Echo's silver brocaded slippers touched down on the waiting cloud, followed by a slender wooden staff. For a moment, it looked as if the she was steering the cloud with the staff, but the illusion was broken by an explosion of motion. Slippers sparkled as the girl darted forward, jumped into the air, long golden hair streaming as she rolled into a somersault, the staff tucked under her arm. Echo sailed up and over the edge and landed on another cloud a short distance away. Three more somersaults from cloud to cloud and then a final jump took the girl plummeting down to land feet-first on the top of a Bodhi tree.
Echo's balance and footsteps were sure as she walked along the delicate branches of the tree's crown. She crouched, looking at the leaves on the branch before plucking one free. Echo held the leaf to her lips and blew across the heart-shaped surface. A short melody, like the tune from a minstrel's flute, was the result of the effort. She repeated the melody two more times and then jumped from the branch to the waiting grass.
Echo walked over to the Bodhi tree's trunk and placed her staff against it. She then unslung a small embroidered bag from her shoulder and placed it onto the ground. She sat, crossed her legs, and placed the Bohdi leaf in front of her and waited.
She did not have to wait long. Minutes later, Cricket, Butterfly and Ant approached her.
"Echo!" said Ant. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be studying with the Heavenly tutors?"
"My mother tried to make me wear a dress and it's far too nice a day for that!" Echo replied, her face twisting up in a grimace of disgust. "So I decided I would wear trousers and come to play with my friends instead."
"Won't your mother be angry when she finds out you aren't studying?" asked Butterfly.
"I'm not worried about that at all," replied Echo as she reached into the bag.
"Won't your mother be upset when she finds out you're wearing trousers?" asked Cricket?
"I haven't given that much thought," said Echo. "They're my favorite trousers. And I hate dresses. That's what's really important."
Echo pulled a juicy peach from the bag and rubbed it on the worn and patched leg of her grass-stained trousers before placing it on the Bodhi leaf.
"Are you hungry? Would you like to share this peach with me? It will be delicious. I went to great trouble to pick it from the Jade Emperor's grove. I had to transform myself into a dandelion seed and float through the gates and past the ever-watchful fairies. It took a very long time to drift to an unattended tree. I transformed into a peacock and flew to the top of the tree. I then plucked two of my own feathers -- which were actually strands of my hair -- and turned them into a cat and a mouse. I set them running, and when the fairies stopped to follow the commotion, I plucked a peach and flew away to roost on a cloud."
"You took this peach from the Queen Mother of the West's orchard?" asked Butterfly in alarm, her high-pitched voice turning into a squeak.
"She's not my mother, and I wouldn't have had to take the peach if my mother had been sensible and left me and my favorite trousers alone. And all of that transforming and thinking and sneaking has made me hungry. Let's eat!"
Echo stood up with the peach in one hand, the other hand plucking the staff from its perch against the Bodhi tree's trunk. She tossed the peach into the air. Concentrating, she stuck her tongue slightly out of her mouth, and then swung the staff at the peach. The peach burst, raining down a torrent of sodden pulp and juice.
Echo wiped juice and bits of peach from her face, her cheeks turning crimson with sticky embarrassment.
"I meant to divide the peach into three equal sections and have it land neatly on the leaf, ready to eat" said Echo, her voice heavy with regret. "I'm very sorry. It always works perfectly when my father does it."
Echo popped a finger in mouth, and her face brightened with a smile.
"It's delicious! Let's collect what's left and have our feast!"
Echo, Cricket, Butterfly and Ant began to gather the remnants of the peach from the grass. Soon the Bodhi leaf was piled high with peach fragments. Cricket, Butterfly and Ant were so busy enjoying the feast that it wasn't until it was all gone that they noticed that Echo hadn't eaten anything.
"Princess_Echo, why didn't you eat any of the peach? I thought you were hungry and it was so tasty. I've never had anything so sweet!" said Butterfly, her wings flapping with contentment.
