The travelers moved north for a two-and-a-half days to get off the Tibetan Plateau and to the edge of the Kunlun Mountains. The plateau, mostly steppes, gave way now and then to mixed forests with upland meadows. On the third night, they camped at the edge of the woods that pointed at the rocky hills and mountains in the distance. Everyone, especially the horses, began to breathe better as they dropped in elevation. The view of the rock strewn hills prompted a remark from Lincoln.
“Good thing these mustangs have some rocky mountain breeding in them.”
“Good thing we did not arrive higher in the Himalayas,” Alexis responded, softly.
“Still no sign of ghouls following,” Boston looked back the way they came. Everyone glanced back. “Tomorrow noon should end the three days of protection. Unless the gods managed four days of protection.”
No one saw a ghoul during the journey, but they all felt the presence of something watching them. Right now, what they saw was Decker, Lockhart and Katie returning from a hunt. They bagged a yak and had three locals following them.
“Dawa says we killed one of his herd,” Lockhart shouted as soon as he got close enough. “His sons, Norbu and Rabten have come to make sure they get the skin.”
“Dawa,” Alexis said. “Welcome to our fire.”
“Ugh,” the man said.
“Father doesn’t say much,” one of the sons spoke up, and Alexis guessed.
Dawa and Norbu got down to skin the yak with their stone tools. Lincoln was going to offer his knife for the job, but Katie stopped him and hushed him with a few quiet words.
“Best not. Might not get it back.”
It took some time to get the beast skinned, but soon enough there were steaks on the fire. Lincoln wanted more information of the yak herd the locals claimed.
“All the beasts from here to the river are ours,” Rabten explained.
“I imagine they are more herd followers than ranchers,” Katie suggested. “But in their minds, I suppose it amounts to the same thing.”
“You are not from this place,” Rabten asked a question of his own, after a fashion.
“We came from the south and are headed somewhere above the Wei river, near as I can tell,” Lincoln said, having gone over the directions with Boston.
“Neman or Dirong?” Dawa asked outright.
“Neither,” Lockhart gave a one-word answer, so Alexis felt it necessary to explain.
“We are looking for just one man, and then we will be moving on.”
“Yu-Huang,” Lincoln said before Katie or Mingus could stop his mouth.
“I know him,” Dawa said, and fell silent with a look at Rabten. Norbu looked uncomfortable.
“Yu-Huang is a famous sage,” Rabten spoke up. “You have heard of his great wisdom.”
“Yes,” Katie said, quickly, while she watched Alexis distract Lincoln, and Lincoln held his tongue. “From our home, far away, we heard of this great man, and when we had a chance to go and visit our cousins in the far away northland, we thought to come this way to see him, and hear his words. Do you know the way to Kunlun Mountain?”
“Is Norbu all right?” Boston interrupted.
“Yes,” Rabten said. “He is worried about the women.”
“And children,” Norbu added, though he looked uncomfortable again, not like he was worried, but like he was not exactly being truthful.
“Go check,” Dawa told the big young man. “See that they are prepared for our coming.”
“We can take you to Yu-Huang,” Rabten said. “We know exactly where he is.”
“Don’t put yourselves out,” Mingus said, as Norbu got up and banged right into Elder Stow’s screen.
“Wait a minute,” Elder Stow griped. “I need to make a hole in the screen.” He fiddled with his scanner while Rabten changed the subject.
“We are a day from Kunlun, but we may get there sooner if we ride these beasts of yours. I have seen men in the north that ride on such beasts.”
“Okay.” Elder Stow waved at Norbu. Norbu looked back at his father and brother before he moved out into the dark.
“So, we are going to Kunlun Mountain?” Alexis asked.
Rabten nodded. “But you must beware of Yu-Huang’s protector, Xi-Wangmu. She has teeth like a tiger and a tail of the leopard, they say.”
“She is the plague of the west,” Dawa mumbled as he lay down by the fire and pulled up his cloak.
People took the hint and went to sleep, leaving the first three up to watch for ghouls in the night.
Boston saddled up to Katie, and whispered, “Nice fib about going to visit our cousins and all.”
“The lying comes from hanging around elves,” Katie said with a grin.
“Hey!” Boston objected, but returned the grin. “At least you lied better than Dawa and Norbu. Wonder what they are up to.”
Rabten stayed quiet most of the next day. Dawa talked to the young man and told him that their ways were not to be shared with strangers. He was rude in front of the others, but he did not care. He meant what he said, and Rabten dutifully kept most of his thoughts to himself after that.
All morning they moved at a good pace, but the mountains never appeared to get any closer. Lunch was a quiet time, and brief since no one cared much for the leftover yak. For a long time in the afternoon, the mountains disappeared behind the trees as they went through a large forest of spruce, birch and pine. When the trees became more spaced, it seemed as if the mountain moved. It was suddenly huge and directly in their path. A thousand feet of cliff face appeared in front of them and looked like they could almost reach out and touch it.
“Kunlun,” Dawa said. “Yu-Huang.” He pointed most of the way up the cliff. They all looked up even as men with long spears and bronze swords stepped from the trees and surrounded them. The travelers paused, and people considered their options before Lockhart spoke.
“Don’t resist. We don’t know who these soldiers belong to. Hopefully, Yu-Huang will straighten things out.”
Everyone shook their heads. No one really believed these soldiers belonged to Yu-Huang, but no one struggled, thinking they would have a better opportunity later, when people might not get hurt. Dawa grinned at the travelers. Rabten looked unhappy, and he even said so.
“We might have gotten valuable help from these magic metal-makers. We might have learned valuable things.”
“Shut-up,” Dawa ordered, and walked away. Obviously, he was thinking they could learn whatever they wanted by the time they were finished.
The soldiers took the horses, and made the people march in a line to a big camp where they were hastily shoved into a pit dug in the earth. Soldiers stayed on the edge of the hole to look down on their prisoners, but they did not bother the travelers as long as they did not try to climb out. Their knives, handguns and sabers were taken along with their shoulder packs. Boston kept her wand, and Elder Stow held on to some of his more esoteric looking equipment. The soldiers probably thought of it as decorative pieces, and since it had no evident gold or jewels, they left it alone.
“So what now?” Katie asked Lockhart. She did not sound too happy.
“I expect to hear a gun go off any minute,” Decker said.
“I wonder if they will accidentally shoot someone,” Lincoln added.
“Now wait,” Alexis interrupted the sour words of the others. “We are alive and unharmed for the present. And we know where to go, unless Dawa lied to us, and no reason he should. All we need to work on is getting our horses and our things back.”
“Just working on that,” Mingus said as he and Boston went invisible.
“Stowy, do you still have your invisibility button?” Boston asked. Elder Stow nodded.
“Your anti-gravity device?” Mingus asked.
Elder Stow nodded. In a minute he vanished and the others felt something rise up in the air. They would have to wait and see what happened next. The rest of the group could not get out of the hole so easily.