Clara the Nurse put some antiseptic on the scratches on her arms and legs, and she gave Sisi a tonic that helped her sleep. But her dreams were plagued by the memory of Drianeh spinning out into space between Worlds. She was trapped in a dark, windy tunnel with no way out, and evil voices changed, “Open your eyes, Sisi. Open your eyes.”Then Drianeh came. She soothed the pain and the hurt and said some things that Sisi remembered clearly. Drianeh told her to trust Elisando and her own instincts, to stand against those who would undermine her, and to listen to Link, DW and the others who had her best interest at heart.“How do I know who has my ‘best interest at heart’,Drianeh?” she asked, frustrated. “Everyone wants to help me, or everyone wants to ignore me. I’m so confused; what do they want? I’m just another Ranger....”“Not anymore, Sisi. Not ‘just another Ranger’.” Drianeh twitched her jowls as if trying to hold back laughter. “You’re a rarity, Sisi. Not many Rangers are picked by a Silk Spirit Dragon. It means you’re destined for something special.”“That’s what Link told me, but no one told me that it has to be so lonely, Drianeh.”Drianeh sighed and wrapped her tail around her. “I know, Little Fire Dragon, I know it hurts. But Elisando is there to help, and I’ll always be with you in spirit. Even when things seems so dark, remember, you have us two.”“You won’t leave me?”“Never. Even if my physical form isn’t present. Heh, tell me, what kind of religion were you brought up in, when you were in Churros? Goddess of Perpetual Hope?”“That was Foster-Mother Tatara’s main goddess, who, by the way, rode on a Wind Dragon through the Heavens.” The memory brought warmth, not the bone-aching desolation of loss. “Foster-Father Meng Pao was brought up in the Laws of Necessity.”“Yeech.” Drianeh winced. “That’s the one where your worth is measured by the work you do, and how practical you live your life. That’s great if you’re a worker ant, but for a Dreamer, yeech.”“I used to think their philosophy was as helpful as yak turds on my caribou-skin boots, but I suppose if that’s what you want to do with your life...well, that’s your decision.”Drianeh gave her a wise look. “When did you start being so wise, little Sisi?”“About the time you whisked me away to my Passage.” Sisi laid her cheek on Drianeh’s golden-red scales. “I’ve been thinking, trying to put things together. Tell me the Truth, Drianeh?”“Have I ever lied to you?”“Am I dead?”“Why do you ask?”Sisi expected Drianeh to be defensive, but the Fire Dragon’s tone held only curiosity. “Just listening to Link’s story and DW’s and Nonnie’s and Lupita’s and everyone else’s...their Dragons snatched them up right when they were going to be hurt or to die or crippled or..” Sisi shook her head. “And if we’re here, then do people there believe we aren’t alive anymore? Or do they wonder what happened to us? Or—?”“Being dead isn’t a bad thing, Sisi,” Drianeh said, the humor returning to her voice. “Besides, I’m still around. Kind of. It’s a metaphysical thing, like the Jedi taught...”“What’s a Jedi?”“They were a powerful religious order, in the next universe adjoining ours, they believed in an all-encompassing life field that surrounded all things, and they could tap into it. Guardians of their universe, they were, and there weren’t that bad of fighters, either. They’re like the Rangers, except they didn’t have Dragons or Familiars.”“What happened to them?”