Avalon 5.11 The River Circus, part 6 of 6

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.

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

MONDAY

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…

Happy Reading

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Avalon 4.12: part 3 of 7, Accidents and Interruptions

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.”

Lincoln shrugged.  “I didn’t tell them to shoot someone.”tib-shang-elder-2

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.”

“Woman.  Shut-up.  You have no right to speak.  I am the Shang elder.  We now rule everything in the place of the wicked Xia.  We have the Xian army.  They answer to us.  You have no right to speak.”katie-4

“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 mingus-1the 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.

artie 3a“We were spying on the Shang camp and I saw you being brought in as prisoners.  I grabbed men for a rescue mission.”  She smiled, proud of her work.

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.

“Come,” a man holding a torch invited them all to follow him up the side of the hill.  Katie had something more to say.alexis-2

“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.”

boston-4aKatie showed she understood.  “Back home we call them Progressive Democrats.”

“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.

About half-way to the top, Lincoln said, “Sevarese.”  They had all been on similar staircases in the past, ones built by those bird-like aliens.ufo-birdman-3

“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.

Avalon 3.7: part 3 of 5, The History of China

“But what about you?” Katie asked. “You are a long way from home. What is home like?”

“The doctor in ancient cultures and technologies speaks,” Lockhart teased, but no one begrudged the question.

“Longshan culture is what it is called in the future. Of course, we just call it everyday living. We live all around the Wei and the He Rivers, and trade and grow our grain and fish, and now that I’ve given Fuxi a fishing net, the fish can no longer outsmart him. Not really any soft metals yet, but I have tried some pictograph writing that even Fuxi can understand. Got to make it simple, you know.”

“Do you live in a village, a town, a city?” Katie asked.

“Village is the limit. We have some primitive, what is the word, irrigation?”

Nuwa Longshan village“Yes, that’s right.”

“Mostly we have floods, so life is hard, but there is not much we can do about that until just about Yu’s time, ages from now.”

“Yu?”

“Yes. Let me think.” Nuwa was quiet for a moment. “Shao Lin—no wisecracks. I live in Xi’an and marry Chin Lo.”

“So you get to be Lin Chin?” Boston asked.

“Chin Lin, but I said no wisecracks. Well, I recall Lin was having trouble with nomads in her day, and did something about it. The result was the beginning of the Hsian Dynasty. That did not take hold until her son, or grandson Huang Di came to power. She was gone by then, but I remember, somehow, the Shang dragged him into a war with the budding states along the Yangtze, probably hoping he would lose. The result was he ended up with a good chunk of China to rule, covering the He and Yangtze Rivers.”

“You are talking about the Yellow Emperor.”Nuwa Yellow Emperor

“Yeah, but it wasn’t a compliment in the south. It was because he ruled the Yellow River and they thought he should go back there. But let’s see, Yu was his grandson—no, great-grandson. Yu the Great, and he took the empire and first divided it into the nine provinces, and he started keeping some kind of records, carving on bones, as my poor pictographs had become stylized, even back then, or by then. Yu also built causeways, built up the riverbanks in places, and built the first canals, all to drain off the flood waters when the rivers overflowed their banks. It was far from a perfect solution, but it helped.

“Things went down hill and the Shang eventually took over. They lived in their Shang city, sort of like Washington, and they made everyone pay them tribute like taxes so they could live in rich luxury while the people suffered. That went on for way too long, but eventually they got overthrown by the Zhou. I was a woman then, too, during the overthrow, I think.”

“You know the impossible exam question, tell the history of China in ten minutes? I think you could do that.”

“Not really, but to be honest, I shouldn’t be saying all that out loud. You never know who might be listening in. Besides, you will meet Lin some day. Say hi when you do, but don’t tell her about anything I just said about her future children.”

“I will, I mean I won’t” Katie said, as Nuwa laid down and put her back to the fire.

###

Nuwa Yak 2In the morning, Nuwa instructed her hoopers. “You need to go back out and around the group to give us warning if we get near anyone, or they get near us. Now, scat.”

Katie and Boston came up, and Boston watched the hoopers bounce off. A few even said “hoop, hoop” as they bounced. Katie had the next question.

“So how did you and Fuxi get together? History is kind of vague on that. It talks about a flood, and you being brother and sister.”

“The He floods all the time,” Nuwa said. “My father died hunting. Fuxi’s mother died in childbirth, both common events in this day. So my mother and Fuxi’s father got together, and we became step-brother and step-sister—but in this age we were simply called brother and sister, and you know brothers and sisters don’t marry. But the big flood came. Fuxi was about sixteen. I was thirteen, and everyone died or got swept off, downriver.” Nuwa paused to sniff before she shrugged. It was the normal way of things, not some terrible tragedy like it would be in other times and places. People grieved their losses, but not for long. They could not afford to be children about it, even at the age of thirteen.

“So you two—weren’t there more people that survived the flood, just not from your village?” Katie asked as they began to walk and follow the crowd

“There were plenty of people around, but miles away. We were alone. I thought we might climb the mountainside to see further in the distance and try and catch sight of where there might be people. Fuxi Nuwa and Fuxikept crying and said that we were the last two people in all the earth. We came to a shrine in the wilderness, and he fell on his face and cried out to the Di, and the Di came and told him that we should marry and replenish the earth. Not what I had in mind.”

“What do you mean the Di?” Boston asked.

“Di or Ti means exalted ruler, or power, or god on high,” Katie offered

“Shorthand for the gods of the east,” Nuwa said. “I don’t know who decided we should marry, but probably the Shang-Di, the god king himself. He once told me I could take my turns in his jurisdiction, but he would not make it easy for me. I think making me marry Fuxi the dimwit was his way of sticking it to me. I mean, I sort of gave myself away in the flood. I was thirteen and just opening up to the Kairos in me. It was the hoopers that saved me and Fuxi from the waters.”

“And he saw, and took advantage of that, you think?” Katie said. Before Nuwa could respond, Decker came riding in from the flank.

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Be sure to return next Monday and Tuesday for the second half of episode 3.7  Roland and Boston have to decide between elf and human, and the wolf has to run extra fast to catch up.

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