and your expertise.”

She considered the implications of that. “And…if I become a Dragon?”

Drianeh laughed and replied, “Then you get to nag another Ranger and make sure the Rangers walks the path of the straight and narrow. It can be fun, but it can be a huge responsibility.”

“I see.” Another sector of the Universe blew up in front of her eyes, and the rest of the Universe scrambled to compensate, and the fabric tore a little more. “I’m the one who must Save the Life the Universe and Everything.”

“SLUE,” Drianeh said with a grin. “I like it. Remind me to put it in my memoirs, Elisando.”

“Done,” Elisando said. “So, little Sisi, such is the challenge.”

Sisi sighed and watched as a third part of the Universe combusted in a wave of destruction. The souls on the Star Road walked on, blissfully unaware of the events happening just below them. If she concentrated hard enough, she could hear the sounds of battle, far away, and each Ranger’s death sliced her heart to ribbons. Bhuri, the Water Ranger Leader; Nonnie, Coren, and Jay-Jay. More and more fell, but even more Rangers of the Void disappeared in their wake. Neither side had the advantage, and it looked to the untrained eye that each side was becoming even in number.


The Universe was approaching the point of Balance, but the scale could tip either way, and throw it all out of balance again. The forces of Light or the forces of the Void? Which one would win?

It would all depend on Sisi’s choice.

And she must make that choice, and quickly.

“No pressure,” Drianeh said helpfully.

Yak butt, I hate tough decisions. Her soul longed for peace, but she couldn’t bear the fact that she could do nothing to help the Universe, in case of trouble. It reminded her of the mindless gatherings of her Foster-Mother’s relatives. Suddenly, as she thought back upon it, the cheer was false, the excitement feigned, and the shifty eyes watched every move. The Celebration of the Maiden, during the spring Festival, was a competition among the young girls of Akumas, with all its mandatory back-stabbing and nastiness. And after the Maiden was chosen, the losers all wore tight smiles, but held revenge in their hearts.

And after the Celebration of the Maiden, there was the Celebration of the Air Dragon of Spring, and the Festival of the Fire Dragon in the summer, and the Gathering of the Warmth in the middle of Summer, and the Water Festival near the end of summer, and the Welcoming of the Fall at the end of the season, and…more and more festivals, and minor gatherings interspersed in between in a breathless rush. 
Sisi had enjoyed all of these parties and celebrations, but now as she looked back at them, she realized that the joy was all upon the surface.

“Any excuse for a party,” Foster Mother Tatara had said with a laugh. Was it all an excuse to banish the ghosts of restlessness and boredom? Of anger and revenge? Of hollow emptiness?

And even the monotony of Churros, of Foster Father Men Pao’s people. They worked for a living, and lived for working. They channeled all their energy into their professions, whether it be yak-training or the production of chaochaou. These people were exacting and good at their work, but they scorned anything and anyone who thought otherwise. The Akumas were frivolous hedonists, they argued, and Churros would prove their existence wrong.

Before, Sisi accepted her villages’ mindsets as gospel. Now that she was far enough away to see with a critical eye, neither of them were close to the perfection they claimed. Both had their strong points and their weak points, but neither was all-knowing. And while they didn’t argue with swords and Dragons, they grudgingly acknowledged each other positions.

That concept of balance, again. 

Sisi closed her eyes and tried to imagine herself as a Dragon. She would probably be a Fire Dragon or a Spirit Dragon herself. The immovable mindset of Earth and the fickle qualities of Air would not suit her, and the mutable, changing nature of Water would drive her mad in the long run. So, Fire or Spirit. She saw herself traveling between dimensions, choosing her Rangers, leading her fellow Rangers in Saving the Universe and Everything. It was an exciting and breathtaking possibility.
But she would also be bound to one purpose, and instead of finding the new, she would be charged with protecting the old. Whatever happened to the yearning to explore, to discover new worlds, converse with new people?

You can still do that as a Dragon, a part of her argued. Each Ranger will be different, each adventure a new story. Why the hesitation? 

Would she still be Sisi? Yes.

Would she still be able to help those in trouble? Yes.

Would she still be able to do the things that were uniquely human? Drink chaochaou, play yak-ball, track objects with the help of a map? 

Um, no.

Does that really matter? Think of the power you would have as a Dragon!
Sisi sighed and shook her head. Yes, it matters.

Being Human isn’t all that wonderful…you just said yourself that Humans aren’t perfect. 

A slow smile crept across her face. “Humans aren’t supposed to be perfect.”

“Excuse me?” Elisando asked, though the same grin adorned his rugged face.

“I think I know what to choose, Elisando.”

He glanced over her head to Drianeh and said, “I told you she wouldn’t take too much time. The girl knows what she wants.”

“Wasn’t it me who said that we picked the right person for a Ranger, Elisando?” Drianeh teased gently. She sighed and carefully got to her feet, her own balance precarious on her pair of scarlet high heels. Elisando stood at Sisi’s other side, tall and proud; she could see a little bit of Lupita’s warrior blood in the way he held himself.

“So. Turn your face to the universe, Sisi and tell it what you want,” said Elisando.

She looked out to the vast expanse of stars and comets and planets, to the visible rents and tears in the fabric of the Universe, to the Road of Stars far above, and the suns that shone over an infinite number of worlds. She heard the sounds of the battle between the Light and the Void, she heard the songs her Foster Mother Tatara taught her, and she heard the sigh of the wind and the gurgle of the water, the laugh of a child, and the groan of a dying man. She was a part of the universe, but she could also step away from it and watch time crawl or speed by, if she wanted.
The Elements had given her the power of an immortal goddess.

But did she want people to worship her, did she want priestesses like Lupita or servants of justice like Link or bards and storytellers like Samuel or warriors like Gan Zhou Bei to put their will into her likeness? Did she wish to exercise her power—subtle, if anything—over an impressionable and confused Ranger trainee, newly snatched from his or her world?

She had the power to stretch out her hand and order the Void to be destroyed.
Enemies, instead of equal allies.

“No,” she whispered. Then she raised her eyes to the Universe and told it what she wanted. As soon as the last word faded into space, the breath of existence paused for a millisecond. 

Then space and time followed her instructions.

It contracted into itself at a speed immeasurable by man, then expanded outward, reorganizing itself, reconstituting itself, shifting itself. Stars were reborn, old stars died, planets formed out of the ether or crumbled into space dust. Comets redirected their paths, black holes squeezed itself flat or curved space and time where it once flowed in a straight line.

The tears and rents refolded onto themselves, heavenly matter patched the holes, and stray threads wove themselves back into the fabric of space.

Balance, Sisi thought. Equal allies instead of enemies.

She had no name, but she knew her role in the group. Every night, she stood watch by the campfire as her fellows slept, her Night Vision illuminating the darkness. Sometimes the fire wasn’t enough to keep the predators away; her job was to ensure the safety of the group.

Just a few moons ago, one of the hunters had slipped and fell into an ice crevasse. His death had been a cruel blow to the group, for the winter had been cruel, and most of the able-bodied men had succumbed to accident or snow sickness. Now the group consisted of mostly women and young children, the ones who, by tradition, depended on the menfolk for fresh food and protection. With the men dead or ill, what were they to do?

We will do what we need to do, she had told the others. The women stared at her as if a demon had stood in her place and overtaken her mouth. Slowly, they taught themselves how to bring down small game, how to coax fish out of the rivers, how to start the Gift of Fire, how to look forward, instead of wander backward. Tradition was fine, she believed, but there desperate times called for desperate measures, and tradition took a backseat to survival.

And now the group was surviving. Messengers from other groups had arrived with the warming weather and more men were planning to stay. They wanted things to revert to the way things wanted to be, but a new tradition had taken hold. Disgruntled, the arrogant males left to find more willing prey, and the ones who could accept the new ways remained to contribute their strength and their children.

She smiled in the darkness. The Gods, who had turned their backs upon them, now shone their faces in approval. With their grace, the group would survive and thrive, and be remembered for times to come…

The alchemist started as he realized how close to sleep he was. He straightened and rubbed his eyes, but the gritty residue of exhaustion clung to him. The cheery glow of the fire seemed to laugh at him, not mockingly, but in sympathy. He chuckled to himself at the very notion of fire having a personality.

The Elements have a sense of humor, he considered with a wry grin. At least the Fire is in a good mood this night, and not in a rage.

“Father, I have catalogued the newest chemicals, and measured them out according to your specifications.”

He laughed again and turned to the sound of the voice, “Our specifications, Hestia. You did most of the research, my daughter, and worked most of the theories. I believe you have surpassed even the limits of my knowledge.”

Hestia blushed and bowed her head in modesty. “Does that bother you, Father?”

“Does ‘what’ bother me?”

“That I assist you in your enquiries?”

He eyes her in mock irritation. “Hestia, if I’d objected to your assistance, I would have sent you off to the nunnery a long time ago. As it is, I don’t believe in refusing the help the Gods choose—and are willing—to give us.”

“I know, but—“

”No buts, my girl. Now, let me see your preparations.”

Hestia glided to her worktable near the fireplace, and he followed her. Tall and lithe, with red-gold hair the color of summer sunsets, he thought her mother named her well: Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth. His contemporaries had offered a king’s ransom for her hand in marriage, but he had refused them all. Such money could have easily afforded him the apparatuses, the volumes, the powders and the means to make his name in the Church’s annals, but he refused to trade his spiritual happiness for worldly wealth. Many equated his name with “fool” and “lunatic”, but he did not care. God worked in mysterious ways; the most brilliant mind just happened to be set in the body of a young woman. Did it matter the package wrapping, if the gift itself was worth more than gold?

Hestia’s table was lined with delicate powders on neatly trimmed squares of paper. A bowl of clear water sat on a brazier, next to a mortar and pestle. She picked up an piece of parchment, covered with arcane symbols and equations, all written in her steady hand. Her father stood at the head of the table and nodded at her precise preparations.

“Are you ready, Hestia?”

“Yes, Father.”

She began the chant in a pleasant contralto, giving praise to God and His wondrous works, then she carefully picked up the warmed water off the brazier. One by one, she went down the line of ingredients, adding them to her bowl with the incantations that went with each powder, and she stirred the water with a silver spoon. Finally, she added the last ingredient, and finished the song, and she stirred the concoction ten times clockwise, then ten times counterclockwise. She put down the spoon and lifted the bowl in her hands, murmuring her thanks to all Four Directions and Four Elements.

“It is done,” she said.

“Very good, Hestia,” he said. “Now, let us see whether or not it—“

Suddenly, the door exploded outward, and men dressed in monkish robes burst into the room. Glass shattered as they upended the glass instruments, and they ripped open packets of powder and flung them into the air. The alchemist tried to stop them, but they shoved him to the floor. He heard Hestia’s screaming, but fatigue paralyzed his limbs, and he could not help her.

“Put your beliefs in your mouth,” the head monk screamed, “and we’ll see if God favors your unholy ceremonies, witch!”

They pulled her from the floor when they had finished with her, and forced her to kneel in front of them. The monks intoned prayers of deliverance as one of them tipped her head back and held her mouth open. The head monk’s eyes glittered with evil ecstasy as he poured the alchemical formula into her mouth. She sputtered and tried to turn her face away from it, but the monk holding her pinched her nose and wrenched her back under the overflow.

“No,” the alchemist cried weakly. His vision wavered as blood from a cut above his eye began to gush.. Something was broken, bleeding inside, he couldn’t move, and the formula wasn’t meant to be ingested.

Forgive them, Lord, for they don’t know what they do.

Hestia’s body jerked in spasms as the monks finally allowed her to collapse on the floor. Then she was still, and the only sounds was the hissing of the formula as it ate into the stone floor.

The Head Monk passed his eyes around the ruins of the room. “Burn it,” he ordered harshly. “Let them suffer and be purified in the flames.”

“So be it,” his acolytes droned.

The alchemist heard the monks stoke the fireplace with precious tracts, books and writings, then throw these improvised flamethrowers into his equipment and furniture. Then all was yellow and orange and red, and he felt those flames lick at his feet and hair. He closed his eyes and left it all to God.

Father, Father, get up!

He opened one eye, but saw nothing but fire. Hestia? But—

Father, take my hand. Take my hand!

Somehow, he commanded his arm to move, inch by painful inch to lift upwards, and he felt something take it, something gentle but sharp at the same time…a large shadow came over him, but it was both strange and familiar at the same time. The flames parted to reveal…

God have mercy! He remembered his father’s nautical maps, and the spidery script over unknown territory Here be Dragons. His father believed in them; he himself scoffed at their very existence. Of course, in his pride, he never thought his father was right.

His daughter had been transformed into a red-golden dragon with her bewitching green eyes and her soul intact.

Then he was out of the fire and over a wide ocean. The smell of the salt brought good memories, memories of standing along the Venetian dock with his father and watching the ships coming in. Memories of bringing his day-old daughter to the same dock and praying for God’s grace, and the Water to cleanse and welcome her into the world…

He felt his body shudder, and thought My soul has been released…

but not to Heaven. Into another body.

A body that was definitely not Human.

He looked at his long, sinuous body, his diamond-tipped claws, all azure blue, the color of a calm sea. Fur tickled his nose and he sneezed, a bass rumble. Even his own voice had deepened into the roar of the waves.

Fire and Water. Opposites, but one cannot live without the other, according to the Laws of Nature. Enemies, but necessary to their existence, like Light and Dark, Man and Woman, Life and Death.

He laughed and reveled as his lungs didn’t hurt him, his head was clear for the first time in ages, and his soul was full of purpose.

Where are we going, Hestia?

To where the Dragons roam, and to where we can live in peace. Hestia winked at him, then beat her wings to pull ahead of him. Come and catch me, Father!

He grinned and flew faster, chasing her like when she was a little girl. Of course, she would always be his little girl, even as a dragon.

“Oh bloody hell!”

Captain Rachel Brannigan sighed and rolled her eyes. The enemy was out there, somewhere, and the young corporal’s exclamation could have given away their position. She put a hand on her aide’s shoulder and mouthed, “Find out who that stupid idiot is and shove him to the back of the line.”

“Yes, Captain,” the aide mouthed back, and slunk off to the rest of the line.

Brannigan sighed and leaned against the rock barricade. She paused and took off her helmet, letting the wind blow through her sweaty hair. When was the last time she’d been able to do that?

In Alpha Centauri’s Dolittle Beach, years ago, before the universe exploded into war. Earth’s Four Factions turned against each other and brother fought brother, and mother fought daughter in an endless line of skirmishes and routs. Brannigan’s mouth twitched as her fingers found the patch on her shoulder, a ring of mountains, right above her country patch, the Union Jack. The United Kingdom had threw their lot in with the Earth Alliance, against the Fire of Crusade, the Winds of Terror, and the Sea of Action. Many of her fellow comrades had joined the other Factions. Her own Yank husband led a battalion of the Fire of Crusade, for the spread of goodness and righteousness, he claimed.

Oh, bloody brilliant. I wonder whose goodness and righteousness. Really, she couldn’t blame him, for he had been brought up in good ol’ Southern Yank theocracy—what a contradiction—and he honestly believed his way was right. She loved his dedication, but not the cause to what he dedicated his life.

Freakin’ stupid mess of the world. Interesting that they’d name themselves after the Crusades…as if all they have to do is wave their Good Book and sing, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”…she cut off that old argument before it started. His beliefs had been sincere, he meant well, but she was a firm believer in secular thought, and that had been the death of their relationship.

A piercing whine broke the silence of the night. One of the lookouts screamed, “Incoming! Incoming!”

With trained patience, the anti-aircraft and anti-tank measures kicked in, and the dark heavens were sliced with streaks of light. Ammunition fire poured over and through her defenses, and her people screamed and cursed as they were mowed down like sheaves of wheat. The grim, single-minded brutality, the speed of the attack, shocked the Earth forces, but they shook off their paralysis. Return fire came out with a vengeance, and Brannigan’s people advanced forward with steady determination.

She slammed her helmet back onto her head, and ordered, “Second Group, forward!”
Her soldiers marched in precise formation, the piper sounding the battle cry. The smoke parted and the face of the enemy glared in the lights of destruction. The Winds of Terror screamed at the top of their lungs as they rushed into the fray, man to a man, with weapons swinging.

This is it, no turning back, she thought. Her nerves were strangely calm, although she was fully aware that there was no way she or her group could survive this engagement. This was what she had spent her entire life training for…for the land and the planet she loved.

She took a deep breath and surged forward, with all the power of the Earth Alliance behind her. Her automatic laser cannon belched death on all sides of her; the recharge kicked in again and again, the heat of the cannon seeped in through her heavy-duty gloves and burned her fingers.

Then she saw her counterpart on the field, another leader. The Wind Warrior’s helmet had been knocked off, and long black hair fanned around her like a second shield. An elegant tattoo encircled her right eye and snaked along her jaw. Her black eyes shimmered like onyxes set in wide settings. The Wind Warrior’s rifle chattered, and Brannigan saw her loyal aide collapse under the onslaught.

Rage and grief gave Brannigan strength, and she hefted the cannon, balanced it on her shoulder, and sighted the Wind Captain. Like her namesake Element, she shifted and danced as she parceled out tickets to Hell, and never stood still. Brannigan kept her ground, centered and stable, and ignored the charges that exploded all around her.

Finally, the Wind Captain seemed to notice her. The enemy’s eyes widened, then she gave Brannigan a short salute with her rifle. And in that moment, they understood each other. They appreciated each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and knew that in another time, on another world, they might be sitting in the lobby of the most expensive hotel in London and sharing a pot of tea, fairy cakes and strawberry scones. And they both regretted the circumstances that led to this moment.

Brannigan gave her a shrug of apology, and the Wind Captain acknowledged it with a sad nod. Then the moment passed, and Brannigan’s finger tightened on the trigger, as the Wind Captain fired her own rifle.

