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The Silk Dragon, Part Five
The next several weeks were busy, so busy that Sisi hardly was aware of the time flying by. Classes about Ranger history and politics, diplomacy and basic skills, such as reading, writing, doing math. Another one that everyone dubbed “The McGyver Course”, where you were given, say, a stick of dynamite, duck tape (Sisi discovered this invention, and agreed that the Goddess herself must have had a McGyver Moment), a pin and a rubber band, and you were supposed to make some kind of apparatus to heat water without blowing yourself up. Sisi rapidly lost her inhibitions and dreamed up all kinds of crazy things; she and Jay Jay had a friendly rivalry of whose inventions were the most outlandish and still functional.And there were the flying lessons. Drianeh and she had to learn how to work as a team. Sisi flew, exhilirated, as she guided Drianeh through the clouds. Her fear of falling still nagged at her, but she shoved it into one corner of her brain and ignored it. Her Dragon would not let her fall, and Drianeh did not. More complicated was the group maneuvers, with more than one rider and Dragon. Her leader, Kilbane and his Dragon Braveheart, drilled his flight group mercilessly. Like all the other Fire Rangers, Kilbane was a hearty, LOUD man with a heavy brogue, but he expected perfection from his Rangers. Sisi understood the penalties of poor judgment and timing; despite their bravado, Fire Rangers had a casualty rate double that of the other Elemental Rangers.Time ran differently here, at Fire Aerie, so Sisi dated her calendar based on her arrival, and the day she met Link and the others. She celebrated all the Dragon Days and Festivals she would have done, had she still lived in Churros. The memories gave her a sense of wistful loss (how old was Foster-Mother Tatara and Foster-Father Meng Pao? Did they ever recover from her disappearance? Was the yukka as successful as Meng Pao dreamed?) But they also gave her comfort. On the saddest days, Drianeh comforted her, and Nonnie, Jay-Jay, Coren and Lupita tried to cheer her up.Link appeared now and then, but his duties kept him away from the Fire Aerie for long stretches of time. His home base was Boojum Valley, home of the Earth Rangers, and Thaddeus’s mate and dragonlets lived there. The possibility of Drianeh ever having her own family thrilled Sisi to no end, but Drianeh wanted no part of any matchmaking.“When I find the right Dragon, I will know,” she kept repeating. “Till then, I am content to be at your side, Sisi.”“But you said you’ve been hatched-what?- four times? Haven’t you already had a family?”At that Drianeh laughed and shook her massive head. The horns on her forehead and spine glistened like the sun, and her reddish-gold scales gleamed in the light. She rolled onto her back and spread her wings out, like a sunbather catching some rays. Sisi curled up next to her under one of her forearms, being careful of the razor-sharp talons. The tufts of scarlet fur jiggled as Drianeh laughed again.“Age for us is not like for you,” she reminded Sisi. “Some of us go through nine, ten, hatchings before we settle down. Thaddeus is young, compared to most of us, since he doesn’t go through multiple hatchings. So he found a nice, stable Earth Dragon and has three generations of dragonlets. Link told me the other day that his eldest just finished training and is now a genuine Earth Elemental Dragon.”Sisi smiled at the thought. As she had discovered earlier, not all Dragons had Riders, and conversely, not all Rangers had Dragons. Drianeh’s brother and sister (whom Sisi had seen with Drianeh the day they saved Churro from the rockslide) were unpartnered and preferred to stay that way. Unpartnered Dragons were the explorers, the ones who founded new Aeries, and the ones who kept communications with the other Elementals. Some Rangers also stayed at the Aerie to teach; others partnered with other Elemental Familiars, such as FireCats, Hawks and Hounds.“How were you when you were a dragonlet, Drianeh?”