Gongming, Aunt Chen, Wang and Bi all stood by the railing, ignored the three bound soldiers, and watched the river water rise in the shape of a bridge that spanned the whole river. They watched by the moonlight as sand and mud came up from the deeps to color the bridge, until it looked like an earthen bridge, or perhaps a stone bridge. It was hard to tell in the dark, but in any case, it looked solid enough.
They watched as the travelers doused their lantern lights and stepped out on that bridge, leading their horses by the reins, and stepping carefully, but trusting. They got about half-way and stopped. They waited. Hardly a minute, and the people heard a strange roar on the shore. Baby became agitated, but Feyan had her. Bi had put her collar on down below, and he held her leash.
Another minute and the pack arrived. They howled and roared, and made all sorts of odd squealing sounds before they ventured out on to the bridge. They went slowly and carefully, like they suspected something. They did not charge their prey as they would have on solid ground. All the same, they went, only they did not wait for the rear guard to catch up first.
“They do not swim,” Feyan said in her anxious voice. “They have a very heavy specific gravity, and sink like a stone in deep water, and they drown. It is one of the surest ways to kill them.” Feyan sounded nervous, and it translated to nervousness in the tiger, who turned her head several times to growl at the soldiers.
Out on the bridge, Katie and Decker got to their knees and readied their rifles. Lockhart cradled his shotgun. Elder Stow had his energy weapon in hand and Alexis and Boston had their wands. Lincoln and Sukki only needed to keep the horses back, over the hump of the bridge where they could not see the night creatures, though they could certainly hear them.
The night creatures got close before one howled, and they charged. A water sprite stuck his head up from the bridge and yelled, “Hold your fire,” and the travelers trusted, but got very nervous. At the last second, the creature-half of the bridge gave way. Four fell to the water. A fifth one leapt and clawed at Decker’s feet, but the water bridge, despite its solid look, gave nothing for the creature to grab. It fell with the rest, and sank quickly under the waves.
The travelers turned from the scene, and only Boston thought to wave, though she imagined no one could see at that distance in the dark. Katie stated the obvious.
“There is probably a rear guard out there, still on our tail.”
“We will have to watch out for that,” Lockhart said.
“It is the djin I am worried about,” Lincoln admitted. “He may be diminished, as he says, but he set off a volcano, and sent night creatures after us. What’s next?”
People quieted. None could think of what they could do about the djin. They reached the other side, and Sukki asked if they could stop. Somehow, camping by the river that had been so friendly to them seemed a good choice.
They watched the bridge collapse and said thank you and good-bye to Wei We. Boston thought to say thank you to the water sprites. A five-foot wave passed them by, followed by any number of little water spouts.
“That means you’re welcome,” Boston lied with ease, not knowing what it actually meant, or even if it meant anything at all.
The travelers backed up, off the riverbank, and found a clear area where they could pitch their tents and the horses could graze.
Boston got a fire going, and Alexis got some food cooking. Katie got out the grain the kind farmer insisted they take, so the horses got a treat as well, after being so loyal and riding so hard.
Elder Stow got out his scanning device and explained for the others. “It occurred to me, there is no way to seriously screen out a night creature being helped by the gods. It might confound the god for a bit, but not prevent the god in the long term. But there is no reason why we can’t be warned. I have scanned all the particulars concerning the creatures. If one should approach us, the alarm should go off.”
“Annoying alarm, you mean,” Decker said.
Elder Stow nodded and grinned.
Back across the river, a young woman stepped up to the riverbank to look at the travelers. Some arcane power crackled between her fingertips, and her eyes easily pierced the darkness and the distance. Ordinarily, no one would give such a young woman a second glance, but in her case, she stood out, an oddity in that part of the world. She had European-like features, and her skin was darker than anyone would expect to find in Asia. She did not appear Indian, but perhaps Arabic or North African. For the present, though, she simply watched.
Aboard the ship, Feyan got Gongming’s whip stick without a word. She handed it to the man and knelt, with a deep sigh, awaiting her punishment. Gongming did appear to consider it, but asked instead for Feyan to explain herself.
“I kept secrets from you and from the family, and I promised never to do that. I am sorry.”
Gongming tugged on his beard before he reached down to help Feyan stand. “Some secrets are best not kept, but some secrets are nobody else’s business,” he said.
“Fortune cookie?” Bi asked. Feyan made a face, like she was not sure about that one.
“Hmm,” Gongming hung the whip-stick back up.