The recoil threw Brannigan into the mud, and she lost her weapon in the discharge. She couldn’t see, for there was nothing but darkness, and her face felt warm and sticky. The churned up earth welcomed her and she felt herself sink into its welcome warmness…

Warmness? The field of battle is hard and cold…

She couldn’t feel her body anymore, but she felt the Earth all around her, combining, reshifting, rebalancing itself. Then she understood what was happening.

Get rid of this bloody stupid war…make things back the way they should be!

And to Brannigan’s surprise, the Universe actually listened.

Make things back the way they should be!
Equal allies.



Sisi staggered as images streamed into her brain. She was the cavewoman sentry, and Hestia the first Fire Dragon, and she was Captain Rachel Brannigan of the Earth Alliance. An eternity’s worth of memories, edited, remastered and rewritten. The cavewoman lived to see another beautiful morning, Hestia founded the Aerie and the clutch of Fire Dragons, and Rachel Brannigan met her friend in the lobby of the London Ritz for tea and scones.

And the Elements rearranged themselves; not a square with four opposing sides but a circle, never ending and never dying. The circle became a spiral, that formed the core of the new Universe. And Sisi reached out and shaped that spiral into her hands, filled it with her essence and gave it her instructions. With the foundations laid, the universe obeyed its new commands. New worlds were born, new dimensions taking on shape and form. And she wove Spirit Stories into them, stories of harmony and peace and love, and protection. She knew that there would be conflict and arguments, that couldn’t be helped, but there would be options for peaceful settlement, instead of war.

And she welcomed the souls of the departed Rangers, asking them what they wanted. Some chose to return, some chose to rest, and some chose to guide and teach. Sisi nodded and allowed them to finish their journeys, or continue on their ways as they saw fit. Jay Jay and Coren chose to return to their home dimensions and begin life anew, while Nonnie chose Dragon form.

And she saw the fates of her other friends. How Samuel departed to his rest in concert with the comet in the sky, and how his stories brought laughter and joy to many generations. How Gan Zhou Bei led his own forces and became a gifted leader in his own right, and organized his people into a coherent country. She saw Gan Zhou Bei’s legacy spread in tales and songs, and how he became a myth larger than myth.
Finally, the song was ended, and life flourished once more.

Time slowed to its natural rhythm, and the new universe ran according to its clock.

“Wake up, Sisi. My, you’ve single-handedly founded a universe. Not many people can lay claim to that, you know.”

“Well, there is no instruction manual for rewriting the forces of space and time. I would say that she did as well as she could, given the circumstances.”

“‘As well as she could?’ Crikey, man, give her a bit more credit’n that! She bloody well rewrote the entire Book herself. I’d hate to have the cosmic hangover she’s gonna have in a bit. Whew!”

“Do you have that herbal remedy for her, Steve?”

Is that his name? Steve? It was the first time Sisi had heard his given name. The unusual laughing accent grew even merrier as he replied, “‘Course I do, Elisando. Never leave home without it. Guaranteed to cure snakebite, crocodile tears, and the occasional draconian hiccup.”

Elisando sounded relieved. “Good. Well, this is rather awkward, but now that the Universe is balanced, what will transpire in this new time?”

“What do you mean?” asked the first voice, which Sisi recognized as Drianeh’s.

“He means ‘What the hell comes next?’” DW supplied helpfully.

Drianeh sighed. “Well, the Elemental Council is holding a meeting, but I suppose since they’ve been waiting for an eternity, they can wait just a little longer.”

“No skin off their noses, eh?”

Drianeh laughed, “For those who have noses, yes.”

Feeling coursed through Sisi’s limbs, nice Earth Healing energy. She opened her eyes to find herself lying in a soft bed, and surrounded by cushions and blankets. High above her, Elisando, Drianeh, and DW smiled down at her. She turned her head to see Nurse Clara concentrating on her, and Clara opened her eyes.

“Welcome back, Sisi.” Clara said. “How do you feel?”

“Not…bad,” she replied. And the Truth was, she felt as if she had been in a deep, relaxing sleep. “Where am I?”

DW grinned and said, “Well, at least it isn’t ‘Who am I?’ You’re in the new Elemental Council building in the Grove. Seems like the head honchos put in for new digs, and got their wish.” He pressed a mug of hot liquid into her hands. “First things, first. Drink that. It’ll make you feel even more wonderful when the cosmic hangover hits.”

She sniffed it and grinned. Chaochaou, thick and sweet. As she finished off the herbal remedy, she heard the rest of the story from her fellow Rangers.

“Suddenly, in the middle of all the hullaballoo, the whole group of Spirit Dragon eggs started hatchin, every single one of ‘em, and they all took off through some powerful Portal. I managed to get onto Suuie and follow ‘em, and we ended up in one helluva pub fight. Seems like the Rangers of the Void wanted to throw everythin’ but the kitchen sink, there didn’t seem to be any progress in the battle, then everythin’ went kablooey!”

Drianeh smiled at DW’s enthusiastic retelling of the story and took up the thread. “When you told the Universe you wanted to make everything equal allies, it listened. Instead of thinking about yourself, what you would want, you thought about others. That broke the Void’s power, Sisi. You used the power of compassion and love. The Power of Spirit.”

Sisi hid her blush within the steam rising from the chaochaou. “I thought about being a Dragon, but something told me to look elsewhere, and the words just came out.”

“You listened to your heart,” Elisando said quietly.

“And when the word came out, everything got all colorful and jumbled, like a fireworks party on Australia Day. I felt like I was in some kinda crazy blender. Next thing I know, I’m in the Grove, sitting next to some Familiars, and I’m lecturing on not leavin’ mud tracks in the wading pool! Leavin’ mud tracks in the wadin’ pool, of all places!” DW grinned and winked. “As if it was the most important thing in the world at the time. Grabbed me a young Dragon and pulled her aside—Air Dragon, methinks—and I asked her what’s goin’ on. And she tells me that the last bunch of little critters are makin’ their homes on the ridge, and that I shouldn’t worry my head over it! I thought I was going crazier than a dingo on speed, I tell ya.”

“That brings up an interesting point,” Clara said. “Sisi corrected the imbalance in the Universe, but when she did it, everything changed. Why do we remember what actually happened and no one else does?”

Drianeh and Elisando glanced at each other. “Only a handful of people remember, and those people are those who survived the Void’s assault and the birth of the new Universe. Most of the previous Rangers were returned to their places in history, like Samuel and Gan Zhou Bei. Others just—never existed to begin with.” Elisando bowed his head. “The memory of their loss is a painful one, but a necessary one.”

Sisi stared at the bottom of her cup. “What happens now?”

Drianeh put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “We go to the Elemental Council and plan our future.”

The Council Building fit DW’s description of “fancier digs”. It was a semicircle on a plateau, surrounded by sky, hot springs, and a cool waterfall that emptied into the River below. Sisi gaped at the sight of Air Rangers and Earth Rangers, Fire Rangers and Water Rangers socializing and talking with each other. Dragons of different Elements played tag in the large courtyard outside. The amazing thing was that they all acted as if it was normal, and that such fraternization was common. Sisi knew that none of them remembered a time when the Elemental Rangers were fighting amongst themselves; as far as they were concerned, the peaceful time of cooperation had always existed.

The Council Chamber was filled to capacity, but a row of seats at the front of the room were conspicuously empty. A woman dressed in the bright whites of a Spirit Ranger rang a series of beautiful-sounded chimes, and the audience took their seats. Sisi and her friends took one of the front rows.

“Fellow Elemental Rangers, we hold this special meeting to remember those who served without fear, without anger and without shame. Many generations of Rangers, and many generations of Dragons and Familiars have dedicated their lives to the protection of our Universe. Now we nominate the new members of our Head Council. Three representatives from each Element and three Dragons and Three Familiars. Let me call and introduce them to you.”

“Tania, Bryseol and Namibu, from the Earth Rangers. Suirya, El-Waheed, and Tristan from the Water Rangers. Eris, Drake, and Saska from the Air Rangers. Depra, June, and Tabor, from the Fire Rangers. The Four Main Elements, three from each, twelve in all.”

As the new officers heard their names, they assumed their seats in front of the assembly.

“Gabriel, Azriel, and Raphael, from the Spirit Rangers. Deuro, Malagascur and Promedes from the Void. Three from the Elements Above and Below. Six in all.”

“From the Void?” Sisi repeated in awe.

“Remember, Sisi, the Spirit needs the Void as much as the Void needs the Spirit,” Elisando reminded her in a whisper.

The Head Spirit Ranger raised her voice. “From the Familiars: Dhurmina, Kalivar, and Totin. From the Dragons: Elisando, Drianeh and Suuie, from the Guardians, six in all.”

“That’s us,” Drianeh said, and she and Elisando stood up. Suddenly, Sisi’s vision wavered, and instead of their Human forms, the two Dragons took their positions behind the row of seats. Suuie, the Dragon who helped DW, joined them. The trio looked so majestic, protecting the Council, that tears of pure joy streamed down Sisi’s face.

“Twelve Rangers, Six from Above and Below, and Six from the Guardians, for a total of twenty-four. It is balanced, it is pure. May you all serve for the Greater Good and the Protection of those who claim the title of Ranger, Dragon, Familiar and member of the Universal Family.”

“So be it,” they all intoned and the Head Spirit Ranger rang the chimes again. A roar of applause thundered through the Council Hall. It brought the audience to their feet, and their cheers rose into the high ceiling and bounced off the rafters.

The Head Spirit Ranger raised her hand and the cheers faded to silence. “There is one last issue to address. We have a Ranger to thank for her selfless service to the Universe. Ranger Sisi, of Fire and Spirit, will you please rise and approach?”

Sisi swallowed hard and her legs shook as she walked towards the new council. The Head Ranger seemed to take pity on her and met her halfway. Her auburn hair sparkled in the sunlit hall, and her gentle blue eyes were the blue of peace. Sisi was taken by that gaze.

“Sisi, we all owe you a great debt, for you have thought of others instead of yourself for so long. You have the power to return here to the Grove whenever you wish, and join us for as long as you wish. But deep within your heart, you have a desire that you refuse to acknowledge for fear of seeming selfish. There is no shame in wanting your heart’s desire, especially when it is to the benefit of all. As I said, you have the ability to cross dimensions, to gain new knowledge and to explore new worlds. Technically speaking, this is your universe, per se.”

Her last remark brought chuckles from the other Rangers, but they were sharing the joke, not feeling malice. Sisi wiped her tears with the back of her hand and managed to smile back.

“Tell ‘em what you want, Sisi love,” DW hollered from the crowd. “C’mon, don’t be shy.” His heartfelt remark brought another round of applause.

“Steve is right. Tell us what you would like, and it will be granted.”

Sisi took a deep breath, and with a loving glance at Elisando and Drianeh, and a wink at DW, she told the Spirit Ranger what she wanted.

And the Universe listened again.

She stood at her favorite vantage point in the Sian Mountains, overlooking Churros, but instead of the drab, colorless village she remembered, it bloomed with music and laughter, as the Festival of the Great Dragon was about to start. As she watched, bonfires bloomed across the mountain ridge. In the sky, the wispy forms of Spirit Dragons passed over Churros, undetected by the villagers, but Sisi saw them and smiled.

Foster Mother Tatara, Foster Father Meng Pao. I’m finally coming home to you.
She patted her yak companion, and swung up on his back. Then they went down the rocky path down towards her new village, and her new destiny.

Posted 249 weeks ago

A Blast from the Past: The Silk Dragon (Nanowrimo 2006) Part VIII

Part I  Part II  Part III Part IV  Part V  Part VI  Part VII

Sisi consulted the map to find the Portal Point for the Clouds of Sorrow, but Freya seemed to sense it before she said anything. Freya pulled Aseoguard alongside and said, “Wait here. We are close, I can feel it.”

Sisi nodded and signaled for the others to halt. Freya rode ahead a ways, then she closed her eyes. Aseogard seemed to fade, as if she was made of Spirit and not of Air, but her outline was brilliant against the sky. Freya raised her hands, palms upwards and crooned something in her native language. Golden lightning sprang from her fingertips and snaked across the heavens, searching for the Portal. A swirl of wind encompassed her and covered her until all Sisi could see was her shadow within the wind.

Samuel scowled. “Gan Zhou Bei, this reminds me too much of when she called the Gales into the Cave. The first time drained her; why is she doing it again?”

“Air tends to be fickle,” Gan Zhou Bei replied with a shrug. “Perhaps Freya isn’t as strong a mistress as she claims to be.”

“I don’t think that’s it,” Samuel objected. “There’s something dark within her, something that she keeps in check most of the time, but it gets away from her when she’s fighting.”

“Ah, warrior’s mind, probably?”


“As a storyteller, you wouldn’t understand.”

“I wouldn’t, unless you enlighten me. Otherwise, how would I know?”

Gan Zhou Bei thought about it for a moment, as if Fu Ling had also said something about it. He sighed and nodded. “The Lady Dragon reminds me that just because I know, it doesn’t mean that everyone else would know. So. When a warrior is in the heat of battle, you focus on nothing else, for if you do so, it could mean your death. Distraction is deadly. One stray thought, one wrong move, and—“he slid his index finger across his throat—“you are gone. Freya concentrates on defending her allies to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps she had simply closed her mind of extra thoughts, and so provided more energy to her winds.”

“Maybe.” Samuel still seemed thoughtful as he looked at Freya’s shadow within the cocoon of wind. “I would think that such single-mindedness would be in itself deadly.”

“In other situations, perhaps. Sisi’s people have a saying, ‘Nose to the stone, job gets done’, or somesuch.”

“Nose to the grindstone, you mean.”


“A huge wheel meant to grind wheat into cornmeal.”

“Ah. We had no such thing in my village.”

“No?” Samuel asked. Gan Zhou Bei had never opened up to his inquiries before, so he kept one eye on Freya and the other on his other warrior friend. “Then what did you eat?”

“Meat, herbs, long vegetables from the ground. We traded for bread, already in packs. Until I came here, I never knew bread could be so plentiful.”

Samuel frowned as another mystery occurred to him. “Wait a moment. You weren’t chosen by a Dragon or a Familar, were you? Then how did you end up here?”

Gan Zhou Bei shrugged. “The same as Sadie and the others who are not Rangers. One moment we were in Dreams, the next, here. Quite disconcerting, but like you, we have learned to adjust. Imagine, a hunter in the Sian, in pursuit of the hynnga, the largest yak-like animal ever, waking up to the hot sun, and broiling within his furs!” He laughed aloud at the memory, and Fu Ling snorted in response. “Luckily, Sadie was in search of grain for her potions and drinks, and stumbled over a…what did she call me? Ah yes, a caveman out of the Stone Age, whatever that was.”

Samuel grinned, despite himself. This story beat anything he could have made up on his own. “Long, long ago, there was a race of men who were hunter-gatherers, and lived when the ice covered the Earth. They used stone-tipped spears to bring down large animals and made caves their homes. Thus, the caveman out of the Stone Age.”
“Ah, Samuel, thank you. I was wondering about that. Sadie never really explained herself, and she told me that if she’d said that to anyone else, it might be taken as an insult, so I wasn’t sure what her words meant.”

Samuel smiled to take the sting out of his words. “Well, when a woman says that to a man, it could mean that the man is nothing but a mindless barbarian. But there are definite times when our noble ancestors had the right ideas about survival.”

Gan Zhou Bei’s face had become just as thoughtful, then he said, “I suppose that is meant to be a compliment. Thank you again, Samuel. You know, you and I are perhaps more similar than I had first thought.”

“Perhaps, and I will take that as an honorable compliment, my friend,” Samuel said, with a courtly bow, and Twain bobbed his head and Fu Ling roared in complete agreement.

There was a flash of light, and the winds surrounding Freya parted into two fast streams of air. They met directly in front of her, expanded into a square, then lengthened into a rectangle. It glowed white-golden, then darkened into a black, glassy pool. Freya scowled, and poured more energy into it to brighten it again. Finally, it stayed the color of pure gold.

“I have it!” she cried in triumph. “Quickly, while I can hold it! And close your eyes before you enter!”

Gan Zhou Bei reined Fu Ling in and dove towards the Portal. He disappeared within it, then Samuel and Twain. Sisi and Elisando started towards it, but Sisi saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Within the clouds around them, dark shapes began to form, and suddenly, a bolt of lightning lashed out towards Freya. Sisi cried three sharp words, and a wall of fire sprang up between the bolt and Freya and absorbed the attack.

Dark-winged vultures tried to get past the barrier, but the flames reached out for them, driving them back. Sisi clenched her fists and punched them outward, and the flames thrusted towards the dark clouds and sizzled them out of existence. The vultures screamed and melted away.

Sisi wasted no time in passing through the Portal, and Freya slipped in just as the Portal snapped shut behind them. Color swirled beneath Sisi’s closed eyelids, which formed into a familiar scarlet form.

Drianeh! Sisi called.

Sisi, beware! The Fire Dragon’s golden eyes were wide with panic. There has been one in your midst who is an agent of the Void! Beware!

The warning seared through her soul. Who is it, Drianeh? Who? Is it Freya?

The Mistress of the Winds knows who it is! She does!

Sisi shook her head; she couldn’t believe Freya capable of treachery, not after all they had all been through. Then the full meaning behind Drianeh’s words hit her: Freya knew who it was, but it didn’t necessarily follow that Freya herself was the agent.

But that meant either Gan Zhou Bei or Samuel…no, she believed that even less.
Herself? No, wouldn’t she have known a long time before this?

Then the Portal spit her out into a bank of dark clouds, so dark that Sisi wondered if she was still in the World between Worlds. These clouds were illuminated by yellow light from below, and it gave the clouds an eerie appearance. Cold wind blew threw Sisi’s long black hair, and her teeth chattered in its wake. She reached into her pack and put on her yak-wool coat, but that failed to make her warm, so she also spread warmth over herself and Elisando.

