It was windy on the mountain, windy and cold, and Michiko's long red scarf danced as she looked around the narrow peak. What is this place? she thought. Why am I here? Where's Beth? She could see four other mountains in the near distance, all of them tall and slender.
A piece of paper, blown by the wind, landed at Michiko's feet. She picked it up and saw writing on it, in gold letters, in a script she recognized as Sanskrit. It seemed familiar to her, but she couldn't quite place it.
There was loud, mocking laughter behind Michiko. She slowly turned.
Squatting on a ridge above her was a monkey. He looked like he could pass for human from a distance if one squinted, but he had a monkey's face and tail, brown hair growing everywhere, and deep brown eyes. He was dressed in red and gold, and he carried a heavy iron staff with ease. "Little pretender!" he said with a chuckle and a teeth-baring smile, jumping off the ridge and pointing at Michiko.
"You?" Michiko reared back.
"Who else?" the monkey roared. "Who but the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven! The Victorious Fighting Buddha! Sun Wukong! The mighty, masterful, handsome Monkey King! And I—"
He stopped as Michiko ran up to him. "Oh my gosh!" she squealed. "I'm so glad to meet you! I just wish Beth were here! It's an honor! It's..."
Her voice trailed off as the Monkey King glared at her. "Little pretender," he hissed. "I did not bring you here for inane chatter!"
"Does this mean I shouldn't ask for your autograph?"
Sun Wukong gritted his teeth. "Young fool! I bring a warning from Heaven!"
Michiko raised a forefinger. "If it's about the leftovers we found in the back of the fridge—"
The Monkey King grabbed Michiko by the throat. "Quiet!"
"Yes, sir," Michiko said.
"I don't know what the Gods were thinking!" He released Michiko and continued, "The True Millennium is coming! We needed a hero! A chosen one! And what do we get? An impudent slip of a girl with a martyr complex!"
"But I've done a good job so far!" Michiko said defensively.
"Compared to who? Not me! I defeated demons and monsters! I held the Gods to a standstill! I am a legend! What have you done?"
"Rescued some kidnapping victims and lost kids?"
"Is that all?" the Monkey King sneered. "I've eaten the Peaches of Immortality! I have mastered the 72 Transformations! I can soar through the clouds! What about you?"
"I'm cute," Michiko said meekly.
"Enough." Sun Wukong plucked a hair from his head, held it to his mouth, and blew.
There were a few more Sun Wukongs at first, then dozens, then hundreds. The Monkey Kings raised their staffs as they surrounded Michiko. "Do you think you can beat us all?" they said as one. "You wouldn't even be a match for one of us!"
"But I have no quarrel with you," Michiko said. "Why should we fight?"
"What if there were something worth fighting for?" The Monkey Kings smiled grimly. "It would be so easy for us to go next door, so to speak."
"Beth?" Michiko whispered, her eyes widening.
"She's so vulnerable to us."
Michiko dropped into a defensive crouch, staff under her forearm. "Not while I draw breath," she snapped.
Sun Wukong laughed mockingly, a laugh that spread through his duplicates. "Try something, little pretender! We'll crush you like a leaf!"
"The only way you'll get to Beth," the Monkey Queen said, "is through me. I may not be able to stop you, but I'll make you sorry you tried." Her hand tightened on her staff as she stared down the horde.
The Monkey Kings nodded, and all but one of them vanished. "You have spirit," the remaining one said.
Michiko loosened her grip on her staff and straightened up. "You said Heaven sent you with a warning. Tell me what this is about."
"Very well." The Monkey King pointed his staff at Michiko. "You will soon face a great challenge. I am here to tell you to prepare yourself. You carry a secret, little pretender. A secret of the heart."
"Nothing is out of the sight of Heaven! And no secret is forever! Soon, everyone will know!"
Michiko trembled, turning pale. "But—but—"
"And what is more," Sun Wukong said as he stepped towards Michiko, "to triumph, you will have to do something that even I, the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, could never do!"
"What would that be?" Michiko asked.
"I have already said enough! Do you think Heaven gives away the future?"
Michiko nodded. "Thank you, then."
