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Coffee and Creativity on Mum's Third Shift

Introduction

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.

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Annie's E-books on Smashwords 

 

 

An Eighth Shot of Espresso

Coffee and Creativity on Mom's Second Shift 

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

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


“Sisi?”

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.

“But—“

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 149 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 149 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.”

“Indeed.”

“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…

“STOP!” 

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 149 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?”

“Churros.”

“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 149 weeks ago

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

Part I  Part II

Elisando and Sisi touched down in the Grove, amid the cheers and whispered concerns of all the other Fire Rangers. Link strode through the crowd, followed by a brown-haired woman in a white uniform and smock. The onlookers parted to allow them through. Link carefully put his hands on Sisi’s shoulders and helped her down on solid ground. Her legs refused to support her, and she collapsed in Link’s embrace in a geyser of tears. Link said nothing, but only held her tighter.


“We thought we’d lost you,” he finally whispered. “Avonlea made it through and she told us what happened…DW and Suuie and the other Fire Rangers tried to look for you and couldn’t find you. We thought you were lost in the Mirror.”

“I…almost was,” Sisi croaked. She looked up to see Nonnie, Lupita, Coren and Jay-Jay, DW and all the other Rangers were gathered around. She cleared her throat and told them what had happened. No one said a word as her voice cracked when she told them about Drianeh, and how Elisando had retrieved her.

“Elisando?” Jay Jay asked. “Where is he?”

“Here,” came the deep bass voice, and Elisando solidified next to him. Jay-Jay yelped and literally jumped back a pace, and his Dragon Google kept him from falling. The other Rangers stared at the crystalline Dragon in pure surprise.

“By Crikey,” DW whispered. “That’s a Silk Dragon you’ve got there, Sisi, a fair dinkum Silk Dragon manifestation of Spirit. Check out those claws! I’d heard of ‘em, but I didn’t knew they actually existed…”

Elisando actually smiled at him. “We only manifest ourselves in times of great need, Dragonlet Whisperer. Usually, we ride on the winds and safeguard all life, without making ourselves known.” He looked up at Link. “We need to gather a Council, Link, of all the Elemental Rangers. What happened to Fire Aerie will happened to the others, if we don’t stop the Dragons of the Void now.”

Link’s face was very grave as he nodded. “I’ll call them immediately, Silk Dragon.”

“Please, call me Elisando. No ceremony among friends, after all.”

Sisi’s whisper was still threadbare. “What about the eggs, Link? Did—“

DW put a hand on her shoulder. “We got ‘em all, safe and sound, all but the ones Drianeh were carrying.” His eyes became sad. “I’m really sorry, Sisi. I saw that Dragon of the Void whiplash his tail and catch Drianeh in the side as you were Transitioning and—“ he shook his head. “Anyway, Avonlea’s with her little ones now. They’re all safe.”

“And with people like the Dragonlet Whisperer, a new generation of Fire Dragons will soon take to the skies again,” said Elisando. His pronouncement stirred a round of applause among the exhausted Fire Rangers.

“Why did the Dragons of the Void strike now?” Nonnie demanded, her eyes filling with tears. “Why destroy Fire Aerie? They’ve been silent for centuries, why now?”

Elisando turned to look at her. “Because they’ve been quietly gathering their power, and now have decided this is their time. My Spirit Brethren have managed to pen them in their own dimension—“

”Until now,” Coren said quietly.

Sisi leaned against Elisando, exhaustion catching up to her in waves. The Silk Dragon wrapped a protective tail around her. “She needs rest and assistance; we must take care of her. She is our only hope.”

The brown-haired woman with the white uniform placed a hand on his tail. “I am a nurse, please let me help her. I cannot help her if you don’t allow me.” Elisando gave the briefest of hesitations, then relaxed his tail. The nurse let Sisi lean on her for support. “There’s a good girl, here, lean on me, we’ll take care of you—“

”I’m Sisi,” Sisi whispered. “Who are you?”

The nurse smiled and said, “I’m Clara, and I’ll make sure you’ll be all right.”
*****

Clara the Nurse put some antiseptic on the scratches on her arms and legs, and she gave Sisi a tonic that helped her sleep. But her dreams were plagued by the memory of Drianeh spinning out into space between Worlds. She was trapped in a dark, windy tunnel with no way out, and evil voices changed, “Open your eyes, Sisi. Open your eyes.”

Then Drianeh came. She soothed the pain and the hurt and said some things that Sisi remembered clearly. Drianeh told her to trust Elisando and her own instincts, to stand against those who would undermine her, and to listen to Link, DW and the others who had her best interest at heart.

“How do I know who has my ‘best interest at heart’,Drianeh?” she asked, frustrated. “Everyone wants to help me, or everyone wants to ignore me. I’m so confused; what do they want? I’m just another Ranger….”

“Not anymore, Sisi. Not ‘just another Ranger’.” Drianeh twitched her jowls as if trying to hold back laughter. “You’re a rarity, Sisi. Not many Rangers are picked by a Silk Spirit Dragon. It means you’re destined for something special.”

“That’s what Link told me, but no one told me that it has to be so lonely, Drianeh.”

Drianeh sighed and wrapped her tail around her. “I know, Little Fire Dragon, I know it hurts. But Elisando is there to help, and I’ll always be with you in spirit. Even when things seems so dark, remember, you have us two.”

“You won’t leave me?”

“Never. Even if my physical form isn’t present. Heh, tell me, what kind of religion were you brought up in, when you were in Churros? Goddess of Perpetual Hope?”

“That was Foster-Mother Tatara’s main goddess, who, by the way, rode on a Wind Dragon through the Heavens.” The memory brought warmth, not the bone-aching desolation of loss. “Foster-Father Meng Pao was brought up in the Laws of Necessity.”

“Yeech.” Drianeh winced. “That’s the one where your worth is measured by the work you do, and how practical you live your life. That’s great if you’re a worker ant, but for a Dreamer, yeech.”

“I used to think their philosophy was as helpful as yak turds on my caribou-skin boots, but I suppose if that’s what you want to do with your life…well, that’s your decision.”

Drianeh gave her a wise look. “When did you start being so wise, little Sisi?”

“About the time you whisked me away to my Passage.” Sisi laid her cheek on Drianeh’s golden-red scales. “I’ve been thinking, trying to put things together. Tell me the Truth, Drianeh?”

“Have I ever lied to you?”

“Am I dead?”

“Why do you ask?”

Sisi expected Drianeh to be defensive, but the Fire Dragon’s tone held only curiosity. “Just listening to Link’s story and DW’s and Nonnie’s and Lupita’s and everyone else’s…their Dragons snatched them up right when they were going to be hurt or to die or crippled or..” Sisi shook her head. “And if we’re here, then do people there believe we aren’t alive anymore? Or do they wonder what happened to us? Or—?”

“Being dead isn’t a bad thing, Sisi,” Drianeh said, the humor returning to her voice. “Besides, I’m still around. Kind of. It’s a metaphysical thing, like the Jedi taught…”

“What’s a Jedi?”

“They were a powerful religious order, in the next universe adjoining ours, they believed in an all-encompassing life field that surrounded all things, and they could tap into it. Guardians of their universe, they were, and there weren’t that bad of fighters, either. They’re like the Rangers, except they didn’t have Dragons or Familiars.”

“What happened to them?”

“They got caught up in their own importance,” Drianeh said sadly, “and they were blind to the evil that finally defeated them. Many of them were exterminated by the evil, and now there are very small remnants of their glory.” The Fire Dragon sighed and placed her head on top of Sisi’s. “I fear for you, Sisi, for you and the other Rangers.”

“Will we—are we going to be like these…Jedi?”

“I sincerely hope not. Sisi, ask Elisando about what’s happening now. He’s older than everyone else; Silk Dragons are the Messengers of the Goddess, and he can tell you the Truth, without trying to deceive you. He can tell you about the Dragons of the Void, and why the Rangers are so divided.”

“An ugly story, I’m sure.”

“Truth is ugly, sometimes. You are no longer the child I brought from Churros, Sisi. You will soon be the greatest of Rangers.”

Sisi shook her head. She didn’t want to be the greatest of Rangers; she wanted her idyllic life at the Fire Aerie, with Drianeh and DW and Nonnie and Lupita and Jay Jay and Coren and Link and her studies and flight lessons and the baths in the hot springs and her room and late nights gossiping with Nonnie and Lupita and…

Silly girl. It’s time to grow up now. The caribou doesn’t stay spindly-legged for long, and the yak’s mane renews itself each winter. You need a healthy dose of the Laws of Necessity.

Drianeh placed a long talon on her cheek. “Don’t lose that ability to Dream, Sisi, or you will be as dark as the Rangers of the Void. Don’t do that.”

“I’m scared, Drianeh.”

“I know. It’s all right to be scared, but trust me, and trust Elisando and your friends. Listen to your instincts, and it will be all right. You’ll see.”

Sisi allowed her hand to rest on Drianeh’s flank for a moment. Then she felt wakefulness tug at her eyelids. When she opened her eyes, she was back in the bed of feathers and leaves that Clara had put her in the night before.

Clara sat by her bedside. “How are you feeling, Sisi?”

She smiled. “Better, Clara. I saw Drianeh and we talked a long time.”

“Oh, good. I thought a little talk-to would ease your heart.” Clara shook her head and the auburn-blonde curls tumbled over her shoulders. “Sometimes the best medicine doesn’t come in a potion, or in frozen yak pops.”

Sisi stared at her for a minute. “You know about frozen yak pops!”

“Indeed. I’ve made them before. A Water Ranger showed me how to do it; she said she came from a village named Bhusartu or something like that—“

”I know where that is! That’s in the next valley from where I used to live!” Sisi leaned forward eagerly. “Who is she? Is she here?”

Clara shook her head. “Unfortunately, no. She was flying her Dragon through a valley and ran smack into a horde of Dragons from the Void. That happened a long time ago, before you came. You know, I always thought her people were the bravest, most resourceful ones, just by knowing her. You’ve got that same kind of quality.”

“Oh.” Sisi looked down at her hands, then remembered what Drianeh had said. “Where is Elisando? I need to talk with him.”

Clara glanced over her shoulder. “Don’t just stand there, Elisando. She’s awake, and she needs your sage advice. I think Sisi deserves the Truth. Don’t you?”

“Indeed. I think she’s ready to receive it. Drianeh didn’t err in picking her; I’m glad to be able to tell her the Truth.” Elisando slithered to Sisi’s bedside as a faint outline; by the time he arrived, his features were completely present. He smiled at her and bowed his crystalline head. “Fair the day, Sisi.”

“Fair the day, Elisando,” she replied, pleased that he knew the greeting.

“Clara, will you allow her to walk the Grove? I think the exercise will do her good.”
Clara gave Elisando one of those looks and answered, “Just don’t overwork her. She’s been through a lot, and I don’t want her so tired that she’ll fall on her nose just from breathing too hard.”

He laughed and ruffled Sisi’s hair. “I’ll carry her, if her legs get too tired. Don’t worry, Clara, I won’t have you and all the Rangers after me. Thaddeus’s been reminding me just how long it’s been since I’ve Manifested, and he’ll ‘skin my nonexistent hide’ if I harm Sisi in any way.”

Clara gave them a look of satisfaction. “It’s good to have those kind of friends, Sisi. Link can be positively vicious if he thinks one of his friends has been deliberately hurt.”

“Link?” Sisi repeated. Link didn’t strike her as overly violent. Then again, she hadn’t known DW was such a fierce warrior, either, until she actually saw him fight the Dragons of the Void.

“Link was a leader of his people during a horrible war,” Elisando explained, as he slithered out of the tent with Sisi at his side. “He’s had to make some really difficult decisions for the good of all. I think that’s why they picked him to be the Ranger of Justice and settle the disagreements between the Elemental Rangers. Which, by the way, I think is a very good place to start.”

They found a shaded spot near a flowing spring with cool water, not heated water like the ones at the former Fire Aerie. Elisando curled his huge body in the shadow of a tall tree, and Sisi lay against his side flank, much as she had done with Drianeh, and Elisando curled his tail protectively around her. Then Elisando began to tell his tale.

“You know the Elemental Rangers are divided into Fire, Air, Water and Earth. Just like in nature, some of them get along better than each other, and some don’t get along at all. I’m sure you saw that during your training.”

She nodded. “Fire and Air tend to be friends, and Water and Earth, but Fire and Water just…really dislike each other.”