“They got caught up in their own importance,” Drianeh said sadly, “and they were blind to the evil that finally defeated them. Many of them were exterminated by the evil, and now there are very small remnants of their glory.” The Fire Dragon sighed and placed her head on top of Sisi’s. “I fear for you, Sisi, for you and the other Rangers.”“Will we—are we going to be like these...Jedi?”“I sincerely hope not. Sisi, ask Elisando about what’s happening now. He’s older than everyone else; Silk Dragons are the Messengers of the Goddess, and he can tell you the Truth, without trying to deceive you. He can tell you about the Dragons of the Void, and why the Rangers are so divided.”“An ugly story, I’m sure.”“Truth is ugly, sometimes. You are no longer the child I brought from Churros, Sisi. You will soon be the greatest of Rangers.”Sisi shook her head. She didn’t want to be the greatest of Rangers; she wanted her idyllic life at the Fire Aerie, with Drianeh and DW and Nonnie and Lupita and Jay Jay and Coren and Link and her studies and flight lessons and the baths in the hot springs and her room and late nights gossiping with Nonnie and Lupita and...Silly girl. It’s time to grow up now. The caribou doesn’t stay spindly-legged for long, and the yak’s mane renews itself each winter. You need a healthy dose of the Laws of Necessity.Drianeh placed a long talon on her cheek. “Don’t lose that ability to Dream, Sisi, or you will be as dark as the Rangers of the Void. Don’t do that.”“I’m scared, Drianeh.”“I know. It’s all right to be scared, but trust me, and trust Elisando and your friends. Listen to your instincts, and it will be all right. You’ll see.”Sisi allowed her hand to rest on Drianeh’s flank for a moment. Then she felt wakefulness tug at her eyelids. When she opened her eyes, she was back in the bed of feathers and leaves that Clara had put her in the night before.Clara sat by her bedside. “How are you feeling, Sisi?”She smiled. “Better, Clara. I saw Drianeh and we talked a long time.”“Oh, good. I thought a little talk-to would ease your heart.” Clara shook her head and the auburn-blonde curls tumbled over her shoulders. “Sometimes the best medicine doesn’t come in a potion, or in frozen yak pops.”Sisi stared at her for a minute. “You know about frozen yak pops!”“Indeed. I’ve made them before. A Water Ranger showed me how to do it; she said she came from a village named Bhusartu or something like that—“”I know where that is! That’s in the next valley from where I used to live!” Sisi leaned forward eagerly. “Who is she? Is she here?”Clara shook her head. “Unfortunately, no. She was flying her Dragon through a valley and ran smack into a horde of Dragons from the Void. That happened a long time ago, before you came. You know, I always thought her people were the bravest, most resourceful ones, just by knowing her. You’ve got that same kind of quality.”“Oh.” Sisi looked down at her hands, then remembered what Drianeh had said. “Where is Elisando? I need to talk with him.”Clara glanced over her shoulder. “Don’t just stand there, Elisando. She’s awake, and she needs your sage advice. I think Sisi deserves the Truth. Don’t you?”“Indeed. I think she’s ready to receive it. Drianeh didn’t err in picking her; I’m glad to be able to tell her the Truth.” Elisando slithered to Sisi’s bedside as a faint outline; by the time he arrived, his features were completely present. He smiled at her and bowed his crystalline head. “Fair the day, Sisi.”“Fair the day, Elisando,” she replied, pleased that he knew the greeting.“Clara, will you allow her to walk the Grove? I think the exercise will do her good.”
