The Book of Eight Sages
Be Careful What You Wish For
With dawn, I began to make more broth for Jutuil, but Somay insisted she was better and should do so. The shaman evinced no protest, so I sat back and let her cook. Somay made a broth, and with other food available, made a heartier breakfast for us. I looked to the shaman, and he handed me a cup of tea. Dejectedly, I took the cup and drank, then took a bowl of broth for Jutuil. Somay accompanied me to her tent and helped to feed her. While we fed the sleeping Jutuil, Somay informed me that she knew and in some manner felt my care for her while she was taken. The care strengthened her hold on our reality, and weakened the hold of her captor. When the shaman healed her, it strengthened her even more, allowing her to better resist his control. It heartened me to think Jutuil knew we had not yet given up on her, and may be resisting the control of her captor. I asked her what it was like to be with the Great Ones, but she told me that the memories were fading like a dream, and what she remembered she cared not to speak of.
When we finished and exited the tent, the shaman gestured to us to join him by the fire. “Southron,” he started, “I fear tonight the Great One will come for Jutuil, and he will not be easily dissuaded. Last night we surprised our visitor, tonight he will be prepared.”
“So do we leave her, then?” asked Somay.
“Surely there is something we can do. I will not abandon her now,” I stated firmly.
“I had hoped to better prepare you, but we can wait no longer,” the shaman said, “I recommend you rest as we slept poorly last night. I will need time to prepare. Somay, you will tend Jutuil.” We did as he bade us, and I had a few hands of sleep.
At noon, Somay wakened me and told me the shaman was ready. He first had me drink more tea and let me eat some flat bread prepared by Somay. The shaman then led me to the small tent. Within was extremely hot and humid, smelling of herbs. The shaman had me sip some of the bitter drink I had at the Door Ceremony and strip to only a loin cloth. In the tent he had a fire burning in one of their small grills. Over the grill was a shallow pan filled with rocks and the herbs I smelled upon entering. He told me to sit, relax and clear my mind. He poured water over the rocks, filling the tent with steam. I was commanded to breathe deeply as the herb infused steam filled the air. The shaman began to beat a drum and chant tonelessly.
My mind began to swim and I felt light headed. The steam filled my view, obscuring even the image of the shaman sitting across from me. He continued chanting and drumming, breaking occasionally only to ladle more water over the rocks. I felt my heart and breathing synchronize with the drumming, and I saw images in the mist. In the mist I saw a steppe leopard sitting before me. It rose, turned away from me and took a few steps. It glanced at me over its shoulder, then walked into the mist. I rose and followed. Through the mist appeared pine boughs, as though I were walking through a forest. In time, the mist cleared and indeed I was in a thick forest, following a path behind the leopard.
The path led to a clearing with a pond. Set on the far shore was a large, blue and red tent of the short, round style, though this one’s peak was nearly thirty feet high, larger even than the tent of the T’ankh Ghurkan. The steppe leopard stopped at the pond and stared at the far tent. It remained on the far side as I circled the pond and approached the tent. The door cover was open and the wall dropped on the far side, illuminating the interior. Within was richly appointed. Plush carpets covered the floor, well carved and crafted lingling wood furnishings were set within and a large, fine mirror stood against the wall. What first caught my eye, however, was Jutuil sitting on the large bed, bound to it by a thin, gold chain. “Xiyang!” she cried, “Quick, free me!”
I stopped, looking at her closely. She wore a green robe with black trim. She appeared almost exactly as I remembered her, but the lips were perhaps too full, the nose and eyes too perfect. I bowed to her as a man in the Middle Kingdom is taught when before a lady of quality. Jutuil simply smiled and said, “Good and loyal servant, we’ve no time. Free me now!”
“You are not Jutuil,” I said.
“Of course I am, come and release me.”
“You are not Jutuil. You call me by the wrong name and do not return the bow as propriety dictates. Where is Jutuil?”
Her eyes flashed in anger, “I am she. We have not time for niceties. Free me now!”
“Respectfully, no. I would know who you are first.”
Her appearance wavered, becoming the Great One who had first approached me. Behind I heard someone say, “You are losing your touch, Bilta’il. Midlander, why do you seek the one called Jutuil?”
Turning, I saw for an instance the deer man who had abducted Jutuil, though he changed to that of a large and powerful man. “Because she still lives, and I would restore her to her body like the woman Somay,” I answered.
“So you are the bane of Dalmartuk,” laughed the woman. I noticed that the gold chain was no longer. “Come Yartellin, such a bold midlander, let us give him what he wants.”
The Great One named Yartellin seemed to think it over. “Midlander,” he mused, “you amuse us, so I give you a challenge. Find and retrieve the midlander you seek, and you may return with her. Fail, and you become the plaything of Bilta’il.” On a table sat a large sand glass. The Great One turned it. “You have until it empties,” he said.
I gazed around the tent, looking in a wardrobe and even a jewelry box.
“I would have thought her larger than that,” Yartellin teased.
“Size is not significant when dealing with the Great Ones,” I stated.
“He speaks truthfully,” Bilta’il replied. As what I could only view as a distraction, the Great One had resumed the appearance of Jutuil. I ignored her and continued my search.
“Might I assume she is within this tent?” I asked.
“You might assume anything you wish,” answered Yartellin.
“But no guarantee you assume correctly,” continued Bilta’il.
