Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fantasy Architecture and Then Some...

I bought this book today: How To Draw and Paint Fantasy Architecture by Rob Alexander. I'm a fan of his books, having Drawing and Painting Landscapes and Cityscapes (with Martin McKenna) and Otherworlds: How to Imagine, Paint and Create Epic Scenes of Fantasy. His artwork is breathtaking both in the colors and the depth. In each book, Alexander covers art techniques like the pros/cons of various media (oil, acrylic, pastel, digital), perspective, color theory, and composition. 

The Fantasy Architecture book also includes a chapter on "Introduction to Architecture". It includes the trademark features of buildings from various cultures:

  • Middle Eastern buildings use domed roofs, tall minarets (towers) and precise, mathematical decorations that repeat over and over. An example of that is the Hagia Sophia mosque.  
  • Romanesque buildings usually have rounded arches, thick wall and small windows. The doorways are usually squat and heavy, since the shape and the height of the buildings are fixed ratios. Churches in Rome use arcading, which are rows of columns with archways in between them. These formed walkways (such as in monasteries) or architects set them flush against a wall (those are called blind arcades).
  • Gothic cathedrals have the high arches, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and wall mouldings (think Notre Dame in Paris). Those high arches, buttresses and vaults helped expand the interior space and allowed plenty of light through stained-glass windows. These buildings stretched gracefully towards the sky, the complete opposite of the Romanesque design.
  • Mesoamerican temples (Aztec, Mayan or Incan) are low and wide, instead of tall and high. They have highly decorated walls and lintels; the carvings tell important stories about the people's history.  Each major temple, stelae (stone markers) and the ball court were geometrically placed to reflect Heaven and the Underworld.   
  • Viking architecture used stave posts and wooden wall beams with low, sloping roofs. 
  • Asian buildings also have distinctive sloping roofs, and were mostly constructed out of wood instead of stone. Many doors were circular instead of square (those are called moon portals). Round-arched bridges symbolized the path between Heaven and Earth. Both Asian and Viking styles emphasized an integration with nature, instead of replacing or destroying it.

The book has plenty of examples of each type of architecture, which can inspire artists (and writers) to imagine their own based on them.

One helpful chapter of the book talks about the details and textures of various building materials. How can an artist portray a well-worn wooden chest?  A carved wooden lintel? A rugged stone wall? A brick arch that's falling apart and overgrown with weeds? A thatched roof? A plaster ceiling? A marble column? What about a Roman mosaic or tiled floor? What if the building's been gutted by fire and it's been damaged by smoke and soot? Alexander describes how an artist can convey their imaginary world through realistic art techniques.

A word of caution: this book is excellent for reference, but I wouldn't recommend this for complete beginners. It assumes at least a working knowledge of basic concepts like the values of lights, shadow and tone. If you're interested in how to convey your fantasy world in a realistic style, pick up this book. 


Preview: Cover of upcoming haiku poetry collection, " Under the Sakura Tree"



"Under the Sakura Tree"


© 2011 by A. Dameron


Here is the cover to my upcoming haiku poetry collection, "Under the Sakura Tree". Sakura is the Japanese word for cherry blossom. The tree and its flowers represent hardiness, beauty and grace. Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry. Although there are many variations of it, one of the most common (and familiar to Westerners) is the three line, five-seven-five syllable form. Five syllable for the first line, seven for the second, and five for the third. 

Haiku is a form of waka (Japanese poetry).

Choka is a poem with 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second, and alternates 5-7 until the last three lines, which are 5-7-7.

Tanka is another form of waka, with the pattern 5-7-5-7-7.

Targeted date of release:first week of September 2011.


Preview: Cover of upcoming short story collection, " A Patchwork of Life"


"A Patchwork of Life"


© 2011 by A. Dameron, all rights reserved.


Here is the cover of my short story collection, "A Patchwork of Life", soon to be on The collection includes 7 tales, each told from the perspective of an 'ordinary' person, including a special needs student, a hotel maid, and a bride-to-be on her wedding day. This cover is an actual painting of mine, done for this particular e-book.

Targeted date: by the end of the first week of September 2011.



Preview: Cover of upcoming short story collection, " A Patchwork of Life"


"A Patchwork of Life"


© 2011 by A. Dameron, all rights reserved.


