of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: Guan Yin

The Great Guan Yin Duel

Over the years, I’ve had some fun at the expense of Guan Yin—the Bodhisattva of Compassion.


Whether portraying her as having an illicit affair with Scottish botanists, or depicting her as a scorned goddess seeking vengeance against the writer of the illicit affair (me), I can’t say I’ve dealt with her fairly. Hilariously, yes . . . but not fairly. However, there is one area where her namesake is applied where I have held back my more idiot tendencies. That, of course, is in regard to the tea bearing her name—Tie Guan Yin, or “Iron Goddess of Mercy”.

A Tiger in the Taiga

It was, for the most part, a normal Sunday night. That is, if you consider coming home with a full body-ache normal. My work week had taxed me (both mentally and physically) yet again. Not something I ever wanted to be routine…but such is life. Typically, after a long night’s work, I came home, poured a pint of ale, vegged in front of the computer then slept.

I was about to do just that until I got a text from friends to meet them at a bar. The pint of Cascadia Dark Ale I was nursing was put back in the fridge. After two pints with said friends and a nice walk back home, I remembered the CDA still refrigerating. I was never one to exceed two pints (er…often?), but I didn’t want to let it go to waste. So, I nursed it lovingly. Again!

And felt a wee bit on the inebriated side.

Somewhere in the partial mental haze, I got the notion that the dog needed a walk. My brother was out of town, and I’d been tasked with feeding and entertaining the pup. Well…”pup” is probably the wrong word. He was a two-year-old, 140-pound Saint Bernard who thought he was a pup – fittingly named Abacus. I let him out of his “kennel” – in reality, a bedroom – and leashed him up for a dogwalk. Or rather, a dog-stumble.

It really says something when the dog walks in a straighter line than his walker. Such was the case this night. In all honesty, he was extremely well-behaved. Midnight walks were becoming our little routine, and I enjoyed the distraction. Something was different about this night, though. Well, beyond the beer buzz.

As we turned down one particular, dimly-lit street, I caught whiff of a familiar smell. Tendrils of campfire, burnt leaves, and awesomeness crept its way to my nostrils. Naturally, even in my befuddled state, I sought out the source of the smoky smell. Somehow, I even managed to tweet about it. (Still not sure how that happened.)

We continued down the dark street for what seemed like a few minutes. Abacus let out a couple of warning barks. I tried to reassure him, but I – too – felt something ominous. Of course, that may have been just gas. The further we ventured, the darker the path became. The road was more uneven with each step. Asphalt turned to dirt. Street lamps vanished altogether. Then we suddenly came upon…


We were no longer in the suburbs. What beheld us was a coniferous forest with thin trees and prairie-like shrubs. It looked similar to our usual environs, save for the cold, dry air. Abacus didn’t seem to care. He found the nearest tree, gave it the sniff once-over then relieved himself – happily making his mark on this strange hillside.

Dead ahead of us was a small campsite. That alone didn’t puzzle me; it was the occupants that gave me pause. One was a short, stout, bearded man in a pointy green hat. Short was an understatement, though – he was downright diminutive. The other appeared to be a man on first glance, dressed very dapperly like a British scholar. Mutton chops hugged his cheeks, giving him a jolly appearance. The problem? His skin was an off shade of blue.

The third occupant was the only normal one of the trio, and yet the one that stood out the most. He was thin, neighborly-looking, and possessed a perma-smile. He was stirring “something” with a wooden spoon in a rather ornate cauldron. And he was staring right at us, grin never fading.

“He’s here,” the small, pointy-hatted man said.

“Looks like it,” the mutton-chopped, off-skin-colored man replied in a Scottish baroque.

The smiling man said nothing.

Abacus tried to escape the leash and pounce his new “friends”, but I reined him in. “Who…” I began.

“You should already know the answer to that,” the Scot said. “After all, you’ve written about us.”

“You can’t be-” I pointed, mouth agape.

The sort-of-Scotsman stood and bowed, “Formerly Robert Fortune, at your service.”


“That means he’s dead,” the smaller man cut in. “-Ish”

“The polite term is undead,” the Scotsman countered.

