Avalon 5.11 The River Circus, part 3 of 6

The travelers kept to their watch schedule, even though it was daylight and they were sheltered.  Decker and Elder Stow went right to bed, having the noon to three shift.  Boston and Sukki had a hard time sleeping during the day.  Lockhart and Katie slept about two hours before their shift, with the thought that they could get more rest in the afternoon.  People stayed on edge, but they understood that there was no way the night creatures could get near them in the daytime without help, and they planned to start moving again before dark.  Every hour of daylight they moved, the more space they should theoretically put between them and the creatures.

“I hope the clouds move off by nighttime,” Lockhart said.  “And the moon comes up like last night.”

“It won’t be the moon’s fault,” Lincoln said, and the others agreed.

Around four o’clock in the afternoon, Boston heard the sound of a baby crying in the distance.  It sounded far enough away so she could not tell if it was a night creature or a real baby.  She decided she could not take a chance.  She began to wake the others and make sure they moved into the patches of afternoon sunlight that shone here and there across the floor.

Lockhart and Elder Stow got grumpy.  They were not finished sleeping.  The others woke well enough, but they were all slow moving into the light.  They needed something to encourage them.  They got it when a claw, then a head that roared broke free of the dirt in the back corner of the barn.  Sukki screamed, an alto with a slight gurgling sound, like she had a mouth full of water.  It did not exactly sound like a human scream, but no one missed the point.

“The horses,” Alexis yelled.

“Out in the field,” Lincoln said, and followed Alexis to call them in.

Boston had her wand out, but Elder Stow stopped her from spraying the creature with fire, for fear she would set the whole barn on fire.  For that reason, he kept his energy weapon at the ready, but did not use it.  Katie and Decker had their marine rifles, and this time they shot for the head, and especially the eyes and mouth.  That seemed more effective.  The night creature staggered like a drunken donkey as it pulled itself free of the tunnel.  Lockhart unloaded his shotgun in the creature’s face and it collapsed into a stream of sunlight.  It immediately began to smoke, and in seconds, became engulfed in flame.  A few seconds more, and nothing remained but ash to be blown off on the wind.

“That explains why no bones of a Set animal has ever been found,” Katie said.

Sukki looked at her and Lockhart with questions on her face.  Lockhart explained.  “Their hide is tough and their bodies are full of muscle and cartilage—better than Kevlar.  Even with a high-powered rifle, it is nearly impossible to penetrate the body deep enough to hit a vital organ.  Their bones and skull are also much harder than human bones, but the head has vulnerable spots.  The eyes and open mouth are the best option to penetrate to the brain.”

“They got big, strong teeth, too,” Boston added as she put away her wand and encouraged Sukki to put away her knife.

“From a heavy gravity world, so exceptionally strong and fast,” Elder Stow added, though Sukki did not really understand what he meant by a heavy gravity world.  She came from a time before the Gott-Druk mastered space flight and began to explore other worlds.

“I don’t sense any more in the immediate area,” Katie said, as she grabbed her saddle.

“I heard them, though pretty far away,” Boston admitted while she began to pack her saddle bag.

“Let us hope this one was the scout and the others will take some time to get here,” Lockhart took the hopeful note.  Decker took the sour position.

“With the tunnel, it probably won’t take the main body long to get here.  Maybe an hour, and this barn will be swarming with night creatures.”  People grabbed their things and went out to grab their horses.

The old man came out of the little hovel he lived in to watch the travelers get ready to leave.  Katie found a small bronze bell she picked up back in Nameless’ day, and she thought to offer it to the man for his kindness.  He refused to take it.

“I sense the gods about you,” he said.  “They are watching, even when you think they are not.  Tien Shang-Di is looking down from heaven and sees what is done, even in the dark.  I know, for longer than I have been alive, there are struggles going on in the heavens.  The demons tried to break out of their place and fought against the gods, but the gods have gained the upper hand, and I believe good days are on the horizon.  There will be one final struggle before then.”

“How do you know this?” Katie asked.

“I have seen the signs.  I listen to the wind,” he said.  “And a small troop of Zhou and Shang fought each other not two days ago in my fields.”  He grinned.  “The Shang have kept us in bondage for hundreds of years, and these last years have been the worst of all.  The Zhou have been raised up to set us free.  Thank the gods, and may they have the victory.”

“I take that as the attitude of the general public all over China,” Katie said.

“Back home, we just have an election,” Lockhart said.  “Though lately, things have been so divided, I sense violence, depending on who gets elected.”

“No,” Katie and Alexis objected, and Katie spoke.  “We may not like who is elected, but we can be civil about it.  We are all Americans.”

“People set aside their differences after the election to try and work for the common good,” Alexis said.

