The Sea DevilsChapter 13
by Richard Messer
With the sun long gone in the West and the night air turning cold from the weather the rain came down in a steadier downpour. And for the occupants of the long-tail boats it was enough to dampen the noise from their motors, and for most their spirits.
Five dark boats moved slowly up along the southern shore of the river that fed the Chao Praya. All awnings had been removed to prevent their being snagged by the trees, and the bright colors of the hulls were muted by a quick wash of thinned black paint. All five vessels were filled with figures dressed in black silks, armed with about everything from swords and spears to pistols and rifles. And at the bows of the lead boat were a Eurasian lepine doe and her rodent femme companion.
With heads swathed in black silk as were the veils that concealed their lower faces, Wu Hsing Jade and Ming Xue watched the oily waters roll by as the boats worked their way up along the weaker side of the river. To the eye, it was black on black as far as the jungle was in relation to the river. But to Sun Wukong’s Pearl, the lapping waves of the river were dark ripples and the branches of the trees and shrubs stood out as broken black lines.
Jade kept watch on the river, trying to discern particular trees that would indicate the smaller tributary heading northwards to the deserted palace and the Japanese’ hideout. The old river otter, Bin An, said that a couple of his furs were stationed by a tall tree that was leaning out over the river with a forked trunk, marking it with lanterns. The lanterns would be difficult to see with normal vision. But the Pearl would allow the lepine to identify the last leg of the journey quicker.
Jade was stretched out along the planking that covered the forequarters of the boat, resting on her forearms as she slowly scanned the far bank. Sue lay reclining on her side beside her. As the small flotilla crawled its way further the Eurasian allowed her mind to roll back to the final gathering of the wako at Zhou Yi’s home. Nearly a dozen of the river furs met her group in one of the shops where repairs were made. A broad worktable was cleared so that a crude map could be spread out for all to see. Bin An glanced around at those leaning over the map.
<Since all of you here now are the operators of the boats, and not all had been up this side river, it is imperative that you all study this map and commit it to memory.>
A long webbed finger began tracing the bank of the river. <We will be traveling northwards for about twenty kilometers, keeping as close to the east side of the Chao Praya until we reach the mouth of this river here.>
His finger indicated a waterway half the size of the main river. <From here on we will be heading eastwards, following the southern shoreline. As all the awnings and frameworks have been removed we can keep closer to the overhanging trees without fear of something catching on the branches and making a sound. As this river winds more we must be vigilant for the curves will indicate when to make our dash across the current for the final journey northwards.>
The otter pointed to two curves on the map. <The first curve bends southwards, proceeds for five kilometers before turning northwards again. It is within three kilometers after this second turning that we must be vigilant to the find the tree with the forked trunk that hangs out over these fast waters.>
Bin An looked around the table. <I’ve sent two of my people ahead to hang lanterns from the limbs of this tree to mark our turning. Should two be spotted then it is safe to enter. If there is but one lantern, this indicates that a Japanese patrol is nearby. >
<And if there are none?> asked Ming Xue.
The old mustelid looked grim. <Then these invaders have learned of our coming and lie in wait for us.>
An old dark furred squirrel, as old as Bin An, spoke up. <If so, do we fight our way in, or turn tail and try some other time?>
With a shake of his graying head the otter answered: <Neither, for we can not give away our presence in either case. If there is not a lantern present, then we wait; all night, to the next day, until the following evening. Then we must take the chance of trying for the palace. Our people are depending on us to strike a blow against these Japanese!>
That brought a few murmured agreements from the gathered. When it became quiet again, Wu Hsing Jade spoke softly to the otter. <How far to this palace, and what is its layout?>
This invoked a grim reply from the boat furs. With dark eyes narrowed in his regard of those before him Bin An pulled another sheet of paper out to spread over the map. It looked to have been drawn in haste and possibly from a distance. The entire complex was surrounded by a moat spaced from the stone walls. There were the upper portions of the buildings within along with some towers and spires. With the longer walls running in a north to south manner the palace looked to be about three times longer than wide, with an elaborate gatehouse on the southern wall leading to a stone dock. But it was the northern portion of the layout that had the tall Eurasian femme’s interest. The entire structure had the appearance of being part of the temple complex, but sheltered within its own walls attached to the rest. As she stared at this place a strange unease settled over her. Though she had never been there before, Jade felt something about the palace was familiar with a foreboding that was knotting her stomach. She jumped when Ming Xue laid a hand on her friend’s forearm.
“What’s wrong, mistress?”
Aware that everyone was watching with concern over her action Jade spoke with hush tones.
“Remember that dream I told you about this morning?”
The rodent femme nodded.
With an inclination of the head towards the map the lepine said, “I think this is that palace.”
Ming Xue’s dark eyes barely widen, but Jade caught the movement and the understanding behind it. “We must be on our guard, my dear, if we’re to see the coming dawn.”
Sue bowed her head. “As it must be, dear heart.”
They turned back to the map as Bin An proceeded to issue the orders of how they were to disperse their people once the flotilla arrived at the palace grounds. Afterwards he quizzed each member of the party as to their function in the assault. When the old otter was satisfied he then directed everyone to get some sleep while they can. After the others had left Bin An turned to the guests.