“Oh, I was a mischievious little thing,” she answered happily. “I found the stores of lava rock under the Aerie and a few of us munched away till our tummies hurt. Google—that’s Jay Jay’s Dragon—is amazing at finding the most obscure things, and we spent a lot of time tracking them down, just to see if they were real. Google and Tetzlpotl are also my nest-mates...um...cousins, about as close as kin like your brother or sister. Ah, those were wonderful times. Tetzlpotl actually had a Ranger before Lupita, but that Ranger got stuck in the Mirror.”“The Mirror? What’s the Mirror?”Drianeh faced Sisi, and the Dragon’s face became sober. “Remember when I told you to close your eyes as we went through to the Passage, after I picked you up from Churro? That’s the Mirror. See, Tetzpotl’s first Ranger didn’t listen to the warning and went through the Mirror with her eyes open. Got stuck there between her world and ours. Not a pretty thing.”Sisi swallowed hard. “Is she...dead?”“If she isn’t by now—this is centuries ago, mind you—then she’s in madness, not knowing what’s real and what isn’t.” Drianeh shivered a little, although the weather was still warm. “Like I said, not a pretty thing. It seems like a minor request at the time, but it’s important. Tetzlpotl saw her close her eyes, so she went on through, and the poor girl opened her eyes before they reached safety.”“How often does it happen?”“More often than we care to admit. More often than anyone will tell you, that’s for sure, but the majority of the current Rangers did what they were told, and so are here.” Drianeh shook herself and the curtain of gloom disappeared from them. “Come on, Sisi, let’s think of other things. How about a little trip to the Practice Area for some barrel rolls and loops?”Sisi jumped up and clambered onto Drianeh’s back. They waddled to the Runway, where they lined up for takeoff. The Signaler gave them the all-clear, and after a running start, they launched themselves into the air.The Practice Area was a wide expanse of air reserved for maneuvers. Many Rangers came here to work with the Dragons. Sisi waved at her classmates as she and Drianeh jumped obstacles, flew through suspended tunnels, and popped balloons. Sisi closed her eyes and concentrated like her teachers had showed her and Saw the obstacles, the unexpected tunnel bends, and the lead trick balloons before they surprised her.“Hullo, Sisi,” came a voice. “How are ya?”Sisi turned to see a middle-aged man on a Dragon, brown-haired and boyish, wearing odd brown-colored clothes and a wide-brimmed hat. She had never seen him before, but the charm put her at ease right away.“Hello,” she replied.“Sisi, this is the Dragonlet Whisperer,” Drianeh said. “He’s amazing with all kinds of Dragons, and other kinds of Familiars. He’s in charge of the Aerie’s Zoo. DW, I thought you weren’t partnered with a Dragon. Did something happen?”“Aw, no, just borrowing this gorgeous girl for a little spin, Drianeh,” the Dragonlet Whisperer said. “Just wanted to let you know that Avonlea’s little ones are due to hatch any moment now. Would you and your Ranger like to see the tykes?”“Avonlea is another one of my nest-mates,” Drianeh explained, “and she laid a clutch of eggs not too long ago.”“Can we see them?” Sisi asked eagerly.“‘Course you can! Oh, and you can just call me DW, like everyone else. The one who stuck me with Dragonlet Whisperer had no idea what kinda mouthful it turned out to be.” DW grinned again. “Come on, and I’ll show ya round the Zoo. All right, Suuie, let’s go, girl.”Drianeh followed Suuie to the Zoo, which was located near the mineral springs on the southern side of the Aerie. It was a little Paradise, with plenty of water, trees and grass, and Sisi was amazed at the Familiars who roamed free on its grounds. As soon as they landed, a FireKitten half-meowed, half-roared a greeting, and jumped into DW’s arms. He laughed and ruffled the Kitten’s fur fondly.“Sisi, this is Wanda. She lost her mum in an accident in the North Spring, an’ we’ve been taking good care of her ever since. She’s kinda our mascot here. Wanna pet her?”