“Where are we?” she asked aloud. “Where are the others?”

There are three levels of clouds, Elisando said, It appears we are at the lowest level. As for the others…I can’t reach them. I don’t hear them at all, and that worries me.

“So where do we go? How are we going to find the Key now?”

Elisando swung his head back and forth, his large nostrils flared, his eyes so wide that it was all pupil. There, he said, pointing his talon ahead. There.

“Then ‘there’ we go, Elisando.”

They flew slowly through the clouds, rising and falling with the wind currents. Sisi raised her hand and projected light in front of them, for it was so dark that they barely saw a few feet in front of them. The only sounds were the howl of the wind and the echoes reverberating back and forth. Sisi plunged into a cloudbank, then pulled up into a world of white snow and ice.

Norga, Elisando whispered in awe. Freya never talks much about her home, but she always made it sound so mysterious.

“This makes the Spooky Forest look like a Harvest Festival,” Sisi murmured in a hushed tone. Dead branches pierced the sky like jagged fingers, and the ground was covered with hip-deep snowdrifts. In the distance, she saw a line of bright orange among the hills…

Fire! There’s a fire in the distance! Sisi, this is no ordinary fire! It smells like magic!

Sisi spurred him on, and they covered the distance between themselves and the fire in a few minutes. She nodded in agreement as the orange flames burned with poisonous green centers, and they marched in line with the precision of a conquering army. Even more disturbing: the fire gave no heat, but radiated an icy core that was colder than the blackest space. Sisi looked across the mountain ridge in horror as she realized that the black dots that streamed down the slopes were not pieces of debris, but people who were fleeing the onslaught.

“Yak crap!” Sisi cursed and headed towards the villages on the ridge line. Elegant wooden structures burned with the cold fire and spread with amazing speed. Intricate stained-glass windows melted into puddles and carved bone statues blackened and cracked in the streets. The flames sparred with warriors who defended their homes; all of the warriors wore silver breastplates and horned helmets, and carried axes, spears and swords. Unfortunately, no earthly weapon could harm demons conjured from magic; the fire teased their opponents before overwhelming them with sheer numbers, and Sisi heard the screams and howls of agony before they mercifully ceased.
Sisi, they’re losing! Quickly, can you See the Source of these demonic pests?

She forced herself to stare into the flames’ ugly green centers and “heard” a constant buzz within them. It was the same buzz that she had heard each time the Rangers of the Void appeared near to her. The Rangers of the Void are in control. Where are they, Elisando?

One moment. Elisando flapped his wings as he concentrated. There, high on the ridge. Gods, I can feel their power. How did they gather so much energy?

A shrill scream broke their concentration, and a lone woman warrior rushed down the icy street below them, sword raised high and blonde braids swinging to and fro. Sisi recognized a younger version of the Freya she knew, and she realized she was seeing old history.

No, not old history, Sisi. Watch a moment.

Freya swung at the flames, which jumped back at her onslaught. She cleared a circle all around her, and the flames hung back as if they couldn’t understand why she was able to hurt them. Other flames poured in like a river of lava, forming another circle, then another, until Freya was in the center of five concentric circles, each one expanding bigger than the previous one. Freya glanced about her with a look of startled confusion on her face, but she maintained her high defensive guard. Her fellow warriors tried to reach her, but couldn’t get past the barriers.

Why isolate Freya? The fire danced around the Norga warrior to a slow drumbeat, but Freya stayed completely motionless. Sisi suddenly gasped as she realized Freya’s sword was a sharpened column of pure crystal, without any hint of color. Now the crystal was becoming black like shiny onyx. The flames shot up as Freya raised her sword, and her weapon absorbed all the flames in the circles around her. She screamed something in a foreign language and the flames leaped from her sword to the sky in one continuous stream.

The line of fire paused in its rampage, then were sucked upwards in the wake of the circle fires. Sisi watched them cling to the rocks and grasses with desperate abandon, but they were forced to let go of their hold. The bank of dark clouds overhead seemed to absorb the roaring destruction without hesitation. Then finally, the last of the fire was sucked into the vacuum, and an ear-splitting shriek echoed over the mountains.

Freya collapsed onto her knees, and lost her hold on her sword. Her companions rushed forward to help her. One of the brown-haired warriors cried a curse, then ripped her helmet from her head, while two others pounded her chest. She lay limp within their arms, her eyes closed, her face slack, and sweat dripping from her forehead to soak into her hair.

In the chaos, no one noticed the sword. The crystal blade wasn’t the colorless crystal, or the black onyx, but now glowed a dark green. The sword slid itself closer to Freya’s limp right hand, then was still. Sisi realized that the traitor wasn’t Freya, but the sword in her possession.

Elisando realized it at the same time. It’s the sword! It’s been spying on us the entire time! That’s what Drianeh wanted to tell us. But why wouldn’t Freya tell us?

“Maybe she’s trying. She’s fighting the spell, but it’s draining her,” Sisi said. “She’s been trying to tell us, but she must be under some sort of compulsion or spell to keep her in control. Why are we seeing this, Elisando? Why are we the only ones who see it?”

Come, Sisi, we must find our version of Freya, before it’s too late! Elisando beat his powerful wings, and they left the scene. Lightning flashed again among the mountains, and he headed straight for it. It wrapped itself around them, enfolded them, and…

…they ended up in another bank of clouds, but these were gray, instead of black, and they were illuminated in silver from below. The air was slightly warmer and smelled of fresh rain. Air and Water…

“Sisi!” Samuel yelled. “Over here!”

She sighed in relief as he reined Twain in beside her. Samuel’s face was alight with excitement that she picked up immediately. It almost made her forget the horrible revelation she and Elisando had made. “Samuel, where’s Freya?”

“She’s found the Third Key! Come on, she’s waiting for us!” Twain threw his head in dismay and growled low in his throat. Samuel frowned and asked, “What is it, boy?”
He fell silent as Twain relayed what Elisando had just sent him. His mouth fell open as he looked as Sisi and she nodded.

“ I knew there was something strange,” he muttered. “Gan Zhou Bei had also seen something, but thought it was just minor.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s with Freya; he wanted to keep a close eye on her. Now that we know exactly what it is—“ He broke off and indicated the direction with his chin, and they took off.

The gray clouds gathered close around them, so close that Twain and Elisando had to literally fly wingtip to wingtip. Sisi burned the mist ahead of them until they saw the shadows of Aseoguard and Fu Lei deep within the clouds. Gan Zhou Bei was pointing at a jagged crystal monolith that sparkled as Sisi’s light struck it. Blues and purples swirled from deep within it, deepening to maroon and dark green near the tip, and at the apex was the image of the strangely-shaped key, deep within the crystal.

“It is embedded so deeply that it is difficult to remove,” Gan Zhou Bei said. “Fu Ling and I tried to crack the monolith, vibrate it to pieces, but it did not work. Then Freya and I tried to hurl solids at it to wear it away, and it did not work. Yak hooves, this is hard material indeed!”

“Will Fire melt it?” Freya asked, her eyes still glued to the Key above them.

“I can try.” Sisi raised her hands and called on her First Element and brought the warmth from the pit of her gut, raised it to her heart, then extended the energy from her fingers in a red-orange stream. It drilled into the monolith, causing it to change into a single pillar of maroon. Yet there wasn’t even a dent in its surface.

“Nope, Fire won’t do it, either.” Samuel reached out and laid a palm on the monolith. “That thing’s harder than the largest diamond in the universe.”

“Even the toughest armor has one weak spot,” Gan Zhou Bei interjected. He pressed his nose to the surface, then muttered something in his language. Sisi frowned and drew her Vision inward, piggybacking it onto Elisando’s Vision. “Sisi, do you see? The inside is webbed with cracks!”

No, not cracks, Elisando said. The whole structure is made of thin planes of this material, with each edge set tightly against each other. I cannot see how they are joined; they must fit so well that even I, in Spirit Form, would not be able to slip between them.

Samuel whistled in awe. “That’s one hell of a piece of engineering right there.”

“Now, how do we destroy it?” asked Gan Zhou Bei.

Freya had taken Asorguard to the top of the structure, where the Key was buried. Sisi directed Elisando to do the same. Freya circled the pointed top, but that was as solidly built as the rest of it. Her mouth twitched as she contemplated her options. Sisi opened her mouth to speak, but Freya beat her to it.

“You saw my story in the Lower Levels. I saved my people, at a price.” She drew out the enchanted sword and studied its emerald hue. “My companions thought I had died, and had me on my funeral pyre, and the flames were licking my skin, when Asorguard came and took me away, to Valhalla, I thought. Of course, it was here.”

“You can fight them, Freya,” Sisi told her. “You’re almost free of them.”

“Each time I attempt, they drain me more and more. Soon, I will be no more. I will waste away like an invalid, not like a warrior.” Her voice was quiet but bitter. “Can you hear them? They want me to strike you down, Sisi, then turn on Samuel and Gan Zhou Bei, then shatter the structure and retrieve the Key for the Void.”

“Then why don’t you do it?” Sisi’s voice was just as quiet. “I’m here, Elisando’s here, we know your secret. Why are you telling me this, as opposed to just surprising me and killing me on the spot.”

Freya laughed, but it was hoarse with strain. It was enough to attract the others’ attention, and Samuel and Gan Zhou Bei came on opposite sides, enclosing Freya . Sisi raised a hand to stop them from attacking her; Gan Zhou Bei growled something else and drew his javelin from his saddle-sheath, while Samuel watched with a grim expression.

“You are my friends, and I live by the code I sworn, long ago.” Tears danced on her long lashes and her arm reached for the sword slung to her back. “It tells me that I should be strong and noble and fight…for…good.”

The clouds rumbled in response, and the faintest hint of lightning touched the sky. The winds picked up as Freya lifted the emerald blade and this time, they all could see the faint images of demons dancing within the sword. Gan Zhou Bei’s hand tightened on the javelin, while Samuel prepared to knock her out of the way with a controlled burst of water. Sisi and Elisando hovered there, close by, but did nothing. Gan Zhou Bei raised his eyebrows in a silent question; Sisi only shook her head slightly.

“I should be strong,” Freya repeated, as if it was her only lifeline to sanity. She closed her eyes and brought the sword close to her face in a salute. “I should be strong and noble. It is the very definition of a Valkyrie, but the Demons of the Void made my entire life a lie. Nothing but a lie!”

Rage suffused her face and she whipped the sword around her. “But now I redeem myself, and choose the side of good…forever!” With reflexes faster than even Sisi’s or Gan Zhou Bei’s, she twisted around and brought the blade down upon the tip of the crystal monolith. It rang with the purity of a church bell and echoed over the clouds.

Nothing happened. The wind died and even the clouds were still.

Then there was a mighty crack, and a faint seam appeared, a vertical line along the monolith’s length, from top to bottom. It spread outward like a sunburst, along the tightly joined planes, disrupting the monolith’s delicate balance. Then the skies answered with a resounding shriek. Sisi clapped her hands over her ears; the pure force struck Gan Zhou Bei and he wavered and fell. Fu Ling dove after her fallen Ranger, and both of them disappeared through a gray cloudbank.

Samuel released his tidal wave, but aimed it not at Freya, but the green spirits that rose from the sword. Before any of the demons could turn towards the monolith, the tsunami washed over them and swept them away. The hurricane-force gales began again, radiating out from Freya and beating the swarm of Void demons back. As Sisi watched in horror, Freya’s hair turned a brilliant white, and her face was leached of all color. The blue eyes grew sunken in a withered face and her nails grew into long claws. Aseoguard threw back her head and whinnied a challenge, and the Air Dragon combined what was left of her powers with her Ranger’s. Aseoguard began to fade, as if the very winds were taking her existence with them.

Sisi, look at the horizon! They’re coming!

Sisi’s head snapped up at Elisando’s abrupt warning, and her heart sank as a long line of Rangers of the Void approached from all around them, a black, buzzing fog of despair and death. There must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of the invaders; far too many for Sisi and the others to handle by themselves.

“And here I thought I’d die in bed,” Samuel said, his voice dry. “Well, at least we’ll go out swinging.” He touched the Key he wore around his neck and pulled the chain. “Here, Sisi. You need this. I don’t. Get that Key from the monolith, and go to the Throne of Thinking.”


”Here, Sisi,” said Gan Zhou Bei, as he and Fu Ling reappeared on her far side. The fall had rattled his nerves; the smile he gave her was strained as he gave her his Key. “Go on, Freya cannot hold them off forever, and we must be ready.” He turned to Samuel and saluted him with his javelin. “It is an honor to fight as your side, Samuel.”

“And yours, Gan Zhou Bei.” Samuel gave her a gentle smile. “Go on, get going. It’ll be all right.”

Sisi hugged him fiercely, then hugged Gan Zhou Bei. She looked up at Freya; the warrior’s face was closed in ecstasy as she poured her final efforts into the tornadoes, but Freya’s shadow was flickering in and out as if she was an insubstantial ghost. Gan Zhou Bei was right; when Freya had finally exhausted her powers, there would be no one to stop the Rangers of the Void’s attack, save him and Samuel.

We go, Sisi! Elisando beat his wings strongly as he approached the monolith. The structure was webbed with ridges and chips, but it was holding together…just barely. The very tip, which housed the Third Key, had taken a terrific beating, but it still held. Elisando wasted no time; he swung his enormous spined tail and struck the apex straight on. It shattered, the pieces tumbling into space, and the Third Key jumped from its niche in the monolith into Sisi’s hand.

At that moment, a bright light enveloped Freya and blinded everyone, including the Rangers of the Void. When the light dimmed, empty air filled where Freya had been. There was no sign of the Air Ranger or her Dragon.

The Rangers of the Void howled in triumph. Their forces began to move forward towards Samuel and Gan Zhou Bei, who stood their ground between the Void and the monolith. Gan Zhou Bei roared and kicked Fu Ling into high speed, screaming a battle cry as he headed for the front ranks. Samuel drew a cloud of cold mist around the Rangers of the Void, distracting and dispersing their initial attack. But there were more, far more than Samuel could hold.

Then an overpowering roar enveloped the sounds of the Rangers’ attack. It paralyzed them for a brief moment as they looked around for its source. Sisi felt a distinct thrill from Elisando as four bright Portals materialized, high above them in all four directions, and Dragons of all shapes, sizes and colors poured out of them. The Rangers of the Void wheeled their Dragons around to face this new invasion.

Posted 249 weeks ago

A Blast from the Past: The Silk Dragon (Nanowrimo 2006) Part VII

Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV  Part V  Part VI


She opened her eyes to Freya’s face and her heart nearly stopped with another shock. The Norga Princess’s hair, once blonde, was now pure white. Worry lines creased her eyes and mouth, and the hand that touched Sisi’s cheek trembled, as if she had no more control over her muscles. She’s old, Sisi thought. She looks like my grandmother, and she couldn’t be much older than I am!

“We lost Link,” Sisi whispered.

Freya turned her face away and wept. Sisi reached for her and they cried together at the loss of the steadfast, rational Link. Samuel stood nearby, his face buried in Twain’s neck, and the Water Dragon howled in grief.

Something howled in response. Twain’s head popped up, and so did Aseoguard’s. Above the forest’s tree line came a shadow, a long sinuous shadow, that circled them four times, then landed lightly in front of Gan Zhou Bei. The Sian warrior stared up at the Dragon, a Dragon of golden-brown, with green eyes, the color of Earth.

I am Fu Ling, the Dragon said, loud enough for all to hear. I come from Earth, and I choose you, Gan Zhou Bei, to be my Ranger.

“So be it, sweet Lady,” Gan Zhou Bei whispered. His eyes shone with a love and compassion that startled Sisi out of her grief. “I am yours, and you are mine, and we will never be apart.”

Fu Ling bent her head and rested it on Gan Zhou Bei’s crown. A sudden certainty rose up within Sisi: Link knew this, he knew that Gan Zhou Bei would become an Earth Ranger, but for it to happen…Link had to go back, to preserve the balance of the Universe. Link knew that going back meant that he had to die, but he did it anyway. Another fresh spate of tears flowed down her cheeks. Thank you, my friend, and may your soul rest in the Heavens with your young son.

She slid her hand into the pouch at her side and drew out the Emerald Key. Gan Zhou Bei wore one, so she gave it to Samuel. The Water Ranger looked surprised, but understanding came over his face. He bowed his head and allowed her to slip it around his neck.

“Link would’ve wanted you to wear this,” Sisi whispered. “In rememberance of him.”

“Thank you, Sisi. I will always remember him.” He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment before opening them again. “We have one more Key to find, and our mission will be complete.”

Sisi nodded, but she looked at Samuel, then at Freya and Gan Zhou Bei. She couldn’t help but wonder, Who will be the next?

The night’s dream held even more of a surprise. Sisi sat in the middle of a stone circle with Elisando, and around them sat another Council of Rangers, of all the Elements. The faces were older, but familiar, and there were a handful that she didn’t recognize. Instead of a square, with four sides opposing each other, the Rangers sat in a circle. Four members each of five Elements, twenty people in all, and no other Rangers were present.

Sisi looked around, confused. What had happened while they were gone? The Rangers talked as if they didn’t notice them in the center of the circle. Then one of them looked up and his face was transformed into one of eager welcome.

“Please, bring them here. So we can give them a warm welcome!” he said.

The other Rangers stood respectfully as a line of Fire Rangers walked into the clearing. At the head was DW…but the Dragonlet Whisperer had also changed. There were gray at his temples, and more lines on his sun-browned face, but he grinned as he carefully held up a large oval in his hands. Sisi spotted other friends in the line: Coren, Jay-Jay and Nonnie, all carrying…Spirit Eggs?

“Ah, put them in the center and we’ll watch them make their way into the world,” said the Leader.

