The travelers arrived at what looked to them like the first real village they had seen. Instead of tents, there were makeshift dwellings built of bamboo and grasses. They were crude to be sure, and easily taken down, but solid enough. They were also easily burned from the look of some of them.
“Strangers. Strangers!” One man saw them, yelled in panic and ran off. A few women screamed and ran into their huts. Lockhart halted their progress somewhere near the middle of the village, a village deserted by the time they stopped.
“Nothing like a first class welcome,” he said.
“Why are they afraid of us?” Boston wondered out loud.
“They are certainly afraid of something,” Roland added.
“Some people are just afraid of anything they don’t understand,” Lincoln suggested and Lieutenant Harper stepped up to agree, but Mingus spoke first.
“No, they are just rabbits. Scared rabbits. So, son-in-law, welcome home.”
“Father!” Alexis objected, but Lincoln just ignored the elf.
Six elderly men appeared at the end of the row of houses. They did not look too brave themselves. They came forward in a group where they might not have come by themselves. The eldest spoke when they were near. “Are you of the goddess or of the beast?”
“Neither,” Lockhart spoke plainly enough. “We are travelers and seek only shelter for the night. We will move on tomorrow.”
The men turned to each other and began a whispered argument.
“Tell me about the goddess,” Lieutenant Harper butted in and the men paused so the eldest could speak again.
“Nagi-di is the goddess of our village. Some say she has sent the beast because she is angry with us. Others say the beast was sent by a jealous, rival god. We have prayed everyday and made offerings to the goddess for her help, but we do not know if she has abandoned us. Please, are you the help or have you come to kill all the beast has not destroyed?”
“We are here to help,” Alexis spoke up and Lockhart turned on her.
“What is it with you and Boston? You are not permitted to offer bread or help or anything else that commits this group in any way without asking permission. Is that clear?” He was not happy.
Alexis dropped her eyes but said nothing as Mingus stepped forward with a question. “What kind of beast?”
The men took one look at Mingus and took a big step back, but to their credit they did not turn and run. They simply appeared afraid to answer. A boy came around the corner and pushed right passed the men. He was a young man of about fifteen and one of the men yelled at him.
But Keng ignored the man and ran right up to Boston and gave her a big hug. “You guys got here just in time,” Keng said. He let go of Boston and turned toward Mingus. “It’s a bogy beast,” he said. “I was beginning to think it would be the end for us all, but here you are.”
“But if the beast is the end of the story, we might mess things up if we help.” Lincoln was concerned about changing time.
“Maybe,” Keng admitted. “But I don’t think it is supposed to be here. I haven’t seen its master, but you know they are never far away.”
“Master?” Lockhart asked.
Keng looked at the man and paused before he smiled. “Not the masters, like that. I mean the bogy man.”
“What is a bogy beast?” Captain Decker wanted to know.
“A bogy man’s dog,” Mingus answered.
“A lesser spirit, up to twenty feet tall or long with razor sharp claws and teeth and it breathes fire. Nearly impossible to kill, the database says. It does look sort of like a bear.” Boston added the last for Lieutenant Harper.
“Definitely not good,” Mingus added under his breath.
“So, you will stay and help?” Keng asked. He looked up at Lockhart again and Lockhart reluctantly nodded.
“But my first duty is to get this crew home,” he said. “If it becomes impossible, we are out of here.”
“Understood.” Keng turned to the men. “They will stay and help, but we need to treat them well while they are here.”
The man who yelled at Keng stepped free of the group and slapped Keng in the ear, hard. “You have no business telling your elders what to do.” He immediately turned to the travelers. “You are welcome here, and Nagi’s blessing be upon you.”
“Come out, come out.” Other men yelled. “They are sent by the goddess and are here to help.”
Alexis stepped up to Keng to make sure that he was alright. Boston moved up, too, but her lips were moving. “Come out, come out wherever you are and meet the young lady who fell from a star.”
Keng had a hand on his ear, but he smiled on hearing that.
The travelers set up camp in the middle of the village. The people brought some of their food, but did not stand around to stare. They especially avoided the elves and some, no doubt, felt the elves were as dangerous as the beast. One of the elder men commented on this.
“How is it that the spirits of the earth do your bidding? Are they safe?”
“We have a common goal,” Lockhart said with a sideways look at Mingus. “And no, they are not safe, but they will help.”
“But you have them so well trained,” another man commented. Roland had to step in front of his father to prevent an incident.
“So tell me, do we have to hunt the beast?”
The two elders looked at each other, surprised at being asked such a question. “Why, no,” one finally said. “It has come to the village twice in the night.
“Though it did not come last night,” the other said, thoughtfully.
“Yes, something must have distracted it,” the first concluded.
“Us,” Lockhart said. “Only a ghoul got in the way.”
It was not long after that they heard the not too distant roar.