The Monkey King turned to go. "Just remember, little pretender," he said, "your greatest weakness is also your greatest asset."
"What do you mean?"
He turned back and pointed at Michiko's heart. "Your compassion. Your capacity to care. Your love. I had to be taught all that, but you were born with it, and it guides you. It gives you strength. It's what makes you a hero." Sun Wukong smiled, without a hint of mockery. "Farewell, Monkey Queen."
He gestured with his staff, and a cloud swooped out of the sky. He jumped in the air, somersaulting and landing atop it. As it sped away, Sun Wukong reached back and grabbed the mountain. He pulled hard and tore away the peak, the skies above him, and the ground Michiko stood on, leaving only a white, empty void. As the Monkey King flew away, laughter trailing behind him, gravity overtook Michiko and she plummeted—
* * *
Michiko woke up with a gasp. She glanced around her darkened bedroom, making sure everything was how it should be as her breathing and heartbeat returned to normal. Wow, she thought. Now I know how Beth feels after one of her airship dreams.
She glanced at the clock by her bed. Speaking of, she thought as she threw her blanket aside. Time for coffee. And for apologies, I hope.
* * *
The sun was losing its fight with the morning overcast as Beth got of bed, put her bathrobe on over her pajamas, and stuck her feet into her pink bunny slippers. She opened her bedroom door and stepped into the living room, making her way towards the kitchen.
Michiko was there, already showered, wearing a plain black t-shirt and matching jeans. She was staring at the wall and holding a mug; Beth could smell the fresh coffee. "Hey," she said to Michiko.
"Hi," Michiko said, moving slightly to make room.
Beth grabbed her favorite mug and started to fix her coffee. "Michiko?" she said.
"I..." Beth paused, trying to arrange her thoughts. "I just wanted to say that...well, it's a little thing, but thank you for making the coffee." She concentrated on her mug as she continued, "I know I thank you for this every day, but I really do appreciate the time you take, and your thoughtfulness. Thanks." She set the pot down and hoped the icebreaker would work.
"You're welcome," Michiko said, still staring at the wall. "Beth?"
"Yeah?" Beth tried to not sound nervous, but her hand shook as she picked up her mug.
"Beth...I'm sorry." Michiko lowered her head. "I know I haven't been treating you well lately. I've had things on my mind. Personal stuff. And I've let it get to me. I've taken it out on you."
"Michiko..." Beth swallowed.
Michiko looked at Beth, the faintest hint of tears in her eyes. "I've hurt you, Beth. And I'm sorry. I really am."
Beth saw the sadness and regret in Michiko's face, and even with all that happened the last few days, her heart went out to her friend. She set her coffee mug down to keep from dropping it. "Is this personal stuff something you feel comfortable talking about?" she asked.
Michiko shook her head. "It's something I have to work out on my own."
Beth reached out and took Michiko's shoulder. "Okay, then," she said. "But you don't have to shut me out or push me away."
"You've put up with all my complaining. I'll do the same for you any time you want to talk. Okay?"
Michiko nodded, blushing. "Thanks, Beth. And I am sorry."
"Yeah." Beth stepped back. "And I'm sorry I yelled at you last night."
"I probably deserved it. It's okay."
"Thanks." Beth smiled and picked up her mug.
Michiko and Beth looked over to the living room and the cage on the end table by the couch. "You had to wake me up with this schmaltz?" Gregor snapped. "'Oh, I'm so sorry!' 'Oh, I'm sorry too!' What a way to start a Sunday!"
"Sounds like someone's got the crankies," Beth said to Michiko.
"We need to cheer him up!" Michiko walked over to the cage and pulled Gregor out. "Poor little Mr. Crankypants just needs a hug!" She lifted the guinea pig up and nuzzled him happily. Beth watched from the kitchen, sipping her coffee and trying not to giggle.
"Put me down!" Gregor shouted. "How dare you treat a mighty sorcerer like this! Put me down!"
"In a second!" Michiko smooched Gregor on the cheek. He grimaced and made a retching noise.
Michiko put the guinea pig back in his cage and turned away. As she did, Gregor caught Beth's eye and winked. She had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing.