Cautiously, Sisi reached out and stroked Wanda’s soft fur. Wanda purred just like a normal kitten, and wriggled in DW’s arms until she exposed her tummy. Wanda opened her mouth...and startled Sisi with the sight of her four-inch incisors.“Eh, she’s just little girl. Gonna grow into those chompers. Never stick your fingers into her mouth; she’ll think you don’t need ‘em and use ‘em as a tasty snack.” DW gave her tummy a pat, then put her down. Wanda purred a farewell and slunk into the bushes.“‘Kay, the nursery’s over there. Careful where you step. Dragonlets can get pretty naughty, and they’re certified anklebiters.”DW hadn’t been kidding; Sisi felt little sharp beaks nip at her ankles as they walked through the Nursery. The dimly lit cave was extremely warm, and she wiped sweat from her forehead. Even Drianeh seemed a bit uncomfortable, but DW strode forward like he knew exactly where everything was, and the heat didn’t bother him a bit.They emerged into a huge cavern, where Avonlea lay with her clutch of eggs. Avonlea’s head darted up at their approach and she hissed in warning. DW stopped and raised his hands.“You’re all right, Avonlea. You’re all right, girl, we’re not gonna harm ya. You remember Drianeh, don’t ya?”Avonlea bobbed her head. “Hello, nest-mate. It’s been a little while, hasn’t it? I see you have a Ranger, that’s wonderful!”“I’m Sisi,” Sisi said. “DW said your eggs are going to hatch soon. May we watch?”“I could use the company. Drianeh, lay here next to me and tell me how you are. We must catch up. Doing egg-watch can get rather lonely at times. Sisi, DW, you can sit there. Don’t get too close.”“Always listen to the lady,” DW advised Sisi. “She’s got those maternal instincts. Nearly took my head off when we were making her little nest. I swear, I thought I was gonna be Dragon eats in sixty seconds.” He laughed and sat far enough away from Avonlea, but near enough to see the clutch of eggs. Sisi sat next to him and yes, she could see the clutch of eggs, nine or ten of them, large enough to make omlettes for the entire Ranger Corps.DW kept her entertained with stories about the Zoo and its denizens. Sisi heard the genuine affection for the Familiars in his voice, and the enthusiasm. She said that his job sounded like a lot of fun.“Yeah, it’s also a lot of work, though. Takes a lot of hard work, dedication and skill. The main Zoo is here at Fire Aerie, but each of the Elementals have their own sanctuary. Earth’s got all the burrowers, Air’s got anything with wings that isn’t a Dragon, Water’s got the ocean creatures and everything that swims. I don’t mind the Water one; I love to swim, but there are times when I get kinda nervy, but I get through it.”“Was that your Passage, DW?”“Yeah, but like I said, I got through it. I’m okay now.” DW shrugged and changed the subject. “I wonder when the Dragonlets are gonna come out. They’ve got to be positively broiling by now—“A slight tremor shook the cave, sending a shower of earth on them. Sisi blinked and brushed tiny stones out of her hair. DW glanced up at the ceiling with a frown. “That was odd. You feel that, Sisi?”“I did. What was that?”Avonlea hissed and curled her tail around her clutch of eggs. “Something’s not right, DW. The Dragonlets are too scared to come out. Something is going to happen.”Drianeh’s head bobbed around for a moment, then she said, “I feel it too. We must get the Nursery to safety.”Avonlea shook her head. “I can’t leave my Dragonlets.”“But we can’t stay here, either.” DW frowned again, closed his eyes and concentrated. A minute later, the air stirred as a group of mid-sized dragons appeared at the mouth of the cave. “We need to move the Nursery to the secondary zone, mates. Big Bloke, tell the mums to gather up their babies and move quickly.”As soon as the Dragons scattered, a group of FireCats appeared, then a group of Hawks. DW gave them their instructions, all business, and sent them on their way. Sisi watched him, mesmerized at the change from friendly jokester to serious Familiar rescuer.“Sisi, there are motherless eggs in the next cavern. Can you help me move them?”She bounced up, eager to help. “Just tell me what to do!”He led her to the next cavern, where clutches of eggs lay in padded nests. Sisi’s heart sank as she realized each one was the size of a small boulder. How could they get them all moved in time? Just as she thought this, another line of dragons lined up at the cave’s far entrance. Sisi recognized the leader and smiled.