Lockhart shrugged, and Lincoln spoke.  “But apparently, in human history, these things were decided by violence, revolution and war.  Like here, I am guessing the Zhou are getting ready to overthrow the Shang.”

Katie nodded.  “That would make it sometime before 1046 BC.”

Boston rode up.  “I got a lead on the Kairos,” she said.  “If we ride through the night and all day tomorrow, we should catch him by tomorrow night.”

“Her,” Lincoln said.  “Shang Feyan is a woman.”

“Great,” Boston looked happy, before her ears picked up the sound of a baby crying.

“You and Sukki need to take the front again in the dark,” Lockhart said.  “Weave us a good path.  Lincoln and Alexis in the middle and Katie and I will protect the rear.  Tell Decker and Elder Stow to stay in close and keep their senses peeled.”

“Great,” Boston repeated, and went to tell the others what was decided.

“I sense you have a long journey,” the old man spoke again.  “I also sense that the demons following you will not have long to live.”

“Great,” Lincoln borrowed Boston’s word.  “Will that be before or after they eat us?”

“Oh, come on,” Alexis turned him to the group.

“Thank you,” Katie said again.

“Oh,” Lockhart had a final thought as he mounted.  “I recommend you stay inside until the sun comes up in the morning.  Please stay away from the barn until tomorrow, daylight.  It is for your own safety and protection.”  The old man nodded as the travelers rode off.

With a three-hour head start in the daylight, and being in an area where more and more people lived, they found roads, or at least worn paths between the farms and villages.  They crossed a small river about midnight, one deep enough where they hoped it might at least make the night creatures pause.  Night creatures could not swim.  On the other side of the river, they passed through what Katie called a genuine town, though she figured in China, a thousand years before Christ, the locals probably called it a city.

No one stopped them, or interfered with their progress, including several camps of soldiers they passed in the dark.  They did not stop to see whose side the soldiers were on.  When the sun rose in the morning, they had to stop in a field.  They ate, and opted for four-hours of rest.  Boston volunteered to stay awake and watch.  Being a light elf, she dragged through some of the night, but became energized again when the sun rose.  She was also young enough, and her constitution strong enough, so it did not bother her, even with little rest the day before.

Most of the others were in no position to argue.  Katie, an elect, stayed up with her for a while.  Sukki, who was also young and had an enormously strong Gott-Druk constitution, got up after a couple of hours of sleep, so mostly Boston did not watch alone.

At noon, they ate again before they set out, and this time they did not stop until the sun got ready to set.

All through the afternoon, the soldiers and gathering army became more evident.  “These people are serious,” Decker said when they finally stopped to catch their breath.  “This is way more than a few thousand Greeks versus a few thousand Trojans.”

“Right, Major,” Katie said.  “I’m not as conversant on this period in China because the historical record is so sketchy, but as I recall, modern estimates say a bit less than fifty-thousand Zhou will attack some seventy-thousand Shang.”

“The numbers are against the Zhou,” Decker countered.  “Wisdom says they should set up a defensive position.”

“Yes, but maybe seventeen-thousand of the Shang Troops will be slaves who will switch sides.  And some of the Shang troops will refuse to fight for their corrupt king, and some of them may even switch sides.”

Decker nodded.

Alexis spoke.  “So much waste.”

“Yes,” Katie agreed.  “But sometimes there is no other choice.  Either people force a change, or they surrender to suffering under the Shang, maybe for centuries to come, generation after generation.”

“The people appear to want a change,” Lincoln added.  Alexis still looked disgusted by the whole idea, but she didn’t argue.

“So, Boston,” Lockhart changed the subject.  “You said we might reach the Kairos by nightfall.”

“I didn’t plan on a four-hour nap,” she said, and pulled out her amulet, though she had studied it earlier.  “But we should be there by midnight.  I assume we are not stopping for the night.”

“Don’t dare,” Lockhart said.  “Not if one of the Shang gods is helping the djin and bringing the creatures close during the day.”

“I wonder why the night creatures don’t just appear in our midst,” Lincoln said, not as a serious suggestion.

“I imagine the god or goddess does not want to be obvious about it,” Alexis answered.

Decker had another thought.  “I was wondering why the night creatures don’t appear in front of us, where they can ambush us.”

“Oh, great,” Lincoln yelled.  “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Same reason, I suppose,” Alexis said.  “That would show obvious interference by someone.  I think, whoever it is, is keeping the creatures close to our tail, but then expecting the night creatures to do their job.”

“Time to move,” Lockhart said.

“I hope the Kairos has some way to stop this,” Sukki said.  They all hoped that.

************************

The travelers are headed rapidly toward Shang Feyan, but the night creatures appear to be keeping up.  MONDAY, part 4 of 6 will continue the story, and see who or what will catch up…

Until then, Happy Reading.

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