* * *
Sundays for Michiko, Beth and Gregor always meant breakfast at the Wonderland Diner and Tavern, the favorite hangout for the local Emigre community. Their walk there was quieter than usual, but at least the tension between the two friends had been broken, and Beth was willing to settle for that for the moment.
Breakfast was also quieter than usual, or at least as quiet as things got at Wonderland on Sunday morning. All the regulars were there, and Michiko and Beth were kept busy enough chatting with their friends and acquaintances until the food arrived that there wasn't much time for talking to each other anyway.
They were sipping coffee after eating; Gregor sat in his high chair next to them, still munching his sliced strawberries. "So, Michiko," Beth asked as she brushed crumbs off her Totoro t-shirt, "do we have any plans for today?"
"Plans?" Michiko said.
"Yeah. Errands? Fun stuff? Unexpected last-minute things we should have seen coming?"
Michiko shook her head. "I hadn't thought about it."
"Quiet afternoon at home, then?" Beth said.
"We'll see." Michiko stood up and tugged at her baggy Pikachu sweater. "But I have one thing to take care of."
"I was up pretty early this morning. All that coffee finally caught up to me." Michiko smiled sheepishly as she headed for the restrooms; Beth giggled.
At least she can still joke around, Beth thought as she glanced down at her coffee. She had already gone through a dozen worst-case scenarios in her mind, everything from blackmail to serious illness to having to move. None of them answered the question of what was going on with Michiko, and every last one made her feel worse. If only she'd open up! If only she'd tell me—
"Hey!" Beth looked up, her reverie broken. Mandy, the pixie waitress who held things together at the diner, was staring at her. "You are so out of it today!" she said.
"I know," Beth said. "Late night again."
"How do you guys do it?"
The door flew open, and everyone stared at the woman who ran inside. She was a faerie, young and slender, dressed in a white skirt and wraparound top, gold trimmed with a matching sash; a crest with two intertwined phoenixes was sewn on below her left shoulder. She had long black hair, held in place by pearl-tipped pins, and deep brown eyes. She reminded Beth of Grandmother Fox, but much younger. Two fans hung from her sash, bouncing off her legs as she stopped near the doorway.
The faerie glanced around the diner as the door closed, visibly surprised by the surroundings. "Greetings?" she said nervously.
"Hi," Mandy said as she walked up to the visitor. "Welcome to the Wonderland Diner and Tavern. What can we do for you?"
"Am I in the right place?" the faerie said slowly. "I was trying to find—"
The visitor fell quiet as the door started to open again. Mandy held a finger to her lips and pointed at the pastry counter by the door. The visitor nodded and ran behind it, ducking out of sight.
Seven bearded faerie warriors stormed into the diner. They wore armor made of small leather plates knotted together over red tops and pants, and they had swords already loosened in their scabbards. "Good morning," Mandy said calmly to them. "Welcome to the Wonderland—"
"I am Liao Po!" one of the warriors shouted. He was taller than the rest, and had a fierce beard, a fiercer expression and a shield emblazoned with crossed swords. "My men and I serve Lord Hong!"
"Long life to Lord Hong!" the other warriors exclaimed.
"You will tell us where she is!"
"Who?" Mandy asked.
"The Princess!" Liao Po glared at the waitress. "We saw her come in here!"
Mandy shrugged. "We're not that high-class a joint. No princesses here."
"Tell us where she's hiding!" Liao Po grabbed Mandy's arm. "If you don't, we'll tear this place apart!"
"Like Hell." Mec, who had been sitting and chatting with Puck, jumped to his feet and dug into a pocket. "Get your filthy hands off her," the gremlin hissed, a gleam in his eyes. Puck grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
"You're new here." The warriors turned to face Windsor as he leaned back in his chair. "We have rules," he continued. "This is a no-conflict zone. No fighting allowed." His hand grazed the pommel of his sword.
"Right." Beth stood up and folded her arms. "Take it outside." Gregor looked up from his plate as his forepaws started to glow.
"Do you think you can tell Lord Hong's elite warriors what to do?" Liao Po said.