“Dragonlet Movers, you wrap ‘em, we ship ‘em,” Nonnie called out brightly. SurferDude bobbed his head in greeting. Tetzlpotl and Lupita stood right behind them. “Where do you want ‘em, DW?”“Need ‘em down in the Briney Grove; that should be far enough away. Can each one of you handle a clutch?”“Clutch and more, DW,” SurferDude rumbled. “Hand them to us and we’ll get them safe.”“Beauty, mates. Sisi, Nonnie, all you rest, come on, grab an egg.”They formed a line and passed the egg from one Ranger to another, then to the Dragon, who carefully held the eggs in its mouth and hands. Once the Dragon had all it could hold, its Rider mounted, and they flew off to the Briney Grove. The rescue line had to stop several times as more tremors rocked the cavern. Sisi took a deep breath and tried not to panic; the falling rock reminded her of Churros, and the rockslide...“That’s the last, DW,” said Coren, who was last in line with his Dragon, Dante. “You sure you don’t want to come along for the ride.”“Got Avonlea in the next cavern...Sisi, Drianeh and I will help her get out. Now go on, Coren. We’ll see ya in a bit.”“Be careful, DW. See you later, Sisi.” Coren gave her a look that melted her heart, before he turned and flew out of the cavern. The ground shook harder, and more debris rained down on them.When DW and Sisi returned to Avonlea, Drianeh and Suuie had already gathered up the clutch in their mouths and hands. Although Drianeh couldn’t speak aloud, Sisi heard her words: We must go, Sisi...the cavern is going to collapse! Sisi leaped onto Drianeh’s back, while DW clambered on Suuie’s, and off they went.Rocks and dirt fell all around them as they went through the twisting corridors, Sisi used her newfound tracking ability to negotiate around the barriers, even though she could barely see them. The walls seemed to narrow, the ceiling seemed to be bearing down on them. Sisi thought that this must be how it was in the path of that rockslide.They shot out of the cavern mouth a split second before the entrance tumbled down.
“We did it,” Sisi crowed triumphantly.Don’t celebrate too soon, warned Drianeh. Something’s going to—Sisi felt an electric charge on her skin, a crawly feeling that snaked down her nerves and made her hair stand up on end. As Drianeh, Suuie and Avonlea beat their massive wings against a steadily increasing wind, she could feel the effort it took to overcome the barriers. The clouds had already thickened into a black mass on the horizon, and a loud boom! Shook them all.“The Fire Aerie!” DW yelled over the gale. “By crikey, it’s falling!”Sisi looked over her shoulder. The mountain that held the Aerie was exploding from the inside, unleashing a roar of molten lava that rushed quickly down the slopes, incinerating the runways and oozing out of the passageways. Superheated steam rose into the air to meet the clouds, and jagged streaks of lightning creased the sky. It was a brilliant, and frightening spectacle to behold.“Did everyone get out?” Sisi cried.Yes, I think so. We were all worried about the eggs and the younglings. If we couldn’t have gotten them out, DW would’ve stayed behind to protect them. That’s the kind of person he is. Drianeh adjusted the clutch of eggs in her mouth. All right, we’ve got to Transition through another Mirror to get to the Grove...you know the drill. Shut your eyes when I tell you and DO NOT OPEN THEM TILL I TELL YOU.“I will,” Sisi promised. A quick check told her that Suuie had relayed the warning to DW; he glanced back at her and smiled in reassurance. Avonlea took the lead, and Sisi could feel the Dragon begin to bend space and time as the Portal began to form...A flash of lightning blinded Sisi and she reached out for another tuft of Drianeh’s mane. The sense of electricity increased, the air became heavy with ozone, stealing the breath from Sisi’s lungs. A part of her suddenly realized that it came from the Portal...Not the Portal...a Portal...right above us! Tendrils of power caressed her skin, but she resisted the urge to look up at it, lest she get stuck in Between...Warm air rushed past her, and the touch of another wing...Sisi, hard right, hard right! Follow Suuie!She automatically shifted her weight to counterbalance as Drianeh plunged into a steep dive. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw another Dragon in pursuit, with a rider, both all in black, and the Dragon’s eyes shone with an unholy light. Unlike Drianeh, the Black Dragon had full control over its talons and mouth, since it wasn’t encumbered with Dragon eggs.