“Just like nature. The Dragons and Familiars tend to pick Rangers with the same kind of qualities. When all the Elementals get together, the result can be…explosive. Of course, they have their own interests and friends to protect, and when you have so many opposing views…well, that’s why we have Rangers like Link who can hear everyone out and make decisions based on practicality, not necessarily emotion.” Elisando shifted uneasily. “Now, here’s what the other Elementals don’t usually tell their younger members: there is actually a Fifth Element, the Element of the Spirit, and we Silk Dragons choose our Rangers from the other Four. It’s still relatively rare, though, and only in times of great need.”

“And that great need is…the Dragons of the Void?”

Elisando nodded. “Remember that every element has its opposite. The Spirit Dragons represent warmth and light and freedom. Our opposite is—“

”The Void. All dark and stuffy and—“Sisi’s voice faded to a whisper and she shuddered visibly. Elisando’s tail tightened around her.

“Yes. For years, the Spirit Dragons have kept the ones of the Void in check, but now they’ve reorganized themselves into a formidable force, and have been targeting Spirit Dragons for centuries. Now there aren’t enough of us to fight, and fewer and fewer Spirit Dragons lay eggs. The eggs are kept secret and safe from others.”

Another piece of the puzzle clicked into place. “That’s why DW was determined to go back and protect the eggs, even if it meant being blown up with the rest of the Aerie! Those eggs come from—“

”Spirit Dragons. Yes, the Dragonlet Whisperer knows our secret, and has pledged himself to helping us survive. As far as the other Rangers know, those were ‘motherless eggs’ of past Dragons who were killed in action or accident. The Dragonlet Whisperer has kept our secret, and the Goddess bless him, is willing to risk even his existence to protect us.”

For some reason, the last sentence sounded odd to Sisi. “Risk his ‘existence’? You mean his life, don’t you?”

“Well…” Elisando hesitated, as if trying to find a way to phrase his answer. “Drianeh told me about your observations about just how the Dragons know when to pick their Rangers. Which, by the way, is very observant. You asked how it seems that we come just in time to save our Rangers from trouble in their world. Well, in reality, we bend time and space, so that we capture their existence, their ‘essences’, if you will, and take them with us. As a result, they live on, in a fashion, in our universe. Of course, they can easily die here as well.”

Sisi thought about his words in silence for a long time. “So, Drianeh captured my ‘essence’, the one that said ‘Sisi’. Which means that in my world…I no longer exist, don’t I?”

Elisando bowed his head. “As far as your universe is concerned, you disappeared after the rockslide, but your disappearance saved your village. They hail you as a heroine, and sing tales of your deal with the Gods themselves to spare those you love.”

She swallowed a hard lump in her throat. “And Foster-Mother Tatara and Foster-Father Meng Pao? They—“

”They still live, and grieve, but still remember the foster daughter who saved their village.”

Tears slid down Sisi’s face. “I can never go back, then?”

“No. Once you go through the Passage, you enter our world, and here you stay.”

Grief rocked her, but not as violently as she had expected, and Elisando held her as she wailed into his flank. The wailing was traditional among her people, to mourn the end of a life, but also to celebrated a new life. When she had finished, she felt so much better.

“Most Rangers go through this grief, Sisi, once the Truth is revealed to them. It takes time, but they do adjust to life here.”

Sisi wiped her nose with her sleeve. Then she thought about the other Rangers she had met. “Was that the same for—?”

“Some of them were mortally wounded in their world. Link, DW, Nonnie and Lupita were all snatched the brink of Death. Others were already trapped between our world and theirs, like Coren, Jay Jay and Clara. Their Dragons saved them from pain and gave their essences a new purpose in the universe: to protect and to serve.”

Sisi nodded; now that Elisando had explained the concept, some of the Rangers’ odd comments about themselves made sense. Nonnie and parasailing, Lupita and the Azteca sacrifice…she didn’t know the details of DW’s and Link’s and Clara’s, but assumed their situations had been similar. As for Coren and Jay-Jay, Jay-Jay had joked about “golf and lightning storms”, and Coren had mentioned something about being in some kind of “pit crew” during a contest. (“Similar to your yak-racing,” he had told her, “but a lot faster and a lot more dangerous.”)

“So…we have to get rid of the Dragons of the Void.”

“Not ‘get rid’, Sisi. The Spirit Dragons need the Shadow to survive, just like fire and water, earth and air. But we need to contain them, we need to find out just who—or what—is behind their growing power, and neutralize them. That is why the Elemental Rangers have come together to meet and that is why—“ Elisando raised his head with an expression of faint disgust, “—they are arguing needlessly now.”

“They are? I don’t hear them—wait.” Sisi closed her eyes and relied on her instincts, and there it was, an echo of anger and strife, resounding through the Grove. She Heard the conflict, and when she opened her eyes, she Saw the waves of discord rippling through the Grove, stunting the grasses and the plants, disturbing the calm waters.

“You Hear and See it too. Sometimes I would like to box these so-called ‘Elemental Leaders’ between their ordinary ears, and make them see reason,” Elisando said. He was as angry as Sisi had ever sensed him, but she also knew that as much as he wanted to box them between their auditory appendages, Elisando could not.

She imagined the argument affecting the Spirit Dragon eggs in this calm Grove, and felt a rising anger within her. That anger solidified into an eerie calm that told her that she must resolve the fight.

“You may not be able to rattle their brains within their heads, but I can,” she said, “and I will!” She got up from next to Elisando. “Where are they?”

“I’ll take you to them.” Elisando slithered by her side with nervous pride, but Sisi’s steps were strong and sure, and he stifled a chuckle at the reaction of the Elemental Leaders when this whirlwind would come among them!
*****

The Council Garden was in the center of the Grove, and the Elemental Leaders were in a heated debate. They sat in a square, each side represented an Element. The Air Rangers sat in the east side, the Fire Rangers in the South, Earth Rangers in the West, and Water Rangers in the North. The center was empty. Sisi recognized Link sitting with the Earth Rangers, and Nonnie, Jay Jay and Lupita with the Fire. Sisi didn’t interfere at first, but only stood outside the square and listened to the gist of the arguments.

“We cannot allow one set of Rangers to go on a so-called ‘search and destroy’ mission,” the Air Leader said. She stood proud and tall, a heavyset woman with blonde hair braided into two thick cables on her shoulders. She wore a silver breastplate and girdle, and a strange horned helmet on her head.

“Freya, no one is going by themselves,” Link pointed out with ultimate patience. “The Fire Rangers Aerie has been destroyed, and emotions run high. Now, this challenge by the Rangers of the Void…the question of whether we respond has answered itself. We should consider every possibility before we go off chasing our own tails.

“I agree,” rumbled a short, squat man with a shaggy beard. “The Earth Rangers Boojum Valley was also attacked, but we repelled them. I suggest we reinforce the remaining Ranger posts.”

“Where does this put the Fire Rangers?” Nonnie asked. “We have no home.”

“Y’all welcome to stay in the Grove as long as you need to,” DW said. “We’ve got magical protections, but any reinforcement’s welcome. By the by, the eggs are doing wonderfully, but I’m concerned about their gestation. We’d better make a plan soon, or we’ll be distressin’ the little buggers so much, they’ll never hatch.”

The Water Ranger Leader gave DW a glance. “The Dragons are important, but what about the Rangers of the Void? Their challenge is like a game, and we shouldn’t stoop down to their level!”

“I told you we should’ve gathered up our forces and hit them hard,” muttered Airuen.

The Fire Ranger Leader rolled his eyes. “They understand force, Bhuri.”

Bhuri wrapped her azure-blue stole over her shoulders. “Then we become them, which is their goal in the first place.”

Airuen scowled and shot back. “This is no time to discuss pacifist philosophy!”

“The Water Rangers are not necessarily just pacifists, but we do not jump into situations in which we know nothing about!”

Freya shook her head. “This is not about the feud between the Fire and Water Rangers, so both of you, stop it!”

“Who made you the Head Ranger?” Airuen and Bhuri chorused.

Again, the meeting degenerated into chaos, with all sides yelling at each other. DW shook his head in disgust, and headed off towards the new Egg Nursery in the far end of the Grove. No one noticed his departure, except for Link and Sisi. Link looked strained, and he unfolded his long, lanky frame out of its crouch and walked off in the opposite direction. Sisi followed Link, and Elisando drifted behind.

“I thought I felt you, Sisi,” Link said as he turned around. His dark eyes were dull with worry and effort. “As you can see, the Elemental Rangers aren’t as united as we seem. The Fire and Water Rangers constantly bicker because they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Air Rangers and Earth Rangers refuse to budge from their own positions. As a result, we are paralyzed.” He managed a weak smile. “It all reminds me of my own Cabinet meetings.”

“Can’t you just…make them get along?”

Link sighed and shook his head. “It’s not that easy. We can’t afford to lose any of the Rangers, and any show of force could make any of them withdraw. I’ve made compromises before, but they’re all scared now, and they don’t want to seem weak in front of the others.”

Sisi felt his frustration. “Two yaks meet on the same territory, and they fight to have control of it. It is a natural thing, but then the first yak’s family get into the fight, and the second yak’s family brings in the cousins, and it becomes a war.”
“Exactly.”

“Link, what is this ‘challenge’ they’re talking about? Have the Rangers of the Void said something?”

Link sighed and drew out a palm-sized box of polished black wood. He slid the top open, and a wisp of smoke escaped into the air. It reformed into a tablet of transparent mist, with green lettering written upon it. A bright, jaunty tune started to play and Sisi read the words in time to the beat:

“To play this game, you have to find three…”

“Keys,” Link said.

She raised her eyebrows. “Keys?”
“Yes, Keys. One, two, three.”

“And you put it in this box, and sit down in the Throne of Thinking, and Think…Think… Think. You have to use your mind, take it a step at a time, and then you can ask anything…that you want to ask.” Sisi wrinkled her nose. “This is like the game of “Hide and Spy, where you hide clues and put together a puzzle! Then you find the answer to the question!”

“Yes, exactly that. It’s like a child’s game.”

Elisando rumbled; both Sisi and Link jumped, since both of them had forgotten that he was there. “It sounds simple enough, Link. So why are the Rangers fighting? It makes sense to put together a group to find these keys and take to wherever this ‘Throne of Thinking’ and then find the answers.”

Link blew out another frustrated breath. “That’s the only thing that they’ve agreed on. Now the problem is the make-up of the group. No one wants a single group of Rangers to dominate the group; I’ve suggested that we draw lots, or we have an equal representation…then the issue becomes who will go. So they continue to talk…and the Rangers of the Void continue their campaign.”

Elisando growled and threw his head into the air. “The Void thrives on anger and chaos. All they are doing is providing more fuel to the fire, so to speak! This must end!”

“Let me talk,” Sisi said. “I want to say something.”

Link smiled and said, “All right, Brave Sisi. I will be here by your side.”

“And me,” said Elisando.

And me, broke in an unexpected voice.

Sisi smiled at Drianeh’s mind-voice. Link’s face reflected utter shock and surprise, while Elisando had a smug expression. “I thought you were—brave lady, forgive my bad manners, but I didn’t know you were in the conversation.”

No offense taken, Link. I may be gone, but I’m not out.

Thus fortified, Sisi and Link returned to the Council Clearing. Thaddeus, Link’s brown-gold Earth Dragon, joined them, and Link gave his companion a gentle pat. The Rangers still argued; none of them had even realized Link’s departure. Elisando, again invisible, fought his way to the center of the clearing, then solidified all at once, in his crystalline glory. He raised his head to the sky and roared so loud that the mangroves shook in reaction. The Rangers broke off their arguments and were finally silent.

“Ranger Sisi would like to speak,” Elisando said in his bass voice, “and no one can hear her with all of you screaming like banshees! You should feel shame, for you are not Rangers; you are chattering geese!”

The silence was so thick that Sisi waded through it. She felt the antagonism, the jealousy, and the anger like it was a thick syrup of chaochaou. Her knees shook so hard that she thought she would fall, but she felt Drianeh’s support, and Elisando’s and Thaddeus’s. To her surprise, a clutch of dragons slithered in and took up positions around the Square: SurferDude and Tetzlpotl, Google, and Dante, Suuie and so many others whose names she didn’t know. No one could raise a hand against Sisi now, not with a wall of Dragons from all Elements: fire, air, water, earth and spirit. The Dragons were united even as their Rangers were not, and the humans were shocked and ashamed of their conduct.

