Thed was on a cloud…and he wasn’t happy about it.
Gnomes weren’t meant for flight, especially zooming over mountain ranges at wind-wispy speeds. Cloud-travel was air elemental territory – not for earth ones like him. Yet he found himself flying on a magic cloud with five unlikely companions. Three of them claimed to be demons. Two of them weren’t; one was a pig, the other a monkey with a staff. He had met “daemons” before. These were simple, magically-imbued animals with delusions of grandeur. But who was he to question their given titles? He was just a gnomish hired hand far away from home.
The third was an ogre, one of the lesser demon races. Unlike his Western kin, he was silent, stoic and serious. Such was the case with their fourth companion, too, possibly the oddest chimera Thed had ever seen – a dragon-scaled horse. Both were oddly resolute for so garish of beasts.
The source of his employ was the fifth occupant on the cloud – a quite, gold-hued man with his head shaved bald. He was unusual by human standards, but – then again – all humans were unusual to Thed. This one was fully aware of the magical world and seemed to revel in it, albeit tranquilly. When Thed had met him and his animal compatriots in India, the bald man had introduced himself as Tripitaka. It was a good, Greek-sounding name, and he had a trusting face.
After Tripitaka claimed he was a simple monk heading home, the poor gnome thought the golden man and his minions were journeying further West. Working for them seemed like a way to get a free ride back to Greece.
They were headed East…Far East. As far as Thed knew, no gnome had ever been to China. Given the different roles of magical beings there, he understood why. If mere animals were labeled as demons, what would they make of him?
He clutched a fist to his green, conical hat as another gust of wind threatened to part it from his head. It was precious to him. Granted, no Greek gnome wore such silly headware, but it was a present from a lady-friend in Germania. All Nordic-borne gnomes were fans of pointy hats. It was a rather odd distinction between them and their Greek cousins.
The three magic animals found the hat rather amusing as well. They often yanked it from his head, held it above him, and kept it from his reach – especially Sun Wukong. The Monkey King (as he was known) made sport of him the entire journey. Zhu Bajie, the pig “monster”, occasionally joined in and made lewd references, comparing the hat to a certain male body part.
These were his companions on the long journey back to Chang’an. And it was a very. Long. Journey. The territory between India and the Tang capital was wrought with danger. A day didn’t go by without the monk being threatened by some magical creature or another. Sun Wukong mentioned in passing that many of their assailants were after the monk’s flesh, saying it granted immortality to the eater. Thed rolled his eyes at that. Human meat, even a magus’s, didn’t grant immortality. (Although, according to some orcs he’d known, it did cause indigestion.)
Whenever they were attacked, Thed did what gnomes did best. He hid. At times, he would even employ an invisibility spell. His job was to guard the luggage, and guard it he did…but out of sight. No pay in the known world was worth the loss of hide nor hat.
Thed felt a poke against his shoulder. He ignored it. After a few minutes, he felt a second, harder poke. Again, he did nothing. A full five minutes went by before something cold and metal massaged his ear, followed by fits of high-pitched giggling. Thed had come to expect that from the Monkey King. He returned the effort with a glare.
Sun Wukong, un-phased, brought his staff up to the gnome’s nose and gently rubbed it against his nostril. Thed sniffed, wriggled his face a bit, but didn’t give the trickster “king” the satisfaction of a response. A reaction – any reaction – would be met with further taunting by way of staff. Today’s attempt was mild by comparison. Thed was used to this; he had fifteen brothers.
“As usual, you’re no fun,” Sun Wukong harrumphed.
The gnome merely crossed his arms, staring ahead.
“Perhaps he’s gone mute,” Zhu Bajie said with a snort.
The monkey beamed a grin, a mischievous one. “Let’s test that theory.”
Thed closed his eyes tightly, expecting sharp pain of some sort. He was used to it, even though it still smarted. The pain never came, however. A clanging noise was heard in its place. He opened one eye. A spade had parried Sun Wukong’s staff. The bearer of the weapon was the ogre – Sha Wujing – who glowered at the monkey and pig. He nodded at Thed before returning to his meditation, a free hand slowly stroking his ugly red beard.
“He’s no fun, either,” the Monkey King pouted, folding his arms in protest.
“Please, please, leave the help alone,” Tripitaka said softly. “Our journey is almost ended. Soon we will go our separate ways. Make our final moments together peaceful ones.”