“A zombie,” I said simply.

“That’s racist,” the smaller man responded.

“So that would make you-”

“Thedaius,” he said with a salute. “Thed, for short. No pun intended.”

“You’re the gnome I wrote about!” I said excitedly.

“You’re a quick one,” Thed said dryly.

“Don’t mind him, he’s always pissy,” Formerly Fortune muttered to me.

As my attention was diverted, Abacus escaped my grasp long enough to nose-molested the gnome. He toppled over and tried to ward the Saint Bernard off to no avail. Fits of laughter escaped the grumbling gnome as he was tackled and licked.

“Abacus, get off him!” I yelled.

“It’s okay,” Zombie Robert Fortune assured me. “He’s good with animals, despite his gruffness.”

And just like that, Thed had the wily puppy eating out of the palm of his hand – literally. He had fetched some strange snack out of one of his many sacks. Abacus feasted from his tiny hand and instantly turned docile. A puddy of a pup if I ever saw one. Amazing.

“Funny,” the gnome said. “You named him Abacus. I knew an Abacus once. Saint Bernard, too.”

“Don’t tell me he runs a flying tearoom,” I said, arms akimbo.

“He does, indeed,” Thed said with surprise. “How’d you know?”

“Lucky guess,” I replied with an eyeroll. “Who’s he?”

My attention was turned toward the smiling stirrer by the cauldron.

“No clue,” Robert Unfortunate shrugged. “He just showed up today. He hasn’t said a word.”

“He might have something to do with why you’re here,” Thed offered.

“And he’s French,” Zombert Fortune growled.

“That’s a bad thing?” I asked.

Thed shook his head. “Not necessarily…unless you’re British.”

“I’m Scottish!” Zombert Fortune snapped back.

“Fine, British ‘citizen’,” Thed amended.

“What are you two doing here?” I asked. “And where is here?”

“We’ve been traveling for…” Thed paused in thought. “Shit, how long have we been traveling?”

“Going on forty years, I think,” Un-Robert Fortune-Zombie said, tapping his chin.

“And ‘here’ is Mongolia,” Thed answered. “Not sure what part.”

“We took a break from our trip to India,” Former-Robert sighed. “Ley-line travel is exhausting.”

“And thirst-inducing,” the gnome added. “I said I was parched, and the Frenchman appeared.”

“We think he’s brewing tea,” Undead Fortune whispered to me.

Sure enough, when I went up to smell the contents of the Smiling Frenchman’s cauldron, I whiffed tea. Smoky tea. One of my favorite types of tea. The Smiling Frenchman just kept right on smiling as I smelled.

“Have you guys tried any of it yet?” I asked.

“We haven’t dared,” Robert Unfortunate replied.

“Uh…you,” I addressed the Frenchman. “Three cups, please.”

The Smiling Frenchman’s grin widened, and three cups winked into existence – as did a smattering tea leaves that circled about our heads. He poured the contents of the ladle into them. Said cups hovered over to the gnome, the departed botanist, and myself. I took a sip..and instantly knew that it had a name – a fitting name.

“Pause in the Taiga,” I said aloud.

Pause in the Taiga

This was an interesting blend to look at, mainly because of the different leaf shapes present. There were the regulars – the BOP pieces, a couple of gold-tipped ones, and a few stems – but what was really shocking was the presence of some ball-fisted oolong leaves. Even more surprising, they were greener-style like an Ali Shan. The aroma was gently smoky with a floral underpinning – as expected from a Russian Caravan variant.

The liquor brewed to a rusted copper color with the same gentle, smoky aroma – like the last vestiges of a campfire. Taste-wise, the fire-fueled feeling hit first on the forefront, followed by a bit of malt and tobacco, and the aftertaste was oddly smooth. Not so much creamy, but definitely smooth. A very decent manly morning pint.

“It’s like a fruit garden someone set fire to,” Thed mused.

Zombie Fortune nodded. “I quite agree. Smoky but with an underpinning of fruit and flowers. Most peculiar.”