"I had my fill at the last Banquet of the Peaches. My father also gives me one every time he sees me, but I'm not supposed to let mother know. They are delicious and I am hungry, but I wanted to share a treat with you," Echo replied.
"I wish Bee were here," said Ant. "She would have enjoyed this special peach so much! This would be the perfect ingredient to make her heavenly honey even sweeter!"
"Where is Bee?" Echo asked.
"Haven't you heard?" asked Cricket. "A demon recently came to the valley. He's been holding Bee's hive hostage and taking all of her honey. The demon is fierce and hungry. We are not strong enough to oppose him"
"Why haven't I heard of this?" demanded Echo. "Has anyone notified the Jade Emperor?"
"Snail left three days ago to make a report, but he came back this morning. He didn't have the proper paperwork to submit a petition," said Butterfly. "The guardian spirits of the valley tried to force the issue with the demon, but the demon was too strong. The spirits are all hiding and refuse to come out until the demon leaves."
"My family is willing to work ceaselessly to drive this invader from the valley, but even in our vast numbers, we are not enough to defeat this demon," said Ant.
The valley was under the protection of the Jade Emperor. Echo had never heard of demons or any other enemies of Heaven in the valley, much less ones bold enough to harass and bully the valley's citizens. Her friends!
"Friends," said Echo, "we cannot wait for word of this to reach to the Jade Emperor. We have to do something now."
"What can we do against such a fierce demon?" asked Butterfly, her wings flapping so fast with agitation that Cricket and Ant's antennae were pushed flat against their heads.
"What we can't do is let a bully push our friends around. This is our valley," said Echo. Her cerulean eyes gleamed like polished sapphires. "I have a plan. Come, gather round me and let's work together."
The demon awoke to hunger in its belly and a chorus of chirps.
The demon never slept well. Dreams and hunger troubled the demon, dreams of another life, a life when the demon was smaller, less driven by hunger. Asleep or awake, the demon was always hungry and thirsty. No matter how much he ate or drank the demon was never satisfied. He wanted more.
The demon growled as it woke up. The demon crawled from his dark burrow into the merciless sunlight.
"Who's making that noise?" the demon said. The demon did not like the sun. Daylight burned his eyes. Squinting, he looked around. He could see nothing out of the ordinary.
Rising up on hind legs, the demon sniffed the air. He smelled crickets, butterflies and ants. He smelled peaches. And he smelled something else, but he couldn't identify it. The scent reminded him of the mistress, which filled him with a moment of fear.
Fully awake now, the demon concentrated. The sound must be coming from crickets. How dare they wake him and bring him out into the awful, miserable sunlight?
"You can't hide from me!" the demon roared. "Crickets, butterflies and ants! Unless you want to become my breakfast, leave this place and never come back."
A rustle came from a growth of nearby bushes, followed by the appearance of Ant, who was further followed by a multitude of ants of all shapes, colors and sizes.
"Come forward, tasty mouthfuls," said the demon. He lowered himself, massively clawed forelegs digging furrows into the dirt as he shambled forward.
"Please hear me out, powerful one! My brothers and sisters have come to bring you a feast. We offer something far tastier than ourselves," said Ant.
Ant turned and gestured with his antennae to the host behind him. A mass of ants surged forward, carrying a peach pit on their backs. They marched to within several paces of the demon and dropped the peach pit in front of him and then rapidly returned to their place behind Ant.
"Do you smell that delectable scent, most insatiable one? As I'm sure you possess a discriminating palate, you must know this humble peach pit came from an extraordinary peach."
The demon wrinkled his snout, sniffing at the peach pit. It did smell wonderful, like no peach the demon had ever smelled before. His mouth began to water and his stomach rumbled.
"This is just a peach pit, miserable ant. I'll admit, it does smell quite good, but I don't eat peach pits. I eat peaches. And when there isn't peaches, I eat ants."
