The travelers heard a gun-shot. A few seconds later, Rabten showed up, and Norbu was with him.
“You. Come,” Norbu said. The travelers struggled to get out of the pit.
“Where are the others?” Rabten noticed and asked. No one answered. A man lay on the ground, bleeding and moaning. Alexis went to him even as she scolded her husband. “Benjamin.”
Dawa held Lockhart’s revolver and stared at the elderly man beside him. It was that man that shrieked at the travelers and accused them of the most-evil magic. He did not spare any swear words.
“Dawa, you better put that down before someone else gets hurt,” Lockhart said, and gently waved his hands toward the table that was sitting out under a tree. The guns, belts and sabers taken from the travelers were laid out there for examination. Alexis stood and grabbed her pack off the table. She still had some gauze to cover the man’s wound, and some antiseptic she made in the last time zone after she got attacked by that lion. She mumbled.
“So far out-of-date, it will probably kill him before the bullet.”
Major Decker stood there, looking mean, and only glanced at Captain Harper. She stepped forward and yelled right back at the man.
“We are not responsible for your stupidity. You could have asked, and we would have shown you how these instruments work. But no. You play with things you don’t understand and now a man is hurt and he may die. It is your own fault.”
“I will say what I please. You do not own me. You have mistreated me and my people. The wrath of the sky should fall on your head. The monsters of the darkness should eat your children. We ride under the watchful eye of the gods. Tien Shang-Di is my friend.”
“Shut-up, woman. You will lose your head for daring to speak to your elder.”
“Norbu,” Dawa called and pointed at Katie. Katie put the man down with two swift kicks and an uppercut. She was mad enough. She feared later that she may have seriously hurt the big young man. He didn’t move.
The nearby soldiers started toward the travelers, but stopped when they saw the look on Katie’s face and the giants Decker and Lockhart who bracketed the woman. The Shang elder continued to pitch a fit, but even he hushed when they heard screams in the distance and the unmistakable word, “Demons.”
“Never got the chance to tell them we were being followed by monsters,” Lincoln said as he packed up Alexis’ bag and got his things from the table. Dawa and the Shang elder ran off to check on the screaming troops. Rabten stared at the travelers, and his eyes got extra-large when he saw things vanish from the table and heard a voice out of thin air.
It was Mingus. “Boston has the horses safe and ready to run. We had no real trouble chasing off the guards. A couple of hot feet did the trick.” Mingus appeared and waved the rest to follow, as the soldiers began to run in every direction. It was not easy threading a safe line through the panic.
A dozen ponies galloped up as a small group of foot soldiers pulled themselves together enough to charge their prisoners, to prevent their escape. A flurry of arrows came from the horsemen and drove the soldiers back. The travelers wondered who their helpers might be, until they saw a streak of yellow light set a bush on fire.
“Artie,” Boston, Katie and Alexis shouted as they got to the horses.
“Hurry. This way,” Artie shouted, but her urgency felt blunted by the big smile on her face.
“Xi-Wangmu,” the soldiers shouted while others continued to shout the word, “Demons.”
Artie turned her troop of soldiers to a rough path, and the travelers followed. They got to a hillside and began to climb between the rocks. The sound of struggle quickly faded behind them, so by the time the path widened and became grass covered, they heard nothing, and saw nothing behind them more than a few faint wisps of campfire smoke.
“Artie, were you responsible for the panic in the camp?” Katie asked. Artie shook her head as Mingus, Boston, Elder Stow, and Alexis all said, “No.”
“Ghouls,” Alexis said. “I saw one.”
“Maybe more than a hundred,” Mingus said.
“I felt one scratching at my mind, but it was prevented from getting in,” Lincoln confessed, but Katie kept her eyes on Artie.
Katie smiled for her. “Good job. Plans don’t always work out so well.”
“Oh, I know,” Artie said and lost a bit of her smile. Katie imagined there were stories to tell.
“Plans don’t generally have over a hundred ghouls to form a distraction,” Lockhart interjected.
“Robert,” Katie objected to his belittling Artie’s rescue. Lockhart nodded and added a note.
“Yes, good job, Artie, and thanks for saving us.”
Artie smiled again.
It took an hour to travel that back road, uphill the whole way; but at last they came to an upland meadow covered with tents and people. In the dim light of dusk, Artie pointed up a footpath to a cave.
“Yu-Huang,” she said, as she dismounted. There were gnomes to collect and care for the horses. The travelers were getting used to finding that was the case whenever there were horses near the Kairos.
“Artie. Nice outfit. What’s with the tail?” Artie began to walk, so the rest followed.
“I have been here almost three months, waiting for you. I was more than a month on Avalon. It took Lady Alice that long to work out how to send me ahead a single time zone and I spent lots of time talking to the spirits that live in that place.”
“Oh, so now we exist,” Boston shouted from behind.
Artie smiled again. “So, the dark elves there impressed me with how humans react to visual stimulation. I liked the teeth. See?” She showed Katie her big, sharp teeth. “And I discovered that these nomadic types fear the big cats in the wilderness. The tail is mostly fairy weave covering, but I extended a flexible sensor so it moves like a real tail. Do you like it?” Artie pulled her tail up over her shoulder where she could hold and pet the tip.
“Lovely,” Katie said. “I bet there are all sorts of things you can do as an android that I cannot do.”
Artie paused as they got to the top of the path. “Not really. My senses are more finely tuned than human senses, and I am stronger, and faster on foot and in my reflexes, but not by that much. I believe the Anazi were afraid to make us too capable.”
“But there are no Anazi here,” Katie said.
“No,” Artie agreed. “We have the Shang instead, but they are near enough to the same thing. The Shang want to own everything and control everyone, and tell everyone what to do.”
“Hey,” Lockhart objected.
“Exactly right,” Boston said as she came last to the edge of the cave at the top of the path.
“Boston,” they heard, and the red head streaked across the big open cavern to fall into the hug.
“Of course, I’m not that fast,” Artie admitted.
“Yu-Huang?” Lincoln asked. He always had to ask.
A staircase at the back of the cavern led up to an upper chamber. The narrow and short steps lacked a railing. The travelers were not exactly happy climbing, hanging over the edge of a cliff. Most tried not to look down. Decker, especially. He could fly in the clouds with the eagles in his mind’s eye, but that did not help him get over his physical dislike for heights, or his sense of vertigo. It helped that the locals, and even Yu-Huang did not look any more comfortable than anyone else on that narrow way.
“That is right,” Yu-Huang heard and answered. “These stairs and the upper cavern were carved out of the mountain by those alien people at some point in the past. I believe it was when Nuwa was trying to locate the illegal Pendratti research facility on the Tibetan plateau. The Pendratti and the Sevarese were at war in those days, if you recall. That was before the Bluebloods and Sevarese wiped each other out and the Anazi stepped in and took over. Right Artie?” Yu-Huang smiled for the android, and she smiled as well, though she could not see Yu-Huang’s smile.
The stairs turned in at the top and cut through the rock itself. Most people sighed their relief. Decker put his hands out to touch the rock on either side, and imagined he could still fall backwards and plummet off the cliff. He ducked to get under the overhang, and saved his sigh for when he got away from the edge. He remembered that the Sevarese topped out at about four-and–a-half feet. He tried not to think about having to go back down at some future time.