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.


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