Sisi took a deep breath, then another. She raised the message box in her hand and allowed the Challenge to sing itself again. Then she said, “You all heard this. I will go in search of the Keys, with my Silk Dragon of Spirit, Elisando.”

“And I will go with her,” Link added. “I, and my Earth Dragon, Thaddeus.”

“And I,” said Lupita, “with my Fire Dragon, Tetzlpotl.” The Azteca princess rose gracefully from her seat on the Square to stand next to Sisi.

“And I,” said Freya, “with my Air Dragon, Asoraguard.” She rose and joined the group. Freya was much taller than everyone, even topping Link by several inches.

“And I,” said a Water Ranger that Sisi didn’t know. The man rose proudly to his feet. He was dressed in white, with snow-white hair and beard, and a double-breasted coat. His eyes sparkled with humor. Link inclined his head.

“Hello, Samuel. I thought you’d want to go on this grand adventure.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Abraham,” Samuel said. To Sisi’s surprise, he said Link’s first name with little trouble. “It would make a great story. Oh, and let me introduce myself to you, Sisi. My name is Samuel, and here’s my Dragon, Twain. C’mon, Twain, don’t be shy. Show yourself to the little lady.”

A blue-green dragon crept next to Samuel. Twain, unlike the other Water Dragons, shimmered like a dragon-shaped pool of clear blue water, as if he was made of the ocean and pressed into saurian form. He reminded Sisi a lot of Elisando when Elisando was in Spirit Form.

Sisi saw Nonnie, Jay Jay and Coren’s mouth’s drop open at the sight of Samuel, as if they knew him, and his appearance was a complete shock. She couldn’t help but chuckle at their dumbfounded expressions.

“Five Elements, Five Rangers,” said Bhuri. The Water Leader said. “The Fellowship of the Five. May you find the objects of your quest, and solve the riddle of the Rangers of the Void—“

A faint sing-song interrupted her; too soft to determine the words, but too loud to ignore. Everyone looked around to find the source, but Sisi realized the source was her. Well, on her clothing. With her free hand, she pulled out the scroll box from her pocket and flipped open the latch. A scroll leaped out of the box and began to dance in front of her, singing as it bounced from Ranger to Ranger:

“I’M THE MAP, I’M THE MAP, I’M THE MAP, I’M THE MAP, I’M THE MAP!!”

Utter silence. Then Samuel said it for all of them.

“Well, I suppose we won’t get lost on the way.”
*****

The Fellowship of Five: Sisi, Link, Lupita, Freya and Samuel. It sounded so, well, official, like the Goddesses of Universal Fate. Sisi liked the ring of it, but as Link reminded them, a name was just like any other name.

“Just means we have a lot to live up to,” observed Freya.

Sisi unrolled the map with the annoying song. It was made of yak hide, scraped clean and tanned to prevent decay. Lupita frowned as the map began to hum. “Does it always do that?” she asked.

“Only when it thinks it has something important,” Sisi said dryly. “It’s been quiet for a long time, until now. We might as well see what it has to say.”

“I know how to get to the Keys,” it said brightly. “Tell the Five that you have to pass through the Spooky Forest Castle, the Mighty River, and Cloud of Sorrow. Castle, River, Lake. Repeat after me: Castle, River, Lake.”

“Castle, River, Lake,” they intoned.

“Good, and that’s how you get to the Keys.” The Map’s compass seemed to wink at them, then became silent. They pored over the map for a long while. Sisi traced the mystical path with her finger, outlined in gold.

“Shall we split up into pairs, or should we stay together?” Lupita asked.

“Pairs would be faster,” said Freya.

“But we’d be more vulnerable if we’re separated,” Link pointed out.

Sisi nodded. “Back home, several hunting parties went out at once, so if one group found nothing, the other groups might be successful, and the village didn’t starve.”

“Girl’s got a point,” said Samuel. “I say we split up. Five of us, and three keys. I’ll volunteer to go to the River; spent a lot of my life up and down the Mississippi—that’s a big river where I’m from.”

Link nodded. “Yes, I’m familiar with the Mississippi.”

“All right then, Link and Samuel goes to the Mighty River. I will go to the Cloud of Sorrow,” Freya said. “Clouds are Air, and that is my source of power.”

“I go with Sisi to the Spooky Forest,” said Lupita.

“Is it agreed, then?” Sisi asked, and there were nods all around. We travel together to the Split-Off point, then go our separate ways. So, that was a lot easier, just the five of us, than the whole Council.”

Freya laughed, a deep, throaty purr that reminded Sisi of a big cat. “The Council is full of ego. Here, we only have to deal with five, as opposed to twenty-four or more.” She saluted Sisi. “Among my people, we warriors must prepare for a long journey, so I must do so. I will be ready at the morning light.”

“Be well, brave warrior,” Link said. “We will see you then.”

Freya nodded and strode off, Aseogard right behind her. Sisi watched her go. “She reminds me of the hunters of my people,” she said.

“Mine too,” Lupita agreed. “I think it is good that we have her in our party.”

Link chuckled. “Freya has a kind heart under that bravado. Well, I propose we have a meal and rest for the journey ahead.”

“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day, Abraham,” said Samuel, “and we can tell tales around the campfire. I’ve got one or two I can share.”

In fact, the other Rangers threw the Fellowship of Five a farewell party. All were in attendance, except Freya, who was in her warrior seclusion. Sisi leaned against Elisando’s flank as she listened to Samuel spin his tale. All the Rangers were in rapt attention; Samuel was a wonderful storyteller who wove a spell over them all.
“He’s just like a shaman,” Sisi whispered, her voice hushed with wonder.

“I suppose he’d be considered one of those, had he lived in a different time,” Elisando agreed. “Samuel writes awesome stories, some in his mind, and some based on his youth. He used to live on a river—“

”The one with the long name, isn’t it.”

“The Mississippi. In fact, Link’s hometown isn’t that far up the river from where Samuel’s was, but Link’s a bit older.” Elisando chuckled. “I suppose you could call them contemporaries, in a way.”

Sisi sighed. “I should be used to journeying; after all, I traveled to and from my Foster-Mother’s and Foster-Father’s villages. But this is different.”

“It’s not a pleasure trip, Sisi, and it’s very important. But remember, Lupita and Tetzlpotl will be with you, and so will I. And so will Drianeh. So in reality, there will be a little group of five going to this Spooky Forest. Makes it sound less spooky, doesn’t it?”

She smiled and pressed her cheek against his crystalline-scaled skin. “Yes, I suppose it does. You know, I’ve known Link and Lupita, and Nonnie and Jay Jay and Coren and DW, but I don’t really know who they are. Am I making sense?”

“You do indeed. Well, every Ranger has his or her own history and his or her own secrets. It’s an unspoken policy never to pry to anyone’s personal business, unless it affects the Rangers as a whole. And that goes for everyone, Fire, Water, Air, Earth and Spirit. We choose what to reveal to others. You can ask Samuel, or Link, or Lupita, or any of the others about their personal stories, but they will reveal only as much as they desire.”

“No wonder the Elemental Rangers seem to fight all the time.”

Elisando raised his transparent eyebrows and his jowls quivered. “Very astute, Sisi. Perhaps in time, we can change that attitude.” He inclined his head to Samuel, whose voice rose and fell in time with his story. “Samuel, well, he’s an open book, if you excuse the expression. He’s very congenial, and I’m sure if you ask him, he’d satisfy your curiosity.”

“I might do that.”
*****

Long after the other Rangers went to their beds, Sisi lay awake, her arms behind her head, looking up at the stars. The patterns were different here, in this universe, and she imagined all kinds of pictures. There was a furry yak with a water yoke on its shoulders, a hooved cow wearing a bell, and a firefly with gossamer-like wings…she sighed and tried to make her mind blank.

“Having some troubles with getting some shut-eye, Sisi?”

She sat up at Samuel’s voice. He lay close-by, his arms around his head in a mirror image of Sisi, but he turned his face towards her. She tried to smile and only nodded instead.

“Let me tell you a story. There was once a little mouse who lived in a huge field of wheat with her mother, father, brothers, sisters and cousins. They were all fat and content, and never needed to change their lives. The little mouse was restless and knew there was a world beyond the field, but she wanted to be safe.

“Then one day, a huge wind blew through the field and ripped the stalks of grain from their roots. The little mouse happened to be caught in the storm, and a gust picked her up and left her in a field of grass. She was scared because she was in a new place, and she didn’t know what to do, where to go, whom to trust. Another mouse found her cowering under a pile of leaves, terrified and hungry.

“‘Why are you hiding?’ asked the grass mouse.

“‘Because the wind blew me here and this place is strange,’ she replied.

“‘Let me help you. Things are probably different here than where you’re from, but friends are here to help.’ And he did. He introduced her to his extensive family. She learned to eat nuts and catch crickets and small rodents. Soon, she grew to embrace and enjoy her new life.

“‘Not long after this, a messenger mouse arrived at their field. A cat had begun stalking the mice in the surrounding fields, and hurting and killing many mice. One group of mice were determined to stop the cat, even though it meant leaving the field, and it would probably take a long time. The little mouse and her friend knew they would join the defenders, and they did. It was a hard journey and a spiritual one as well.”

Sisi blinked as he paused, as if gathering his thoughts. “Did they defeat the cat?”

“I don’t know. The story is not yet unfolded, and as such, is not written yet. What do you think will happen?”

“The mice find the cat and get him to stop being so mean. The little field mouse eventually returns to her home field and finds everything changed. At the end, she decides to make both fields her home.”

“The best of both worlds, and a part of both.”

Sisi remembered how she yearned to be part of Churro and part of…somewhere else. Well, she had it now, in spades. She was a Fire Ranger, a Spirit Ranger, and she was Sisi. She was still herself, the village girl who surveyed the Sian Mountains with a map, but she was also changed, permanently and irrevocably.

She looked at Samuel, who gazed at her with a definite twinkle in his eye. He is a shaman. How did he know what troubled my soul, and how to cure it?

“Thank you, Samuel.”

He grinned. “You’re welcome. Good night, Sisi. Pleasant dreams.”

She closed her eyes and said, “They will be, Samuel. They will be now.”

Posted 149 weeks ago

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

Part I is here

The next several weeks were busy, so busy that Sisi hardly was aware of the time flying by. Classes about Ranger history and politics, diplomacy and basic skills, such as reading, writing, doing math. Another one that everyone dubbed “The McGyver Course”, where you were given, say, a stick of dynamite, duck tape (Sisi discovered this invention, and agreed that the Goddess herself must have had a McGyver Moment), a pin and a rubber band, and you were supposed to make some kind of apparatus to heat water without blowing yourself up. Sisi rapidly lost her inhibitions and dreamed up all kinds of crazy things; she and Jay Jay had a friendly rivalry of whose inventions were the most outlandish and still functional.


And there were the flying lessons. Drianeh and she had to learn how to work as a team. Sisi flew, exhilirated, as she guided Drianeh through the clouds. Her fear of falling still nagged at her, but she shoved it into one corner of her brain and ignored it. Her Dragon would not let her fall, and Drianeh did not. More complicated was the group maneuvers, with more than one rider and Dragon. Her leader, Kilbane and his Dragon Braveheart, drilled his flight group mercilessly. Like all the other Fire Rangers, Kilbane was a hearty, LOUD man with a heavy brogue, but he expected perfection from his Rangers. Sisi understood the penalties of poor judgment and timing; despite their bravado, Fire Rangers had a casualty rate double that of the other Elemental Rangers.

Time ran differently here, at Fire Aerie, so Sisi dated her calendar based on her arrival, and the day she met Link and the others. She celebrated all the Dragon Days and Festivals she would have done, had she still lived in Churros. The memories gave her a sense of wistful loss (how old was Foster-Mother Tatara and Foster-Father Meng Pao? Did they ever recover from her disappearance? Was the yukka as successful as Meng Pao dreamed?) But they also gave her comfort. On the saddest days, Drianeh comforted her, and Nonnie, Jay-Jay, Coren and Lupita tried to cheer her up.

Link appeared now and then, but his duties kept him away from the Fire Aerie for long stretches of time. His home base was Boojum Valley, home of the Earth Rangers, and Thaddeus’s mate and dragonlets lived there. The possibility of Drianeh ever having her own family thrilled Sisi to no end, but Drianeh wanted no part of any matchmaking.

“When I find the right Dragon, I will know,” she kept repeating. “Till then, I am content to be at your side, Sisi.”

“But you said you’ve been hatched-what?- four times? Haven’t you already had a family?”