Here is the cover of my short story collection, "A Patchwork of Life", soon to be on The collection includes 7 tales, each told from the perspective of an 'ordinary' person, including a special needs student, a hotel maid, and a bride-to-be on her wedding day. This cover is an actual painting of mine, done for this particular e-book.

Targeted date: by the end of the first week of September 2011.



Preview: Cover of upcoming short story collection, " A Patchwork of Life"



Here is the cover of my short story collection, "A Patchwork of Life", soon to be on The collection includes 7 tales, each told from the perspective of an 'ordinary' person, including a special needs student, a hotel maid, and a bride-to-be on her wedding day. This cover is an actual painting of mine, done for this particular e-book.

Targeted date: by the end of the first week of September 2011.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Some of my favorite artists' Facebook pages (Part II)

Like the previous post, this is NOT meant to be comprehensive, but a sampling of some of my favorite artists and artisans on Facebook. Check out their pages and give them your support! Thanks! If you want your FB page/website page/blog included in my upcoming Links Page, drop me a line at or DM me on twitter at @ladyrainbow! 


Art and Illustration:

Arty Aitch: link

Lesley Atlansky Art: link

Julia Crossland Art: link

Jennifer Donald Art: link

Gregos Art: link

Healing with Art (Emelisa Mudle): link

As I Am, Reborn: The Art of Nyela: link

Robin Maria Pedrero: link

Art and Design by Sand625 (Sandra Lock): Link 

David Sandum Art: link

Marcaeus Yates: link


Creative Business:

ABC Creativity (Andrea Schroeder): link

Crafty Chica (Kathy Cano-Murillo): link (Leonie Dawson): link

SARK: (Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy): link



ArtsCow: link

Itsamistry Design Studio: link

Maimy: link

Variya Hand-Crafted Jewelry: link



Mestari Designs: link


Cryptic Fragments/Tammy Winand : link



Dirty Girl Pottery: link



Xenographics: link


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Some of my favorite artists' websites, portfolios and galleries

Here are some of my favorite artists' websites, portfolio and galleries. This isn't comprehensive, but just a short list I put together.


Fantasy art:

Rob Alexander:

Nick Bantock: ("Griffin and Sabine Trilogy)

Ben Boos:***

***He wrote and illustrated the beautiful book Swords. Tragically, his life was cut short in June 2011, but his legacy lives on.

David Cherry:

Jonny Duddle:

Durwaigh Studios:

Nick Harris:

Tom Kidd:

Howard Lyon:

Boris Vallejo:

Helen Ward:

Kieran Yanner


Fantasy/Filk (music)

Firebirds Art and Music:



Brom Art and Gallery:

Matt Dixon:

Martin McKenna:

Anne Stokes:


Fairy Art:

Myrea Petit:

Linda Ravencroft:

Fairies World


Manga/Comic Books:

Rod Espinosa:

Andy Fish:



Alan Ayers:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Some exciting admin news:

Updated my author website: Check it out! I'm pretty excited about some news: Soon to be on poetry collection "From the Sakura Tree" (Haiku) and my short story collection "A Patchwork of Life." 

New feature to begin in Sept. "Weekly Highlights" FAQ on site Authors, artists, other creatives interested in being spotlighted on

my site, please contact me. Please spread the word! Thanks!

From my sketchbook...a snapshot of my creative process

Countryside (Draft)

rough draft of future painting


I don't normally post sketches or rough drafts because they rarely look anything like the finished product. This time, I'd like to share some aspects of my creative process when I draw or paint. It shares some similarities with my writing process, with a few differences.

"Countryside" will be a painting, either oil or acrylic (haven't decided yet). A river runs through a small settlement in the mountains. The landscape highlights the daily life of the inhabitants and their simple, yet mystical architecture. This is connected with a new fantasy novel series that's in the planning stages right now. The first book takes place mostly in a land similar to Ancient China, with some touches of ancient Persia.