Clara gave Elisando one of those looks and answered, “Just don’t overwork her. She’s been through a lot, and I don’t want her so tired that she’ll fall on her nose just from breathing too hard.”He laughed and ruffled Sisi’s hair. “I’ll carry her, if her legs get too tired. Don’t worry, Clara, I won’t have you and all the Rangers after me. Thaddeus’s been reminding me just how long it’s been since I’ve Manifested, and he’ll ‘skin my nonexistent hide’ if I harm Sisi in any way.”Clara gave them a look of satisfaction. “It’s good to have those kind of friends, Sisi. Link can be positively vicious if he thinks one of his friends has been deliberately hurt.”“Link?” Sisi repeated. Link didn’t strike her as overly violent. Then again, she hadn’t known DW was such a fierce warrior, either, until she actually saw him fight the Dragons of the Void.“Link was a leader of his people during a horrible war,” Elisando explained, as he slithered out of the tent with Sisi at his side. “He’s had to make some really difficult decisions for the good of all. I think that’s why they picked him to be the Ranger of Justice and settle the disagreements between the Elemental Rangers. Which, by the way, I think is a very good place to start.”They found a shaded spot near a flowing spring with cool water, not heated water like the ones at the former Fire Aerie. Elisando curled his huge body in the shadow of a tall tree, and Sisi lay against his side flank, much as she had done with Drianeh, and Elisando curled his tail protectively around her. Then Elisando began to tell his tale.“You know the Elemental Rangers are divided into Fire, Air, Water and Earth. Just like in nature, some of them get along better than each other, and some don’t get along at all. I’m sure you saw that during your training.”She nodded. “Fire and Air tend to be friends, and Water and Earth, but Fire and Water just...really dislike each other.”“Just like nature. The Dragons and Familiars tend to pick Rangers with the same kind of qualities. When all the Elementals get together, the result can be...explosive. Of course, they have their own interests and friends to protect, and when you have so many opposing views...well, that’s why we have Rangers like Link who can hear everyone out and make decisions based on practicality, not necessarily emotion.” Elisando shifted uneasily. “Now, here’s what the other Elementals don’t usually tell their younger members: there is actually a Fifth Element, the Element of the Spirit, and we Silk Dragons choose our Rangers from the other Four. It’s still relatively rare, though, and only in times of great need.”“And that great need is...the Dragons of the Void?”Elisando nodded. “Remember that every element has its opposite. The Spirit Dragons represent warmth and light and freedom. Our opposite is—“”The Void. All dark and stuffy and—“Sisi’s voice faded to a whisper and she shuddered visibly. Elisando’s tail tightened around her.“Yes. For years, the Spirit Dragons have kept the ones of the Void in check, but now they’ve reorganized themselves into a formidable force, and have been targeting Spirit Dragons for centuries. Now there aren’t enough of us to fight, and fewer and fewer Spirit Dragons lay eggs. The eggs are kept secret and safe from others.”Another piece of the puzzle clicked into place. “That’s why DW was determined to go back and protect the eggs, even if it meant being blown up with the rest of the Aerie! Those eggs come from—“”Spirit Dragons. Yes, the Dragonlet Whisperer knows our secret, and has pledged himself to helping us survive. As far as the other Rangers know, those were ‘motherless eggs’ of past Dragons who were killed in action or accident. The Dragonlet Whisperer has kept our secret, and the Goddess bless him, is willing to risk even his existence to protect us.”For some reason, the last sentence sounded odd to Sisi. “Risk his ‘existence’? You mean his life, don’t you?”“Well...” Elisando hesitated, as if trying to find a way to phrase his answer. “Drianeh told me about your observations about just how the Dragons know when to pick their Rangers. Which, by the way, is very observant. You asked how it seems that we come just in time to save our Rangers from trouble in their world. Well, in reality, we bend time and space, so that we capture their existence, their ‘essences’, if you will, and take them with us. As a result, they live on, in a fashion, in our universe. Of course, they can easily die here as well.”Sisi thought about his words in silence for a long time. “So, Drianeh captured my ‘essence’, the one that said ‘Sisi’. Which means that in my world...I no longer exist, don’t I?”Elisando bowed his head. “As far as your universe is concerned, you disappeared after the rockslide, but your disappearance saved your village. They hail you as a heroine, and sing tales of your deal with the Gods themselves to spare those you love.”She swallowed a hard lump in her throat. “And Foster-Mother Tatara and Foster-Father Meng Pao? They—“”They still live, and grieve, but still remember the foster daughter who saved their village.”Tears slid down Sisi’s face. “I can never go back, then?”