At that Drianeh laughed and shook her massive head. The horns on her forehead and spine glistened like the sun, and her reddish-gold scales gleamed in the light. She rolled onto her back and spread her wings out, like a sunbather catching some rays. Sisi curled up next to her under one of her forearms, being careful of the razor-sharp talons. The tufts of scarlet fur jiggled as Drianeh laughed again.

“Age for us is not like for you,” she reminded Sisi. “Some of us go through nine, ten, hatchings before we settle down. Thaddeus is young, compared to most of us, since he doesn’t go through multiple hatchings. So he found a nice, stable Earth Dragon and has three generations of dragonlets. Link told me the other day that his eldest just finished training and is now a genuine Earth Elemental Dragon.”

Sisi smiled at the thought. As she had discovered earlier, not all Dragons had Riders, and conversely, not all Rangers had Dragons. Drianeh’s brother and sister (whom Sisi had seen with Drianeh the day they saved Churro from the rockslide) were unpartnered and preferred to stay that way. Unpartnered Dragons were the explorers, the ones who founded new Aeries, and the ones who kept communications with the other Elementals. Some Rangers also stayed at the Aerie to teach; others partnered with other Elemental Familiars, such as FireCats, Hawks and Hounds.

“How were you when you were a dragonlet, Drianeh?”

“Oh, I was a mischievious little thing,” she answered happily. “I found the stores of lava rock under the Aerie and a few of us munched away till our tummies hurt. Google—that’s Jay Jay’s Dragon—is amazing at finding the most obscure things, and we spent a lot of time tracking them down, just to see if they were real. Google and Tetzlpotl are also my nest-mates…um…cousins, about as close as kin like your brother or sister. Ah, those were wonderful times. Tetzlpotl actually had a Ranger before Lupita, but that Ranger got stuck in the Mirror.”

“The Mirror? What’s the Mirror?”

Drianeh faced Sisi, and the Dragon’s face became sober. “Remember when I told you to close your eyes as we went through to the Passage, after I picked you up from Churro? That’s the Mirror. See, Tetzpotl’s first Ranger didn’t listen to the warning and went through the Mirror with her eyes open. Got stuck there between her world and ours. Not a pretty thing.”

Sisi swallowed hard. “Is she…dead?”

“If she isn’t by now—this is centuries ago, mind you—then she’s in madness, not knowing what’s real and what isn’t.” Drianeh shivered a little, although the weather was still warm. “Like I said, not a pretty thing. It seems like a minor request at the time, but it’s important. Tetzlpotl saw her close her eyes, so she went on through, and the poor girl opened her eyes before they reached safety.”

“How often does it happen?”

“More often than we care to admit. More often than anyone will tell you, that’s for sure, but the majority of the current Rangers did what they were told, and so are here.” Drianeh shook herself and the curtain of gloom disappeared from them. “Come on, Sisi, let’s think of other things. How about a little trip to the Practice Area for some barrel rolls and loops?”

Sisi jumped up and clambered onto Drianeh’s back. They waddled to the Runway, where they lined up for takeoff. The Signaler gave them the all-clear, and after a running start, they launched themselves into the air.

The Practice Area was a wide expanse of air reserved for maneuvers. Many Rangers came here to work with the Dragons. Sisi waved at her classmates as she and Drianeh jumped obstacles, flew through suspended tunnels, and popped balloons. Sisi closed her eyes and concentrated like her teachers had showed her and Saw the obstacles, the unexpected tunnel bends, and the lead trick balloons before they surprised her.

“Hullo, Sisi,” came a voice. “How are ya?”

Sisi turned to see a middle-aged man on a Dragon, brown-haired and boyish, wearing odd brown-colored clothes and a wide-brimmed hat. She had never seen him before, but the charm put her at ease right away.

“Hello,” she replied.

“Sisi, this is the Dragonlet Whisperer,” Drianeh said. “He’s amazing with all kinds of Dragons, and other kinds of Familiars. He’s in charge of the Aerie’s Zoo. DW, I thought you weren’t partnered with a Dragon. Did something happen?”

“Aw, no, just borrowing this gorgeous girl for a little spin, Drianeh,” the Dragonlet Whisperer said. “Just wanted to let you know that Avonlea’s little ones are due to hatch any moment now. Would you and your Ranger like to see the tykes?”

“Avonlea is another one of my nest-mates,” Drianeh explained, “and she laid a clutch of eggs not too long ago.”

“Can we see them?” Sisi asked eagerly.

“‘Course you can! Oh, and you can just call me DW, like everyone else. The one who stuck me with Dragonlet Whisperer had no idea what kinda mouthful it turned out to be.” DW grinned again. “Come on, and I’ll show ya round the Zoo. All right, Suuie, let’s go, girl.”

Drianeh followed Suuie to the Zoo, which was located near the mineral springs on the southern side of the Aerie. It was a little Paradise, with plenty of water, trees and grass, and Sisi was amazed at the Familiars who roamed free on its grounds. As soon as they landed, a FireKitten half-meowed, half-roared a greeting, and jumped into DW’s arms. He laughed and ruffled the Kitten’s fur fondly.

“Sisi, this is Wanda. She lost her mum in an accident in the North Spring, an’ we’ve been taking good care of her ever since. She’s kinda our mascot here. Wanna pet her?”
Cautiously, Sisi reached out and stroked Wanda’s soft fur. Wanda purred just like a normal kitten, and wriggled in DW’s arms until she exposed her tummy. Wanda opened her mouth…and startled Sisi with the sight of her four-inch incisors.

“Eh, she’s just little girl. Gonna grow into those chompers. Never stick your fingers into her mouth; she’ll think you don’t need ‘em and use ‘em as a tasty snack.” DW gave her tummy a pat, then put her down. Wanda purred a farewell and slunk into the bushes.

“‘Kay, the nursery’s over there. Careful where you step. Dragonlets can get pretty naughty, and they’re certified anklebiters.”

DW hadn’t been kidding; Sisi felt little sharp beaks nip at her ankles as they walked through the Nursery. The dimly lit cave was extremely warm, and she wiped sweat from her forehead. Even Drianeh seemed a bit uncomfortable, but DW strode forward like he knew exactly where everything was, and the heat didn’t bother him a bit.

They emerged into a huge cavern, where Avonlea lay with her clutch of eggs. Avonlea’s head darted up at their approach and she hissed in warning. DW stopped and raised his hands.

“You’re all right, Avonlea. You’re all right, girl, we’re not gonna harm ya. You remember Drianeh, don’t ya?”

Avonlea bobbed her head. “Hello, nest-mate. It’s been a little while, hasn’t it? I see you have a Ranger, that’s wonderful!”

“I’m Sisi,” Sisi said. “DW said your eggs are going to hatch soon. May we watch?”

“I could use the company. Drianeh, lay here next to me and tell me how you are. We must catch up. Doing egg-watch can get rather lonely at times. Sisi, DW, you can sit there. Don’t get too close.”

“Always listen to the lady,” DW advised Sisi. “She’s got those maternal instincts. Nearly took my head off when we were making her little nest. I swear, I thought I was gonna be Dragon eats in sixty seconds.” He laughed and sat far enough away from Avonlea, but near enough to see the clutch of eggs. Sisi sat next to him and yes, she could see the clutch of eggs, nine or ten of them, large enough to make omlettes for the entire Ranger Corps.

DW kept her entertained with stories about the Zoo and its denizens. Sisi heard the genuine affection for the Familiars in his voice, and the enthusiasm. She said that his job sounded like a lot of fun.

“Yeah, it’s also a lot of work, though. Takes a lot of hard work, dedication and skill. The main Zoo is here at Fire Aerie, but each of the Elementals have their own sanctuary. Earth’s got all the burrowers, Air’s got anything with wings that isn’t a Dragon, Water’s got the ocean creatures and everything that swims. I don’t mind the Water one; I love to swim, but there are times when I get kinda nervy, but I get through it.”

“Was that your Passage, DW?”

“Yeah, but like I said, I got through it. I’m okay now.” DW shrugged and changed the subject. “I wonder when the Dragonlets are gonna come out. They’ve got to be positively broiling by now—“

A slight tremor shook the cave, sending a shower of earth on them. Sisi blinked and brushed tiny stones out of her hair. DW glanced up at the ceiling with a frown. “That was odd. You feel that, Sisi?”

“I did. What was that?”

Avonlea hissed and curled her tail around her clutch of eggs. “Something’s not right, DW. The Dragonlets are too scared to come out. Something is going to happen.”

Drianeh’s head bobbed around for a moment, then she said, “I feel it too. We must get the Nursery to safety.”

Avonlea shook her head. “I can’t leave my Dragonlets.”

“But we can’t stay here, either.” DW frowned again, closed his eyes and concentrated. A minute later, the air stirred as a group of mid-sized dragons appeared at the mouth of the cave. “We need to move the Nursery to the secondary zone, mates. Big Bloke, tell the mums to gather up their babies and move quickly.”

As soon as the Dragons scattered, a group of FireCats appeared, then a group of Hawks. DW gave them their instructions, all business, and sent them on their way. Sisi watched him, mesmerized at the change from friendly jokester to serious Familiar rescuer.

“Sisi, there are motherless eggs in the next cavern. Can you help me move them?”

She bounced up, eager to help. “Just tell me what to do!”

He led her to the next cavern, where clutches of eggs lay in padded nests. Sisi’s heart sank as she realized each one was the size of a small boulder. How could they get them all moved in time? Just as she thought this, another line of dragons lined up at the cave’s far entrance. Sisi recognized the leader and smiled.

“Dragonlet Movers, you wrap ‘em, we ship ‘em,” Nonnie called out brightly. SurferDude bobbed his head in greeting. Tetzlpotl and Lupita stood right behind them. “Where do you want ‘em, DW?”

“Need ‘em down in the Briney Grove; that should be far enough away. Can each one of you handle a clutch?”

“Clutch and more, DW,” SurferDude rumbled. “Hand them to us and we’ll get them safe.”

“Beauty, mates. Sisi, Nonnie, all you rest, come on, grab an egg.”

They formed a line and passed the egg from one Ranger to another, then to the Dragon, who carefully held the eggs in its mouth and hands. Once the Dragon had all it could hold, its Rider mounted, and they flew off to the Briney Grove. The rescue line had to stop several times as more tremors rocked the cavern. Sisi took a deep breath and tried not to panic; the falling rock reminded her of Churros, and the rockslide…

“That’s the last, DW,” said Coren, who was last in line with his Dragon, Dante. “You sure you don’t want to come along for the ride.”

“Got Avonlea in the next cavern…Sisi, Drianeh and I will help her get out. Now go on, Coren. We’ll see ya in a bit.”

“Be careful, DW. See you later, Sisi.” Coren gave her a look that melted her heart, before he turned and flew out of the cavern. The ground shook harder, and more debris rained down on them.

When DW and Sisi returned to Avonlea, Drianeh and Suuie had already gathered up the clutch in their mouths and hands. Although Drianeh couldn’t speak aloud, Sisi heard her words: We must go, Sisi…the cavern is going to collapse! Sisi leaped onto Drianeh’s back, while DW clambered on Suuie’s, and off they went.

Rocks and dirt fell all around them as they went through the twisting corridors, Sisi used her newfound tracking ability to negotiate around the barriers, even though she could barely see them. The walls seemed to narrow, the ceiling seemed to be bearing down on them. Sisi thought that this must be how it was in the path of that rockslide.

They shot out of the cavern mouth a split second before the entrance tumbled down.
*****

“We did it,” Sisi crowed triumphantly.

Don’t celebrate too soon, warned Drianeh. Something’s going to—

Sisi felt an electric charge on her skin, a crawly feeling that snaked down her nerves and made her hair stand up on end. As Drianeh, Suuie and Avonlea beat their massive wings against a steadily increasing wind, she could feel the effort it took to overcome the barriers. The clouds had already thickened into a black mass on the horizon, and a loud boom! Shook them all.

“The Fire Aerie!” DW yelled over the gale. “By crikey, it’s falling!”

Sisi looked over her shoulder. The mountain that held the Aerie was exploding from the inside, unleashing a roar of molten lava that rushed quickly down the slopes, incinerating the runways and oozing out of the passageways. Superheated steam rose into the air to meet the clouds, and jagged streaks of lightning creased the sky. It was a brilliant, and frightening spectacle to behold.

“Did everyone get out?” Sisi cried.