Tripitaka was always like that. He would only intervene in a conflict after it was finished; imparting sage advice that largely went ignored. The true hand of discipline in the group was the river-ogre. Strange considering he was the roughest-looking of the bunch. The gold-tanned Buddhist never involved himself in the squabbles of the party unless it affected the outcome of his quest. Over his shoulder, he bore ancient scrolls that were kept in a magic ward-laden sack. What was on them, Thed could only guess.
They journeyed on in silence, puttering along on a fluffed-up pillow of a nimbus. Mountains unlike any Thed had ever seen came and went, transformed into valleys, and then spots of civilization. As the sky darkened, a large city came into view. The expanse of it was lined by a large rectangular wall. There were towered gates to the east, west, and south. They breezed over the southern gate, heading northward to another, inner-walled structure, which Thed could only assume was the Imperial palace. It was a striking city, well-fortified…and the citizenry appeared slightly alarmed that a giant cloud was flying into it.
Bells sounded off along with shouts. Thed peered over the nimbus and saw dots scrambling down below. Gnomish hearing was unusually sharp, and he thought he could make out shouts of, “Ready the archers!” It was times like these he wished he hadn’t chewed on glossolalia leaf to understand different languages. He was better off not knowing who wanted him dead.
Something whizzed past his graying beard. Another shape darted upwards to his right. Arrows – and more were coming.
“I thought you sent word to the Emperor,” Sha Wujing growled at the monkey as he batted an arrow away with his spade.
“Um…slipped my mind?” Sun Wukong shrugged nervously, withdrawing his staff.
Arrows ripped through the cloud with swarming ferocity. Zhu Bajie caught several with his rake weapon before they impacted Tripitaka, who appeared unmoved by the attack. He stayed sitting, lotus-style, but his grip on the magical sack with the scrolls had tightened. The dragon-scaled horse held vigil over him.
“We’ll be needle fodder in no time!” Zhu Bajie squealed.
“Quit your belly-aching, fatty,” Sun Wukong returned. “We’ve been through worse.”
“And just like those times, it’s your fault!” the river-ogre roared.
“Semantics,” the Monkey King waved the comment off, elongating his staff to double its length. He batted away an entire volley with one sweeping arc.
Thed – who until now used the party’s luggage as a shield – sighed and finally spoke up, “I’ll handle this.”
The gnome took a piece of flint, a few red leaves, and a round jewel from one of his many pants pockets. He sat down, placed the leaves on one knee, and rubbed the jewel and flint together. Violet sparks ignited. Instead of becoming flame, however, they swirled around the party like fireflies. When they reached the periphery of the cloud, they dissipated. In their wake, arrows bounced off an invisible barrier around the cloud.
Sha Wujing slumped his shoulders in relief. Zhu Bajie dropped his rake with exhaustion. Tripitaka and his weird horse still appeared the same, if a tad more tense. Only Sun Wukong eyed the gnome with suspicion.
“Where’d you learn to do that?” the monkey asked, eyes narrowing.
“It’s earth magic,” Thed replied. “All earth elementals know it.”
“What are you, some sort of Immortal?” Sun Wukong pressed further.
“There are no Immortals,” Thed stated flatly. “Only magic.”
That caught the ogre’s attention, “Blasphemy!”
“Not blasphemy,” the gnome said. “Truth.”
“Need I remind you, little goblin, that we were once Generals in Heaven?” Sha Wujing asked.
“No, you needn’t.”
“And yet you still don’t believe in the Immortals?” he queried again.
“No, I don’t.”
“Can we throw him overboard?” the pig asked.
“We’re here,” Tripitaka interrupted. “Thedaius, would you kindly remove the barrier?”
“As you wish,” Thed nodded slightly, tapping the jewel.
Air rushed back where the invisible enclosure had popped. In their heated debate, they hadn’t realized that the cloud had landed within the palace proper. Dozens of soldiers surrounded them at spear-point. Some commotion started at the rear and moved forward like a wave. Several of the spearmen bowed as a figure attired in yellow robes and – from what Thed could tell – a black hat came to the front of their quarry. Eastern dragons embroidered the upper and lower halves of his ornate clothing. An expression, equal-parts surprise and worry, showed on his face.
“Brother Xuanzang, you’ve returned!” the well-dressed (and slightly plump) man exclaimed.
The party dismounted the cloud. It vanished into the aether with a word from the Monkey King. Thed hadn’t been prepared for that, however, and fell with a resounding – yet tiny – thud. The monkey and pig both snickered.
Tripitaka kowtowed deeply, “I have, Your Highness.”