Exasperated, I continued to roam the tent, looking anywhere I could think that she might be hidden. Stymied, I tried searching outside the tent. As I circled it, the steppe leopard sat at the wooded edge behind the tent. ‘She is within,’ I heard in my head. Heeding its advice, I quickly completed the circumference of the tent and entered again. Looking at the sand glass, I saw that it was already nearly half empty. Certain Jutuil was trapped within the tent, I resumed my search. The Great One Bilta’il approached as Jutuil. Wrapping her arms around me, she whispered in my ear, “Cease your futile effort. You do not need the midlander woman, I can be all she is and so much more.”
“Again with all due respect, I must decline,” I answered. As I began to remove her arms, I saw our reflection in the mirror. Something in the reflection however appeared amiss. The Great One continued to press her advances, turning me away from the mirror. I maintained my resistance and turned to see the mirror again. The Great One again turned me away from the mirror. Yartellin appeared amused by our little dance, I trying to see into the mirror, and the Great One turning me away from it.. However, when I looked into the mirror, I noticed discrepancies. The Great One’s reflection appeared more real, more how Jutuil truly looked. Also, the movements of the reflection appeared to not follow the Great One perfectly. Containing my excitement, I finally let her turn me away from the mirror and she relented in her advances. I backed away from her, leaning against the vanity in front of the mirror.
“I have discovered where she is hidden and release her now,” I cried exultantly, grasping a silver candlestick and striking the mirror behind me. The shattered glass fell behind me as I turned to claim Jutuil. Both Great Ones laughed derisively at my despair when I turned and saw only the wooden backing of the mirror.
“Ah, you have shattered her into a thousand pieces,” jeered Bilta’il, “and with so little time left, how ever will you put her back together again, much less free her?”
“It seems you have failed,” Yartellin simply said.
Looking about me, I saw the shattered pieces of the mirror, each now showing but a bit of Jutuil. Picking up a single shard, I saw but a tearful eye. How, I wondered, had I failed her so completely. Dejectedly, I turned and watched as the sand poured relentlessly through the glass. Indeed, there was not enough time to repair, much less release Jutuil. I slowly turned towards the Great One Yartellin, preparing to surrender myself and plead that he restore her. But as I did so, I noticed a reflection in a gold goblet. In the reflection I saw myself, distorted by the curvature of the goblet surface. But what truly caught my eye was there, in the reflection, behind me stood Jutuil, whole and hale. Glancing about, I saw that Bilta’il did not stand where the reflection showed. From this I surmised that Jutuil still resided in the shadow world of the reflections. With this realization, I formulated a plan by which I might free her.
Continuing my turn, I espied a wash basin and ewer on a stand near the doorway. Both were of fine porcelain, curiously painted with sea scenes in the colors and delicate style of the Fusan Peninsula. I grabbed the ewer and headed towards the pond. The Great Ones watched as I filled it and brought the water back to the tent. Setting the basin on the floor, I filled it with the water. Signaling towards the Great One Bilta’il, I asked that she look into the basin. As she did so, I saw Jutuil looking back up at me in the basin.
“It is but my reflection,” she said.
“Respectfully, it is not,” I replied.
“How do you know?” she asked.
“Because her eyes and nose are not perfect,” I answered.
With a short laugh, Yartellin injected, ”You cannot fault him such an answer.”
“True,” answered Bilta’il, “But midlander, is she not a child of the steppes? Do the children of the steppes typically know how to swim?”
I watched in horror as I realized she was sinking, panic showing plainly in her eyes. I reached into the basin to grab her. I was surprised when I reached full to the shoulder into the basin, but gladdened when I felt her hand in mine. However, my joy changed to horror again when she slipped from my grasp. Looking into the basin, I saw her eyes glaze as she sank deeper into the water.
“First you shatter her, now you drown her, midlander,” teased Bilta’il, “T’is a wonder she’ll have aught to do with you.”
Taking a deep breath, I dove head first into the basin and found myself completely submerged. Looking up, I saw the Great Ones gazing at me from high above. Facing downward, I saw Jutuil and dove for her. I reached her, but found her unresponsive to my touch. Looking up, I saw the Great One Yartellin holding the sand glass with but a few grains of sand left to fall. Bilta’il reached into the basin towards us, and I realized that should she grasp us, we would never be freed. Holding Jutuil tight, I dove downwards towards a painted cave set on the ocean floor. To my surprise and dismay, I saw a giant eel, its head alone nearly my size, come out of the cave. Its massive eye followed me as it swam past and up towards Bilta’il’s hand. As it swam past, I was amazed to notice the body was yellow with purple mottling. This was none other than Dai Gong, the great Eel God of the Tsaanpwair, a deity of mixed reputation concerning Its attitude towards men. Fortunately, It appeared well disposed towards us this day, or to hold greater enmity towards the Great Ones above, for It swam up and attacked Bilta’il. As I swam deeper, I saw a glow at the far end of the sea cave from which the Eel came. Nowhere better to go, I pulled Jutuil with me and followed the cave to the light at the far end.
My lungs near to bursting, I exited the far end, seeing light from above me. I swam towards the surface, not knowing how far up I needed to go but determined to reach it. After seemingly minutes of swimming upwards, I felt my hand, then head, break the surface. With a gasp, I spat out a mouthful of soup all over Somay as I sat up. Somay gave a shriek, then called for the shaman as I coughed and gasped in an attempt to breath. I looked about and found myself lying in the shaman’s tent where once Somay and the other Taken had slept.