Yes, I think so. We were all worried about the eggs and the younglings. If we couldn’t have gotten them out, DW would’ve stayed behind to protect them. That’s the kind of person he is. Drianeh adjusted the clutch of eggs in her mouth. All right, we’ve got to Transition through another Mirror to get to the Grove…you know the drill. Shut your eyes when I tell you and DO NOT OPEN THEM TILL I TELL YOU.

“I will,” Sisi promised. A quick check told her that Suuie had relayed the warning to DW; he glanced back at her and smiled in reassurance. Avonlea took the lead, and Sisi could feel the Dragon begin to bend space and time as the Portal began to form…

A flash of lightning blinded Sisi and she reached out for another tuft of Drianeh’s mane. The sense of electricity increased, the air became heavy with ozone, stealing the breath from Sisi’s lungs. A part of her suddenly realized that it came from the Portal…

Not the Portal…a Portal…right above us! Tendrils of power caressed her skin, but she resisted the urge to look up at it, lest she get stuck in Between…Warm air rushed past her, and the touch of another wing…

Sisi, hard right, hard right! Follow Suuie!

She automatically shifted her weight to counterbalance as Drianeh plunged into a steep dive. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw another Dragon in pursuit, with a rider, both all in black, and the Dragon’s eyes shone with an unholy light. Unlike Drianeh, the Black Dragon had full control over its talons and mouth, since it wasn’t encumbered with Dragon eggs.

“Dragons of the Void!” DW screamed over his shoulder. “Bloody hell! They’ve planned this ambush!” He pulled Suuie into a tight loop and Sisi followed. Avonlea hovered nearby and tried to complete the Portal, but it wouldn’t be made in time…

More static danced on Sisi’s skin…Oh, yak turds, not another one. Gods, if we really need you, we need you now!” And another Portal opened, again, right above her….and this time a voice invaded her consciousness…

Look up, Sisi. Look up, look up, look up…

“Eat YAK BUTT!” she shrieked, and tore her gaze away. Drianeh plunged into another dive, with two Black Dragons on their tail.

“Avonlea, where’s that Portal?” DW hollered.

I’m working as fast as I can, DW…all this atmospheric interference is affecting it, we might end up Goddess knows where…

“We can’t hold out much longer! Get the damn thing open!” DW spun Suuie into another loop and charged the two Black Dragons on Sisi’s tail; the enemy hadn’t expected such a suicidal move and scattered in his wake. DW embodied the Fire Ranger quality of recklessness, but this recklessness had a purpose.

“Hang on, Sisi! When I tell you to duck, do it! One, two…duck!”

Sisi reacted without thought. Suuie shoved a Black Dragon away from Sisi’s head…about a foot above her head. The Black Dragon spun out of control, upended its rider, and plunged into a wild spin towards the ground. DW pulled up and slammed his balled fist into the side of a second Black Dragon’s head; the unexpected move paralyzed the Rider long enough for DW to sweep him off his seat.

He should’ve been an active Ranger, Sisi thought disjointedly. He’s got some flying skills.

He’s gentle at heart, but whenever his Familiars, or his friends, are threatened, he gets fierce, Drianeh agreed, but he shies away from hurting anyone unless he can’t help it.

Finally, Avonlea let out a short hiss of triumph. It’s up, It’s up!

“Run for it!” DW yelled.

Avonlea plunged into the portal. The Black Dragons realized that their prey was escaping and sped up the chase. Sisi could see the edges of the Portal, and Drianeh screamed in her mind, Now, Sisi! CLOSE YOUR EYES!

Sisi squeezed her eyes shut as Drianeh beat her wings. She could feel the Portal opening to Transport them…

Something slammed into Drianeh’s side just as they entered and Sisi heard a loud crack! Of thunder. Drianeh screamed and her head jerked upwards in agony; she lost her hold on the precious eggs and they spun out into the Portal like falling snow. Drianeh tried to stay upright, but they were losing altitude, and Sisi felt her fingers slipping from their precarious grip on Drianeh’s fur.

Drianeh! Sisi screamed. She Felt the Fire Dragon’s agony through her own body; a rib, maybe more, was broken, and the horrible pain threatened to overwhelm her. Drianeh tried to push it away long enough to go through the Transition, but it rose to overwhelm her, like a swimmer overwhelmed by a tsunami wave, and trapped in its undertow.

Sisi, I’m so…sorry…Forgive me…

Sisi’s world spun and Drianeh tumbled wildly into space. Finally, a massive jolt tore her hold from Drianeh and she was freefalling into the blackness. Her mind screamed incoherently as the warm connection she had with her Fire Dragon snapped, and left her cold. She was going to die, or go mad…she wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep her eyes closed…if she opened them, she would be Stuck and never get out…

Then she struck something soft and warm, like a bed of feather pillows. It was enough to jolt the wind from her body. That warmth stole into her soul, easing the agony of Drianeh’s passing; the sharp edges were no longer so sharp, and a gentle clouding passed over her brain. Sisi suddenly forgot how it felt to die.

Drianeh, Drianeh, we only had a few months together…Ah, Gods, I didn’t realize how much you meant to me…why didn’t I go too? A part of her had died, and would never return.

Drianeh has gone to the Hall of the Gods, Little One, but I am here. And I will take up where my spirit-sister has left off.

Then reality reformed around them, and they emerged into bright sun and the scent of fresh flowers. Sisi just lay there, unmoving, unable to comprehend what just happened to her. Then feeling flowed back into her, and she opened her sore, gritty eyes.

And she was flying in the air. By herself.

That woke her up completely, and she sat up. She was sitting on…nothing.

Well, not totally nothing… Sisi saw the faintest outlines of a head hovering in front of her, and a spiny ridge on a long, serpentine neck. The sound of wings beating the air echoed all around her. It Felt like she was riding on a Dragon.
An invisible Dragon????

“Yak’s teeth,” she whispered, but the obscenity fell flat. “Where are you?”

“I’m here,” said a light voice, the sound of water on rock. And the Dragon began to fill out its outline, a dragon as translucent as crystal, with tufts of fur like strands of silk. Its wings whispered like the thinnest of gossamer fabric, and the sunlight shone brilliant upon its horns.

His horns.

His? The Dragon turned and looked at her with amber-green eyes, and it raised a talon to touch Sisi’s cheek. It was like someone had smacked her on the back of a head with a board, or like she was kicked by an overenthusiastic horse. But the sense of belonging was there, the sense of welcome, and Sisi reached out and touched the talon. She could feel Drianeh’s approval and love for a single moment, then it faded, and all that was left was this Dragon.

“My name is Elisando, and I am a Silk Dragon.”

Posted 149 weeks ago

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

The Silk Dragon: Introduction

I wrote this as my Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) Novel in 2006. The goal was 50,000 words in one month.

I ended up with 50,010 words. This is the story.

Granted, it isn’t the best story I’ve written. When I started to run out of steam, I grabbed things in the air and started writing about that. So as you read this, you might find some inside jokes about TV shows, people, and events. (Parents, see if you can find the references to the Wiggles and Blue’s Clues. History buffs, see if you can find the famous people in the story. And…well, I’m not going to spill all the secrets. You gotta find them for yourself.)

Someone asked me, “What’s up with the yaks?” I dunno. You gotta read it to understand it.

As of this typing, I haven’t gotten all the links connected yet. There aren’t “chapters” per se, just writing sessions. Look at the sidebar and click on “Session One” to start. Once I get a proper table of contents set up, it’ll provide links to each session, and at the bottom, I’ll put links there as well, so you aren’t searching all over creation to find your place. Trust me, they’ll be there soon.

Oh and BTW, creative works are copyrighted by the author (me, Annie) under a Creative License.

Let the story begin!

Annie

The Sian Mountains reached up high into the sky, slicing the Heavens into many jagged pieces. In the wintertime, the thick clouds ringed their peaks like an elder’s mustache, with the sparkling rocks underneath smiling like the elder’s wise grin. The fog flowed down the sides of the mountains like a waterfall of sticky rice candy, but instead of warm and sweet, this kind of fog chilled to the bone and tasted like the chillest cotton candy ever. On both sides of the range, the hardy inhabitants went along their normal business. The weather was not unusual for them; now if a yak sprouted wings and flew, they’d consider it strange. If it tapdanced in the middle of the town square, now that was a bit more strange. If it ordered a mug of lalalapa, now that would be worth talking about.


There was a village in every valley of the Sian Mountains, connected by a network of criss-crossing paths. Churro was the southernmost village and enjoyed the mild weather on the leeward side of the Sian. So the winters were not as bad there. Nevertheless, their dome-shaped dwellings made of wood and animal skins reflected the rest of the valley because their inhabitants refused to think they were better than everyone else. They wanted to be accepted, not be out of the ordinary, and not be strange. In other words, no imagination whatsoever.

The only place where such weirdness was tolerated was the equivalent of the town tavern, the yukka. Every night the whole village gathered there for warm drinks. Some preferred the hard alcohol dachou, others the caffeine-laden chaochaou. And there were others who weren’t allowed to drink such sinful concoctions.

Like Sisi. Then again, she didn’t need such drinks to see things. For one, she was allergic to dachao and chaochaou made her nervy. But she saw dragons in the sky and in the night stars. For hours she stared at the clouds over the Sian Mountains, and at the heavens above her village of Churro.

“She’s crazy,” some of the villagers whispered. “There are no such things as dragons. They are children’s stories and the images of the absolutely nutso. She needs help. Why don’t we send her to the Temples and not worry about her weirdness?”
Others admonished them, for Churro didn’t turn anyone away because of what they saw. “She does her work like she’s supposed to, and she bothers no one. So what, if she stares at the clouds and the stars like a madwoman? The Gods have their plans for people like her, and it’s not advisable to bring their wrath upon us.”

So went the rumors. Poor Sisi heard the talk, and decided long ago not to pay them any heed. She smiled at all the villagers and greeted them every morning and night. Her adopted parents ran the yukka, and she spent time sweeping the floors, making the concoctions, cleaning the barf and mud and scrubbing the wooden benches until they gleamed in the firelight. She worked hard, and when she finished long before expected, her adopted mother patted her on the head and said,

“That’s my good girl. You’ve been such a good help. Why don’t you go and take a walk, enjoy the weather, talk with the eagles in the sky and the fish in the streams? After all, the views from the outlooks are beautiful and gladden the soul.”

“Thank you, Foster-Mother,” Sisi said, “I will take your advice.” So she did. And that was how she communed with the land and the river and the sky, and the clouds and the fog that poured down upon the mountains like sticky rice candy.

This morning was like any other morning. Sisi woke up at the sound of the yak and caribou, her senses coming to full wakefulness without hesitation. She sat up in her comfortable cot, buried under warm yak furs and blankets. Her adoptive mother was already up and boiling breakfast over the fire. Tatara looked up from the huge cauldron and smiled at her.

“Bright the day, Little Fire Dragon,” Tatara greeted. Tatara wore a tent-like dress made of sturdy yak wool, dyed in multicolored stripes. Each stripe represented a deity in her pantheon of Deities: red for the Fire Dragon, green for the Earth Dragon, blue for the Water Dragon, and White for the Air Dragon. Over it all she wore a sensible apron of deep purple, spattered with the remains of sauce and oatmeal. (Obviously, Tatara was not native to a conservative podunk like Churro; she came from Akumas, another village deeper within the Sian Mountain Valley, where they were more sophisticated and more creatively-minded).

“Bright the day, Foster-Mother,” Sisi replied, with a bright smile. She shook the long, black hair out of her eyes. “Do you need any help over the fire?”

“No need, Little Fire Dragon. Get yourself dressed, and share breakfast with me. Today marks a very special day.”

“What very special day, Foster-Mother?”

“Today, in my village, it is the Festival of the Great Dragon, and we celebrate it with cakes and wine, with lots of singing and dancing. Since we are not in Akumas, but in Churro, the people just go about their business. But we will celebrate it.”
Sisi clapped her hands in delight. “May I wear my colorful dress, Foster-Mother, with the long caribou-skin boots and the shawl made of gold thread?

“If you can find them in the trunks, my dear. I can’t remember in which one they are.”

Sisi crawled to the clothes trunks in the back of their dome-shaped tent and sorted through them. The colorful dress held every shade in the spectrum, from dark crimson to deep violet, and everything in between. She wriggled into it, only to find that it reached only halfway down her thighs. She had grown much during this past year, but she was determined to wear this special colorful dress on this special day. Sisi frowned for a moment, deep in thought, then she had an idea. In moments, she found a pair of warm yak leggings, dyed maroon, and long underdress dyed the yellow of a spring sun. The effect, when she put on the ensemble, was quite striking; she was a living rainbow that shimmered in the dawn light. She tossed the golden-thread shawl over her shoulders and pulled on the long caribou-skin boots.