"But terrible and magnificent conqueror, what if I were to tell you that more of these peaches could be yours? Are you familiar with the Queen Mother of the West's magnificent peach orchard? It is said that the peaches grant long life and good health to all who eat them. This peach pit comes from that auspicious orchard. And we seek to serve you a banquet of blessed peaches, if you would allow us this great honor."
"Your offer is tempting, but so is the thought of devouring you. I am not from this land and the Queen of the West is not my Queen. I serve another mistress, and her wrath and power are terrible to behold. She sent me to this far-away land to eat and drink my fill. Where is this feast of miraculous peaches you boast of? I see nothing but tasty ants and a peach pit."
The demon took another lurching step forward, opening his jaws.
"Patience, most perceptive interloper. My brothers and sisters and I are not alone in offering you this feast. You have conquered our homes, so it is only right that we submit to you and offer fealty. The butterfly and cricket clans also recognize your power."
At this, Butterfly and Cricket appeared from behind the stand of bushes, each of them followed by a host of butterflies and crickets.
"Yes, ravenous one, we would be honored to if you would let us serve you this feast," said Butterfly, dipping her wings in a curtsy.
"Please, ominous subjugator, accept our humble offerings," said Cricket, crouching low in the grass.
"We would welcome you with a feast befitting your status," said Ant, his head bowed and one foreleg held up in salute.
The demon, feeling flattered, closed his gaping mouth and settled back on his haunches. Why not let these morsels bring him a meal? Or better yet, two meals, with the possibility of left-overs. He might even fill his bottomless stomach for once and the thought became almost as over-powering as his incessant hunger.
"You pitiful insects seem to possess more wisdom than nourishment. Normally, I would consume you without a second thought. But your offer intrigues me. However, I still do not see any peaches," the demon said.
An ancient, wizened woman hobbled out from behind the bushes. She leaned heavily on a wooden staff. She stood scarcely taller than a small child, her back bent with age, hair white as fresh snow, cheeks as wrinkled as dried grapes. When she opened her mouth to speak, her gums were toothless.
"I shall serve the peaches, dread demon. Cricket, Butterfly and Ant rushed to my hut to tell me of your arrival. Being old and frail, but possessed of good manners and an honest up-bringing, it took me a very long time to come here to pay homage. How could I do otherwise?" said the old woman.
"Decrepit crone, I was told these peaches offer a long life and superb health. Is this true? Answer carefully, because while I have never tasted the flesh of your kind, I am very hungry. I would as soon eat you as listen to your prattling."
The demon was disturbed. He had weak eyes but a strong nose. The crone smelled like the mistress.
The mistress scared the demon. She had sent him from her garden to this place. In his dreams, she was as tall as a giant, looming over him with an enormous bowl overflowing with food, honey dripping from the rim, beckoning him to eat. This old woman did not look like much, but his eyes could not be trusted and the demon's nose did not lie. If she smelled like the mistress did that mean she was as powerful as the mistress, too?
The old woman laughed and the demon took a heavy step backward.
"I'm sure peaches are a better fit for your stomach than my old bones. Yes, demon, peaches from the Queen Mother of the West's sacred orchard are known as the Peaches of Immortality for the long life and good health granted to those fortunate to eat them. I owe my long life to these rare peaches. I have just gotten a new batch. And even for one as old as me, these peaches provide energy and vitality as well as longevity. Let me show you."
The old woman reached into the embroidered bag she carried over her shoulder and pulled out a peach and took a bite. She smacked her lips in delight, and in seconds the peach disappeared into her mouth.
All at once, she straightened, her back seemingly as strong as a tree. With a yell, she kicked, her silver slipper floating in the air like a hummingbird, and then, just as suddenly it dropped to the ground. The old woman vaulted forward with her staff and flipped through the air, landing directly in the front of the demon. She grinned and flourished her staff.