"We can do more than that." A dark-haired faerie in black rose and faced Hong's men, setting her book aside as she stood. "Much more." Beth could see the fury in Scylla's eyes, and she trembled for a moment.
"Aye." Ulbricht pushed his chair in as he and the other dwarves got up. "Let's take it outside. We haven't had a good scrap in weeks."
“Right.” Aloysius was standing in the kitchen doorway, his wings flapping, and for the first time that Beth could remember, the chef was genuinely angry. “Out,” he growled in his deep voice, pointing at the door as his red eyes glowed. “Now.”
"Lord Hong's finest warriors do not fear..." Liao Po glanced towards the back of the diner, and his voice trailed off.
Sam had been sitting in his favorite spot, by the back wall in the one chair in the diner that could hold his monstrous reptilian frame, reading the Sunday paper. He was now standing, his head just short of the ceiling. His tail swatted back and forth, and he roared a shout of challenge as he took a step towards Lord Hong's men. Steam drifted from his nostrils.
Liao Po snorted as he pushed Mandy down to the floor and reached for his sword. "If you stand with the Princess," he said, "you will—"
"That does it!"
Hong's men gasped with fear as the Monkey Queen charged out of the restroom, brandishing her staff. "You heard these people!" she shouted as she ran at them. "Take it outside!" Liao Po and the others tried to back away, but Michiko turned her staff sideways and swept them along in front of her like lost and naughty sheep.
As they neared the door, it was opened from the outside by a woman of a certain age with curly gray hair and a purple sweater. "Good morning, everyone!" Mary Crimble said. She noticed Michiko shepherding Hong's men along just in time and moved aside, holding the door open as they tumbled out.
Beth jumped up from her table and ran after Michiko. "Thanks," she said to Mary as she hurried past.
The visitor sprung from her hiding place behind the pastry counter and followed Beth outside. "Have a great day!" Mary said cheerfully as she stepped away from the door and headed in.
As the door slammed shut, Mec pulled free from Puck and ran to Mandy's side, just beating Aloysius there. "You okay, sugarplum?" the gremlin asked as he helped the pixie up.
"I'm fine, sweetie," Mandy said as she brushed herself off. "But they'd better come back soon."
"No, Michiko and Beth. They haven't paid yet."
"That's not all they forgot," Gregor snapped.
Sam took his lift-and-erase board from its spot on the wall. He wrote on it with the talon of his forefinger and held it up: Should we help?
Windsor chuckled. "There's only seven of them, my friend. Michiko may not even break a sweat. In fact—" He pointed towards the window. "Maybe we can pick up a trick or two by watching her at work."
* * *
"Okay!" Michiko shouted as she moved away from the door. "You bozos have caught me on the wrong end of a bad week, and that woman you pushed around is a friend of mine! Time to get your butts kicked!"
"We outnumber you seven to one!" Liao Po snapped as he and his companions circled her.
"I know." Michiko smiled. "This is gonna be fun!"
"And it's actually seven to two!"
As Michiko's smile widened, the warriors gaped and Beth watched in awe as she stood by the door, the princess did a backflip over Hong's men, landing next to Michiko as she pulled the fans from her belt. "Surrender!" she shouted.
"You'd fight us with fans?" Liao Po started to snicker. "Just like a spoiled royal brat!"
The princess snapped the fans open, and Beth could see they were iron and brass, decorated with the same phoenix motif as the crest she wore. "I am the granddaughter of the Great Tactician!" the princess said. "I have studied under the Imperial Masters! Underestimate me if you will, but the Monkey Queen and I will...what did you say?" she asked Michiko, glancing over her shoulder.
"Kick their butts!" Michiko grinned.
"Thank you." The princess smiled as she raised the twin fans. "Shall we?"
"Yep!" Hong's men started to draw their swords, but Michiko swatted two of them in the hands. As they winced, she parried a swing from a third and caught him in the side on the backswing.
As he toppled over, two more charged the princess. One swung at her, and she brought her fans together in front of her. The sword clanged off them and bounced back; as it did, the princess brought up her knee, getting the warrior below the belt, in a place his armor didn't cover properly. He sagged to the ground.