“No. Once you go through the Passage, you enter our world, and here you stay.”Grief rocked her, but not as violently as she had expected, and Elisando held her as she wailed into his flank. The wailing was traditional among her people, to mourn the end of a life, but also to celebrated a new life. When she had finished, she felt so much better.“Most Rangers go through this grief, Sisi, once the Truth is revealed to them. It takes time, but they do adjust to life here.”Sisi wiped her nose with her sleeve. Then she thought about the other Rangers she had met. “Was that the same for—?”“Some of them were mortally wounded in their world. Link, DW, Nonnie and Lupita were all snatched the brink of Death. Others were already trapped between our world and theirs, like Coren, Jay Jay and Clara. Their Dragons saved them from pain and gave their essences a new purpose in the universe: to protect and to serve.”Sisi nodded; now that Elisando had explained the concept, some of the Rangers’ odd comments about themselves made sense. Nonnie and parasailing, Lupita and the Azteca sacrifice...she didn’t know the details of DW’s and Link’s and Clara’s, but assumed their situations had been similar. As for Coren and Jay-Jay, Jay-Jay had joked about “golf and lightning storms”, and Coren had mentioned something about being in some kind of “pit crew” during a contest. (“Similar to your yak-racing,” he had told her, “but a lot faster and a lot more dangerous.”)“So...we have to get rid of the Dragons of the Void.”“Not ‘get rid’, Sisi. The Spirit Dragons need the Shadow to survive, just like fire and water, earth and air. But we need to contain them, we need to find out just who—or what—is behind their growing power, and neutralize them. That is why the Elemental Rangers have come together to meet and that is why—“ Elisando raised his head with an expression of faint disgust, “—they are arguing needlessly now.”“They are? I don’t hear them—wait.” Sisi closed her eyes and relied on her instincts, and there it was, an echo of anger and strife, resounding through the Grove. She Heard the conflict, and when she opened her eyes, she Saw the waves of discord rippling through the Grove, stunting the grasses and the plants, disturbing the calm waters.“You Hear and See it too. Sometimes I would like to box these so-called ‘Elemental Leaders’ between their ordinary ears, and make them see reason,” Elisando said. He was as angry as Sisi had ever sensed him, but she also knew that as much as he wanted to box them between their auditory appendages, Elisando could not.She imagined the argument affecting the Spirit Dragon eggs in this calm Grove, and felt a rising anger within her. That anger solidified into an eerie calm that told her that she must resolve the fight.“You may not be able to rattle their brains within their heads, but I can,” she said, “and I will!” She got up from next to Elisando. “Where are they?”“I’ll take you to them.” Elisando slithered by her side with nervous pride, but Sisi’s steps were strong and sure, and he stifled a chuckle at the reaction of the Elemental Leaders when this whirlwind would come among them!
The Council Garden was in the center of the Grove, and the Elemental Leaders were in a heated debate. They sat in a square, each side represented an Element. The Air Rangers sat in the east side, the Fire Rangers in the South, Earth Rangers in the West, and Water Rangers in the North. The center was empty. Sisi recognized Link sitting with the Earth Rangers, and Nonnie, Jay Jay and Lupita with the Fire. Sisi didn’t interfere at first, but only stood outside the square and listened to the gist of the arguments.“We cannot allow one set of Rangers to go on a so-called ‘search and destroy’ mission,” the Air Leader said. She stood proud and tall, a heavyset woman with blonde hair braided into two thick cables on her shoulders. She wore a silver breastplate and girdle, and a strange horned helmet on her head.“Freya, no one is going by themselves,” Link pointed out with ultimate patience. “The Fire Rangers Aerie has been destroyed, and emotions run high. Now, this challenge by the Rangers of the Void...the question of whether we respond has answered itself. We should consider every possibility before we go off chasing our own tails.
