Decker moved from his rock with bad news, even as Elder Stow came to more or less the same conclusion.
“In the distance, beyond the river,” Decker reported. “Though I could only see and not fly that far and get back, I saw swarms of what looked like nasty insects. They swarmed outside the forest areas, but I have no reason to suppose they are not in the forest as well.”
“More jungle, I think,” Elder Stow said. He looked up, aware that he interrupted. “More jungle-like than forest. Sorry.”
“And people who hide when the swarms come near a village,” Decker continued. “Though they look like tents more than houses, so no telling how mobile these people may be.”
“Elder Stow?” Lockhart turned the question.
“Much the same,” he said. “I did not pick up swarms, exactly, but what Major Decker says makes sense of the data. Meanwhile, I mapped several alternate routes to the river, and where I believe we may cross, though it is hard to tell exactly from this distance.”
“Alternate routes?” Katie asked.
“One that is mostly straight. One that avoids the people. One that avoids the people and the jungle.”
Lockhart nodded, but made no decision. “Sleep on it,” he said. “Keep the screens up tonight, in case one of those swarms decides to visit. In the morning, we will see if you can identify the swarms from a distance. That might be good.” Elder Stow nodded. “Standard watch,” Lockhart said.
“Boss,” Boston whined. “We got the screens up. Why do we have to watch?”
“Better to stay in practice,” Katie answered, and thought she might take a nap before the nine to midnight shift, if Lockhart would lie down with her. They did not get the chance. They got most of their supper cleaned up when Devi arrived.
“Sorry,” Devi said, first thing. “It took a second to figure out how to get through Elder Stow’s screens.”
“Hey…” Alexis, Katie, and Boston all got hugs, and Boston introduced Sukki, who also got a hug, since Devi seemed to be in a hugging mood. She acknowledged the men, and they all sat around the campfire while she explained the situation they were facing. She explained the swarms of insects, but then told them about the spiders. That did not sound good. She said she had work to do, and could not travel with them, but maybe she could figure out how to charge up Elder Stow’s equipment, and that might help. Then the women sat and talked about life and everything, like dear old friends catching up on all the news.
In the morning, Pokara and his sidekick, Salipsa moved out front. The rest of the Yaksha followed behind. These ones were mostly like elves, Lakshme decided. They were certainly not dwarfs, though a few had stubbly beards. They were not goblins being out in the daylight, though some people called any such things, goblins.
“Elves,” Lakshme said out loud, before she added, “Mostly.” Lakshme recognized they could act rather impish at times.
“Elves,” Rama said. He walked beside her and otherwise said nothing.
Lakshme looked back. Libra dutifully followed in her footsteps despite her protests. Rama took a look back, and Lakshme spoke again.
“Once they get attached, they are very hard to separate.” Rama nodded, as Lakshme looked ahead again. “They are loyal, once they make up their minds. But they do have minds of their own.” Lakshme clicked her tongue. “Like people, I suppose.”
“Like any sentient being,” Rama said. “Even the gods. They decide for themselves, and then there are consequences.”
He was saying he knew why she came. He did not say, don’t offer a chance for the Asura to repent of their wicked ways, only that he came prepared for them not to repent.
That ended the morning conversation. Lunch would have also been a quiet affair if Pokara and Salipsa had not argued the whole time about the cooking. Libra had to good sense to put her fingers in her ears.
The travelers had to pause, and eventually stopped for lunch as a swarm of insects came upon them. Devi put up a screen, much better and stronger than even Elder Stow’s recharged equipment could produce. The travelers and their horses remained comfortable, while the insects might as well have been trying to break through a fifty-foot thick brick wall.
“I must not go further,” Devi said. “I have neglected my work long enough.”
“You have people to care for?” Katie asked.
Devi nodded. “But not like you think. Lakshme is teaching Karma Yoga. Like attracts like. Doing good, even in the least little things, attracts good.”
“I thought opposites attract,” Boston said.
“No,” Alexis explained. “I think this is more like birds of a feather.”
“Maybe what goes around comes around,” Katie suggested.
Devi pointed at her, like she got it right. “Lakshme says as you sew, so shall you reap. She confesses no action will ever be perfect, clean, pure, or holy without extraordinary grace. She sometimes calls it good deed doing. But sometimes, she says between Martha and Mary, this is Martha devotion.”
“Hey, I know that story,” Boston spouted, and Alexis interrupted.
“And not one you should tell a thousand years ahead of time.”
Boston looked down, and so did Devi as she spoke. “The future. I understand. I will not pry.”
By the time lunch was over, Elder Stow declared himself ready to throw up his screens as soon as he identified incoming insects or spiders. Devi said again that she had to go. She had victims of those insects and spiders to tend.
“Poor Valmiki has had his ashram overrun with victims. Even with Doctor Mishka’s medicine, not all survive.” She vanished, and Katie looked hard at Lincoln.
“Valmiki?” she asked.
Lincoln looked up and nodded. “And Rama, Sita, and Rama’s brother, Lakshmana. I thought it best not to talk about it with Devi around.”
“Wow,” Katie’s eyes got big. She looked excited.
“Wait a minute,” Elder Stow interrupted. “Where are we?”
Boston had her amulet out to check their direction. She first said, “Thank you.” Then she explained. “I think Devi just took three or four days off our journey. Lakshme is only a few miles that way.” She pointed.
“Can we reach her?” Lockhart asked.
“Maybe in the morning,” Boston said with a look at the sun.
Lockhart nodded and turned to Katie. “So, who is Rama?”
The groups will meet in the face of the demon, but first, the travelers will be introduced to the cowboy-outlaws and the real wicked witch. Until then: