Monday, February 13, 2012

Second preview of short story collection: "Tales of the Elemental Dragons"


After a long unavoidable delay, here's a second preview of my newest collection of short stories, Tales of the Elemental Dragon. Original work copyright 2012 by A. Dameron, all rights reserved. Thanks.



Earth: Tŭ





在每个季节, 一些岩石也会下降


Tiánxiě nǐ de fùbù yǔ shuǐdào
Dàn bù fàngzòng.
Dìqiú zài qí sàijì
Zài měi gè jìjié, yīxiē yánshí yě huì xiàjiàng.


Fill your belly with rice

but do not overindulge.

Earth gives in its season

and in each season, some rocks will fall.


--song included in the Planting Ceremony, Kuijang River Village


The Yangyu River wound past the Iron Emperor's capital, through ditches and canals, before

splitting into several branches. Many of those branches ended at the Maelstrom coast; others

bypassed the Siang Plateau, favoring the northern route instead. Kuijang flowed north, then

west, to nourish the rice paddies of the villages and towns. The Goddess of Shinwa smiled

upon the farmers and their kin and provided good harvest.


Tu Xiao! Tu Xiao! They're getting ready for the Planting Ceremony! We don't want to be


Xiao laughed and tucked her cotton tunic into her pants, then adjusted the simple fabric

headband. Her five year old sister tugged her towards the door of their hut. Tu Nai's pigtails

bounced on her shoulders with every movement.


I'm coming, Nai! I'm coming!”


You are as vain as the water buffalo in the Yangyu Canal! You look like...well, like older

sisters are supposed to look!” Nai pouted, but her dark eyes sparkled in the morning sun.


Xiao sighed and followed Nai down the rocky path towards the riverbank. The village of

Renqiu sprawled far below them, with shops and houses surrounding the main square. The

thatched roofs stretched towards the sky; to Xiao's eyes, it looked like a furry mountain in

summer clothes.


Delicious smells floated past their noses. Fish stewed in broth, with beans and celery

harvested from the gardens. Strips of dried beef wrapped in bread dough and covered with

sauce. Berry juice, freshly pressed and mixed with pure water from the village well. Xiao's

stomach growled as she and Nai entered the main group of buildings. Big Chao the cook

greeted both girls and sat them down on benches. He ladled steaming fish soup in clay bowls,

scooped equal portions of white rice on plates, and poured a generous amount of berry juice

in mugs.


Eat everything,” Big Chao commanded, with a sweep of his beefy arm. “You will both need

your strength for the Spring Planting. I will not tolerate any refusal.”


Yes, Big Chao,” chirped Nai. She slurped her soup and speared the filets with her

chopsticks. Xiao laughed again and brought her attention to her own food. As usual, Big Chao

outdid himself with the simple fare. Xiao thought that the Iron Emperor himself would find this

meal quite filling.


The dining hut slowly filled with other workers. Xiao watched as the wizened form of Tian Re

shuffled into the room. The village headsman bore every one of his eighty-five years; scars

from river sharks criss-crossed the skin of his legs and his features were bronzed by the

relentless sun. Nevertheless, Xiao watched as Tian Re's posture straightened, like a withered

vine tasting water after a long drought. His eyes were clouded with silver cataracts, but there

was no question about his Sight.


So, Big Chao, not too big or too small a portion, if you please,” Tian Re called. He laid his

walking stick against his bench. “Most of the food should go to the younger generation, like

the Tu girls over there. They are our future.”


Nai jumped up off her bench and scurried to Big Chao. She accepted the new bowl of fish

soup and shuffled over to Tian Re, her head bowed in respect. “Please, Honorable Tian,

accept this on behalf of me and my sister. We've already eaten, so you can have as much as

you want. I insist.”

Tian Re glanced at Xiao, who only shrugged good-naturedly. He re-focused his attention on

the little girl in front of him. “Then I give my sincere thanks to the giver, for she is wise and

respectful to her elders. How old are you now, Little Tu?”


I am five,” Nai said proudly, “and old enough to help.”


Indeed.” Tian Re accepted the bowl with both hands. “Then I am sure your help will be much

appreciated today.”


Nai flushed with pleasure as she bobbed her head again in embarrassment. She scampered

back to her bench and proceeded to demolish her plate of rice with all the speed of youth.


You are doing well in raising her, Tu Xiao,” Tian Re said. “I have every confidence that the

Goddess will smile upon you.”


Xiao nodded and managed to finish the rest of her food. Ever since the river flood that took

their parents, she guarded Nai like a fierce mother dragon. Most sixteen-year-old youths

eagerly ventured out into the world outside their village. Others prepared for marriage and a

lifetime of hard work. Xiao resigned herself to the latter as her fate. Her blood was tied to the

land of Shinwa, and it would always be so.


A grain of rice clung stubbornly to her trousers. Xiao firmly picked it off with a gentle hand.

Her fastidious appearance was her one lone indulgence. A long day in the rice paddies often

left her dusty and water-logged, but at the end of the day, Xiao took care of herself.


Both girls waited patiently as Tian Re finished his soup and rice. He rose from his bench, took

his walking stick in one hand, and extended the other to Xiao. Nai skipped ahead of them,

following the path to the river bank.


You seem too serious, Xiao,” Tian Re observed in a low voice. “You are barely in the middle

of your spring years. Are you in such a hurry to grow?”


She sighed; he was the only one who even noticed enough to care. “Fate, Honorable Tian. I

left my childhood behind years ago.”


The earth is a generous mistress, but her tasks can be cruel. Every day follows in season. If

winter comes before summer, we would all starve.” He softened his words with a smile. “Do

not live contrary to Her will, or you too, will starve.”


She inclined her head at his wise words and murmured, “I will try harder, Honorable Tian.”


The entire village appeared at the rice paddies, from Honorable Tian to the day-old infant in

swaddling clothes. Honorable Tian nodded at Priest Rui Ba, who nodded back. Rui Ba

traveled among the villages bordering the Yanggu River, and his services were in much

demand. One of his most popular requests was the Planting Festival blessing. He gazed over

the gathered villagers, then raised his hands up to the sky.


We beseech you, Beloved Goddess of Shinwa, to shower your gifts on this earth and bring

forth the green shoots of life--” Rui Ba's sonorous voice carried over the people, who

murmured the proper responses.


Xiao shifted from leg to leg, eager for the long ceremony to be over. Nai echoed her

restlessness by fiddling with her apron strings. The soft mud gave way under their feet and

slowly filled with river water. Xiao gritted her teeth as she felt it between her toes.


Finally, Rui Ba invoked the Blessed Goddess of Shinwa, the Goddess of the Deep, the

Mistresses of Air and Fire, the Nymph of Wood and the Warrior of Iron. He bowed in the

Four Directions, then the four Minor Directions, and wove his protections over the village, the

rice paddies, and the step terraces in the hills and mountains. He took a handful of mud and

threw it back towards the river, as he chanted spells against the Flood God.


Xiao kept her eyes downcast. The Flood God never listened to the prayers of Man. He

proved that by taking her parents.


After another salute to the Four Directions, Rui Ba clapped his hands to signal the end of the

blessing. A sigh of relief rose from the assembled crowd. They quickly got together in their

groups: some headed for the paddies along the river, and others to the hills and mountains

beyond. Xiao and Nai were part of this latter group; they climbed the dirt road leading to

Terraced Hill Number One.


Sister, look!” Nai gasped as they reached their assigned plot. “You can see the village from



She followed Nai's outstretched hand to the brilliant view in front of them. The village huts

gleamed in the sunlight, as if they were the gold roofs of the Iron Emperor's Pavilion. The

Yanggu River snaked its way down from the Double Hills, past the village's rice paddies, on

its way to the Maelstrom Coast.


Yes,” Xiao agreed, “the view is quite spectacular, isn't it?”


Hours flew by as she showed Nai how to plant the tender shoots in neat rows. They had to be

spaced just right, not too closely together and not to far away. It was hard, backbreaking

work. Nai's initial enthusiasm waned as reality set in, and her chatter grew less and less. Xiao

was careful to pace their progress so Nai wouldn't tire so easily. They stopped to eat and

drink, but their main focus was on the work.


Is it always like this, Sister?”


Sometimes we sing to pass the time, and sometimes we tell stories.”


My feet hurt and my back aches.”


Just a little more, Nai, then we can go home for supper.”


I want to wash off this mud. It makes me itchy. And you look like a mud monster.”


Mud's supposed to be good for the skin. It helps prolong your youth; that's what Old Ying



I don't want to be young forever. I want to grow up and see the world and do things other

than plant rice shoots in the middle of a pool on the side of the hill.”