Abacus attempted to lick the edge of my cup, but I gave his nose a diligent swat. He recoiled slightly…before making a second attempt. When the dog no longer acquired my immediate attention, I looked back up at the Smiling Frenchman. His cauldron had changed to one less ornate and colored differently.

Another tea?” I asked – unbelieving.

He nodded, but that was all.

“I dunno about this,” Thed warned. “The first one was fine, but now what’s he got planned?”

My fears were abated by the smell. The Smiling Frenchman brought more cups to the floating fray, along with a pastiche of dry leaves. It was like these blends were tailored to me specifically. Like the Taiga one, this was also on the smoky side. Not as strong but rather more like a Keemun with a kiss of smoke. The leaves themselves looked like a mix of Keemun with a BOP of some sort.

Shere Khan

Shere Khan

The liquor brewed straight copper like an Assam with a burly, malty-sweet nose. Taste-wise, it was incredibly smooth, somewhat winy on the front. The middle was dominated by a sense of strength, smoke and sweetness. The aftertaste gave no impression of dryness or bitterness.

What was particularly odd, though, was that while this was a darker cuppa, it was lighter on the smoke than the Taiga.

“Shere Khan, you say?” I said aloud.

The silent smiler nodded again.

“He said something to you?” Revenant Robert Fortune asked.

“Not really,” I answered. “It’s like they have a name the moment you sip ‘em.”

“You’re drunk,” Thed stated bluntly.

“That’s…beside the point,” was the only the rebuttal I could give.

The cauldron in front of the Smiling Frenchman vanished again. One that was vaguely Russian in appearance replaced it. The smoke smell was superceded by something more wildernessy with a dash of fruit on the fragrance. As before, three more cups appeared in mid-air, a display of leaves danced above each. Literally, they were dancing. Quite Disney…and quite bizarre.

Just like the other two, I had no idea what to really make of this one, and the Smiling Frenchman was leaving no clues. I saw some obvious leaves in the fray – some Long Jing, maybe some Mao Feng – but there were others that were darker still. Some were even ball fisted and added a grapy lean to the scent. That made me think that some Formosa oolong had made its way into the recipe.



“Origine, huh?” I said.

The Smiling Frenchman winced slightly at my butchering of his language.

The liquor brewed a dark amber with a mineral and berry aroma. The taste was a collision of different sensations. On the one hand it was light and fruity, on the other, vegetal, graphite-like and slightly bitter. A part of me liked its harshness, but another part – the one that expected a lighter brew didn’t care for it. Given the oolongy inclusion, this would’ve probably handled a gong fu prep better.

“Definitely my least favorite of the three,” I said, pursing my lips.

My announcement of which actually caused the Smiling Frenchman’s grin to diminish somewhat.

“Actually, I prefer this one to its smoky counterparts,” the gnome chimed in. “Reminds me of home.”

“Quite a strong green tea presence, for my tastes,” said the undead Scotsman. “But it has enough of an orange pekoe palate for my liking. I wonder what’s in it.”

“Company secret,” came a German accented growl from behind us.

Thed’s face went as white as his little gnomish beard. Formerly Fortune paled even more than he already was. I stood there aghast…and promptly wet myself. Abacus wagged his tail happily in anticipation. Mere feet away from us was a half-man/half-tiger dressed – in what appeared to be – a double-breasted suit. He adjusted his tie as he came forward.

“A were-tiger?!” I yelped.

“That’s racist,” Thed muttered to me.

“Tiger-man, thank you very much,” the suited feline rumbled.

Abacus could no longer contain himself. How could he? There was a large cat in front of him. Before the tiger-“man” could do…whatever he was going to do, he was mauled (with love) by the 140-pound pup. The suited tiger shouted and “ROWR!”-ed in desperation as he was bombarded by licks, sniffs and drool of the fuzzy kind.

“That is one useful dog,” Thed smiled, arms folded.

“Sometimes,” I mumbled.

“Get him…” the tiger-man managed to start through the struggle. “…OFF of me! This is Armani!”

“W-what are your intentions?” I stuttered.

“I’m a tea merchant!”