“Dragons of the Void!” DW screamed over his shoulder. “Bloody hell! They’ve planned this ambush!” He pulled Suuie into a tight loop and Sisi followed. Avonlea hovered nearby and tried to complete the Portal, but it wouldn’t be made in time...More static danced on Sisi’s skin...Oh, yak turds, not another one. Gods, if we really need you, we need you now!” And another Portal opened, again, right above her....and this time a voice invaded her consciousness...Look up, Sisi. Look up, look up, look up...“Eat YAK BUTT!” she shrieked, and tore her gaze away. Drianeh plunged into another dive, with two Black Dragons on their tail.“Avonlea, where’s that Portal?” DW hollered.I’m working as fast as I can, DW...all this atmospheric interference is affecting it, we might end up Goddess knows where...“We can’t hold out much longer! Get the damn thing open!” DW spun Suuie into another loop and charged the two Black Dragons on Sisi’s tail; the enemy hadn’t expected such a suicidal move and scattered in his wake. DW embodied the Fire Ranger quality of recklessness, but this recklessness had a purpose.“Hang on, Sisi! When I tell you to duck, do it! One, two...duck!”Sisi reacted without thought. Suuie shoved a Black Dragon away from Sisi’s head...about a foot above her head. The Black Dragon spun out of control, upended its rider, and plunged into a wild spin towards the ground. DW pulled up and slammed his balled fist into the side of a second Black Dragon’s head; the unexpected move paralyzed the Rider long enough for DW to sweep him off his seat.He should’ve been an active Ranger, Sisi thought disjointedly. He’s got some flying skills.He’s gentle at heart, but whenever his Familiars, or his friends, are threatened, he gets fierce, Drianeh agreed, but he shies away from hurting anyone unless he can’t help it.Finally, Avonlea let out a short hiss of triumph. It’s up, It’s up!“Run for it!” DW yelled.Avonlea plunged into the portal. The Black Dragons realized that their prey was escaping and sped up the chase. Sisi could see the edges of the Portal, and Drianeh screamed in her mind, Now, Sisi! CLOSE YOUR EYES!Sisi squeezed her eyes shut as Drianeh beat her wings. She could feel the Portal opening to Transport them...Something slammed into Drianeh’s side just as they entered and Sisi heard a loud crack! Of thunder. Drianeh screamed and her head jerked upwards in agony; she lost her hold on the precious eggs and they spun out into the Portal like falling snow. Drianeh tried to stay upright, but they were losing altitude, and Sisi felt her fingers slipping from their precarious grip on Drianeh’s fur.Drianeh! Sisi screamed. She Felt the Fire Dragon’s agony through her own body; a rib, maybe more, was broken, and the horrible pain threatened to overwhelm her. Drianeh tried to push it away long enough to go through the Transition, but it rose to overwhelm her, like a swimmer overwhelmed by a tsunami wave, and trapped in its undertow.Sisi, I’m so...sorry...Forgive me...Sisi’s world spun and Drianeh tumbled wildly into space. Finally, a massive jolt tore her hold from Drianeh and she was freefalling into the blackness. Her mind screamed incoherently as the warm connection she had with her Fire Dragon snapped, and left her cold. She was going to die, or go mad...she wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep her eyes closed...if she opened them, she would be Stuck and never get out...Then she struck something soft and warm, like a bed of feather pillows. It was enough to jolt the wind from her body. That warmth stole into her soul, easing the agony of Drianeh’s passing; the sharp edges were no longer so sharp, and a gentle clouding passed over her brain. Sisi suddenly forgot how it felt to die.Drianeh, Drianeh, we only had a few months together...Ah, Gods, I didn’t realize how much you meant to me...why didn’t I go too? A part of her had died, and would never return.Drianeh has gone to the Hall of the Gods, Little One, but I am here. And I will take up where my spirit-sister has left off.Then reality reformed around them, and they emerged into bright sun and the scent of fresh flowers. Sisi just lay there, unmoving, unable to comprehend what just happened to her. Then feeling flowed back into her, and she opened her sore, gritty eyes.And she was flying in the air. By herself.That woke her up completely, and she sat up. She was sitting on...nothing.Well, not totally nothing... Sisi saw the faintest outlines of a head hovering in front of her, and a spiny ridge on a long, serpentine neck. The sound of wings beating the air echoed all around her. It Felt like she was riding on a Dragon.