The demon was dumbfounded. The peaches must be potent indeed! All thoughts of fear and caution fled from his mind. All he could think about was a feast of magical peaches.
"Old woman, you have convinced me. Give me the peaches!" the demon said, his voice dripping with greed and desire.
"Please, voracious tyrant, let us serve you properly. A feast requires a table, many courses, soothing music and comfort," said Butterfly.
"I see no table or musicians, snack-on-the-wing. How can I be comfortable under the glare of the hated sun?" the demon replied, his gaze fixed on the old woman's bag.
"We will make it worth your while, demon. Butterfly is right, the peaches are many times more potent if served in the proper manner. The crickets are superb musicians. The butterflies are the most graceful and thoughtful of attendants, fully capable of shading your sensitive eyes from the offensive attention of the sun. The ants are master builders. They can build a table worthy of your feast in the blink of an eye. There is only one thing missing that could make this feast even better and that is honey. Alas, I have none," the old woman said.
"Honey? I have honey," said the demon. He pointed to the tree overhanging his burrow. A large hive was hanging from a branch. "But how much will you need? Honey is my favorite food and I don't want to use any I don't have to."
"Only enough honey to cover a peach and to make a sweet drink, fearsome devourer. Why don't you retire to the comfort of your dark lair and we will prepare the feast. It won't take long," said the old woman.
"Yes, that is a good idea. I will take my leave while you prepare the feast," said the demon. He turned around and crawled back into the burrow, his shaggy bulk disappearing into the darkness.
"Ant, take your kin and begin construction of the table," said the old woman.
Ant turned to the ants behind him. "Hurry, gather twigs and leaves. Make the table just as we planned," said Ant. The ants hurried off in all directions to gather the building materials.
The old woman reached into her bag and took out a Bodhi leaf. With a few deft folds and twists she turned the leaf into a cup. Taking the cup, she walked over to the hive and whistled a low tune.
Bee came out of the mouth of the hive.
"I recognize that tune. Who are you old woman, and why are you here?" said Bee.
"I'm a friend," said the old woman. "You must trust me. Please, can you spare enough honey to fill this cup?"
"Yes, I have some honey to spare, but not much is left. That greedy demon has eaten almost all of my honey, but I have enough left to fill that cup. Old woman, take Cricket, Butterfly, and Ant and flee before the demon eats all of you. His hunger is bottomless and his anger is limitless. The guardian spirits of the valley were no match for him and they have fled after being defeated in battle. We are trapped in this hive, slaves to the demon's stomach. When the honey runs out, I am sure the demon will eat us next," said Bee.
"Don't fret, Bee. Everything will turn out all right. Please trust me. I am a friend, but I can't say more at the moment," said the old woman. She smiled and winked at Bee.
"Leave the cup here. I will get the honey," said Bee.
"Butterfly, can you and your clan come and hold the cup while Bee fills it with honey? We must hurry and ready the feast before the demon grows impatient," said the old woman.
The cloud of butterflies flew over to the old woman and settled on the rim of the leaf cup. Grasping it with their feet, the butterflies picked it up in unison and hovered underneath the entrance of the hive. A line of bees came out of the entrance, each of them carrying a tiny drop of honey to place in the cup.
The ants were working at a breath-taking pace. A constant column of ants carried scavenged twigs and leaves, which they placed in separate piles. Another group of ants took the twigs and leafs from the piles and brought them over to where the table was being built and a third group was busy building the table, which was almost half-way done. Ant supervised the entire affair, going back and forth from the three groups, ensuring everything was in order.
"Cricket," said the old woman. "Do you have a selection of music ready to play for the feast?"
"I do," said Cricket. Cricket had arranged the crickets into four groups. They were busy silently practicing and rehearsing their performance. Cricket orchestrated with his two front antennae.
The old woman took several more Bohdi leaves from her bag and laid them on a small moss-covered rock. She then plucked several ivory hairs from her head and bent over the leaves. When she stepped away, three perfect peaches rested on the largest leaf.