“I knew you’d think of a way to wear the dress,” Tatara said in approval. “It is good to think of alternatives, not just the same-old, same-old.”

“I have good teachers, Foster-Mother,” she replied with another bright smile.
Together, Sisi and Tatara ate their breakfast of porridge with dried fruit and a huge mug of yak milk. When they were finished, they banked the fire, put on their cloaks and went out of the tent and into the morning.

In Churro, the early-risers were already hard at their work. Sisi greeted the woodcarver, the yak milkers, the child-minders, and the weavers. The villagers looked upon her bright clothes in disapproval; how dare she look as beautiful as the Sun Goddess herself? Even worse, for them, that warmth radiated from Sisi’s spirit, a genuine warmth that melted the hardest heart. So even while their guts churned with envy and anger, they could only return the greeting with as much politeness as they could muster.

Meng Pao, Sisi’s foster-father and the owner of the yukka, had already began the first batch of chaochaou, laden with caffeine and chaochaou chips, sweet with cream. He turned as the women walked through the flap of the tent. The tips of his long moustache touched the huge vat of the chaochaou, but not in. Warm smoke wreathed his wide, swarthy face and long hair tied back in a pony tail. Meng Pao, like most of the Churro villagers, was short and stout like the yaks they grazed, as opposed to tall and lean, like his wife and foster-daughter.

“Bright the day, my lovelies,” he said, and gave both of them a kiss on the cheek. “This first batch is almost done. We need to get ready for the Festival tonight. The streamers and the banners are all in the trunks under the drink counter. I need the floor swept clean and the mugs washed and the tables scrubbed. Tonight is a very special night.”

“Yes, Papa,” said Sisi and headed for the wash bin as Tatara went to the storage trunks. Like the rest of his people, Meng Pao did not shirk hard work, and did not hesitate to assign tasks to his family members. The difference was that he was not a harsh taskmaster, or an unreasonable one. Tatara had softened his ways, but not eliminated them.

So the morning passed in a hum of activity. The air within the yukka became heavy and sweet with delicious scents and the plain brown walls sported all kinds of banners and fabric chains, streamers and pictures. The mugs gleamed in the open cabinets, and the tables glistened under the light. Tatara sang as they worked, tales from her home village of Akumas, the tale of the Great Dragon, the protector of the Mountains and the Valleys. Sisi never tired of her foster-mother’s soprano voice; if Tatara had been born a man, she probably would have been a Singer or a Shaman.
“The Great Dragon flies on the wind
Surrounded by His companions.
He calls them by name, one by one:
On, Fire, On Earth, On Spirit, on Water
Come, Air and Come Rainbow, Come Sun and Come Sorrow.
Together they guard, together they sing
As they fly, wing by wing
Ho! Watch them overhead, see how they soar
And Great Dragon the first, he watches them o’er.”

And Sisi and Meng Pao would chant, “Ho! Come guard us, Great Dragon!” at the end of each verse. Sisi timed her broom strokes to the beat of the song, her long caribou-skin boots beating a tattoo on the floor of the tent.

Finally, around noon, all the work was finished, and the yukka was ready for business. Like always, after the noon meal, Tatara ruffled Sisi’s hair and told her, “Go, have a walk in along the paths. Who knows, maybe you’ll even catch a glimpse of the Great Dragon himself.”

“Tatara,” Meng Pao growled. His tone was disapproving, but the sparkle in his eyes belied the words. “Don’t put pretty ideas into that pretty little head. If she is to be a Churro, she must pay more attention to the world of reality, and not of dreams.”
“That’s your grandfather talking, not you,” Tatara scoffed good-naturedly and cuffed him lightly on the back of the neck. “Live a little, you stubborn caribou.”

“Yaks would fly.”

“Old bugger.”

“Fair-headed stink-shrew.”

“Yak dung.”

“Caribou crap.”

“Old goat.”

And so Sisi would leave them hurling insults at each other, each one trying to be more inventive than the other. Admittedly, it was rather difficult, Sisi thought, when the only animals were yaks, caribou, goats, stink-shrews and sheep-like dingledongs. Somehow, Meng Pao and Tatara managed to invent new ones out of thin air, much to the dismay of the other villagers, whose level of profanity was, “By the soft fur of my God-loving yak.”

Sisi wrapped her shawls tighter around her, for the North Wind blew through the tight mountain passes. She followed her usual path out of Churros and on the slope of Squibaw Mountain, the shortest peak in the Sian Mountains. A small stream ran down the slope on one side and served as her guidemark. The rocky terrain was pounded flat by the feet of neighboring villagers, but Sisi turned onto a secret path marked by a careful pile of brush. Here was her favorite Lookout, Dragon Pass.
She sat comfortably on a slab of hard granite, hewn in the shape of a small throne and lined with soft fur pillows. Her chest of small scrolls was hidden here, scrolls filled with wondrous stories of other villages and maps of faraway places. Tatara’s father, and grandfather, and great-grandfather, were explorers, or so Tatara had claimed, and mapped the entire circuit of villages in the Sian Mountains. Tatara’s father had come to Churros with a ten-year-old Tatara and had meant to stay only a little while, but had blundered into the yearly Running of the Goats down the Chuchu Gorge. A Churros healer fixed his injuries, and they fell in love (or lust, as the villagers gossiped). The healer adopted Tatara, and had no objection to Tatara visiting Akaras as often as possible. So Tatara was a woman of two villages, two worlds, and Sisi wished she could be the same.

In that same spirit of yearning, she began with a prayer to her personal totem, the Little Fire Dragon, and immediately, she felt her soul and body become warmer, until she could no longer feel the bitter chill. Then she opened her scroll box and pulled out her favorite piece of soft parchment: the map. Sometimes, Sisi could hear it singing in her mind, “I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the map…I’m the map!” and send her on a journey, with a magical backpack on her back and a monkey friend by her side.

Of course, she only heard the annoying song in her mind.

This time it didn’t sing, and she heaved a sigh of relief.

The village of Churros was a circle of huts on the left side of the map, with paths stretching out into the valley and beyond. Sisi looked up and mentally tried to match all the landmarks that she could see from the Lookout point with the ones on the map. It was tough work, for the clouds covered and uncovered the valley with regular intervals. But as the days had gone by since she had started, it had gotten easier, and her skills faster.

She looked up again and saw a wisp of silver within the clouds. What is that? She thought, and tried to follow it with her eyes, but whatever it was, it was not visible to normal sight. Sisi gave up and finished her map exercise, then she rolled the map up and stored it away into its place. A rumble filled the valley and shook the Lookout.

Sisi’s eyes snapped upwards as her heart lurched in terror. The one force of nature that struck fear into the hearts of the mountain villagers was a rockslide or an avalanche. Such thing were fairly common in the Sian; the stories were horrifying, as whole villages were swallowed up within the Earth’s wrath.

A wave of rock and debris tumbled down the side of the mountain, headed straight for Churros!

“Yak’s teeth!” she cursed and grabbed her box of scrolls. She turned and fled down the path, heart pounding, head aching, even as she knew she would never reach Churros in time. She thought of her foster parents, the yukka, the stern-faced but hardworking villagers. They were all doomed, and Sisi screamed in fear and mourning.
Then from out of nowhere came another scream in answer.

A brownish-gold shadow dove out of the clouds. Sisi froze in her tracks, unable to take her eyes off its scaly skin, its magnificent wings, its long tail. It was as huge as the mountain itself, with talons the size of ten caribou end to end, and brown eyes the color of chaochaou. Sisi recognized it from Tatara’s stories and songs.

An Earth Dragon has come to save my village! No, wait, not one…two, three!

The Earth Dragons coordinated their efforts as neatly as an aerial squadron. They extended their wings and caught the debris, flinging it a safe distance away so fast that they looked like huge tornadoes. Then out of the horizon flew another three red-gold Fire Dragons, whose hot breath vaporized the rock and ice into nothing. All six performed their duties flawlessly like a tumbling troupe.

Sisi watched, mesmerized by the sight. She had never thought them real, only figments of imagination in songs and stories. Yes, there were times when she caught glimpses of shadows in the clouds, and yes, there were times when the night stars seemed to come together in familiar patterns. But now the Dragons had come to save Churros from the landslide!

Finally, the earth stopped shaking, and the mountain was quiet. The Earth Dragons swooped in the air and vanished back into the clouds. The Fire Dragons turned to follow; Sisi wished with all her heart that they would not go, for something stirred within her, something deep within her soul. When would she see them again?

Two of them melted into the ether, but one, the smallest, turned and dove in Sisi’s direction. Bile rose into her throat as she watched it extend its razor-sharp talons, but her feet seemed rooted to the spot, and she could not move. If my life is payment for the salvation of my village, this I accept gladly! At least, get it over with quickly, Fire Dragon; I cannot bear much pain and I faint at the sight of blood. I remember last year, when the old yak was old and weak, and the village needed food, and the foreman spent a whole morning sharpening his axe and then he went to the pen and found Old Yak there, not able to walk or breathe and he lifted the axe and then—

A gentle voice interrupted her ramble. “No, Little Fire Dragon. Payment is required, but not in blood, and such things are abhorrent in peace. Have no fear, for I will not have you for a snack. Lava rock is my favorite food, not young girls.”

“Oh, I don’t have any lava rock—“ Sisi began, and then she looked into the Fire Dragon’s eyes…and fell into them, down, down, down, into the ruby depths, and a part of her went willingly, while she felt a warm, comforting presence settle into her heart, and she knew that all the whispers, all the rumors, all the disapproving stares from the villagers had been worth it all.

“My name is Drianeh, and I am a Fire Dragon from the South. Will you be my Mistress, now until the end of time?”

She opened her mouth to refuse—what about Foster-Mother Tatara and Foster-Father Meng Pao? What will they do without me?—but her heart overrode the practical side of her brain, “Yes, oh Gods, yes!”

“Then climb aboard, and we will begin your training, Little Fire Dragon.”

Like a woman possessed, she tucked the scroll box under her arm and climbed onto Drianeh’s back. To Sisi’s surprise, the Fire Dragon’s skin was smooth, not rough, and covered with tufts of scarlet fur. She found a handhold on one of those tufts and secured her grip.

“Hold on tight…for here we go!”

And Drianeh beat her enormous wings and launched into the sky, and they left Churros and the Sian Mountains far below them.

*****

The wind cut into her with deadly teeth, enough to penetrate to the bone and make her teeth rattle out of her head. Sisi couldn’t even release her grip on Drianeh’s mane even if she wanted to; her fingers were frozen to the fur. Ice crystals formed upon her eyes and hair, even through the long cloak and festival gown. She shivered but could not get warm enough.

“Hold on, Little Dragon…we’re almost there. Whatever you do, DON’T OPEN YOUR EYES UNTIL I TELL YOU. UNDERSTAND?” She could only nod at Drianeh’s instructions for her voice was paralyzed.

The Fire Dragon reared her head and roared a challenge to the elements that seemed to echo forever. Drianeh’s wings seemed to cut through the wind like butter with no hesitation. Sisi felt something gathering around them, like a semi-solid fist that squeezed them in its grip. Then the ghostly fingers closed and shut out the starlight. The pressure in her head increased, as if her body was steeling itself for a giant sneeze, but that sneeze had somehow gotten stuck between her sinuses and her lungs. Tension danced on her skin like little pinpricks. Sisi prayed like she had never prayed before, to every God and Goddess that ever was, were and would be. Perhaps it was she who had died, and this dragon was taking her to the Netherhells to roast for Eternity…

Then Drianeh emitted a single high-pitched note, clear as crystal, sweet and shrill at the same time, beautiful and haunting. The vibration hung there, suspended in space, then bathed them in brilliant color that stung her closed eyelids. She resolutely kept those eyes shut as she was too frightened to disobey Drianeh’s command.

Her world lurched once, twice, then they burst into the sun…

The cold became warm, the winds became calmer, and the crushing pressure vanished all at once. Where are we? Are we in Paradise? Sisi still did not dare to open her eyes.

“Not Paradise,’ Drianeh said with a snort, “but somewhere close.”

“May I open my eyes now, Lady Dragon?”

“Yes, you may, but remember my name is Drianeh. Do not call me Lady, for I am definitely not one.”