Here's another page from my sketchbook, this time dealing with some architecture:



Architecture1 (Draft)

I've always been fascinated by the structure of buildings, gardens and fountains. In fact, I had serious considered becoming an architect/graphic designer type while in college (I was at the right place for it: Virginia Tech). For this project, I've consulted books and internet sites about East Asian temples (like the Vietnamese and Thai pagodas, the sketch on the left), Chinese and Japanese Buddhist temples, and Roman temples. The small pyramid on the bottom right was borrowed from the Egyptian. History has given us plenty of skilled and innovative architects, from Imhotep to Frank Lloyd Wright. 

When I imagine a fantasy culture, I make a list of important Things To Keep in Mind (capital letters). Setting is an important component, as well as character (what does he/she/it do for a living? What kind of personality do they have? How do they interact with other characters?). Language plays a role and social structure, like a class system, influences the characters and the plot. Painting and writing have to convey this through visual means, either on the canvas or on the page.

I'll post updates on this process as they happen. :-D


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Lessons learned from a dysfunctional laptop...

laptop. Yes, this is a confession. 

The kids dumped water on my old laptop about a week and a half ago. The power supply shorted out and made it completely useless. When the smell of burning plastic wafts past your nose, that's pretty much an indication that it's time to hold an electronic funeral. I still had WIPs in various stages trapped on the harddrive. Since Hubs is a computer software engineer, I hoped he would manage to save those lost files.

He did, but it took a little while. In the meantime, I had to use his computer. It wasn't a problem at first, but eventually, Hubs got tetchy about the amount of time I spent on it. Of course, he never actually said to me, "Get off my computer." Sometimes, the unspoken is louder than the spoken. I had to be mindful of just getting on to check e-mail and touch base with other creatives. So writing, blogging and processing art took a hiatus for nearly a week and a half. Thank goodness for the ability to schedule blog posts for the future.

Eventually, we managed to find a laptop that I liked. It was out of stock in Best Buy, and I actually considered getting another make and model. Not my first choice; the keyboard was arranged in a weird way (the F1-F12 keys were integrated with the number keys, plus some other quirks that I wasn't used to). When Hubs tried to purchase that one, there was a mix-up with the Best Buy credit card he tried to use.

We went home without a laptop. I was frustrated as Hubs tried to get through to BB's Customer Service. Eventually, the mess was straightened out. He searched around the net and found that the original model of laptop (the one I liked) was available at a different store. This time, Hubs called the store to make sure it was THERE before he took the time and effort to drive out there.

By the time the day was over, I had my new laptop in hand. Hubs also purchased an external harddrive with certain connections to retrieve the lost data from the old laptop. I was relieved that it wasn't confined to the ether...I was afraid it'd been lost forever.

Lessons learned during this episode:

1) I spent more time scribbling in my various sketchbooks. Now I have several 'drafts' for future drawings and paintings.

2) Writing longhand isn't as much of a pain as it was. Then again, I've always carried a notepad and pen with me wherever I go. 

3) Kids can spark the most unorthodox ideas, without even trying.

4) Never mess with a software engineer's computer. Just don't. Even if it's completely by accident.

5) It's amazing how much housework gets done when you're (temporarily) electronically stuck.

6) Patience is a virtue, but it's a learned virtue. 

and last, but not least,

7) If the kids can tolerate episodes of Doctor Who, I can tolerate unendless repetitions of Wiggles videos.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Muse Returns (Poetry)

The pen,

silent for so long,

chatters so quickly--

it cannot stop!

I humor it like a child,

let it spin tall tales,

listen to it as it invents friends

and foes from long ago,

and places that do not exist,

until it pauses for breath

and plows on, unheeding.

It takes me like a lover,

but instead of draining me,

it infuses me with power.

The nib scratches, the ink blotches,

worlds collide.

The reality is here and now,

long ago and far away.

Years before and years beyond:

Reality transformed.

Ma Belle Paris (Poetry)

Ma chere.

Ma bon amis.

The Frenchman greets the night

with a rose in his teeth

and a small tune in his heart.

Goodness overflows

like red wine,

and just as intoxicating.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Questions (Poetry)

Where will you be,

light years from now?

A cosmic speck

in the universe.


Where will you go,

hours from now?

Round the corner

to fetch a glass of milk.


Where will you stand,

minutes from now?

Under a bridge

as the rain patters down.


Where will you cry,

seconds from now?

