The upper cavern floor was perfectly flat apart from the few rocks here and there that had fallen from the ceiling over the centuries. The room was wider than the deck of an aircraft carrier. The ceiling did not look too tall, but the opening at the far end looked wide enough and tall enough to land a flying aircraft carrier. Still, it would take some seriously good piloting skill to land safely.
People camped across that flat floor. A few tents were set up, with cooking fires blazing away. Children ran free, and so did the dogs, but Decker could not imagine they got dogs to climb those stairs.
“Yes, actually.” Yu-Huang said, as he took them to the opening at the far end, which gave a great view of the forest below and the distant hills. A wicker basket, like one might find at the bottom of a hot air balloon, and rope contraption with pulleys waited only for passengers to be lowered to the ground below. “Of course, we haven’t been able to use it since the Shang showed up.”
“When was that?” Lockhart asked.
“Just after Artie arrived,” Yu-Huang answered, and looked at the android.
Artie smiled again and nodded shyly. “I was beginning to learn about the way, and the Shang came and attacked the caravan that was supplying the people here with meat and grain. I used my weapon. I kind of overreacted. The Tao says we should not raise our fist in anger.”
“The Tao?” Katie asked.
“All life is precious,” Artie said, her eyes downturned.
“I am more interested in the teeth and tail,” Boston spoke up, and Artie smiled again.
“The Tao says it is best not to fight at all. If I can frighten them off without having to injure them, that is better, don’t you think?”
“I think you are learning fast,” Alexis said.
Katie agreed. “But do not hesitate to defend yourself if you need to.”
Artie lost her smile again and looked at the ground as she nodded. “Yu-Huang says it is the way of this sad and broken universe in which we live.”
“Be happy,” Boston insisted. “Hey, I know. The men are busy pretending to talk about important things, so why don’t you show us around?”
“I will,” Artie said, and took them first to the cliff that looked out over the forest. She pointed. “I don’t know if you can see the Shang tents in the dim light, or the smoke from their fires, but there is an army of several hundred and they have cut off our access to the rich farmlands and the river country. Fortunately, the Xi-Rong people that live in these hills and mountains know how to hunt and gather well enough, and hide, so the Xia army cannot find them.”
“I see the smoke,” Katie said, and Alexis nodded.
“I see the camp,” Boston admitted. “And it looks mostly deserted. I am afraid to think what has moved in to scare them off.”
“Ghouls,” Alexis said the word, and no one objected.
“Come,” Artie said. “Let us ask the Lords.”
Artie led them to one wall where there was a hole that let water into the cavern, and a small waterfall that let the water down into a cut groove in the floor. The groove deepened as it headed toward a corner of the cave opening where it fell, a much bigger waterfall, into the woods below. Three grand tents, and three smaller tents to the side, tents that the travelers surmised could not have been locally produced, stood by the stream, like guardians of the waters.
“Giza,” Katie blurted out, and to the curious looks of the others, she added, “They are arranged like the pyramids of Giza.” She held her tongue as they came to the biggest tent in the center of the Giza-tent complex.
“Tien,” Artie called. “Lord Tien, forgive the interruption.” No answer came, and Artie took a step back and spoke to the ceiling. “Tien?” She rushed to the next biggest tent and called. “Tuti.” She stepped back and called again. “Yin. Where are you? Yang, where is your sister?”
Boston looked into the first tent. Alexis pulled back the flap on the second. They were both empty.
“Lady Eir, their mother was here as well. I knew the other gods were going to leave according to the agreement, but I thought the children of the Kairos would stay with their father.” Artie looked worried. “Come, Yu-Huang will know.” She turned to go and interrupt the men, and the others followed. “Lord,” she called across the cavern, and the men stopped talking to wait for the women to arrive.
“I was about to explain,” Yu-Huang said, as they neared and all gathered around.
“Hush, daughters,” Mingus said. “Pay attention,” he added for Boston.
“The king of the gods, the Shang-Di is not well,” Yu-Huang began. “He has always been cruel and mean, but able to be reasoned with in the past. Now it seems as if reason has left him altogether.”
“Is he mad?” Lockhart asked.
Yu-Huang continued without answering that question. “Nuwa was able to build a defense for the Longshan culture that stretched along the fertile Yellow River. Lin was able to found the Hsian Dynasty, and her children were able to extend their rule and influence to the Yangtze.”
“Her children, Huang-Di and Yu the Great,” Lincoln said, quietly.
Yu-Huang heard and nodded. “But now, the Shang-Di has raised up his own people, the Shang, and he has made them mean and cruel, like himself. The Shang have become the masters of the Hsian world, and everyone else has been made no better than slaves.”