“Y’heard the man. Give ‘em plenty o’room.” DW ordered. He and the other Fire Rangers arranged the eggs along the inner perimeter of the circle, around Sisi and Elisando. Elisando watched calmly, but Sisi felt his excitement at the proceedings. A clutch of Spirit Dragon eggs were about to hatch, and a brand new generation would soon exist!

Sisi felt a flutter within her stomach. Yak horns, I feel as giddy as a new mother myself! As she watched, the eggs began to tremble, and cracks began to appear on the shells. DW started to clap a beat, and the other Rangers followed. An Air Ranger stood up and began to dance, her blue silk dress whirling around her, and jade-green sashes swinging around her shoulders. An Earth Ranger jumped to his feet and began stomping on the earth and pounding his chest. Sisi saw that the dark-skinned man wore a feathered headdress and his face was marked with white paint. DW laughed and began joining him in his tribal dance.

The first egg popped its shell up into the sky with the force of a lit firecracker. A milky mist snaked out of it, then reformed into a dragon-like shape. Other eggs opened the same way, and Sisi counted them…eight, nine, ten, eleven…Gods, how many of them are there?

Finally, the last of the twenty-one eggs opened, and the Spirit Dragons danced in the skies above the Circle. They pointed their claws and twisted from the waist, then wiggled their claws, hopping from one foot to the other, sprouted eight arms each like an octopus and waved the arms around, and mimed digging holes like a dog. The Spirit Dragons turned different colors: red, blue, purple and yellow. One chose green with yellow spots, and wore some kind of white hat on its head.

“They’re wiggling,” Sisi said in awe. “It’s like some kind of intricate dance.”

Elisando chuckled. “It’s a dance to the Four Gods of Youth. I did it too, when I was newly hatched.”

“Four Gods of Youth?”

“Patron Gods of Young Children. We celebrate their history with songs and dance.”

After they finished their dance, the Spirit Dragons waved farewell and launched themselves into the sky. They vanished into the clouds to the Rangers’ cries of good luck. DW visibly brushed away a tear and murmured, “God bless ya, ya little buggers. This gets me every time, you know.”

Nonnie put a comforting hand on his arm, but said nothing. Sisi realized that this was a different Nonnie: a slimmer, tanner version, whose movements were deliberate, instead of the frenetic, hyperkinetic gestures she had used before. Things were the same, but were also different.

The timelines are settling back into their normal places, and people are beginning to remember, Elisando mused. The Rangers of the Void’s grasp upon our worlds are slipping.

And Sisi finally understood. “When we retrieved the Keys…it sent one of us back, and it changed the world when they did so. Lupita became a great priestess, Link’s dying helped heal his people…and the worlds adjusted to it.” She looked again at the Rangers. “They aren’t fighting; they’re working together, like in the olden days, aren’t they?”

Indeed, Elisando replied. You also notice, that the differences go deeper than just the surface. The division within the Rangers are Healing, but as the past is rewritten, events and people are lost.

A cold shiver gripped Sisi. “Then…that means not only Lupita and Link, but Gan Zhou Bei, Samuel, and I…we—“ she couldn’t finish.

You never existed in this world, Elisando said sadly.

“Then why are we still here?”

Because this present is by no means assured. We still need the last Key, and the Rangers of the Void cannot interfere again.

“What will happen to us, then, when the timeline is corrected?” she demanded. “Will we cease to exist? Will we wake up in our own times? You mean to tell me we lived our lives for nothing?”

Elisando shook his head. No, not for nothing. You saved countless worlds, not just this one. And who knows—you might be back in Churro, with your Foster-Mother Tatara and your Foster-Father Meng Pao. Isn’t that what you wanted?

The question made her think. Yes, she had wanted to go back to Churro and see her foster parents, and the yukka and drink chaochaou and play yak-ball with her friends. She yearned for the Sian mountains and the valleys below, her other relatives in her foster mother’s village, and to celebrate the colorful festivals that marked the passage of time. She even missed the sturdy, hardworking villagers, whose lives revolved around their livelihoods. She missed the River and the warmth of summer, the cold of winter.

But would she be completely content to live in her simple village? She had seen oceans and the Mighty River, the Fire Aerie and the Skies, and even the Spooky Forest. She knew about the heavy burden of responsibility, not only to the ones in her village, but the ones she never saw beyond Churro’s borders.

She was not the same Sisi. She had changed.

Would she be content to go back to her old life? The answer was no longer simple anymore; then again, her universe was no longer simple.

You don’t have to choose now, Elisando said, his voice still gentle. As with the other lessons, you will not remember, until it chooses the time to reveal itself to you.


And Elisando passed a gentle breath of Spirit over her, and she fell into a deep, healing sleep. Sisi needed rest for her weary soul, and the Spirit Dragon helped her find it.

So young, and yet so old, Elisando thought to himself. What am I going to do?

When the rosy beams of dawn touched her face, Sisi opened her eyes to a Forest that was changed. Sweet birdsong filled the air, and the trees bloomed with red and blue flowers. Fruit hung from the vines, and laughing monkeys swung from branch to branch. The stifling humidity had given way to a cool breeze, and the earth felt steady under her body. This was no longer a Spooky Forest; it was bright with life.

“What’s happened?” Sisi asked as she sat up. Her voice was filled awe at the beautiful sight.

Freya smiled and replied, “It transformed during the night. The Rangers of the Void’s power has been broken here, over the Earth, and the Earth is recovering.”

Samuel knelt at a flowing stream that now cut through the Forest. “Sisi, look at this!” he yelled. “Look at the water!”

She and Freya came over to his side. Sisi’s eyes widened at the clear, cold water; so clear that she saw fish playing at the bottom of the stream. She dipped her hand into the water and it felt wonderful against her skin. The water no longer felt heavy with poison, and it flowed gently instead of churning and crashing.

“The water’s pure, too,” Freya whispered. She looked at Sisi and added, “Two Elements, Earth and Water, healed. That leaves….”

“Fire and Air,” Samuel finished, and added, “And the next place is called The Clouds of Sorrow, and clouds are—“

”Air,” said Sisi, her eyes still wide. “The Third Element.”

“But we’re missing Fire,” Freya objected.

Sisi nodded and drew out the Map. It sang, “I’m the Map, I’m the Map, I’m the Map, I’m the Map…I’M THE MAP!!” She ignored the annoying song and touched the two red x’s, one above the River and the Spooky Forest. The only Key remaining lay within the Clouds of Sorrow. There was no indication of anything having to do with Fire, such as a volcano or a hot spring. So where was it? Sisi glanced over a spine of mountains and realized that the highest peak was marked in silver now, with a tiny image of a chair.

“The Throne of Thinking,” she said. “It’s revealed itself to us. Remember what the song said? Find the Three Keys, then sit down in the Throne of Thinking, and think, think, think. Perhaps that will give us the location of the Fire Element.”

Freya and Samuel looked at each other and nodded. “Let’s get Gan Zhou Bei up and find those Clouds,” Samuel said.

Sisi found Gan Zhou Bei under the shelter of a frond tree, sprawled against the flank of his new Dragon, Fu Ling. Fu Ling raised her head up and blinked out the sleep from her eyes. Her movement woke Gan Zhou Bei; the Sian warrior grinned up at her and said, “Bright the day, Sisi.”

“Bright the day, Gan Zhou Bei, and to you, Fu Ling.”

“Forgive my laziness, Yak Girl, but I was tired, not only in body, but weary in soul.” He patted Fu Ling’s side, and the new Earth Dragon rubbed the side of his cheek with hers.

“I understand,” Sisi said, and she did. Although she did miss Link’s company, she also remembered the wonderful joy of his passing, and that tempered her grief. She hoped that her final journey would be as painless and free.

“I suppose we are ready for the final leg of our journey?”

“Yes, we are. Are you?”

He grinned, and replied, “I promised to accompany you anywhere you went, Yak Girl, even to the flames of Hell itself. Gan Zhou Bei never breaks a promise.”

For some reason, that made her want to cry again, but she kept the tears in check. She wouldn’t betray any weakness in front of Gan Zhou Bei. “Thank you, my friend. I do not deserve your loyalty—“

”—and I do not deserve your friendship, so we are evenly in debt, I suppose.”

“I suppose.” She matched his grin, and they walked together to the clearing, where Samuel and Freya waited. Sisi climbed upon Elisando’s back and said, “Let’s go!”

And the four of them thundered into the sky and left the not-so-Spooky Forest behind.

Posted 249 weeks ago

A Blast from the Past: The Silk Dragon (Nanowrimo 2006) Part VI

Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV  Part V

Sisi found herself in a circle of stones, sitting next to Elisando and Drianeh. The Fire Dragon gazed at her with love, and Sisi’s heart filled with utter joy.

“Sisi, you have broken some of the Void’s power,” Drianeh said. “I’m so proud of you.”

She shook her head, confused. “I don’t understand, Drianeh. I thought that once you crossed into this world, you can never go back. But I just saw Lupita—“

Elisando stretched his long, crystalline body in the circle. “Yes, that is true, but the Key that you retrieved activated a time warp, so Lupita never crossed into this dimension. She was never here in the first place.”

“And Tetzlpotl? Does this mean the Fire Dragon never existed?”

Drianeh laughed. “Oh, she still exists, as a mother of many generations, and with her original Ranger. Her fate has been corrected as well, thanks to you and your friends.”

Sisi rubbed her temples; this was all giving her a headache. “So, the Keys…they control time and space? The first one sent Lupita back to where she belonged? Then, the other Keys might send…us back to where we came from? Samuel and Freya and Link…but if there are three keys, and five Rangers, that means, not all of us are supposed to go back. Is that right?”

“Confusing, isn’t it?” Drianeh said. “But you have the gist of it.”

Sisi shook her head. “I’m one of the ones who isn’t supposed to go back. I’m the one who has to…save the Universe and Everything Else, right? Then who’s the other one?”

Elisando shook his head. “We don’t know, Sisi. We don’t know who’s supposed to stay. For all we know, you might be sent back. The Keys are the ones who determine who needs to return, in order to put the Universe back into harmony. The Rangers of the Void know you’ve used the power of one of the keys; there are two other ones, and they believe that if they get to them first, they’ll control space and time.”

“And make it so there are no such things as Rangers, or Dragons, or anything like that to stop their rampage,” Drianeh added with a shudder. 

“So our work is far from over, then.”

“Yes, little Sisi.” Elisando laid his head alongside her cheek, and Sisi felt warm Healing flow from him into her own body. “Now, what you have learned about the Keys, keep it here, within your Dreams, until you need to access it again. It’s too dangerous to consciously hold it, until the proper time.”

“But—“ Sisi began, then stopped. I wouldn’t want to know that my fate is tampered with by forces beyond my control. And if anyone knows the future, could just that knowing affect what comes? Oh, I wish it was simple again, with past and present and future. Just thinking about all this makes my head hurt.

“We want to spare you that headache,” Drianeh said lightly. “Go to sleep, and you’ll feel better soon. Go to sleep, our brave one.”

Sisi let her eyes close and she surrendered to more dreams, this time about Churros and her Foster-Father Meng Pao and Foster-Mother Tatara.

The next morning, they hovered over the River as Link and Thaddeus tried to locate the Portal Point. The others said nothing, but there was a new sense of calm over all the Rangers. Sisi had only told them that she had a dream about Lupita, and that Lupita was at peace. None of the other Rangers disputed her words; Freya, in particular, seemed to find great comfort in Sisi’s words. 

“I wonder what we will find within this Forest,” Gan Zhou Bei mused quietly, as Link and Thaddeus concentrated on their search. He wore the blue key on a thin chain around his neck. As the only one without magical powers, he was the safest person to hold it.

“As do I,” Freya added.

Suddenly, Thaddeus roared in triumph and a square of sky began to glow. That square turned from blue to brilliant white, and the air hummed like a horde of bees. Link opened his eyes and shouted, “I’ve found it! Hurry, go through while I can keep it open! And don’t forget to close your eyes!”

And one by one, they entered the Portal, and it snapped shut after them. A minute later, they emerged in a humid atmosphere, right in the middle of a bank of fog. The full moon shone above them and blurred the outlines of the trees and mountains. Birds squawked, grasshoppers chirped, and frogs croaked in a strange harmony.

Freya coughed. “Gods, this isn’t merely a Spooky Forest. This is a jungle!”

This damp, humid piece of earth was completely unlike anything Sisi and the Rangers had ever seen before. Sisi understood Freya’s unease; the North was cold and dry, and Sisi and Gan Zhou Bei were used to the Sian Mountains, where it never got too hot. Even Link’s face showed strain, and Samuel wiped sweat off his forehead.

“It gets hot where I come from, but not like this,” he muttered under his breath.

“All right, how are we going to find the Second Key in this tangle?” Gan Zhou Bei rumbled. “It can be anywhere!”

Thaddeus waved his head to and fro as if listening to a private sonata. He flapped his wings and nodded ahead of them. Over there, I can hear it singing. The Key, I mean. This way.

“Lead us, Thaddeus,” Freya said.

They flew in silence over the green canopy. No one dared say anything to disturb Thaddeus as he listened to the Key’s symphony. Sisi felt the sting of mosquitoes and the touch of small tree snakes. They dove into valleys, where vines crisscrossed between trees and made it as challenging as any Ranger’s obstacle course. A bead of sweat rolled down her face and got into her hair. She wished that there was a River like the one they had just left, so she might take a bath. 

Then Thaddeus landed in a small clearing surrounded by underbrush and long grass. Moss grew on the tree trunks, and mushrooms dotted the forest floor. Link and Gan Zhou Bei dismounted while Twain, Aseoguard, and Elisando tried to land without running over each other. There wasn’t enough room for four Dragons to stand shoulder to shoulder, so Aseogard and Twain took off into the skies again, while Elisando reverted to his spirit form. 

Thaddeus walked towards the edge of the clearing, then inclined his head and listened to the sounds of the jungle. His brown-golden eyes considered the thick undergrowth, then he turned to Link. Would you assist me, Link? 

Link stood next to his Dragon and together, they peeled away the grass and debris away from their path.

Slowly, but surely, the hidden cave came into view. As Sisi watched, she realized that Link was using the undergrowth to replenish the magical energy he had used. That seemed to be exclusive to Earth Rangers, for they could use the Earth as a reservoir. Sisi thought, The only time Fire Rangers could do that is if we were near a volcano or hot springs…which was why the Aerie was where it was. Gan Zhou Bei seemed to watch Link and Thaddeus carefully, as if memorizing how to do the same. Sisi wondered if that meant that her Sian warrior friend was going to be chosen soon. Gan Zhou Bei’s bluster had nearly vanished, and he was thinking more of the team, than just himself. Sisi felt a thrill of pride.

Very astute, Sisi, as usual, Elisando said. Perhaps he will find a Dragon very soon.

I hope so; he still feels out of place, despite everything.

“It’s a cavern that goes underground,” Samuel said, “deep into the Earth.”

Freya shivered again, although the forest was warm. “I do not like enclosed spaces, and neither does Aseoguard.”

Link turned to her and asked, “Would you stand guard here, then, and keep watch for the Rangers of the Void?”

She nodded, but it was reluctant. “I refuse to impede our mission because of my innermost fears. My apologies.”

Samuel raised a hand. “No need to apologize, Freya. You are an Air Ranger, and I can understand your reluctance. If we need help, we will call.”

“I will stay with her,” said Gan Zhou Bei. “It is unwise to allow one of us to be completely alone—“He broke off and turned to Freya with a deep bow. “—that is, if the Norga Princess is willing to accept my company.”

Freya’s mouth twitched in humor, and Sisi smothered a laugh. Obviously, Gan Zhou Bei’s charm was still in full force. “Of course, Sian Warrior. Your company is always welcome.”

“Gods be with you,” Sisi said. She nodded at Link and Samuel, and the three of them ventured into the mouth of the cavern. Sisi murmured to Elisando, and a bright glow emanated from them, throwing a cheerful light against the walls of the cave. She glanced upward at the jagged stalactites high above them, gray and black and purple, capped in crystal. On the ceiling were thin golden lines, radiating from a central point like a spider’s web. The light danced upon drops of moisture upon it, making the lines shimmer and sparkle.

“It looks like a tapestry,” she murmured.

“Be careful not to let it distract you,” Link told her. “It can be hypnotizing. If I’m correct, the Web of Memory can enthrall you to the point where you forget everyone and everything.”

Sisi nodded and tore her gaze away. She focused her beam of light ahead of them and steered Elisando around the broken stalagmites on the cavern floor. She didn’t know how long they went down, down into the Earth, and the farther they went, the warmer it got, and soon Sisi was sweating again.

Finally, the cavern eased into a horizontal plane, and stopped at another opening. They heard the echo of running water nearby; Samuel concentrated for a moment, then nodded.

It’s a subterranean waterfall of some kind, spilling into the cavern ahead, remarked Twain. The Water Dragon raised his head and sniffed the air. The scent of raw Earth, and of decay. This worries me.

Twain, Elisando, join my Vision and tell me what you see, Thaddeus broke in unexpectedly. I want to make sure I am not seeing illusion.

Certainly, Thaddeus. There was a long pause as the three Dragons consulted with each other, and Sisi and the others glanced at each other with worried expressions. If the Dragons were concerned, then that meant the situation was more complicated than they had thought.

I think we should go in first, Thaddeus sent, then Twain and Samuel, then Sisi and Elisando. Remember, keep looking forward, and don’t let the Web above distract you. I can feel the Key’s vibrations; they are stronger than those of the first Key. If we are not careful, they may be strong enough to have the whole cavern crashing down on us.

Sisi shuddered; little wonder that Freya refused to come down here. The first niggles of claustrophobia were finally starting to affect her, and the faster they retrieved the Second Key, the better. She and Elisando stepped aside for Samuel and Twain to move past them; Samuel gave her a reassuring smile, but the strain was evident on his face.