<Your parts will be the most difficult. Mistress Wu Hsing, with the Pearl you must keep ever vigilant of what lies ahead of us, on the river as well as our destination. Mistress Xue, your part will be the most hazardous to come. If what you say about an ogre wandering this place, we must rely on your expertise in dealing with the supernatural. Do you feel up to the task?>
The young rat woman looked thoughtful for a moment before giving a curt nod.
<Excellent!> beamed the river otter, displaying a smile that was missing a couple of teeth. <Then we have nothing to worry about. Once we’re there we will learn as quickly as to the true nature of the Japanese being here. And, as the Americans would say, ‘throw a monkey wrench into the works’.” Then he looked a bit confused. <What’s so special about a wrench made for monkeys, or by monkeys, being thrown into this?>
The tall Eurasian doe gave a chuckle. <The term is not about what kind of wrench it is. My father told me it is a mispronunciation of the name of the wrench. What the throwing implies is sabotaging the other furson’s plans.>
It finally dawned on the old mustelid. He gave a couple of nods as he chuckled in return before leaving the shop. The place grew quiet except for the rain muffled by the thatched roof. For a minute both femmes were lost in thought, wondering what they gotten themselves into and how they would fair in the end. Finally, Jade gave Sue a sidelong glance.
“Think you can handle this beast?”
A shadow fell across the young rodent’s countenance and a stricken look settled in. She looked up at her lepine friend, her dark brown eyes mirroring the unspoken fear deep inside her breast.
“I don’t know, Jade. It’s been too long since I took part in an exorcizing, and that was with Master Tang.” She reached up to softly tug at her black bob. “And my hair was much longer then.”
Jade frowned. “What does the length of your hair have to do with fighting this ogre?”
With a swallow Sue spoke again. “Are you familiar with the tales of a witch’s power based on her hair?”
The lepine nodded.
“Well, its true. A witch’s, or sorceress’, or enchantress’ powers and capabilities are determined by the abundance of hair she possesses. The longer the tresses, the greater are her abilities to summon power and cast spells. You’ve seen those old prints of a witch with hair below her waist, or down to her feet, or maybe longer? That furson has spent a great deal of time and effort to nurture her hair so she could store her power in it, or draw it from around her.” Her hand made a motion along her waist. “My hair use to be this long, before I lost it on that British freighter. Sailors are a superstitious lot and by cutting my hair off believed they had rendered me helpless.”
Understanding came to Wu Hisng Jade of what her companion and lover had just said. Taking the other into her arms, the lepine held Sue lovingly and kissed the top of her head.
“I’ll bet you looked very lovely with long hair. And after this mess is done with, I’ll help you grow it back out to what it had been. Maybe we’ll get it past that fine arse of yours, if you’re willing.”
“As long as yours?”
“As long as mine!”
They shared a chuckle and a quick kiss before heading back into the house and a much needed nap.
The doe snapped out of her revelry. Sue had asked a question.
“Sorry, lost in thought there. What did you say?”
“Have we made the second bend in the river yet? The pilot is getting nervous about reaching it.”
Jade swept the oily waters with the Tear, studying the far bank as well as the near one. She saw the change of the contour, the trees now coming closer in the distance. Turning her head so to speak over shoulder, the doe replied softly that they were coming up on it.
“That’s good to know,” said the rat woman in hushed words into long ears. “He was beginning to worry that we would never reach it in time. Said that we’re burning fuel faster than anticipated because of the strength of the current.”
With a nod that was barely perceptible, Jade understood their new predicament. Turning her gaze back over the stygian waters she kept vigil over their journey towards what, she didn’t know. But a niggling thought kept working its way into the back of her mind. That map of the abandoned palace, with the separate structure that could have been the palace itself, began to worry her. Somehow it had to be the mysterious place of her nightmare, with its multitude of darken rooms, and the remains of her parents hanging from chains.
[That is your destination, and final confrontation!]
A familiar voice whispered in the back of her mind, causing the doe to sit up.
A satisfied chuckle drifted through her thoughts. [You remembered! That’s good, good!]
The lepine doe frowned behind her black veil. [What do you mean destination and confrontation?]
[You have pierced the veil of time and space with your dream. You will find your mother and father, and he who is your greatest threat.]
[I ask again, ‘What do you mean’?] a frustrated Wu Hsing Jade hissed.
There was a sigh, as if the Monkey King was expressing his exasperation. [If you cannot comprehend what has been presented then I cannot help in this endeavor.]
[Wait, wait,] said the lepine doe. She paused to chew on her lower lip, collecting her thoughts. [If what you are saying is true, then I will find my parents, but only their lifeless remains. And the army officer at the hotel dining room, the one who may have sent the imp to my grandmother’s home, will face me in a dual of magical powers?]
[That is correct.]
It was Jade’s turn to sigh. [And will I survive this confrontation?]
Sun Wukong chuckled again. [Not if you miss the two lanterns hanging from the tree before you!]