Up to the heavens,

so cold and so blue.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Snippet: Weapon of Vengeance

The smell of rain mixed with the dust of the Frontier Graveyard. Gray ash floated in the wind to settle into drifts like dirty snow. Crosses teetered on the mounds, but didn't fall. Those of questionable faith ended up here, between Heaven and Hell, with Earth in between.

Lucy Belladon rode the unpaved road towards the graveyard. Her homespun shirt and pants used to be white, but its original color was lost under layers of grime. Lucy wore her hat low on her brow, like the other drovers. She longed for the open range, but there was something she had to do first.

Telemachus snorted as he stopped at the gate. Lucky dismounted and patted him before walking into the Graveyard.Her eyes scanned the unmarked graves. "Fourth from the left, straight on till sunset," she murmured to herself.

The fourth grave from the left had a huge dirt mound over it. Lucy stood next to it, then oriented herself until she faced west. She followed the long lines of drunken crosses until she came upon the last one. The pale lines of a dying sun turned the earth bloody. She stared at the recently turned plot for a long moment.

"Forgive me," she murmured again.

Lucy knelt at the grave, took a deep breath and plunged her hands into the mound. The rancid smell assaulted her nose and bile rose within her stomach. Still, she scratched and scraped through the pile, clawing away the clods. Finally, a gray hand appeared, clutching a black scabbard. She dropped the limb and brushed the dust from the scabbard. Dark ebony, with caramel highlights, gold symbols etched along its length.

She slowly drew the weapon. The blade reflected the crimson sunset within its deep ruby shaft, glittering like congealed blood.

Lucy held the sword to her face in salute. "Thank you...I will not fail."

Behind her, the first drops of rain fell into the ruin of decaying bones.

Story Snippet: Cold Glass (1)

She could hear him, but she could not see him.

The footsteps echoed silently in her blood. She kept still and listened. the air congealed all around her, turning every breath into frosty smoke. She found herself praying to childhood gods, begging their protection. Please, please, please, don't let him find me...

Him. Him, with a capital "H". It was Him, the one with no name. He knew her every move, every moment, in this world and the next. Always watching, waiting for the ultimate mistake. She knew He was there, knew it without looking. Inner Sight told her so. She knew every inch of His body and Soul and that frightened her, to have that much power and still keep sane.

She curled herself up into a tight ball. The presence grew closer, so close that she could feel His touch. Her throat closed in around itself, and smothered her cry for help. A gentle caress made her skin hot and cold at the same time. Intimate knowledge, His for the taking. She whispered in fear and longing. Then His hand closed upon her heart and squeezed it...


Her voice returned in a rush and she screamed. She flung the comforter away from her. A cool sea breeze fulttered the curtains and brought the sweet cries of sea gulls. Her head snapped towards the window at the raucous caws.

Morning. She was safe.


Agony (Poetry)

The pain makes me tremble.

It pierces with dull blades,

Sharp when water flows.

It burns my blood.

When my mind is clouded,

my body becomes a rod

attracting all kinds of thoughts.

My back feels heavy.

My legs sting.

The hornets hide in every crevice

and poke with awful sting.

My soul stands up against it,

saying, "No you don't

not this time."

But the shell I occupy

turns traitor.

and I crumble with little strength.

I rebel against my fate

and bear the agony alone,

hiding the ashes within my throat, 

withering slowly within my heart.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Silk Dragon, Part Seven (Nanowrimo 2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Lupita in any danger? Elisando asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And they grow stronger.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not for long.

Sisi! Sisi! I need your help!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Sisi heard herself screaming aloud.

“Sisi! Sisi! Wake up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be careful what you wish for, Freya.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...Mighty Thor, grant me your strength...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready, Thaddeus said for both of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or like a Silk Spirit Dragon, like Elisando.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Silk Dragon, Part Six (Nanowrimo 2006)

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.”

“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:


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.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a yak?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

Link sighed and rolled his eyes. “Children.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exquisite, Sadie. Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, what brings you in today.”

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

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

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

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

Sadie only looked at the two antagonists and watched.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You what?” Link repeated, aghast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Buffaloes? They ride buffaloes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Barbaric,” Link muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Link said. “Obviously.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about me, Juhatocal?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither of them noticed a tall black shadow following them.