Xiao tried not to laugh at Nai's petulant expression, but it was difficult. She shook her head

and said, “You say that because you're only five. Don't be in such a hurry to grow up.”


The sun dipped low in the sky by the time the planting was over. Xiao surveyed their little plot

and felt a thrill of pride at their accomplishment. Nai blinked at the neat rows and asked, “Did we do that?”


Yes, we did, and you helped. Come on, Nai, let's go home.”


They made their way back to the dirt road. Xiao matched her sister's slower pace, despite the

fact she was eager for a bath and clean clothes. Other villagers were also heading back to the

village, their day's work completed. The sound of their sandals on the stones was loud in the



Nai stumbled and nearly fell on the road. Xiao grabbed her by the arm and steadied her on

her feet. “Nai, are you all right?”


I'm fine, but--” The ground shifted underneath their feet and threw both girls off balance. Xiao

threw out a hand and cushioned her sister's fall. Shrieks of fear and pain echoed up and down

the road. The rumble of stone and dirt stirred in the background, from farther up the hill.


It's a rockslide!” shouted a villager. “Run for your lives!”


Xiao's heart pounded in her chest as she literally scooped Nai into her arms and ran towards

the village. Dust billowed in the air all around them, growing thicker by the minute. She

coughed and forced her aching legs to keep up. If she stumbled and fell, she knew that neither

she nor Nai would ever rise again. The earth trembled, then bucked violently as the wave of

debris slid down the mountain.


Nai pressed her face against Xiao's breast as the rumbles increased and the earth shook

violently under them. People scattered in all directions towards the Yanggu. Xiao smelled

rough, salty soil and knew they would never make it to the village. Flakes of rock stung the

back of her legs; the chaotic wave was nearly upon them.


She could feel the Hand of Darkness reach out for them.


I'm so sorry, Nai. I've failed to protect you. Tears blurred her vision and streamed down

her dirty face. The cold hand of death reached out for them and pushed Xiao to her knees. All

she could do was hold Nai as tightly as she could and pray.


She didn't expect the Goddess to answer her prayer.


A different roar reverberated around them, a lower pitch than the earth. Warm wind rushed

past them and to Xiao's shock, the outrush of rock stopped its onslaught. It didn't ease

gradually; it just stopped.


What's happening?” Nai's voice was muffled against her skin.


I...don't know.” She managed to raise her head slightly and look up into the sky. Her mouth

dropped as she saw dark shapes silhouetted against the sun. Not just one, but at least a

dozen. Each one of those long shapes owned four long limbs that ended in sharp claws. No

wings, but powerful tails that swept away the boulders before they landed on the village.


Four of those dragons arched their backs and sped downward with military precision. They

passed so low over the girls' heads that both Xiao and Nai involuntarily ducked as they went

by. Side by side, they dipped low, opened their mouths, and with their teeth, dug a deep

trench at the bottom of the mountain. They wove between the terraced hills, dredging new

canals where there had been none before. The debris that somehow bypassed the first

vanguard dropped into the deep trenches.


Xiao realized that Terraced Hill Number One, the plot of land her family had tended for

generations, still stood untouched by the rockslide. Water flowed into the trench at the bottom

of the hill, irrigating the land for new rice paddies. Her eyes widened as she realized that the

dragons had effectively doubled the area.


Thank you,” she whispered. “Oh, thank you!”


The four dragons arced up and away to join their brethren. The lead one, a soft cinnamon-

brown with a yellow beard around its snout and face, glanced back and gazed directly back at

her. Xiao saw it wink once, and heard a mental voice replied, You're welcome, Child of the

Earth. My name is Jiahe. You will have an extra special harvest this year.


Then Jiahe and his cadre of fellow Earth Dragons disappeared into the sky. Shocked silence

came over the village for exactly one heartbeat, then the villagers broke out in cheers and

grateful prayers to the Goddess and Her avatars of the land.


Did he say his name was Jiahe?” Nai whispered. Her eyes were still riveted on the skies

above Terraced Hill Number One. “'Golden Harvest'?”


A good name for him, don't you agree?” Xiao asked her gently.


Yes, indeed, Sister. Will he return?”


She managed a smile. “I think so, Nai. I think he and his brothers will return. They are from

the Goddess, after all.”

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