Sisi cracked one eye open, then two. She blinked tears from her eyes as they focused, then she cautiously looked around her. “Oh—“

They were over a stretch of blue water, capped with white waves, and broken by rocky islands. Sisi had never seen so much water in her life; this was much more than the mountain streams near her village. She had never been this warm in her life, and the cloak stifled her. Sweat already dotted her brow and ran through her hair.

“Where are we, Drianeh?”

“This is called the Passage. Each Passage is different for each Ranger; some come from the warm tropics and so their Passage is through the cold. You come from the mountains, so your Passage is over the sea. This is the main path to our destination.”

“It’s…hot.”

Drianeh chuckled deep in her throat. “Indeed it is, Little Dragon. It must be uncomfortable for you.”

“Yes, very.”

“Why don’t you take off your cloak? I’m sure it will feel much cooler.”

“You mean…I have to let go? Won’t I fall off your back?” Suddenly, that wide azure sea did not seem so beautiful. What was under that surface? Back home, the mountain streams were full of long fish with sharp teeth, that ate anything they were offered, whether it be living or dead. What if their cousins lived under these waters, their larger, more vicious cousins?

“Well, if you feel safer, you don’t have to. I just thought I would make the suggestion. I wouldn’t want you to be a crispy critter before we get to where we’re going, you know.”

“‘Crispy critter’?” Sisi’s tongue stumbled on the unfamiliar term. Then again, what language were they speaking? Obviously, she understood Drianeh and Drianeh understood her, so there was no barrier, but still…

Maybe the villagers were right, after all. Maybe she was weird.

“Oh, remember what kind of Dragon I am. I’m a Fire Dragon, and…well…ummm…I suppose in your words it would be liao-ba xia-xia wa.”

“Liao-ba-sha-sha-war,” Sisi corrected automatically. “The accent’s on third word. Oh, forgive me for—“

”No need to apologize, Little Dragon. Goddess only knows, words are the blocks of friendship between two, and the correction is welcome! I’d hate to say something offensive, you understand, especially when you have nine hundred and fifty-two different tongues in your head—“

”Nine hundred and fifty-two. You speak them all?”

“Not all completely fluently. The last time I was hatched, I ended up having five Ranger partners, and all five came from different places and times. One was from the South of America and he always said he was ‘fixin to do something’. I’d thought he was so clumsy that he broke everything he touched! I was a bit worried about his piloting skills!” Drianeh laughed again at the memory. “He only meant that was going to do something. That was his way of saying it. Still, I got into the habit of carrying building implements with me! Especially something called ‘duck tape’. Miracle invention, that. The Goddess must have invented it to repair Her heavenly harp or somesuch.”

“Oh.” Sisi’s brain was addled by the unfamiliar words and names and concepts. She now understood “crispy critter”, but “America” and “duck tape” made no sense. It made her feel somewhat unsophisticated. Drianeh had been to so many places and so many times.

“The last time you were hatched? I thought dragons came out of the egg only once.”

“Well, most dragons do, but Fire Dragons are like the phoenix birds, who—“ Drianeh broke off and asked, “Phoenix bird?”

“Yes, I know what they are,” Sisi laughed.

“Just checking. Well…when a Fire Dragon gets old, they build themselves a pyre and burn their old selves to become new. We add the old memories to the new, so we don’t forget.”

“So you’re immortal….?”

“In a sense, yes, but we die in accidents, battle, so we’re not invulnerable.”

Sisi nodded, and more sweat poured into her eyes. She was positively broiling under her cloak…and they were still flying over the stretch of warm ocean. How long were they going to be in this so-called Passage? She was going to be one “crispy critter” before they arrived at wherever they were going to be.

But she could always take off the cloak.

That meant actually letting go of her hold on Drianeh’s back.

Security and pride? Or daring to change her circumstances to fit her better?
After all, she had left Churro for the unknown, despite her comfortable life with Foster- Mother and Foster-Father. How was this different? If anything, taking off the cloak would make her feel better in this warmth. Worse case scenario, she would lose her balance and fall down into the ocean, where the huge hungry fish were…

Silly girl, this is just like riding a yak, she admonished herself.

No, it wasn’t. She was riding a flying Fire Dragon.

But Drianeh wouldn’t let her fall, would she?

Of course not. Why would Drianeh go through all this trouble to snatch her from Churros to whisk her to wherever, only to have her swimming with the fishes?
Still…

Goat’s turds, why not? I’m baking. Sisi forced her fingers to let go, carefully, from the tuft of scarlet fur and she clamped her legs around Drianeh’s body, shifting her balance. With one quick movement, she pulled the cloak over her head and draped it into her lap, then she buried her hands again in the fur. Then a strange thing happened: her deathly-tight grip relaxed when she realized that Drianeh would never let her fall. The knowledge softened her muscles and she sat as if on her favorite yak back home. A barrier in front of them seemed to dissolve, and the surroundings finally changed from endless blue sky and sea…

To a mountain crag. Drianah made a wide swooping turn and reversed her wings to slow her speed. They landed on a smooth outcrop with no trouble. Sisi blinked and glanced around her. It should be bone-chilling again, like in the Sian Mountains, but the air was warm. Not hot like over the ocean, but comfortable enough that she did not need the cloak.

“Congratulations, you passed through the Passage,” Drianeh rumbled.

“I did?” Sisi shook her head. “I just took off my cloak.”

“You had to trust me to do it, and you had to trust yourself, Little Fire Dragon. When you overcame your doubts, you broke one of the chains that bound you. You did it. Now we’re here, at the Fire Aerie. Welcome home, Ranger Sisi.”
*******

Sisi heard another rumble close by and she looked about her wildly. Instead of a wave of rock, another dragon flapped his wings and roared into the sky. A second one, this time with a rider, moved up into the spot the first one had vacated. Now Sisi and Drianah saw the person hidden in front of the dragon, a signaler of some kind. He was dressed in bright orange, and held two batons of the same color. The signaler did a little dance with the batons, and pointed to a far-off point in the sky. Both the dragon and rider nodded in answer. The signaler sketched them a
little salute, then to Sisi’s surprise, he dropped on one knee to the ground and covered his head.

The dragon took off at a running start, thundering past the signaler, and at the edge of the outcrop, extended its wings as it took off into the sky. It headed in the direction that the signaler had told it, and soon was gone from sight.

Other signalers brought incoming dragons in safely, though some of them zipped perilously past the ones leaving. Their dances reminded Sisi of the elders’ storytelling dances back home, telling people what happened and where they went.

“We call this place the runway, Ranger Sisi,” Drianeh told her. “This is where we take off and land.”

“Do all of you leave and return by this platform?”

“No, we’ve got many of them scattered all over, with their own signalers. Did you watch them closely? What do they do?

Sisi watched another signaler, this time a female, crouch down to avoid another dragon's wings. "They…tell the dragons where to take off and where to go, so no one runs into each other. And they have to duck or else they might get run over.”

“Exactly. You have to be very brave to be a signaler, and have a good sense of where everything is,” Drianeh said. “If you don’t, there might be an accident. Not good.”

“Do people and dragons…die?”

Drianeh nodded solemnly. “Sometimes. That’s why a signaler is very important, and we should give them every measure of respect.”

“Yes, and that respect is well-earned, too,” a new voice broke into the conversation. "Have we gone back into teaching mode again, Drianeh? I hope you aren’t too hard on our new Ranger candidate.“

"Just explaining a few things to her, Link,” Drianeh replied, with genuine fondness in her voice. She swiveled her head back to face Sisi. “Sisi, this is Link. You might say that he’s our Guardian of Justice, the one who makes sure everyone’s on equal footing.”

Link chuckled, in a self-depreciating mode. “Well, I’d like to think I’m just doing my job, dear Drianeh.”

“Considering you wrote about it on paper for your people and proclaimed it to them, even the ones who didn’t want to hear it. That took bravery, my friend.”

A shadow passed over Link’s face, and Sisi wondered at it. The dark eyes were hooded, as if contemplating some old memory, and worry lines creased his features. The full bushy beard reminded Sisi of the Churro villagers, but unlike those villagers, Link was tall and lean. Very tall
and lean, almost gaunt, as if he hadn’t enough to eat, but Sisi saw the strength in that lanky frame.

Then just as quickly, the brooding man vanished and was replaced by a good-natured, smiling man again. “Well, what’s past is past. Now we concentrate on the future. Drianeh said your name is Sisi? That’s a beautiful name. I understand you went through yourPassage successfully, or you wouldn’t be here. How are you feeling?”

“Strange, sir…so much has happened, I’m a bit confused. There’s so much to understand, so much to take in…so I’m supposed to be a Ranger? What do I do? How will I learn what I need to do?”

Link smiled and said, “So many questions. Curiosity is a good thing to have, little Sisi. Let’s take it one step at a time. Drianeh, why don’t you go ahead and rest and have something to eat, and I’ll show Sisi around, maybe find her a friend who can help her get settled.”

“Thank you, Link. Sisi, I’ll be back for you, all right? Link is very good with children; he’ll take good care of you.”

“Okay, Drianeh.” She watched as Drianeh lumbered off to wherever that food and rest was, and suddenly, she felt very alone in this strange place with dragons and a tall man named Link. He seemed to sense her awkwardness and offered her his hand. She took it and they walked off the runway, hand in hand.

“Tell me about yourself, Sisi. Where are you from?”

She told Link about the Sian Mountains, and Foster-Mother Tatara and Foster-Father Meng Pao, and her life in Churros and Akaras, and of the yukka and the sweet-smelling drinks in the vats, and the mountain streams and her favorite Lookout. He listened patiently as she described the rockslide that would have covered Churros, if it wasn’t for the Earth and Fire Dragons, and how she watched them destroy the rocks and how Drianeh had come to her and swooped her up into the unknown, and how they flew into the Passage, and how she built up the nerve to let go of Drianeh’s tuft of fur and trust Drianeh not to let her fall as she pulled off her cloak, and how they arrived here, to the present time, where they watched the signalers and where she met Link, and now they were probably going to meet more of these Rangers and Sisi was going to learn how to be one of them.

When she ran out of things to say, as well as some of her breath, she fell silent. Link said nothing as he ruminated over her strange story, and finally said, “The Dragons never show themselves to anyone who isn’t worthy to see them, Sisi. They know when a person is ready and
will come to them, and it always the right time. You saw them save your village; now you are charged with saving others.”

He gave her an odd sideways look, as if gauging how much of his own history to tell her. "Well, everyone calls me Link because my first name is difficult to pronounce here.“

"What is your first name, sir?”

“Abraham. Others call me Abe. Like Drianeh implied, I wrote an important speech in my people’s history about justice and freedom and equality among all. I read it in a speech at a place where there was terrible fighting and many people died. I never knew it would have been so popular, because it certainly was not during my time.”

“Was it then you saw your Dragon, sir?”

Again, that shadow came upon Link’s face. “No, not then; it wasn’t until later. When Thaddeus came, I was in dire trouble, indeed, and he carried me off through my own Passage to here. Thaddeus is my ever-faithful companion, and he is ever by my side.”

Sisi frowned and looked around. “I don’t see him, sir. Where is he?”

Link smiled and tapped the side of his head with one long graceful finger. “Thaddeus is here, and here—” he also tapped his chest over his heart, with his free hand. “I sense him wherever I go. Thaddeus is not a Fire Dragon, like Drianeh. He’s of Earth, and he is currently visiting his own relatives on a well-deserved holiday.”

“Dragons have families too? Well…I guess that’s right. They have to come from somewhere.” Sisi closed her eyes and tried to feel Drianeh, just like Link could feel his Thaddeus, and suddenly—

She Felt Drianeh’s surprise and welcome and a wave of love. Tears escaped from Sisi's eyes as her shattered heart and soul became whole again. She hadn’t realized just how much she missed her Foster-Mother and Foster-Parents and Churros and the Sian Mountains. But that love
gave her new strength and eased the hurt a bit. When she opened her eyes, she found Link smiling at her. He gave her a sage nod and left it as that.

They walked deeper into the mountain, down a spiral staircase that curved in and about itself. Bright lights lit the way and made the walls glow. Sisi could see her reflection in the smooth, polished rock. Her face was different from the girl who left Churros; it was leaner, more sober, more serious. She missed the girl who put together ensembles of clothes and who looked over the valleys with a map…

The map…She put a hand on her cloak’s pocket and felt the edge of the scroll box within it. So at least she hadn’t lost it in her trip over the Sea. Perhaps later, she could show Link. Maybe he could find a way to get that cursed map to stop singing.