It’s dark, and tiny, and the stones will crush us all…Sisi shook her head to stop the thoughts, and followed the others into the cavern. The ground beneath Elisando’s claws became soft, like mud, and they sank into it. Soon it became ankle-deep to Elisando, but his talons cut through it like butter. Sisi hoped it wouldn’t become knee-deep or hip-deep, or they would all be in trouble.

“Over there,” Link said, pointing a long, bony finger ahead of them.

The mud path sloped upwards, following the line of the cavern wall, and ended at a jumble of stone slabs, lined up in a semi-circle, with small stones capping them. High above them, the waterfall roared past, missing the semi-circle by a comfortable margin, and the bubbling water fell into a lake below, to drain out of the cavern to the River. Now Sisi saw a faint greenish-golden glow in the center of the semi-circle.

“That’s it?” Samuel asked. “I can feel some really strong vibes coming from there.”

Link nodded, and dismounted from Thaddeus. “The path won’t support all of us. I’ll go up there and retrieve the Key.”

“Be careful, Link,” Samuel said. “I can’t help feeling there’s a catch somewhere.”

“I will.” Link scrambled up the path, surprising quick for a tall, lanky man. Sisi tried to keep her eyes on him, but he was lost in the mist from the waterfall. There was a soft murmur in the background, like a chant, but the words were lost.

Link entered the semi-circle between two of the upright slabs. The buzzing grew louder until it sounded like a horde of hornets. Then the earth exploded in front of Samuel’s feet, and knocked him and Twain further into the cavern. The mud towered above them, and formed hands and feet, its one eye filling with malevolent red flame. Thaddeus roared and interspersed himself between the giant and the path, blocking its way to the semi-circle of stones.

Sisi took a deep breath and fired a short bolt at its head. The ugly thing exploded and sent mud flying into the cavern. The stalk expanded into a brand new head, bigger and uglier than before.

Uh-oh, said Elisando.

As if in response, Sisi heard a burst of fear from Freya from aboveground, but it was scattered and she couldn’t understand it. The giant swung a paw in her direction, but Elisando’s reflexes were much faster, and they took a four-footed leap backwards.

The Battle for the Second Key had begun.

The exotic birds screeched and the fled the forest, beating their wings as fast as they could. A warm wind whipped up the dark clouds all around Freya and Gan Zhou Bei, and that wind charged the atmosphere with evil. It surrounded both of them and tried to crush them, smother them, suffocate them.

Freya’s mind screamed in terror, but her body reacted with the reflexes of a Norga Warrior Princess. She drew out her sword and slashed at the shadows, dispersing them with a flick of her wrist. Gan Zhou Bei seized a long tree branch and swept it in a circle around them, knocking the spirits off balance. As they cleared a large enough space around them, Freya drew energy from the winds around them and traced a glyph in the air with her sword. The sword glowed with silver light and pulsed outward. Gan Zhou Bei and the evil spirits looked at her, and Gan Zhou Bei’s mouth dropped open.

Aseoguard seemed to glow from within and become as transparent as Elisando in spirit form. Freya held her sword aloft, her back arched and mouth open in ecstasy. A milky tornado swept around her, clearing the air and leaving a fresh, clean scent. It radiated from her in concentric circles. The dark spirits knew its enemy, and it was much stronger than they were. They hissed and fled before the globe of pure air. Not all of them escaped the Air Ranger’s wrath; the ones caught within it, sizzled and dissolved with an angry pop.

Gan Zhou Bei staggered backward, his mind giddy with the pure air; it was as if he had ingested a cask of chaochaou and striped beer at once, and the alcohol and caffeine lifted him to impossible heights. He fell on his knees, then onto his back, frozen in complete rapture.

A part of his mind saw Freya’s globe expanding to include the forest, and squeezing into the cave in where the other Rangers had gone. He hoped Freya had her power under control, as the edge of it chased the Spirits all the way to their Portal in the sky.

How long will she be able to keep this up? Gan Zhou Bei thought under the rapture, and the question stirred a current of uneasiness in his soul.

A gale slammed into Sisi from behind and pushed her and Elisando into the lake. She clung to the Spirit Dragon’s neck as Elisando recovered and swam his way towards the surface. She met air, and it burned within her lungs for a brief moment, then dizziness struck her again. She reached blindly and grabbed one of Elisando’s crystalline-stranded tufts of hair as the Spirit Dragon fell to his knees.

Gods above, what is this? Elisando yelled. He dug his talons deep into the soft earth to anchor himself. The Winds of the Gods…using Freya as their Conduit! She must have done an Elemental Spell and did not set her boundaries…

“Why would she do that?” Sisi gasped.

Either she did not have time, or she did not care…

The mud giant stumbled in the shallows of the lake. Thaddeus and Twain worked together to sent a wave of moist earth in front of the giant. It slammed into the giant; its mighty arms pinwheeled out of control, and it fell into the lake. The lake bubbled and churned, then the giant rose higher, enough to brush against the top of the falls. Samuel raised his hands over his head and sent the waterfall crashing down upon the giant’s head, washing him back down into the lake.

“Every time we do this, it keeps coming back like a bad dream!” Samuel swore. “It keeps reforming. We have to solidify it somehow, then crumble it!”

Sisi raised her hands and concentrated upon the current of air. It twisted and turned like a living thing, barely in control, but it sought their enemies, not the Rangers. Instead of directing another bolt of fire, she sped up the air molecules, and forced it to rise in response. The air grew hotter, like a harsh desert breeze and it poured over the mud giant. The giant cried out as its outer “skin” dried and cracked, immobilizing it to the spot.

“Now!” she screamed.

Gan Zhou Bei heard Sisi’s command and it broke through his stupor. Earth power, she needs Earth power. Where are Link and Thaddeus? There was no time to contemplate the answer; an image formed within his mind, and he knew exactly what to do.

He dug deep within himself and found the strength he needed. It flowed upwards through the soles of his feet, but instead of making him feel drunk, it cleared his mind like a shining mirror. He clenched his fists and raised them to the air, then crouched and slammed both fists to the moist jungle floor. A rumble answered him, and the tremor spread from him and entered the cave.

Dirt and stalagtites rained above them. Sisi did her best to pulverize as many of them as she could before they hit her friends, but there were too many, and Elisando draped his wings around her for protection. The winds swept a good portion of them away, to fall harmlessly into the lake, but enough hit the ground. Twain grabbed Samuel and deposited him under the waterfall, raising his own wings to protect his Ranger from earth and water.

Then a tremor hit the cavern, all concentrated upon the trapped mud giant, and bigger cracks snaked up the giant’s form. It howled in anguish as it vibrated into dust that rained back into the lake. The ground continued to shake even as the initial tremor faded.

“It’s too unstable!” yelled Samuel, as he climbed back upon Twain’s back. “We’ve gotta get out of here!”

“Where’s Link?” Sisi screamed. She scrambled upon Elisando’s back.

The semi-circle of stones still glowed with a green light, but it began flickering with black flames. Thaddeus tried to get closer, but the soft mud prevented him from getting enough balance. The Earth Dragon beat his wings and rose up into the air, angling towards the stones. Thaddeus hit the outer border of light; with powerful strokes of his wings, he managed to penetrate the barrier, and disappear within it.

Hurry, get out of here! Link’s holding the cavern together, but it won’t stay for long! Go, go now!

“Link! Thaddeus!” Sisi cried out.

Don’t worry about us. Link’s voice was eerily calm. We’ll be all right. Just go, Sisi. The Key will be safe, but not if you and Samuel stay in here.

Twain keened a horrible wail, as if his soul was being split in two. Somehow or the other, Samuel got his Dragon pointed towards the entrance to the cavern and coaxed Twain out to the light. Elisando followed, even as tears poured down Sisi’s face. More stalactites dropped from the ceiling and one of them came faster than Elisando expected. It grazed the Spirit Dragon’s side, startling him enough to rear back. Sisi lost her hold and fell.

Her eyes saw the intricate patterns of the Web on the ceiling, and they came together in a scene that played out in front of her eyes….

She was in a building, a dark building, then lights came on in front of her. A curtain of fabric rose to reveal scenery and people on a large platform. They began to talk and gesture, and Sisi realized that they were enacting some kind of story. So they were some kind of bards or storytellers, and they were performing in front of an audience. But where was she?

She realized she was standing at the back of a small room, with hardly enough space to walk around. A line of people sat on seats in front of her, watching the performance. One silhouette towered over the others. Sisi’s heart seized as she recognized it. The silhouette reached next to him to grasp the hand of the woman next to him. The woman wore an elaborate dress of fabric and lace…crinoline…the word popped up in Sisi’s memory. The woman must have been his wife, and they were watching the storytelling below.

Fear pricked at her skin, and a shadow fell upon the walls of the room. There was a man here, a man with a specific purpose, and that purpose was misguided. This man had something in his hand; Sisi wasn’t sure what it was, but it was…a weapon of some kind.

“Link!” she screamed. “Behind you!”

He flinched at the sound of her voice and started to turn around, but it was too late. There was a loud bang, and something struck Sisi in the stomach and flung her aside. The acrid smell of smoke filled the room and it stung her eyes. The woman started to scream in hysterics, and in the chaos, the man who had fired the weapon leaped out of the room, falling towards the stage. Sisi fought her way to the edge of platform as the man landed on the stage…badly. His leg caved in under him in an awkward angle. Sisi was sure the leg was broken.

“Sic semper tyrannis!” he screamed, and he slipped away, despite the broken leg. The crowd stampeded towards the exits, and uniformed men ran in hot pursuit of the man. The assassin, Sisi thought, and her heart plummeted. She would have sank to her knees in horror, but the sound of a woman sobbing stopped her.

“Someone get him a doctor!” the woman cried. “Please…please…”

Link lay in his wife’s lap, his face utterly composed, and his eyes closed. One of the guards held Link’s wrist and swore viciously. “We need to move the President, have the doctor meet us!” And several men came in with a stretcher, and they lifted Link’s body into it…

And Sisi heard Drianeh’s voice, “He has a strong dislike of projectile weapons, Sisi, particularly firearms, like pistols. He…really doesn’t like them at all.”

And now she knew why.

One of those projectile weapons had killed him.

Then the scene changed and she was in another room. Again, the room was full of people. The woman, Link’s wife, lay prostrate by his side, holding his hand and sobbing as if her heart would burst. An older man—the doctor, Sisi presumed—had his hand on Link’s shoulder. The expression on the doctor’s face was solemnly grim. Sisi moved, wraith-like, among the men standing at Link’s bedside and stopped at the head of the bed.

“Funny, I don’t remember this at all.”

The familiar voice jerked her up short. She snapped her head around to see Link standing across from her, at the other side of the bed. He seemed to be staring down at his own face, his dark eyes filled with sorrow. He looked at the people in the room and sighed.

“There isn’t any pain. I suppose I must be dead.”

Her voice stuck in her throat. “Link…you never told me that you were supposed to die in your world. I thought that maybe you’d be saved, like Lupita was…”

He shook his head once, gently. “Sisi, sometimes we’re put on this earth for a specific purpose. I finished mine. Remember when I told you that I wrote a speech—“

”I remember.”

“—Well, that was the capstone of my achievements. Now I can go to God with a light heart and a light soul.” A sad smile passed across his face. “In this world, Thaddeus never came for me, while I was lying in this bed, never took me away, and scared the bejesus out of the doctor, my wife and the others.” He chuckled at the memory, and Sisi managed a laugh as she imagined the chaos Thaddeus’s arrival had caused.

“What about the Rangers?” Sisi asked around a lump in her throat. “They need you—“

”Not anymore. They’ll learn to work together in harmony, and besides, someone else near and dear to us will take up the mantle, just as others took up the work for me here, in my world.” Link smiled and added, “Oh, and by the by, I believe you need this.”

He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a shining Key, made of brilliant emerald and shining in the light. Sisi gasped at the second Key as he placed it within her hands. As soon as he gave her the Key, a door opened at the far side of the room, leading into brilliant white light. Link looked up at it and smiled, “I’m coming, Tad,” he said.

“Tad? Thaddeus?” Sisi asked. Was his Dragon waiting for him on the other side of the door?

Link chuckled again and reached into his black waistcoat again. He brought out a black oval of fabric, and with a flick of his wrist, it popped into a long cylindrical hat, the same one Sisi had seen the day she had first met him at the Aerie. He placed it on his head with beatific smile.

“I never told you why I named my Dragon Thaddeus,” he said. “That was my son’s name, and now I go to join him. Good-bye, Sisi, and good luck.” He gave her a gentlemanly bow, then strode forward with his long, lanky stride and entered the door. The white light swallowed him up, and the door disappeared. At the same time, the doctor shook his head and placed a hand on Link’s wife’s shoulder. She gave a heartrending cry and buried her face within the blankets. Sisi turned her back on the sad scene and looked down at the second Key.

The second Key, and a second Ranger gone.

Posted 249 weeks ago

A Blast From the Past: The Silk Dragon (Nanowrimo 2006) Part V

Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV

Ever since Sisi and Elisando had become Ranger and Dragon, Elisando taught her many things during her nightly dreams, things that other Elemental Rangers weren’t entitled to know. For example, the story of how the Rangers of the Void forsook the Ways of the Light and Spirit. Their leader, a powerful Spirit Ranger named Dharmuy and his Dragon Mattika, led those who would follow him to the cold blackness of the Void between Worlds. They embraced the ways of the Dark, as Elisando and his fellows followed the ways of the Spirit.

Sisi listened to this story in rapt attention. The people of the Sian Mountains had a similar legend, where the God named Uwani had a falling-out with his wife Nunuia, and assembled an army against her. The Spirit and the Void had a similar heavenly battle, and the Void was expelled from the Light forever.

At a price. Many warriors of Spirit, their Dragons and Familiars, sacrificed their own lives to stop the Void. Now there were few Spirit Rangers left, and few Dragons, save the ones now patrolling the Heavens, and the eggs back in the Grove, under DW’s care.

“But why are there few Spirit Rangers chosen? There is great need for those of our kind, Elisando? Is it that the Spirit Dragons and Familiars haven’t found people who aren’t worthy enough?”

Elisando winced; had Sisi’s voice been angry or sarcastic, he might have been justifiably angry, but the sad curiosity in her voice only brought him shame. “You have seen the infighting among the Elemental Rangers. It was not always like this; there was a time when the Five Elements worked in harmony, no matter with Element a Ranger represented. A Ranger of Spirit tries to see the greater good, not just their own selfish needs. Fire and Water are mortal enemies, as well as Earth and Air. Enemies instead of balanced opposites. The Void feeds on this chaos.”

“And they grow stronger.”


“Then shouldn’t we try to settle the arguments among the Rangers first?”

Elisando winced again. “Link and his friends have been trying for the past…oh, several centuries or so. Some of the Justice Rangers have thrown up their hands and given up. It makes Link’s job even harder. If we can show them that Rangers of all Elements can work together as they did in the olden days, then we can show them it is possible again.”

“So we’re the ones who go on this journey, and they’re the ones who sit in their caves and sulk. Elisando, it isn’t fair. Why should we risk our existence doing this for them, if they’ll be just stupidly ungrateful in the end?” Sisi voiced the frustrations that she didn’t dare say aloud. Link felt guilty in not being able to settle the dispute, and the others, well…Sisi wasn’t sure any of them would see “the Greater Good”.

Elisando only nodded in understanding, and didn’t berate her for her harsh words. “You’re completely justified in feeling this way, Sisi, but look at it this way. You were all chosen for this for a reason. Don’t dismiss Freya, Samuel, Lupita, Link and even Gan Zhou Bei. Remember, Gan Shou Bei isn’t even a Ranger, yet he is willing to follow you, too. You all have risen above the petty, and know there is something to be done, and instead of arguing, you just do it.”

She chuckled. “You sound like my Foster-Father Meng Pao.”

“Well, as much as Gan Zhou Bei dismisses the Churro work ethic, it does have its usefulness at times.” Elisando chuckled. “And another thing, too: you are proud of your heritage, and even though you’re a Ranger, you don’t forget it, or abandon it, like others do. That is the sign of one coming into Spirit.”

Sisi nodded again. Freya, the Norga Warrior Princess. Lupita, the Azteca warrior in her own right. Link, who remembered his days as a peace-bringer and diplomat. Even Samuel, with all his stories and his sense of acute insights. DW and his devotion to all living creatures. She had a suspicion that if it weren’t for the Rangers’ disputes literally tearing the fabric of space and threatening the Dragons and Familiars, DW would have also volunteered for this journey as well.

“Will all of them be chosen by Spirit Dragons…eventually?”

Elisando smiled. “Perhaps, if they prove themselves. And some of them are already advanced. But now it’s late, and you need rest and Healing. Lean on me, Sisi, and I will keep you safe.”

And as always, Sisi settled against her Spirit Dragon and allowed sleep to bring her rest.

But not for long.

Sisi! Sisi! I need your help!

The cry shattered her dreams. She saw Lupita in a cage made of flowing water, fluid, like Samuel’s Dragon Twain, but instead of life-giving water, this was water that burned the skin like acid. She was dressed in a simple brown dress, but as Sisi looked at it, the dress was made of a thin layer of poisoned earth that literally ate into Lupita’s skin.

Help me, help me, Sisi! The River…Tell Samuel, the River…

Sisi followed Lupita’s outstretched arm, and saw that the cage was suspended high above a set of rough rapids, angrily churning its way to a steep waterfall, and sharp rocks below. High upstream, a struggling Dragon clung on a tree for dear life, trying to withstand the punishing current. Her talons dug into the tree, but it creaked and groaned under the weight. Pure panic was etched into Tetzlpotl’s features as she fought against being swept to the falls.

And along the riverbank, tangled weeds and vines reached towards the skies, as a bank of dark clouds gathered upon the horizon. Lightning flashed within the clouds, and Sisi heard the buzzing of angry bees.

