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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.

 To see my Art gallery: here

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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 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 166 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 166 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 166 weeks ago

 

 
 
 
 
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