“I agree,” rumbled a short, squat man with a shaggy beard. “The Earth Rangers Boojum Valley was also attacked, but we repelled them. I suggest we reinforce the remaining Ranger posts.”“Where does this put the Fire Rangers?” Nonnie asked. “We have no home.”“Y’all welcome to stay in the Grove as long as you need to,” DW said. “We’ve got magical protections, but any reinforcement’s welcome. By the by, the eggs are doing wonderfully, but I’m concerned about their gestation. We’d better make a plan soon, or we’ll be distressin’ the little buggers so much, they’ll never hatch.”The Water Ranger Leader gave DW a glance. “The Dragons are important, but what about the Rangers of the Void? Their challenge is like a game, and we shouldn’t stoop down to their level!”“I told you we should’ve gathered up our forces and hit them hard,” muttered Airuen.The Fire Ranger Leader rolled his eyes. “They understand force, Bhuri.”Bhuri wrapped her azure-blue stole over her shoulders. “Then we become them, which is their goal in the first place.”Airuen scowled and shot back. “This is no time to discuss pacifist philosophy!”“The Water Rangers are not necessarily just pacifists, but we do not jump into situations in which we know nothing about!”Freya shook her head. “This is not about the feud between the Fire and Water Rangers, so both of you, stop it!”“Who made you the Head Ranger?” Airuen and Bhuri chorused.Again, the meeting degenerated into chaos, with all sides yelling at each other. DW shook his head in disgust, and headed off towards the new Egg Nursery in the far end of the Grove. No one noticed his departure, except for Link and Sisi. Link looked strained, and he unfolded his long, lanky frame out of its crouch and walked off in the opposite direction. Sisi followed Link, and Elisando drifted behind.“I thought I felt you, Sisi,” Link said as he turned around. His dark eyes were dull with worry and effort. “As you can see, the Elemental Rangers aren’t as united as we seem. The Fire and Water Rangers constantly bicker because they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Air Rangers and Earth Rangers refuse to budge from their own positions. As a result, we are paralyzed.” He managed a weak smile. “It all reminds me of my own Cabinet meetings.”“Can’t you just...make them get along?”Link sighed and shook his head. “It’s not that easy. We can’t afford to lose any of the Rangers, and any show of force could make any of them withdraw. I’ve made compromises before, but they’re all scared now, and they don’t want to seem weak in front of the others.”Sisi felt his frustration. “Two yaks meet on the same territory, and they fight to have control of it. It is a natural thing, but then the first yak’s family get into the fight, and the second yak’s family brings in the cousins, and it becomes a war.”
“Exactly.”“Link, what is this ‘challenge’ they’re talking about? Have the Rangers of the Void said something?”Link sighed and drew out a palm-sized box of polished black wood. He slid the top open, and a wisp of smoke escaped into the air. It reformed into a tablet of transparent mist, with green lettering written upon it. A bright, jaunty tune started to play and Sisi read the words in time to the beat:“To play this game, you have to find three...”“Keys,” Link said.She raised her eyebrows. “Keys?”
“Yes, Keys. One, two, three.”“And you put it in this box, and sit down in the Throne of Thinking, and Think...Think... Think. You have to use your mind, take it a step at a time, and then you can ask anything...that you want to ask.” Sisi wrinkled her nose. “This is like the game of “Hide and Spy, where you hide clues and put together a puzzle! Then you find the answer to the question!”“Yes, exactly that. It’s like a child’s game.”Elisando rumbled; both Sisi and Link jumped, since both of them had forgotten that he was there. “It sounds simple enough, Link. So why are the Rangers fighting? It makes sense to put together a group to find these keys and take to wherever this ‘Throne of Thinking’ and then find the answers.”Link blew out another frustrated breath. “That’s the only thing that they’ve agreed on. Now the problem is the make-up of the group. No one wants a single group of Rangers to dominate the group; I’ve suggested that we draw lots, or we have an equal representation...then the issue becomes who will go. So they continue to talk...and the Rangers of the Void continue their campaign.”Elisando growled and threw his head into the air. “The Void thrives on anger and chaos. All they are doing is providing more fuel to the fire, so to speak! This must end!”