“But wait,” Katie finally interrupted. “History says the last of the Hsian became the cruel and evil ones, and the first of the Shang were like saviors who established a new dynasty.”
Yu-Huang nodded. “History is written by the victors,” he reminded everyone. “But the reality of the actual events of history may be different. It is something that as the Watcher over history, I have to struggle to reconcile all the time—literally all the time. In this case, though, it is a simple matter of the Shang finding a way to rationalize and justify the usurpation of power. Now, what they will do, and what they are already doing from the beginning, is use the army to conquer and grind the people into conformity and uniformity all over what you call China. The people will work, sometimes like dogs, and the ruling Shang will reap all the benefits.”
“Hardly fair,” Elder Stow objected, and people looked at him. They remembered that his Neanderthal views were really human views in a different package—not that different from everyone else.
“But Lord. Your children are missing,” Artie could not contain herself.
Yu-Huang nodded again, but continued on his own train of thought. “All of the gods around China felt it when the Shang-Di went mad. They felt the disturbance in the force, if I can say that without paying a royalty. They found me here, where I had already gathered some disciples to begin teaching the way—the Tao. My hope is that natural law, natural science, spiritual and moral living will eventually work its way into the consciousness in China. You know; a little leaven will leaven the whole loaf. But anyway; the gods found me and gathered to decide what to do to prevent the madness from spreading and contaminating all of the surrounding jurisdictions, and maybe the whole world.”
Yu-Huang moved the group from the view of the outside world, to the tents by the stream that the women just left. Someone built a great fire in front of the tents, and left a pile of wood for the night. Someone also brought up all of the traveler’s things, including their own tents. A pig, almost ready to eat, roasted on the fire. A basket of fruit and a second basket of more than enough vegetables to satisfy Alexis, Elder Stow and the elves, sat beside the fire, ready to be cooked or eaten raw, as people might desire.
“How…” Lincoln pointed at their stuff and began to ask, but Alexis quieted him as everyone gathered around the fire. Yu-Huang, who appeared to be quite young, and not at all the ancient looking sage one might have expected, continued to stand, and spoke when people settled down.
“Let’s see. Varuna and his brother Mitra came here. Enlil and Enki came, with not-my-mother Ishtar. Brahma and Visnu left Shiva home, thank goodness. You met mother Vrya briefly a couple of times. She came with her brother Vry to represent Aesgard. Gods came from the Scythians, Cimmerians and all the way from the Black Sea. Let’s see. Ruan Zee’s husband came, with Caroline from the sea. Artemis came from the west and Ameratsu came from the east.”
“Ameratsu?” Boston blurted out. “And I missed her?”
“Artemis?” Katie spoke over top. “That is a long way.”
Yu-Huang agreed. “There are still free people on the coast of China, but that way lies the sea, which is not exactly friendly to the children of the Shang-Di. The whirlwind that you met holds the southern people and keeps the eye of the Roc open. North is a harsh and sparsely populated land watched by lesser gods and greater spirits. The nomads there trouble the river lands from time to time, but they are annoying, not a serious danger, and nothing the Shang-Di would be interested in, even in his madness. But Central Asia and to the west is open to invasion, as the Mongols prove some three thousand years in the future. Aesgard and Olympus both sent representatives, and Papi Amun, on his own, came all the way from Egypt.”
“Quite a collection,” Mingus interjected.
“Yes. And that was only naming the ones you are familiar with.”
“But Lord,” Artie sounded distressed. “Where have your children gone? Yin, and her mother Eir were teaching me so much about being a woman.”
“The gods negotiated with the pantheon of the Shang, and withdrew. They left me here to hold the line. But to be sure, Tien and his brothers and sister have been charged to overcome the Shang-Di should his madness break out and move out of his place. They hold the Tien Shan, the first step into the west. But Artie, they too have gone home. They agreed.”
“So you are alone here,” Alexis said.
“I am,” Yu-Huang said. “But I am not alone. The goblins hold the deeps, the dwarves fill these mountains and the elves keep the forests. The Xi-Rong are many, and not incline to let the Shang intrude on their mountain homes and upland valleys.
“But the Shang appear to have withdrawn as well,” Decker said, having noticed what the women all noticed.
Yu-Huang nodded a final time. “And the demons have moved in. Your ghouls from the future have joined a hundred more in this age. There are iblis and ifrit here, and the marid, your big, bad genie, is on the horizon waiting only for the coast to be clear. You came at a bad time, but I am glad you are here.”
“Triple watch tonight,” Lockhart said, as Alexis looked to see if the pig was ready to eat.