The Clouds…don’t let Freya go into them alone…don’t let any of them venture alone! You must STAY TOGETHER. Promise me, Sisi, promise me!

“I–“ Sisi began to promise, but then a horrible shrieking noise interrupted her. The tree was finally wrenched from its roots, and Teztlpotl’s scream was almost human as the current swirled around her. There was a snap, and the cage that held Lupita prisoner shuddered, and the bottom of it fell out, and Lupita screamed as she plunged down, down, to join her Dragon.

Fire and Water are mortal enemies, as well as Earth and Air. Enemies instead of balanced opposites, Elisando had said. Sisi watched helplessly as the River swallowed up Lupita and her Fire Dragon in its depths.

And Sisi heard herself screaming aloud.

“Sisi! Sisi! Wake up!”

She sat bolt upright, shaking, her blankets twisted around her. Samuel knelt beside her, Link on her other side, and Freya supporting her from behind. Gan Zhou Bei, gripped her arm with gentle strength. The horrible strain in his eyes told Sisi that he had felt the Dream, even though he wasn’t a Ranger himself.

“Samuel, the River…Freya, the clouds…”

Samuel’s normally jovial face was set in grim lines. He glanced at Link, who nodded.

“That singing map be damned,” Link said. Sisi had never heard him swear before. “We stay together, and the first place we’ll go is the River.”

They reached the Portal Point for the River in the middle of the next morning. Samuel and Twain hovered in the air in front of the Rangers, their eyes closed as they searched for the exact transit frequency. Sisi watched them, curiosity all over her face; although she had traveled through a Portal before, she had never actually watched anyone find and activate one. Drianeh had done it to access her Passage, and Suuie had made one when they had fled to the Grove. But she had never seen a Ranger work in concert with his Dragon to open one for himself.

Twain seemed to glow from within, the “liquid” water in his form vibrating with sound and light. Samuel’s head was bowed, his arms raised high above his head, concentration on his features. Water was Samuel’s Element; he had the best chance of finding the Portal, after consulting a (much subdued) Map to find the general location.

“Gods above, he is a sorcerer,” muttered Gan Zhou Bei. He rode tandem behind Link, on Thaddeus, for the Earth Dragon was the only one with enough strength to carry both men on his back.

“We are all sorcerers, to a point,” Link told him gently.

“I have seen strange things, Ranger Link, but this is the strangest, even for me.”

“You get used to it, Warrior,” Freya said, “but yes, the first time is unsettling.”

Gan Zhou Bei smiled, showing uneven teeth. “As most first times are.”

Suddenly, Samuel’s eyes snapped open as Twain roared in victory. “We’ve struck gold, ladies and gentlemen. Now, if you would all please move along while this thing can stay open…” He made a sharp gesture, then a crack in the universe burst open. “Eyes shut, everyone, and here we go!”

They roared into the Portal, and it snapped shut behind them.

The first sound Sisi heard was the roar of the River. She opened her eyes and saw the tumble of gray-blue rapids, topped by narrow crests, just like in her Dream. She looked up, expecting to see Lupita in the foul water-like cage, but the sky was a deceptive azure.

“All right, we are here,” Freya said. “Now what?”

Sisi pulled out the Map and unrolled it. A pulsing turquoise light marked a spot in the middle of the River. “There,” she said, pointing, “under the water.”

“All right, then,” Samuel said. “Twain and I will go and take a look around. Freya, give me an air bubble, so I can breathe.”

The Air Ranger nodded and closed her eyes. A golden-white halo surrounded Samuel and Twain. Samuel nodded his thanks and dove towards the spot, and he and Twain disappeared without a splash. I see something, Samuel said immediately, looks like the glow of an electric eel, but there’s something in the middle of it…looks like it’s wedged in a crack between two rocks, gonna be a devil’s work trying to get it out by myself.

Link turned to Freya. “May we have an air bubble as well? Perhaps Thaddeus and Gan Zhou Bei may be helpful in this situation.”

“Of course, Link. Stay still a moment.” Freya concentrated again, and a similar halo appeared around Link, Thaddeus and Gan Zhou Bei. The latter looked rather nonplussed at the application of “sorcery” on his person, but he appeared to accept it nonetheless.

“Hang on, Gan Zhou Bei.” Contrary to his words, Link plunged Thaddeus in a steep dive. Gan Zhou Bei roared in surprise, but it was cut off as they entered the water. Sisi couldn’t help but chuckle at her fellow countryman’s panicked reaction.

“I don’t like this,” Freya said. She and Aseoguard hovered over where Link and Samuel were underwater. “It’s too quiet, and too simple.”

“Be careful what you wish for, Freya.”

“My instincts never lie, Sisi. I hope they are quick about it.”

Sisi, listen to the water. Do you hear something? Elisando asked. Ask Freya if she hears something too.

Aseoguard answered for both of them. The Air Dragon was normally very quiet, but her voice rang like sweet windchimes. Yes, we hear something upon the wind. It sounds like…voices?

“What is that?” Freya asked aloud. There was a murmur under the sounds of the rapids that was not natural. It gurgled like a drowned man, or a shipful of drowned men. Sisi shuddered at the ominous rumble.

“The souls of the dead,” she whispered. “I have a bad feeling about this—“

The River in front of her exploded outward, and a serpentine head rose out of the depths. It’s silver head was covered with sickly green scales, its large snout flared outward like a yak’s. A single woman rode on its back, dressed in the black of the Rangers of the Void.

“A trap!” Freya shouted. She reached behind her and drew out a sword out of the Air. Its blade was made of pure crystal that shifted colors with the sunlight, and the gold pommel was adorned with diamonds and aquamarines.

The Ranger of the Void slowly raised her head, and Sisi’s heart stopped. The woman’s skin was pasty gray, weeds in her hair, as if one of the Drowned Dead. Her large yellow eyes glowed with an unholy light.

“Oh, Lupita,” Sisi whispered, “what did they do to you?”

“Yak balls! This…thing…is not cooperating!” Gan Zhou Bei swore, as he and Link tried to pull the object out from the crack within the rock. The large jeweled key was as blue as the water around it, and shone like a small sun under the River. It also resisted all attempts to get it out of its prison, even with the combined strength of Gan Zhou Bei, Link, Samuel, Thaddeus and Twain.

Obviously, it cannot be removed by ordinary means, said Thaddeus. The Earth Dragon twitched his jowls as he ruminated over the problem. Link gave his Dragon a pat; Thaddeus enjoyed taking puzzles apart. It looks like it is sunk into the crack so tightly that it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins.

“Perhaps Fire could remove it,” Gan Zhou Bei rumbled. “We must summon Sisi.”

“We don’t wanna destroy it,” Samuel objected. “Fire would definitely do that. Hmmm…” He stroked his white beard. “Twain, can you See it? Is there any way to separate it without destroying it, or taking the entire rock with us?”

Twain lifted up a talon, and it transformed into a fluid that glowed at the same frequency as the Key. The Water Dragon placed its talon on the rock, and it sank into it. Twain frowned and replied, Not that I can see. It’s as if they are one and the same…wait a moment. I have an idea. Samuel, do you remember when your paddle boat was stuck in the mud of the Mississippi and you needed all those men to dig you out? You needed two Elements, Water and Earth.

“And the Fire of those men’s determination to get you out,” Link added.

“We have to work together,” Samuel said. He nodded at Gan Zhou Bei. “My apologies, my friend; you’re right. Let’s call Sisi.”

The River churned around them as if they were in the middle of a butter churn. Freya’s air bubbles wrinkled under the tempest, but held. For how long?

“Sisi!” Gan Zhou Bei roared. “WE NEED YOU!”

The shout rang through Sisi’s head like a temple gong, and she was struck dumb by it. She grabbed blindly as Elisando materialized so fast that she fell sideways against his wing. She struggled up and Elisando twisted into another attack dive towards the Ranger of the Void.

Lupita raised her hands and fashioned daggers of fire, which she hurled at Freya. Sisi intercepted them and dispelled them with a gesture. Freya turned and formed an air bubble around Elisando and Sisi. “I will take care of her!” Freya shouted. “Sisi, go!”

Lupita tried to take advantage of Freya’s brief inattention, and threw a series of fireballs at her. The Norga maiden whirled around and built a whirlwind that ate the fireballs and grew as each ball hit it. Lupita’s eyes widened at the advancing wall of wind and she dove down, towards the River. She raised her hands and let out a concentrated beam of flames that struck the water’s surface. It boiled and churned and threw steam into the air.

She’s going to attack the others under the water! Sisi had to save her friends. She turned and dove towards the water. The last thing she saw before the depths surrounded her was a column of water exploding from the depths of the river, and striking Lupita off course.

Twain saw the source of the disturbance and Sent it to Samuel. He waited until Lupita was distracted by Sisi’s attempt to go into the River, then he sent a pulse into the waves directly under Lupita’s Dragon. Twain focused it into a single column and together they pushed it skywards, catching Lupita in its wake.

“The Rangers of the Void took Lupita,” he reported grimly. “They have her Soul.”

Gan Zhou Bei swore again. “Link, help me extract this rock. If we can’t get the Key out, we might as well take the whole thing. Hurry, before the traitoress tries to suffocate us with steam!”

“She’ll have to boil the entire River for that, and I won’t let her do that. Twain, shall we?”

With pleasure, Brother Samuel. Together they concentrated and threw water at Lupita, distracting her from aiming her powers at the River. Link put his hands on the rock and commanded them to let go of their prize. The stone was stubborn, even with Thaddeus helping and Gan Zhou Bei pulling the rock.

Then they all felt a pleasant warmth, and a thread of Fire spreading through the rock. Suddenly Link understood, and Thaddeus confirmed it: Fire melts rock to liquid, but she needs our guidance, Link. Tell Gan Zhou Bei to keep tugging the Key. We’ll have that little bugger out yet!

“It’s working!” Gan Zhou Bei shouted. “It’s working!”

“Keep at it, Gan Zhou Bei.” Link looked over his shoulder, and saw Sisi floating in one of the air bubbles, her eyes closed and her hands glowing with Power. Elisando opened one eye and nodded at Link.

“Uh-oh,” Samuel muttered. His air bubble was taking the punishment of the waves, and its surface rippled with wrinkles, like a soap bubble about to pop. “I’ll go upstairs and help Freya out!” He and Twain headed towards the surface and were gone.

Sisi, we have to hurry, Link told her. His own bubble was contracting at an alarming rate, and it was only a few moments before he, too, would be forced to the surface. And he didn’t have just himself to worry about; he had Gan Zhou Bei’s safety to consider.

The rock melted away, but slowly, slowly. Link relied on the stability of his Element to keep the panic at bay. Just a few more minutes…

Freya had no trouble remembering that this wasn’t the Lupita she knew; one look into those demonic eyes convinced her of that. Aseoguard wove between waves of fire as they tried to get closer to the Ranger of the Void. Freya turned the streaks of flame away with a twist of her sword, or Aseoguard blew the fire back towards the demon in Lupita’s form, forcing the demon to dodge her own projectiles. But no matter how canny Freya was, Lupita matched her, move for move, and refused to let Freya in range.

The Norga warrior pushed a sense of loss and unease. Her namesake, the legendary Freya of the Norse Gods, spirited the brave dead to Valhalla. Lupita would want to rest in peace and not be held in thrall to the Demons of the Void. For that, Freya was willing to risk her own chance for peace in Valhalla.

My fellow warrior maiden, I will be true to my calling, and bring you eternal rest. Freya swooped around to avoid another volley of lava. I call on the winds to guide my hand, and to give me the chance to strike!

She raised her sword high above her head and created a whirlwind that gathered up tendrils of fire into a single bolt. The clear blade turned red, then white as Freya summoned her Elemental powers. She charged the bolt with the power of the lightning…

…Mighty Thor, grant me your strength…

Then aimed it straight and true..
…Powerful Odin, guide my vision, you with one eye, but OtherSight…

Freya screamed a war cry as she brought the sword down and released the supercharged bolt. Lupita’s eyes widened as she realized the pure power of it and began to chant in a language Freya had never heard before. Directly above Lupita, the sky began to open, and flashes of dark red lights raced across its surface. Freya opened her mouth to cry out in frustration; Lupita had summoned up a Portal and would escape within it before the bolt touched her.

And then a blast of cold river water caught Lupita from behind. It passed over the Portal, destroying the spell and slamming the Portal closed. The bolt struck Lupita’s Dragon and it threw its head back and knocked Lupita into the sky. Impossibly, the Dragon twisted itself and launched itself towards its falling Ranger.
Freya dove after the Dragon, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Sisi and Elisando coming from the opposite direction.

In a flash, Freya received Sisi’s message. Freya, get ready to catch her! Not the demon that has overtaken her, but Lupita’s soul!

“I am ready!” Freya shouted, and she prayed to Odin like she had never prayed before.

Sisi and Elisando dove towards Lupita’s demonized body. Elisando’s instructions became clear to Sisi in an instant; she knew what she had to do. She and Lupita shared the same Element, Fire, but Sisi also possessed the Element that encompassed all, Spirit.

Fire purifies and cleanses, as well as destroys. We can at least break the ties that bind Lupita to the Void and set her free! Link, are you ready?

Ready, Thaddeus said for both of them.

“Now!” Elisando cried, and their world became mist.

“Christ on a sidecar!” Samuel sputtered. “Would you look at that?”

It happened almost too fast to see it. Before his eyes, Sisi and Elisando became…well, ghostly was probably the best word for it. Insubstantial, no longer solid, like the Spirits themselves. Then Sisi and Elisando flew through Lupita’s falling body, and when they passed out of it, a golden orb fell out of the demon’s mouth. Freya swooped down and Aseoguard caught the orb in her mouth. Then Sisi and Elisando became solid again.

The Demon’s form shrieked as it plummeted towards the ground. Black wings sprouted from its shoulder blades and it skimmed dangerously low to the earth. Before it could pull up back into the open sky, a wave of earth and rock rose up directly in front of it. Its loud screams were overwhelmed by the roar of earth as Link buried the demon under tons of rubble.

The Demon’s Dragon slammed into the soft banks of the River, throwing up mud and spray. It staggered, trying to find its balance, but Samuel fed more water to the mud, making it into a sticky morass. Sisi hovered over it, her eyes closed, her mouth moving into a chant.

Tetzlpotl, the fire burns, the fire cleanses. Let it sear the taint away and bring you to new life! Sisi brought her hands together and launched the biggest fireball that anyone had ever seen. Samuel raised his arm to shield himself; he could feel the heat from here, and it was a scorcher!

The fire caught the Dragon in its grip, and its cries were almost human as it tried, and failed, to get away. Link raised embankments around the perimeter, and Freya supplied more air. The mud pit became a raging pyre that consumed the Demon Dragon within.

Now, Freya, Samuel, put the fire out! Freya choked the air supply, while Samuel brought fresh river water to fill the pit. The air clouded with steam, but instead of choking, it smelled…

…therapeutic, like a pot of steamed herbs, Samuel thought. Or a meadow of fresh flowers. Enough to cleanse the nose and the palate and lift the soul. He blinked as he saw a spidery shape rise from the smoke. Quite literally, I suppose. What is that? My God, is that—?

Huge wings, long talons; smaller than Tetzlpotl had been, yet the features were familiar. The empty eyes filled with liquid amber-gold, not quite like the other Fire Dragons of the Aerie, but…Samuel started as he realized that the being that had been Tetzlpotl looked like a Fire version of his own Twain.

Or like a Silk Spirit Dragon, like Elisando.

Freya cried out in surprise as the golden orb leaped out of her hands and floated towards the new Fire Dragon. It settled upon the Fire Dragon’s crown, like a topaz jewel into a delicate ruby setting. The sense of joy, of homecoming, was strong enough to bring tears to Samuel’s eyes. There was a wordless sense of gratitude, then the Fire Dragon lifted itself up into the air, through the clouds, like the rising sun, and just as abruptly, it was gone, and the heavenly glow disappeared.

“Rest in peace, Lupita,” Samuel whispered as he drew his arm across his eyes.

“Are you well?” Link asked as he and Thaddeus pulled alongside Samuel. Poor Link seemed haggard, and Thaddeus looked like someone had hit him over the head with a crowbar.

“Yeah…I’m okay. Where’s Gan Zhou Bei?”

“Here,” called Gan Zhou Bei, “on the shore! I believe this is what we’re after.” The Sian warrior raised a jeweled object, the size of a dragon’s talon, to the light. It was a sapphire blue, and shaped in a strange cross-like figure, with an open loop at the top. “Samuel, you were right; it needed contact with the four Elements to be activated. Earth, Water, Air and…”

“Fire.” Sisi whispered. She and Elisando touched down next to Gan Zhou Bei. She placed a trembling hand on the First Key, that which they had sacrificed so much to acquire. “You were quite brave, Gan Zhou Bei, to be so close to the pyre so the Key could receive Fire Power.”

He shrugged. “It needed to be done. But, yak girl, you look like you’ve been through several yak-ball tournaments in a row! Both you and Elisando need to rest and recharge.”

“Now that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” Samuel said, as he, Link and Freya exchanged looks of complete agreement.

Sisi spent several hours in a deep trance. Elisando and Aseoguard positioned themselves around her, and Thaddeus lay at her feet. Link, Samuel and Freya pored over the map. It now had a huge red “x” over the River, but the other two locations glowed in gold and green. The Spooky Forest and the Clouds of Sorrow…they tried to decide which one to tackle next.

“We’re equally distant from both. If I had to choose, I’d go to the Forest first,” said Link.

“I agree. With all that has happened…honestly, I’m not sure if I could handle a place called ‘Clouds of Sorrow’ right now,” Freya admitted. The normal sparkle in her blue eyes were muted, and exhaustion lined her beautiful face. She slumped in her place, putting her hands at her temples. Samuel put a comforting hand on her shoulder; they all knew that it took Freya enormous effort to admit the fact. The Norga warriors tried to give an image of complete invulnerability, and she was no exception.