“Let me talk,” Sisi said. “I want to say something.”Link smiled and said, “All right, Brave Sisi. I will be here by your side.”“And me,” said Elisando.And me, broke in an unexpected voice.Sisi smiled at Drianeh’s mind-voice. Link’s face reflected utter shock and surprise, while Elisando had a smug expression. “I thought you were—brave lady, forgive my bad manners, but I didn’t know you were in the conversation.”No offense taken, Link. I may be gone, but I’m not out.Thus fortified, Sisi and Link returned to the Council Clearing. Thaddeus, Link’s brown-gold Earth Dragon, joined them, and Link gave his companion a gentle pat. The Rangers still argued; none of them had even realized Link’s departure. Elisando, again invisible, fought his way to the center of the clearing, then solidified all at once, in his crystalline glory. He raised his head to the sky and roared so loud that the mangroves shook in reaction. The Rangers broke off their arguments and were finally silent.“Ranger Sisi would like to speak,” Elisando said in his bass voice, “and no one can hear her with all of you screaming like banshees! You should feel shame, for you are not Rangers; you are chattering geese!”The silence was so thick that Sisi waded through it. She felt the antagonism, the jealousy, and the anger like it was a thick syrup of chaochaou. Her knees shook so hard that she thought she would fall, but she felt Drianeh’s support, and Elisando’s and Thaddeus’s. To her surprise, a clutch of dragons slithered in and took up positions around the Square: SurferDude and Tetzlpotl, Google, and Dante, Suuie and so many others whose names she didn’t know. No one could raise a hand against Sisi now, not with a wall of Dragons from all Elements: fire, air, water, earth and spirit. The Dragons were united even as their Rangers were not, and the humans were shocked and ashamed of their conduct.Sisi took a deep breath, then another. She raised the message box in her hand and allowed the Challenge to sing itself again. Then she said, “You all heard this. I will go in search of the Keys, with my Silk Dragon of Spirit, Elisando.”“And I will go with her,” Link added. “I, and my Earth Dragon, Thaddeus.”“And I,” said Lupita, “with my Fire Dragon, Tetzlpotl.” The Azteca princess rose gracefully from her seat on the Square to stand next to Sisi.“And I,” said Freya, “with my Air Dragon, Asoraguard.” She rose and joined the group. Freya was much taller than everyone, even topping Link by several inches.“And I,” said a Water Ranger that Sisi didn’t know. The man rose proudly to his feet. He was dressed in white, with snow-white hair and beard, and a double-breasted coat. His eyes sparkled with humor. Link inclined his head.“Hello, Samuel. I thought you’d want to go on this grand adventure.”“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Abraham,” Samuel said. To Sisi’s surprise, he said Link’s first name with little trouble. “It would make a great story. Oh, and let me introduce myself to you, Sisi. My name is Samuel, and here’s my Dragon, Twain. C’mon, Twain, don’t be shy. Show yourself to the little lady.”A blue-green dragon crept next to Samuel. Twain, unlike the other Water Dragons, shimmered like a dragon-shaped pool of clear blue water, as if he was made of the ocean and pressed into saurian form. He reminded Sisi a lot of Elisando when Elisando was in Spirit Form.Sisi saw Nonnie, Jay Jay and Coren’s mouth’s drop open at the sight of Samuel, as if they knew him, and his appearance was a complete shock. She couldn’t help but chuckle at their dumbfounded expressions.“Five Elements, Five Rangers,” said Bhuri. The Water Leader said. “The Fellowship of the Five. May you find the objects of your quest, and solve the riddle of the Rangers of the Void—“A faint sing-song interrupted her; too soft to determine the words, but too loud to ignore. Everyone looked around to find the source, but Sisi realized the source was her. Well, on her clothing. With her free hand, she pulled out the scroll box from her pocket and flipped open the latch. A scroll leaped out of the box and began to dance in front of her, singing as it bounced from Ranger to Ranger:“I’M THE MAP, I’M THE MAP, I’M THE MAP, I’M THE MAP, I’M THE MAP!!”Utter silence. Then Samuel said it for all of them.“Well, I suppose we won’t get lost on the way.”