The three creature-companions looked at each other, then followed suit with awkward bows and kneels of their own. Only Thed remained standing. (Although, his standing posture was at their kneeling height.) He was tempted to go invisible. Mundane (non-magic) humans weren’t supposed to see magical creatures. It was forbidden in the West. The rules were apparently different in Tang China.
“So, you have them, then?” the Tang Emperor asked eagerly.
“I do, Your Highness.”
“Let us see them!” said the yellow-clad ruler with excited, outstretched hands.
The Buddhist monk withdrew the scroll sack from his shoulder. His stance relaxed at the heavy burden’s removal. He muttered a few words, and the sigil-drawn wards on the bag glowed. The string keeping it closed loosened of its own accord. Rolled parchments greeted the night air and onlookers. The Tang Emperor grabbed one of them with deft hands and unrolled it slowly. The unknown writing seemed to shine in the moonlight.
“The sutras of the Western Regions,” the Emperor said with reverence. “You’ve done a great thing for the Empire, Xuanzang. A great thing, indeed.”
He rolled the scroll back up and handed it off to an attendant that appeared by his side. Other such attendants went about collecting the rest from the sack. Thed eyed them suspiciously. Why were a bunch of religious parchments so important? It wasn’t like they would be able to read them. The words were written in Sanskrit. Who on this side of the continent – who wasn’t magic-imbued – knew Sanskrit?!
“You must be fatigued from your journey, Little Brother,” the Emperor stated. “I insist you and your…companions stay here as our guests.”
“That is kind of you, Your Highness,” Tripitaka replied. “But I’m afraid I’m needed at Hongfu Monastery. I’ve been away from my brothers for far too long.”
This statement caused Zhu Bajie to grumble slightly. Thed couldn’t tell if it was from the pig’s mouth or stomach. Even the silent ogre groaned with displeasure, albeit through a firm expression frozen in kowtow.
The Tang Emperor also seemed mildly disappointed, “Very well. You deserve rest where you wish it. We shall talk of your travels in the morning. Sleep well, Little Brother.”
The yellow-robed ruler withdrew with his retinue, and the Monkey King summoned the cloud. Within moments, they were airborne again. Much to Thed’s dismay. He would never get used to all the flying. The nimbus floated northeast at great speed until it reached the summit of a mountain. Sha Wujing called it Quanling. Situated among the trees was a modest temple with a humble gate. Several monks saw their approach and instantly fell to their knees.
When they landed and departed the cloud, a younger monk – barely twenty-years-old – approached Tripitaka, “Master, these tree-tops all suddenly leaned East this morning. As we remembered what you had said, we went out of the city to meet you, and you had indeed come.”
“I have. I am sorry I hadn’t arrived in time to greet you all. We didn’t get to the city until this very evening,” Tripitaka said, touching the younger monk’s shoulder in friendship.
“We shall see to your things, Master,” another monk chimed in.
“No need. I have help for that.”
Thed waved. The monks eyed him quizzically. Obviously, they’d never seen a gnome before. Or anyone that small with such a thick beard for that matter. He muttered an incantation to himself as he dug his hands into the soil. After that, he clapped once and grabbed hold of the luggage. Like the “worker ant” that he was, he lifted the party’s rope-bound satchels with wondrous ease.
The pig’s jaw dropped.
“Earth magic, remember?” Thed said through a smirk.
Sun Wukong – the Monkey King – gave him a demonic sneer.
“I’ve grown quite tired of our tiny tag-along,” Zhu Bajie said, leaning against his rake.
The three demons watched the diminutive, white-bearded pygmy pass by with their belongings. The little man-thing seemed quite at ease with hard labor. No matter the task, he did it without voicing complaint. Or voicing anything at all. He didn’t talk much. Zhu Bajie didn’t trust silent types.
“As much as it pains me to say it,” the river-ogre sighed. “I agree with you. He blasphemes against the Immortals. He speaks to all of us with disrespect, and – worse still – he didn’t bow before Emperor Taizong! I will grant a foreigner some leniency, but not if he shows complete disregard.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d piss on Guan Yin herself,” Zhu Bajie muttered.
Sha Wujing brought his spade to bear on the pig monster’s throat. “Do not speak ill of the Bodhisattva!”
“I wasn’t! I wasn’t!”
Sun Wukong rubbed his chin, “Actually, Piggy may have a point.”
“How so?” The ogre withdrew his weapon from the frightened demon’s boar-face.
The Monkey King bore a toothy grin, “I think it’s time our little friend visited the Goddess of Mercy.”