“Then the Forest it is,” Link said. “I should be able to locate the Portal. We’ll go as soon as we’ve rested a bit and Sisi feels better.”

“I can’t believe Lupita is gone,” Freya said softly. “How did the Rangers of the Void get her? Last we saw, she was happily playing a game with that Azteca warrior, Juato-somebody or other. Do you believe it was a trap?”

“Maybe,” Samuel said. “It drew her away from us…perhaps we’ll never know.”

Link gazed over to Sisi, sleeping peacefully in the ring of dragons, and Gan Zhou Bei sitting nearby in careful watch. He felt a twinge of…what? Protectiveness, surely, and respect for all she had been through. Sisi was stronger than all of them put together; Link wasn’t sure he could deal with all her trials.

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Link murmured.

Sisi was sleeping, but not as peacefully as her friends thought.

She stood on a golden plain, surrounded by lush verdant jungle. All around her were people going about their daily business: grinding corn, gossiping with neighbors, guiding burros down the wide boulevard. It reminded her of Churros, and the hardworking villagers, but this definitely was not the Sian Mountains, for the people wore thin, cotton dresses and tunics. She could smell the roasted peppers and freshly-baked bread. 

Far ahead of her, at the end of the boulevard, was the Great Temple, hewn out of black rock. Sisi had never seen any building so magnificent: the steep steps shone in the sunlight like dark glass, and the very top level was edged in gold. Suddenly, she had the compulsion to climb those steps and see what there was to see. Her feet took her down the street, towards the Great Temple.

When she reached the stairs, her heart panicked, for there were so many of them! But a greater force made her move up the stairs, slowly at first, and then faster and faster. Her breath caught in her throat and sweat dotted her brow. Before long, the people shrank into the size of ants, and she was high up within the clouds.

She stumbled onto the uppermost level, onto a horizontal platform of polished onyx. The sunlight flashed on thin metal; she looked up and saw a man dressed in a white tunic and an elaborate jeweled headdress decorated with peacock feathers. He stood over a stone altar, chanting prayers in a tear-roughened voice. Lying on the slab in front of him was a familiar face.

Lupita! Sisi screamed, but no one heard her. When Lupita was still alive, she had told Sisi about this moment, when she was about to be sacrificed because of a false oracle, and Tetzlpotl had dove out of the clouds to save her. Again, Sisi heard Elisando’s words: In your world, they consider you dead. You cannot go back.

Then why was Lupita here? And why was Sisi witnessing this? Where was Tetzlpotl?

Lupita’s face was calm, though two tears trickled down her cheeks. Sisi wanted to rush forward and stop the priest from completing the ceremony, but the impetus that forced her up the steps was gone, and her feet were rooted to the stones under them.

As she watched, the priest finished his incantations. He bowed his head and said in a sad voice, “Forgive me, beloved daughter. May the Sun warm your Soul in the Regions of the Dead, and may the Gods accept you into their arms forever.”

“So be it,” Lupita whispered.

Her father raised the dagger high above Lupita’s body as musicians began a slow, steady beat on their drums. After a few moments, the drums stopped, and the priest’s arm began to advance…


The cry tore from Sisi’s throat beyond her control. The priest jerked in surprise and dropped the knife with a clatter. He whirled around, his eyes wide, and finally saw Sisi. Her mind felt detached from her body, as if she was a spectator to the power that controlled her body.

“My brave servant, you have been obedient to the will of the Gods,” she said, in a voice not her own. “You have obeyed the Oracle without question. In this case, however, the Oracle did not come from me, rather, it came from the forces of darkness.”

The priest crouched down onto the stone, his forehead touching the onyx. “But…but my mate, she is a daughter of the Oracle, and she said…”

“Your mate is not to blame for the false words. The priest Juatocotl forced poison into her ear against her will.” Sisi’s gaze fell upon the tall, youthful priest that stood on the far side of the platform. Her present self recognized him as the jai lai player; her past self recognized him as the one who had nearly destroyed Lupita’s life. The young priest’s mouth was open in shock, his sun-kissed face the color of pale caramel. 

The priest, Lupita’s father, stood up, whirled around and caught the traitor’s eyes with his own. Rage infused his features. “What did you almost make me do?” he screamed.

Lupita sat up, her limbs trembling at this near-miss. She raised her hands to her face, as if reassuring herself she was still there. Confusion clouded her face as memories came to her in a jumble. Sisi smiled at her, then turned as feet scampered up the stone steps. An older woman stumbled onto the platform, her white gown stained with dust and dirt, her headdress askew on the top of her head. 

“Lupita!” the woman cried and stumbled to Lupita’s side. She enfolded Lupita in her arms and sobbed, “Forgive me, please forgive me, my daughter, forgive me…”

Lupita clutched at her mother. “I forgive you and Father,” she whispered. “Whatever our disagreements were in the past, it is all washed away.”

The young priest’s mouth hardened with the expression of one who saw his plans crumble in the space of a breath. He raised his hands high above his head and formed a sickly yellow ball of energy between his palms. The musicians yelled and ran for cover, and Lupita’s father quickly erected glowing shields around his wife and daughter. The maneuver left him wide open to Juatocotl’s attack. Both Lupita and her mother screamed when they realized that he meant to sacrifice himself.

But Sisi was still there, and she fashioned a long staff made of burning red flame. As Juatocotl threw his weapon, Sisi launched the staff with an arm trained in yak-ball. It cut through the ball, dissipating it in a burst of smoke, and slammed into Juatocotl’s chest. The young priest screamed and clawed at the fiery stake with long fingernails. His body glowed—no, incandensed—and within seconds, his skin had burned away and there was nothing left but a skeleton suspended within the flame. A dark shadow leaped from the burning body, and sought to pass into anyone else, but Sisi hit it with a concentrated blast of fire, and it shrieked as it was reduced to ashes. Juatocotl’s mortal remains followed it.

“A Ranger of the Void,” Sisi murmured to herself. “One of the Dark Ones.”

“Our family is indebted to you, My Lady,” said Lupita’s father. “You have saved my daughter and my land.”

Sisi shook her head. “All that I ask is that you live, and grow.” The knowledge came to her, so sure than she knew it was fact. “Ikonolupitl, you will be a great priestess in your own right. Remember the Fire of Knowledge, and the Fire of Wisdom, and live your life according to its principles.”

“Yes, Great Lady,” Lupita whispered, as she bowed and touched her head to the Temple Stones.

Sisi smiled at her friend. Lupita would never be a Fire Ranger, never have a Dragon, but instead, live her normal allotted time with the Aztecas, dying peacefully as an old woman. There was a sense of rightness to it all.

“Farewell, Lupita, and may the Gods be with you.” Sisi said, and the last thing she saw as the scene dissolved around her, was the pure happiness within Lupita’s face.

Posted 249 weeks ago

A Blast from the Past: The Silk Dragon (Nanowrimo 2006) Part IV

Part I  Part II  Part III

In the morning, the Fellowship of Five took off from the Grove, Sisi and Elisando in middle, with Lupita and Teztlpotl at point, Link and Thaddeus and Samuel and Twain flanking her on left and right, and Freya and Asoraguard at the rearguard. They spent the time surveying the scenery below them: an expanse of warm ocean, dotted by lush green isles. Twain, normally shy and reserved, plunged towards the sea, pulling up at the last minute to skim foam off the waves. Sisi was concerned that such a maneuver might be too much for Samuel’s heart, but when Twain rejoined the group, Samuel’s face was flushed with excitement and joy.

“You’ve got to let ‘em loose once in a while,” he said, by means of explanation.
Lupita laughed and put Tetzlpotl through a series of barrel rolls and maneuvers that were a standard part of the Fire Ranger repertoire. Sisi nudged Elisando forward, and he matched Tetzlpotl, move for move. She felt a pang as she missed Drianeh for a moment, but then she heard the Fire Dragon in her head, reminding Sisi of proper form, and criticizing Elisando on his flying technique.

Got to admit, Elisando is a good flier. I didn’t know he could do Raging Fires so well. Drianeh sounded a touch envious. Yak balls, he’s even better than I was!

“Gods, now your epithets have rubbed off even on the insubstantial!” Elisando laughed. “Yak balls? There are such things?”

You think that’s bad, Elisando? There are worse. Use your imagination.

“What’s a yak?” he asked.

“It’s a furry cow,” Sisi replied, “with horns and a heavy coat.”

“And now that she knows what a cow is, you should hear her epithets,” Lupita teased as she pulled alongside. “And a water buffalo, and a caribou, and…”

“All right, enough,” Elisando chuckled. “I suppose it won’t hurt to expand my vocabulary. Even if some words are impolite for a Spirit Dragon.”

“I cannot believe this,” Freya chimed in from behind them. “You plan on corrupting a Spirit Dragon with anatomical references? In my world, we try to make it sound as polite as possible, so you can insult without sounding like you are insulting.”

Link sighed and rolled his eyes. “Children.”

“C’mon, Link, don’t tell me you haven’t sworn off your frustration now and then,” Samuel said.

“I try not to do it in the presence of the ladies,” Link answered, somewhat stiffly.

“Northerners,” Samuel muttered. “At least we Southerners can relate to Miss Freya’s ‘politeness in insults’. Miss Freya, where I come from, it’s like a dance, where you watch and interpret every move, every gesture, every expression and react accordingly.”

Freya smiled, showing perfect white teeth. “Yes, exactly, and you try to see just how far you can go. The goal is to get to a certain point where your combatant understands your frustration and irritation, without crossing the line into a sword challenge.”

“Ah, yes. Our version is ‘the gentlemanly duel’, the best shot at fifty paces.”

Link sighed. “Rather barbaric, the Southern mind.”

“Well, it’s a matter of pride, Link. And as Miss Freya said, it’s a game of cat and mouse.”

Sisi listened to this conversation that she had (indirectly) caused. While she didn’t understand the ‘Northern’ or ‘Southern’ reference (though she guessed, Link and Samuel probably came from different and competing villages), she marveled at how different all of their customs were, yet how same.

Lupita shrugged and said, “Well, if you really want barbaric, if you insult the Son of the Sun Gods, you end up tied to an altar stone and having a priest carve your heart out. While you’re still alive.”

Samuel turned a distinct shade of green. “Well, give me a bottle of whiskey. Or a dram of vodka. Better yet, just shoot me.”

Link sighed and said nothing. Sisi asked Drianeh, Is something wrong with Link?

Drianeh only replied, He has a strong dislike of projectile weapons, Sisi, particularly firearms, like pistols. He…really doesn’t like them at all.

Sisi decided to change the subject. She pulled out the map, which mercifully did not sing, and matched the landmarks below her with the markings on the yak-skin map. “We’ll probably reach a Portal Point in about a thousand heartbeats or so. After that, we’ll probably have another two days of flying before we must part on our own missions.” She felt a distinct shiver at the thought of going through a Portal again, but Elisando sent her a warm wave of reassurance.

They stopped for lunch at a village in the Water Rangers’ territory. They entered the tavern, where the barmaid stood behind the counter, energetically polishing the mugs. She looked up as they came in, and she nearly dropped hers at the sight of Samuel.

“Samuel! You old bugger! How are ya!” Her rosy cheeks dimpled. “Where’ve you been hiding? Or have the Water Rangers been keeping you too busy to stop by? We’ve missed you.”

Samuel laughed and parked himself on a high stool. “Well, you know, Sadie, I’ve been around. And for heaven’s sake, woman, I’m not old. The usual, if you please. Oh, and I brought friends.”

Sadie laughed and said, “You always bring friends. Looks like other Rangers. Hey, all, any friend of Samuel’s a friend of mine. What would you like? Got everything palatable from three dimensions.”

“Kentucky bourbon,” Samuel said, “for Link here.”

Link actually looked interested as Sadie slid a glass in his direction. He picked it up, held to the light, tasted it, and smiled. “Thank you, Sadie. I’ve almost forgotten how this tasted like.”

“You’ve gotta get out more,” Samuel said judiciously.

Lupita smiled and slid into a stool. “Three dimensions, you say? All right, I want the Drink of the Gods.”

“One spiced chocolate, Azteca style, coming right up.” Sadie moved faster than any of them could see, and before they knew it, she slid an earthenware mug full of steaming brew, dark brown with cinnamon, chiles and some other things that Sisi couldn’t identify. Lupita took a deep sniff of the concoction, then tasted it. Tears filled her eyes.

“Exquisite, Sadie. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I get the occasional Azteca warrior in…you should’ve been here last night…had one here, said his name was Juahutocal, he’s some star in some sport with stone hoops and pelotas…”

Lupita blinked and she leaned forward. “This…Juahutocal…he plays jai lai? Why, that takes skill and balance and great bravery. I used to watch games with my mother and my friends.”

“There’s one this afternoon, at the North Lake, if you’re interested. Who knows, maybe this guy will be playing, and…”Sadie trailed off with a shrug.

“We’re ahead of schedule,” said Samuel. “I’m sure we can spare a few hours watching a sport from Lupita’s hometown.”

Link opened his mouth to say something, then saw the eager look on Lupita’s face, and held his peace. Sisi caught the sparkle in his eyes that belied his serious expression, and she saw he was just as curious as she was to see this game.

“It sounds like a game we played up in Norga,” Freya said. “We have sticks, and a small disc, and two teams try to slip this disc into their enemies’ goal. It takes great strategy and strength and balance, for we play this on the frozen lake with blades attached to our boots.”

“We have a local team for hak-kei, too,” Sadie said, “but unfortunately, you’ll have to wait for winter for that. We have our stars for that too…there’s a player who’s blazingly fast, and he has a strange design on his sweater, some kind of red leaf. They don’t even call him by name, the call him “The Great One”.

“I would be interested in meeting this ‘Great One’,” Freya said. “And perhaps challenge him to a game. I used to be quite good in my day.”

“I can pass the word out to him; he should be in town,” Sadie said. “Oh, and Miss—“

”Freya Odinsdottir,” Freya introduced herself, “Princess of Norga and Danemarke, Warrior Maiden of the North.”

Sadie inclined her head in respect. “Princess Freya, may I interest you in a berry wine?”

“That would be acceptable, Sadie, thank you.”

Sisi sat there on her stool and listened as her fellow Rangers reminisced about sport in their dimensions. Link used to be quite the rail-splitter in his time, and he enjoyed wrestling. Samuel enjoyed being on a boat in the water, boats with huge paddle wheels that steamed through his beloved Mississippi. Freya and Sadie discussed the finer points of hak-kei strategy, while Lupita demonstrated a jai lai shot with her hands. Sisi was content to let her companions talk about themselves, for she was very curious about them. As she had told Drianeh and Elisando before, she really didn’t know much about her fellow Rangers, for normally they all kept many things to themselves.

A mug of shining chaochaou materialized in front of her, and Sadie gave her a wink. “Chaochaou, chaochaou, chaochaou, DRINK! Chaochaou, chaochaou, chaochaou, DRINK!”

Sisi gave her a wide grin. “Rhu jhaou saou behuk’va!”

“Grace of the mighty yak to you too, Sisi. Well, Cheers, prost, ganbei, down the hatch!” Sadie said and they touched mugs of chaochaou. Sisi took hers down in a single gulp, while Sadie needed two gulps for hers. Sisi felt the familiar buzz; she thought that perhaps she was getting used to the chaochaou’s effects, for she didn’t feel as nervy as she usually did. Or was that just Sadie’s secret formula?

A boom rang through the tavern as the swinging doors at the entrance flew open, nearly off their hinges. A man swaggered in, dressed in furs and a cap and caribou-hide boots.

Sadie sighed and rolled her eyes. “Gan Zhou Bei, can’t you knock like everyone else?”

“A huge tankard of Bhukirai, Say-dee,” Gan Zhou Bei said. Sisi recognized the accent: not from Churros, but from Hukis, another local village at the opposite side of the Sian Mountains. She felt a surge of self-righteous indignation at the man’s arrogance. Neither Foster-Mother Tatara or Foster-Father Meng Pao liked the townspeople of Hukis; they were obnoxious, arrogant, and just plain boorish.

“So, what brings you in today.”

“I won a yak-ball challenge this morning,” Gan Zhou Bei boomed, as he plopped down on the stool next to Sisi. “The idhou’rak idiot didn’t even show up, so I won by default! See, even the strongest flee at the sight of my imposing stature.”

Sisi couldn’t help but say, “Imposing as a yak in mating season,” in the Hukis dialect. “Just because the opponent doesn’t show up, doesn’t mean you’ve won. It just means you have to have two challenges instead of one, and win both. Or have your forgotten the rules of conduct, Gan Zhou Bei? Or is it that only you know them, and you play on the others’ ignorance? Why, you aren’t brave, you’re a sniveling goat with a dingleberry in your mouth and two smeared over your eyes.”

Gan Zhou Bei’s eyes snapped towards her, and his huge ugly mouth gaped so wide that his jaw nearly hit the floor. “And close your mouth, sniveling goat, before the flies decide your maw is the right place to lay their eggs,” Sisi said blandly, and took another casual sip of the chaochaou, finishing it to the dregs.

None of the other Rangers understood the words, but they understood the intent, and they were just as stunned as Gan Zhou Bei, for little Sisi never insulted anyone quite like that in their presence before. Even the normally glib Samuel was shocked into silence. Link’s face said it all: “Uh-oh. Here comes the bar fight.” Freya’s hand lightly rested on the knife at her side, and Lupita fingered the razor-sharp obsidian stone on her necklace.

Sadie only looked at the two antagonists and watched.

Gan Zhou Bei finally picked up his jaw off the floor. His face was scarlet with embarrassment. “So, you understand my language. Where are you from, little yak-girl? Djou? Ascarhu?”