The Fellowship of Five: Sisi, Link, Lupita, Freya and Samuel. It sounded so, well, official, like the Goddesses of Universal Fate. Sisi liked the ring of it, but as Link reminded them, a name was just like any other name.
“Just means we have a lot to live up to,” observed Freya.Sisi unrolled the map with the annoying song. It was made of yak hide, scraped clean and tanned to prevent decay. Lupita frowned as the map began to hum. “Does it always do that?” she asked.“Only when it thinks it has something important,” Sisi said dryly. “It’s been quiet for a long time, until now. We might as well see what it has to say.”“I know how to get to the Keys,” it said brightly. “Tell the Five that you have to pass through the Spooky Forest Castle, the Mighty River, and Cloud of Sorrow. Castle, River, Lake. Repeat after me: Castle, River, Lake.”“Castle, River, Lake,” they intoned.“Good, and that’s how you get to the Keys.” The Map’s compass seemed to wink at them, then became silent. They pored over the map for a long while. Sisi traced the mystical path with her finger, outlined in gold.“Shall we split up into pairs, or should we stay together?” Lupita asked.“Pairs would be faster,” said Freya.“But we’d be more vulnerable if we’re separated,” Link pointed out.Sisi nodded. “Back home, several hunting parties went out at once, so if one group found nothing, the other groups might be successful, and the village didn’t starve.”“Girl’s got a point,” said Samuel. “I say we split up. Five of us, and three keys. I’ll volunteer to go to the River; spent a lot of my life up and down the Mississippi—that’s a big river where I’m from.”Link nodded. “Yes, I’m familiar with the Mississippi.”“All right then, Link and Samuel goes to the Mighty River. I will go to the Cloud of Sorrow,” Freya said. “Clouds are Air, and that is my source of power.”“I go with Sisi to the Spooky Forest,” said Lupita.“Is it agreed, then?” Sisi asked, and there were nods all around. We travel together to the Split-Off point, then go our separate ways. So, that was a lot easier, just the five of us, than the whole Council.”Freya laughed, a deep, throaty purr that reminded Sisi of a big cat. “The Council is full of ego. Here, we only have to deal with five, as opposed to twenty-four or more.” She saluted Sisi. “Among my people, we warriors must prepare for a long journey, so I must do so. I will be ready at the morning light.”“Be well, brave warrior,” Link said. “We will see you then.”Freya nodded and strode off, Aseogard right behind her. Sisi watched her go. “She reminds me of the hunters of my people,” she said.“Mine too,” Lupita agreed. “I think it is good that we have her in our party.”Link chuckled. “Freya has a kind heart under that bravado. Well, I propose we have a meal and rest for the journey ahead.”“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day, Abraham,” said Samuel, “and we can tell tales around the campfire. I’ve got one or two I can share.”In fact, the other Rangers threw the Fellowship of Five a farewell party. All were in attendance, except Freya, who was in her warrior seclusion. Sisi leaned against Elisando’s flank as she listened to Samuel spin his tale. All the Rangers were in rapt attention; Samuel was a wonderful storyteller who wove a spell over them all.