The other warrior swung at the princess, but she jumped to one side to evade the blow. She snapped her fans shut and struck her foe on his helmet with one, then the other. He reeled, and a kick in the back of his knee brought him down.
The princess turned towards Michiko, who had disposed of four of the warriors and was facing the last one standing, Liao Po. "I will not surrender, Monkey Queen!" he shouted as he raised his sword. "My Lord Hong—"
Michiko parried Liao Po's swing hard enough to knock his sword out of his hand and send it flying. She poked him in the stomach with her staff. As he doubled over she kicked him, not hearing the faint tearing of fabric. The warrior tumbled ten feet along the ground, smashing into a nearby wood bench. "Never lay a hand on my friends again!" Michiko shouted.
Liao Po scrambled to his feet. "Retreat!" he yelled as he ran off into the woods; the rest of Hong's warriors jumped up and followed him.
Michiko turned towards the princess. "Oh my gosh!" she said, smiling joyously. "It's so good to—"
"Michiko," the princess said, "we don't have time to spare. We need to return to the Far Lands at once."
"Lord Hong's men are preparing to execute my boyfriend."
Michiko gasped with surprise. "You have a boyfriend?"
"Not if we can't get there in time to rescue him," the princess said with a stern glare.
"Right! You go ahead; we'll catch up."
The princess nodded and ran, heading in the direction the warriors had taken. "So how long are you going to be gone?" Beth asked.
"You mean, how long will we be gone!" Michiko picked Beth up bridal style and ran after the princess.
"Michiko!" Beth said. "What are you—"
"There's no time!" Michiko said. "We need to help my friend!"
"And all it's going to cost is my dignity."
"We'll laugh about this later. You should—"
"Get my smartphone out and text Puck and Grandmother Fox that we may be gone for a couple of days?" Beth was already tapping the screen of her phone.
"Yep!" Michiko said as she caught up to the princess.
She glanced back at them and raised an eyebrow. "I thought we needed to travel light."
Michiko smiled. "This is my partner, Beth McGill."
"Hey," Beth said with a nod.
"Do you always carry her everywhere?" the princess said.
"You said we had to hurry," Michiko said.
"Yep!" Michiko's face lit up. "We've been working together for about three months now. She's smart, she thinks quickly—"
"She's portable," Beth said, trying not to blush, as they veered off the trail and pushed through underbrush.
Michiko giggled. "And she's saved my butt more than once. She's my best friend." Beth smiled; after what they had been through, she was glad to hear Michiko getting back to her old self.
They stopped near the auldgate. As Michiko set Beth down, the princess said, "I've rarely heard Michiko speak so highly of someone." She bowed to Beth.
"You're forgetting something!" Michiko grinned.
"Of course." The princess nodded. "I am Jiao, Princess of Nui."
Beth bowed. "I am honored, Princess."
"Please call me Jiao. Michiko, we do need to hurry."
"Right!" Michiko and Jiao ran up to the stone platform; as they did, the marble gate came into view.
"This Nui," Beth said as she followed them. "I've been to Faerie through this gate, but it takes you to Dawnhome."
"A lesson I once learned, Beth," Jiao said as she stepped to the other side of the platform, "is that all doors have two sides." Beth followed her and saw that while the auldgate was the same on the other side, the energy inside was different, red and pulsing instead of swirling.
"They're called the Far Lands for a reason," Michiko said to Beth. "If we had a globe of Faerie, you'd see that where Faerie itself was, Nui and the other kingdoms would be on the other side."
"Wow," Beth said.
"And it's summer there, and the food is awesome!" Michiko said. "Let's go, Jiao!" The princess nodded and led the way into the far side of the auldgate.
Thanks for reading! Don't forget that you can read an excerpt from Chapter Four - "The Author, The Archer And The King Of Magpies" - here! http://monkeyqueenbooks.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-author-archer-and-king-of-magpies.html And stay tuned to this blog for the official announcement of the publication date!
©2015 Robert Dahlen. All rights reserved, except for those protected by local fair use laws.