She called out to Butterfly. "Butterfly, how soon until the honey is ready?"
"The cup is ready now," said Butterfly. Butterfly flew over to the empty Bodhi leaves, and the butterflies followed, carrying a cup full to the brim with sweet honey. Butterfly fluttered above an empty leaf, and the butterflies gently set the cup down on top of it.
"Perfect!" said the old woman. She grabbed a peach from the pile and dunked it into the cup, covering the entire skin with honey. She then placed it on the remaining empty leaf.
"Ant," said the old woman. "Is the table almost ready?"
"Yes," said Ant. "It will be finished in just a few moments." The industrious ants had built a marvelous table! The top was made of woven leaves, the three legs made of cunningly joined together twigs.
The old woman picked up the leaf with the honey-covered peach and placed it on the table. She then set the leaf with the cup of honey on the table. She left the leaf with the last two peaches on the rock.
"Cricket," said the old woman. "It's time to start the feast!"
The crickets started playing a melody to mark the beginning of the feast. Once again, the demon awoke to cricket-song.
The demon pulled itself out of the borrow. It stopped before the table made by the ants.
"Is the feast ready?" asked the demon. The demon seated itself on a well-worn stone, directly in front of the table.
"It is," said the old woman. "Butterfly, provide the service of a dutiful attendant and cup-bearer. Shield the demon from the sunlight and hold the cup at his convenience."
The butterflies split into two groups. One flew over to the cup and picked it up from its leaf saucer. They positioned themselves just off to the side of the demon. The other group flew above the demon's head, serving as a living, multi-hued umbrella. The demon was bathed in cool, refreshing shade.
"O-ho!" said the demon. "This is most unexpected. I shall truly enjoy this feast if I don't have to contend with the baleful glare of the sun." Meanwhile, the ants all gathered under the table, arranging themselves around the leg of the table closest to the demon. At a signal from Cricket, the song shifted into a relaxing tune fit for a feast.
The old woman picked up the leaf bearing the honey covered peach and brought it to the demon.
"Here is the first course. Please enjoy our humble offering," said the old woman. Her blue eyes shone bright under the shady canopy of butterflies.
The demon grasped the sticky peach in both paws and greedily brought the delicacy to its mouth. The demon stuffed the peach into its mouth. The demon's face, which up until that moment, had been a mask of excitement, contorted in confusion and rage.
"What is this trickery!" roared the demon. "This tastes like hair, not peach!"
"Now!" shouted the old woman. At her command the ants pushed against the table leg, collapsing it. The table tumbled onto the demon's lap, trapping it under a mass of twigs and leaves. A column of ants bearing tiny twig clubs and leaf shields began to climb over the wreckage and up onto the demon's trapped body.
The butterflies tipped the cup over the demon's head, drenching the demon with honey. The second group of butterflies swarmed the demon's face, blinding it with a mass of beating wings.
The old woman changed, transforming into her natural form. Echo flung back her golden hair and stood tall, brandishing her staff. "Change!" she cried, and the staff turned into a rope that writhed like a serpent. She flung the rope and it wrapped itself tightly around the demon, trapping its arms against its sides.
The demon thrashed and twisted, but could not free itself from the rope and the twigs. It turned its head from side, but it could not see. Frustrated and angry, the demon let loose a terrible bellow as it struggled to break loose.
"Cricket," said Echo as she covered her ears with her hands. "Now!" The clan of crickets began to make a a tremendous, high-pitched noise. The demon's bellow and all other sounds were buried under an avalanche of unpleasant sound.
The demon's protestation of outrage turned into a squeal of terror. The ants climbed over every part of the demon's body, brandishing their clubs with the promise of swift reprisal.
Echo signaled to Cricket and the horrendous noise stopped as abruptly as it started.