“He’s just like a shaman,” Sisi whispered, her voice hushed with wonder.“I suppose he’d be considered one of those, had he lived in a different time,” Elisando agreed. “Samuel writes awesome stories, some in his mind, and some based on his youth. He used to live on a river—“”The one with the long name, isn’t it.”“The Mississippi. In fact, Link’s hometown isn’t that far up the river from where Samuel’s was, but Link’s a bit older.” Elisando chuckled. “I suppose you could call them contemporaries, in a way.”Sisi sighed. “I should be used to journeying; after all, I traveled to and from my Foster-Mother’s and Foster-Father’s villages. But this is different.”“It’s not a pleasure trip, Sisi, and it’s very important. But remember, Lupita and Tetzlpotl will be with you, and so will I. And so will Drianeh. So in reality, there will be a little group of five going to this Spooky Forest. Makes it sound less spooky, doesn’t it?”She smiled and pressed her cheek against his crystalline-scaled skin. “Yes, I suppose it does. You know, I’ve known Link and Lupita, and Nonnie and Jay Jay and Coren and DW, but I don’t really know who they are. Am I making sense?”“You do indeed. Well, every Ranger has his or her own history and his or her own secrets. It’s an unspoken policy never to pry to anyone’s personal business, unless it affects the Rangers as a whole. And that goes for everyone, Fire, Water, Air, Earth and Spirit. We choose what to reveal to others. You can ask Samuel, or Link, or Lupita, or any of the others about their personal stories, but they will reveal only as much as they desire.”“No wonder the Elemental Rangers seem to fight all the time.”Elisando raised his transparent eyebrows and his jowls quivered. “Very astute, Sisi. Perhaps in time, we can change that attitude.” He inclined his head to Samuel, whose voice rose and fell in time with his story. “Samuel, well, he’s an open book, if you excuse the expression. He’s very congenial, and I’m sure if you ask him, he’d satisfy your curiosity.”“I might do that.”
Long after the other Rangers went to their beds, Sisi lay awake, her arms behind her head, looking up at the stars. The patterns were different here, in this universe, and she imagined all kinds of pictures. There was a furry yak with a water yoke on its shoulders, a hooved cow wearing a bell, and a firefly with gossamer-like wings...she sighed and tried to make her mind blank.“Having some troubles with getting some shut-eye, Sisi?”She sat up at Samuel’s voice. He lay close-by, his arms around his head in a mirror image of Sisi, but he turned his face towards her. She tried to smile and only nodded instead.“Let me tell you a story. There was once a little mouse who lived in a huge field of wheat with her mother, father, brothers, sisters and cousins. They were all fat and content, and never needed to change their lives. The little mouse was restless and knew there was a world beyond the field, but she wanted to be safe.“Then one day, a huge wind blew through the field and ripped the stalks of grain from their roots. The little mouse happened to be caught in the storm, and a gust picked her up and left her in a field of grass. She was scared because she was in a new place, and she didn’t know what to do, where to go, whom to trust. Another mouse found her cowering under a pile of leaves, terrified and hungry.“‘Why are you hiding?’ asked the grass mouse.“‘Because the wind blew me here and this place is strange,’ she replied.“‘Let me help you. Things are probably different here than where you’re from, but friends are here to help.’ And he did. He introduced her to his extensive family. She learned to eat nuts and catch crickets and small rodents. Soon, she grew to embrace and enjoy her new life.“‘Not long after this, a messenger mouse arrived at their field. A cat had begun stalking the mice in the surrounding fields, and hurting and killing many mice. One group of mice were determined to stop the cat, even though it meant leaving the field, and it would probably take a long time. The little mouse and her friend knew they would join the defenders, and they did. It was a hard journey and a spiritual one as well.”Sisi blinked as he paused, as if gathering his thoughts. “Did they defeat the cat?”“I don’t know. The story is not yet unfolded, and as such, is not written yet. What do you think will happen?”“The mice find the cat and get him to stop being so mean. The little field mouse eventually returns to her home field and finds everything changed. At the end, she decides to make both fields her home.”“The best of both worlds, and a part of both.”Sisi remembered how she yearned to be part of Churro and part of...somewhere else. Well, she had it now, in spades. She was a Fire Ranger, a Spirit Ranger, and she was Sisi. She was still herself, the village girl who surveyed the Sian Mountains with a map, but she was also changed, permanently and irrevocably.She looked at Samuel, who gazed at her with a definite twinkle in his eye. He is a shaman. How did he know what troubled my soul, and how to cure it?“Thank you, Samuel.”He grinned. “You’re welcome. Good night, Sisi. Pleasant dreams.”She closed her eyes and said, “They will be, Samuel. They will be now.”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 in...you 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?”“Churros.”“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. “Oh...my...Goddess...bless!” 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.