“I see. The town of the frozen corpses who just work, work, work,” he said, his voice regaining some of his bluster. “I believe you don’t even know how to play yak-ball because you spend all your time in work.”

Sisi missed this witty repartee, this trading of insults. As a Ranger, she had to be polite all the time; now she could tap into her inner sarcasm that was smothered by her arrival into this world. She batted her eyelashes. “I believe that Akumas breeds a line of distinguished yak-ballers, and my Foster-Mother taught me all she knows. She used to be quite the player, in her day. Perhaps you might be interested in a challenge, to make up for the player who didn’t show up for yours.”

Gan Zhou Bei laughed heartily and slapped little Sisi on the back so hard she nearly toppled off the stool. Freya stood up, but Sadie put a hand on her arm. Sisi stood up and with an abrupt gesture, backhanded the massive man so hard that he fell off his stool. Gan Zhou Bei stared at her for a minute, then guffawed in a spasm of laughter.

“I like you, little girl,” he said, so everyone could understand him. “You’ve got fire. Very well, I will meet you in the Water Field, say, a hundred heartbeats from now? I’ll take that Challenge. It will be refreshing to match my skills against one who knows the difference from a yak horn from a yak turd. Bright the day, little girl! And I will see you at the Field!”

Gan Zhou Bei finished his drink and gave her a salute. Then with a final nod at Sadie, he lumbered out as abruptly as he came in. The swinging doors rattled in their hinges in his wake.

“I don’t believe it,” Samuel said in awe. “You beat him up, and suddenly he’s your best friend?”

“The ones from Hukis Village speak…differently from those in other villages,” Sisi explained. She rubbed her hand, the one she had slapped Gan Zhou Bei with, and winced. “He challenged me to a yak-ball contest; I accepted. It’s been a long time since I played, but I know some tricks that he doesn’t.”

“You what?” Link repeated, aghast.

“What happens if you lose the challenge?” Lupita asked.

“If I lose, Gan Zhou Bei has the right to insult me as much as he wants. If I win, he is humbled, and must perform the fa-jui ceremony, which is an embarrassment to him. He must sing all verses of the fa-jui wearing women’s clothing, and standing in a pool of yak turd.”

Sadie burst out laughing. “Oh…my…Goddess…bless!” she gasped. “That would be humbling to Gan Zhou Bei’s soul! Oh, that’d be almost worth closing the Tavern this afternoon to watch!”

Link was still appalled, but Freya gave her a smile of approval. “So the arrogant behemoth will taste humility for once. I would like to watch, if your game allows spectators.”

“Of course, it allows spectators. In return, Freya, you can teach me some hak-kei.”
“And I will show you some jai lai,” Lupita added.

Link and Samuel looked at each other. “Is it not ladylike to be involved with such sport?” Link asked.

Samuel shrugged. “I don’t think any of these women are worried about being ladylike, Link.”

In fact, the entire village showed up at the Field for the yak-ball challenge. Word spread quickly in the village, and the stands were full. Sadie, ever the entrepreneur, sold her drinks in a cart. The Rangers occupied the box of honor, high above the field. Samuel pointed out the local denizens, including Jhuatocal, the jai lai player and the famous “Great One” in hak-kei. Lupita’s eyes widened at the tall, handsome, warrior with the bronze, sun-kissed skin and golden loinskin and breeches. Freya shrewdly watched the “Great One” as if analyzing his strengths and weaknesses as he sat in the stands. Link eyed the huge, shaggy yaks at the side of the field with a dubious expression.

“Buffaloes? They ride buffaloes?”

Samuel chuckled. “Water buffaloes, with shaggy hair. They look placid, but believe me, they aren’t.”

“And Sisi’s people ride these for sport?”

“It’s like riding a horse, Link. A big, furry horse.”

“And if she falls off? That huge thing will trample her!”

“Well, if she gets in trouble…we help. There’s nothing in the rules that prevents a little teamwork. I double-checked.”

“That’s an unfair advantage, isn’t it?”

Samuel chuckled. “Honest Abe, they named you well. And the same rules applies to Gan Zhou Bei’s side. I’m willing to bet he may try to trip up our dear Sisi.”

“He does,” Freya put in. “His entire body posture reeks of dishonesty.”

Samuel glanced at her. “You can tell that?”

“I can tell from here. Look at him. He’s too calm, too smug for my taste.”

Indeed, Gan Zhou Bei strode around the arena, posing for his fans, and generally showing off his (questionable) musculature. Sisi, by contrast, checked her saddle straps and whispered to her yak. The animal seemed reasonable to what she had to say; the beast snorted and pawed the ground.

Finally, someone rang a bell, and the two climbed onto their yaks. Sisi pulled up a long stake from the ground, with one end set in a mallet. Gan Zhou Bei also retrieved his mallet, as well as a large leather-covered ball. He screamed something in his native language, tossed the ball up into the air and gave it a mighty whack across the field. Sisi charged after it, with her mallet high above her head, and Gan Zhou Bei spurred his yak towards it.

“Good Lord, I can’t watch,” Link muttered.

The spectators burst out into cheers and applause for their chosen hero or heroine. Lupita and Freya were both on their feet, since neither could see above the other spectators’ heads. Samuel looked both intrigued and concerned, but trying to hide it under a calm demeanor.

Sisi reached it first and wheeled her yak around, and gave it a good hit towards the center of the field. She dashed to it, reversed her mallet and speared the ball with the sharpened end. Then she swung it around in a huge arc; Gan Zhou Bei’s lightning-quick reflexes saved him for being upended; he raised his own mallet and blocked the blow. The jolt dislodged the ball from Sisi’s stake, but shattered it in two.
Nevertheless, she pivoted around on the recoil , and retrieved the ball. Again, she swung at Gan Zhou Bei, who dodged it—almost. It struck his padded shoulder and threw him off balance. He tumbled off his yak and onto the field.

The crowd exploded into whistles and cheers. Gan Zhou Bei’s face reddened and he screamed something at the top of his lungs. Sisi shrugged and gave him a salute, then she directed her yak back to her starting pen. Gan Zhou Bei climbed back onto his yak and painfully limped back to his starting area.

“Barbaric,” Link muttered.

“Did you see that move?” Lupita asked excitedly. “She used her momentum to put some extra force behind it!”

Freya nodded. “I assume that whoever has the ball has the honor of dispatching the enemy as best as they could.”

Samuel sighed. “That’s right. After three rounds of this challenge, the final round involves getting the ball into the opponent’s pen. Whoever does it wins the game.”

“Three rounds of this jousting before the final round,” Link asked, somewhat aghast.

“It shows the endurance of the competitors. You must conserve enough of your strength to last until the end,” Freya said. “I wouldn’t guess that Sisi would be athletic enough to play this game, but I suppose she is full of surprises.”

“Yes,” Link said. “Obviously.”

Sisi whispered encouragement to her yak, who wasn’t even breathing hard yet. She had a lucky shot; Gan Zhou Bei was an expert at this game, and her estimation of the man went up considerably. For all his bluster, he was good. She knew better than to underestimate him; he needed to win this round to keep from being defeated. A cornered enemy had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Again the bell rang, and Gan Zhou Bei hit the ball into play. She took off after it; her world shrank into a single point, the battered leather ball. Gan Zhou Bei thundered past her at an angle and slammed into her side. The impact knocked the wind from her and she nearly fell, but she grabbed blindly and hooked her fingers into the yak’s fur. She hung there, suspended between heaven and earth, and struggled to get herself back into the saddle.

Gan Zhou Bei speared the ball with a roar of triumph, then skidded his yak on its hind legs, sending a shower of dirt and mud into the air. From his perspective, he couldn’t see Sisi hanging from the side of her yak, so he thought she’d already fallen from her yak, but he scanned all around him and didn’t see her on the ground.

“Where are you, yak girl?” he shouted. “Are you hiding from me? Show yourself, you weak-willed female!”

Sisi’s yak whirled around and charged him directly. Gan Zhou Bei laughed and raised his spear with the ball firmly implanted on it. It looked like he was going to bring it down on the yak’s head and end the challenge right there.

Then at almost the last moment, Sisi righted herself and clipped Gan Zhou Bei’s arm as it went down. The spear and the ball went flying as Gan Zhou Bei screamed in pain. Sisi grabbed the ball in mid-air, and headed for Gan Zhou Bei’s pen. With a flourish, she tossed it into the pen, a deflated mass of bruised leather and stuffing.

The audience went wild. Sisi slipped off her yak and whispered her gratitude to the brave little beast. Gan Zhou Bei cursed and held his arm as the village surgeon examined it. Sisi went over to Gan Zhou Bei’s side. “Is it broken?”

“No, just bruised,” Gan Zhou Bei said and winced. A slight smile creased his face. “I stand humbled before you, yak girl. I must perform the fa-jui ceremony…if you give the word.”

Sisi shook her head and slowly put her hand on his uninjured arm. “No, warrior, you’ve proved your might well enough. Now I have a question for you. Are you willing to join us on a quest?”

“I will go wherever you go, yak girl, if you will have me.”

Sisi looked up to see the other Rangers around them. “If my companions will allow it as well.”

Freya extended her hand. “From one warrior to another, I welcome you, Gan Zhou Bei, into our company.”

“But I am not a Ranger. Is it permitted?” Gan Zhou Bei asked.

“I don’t see why not,” Lupita said. “I think it will be prudent to have another warrior in our party.”

“I do too,” Samuel added. “Who knows what we’ll run into on the way. Besides, it looks like you’ve got a head for strategy as well, Gan Zhou Bei, and that’ll be useful.”

For the first time in a while, Link smiled. “Indeed. I have no problem with your presence, sir, if you would please point your spear in the enemy’s direction.”

“Have no fear, Ranger. I will make sure the enemy feels my wrath, not my friends.” Gan Zhou Bei touched Freya’s hand, then nodded at Sisi.

“The Fellowship of Six,” Samuel said with a huge grin.

They spent the night in the village. Gan Zhou Bei told stories about his exploits while he still lived in the Sian Mountains, and his ability to capture an audience rivaled Samuel’s. Lupita sat at Sadie’s bar, sipping another spicy Azteca chocolate, when a soft voice broke into her thoughts.

“Princess, may I intrude? I wish to speak to you.”

She blinked and looked up. A tall, muscular man knelt in front of her, his eyes drawn to the ground. His long black hair was tied in a ponytail, and his white sleeveless tunic reflected the glow of the tavern lights. Lupita recognized him as Jhutocal, the Azteca warrior. She placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Please, warrior, do not genuflect in front of me. I am a princess no longer, just a Ranger, who devotes her life to defense and justice.”

He looked up with him with large dark eyes. Lupita found herself drawn to them, like pools of black onyx. “I stand corrected, Ranger. I saw you in the stands, and knew you for who you were. There are so few of us here on this side of the dimensional barrier, that it is a joy to find others like ourselves. I am Jhuatocal, warrior of Nuatopocl.”

“Please, rise to your feet, Juhatocal. I am Ikatontlupatl, also known as Lupita.”
Juhatocal rose and sat on the stool next to her. “Your friend is also quite the warrior; she defeated Gan Zhou Bei with skill. I would not have expected it from such a small-framed girl.”

“Ranger Samuel compares her to a field mouse, large in heart even if short in stature.”

“The comparison is quite apt. But, what about you, Lupita?”

“What about me, Juhatocal?”

“Do you have any chance to practice the religion of our ancestors?”

Lupita flushed and replied, “I salute the sun every morn and pray to the moon goddess in the dark of night. I observe the holy days as much as I can. And I try to sharpen my skills in jai lai as much as I can.”

“You also play? That is wonderful! There is a court not far from here. I was hoping that I could ask you to a game, just like your Ranger with Gan Zhou Bei and the yaks, before you have to leave.”

Lupita smiled. Gods of Heaven, I was hoping you would ask! “I suppose I could be persuaded to a game, before we leave. Under the moonlight, as per our tradition?”

“Under the moonlight, as per our tradition. I would be honored to escort you, Lupita.”

“Very well. Thank you.” She accepted his hand and the strolled out the Tavern, like many of the couples of the village.

Neither of them noticed a tall black shadow following them.

Sisi saw Lupita and her escort slip out of the Tavern, but she heard Elisando’s voice in her head. Tetzlpotl will look after her, Sisi. If there is any trouble, she will raise the alarm.

Thank you, Elisando. I can’t find the heart to deny her a little amusement before our long journey. The thought sobered her; she took another sip of this “Kentucky bourbon” that Link and Samuel enjoyed so much. It was smooth and burned pleasantly on the way down, perhaps she could get used to this! Have you heard anything from the other Rangers back at the Grove.

Drianeh came into the conversation. Perhaps it’s good that you aren’t there to hear more of the strife. DW put his foot down and basically told them all to go to where the Fire’s really hot and broiling.

“DW yelled at them?” Samuel repeated. “He’s the most easygoing young man I know.”

“You would be surprised at how he can be like a mother yak protecting her offspring,” Sisi said. It didn’t surprise her that the other Rangers could hear.

Link’s expression wasn’t happy at all. “It was only a matter of time, before it all fell apart. A divided house cannot stand, after all.”

The Earth and Water Rangers retreated back to the Boojum Valley and the Lake Muluaw, respectively, and the Air Rangers retreated to their Fortress in the Clouds and left the Fire Rangers in the Grove. It seems that your companions have made the Grove their training ground for now, at least until they find a permanent Aerie. Elisando’s voice was carefully neutral, but Sisi knew exactly how he felt about the situation. She thought about Nonnie and Jay Jay and Coren and DW, and all of her Fire Ranger companions; if there was one fault the Fire Rangers possessed, it was that they were so emotional that they allowed it to cloud their judgment.

“Not just the Fire Rangers; the Earth Rangers can be as immovable as the mountains they claim to protect,” Link added. “This schism will play directly into the Rangers of the Void’s hands.”

Freya frowned, her blue eyes blazing with their own cold fire. “Link, we must act quickly, for if the other Rangers refuse to get involved with anything not with their petty feuds, we may be the only ones standing in their way.”

“Agreed. We leave at first light. Elisando, can you relay the message to Lupita? I would hate to leave her behind.”

It would be my pleasure, Link. Sisi, if you could help me…Elisando linked with Sisi, and she followed a plume of warm, cinnamon-tasting light that marked Lupita’s steps. Those steps took her around a lake and to the shadow of an abandoned stone temple. She climbed the granite steps and ended up on a stone overhang that overlooked a huge grassy field, one even larger than the yak-ball arena. The steep stone walls enclosed the rectangular field on all sides, and round, donut-shaped extensions seemed to grow out of them. The holes were large enough to push a ball through…

And two figures in the moonlight dashed around the field, launching themselves off the walls, somersaulting, flipping, blocking each other from throwing the ball through the holes to score goals. Sisi was mesmerized by the sheer speed and agility the players demonstrated; they seemed like they were flying off the walls. While yak-ball used brute strength and strategy, this game depended on quickness, lightness, and the ability to strategize on the fly. Literally.

Lupita flew like a black-haired condor, her slim form dancing off the stones. The man had his own grace too, like a hawk, and he pushed himself off the walls with powerful leg muscles. On another ledge, Tetzlpotl kept close watch over the players. Sisi felt Tetzlpotl’s proprietary pride in her Ranger’s abilities, and she had confidence Lupita would win the tournament.

Tetzlpotl raised her sinewy head and blinked at Sisi with amber-gold eyes. I see that you and Elisando have found us.

We won’t disturb you longer than necessary, Tetzlpotl, Sisi thought, and she and Elisando relayed Link’s message. Tetzlpotl nodded in agreement.

I will tell Lupita when she is not otherwise occupied, the Fire Dragon said. We will be ready at dawn.

Thank you, Tetzlpotl. Sisi turned to leave, but Tetzlpotl interrupted her. This young man…Juahuatcl, he isn’t all he seems. Lupita wishes to find out what is underneath his wishes for a simple game of jai lai. If she wins this game, he will tell her his secret.

Is Lupita in any danger? Elisando asked.

I don’t believe so. Like Gan Zhou Bei, he is all bark and very little bite. Rest assured that if he tries to do anything to Lupita—Tetzlpotl blinked her eyes lazily, and extended her talons—he will answer to me.

Sisi shivered at the quiet menace that Tezlpotl hid under her scales. That menace was raging, like a firestorm, but kept under tight control. Then Sisi remembered what Drianeh had told her: that Tetzlpotl had already lost one Ranger, while going through the Portal, and she wasn’t about to lose another one if she could help it.

I have every confidence that you have control over the situation. Come, Sisi, we need rest, if we’re to travel at first light. You haven’t fully recovered from your own contest with Gan Zhou Bei.

A twinge in her shoulder reminded her of that. Elisando was correct, as always. Before she turned away, Lupita passed beneath the silver moonbeam, and Sisi’s eyes widened in surprise.

Lupita wore nothing. Not even a stitch. And her male companion was the same. The Azteca’s long hair whipped around her like a curtain, but that was all the adornment she had.

Makes sense. Aerodynamics and all that, Elisando said, but his tone was not as offhand as his words.

Sisi blinked again. It was not from embarrassment; a child of the Sian Mountains learned early about the “facts of life” when she shared a tent with other people. She was adept at closing her ears to certain sounds, but that didn’t mean she was completely naive. It was that she was impressed at Lupita’s self-confidence in her own body, and that filled her with awe.

Suddenly, she was glad that neither Samuel or Link was sharing this mental conversation. Although she doubted either man was naive either, she knew enough that not all cultures were quite as accepting as hers or Lupita’s. It was an odd juxtaposition: Link and Samuel always worried about her supposed “female sensibilities”. Now she was worried about their sensibilities.

What they don’t know won’t hurt them, Elisando assured her.

“I won’t tell them,” she said. “They have enough to worry about.”

The Silk Dragon laughed and led her back to the Tavern, and a good night’s sleep.

Posted 249 weeks ago


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