Soon, they reached a huge common room with trestle benches and tables padded with leather. All eyes turned to them as they walked through the threshold. Sisi felt her face flush with shyness and embarrassment and darted behind Link. He laughed and put a gentle hand on the top
of her head.

“Youngsters, we have a new one. Her name is Sisi, and her Dragon is Drianeh. This is her first time here and she’s very tired and confused. Can anyone help her get settled in?”

“I can,” piped a voice near the back of the room. A short, squat girl with curly red hair bounced in front of them. She peered around Link to see Sisi. “Hi there. I’m Nonnie. Are you hungry? You can sit next to me; we’re having a special treat tonight.”

“All right,” Sisi said. Nonnie offered her hand, and drew Sisi to her table. Sisi saw Link smile at her and mouth, “I’ll be back.”, then he ducked through the doorway.

“Link’s really nice, but we don’t get to see him very often,” said Nonnie. “He kinda comes and goes. So, you’re Sisi? Here, sit down next to me. That’s a nice dress you have on, and those boots! Wow, we don’t have boots like that where I come from. It’s too hot for ‘em. Heyla, make room, make room for Sisi, people.”

Nonnie immediately introduced her seatmates: Coren, Jay-Jay, Lupita. They gave her an enthusiastic welcome with hugs and kisses. Sisi accepted them, even when she felt bewildered by it. It was one thing that she was going to have to get used to, she guessed.

“Look, here comes the servers with the treat!” Lupita cried and she clapped her hands. She smiled at Sisi. “You are going to love this. Straight from the Fire Kitchen itself!”

The servers were other Rangers, dressed in fire-retardant clothes and heavy gloves. They carried ceramic platters of large oval-shaped, silver objects, and used long metal tongs to move one to each plate. Sisi stared at hers; it was HUGE, and how was she supposed to eat this? It was
too hot to hold; she could feel the steam radiating from it even here.

Coren gave her two metal implements. One had five points attached to a thin base, the other she recognized as a knife, but that was made completely of metal. “Here, let me show you how to do this. You put the fork in like this, so you can hold it still while you use the knife to cut
here, through the metal foil. You don’t eat the foil; it probably won’t make you feel good. But it’s what’s inside that’s yummy.”

Sisi watched him slice his oval-shaped thing open, and she saw flaky yellow filling inside. Coren reached onto the table and took a scoop of white topping, then plopped it on top of the gash he just made. Then he used the knife to cut pieces off a yellow, rectangular object and
put those pieces on top of the white topping. Finally, he sprinkled some green objects and some brown crunchy-looking shards on top of the whole confection.

As he did so, he describe what he was doing. “After you cut it open, you put some sour cream on it, too cool it down. Then you put some pats of butter like this—”

“Ah, butter! We used to have something like that in our village, but it was round, and made from yaks and goats!” Finally, a familiar concept in all this strangeness!

“Here, it’s made from cows—”

“What’s a cow?”

“They don’t have cows where you come from? Hum…” Coren looked over at Jay-Jay, who was already tearing into his food. “Um, Jay-Jay, how would you describe a cow to someone who only knows yaks and goats?”

Jay-Jay pulled his fork out of his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Well,” he drawled, "it’s kinda like a yak, but with not so much fur, and it’s white with black spots. It gives milk and cheese like a goat, except it’s a different-tasting kinda milk and cheese. Cows eat grass, and not only do they give milk and cheese, but they give meat as well. So that’s a cow. It’s a hairless yak, I suppose.“

Sisi nodded and smiled. "I understand.”

“Anyway, as Jay-Jay said, these cows give us milk and butter, like this. And then you put chives—that’s this green topping—and bacon bits, that’s the brown, crunchy stuff. Bacon comes from pigs…those are fat pink animals that we also get meat from.”

“No milk?”

“No, unless you’re a little piglet gettin’ milk from its momma,” Jay-Jay said.

“Then you mix all the stuff up…like this…and scoop it up with your fork…like this, then put it in your mouth…careful, it still might be hot, and voila.” Coren chewed the mixture contentedly.

Sisi still eyed her silver-wrapped oval thing with some trepidation, but she carefully dissected it just like Coren did, and put the butter and the cream and the toppings, and scooped some of it on her fork and blew on it a little—it was still hot—and cautiously put in her mouth, and chewed.

It didn’t taste too bad. Rather heavy, maybe, but no more than breakfast porridge. She took another bite, and another, and soon was halfway through her food.

“See, she likes it! Sisi likes it!” Lupita crowed.

“What is this?” Sisi asked.

Nonnie grinned and said, “Well, everyone, it’s called—”

They leaped from the trestle tables and sang, “Hot Potato Hot Potato, Hot Potato Hot Potato, Hot Potato, Hot Potato, Potato, Potato, Potato!” Their song-and-dance brought laughter and applause from the other diners as they sat back into their seats.

Sisi stared at them. “Hot Potato? That’s what it’s called?”

“It is better that what the Water Rangers get,” Lupita said, “They think cold sea spaghetti is a delicacy.”

“And the Earth Rangers get mashed bananas,” added Coren, with a disgusted face.

Sisi blinked. “Then what do the Air Rangers eat?”

“Something called Fruit Salad—”,“ answered Nonnie.

"Yummy Yummy!” they all chorused, but with a touch of sarcasm.

“They’re all vegetarians over there. Helps clear the mind for their meditations. Bunch of Airheads, I think,” Nonnie went on.

“Hey, they aren’t that bad. You never know when you or your dragon might need a change in wind direction,” Jay-Jay pointed out. “I’ve got friends over there.”

Sisi listened to all this, but quietly chewed on her Hot Potato. Despite her misgivings, it was good. And filling.

She had never had such a delicacy before; no wonder the Fire Rangers considered it a treat. It even earned itself a song; granted it was as annoying as the Map Song, but it did have a catchy tune that stuck in one’s head for hours.

“Sisi, do you have any songs where you come from?”

She started at the question. They were all looking at her, so she said, “My Foster-Mother used to sing all the time…since we’re talking about food, well, she had a song about chaochaou.”

Coren blinked. “What’s that?”

“It’s a drink…” she tried to describe it to someone who had never seen it before. “It’s brown and made out of hard nut, the juice is mixed with spices, and it’s very good, but it makes you nervy…”

Jay-Jay frowned. “Chocolate?”

“Cho-kou-latte.”

“It’s a kind of milk.”

“No, Jay-Jay, it’s not made of milk; cow, yak or otherwise.” She sighed in frustration. “It’s—“ then she broke out into song: “Chaochaou, Chaochaou, Chaochou, Chaochou, DRINK! Chaochaou, Chaochaou, Chaochaou, DRINK!”

Utter silence. “That’s it?” Nonnie said, mystified.

“That’s it,” Sisi replied proudly.

The other Rangers looked at each other for a long moment, then Coren said slowly, “It sounds like coffee, Nonnie. She says it makes you nervy…it’s brown and made from something small. And the word is similar.”

Sisi blinked in the sudden silence and immediately wished she hadn’t said anything. Coren smiled and waved a hand at one of the servers. “Lanie, two cups of coffee, please. Sisi, this is a drink from where I come from. I want you to tell me if this is it.”

A minute later, Lanie slid two steaming cups of brew in front of them. The earthy smell brought tears to Sisi’s eyes, and she sipped at it: thick and sweet. “Yes, yes, this is very similar, Coren! My Foster-Father makes this and sells it at the yukka, and serves it hot, and everyone in the village drinks it, and he makes other drinks too, some that I can drink, some I can’t. I usually can’t drink this, because it makes me too nervy, but it reminds me of home, and it might be the only thing that—“

Her rambling words stumbled over each other and became a muddle, and Coren reached over to her and gave her a hug. Her veneer of calm shattered and she cried like a little baby as the homesickness and fear finally washed over her like a tsunami.

“You know, you’re so brave,” Nonnie said as she placed a hand on her shoulder. “We Fire Rangers have a lot of passion, a lot of chutzpah, and some of the other Elemental Rangers call us reckless. We tend to hide all our worries under a facade. You don’t. I respect that.”

Sisi sniffed and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “I feel so horrible—“

”Don’t be. We aren’t scared of emotions, like some others,” Coren said with a laugh. “We laugh, we cry, we argue and make up, we sing, and in general—“

”WE ARE LOUD,” the entire room chorused, then burst out into claps and applause.

Sisi felt a new smile steal across her lips. They reminded her so much of Foster-Mother Tatara and Tatara’s relatives…colorful, loud, and always looking for an excuse for a festival. Meng Pao and the Churro reminded her of solid Earth: rock-steady and reliable, but very reserved.

Lupita finished her Hot Potato and said, “You know, we are due for a new uniform design, and I can see you have an eye for color. Would you like to help?”

Sisi’s smile grew wider. “Yes, of course I will!”

Jay-Jay said it for all of them. “I think it’s the beginning of a wonderful friendship.”

Link brought her to her new quarters, a room right between Lupita’s and Nonnie’s, which consisted of a bed, clothing chests, a writing desk, and a little oil lamp. The bed had fluffy pillows and thick blankets that she had been used to in her family’s tent.

“I thought you might want some things from home,” Link said.

“Thank you, sir. I don’t know what to say—“

”Tomorrow, I’ll be back to show you your classes. Nonnie and Lupita will help you settle in tonight. It will be a brand new life for you, Little Sisi.”

“I think I’ll be all right, sir.”

“Then good night, and I will see you on the morrow, then.” Link inclined his head to her, then turned and headed for the door. As he went, he reached into his black jacket and took out a oval-shaped fabric. With a flick of his wrist, the fabric popped up into a tall, cylindrical hat, which he placed on his head as soon as he cleared the doorway.

Nonnie and Lupita came and showed her the outdoor pools. The Ranger compound was situated near a natural hot spring, heated by a nearby volcano, and the pools were filled with hot water for washing. The trio talked as they soaped and rinsed and Sisi learned much about her newfound friends.

Nonnie was from a place called Florida, as warm and humid as Churro was cold and bone dry. She talked about living right on the ocean, where people swam and ate food caught directly from the water. She had enjoyed something called parasailing, gliding in the air with a huge wing and pulled by a boat on the water. Her Dragon had saved her when her safety harness had snapped and she fell from a great height from the sky. He had taken her through her own Passage through an icy wasteland, where she had faced her own fears of falling, before she arrived here.

Lupita belonged to a tribe called the Aztecas, a grand empire that encompassed thousands of villages. Her father had been a priest, her mother an oracle. One day, a rival priest drugged her mother and told her that the only way to avoid a plague was to sacrifice her only daughter. So Lupita was readied for the sacrifice, and marched up the steep stone steps to her doom.

Of course, Teztlpotl, her Dragon, had other plans for her, sweeping her off the stone altar before her grieving father plunged the knife into her heart, and taking her to her own Passage through the Jungle of Death, to confront her own fears of betrayal and anger, before she too, ended here, with the Fire Rangers.

Sisi listened to these tales with awe. It made her own journey and Passage seem simple in comparison, but she relented to tell it when the other two begged. Nonnie whistled in admiration.

“It seemed so simple, but I would’ve been terrified. It takes a lot to trust your Dragon not to let you fall. I had to do that with SurferDude.”

“SurferDude is the name of your Dragon?” Sisi asked.

“Yeah, it was the screen name of a guy I once knew, who surfed the waves at Key Largo, tanned hunk with a great big…surfboard.” Nonnie waggled her eyebrows. “Anyway, SurferDude lives up to the name, rides through the air like a great dolphin, that’s a beautiful fish, Sisi, I wish I could take you to see them.”

Lupita smiled. “Tetzlpotl came to me in the guise of a great phoenix bird…um—“

”I know what a phoenix bird is, Lupita,” Sisi told her.

“I thought I had already arrived in the Hall of the Gods, but of course, I serve the Gods instead with my life.” Lupita sighed and stretched her long, lean body. “I’m for my rest, so good night to you all.”

“Good night, Lupita.”

“Fair the night, Lupita.”

Nonnie turned to Sisi and said, “It’s getting late, we should go to bed too. It’ll be a busy day tomorrow.”

Sisi only nodded in agreement.

Posted 149 weeks ago

New creative blog...

Yup, after a VERY long summer hiatus, I’m back with creating stuff. This blog is basically my creative journal. Anything is fair game…writing prompts, long-range plans, sketches, doodles, etc.

My art gallery is here: An Eighth Shot of Espresso Art Gallery

Anything goes…see ya in a bit.

Posted 149 weeks ago

 

 
 
 
 
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