Thed plopped the satchels off in a nearby storage area. At least, he assumed it was a storage area. Truthfully, the entire monastery looked like one big, religious closet. There was plenty of clay and brick – enough to remind him of home – but the absolute modesty of the place annoyed him. Of course, he preferred the company of trees and structures borne of trees. He felt the human need to shape the environment to their will was a desecration, and oddly hypocritical in a region that prided itself on oneness with all things natural.
He heard a clopping sound behind him. Without realizing it, he’d uttered the invisibility spell. It was always fresh on his lips whenever he was startled. Thed turned to see the outline of a horse behind him, its body shimmering in the dull evening light.
“Oh, it’s just you,” he muttered, reappearing. “Stupid horse…thing.”
You shouldn’t talk like that to us, said a voice in his mind.
Thed looked around. “Who said that?”
The “stupid horse-thing” in front of you, the thought echoed again.
“Ah, telepathy,” Thed wasn’t impressed. “That’s a neat trick for a horse.”
Your attitude towards us may get you killed, little one.
“Says…the horse who can’t talk.”
I wasn’t always this shape. Thed thought he saw the dragon-scaled horse’s eyes narrow.
My point is you should show a little courtesy. You are not in your lands. Politeness goes a long way here.
There was a long pause.
“Can I get back to work now?”
As you wish. Just remember…don’t underestimate them.
The horse trotted away without a reply.
Before Thed could shrug it off, a hand clasped his small shoulder. Hard. He swiveled around and came face-to-face with the toothiest monkey grin he’d ever seen. It was Sun Wukong’s, and the expression made him uneasy. The pig and river-ogre were also there, both smiling just as broadly. Now he was scared. The river-ogre never smiled.
“Hello, friend,” Sun Wukong said.
“We have a task for you.”
“I have plenty of tasks already,” Thed countered. It was the truth.
“Oh, but you see, this one is really important,” Sun Wukong continued. “Our Master – your employer – is out of tea leaves.”
Tripitaka did love his tea. The gnome served it to him every morning on the journey. Gnomes were good at steeping any plant known to man or magic. It hadn’t taken Thed long to learn the temperature, brew length, leaf amount, and water depth that the monk preferred.
“That can’t be. I checked them myself this morning. There should be at least fourteen cups worth left.”
Sun Wukong shook his head, “I’m afraid they’ve all spoiled.”
“Impossible. Dried leaves don’t spoil in a day.”
“They do if you expose them to earth magic fires,” Sha Wujing intoned. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
Thed hung his mouth open as if to speak, but nothing came out. Was it possible? He – like all gnomes – was well-versed in herbs, both arcane and mundane. Granted, his knowledge of the tea plant was limited at best, but he had studied some varietals during his time in India. Could earth elemental magic affect their staying power, whether fresh or dried? He was at a loss.
“That tea was a present from Guan Yin herself,” the Monkey King said. “They were plucked from her Mountain Wall Garden high in the Zu mountain range. They were priceless.”
“I-I…don’t know what to say,” Thed stuttered.
“Say that you will get some more,” was the monkey’s blunt reply.
“With this.” Sun Wukong revealed his palm and floating right above it was a small cloud. “And these,” he said, plucking hairs from his own head.
“You want me to pick tea leaves,” Thed started. “From a mountain range. With nothing but a cloud…and some of your hair?”
“Watch,” the Monkey King said. He took one strand of hair and threw it on the ground. In a puff of smoke, a duplicate of himself appeared. “You’ll use these to pick the leaves.”
“And use the cloud to get there, I got it,” the gnome nodded, annoyed. “But what do I do if I get caught?”
“You’ll have him,” the monkey said with a smile, pointing at the dragon-scaled horse.
“And if I refuse?” Thed asked.
“You’ll die,” Sha Wujing said, pressing his spade into the ground.
Thed heaved the deepest sigh of his life. “Fine, I’ll do it.”
“Great!” the Monkey King shouted, clapping the gnome on the back. The impact sent him reeling. “We’ll see you at morning tea.”
Sha Wujing pointed at him, “Don’t be late.”
The three so-called demons departed, leaving the wayward gnome to collect himself. Tripitaka’s odd horse came up to him. If Thed didn’t know any better, he would’ve said the horse-thing was smiling at him.
I told you not to underestimate them, the horse sent.
“Oh, shut up and get ready,” Thed responded. He looked at the monkey hairs in his hand and the small cloud suspended in mid-air in front of him. “We have a long night ahead of us.”
To be continued…-ish…