An invisible Dragon????“Yak’s teeth,” she whispered, but the obscenity fell flat. “Where are you?”“I’m here,” said a light voice, the sound of water on rock. And the Dragon began to fill out its outline, a dragon as translucent as crystal, with tufts of fur like strands of silk. Its wings whispered like the thinnest of gossamer fabric, and the sunlight shone brilliant upon its horns.His horns.His? The Dragon turned and looked at her with amber-green eyes, and it raised a talon to touch Sisi’s cheek. It was like someone had smacked her on the back of a head with a board, or like she was kicked by an overenthusiastic horse. But the sense of belonging was there, the sense of welcome, and Sisi reached out and touched the talon. She could feel Drianeh’s approval and love for a single moment, then it faded, and all that was left was this Dragon.“My name is Elisando, and I am a Silk Dragon.”
Elisando and Sisi touched down in the Grove, amid the cheers and whispered concerns of all the other Fire Rangers. Link strode through the crowd, followed by a brown-haired woman in a white uniform and smock. The onlookers parted to allow them through. Link carefully put his hands on Sisi’s shoulders and helped her down on solid ground. Her legs refused to support her, and she collapsed in Link’s embrace in a geyser of tears. Link said nothing, but only held her tighter.“We thought we’d lost you,” he finally whispered. “Avonlea made it through and she told us what happened...DW and Suuie and the other Fire Rangers tried to look for you and couldn’t find you. We thought you were lost in the Mirror.”“I...almost was,” Sisi croaked. She looked up to see Nonnie, Lupita, Coren and Jay-Jay, DW and all the other Rangers were gathered around. She cleared her throat and told them what had happened. No one said a word as her voice cracked when she told them about Drianeh, and how Elisando had retrieved her.“Elisando?” Jay Jay asked. “Where is he?”“Here,” came the deep bass voice, and Elisando solidified next to him. Jay-Jay yelped and literally jumped back a pace, and his Dragon Google kept him from falling. The other Rangers stared at the crystalline Dragon in pure surprise.“By Crikey,” DW whispered. “That’s a Silk Dragon you’ve got there, Sisi, a fair dinkum Silk Dragon manifestation of Spirit. Check out those claws! I’d heard of ‘em, but I didn’t knew they actually existed...”Elisando actually smiled at him. “We only manifest ourselves in times of great need, Dragonlet Whisperer. Usually, we ride on the winds and safeguard all life, without making ourselves known.” He looked up at Link. “We need to gather a Council, Link, of all the Elemental Rangers. What happened to Fire Aerie will happened to the others, if we don’t stop the Dragons of the Void now.”Link’s face was very grave as he nodded. “I’ll call them immediately, Silk Dragon.”“Please, call me Elisando. No ceremony among friends, after all.”Sisi’s whisper was still threadbare. “What about the eggs, Link? Did—“DW put a hand on her shoulder. “We got ‘em all, safe and sound, all but the ones Drianeh were carrying.” His eyes became sad. “I’m really sorry, Sisi. I saw that Dragon of the Void whiplash his tail and catch Drianeh in the side as you were Transitioning and—“ he shook his head. “Anyway, Avonlea’s with her little ones now. They’re all safe.”“And with people like the Dragonlet Whisperer, a new generation of Fire Dragons will soon take to the skies again,” said Elisando. His pronouncement stirred a round of applause among the exhausted Fire Rangers.“Why did the Dragons of the Void strike now?” Nonnie demanded, her eyes filling with tears. “Why destroy Fire Aerie? They’ve been silent for centuries, why now?”Elisando turned to look at her. “Because they’ve been quietly gathering their power, and now have decided this is their time. My Spirit Brethren have managed to pen them in their own dimension—“”Until now,” Coren said quietly.Sisi leaned against Elisando, exhaustion catching up to her in waves. The Silk Dragon wrapped a protective tail around her. “She needs rest and assistance; we must take care of her. She is our only hope.”The brown-haired woman with the white uniform placed a hand on his tail. “I am a nurse, please let me help her. I cannot help her if you don’t allow me.” Elisando gave the briefest of hesitations, then relaxed his tail. The nurse let Sisi lean on her for support. “There’s a good girl, here, lean on me, we’ll take care of you—“”I’m Sisi,” Sisi whispered. “Who are you?”The nurse smiled and said, “I’m Clara, and I’ll make sure you’ll be all right.”