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