"Demon," said Echo. "Are you prepared to surrender? The ants, butterflies, crickets and bees are peaceful folk. This valley is a community of neighbors, friends and family. If you had come with peaceful intentions, you would have been welcomed and made at home. You cannot take what is not freely given."
Bee flew from the hive, straight towards Echo.
"Echo!" Bee exclaimed "Your disguise was magnificent!"
"Thank you, Bee," said Echo.
The demon ceased struggling, its heavy body sagging in defeat.
"What are the terms of surrender?" asked the demon.
"You will have to agree to come with me to the Heavenly Palace and plead your case to the Jade Emperor. Attacking and threatening citizens of the Realm is a serious offense, but if you cooperate and act with honor, I am sure the Jade Emperor will show mercy."
The demon did not feel there was much of a choice to make. This fierce transforming girl and her companions had thoroughly overwhelmed him.
"I surrender" said the demon. In his heart, he was glad to surrender. Everything he had done had been at the command of the mistress. True, his hunger was ever-present, but why did he have to take the food of others to eat? Surely there was a way to coexist in peace. The thought of it soothed him. He looked past his fear of the mistress and his constant desire to eat and realized he did not want to fight or have power over anyone or anything but himself.
"My friends and I had no wish to harm you or trick you, demon. However, by taking Bee captive and intimidating the other residents of the valley with force and fear, you left us no choice. If I release you, do you promise to accompany us back to the Heavenly Palace?"
"I agree. I will go go with you of my own free will," said the demon.
Echo and the ants, butterflies and crickets worked together to remove the leafs and twigs from the demon. When they were done, Echo gestured to the rope and shouted "Release!" and the rope fell away to the ground.
She picked the rope up and commanded: "Change!" and the rope once again became a slender staff.
The demon, still seated on the rock, began to wipe the honey from his fur and lick it from his paws. His eyes were downcast, his face troubled.
"I apologize for everything I have done," said the demon. "Bee, I was wrong to take your honey and to hold you and your kind prisoner. I know an apology cannot excuse my actions, but in my shame I do not what else to say."
Memories of life before the demon had awoken in the Mistress's grove where shrouded in mist. Only in his dreams could he recall a life different from the once he currently knew, but for the first time he could remember, he didn't feel hungry or scared or angry. He felt good.
"Demon," said Bee. "I forgive you. We have a simple rule we follow in this valley. Treat others as you want to be treated. It has always worked well for us and allows us to live in tranquility and happiness. It brings me joy to share honey and companionship with a friend."
The sun, which had hung from the sky only a few hours ago like large bright fruit, was now being plucked and inexorably drawn into the waiting mouth of the western horizon.
"It's growing late and I must return home," said Echo. "I'm already going to be in trouble for skipping my studies. It will be much worse if I arrive after dark."
Despite her words, Echo did not look the least bit concerned. Her cheeks were flushed, her face radiant with joy and energy. She loved adventure and the day had been rich with excitement.
"I will go with you," said Ant. "The entrance to the Heavenly Palace is not far and I am not worried about returning after dark."
"Of course I will come too," said Butterfly. "We started this adventure together and I will see it through to the end. The beauty and splendor of the Heavenly Palace inspires me, and I haven't visited in quite some time."
"I will as well," said Cricket. "I would be a witness to the Jade Emperor and ask for clemency for the demon. Despite his fierce demeanor and actions, I believe at heart he is an honorable and good creature."
"I was deeply moved by the demon's apology," said Bee. "I, too, will speak up for him when the Jade Emperor hears his case."
"It's settled then, we will all go back together. If it is too late to for you to return home, perhaps you can all stay the night at my house as guests," said Echo. She secretly hoped that it would be too late for her friends to make the return home. Hopefully they could stay up all night talking and playing, and she would wouldn't have to go to her studies tomorrow.
"Are you ready," Echo asked the demon.