“I’m glad you feel that way,” a young man said, as he appeared out of nowhere. “The famous fortune man, Zhou Gongming. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He shook Gongming’s hand and moved on before the man could frame a thought. “And this is Chen, your lovely wife.” He kissed her cheeks like a long-lost relative. “Always remembering the gods, and being so good to take in your poor niece, like she was your very own. And Bi, and Weng.” He shook their hands. “And you, too, Ziya Baby. You have been a good girl.” Baby was excited, but in a happy way. She even let the man pet her, which was most unusual. Normally, she only let the family touch her. “And…” the man opened his arms, and Feyan leapt into them with a shout.
“Tien.” She wrapped her legs around his middle, her arms around his neck, and whispered in his ear. “Tell mother I love her, I mean Nameless loves her, and he loves you, and so do I. Oh, Tien, I am scared. There are soldiers and armies gathering everywhere, and I know it is important, and I should be there, but I am scared.”
Tien kissed her cheek and extracted her from her stranglehold. He set her down, and walked her to the bow of the ship where they could talk; and he made sure no one else heard. “As the daughter of Bi Gan, you are royalty, first cousin to King Bi Xia of the Shang. You came here when your father was killed by the king. Yes, your mother and your brother Quan are safe, but now you must decide for yourself. Your uncle, Jiang Ziya, has taken the side of Lord Wu of the Zhou, and they plan the overthrow of Shang rule. So, you see. You have blood on both sides of the issue. You must decide for yourself what you will do.” He patted her head. “You are young, but brave enough. And I will tell you, I would like the Zhou to finish the change that began with the death of the Shang-Di, all those years ago. But history is your thing. You know how it is supposed to turn out. I will follow your lead.”
“Why do I have to decide? I’m just a little girl.” Feyan whined.
“And a cute one, at that.” Tien smiled and disappeared, and Feyan came out, staring, looking much like Gongming when he received a shock of surprise.
“All secrets will be made clear in time, but some things are best not knowing in the first place,” Gongming said.
“Fortune cookie,” Feyan said, absentmindedly, before she spilled the most important thing to her. “My mother is alive, and I have a brother named Quan.”
“Great,” people said. Wang looked happy for her. Aunt Chen looked conflicted. Bi was not sure he liked the idea.
“Don’t worry Bi,” she said. “You and Wang will always be my best brothers. Now you have a younger brother, that’s all. He must be a baby.”
“About five,” Aunt Chen said. “The same age as you when you first came here.”
“And Aunt Chen, you will always be my mother, too.” That made Aunt Chen smile, even if it was not exactly true. But Feyan moved on and shook her finger at their three prisoners. “And, so you know, that was Tien Shang-Di, and he did not say it, but I am sure he thought it real hard. You three better be good while you are guests of Lord Gongming or the gods will be very, very angry with you.” Baby roared, as she picked up on what Feyan was feeling.
It was after midnight, so Lockhart said everyone should take a two-hour shift. “So we can get some sleep, and still be on the road by nine or ten.”
“Sounds reasonable,” a man said, as he appeared in their midst. “So, what’s for late night snack?”
“Just leftovers,” Alexis admitted.
“My favorite,” the man said, before Katie and Lincoln recognized him.
“Tien,” Katie said it out loud. He smiled.
“And I thought I was getting good at appearing human,” he said.
“Could have fooled me,” Lockhart said, and Tien laughed.
“By the way,” Tien spoke seriously as Decker cut the god some Chinese deer. “I took care of the rear guard, and the one that hid on shore, so you are night creature free for the moment. The djin, on the other hand, is a slippery character. He has moved on to the desert, I believe. Hot, dead land is probably where he belongs, what Alexis might call a natural habitat. He is a fire creature, after all, like the ifrit, iblis and ghouls that you finally got rid of in father Yu-Huang’s day. So, Elder Stow, no need to use up your batteries, unless you want to keep the screens up against the wandering soldiers. That might not be a bad idea, but the further south you go, the less soldiers you will see.”
Tien stayed for a while, and they had a good conversation before they all got some sleep, and the horses rested. Of course, the people all dreamed about being in a desert land, and did not wake up excited to get there, except for Boston, who dreamed about playing with the water babies.
Avalon season 5, the final episode begins: Avalon 5.12 Bad Wine, which will post in 5 parts.
The travelers struggle through the desert of the Djin to get to Jerusalem, to the Kairos Korah, musician and prophet in the court of Solomon, the king…