"I am," said the demon. Instead of feeling fear or anxiety about his meeting with the Jade Emperor, he felt calm, happy even, He felt better than he could ever remember. This young girl and her brave friends were full of happiness and seeing the clear affection and joy they had in each others company made the demon yearn for something besides food. Of course, he would have loved to eat a delicious peach, but the demon now felt sure that there might be other priorities besides peaches.
REWRITE THIS WHOLE CHAPTER -- SHOW DON'T TELL!
The Celestial Palace gleamed like a thousand jewels under the sun. Slender jade columns covered with intricate carvings lined the pathway to the main entrance. The courtyard was full of beautiful fountains and shade trees. Ministers, clerks, guards, sages and other members of the court bustled or lounged, depending on their duties, all of them dressed in bright clothing. Peacocks and swans paraded
The demon was awe-struck. Ever since the group passed through the Celestial gates, he had been in a constant state of bemusement. His senses were overwhelmed by the multitude of exotic smells and sights. Spices, perfumes, the aroma of numerous dishes being prepared and a thousand other mysterious scents assailed his nose. His eyes were almost blinded by the kaleidoscope colors. It seemed as if every building, even the guardhouse at the gate, was constructed of crystal or diamonds, so brightly did every surface reflect the sun into the demon's watering eyes.
Echo paid no attention to the beauty and luxury that surrounded her. She had spent every day of her life in the Palace and the surrounding grounds, essentially a small city devoted to the needs of the Palace and its countless functionaries. To her, the palace was a prison, a place where she was not free to be herself. She preferred the open beauty of the fields and valleys and the freedom of playing with her friends and being herself. Wrestling and and arguing with the children of the palace servants was exciting. Wearing formal clothes and listening to her teachers drone was torture. Sparring with the guards and soldiers gave her joy. Studying with the tutors made her sullen and morose.
Keeping an eye out for her mother or one of her teachers, Echo walked to the entrance of the palace, the demon and her friends following closely behind her. Two palace guards stood at either side of the entrance
"Echo," said the taller guard with a grave nod, his mustache twitching with the effort he made not to break into a smile. His name was XXX. Like many members of the palace, he knew Echo well.
"Your mother has been looking for you. She says you didn't show up for your lessons. The fairies [insert name of orchard later] have also reported that several peaches were taken from the Orchard. "
Echo planted her feet into a fighting stance and twirled the staff around her head.
"I've spent the day studying my technique! Who dares face me! If my mother wants to find me, I am right here!" she said with a fierce glare. She pointed the staff at the guard.
He raised his hand in mock fear. "Not I, not I! Your fight must have been epic indeed, if the dried peach on your staff is any indication." The second guard could contain his mirth no longer and let loose with a peal of laughter.
The guards' playfulness came out of their long relationship with Echo. She had grown up in the Palace, and was well known -- and mostly -- loved by all that knew her. The guards and imperial soldiers treated her like one of their own, an advantage Echo had used many times to elude her mother, teachers and other erstwhile captors.
Echo grinned and returned the laugh. "The fight was long and hard, but I triumphed in the end," she said. She set her staff back on the ground and rubbed her stomach, her face a portrait of contentment.
"I did do battle today, with a mighty demon. I have brought him to the Celestial Palace to plead his case to the Jade Emperor."
"It's true," said Butterfly, flying forward. "Echo rescued our valley from the demon. He surrendered and agreed to willingly come before the Jade Emperor. We've come along with Echo to give our testimony in this matter." She dipped her wings demurely and fell back with the rest of the group.
"Is this true, demon? Name yourself," said XXX, his pleasant demeanor gone.
The demon stood still, his eyes downcast.
"It is true. I do not know my name," said the demon. "I am not from this land."
"This is a strange day indeed," said XXXX [second guard]. "The Jade Emperor's court has received many visitors from foreign lands today. You will not be the first stranger to speak to the Emperor today."
The Jade Emperor's throne room buzzed with whispered conversations. The gallery seats