“Abacus, leave it!” I snapped.

To my surprise, the Saint Bernard did as he was told. The tiger-man got up, dusted himself off, and attempted to wipe off the muddy drool with a handkerchief. It didn’t quite work.

“The name is Khan,” he said with a sigh. “I’m with him.”

He pointed at the Smiling Frenchman, who – in turn – waved innocently as he continued stirring.

“You could’ve just said so,” Thed grumbled.

“It’s enough that your partner doesn’t say anything,” the departed Scot-botanist interjected. “But a tiger-man showing up out of nowhere would cause even seasoned travelers a fright.”

“It was supposed to be a blind taste-test,” Khan explained. “For the Tee Faktorei.”

“Never heard of ‘em,” I said.

“No one has,” the tiger replied. “Yet.”

“I don’t think you understand how blind taste-tests work,” I continued. “You’re not supposed to surprise the participants, and they usually have to volunteer.”

“Oh,” Khan mused. “I was told you three liked to be caught by surprise.”

“By whom?” Robert Un-Fortune asked.

“Guan Yin.”

That name made all three of us groan.

Thed cursed first. “Damn woman sure holds a grudge.”

Zombie Fortune shook his head. “Guess it’s time we start packing.”

“Forgive the miscommunication,” Khan said with a bow. “We hope you enjoyed the experience.”

The tiger-man went over to the Smiling Frenchman, snapped his fingers, and both vanished with a flash of light. That left us – three disparate companions, all joined by a similar dilemma – alone by a dying daytime campfire. Only the whiff of smoky tea remained.

“So…” I said with a clap. “Now what?”

“Now, we head to Darjeeling,” Thed said while gathering his duffel bags – all twice his size.

“We’ve been trying to stay ahead of the Bodhisattva of Mercy for four decades,” Zombie Robert replied. “For awhile, we thought we lost her. Turns out her attentions were directed at you for the writing you did.”

“Then you found us,” Thed spat. “Thanks.”

“I didn’t mean to,” I said defensively. “I was walking the dog.”

“Ley-lines are tricky,” Un-Fortune returned. “Sometimes they’ll whisk you away without a moment’s notice.”

“You’re welcome to come with us,” Thed offered – albeit begrudgingly.

“I’ve…” I had to think of something. “…gotta get the dog home.”

The gnome shrugged, “Suit yourself.”

The undead Scotsman stretched out his hand and motioned for me to take the cloth-covered item in it. I unraveled it and found an oft-used white gaiwan.

“Her name is Liddy,” Zombie Fortune said. “Just ask her, and she’ll find us. Should you change your mind about joining our little trek.”

Thed interrupted. “Ley-line travel requires a vessel of some sort – magical, obviously.”

“Take care,” Robert Fortune waved. “And do be careful what you write about.”

“I will,” I lied.

The two disappeared in a flash. I looked down at the gaiwan, sniffed it for a second. Then I uttered a phrase jokingly, “There’s no place like home.”

Before I could chortle, the dog and I were back in our driveway. I looked down at the little lidded cup. Whatever beer buzz I had was replaced by tea reverie. The dog looked up at me expectantly. I smiled at him, and spoke to the gaiwan in my hand.

“Darjeeling, huh?” I said to no one. “Maybe…”

All custom blends used for this write-up were provided (and produced) by Teaconomics.

Guan Yins, Tigers and Lords, Oh My!

For context, READ THIS FIRST.

For once, I thought I’d get a full night’s sleep. The work week had been murder, and for some odd reason, I couldn’t stay in bed for more than six hours. Well, this time I had an excuse. A loud roar jolted me from sleep. When I opened my eyes, standing in front of me was the Bodhisattva of Compassion herself – Guan Yin – standing atop a rubber ducky (???). And she looked pissed.

How did she get in my room? Wait…where was my room?! I was greeted by blackness all around me as I sat straight up. The only occupants in this void/nullspace were me (still in bed), the ducky-perched Chinese goddess, and a third shadowy figure.

“Are you the one they call the Lazy Clitoris?” the bodhisattva asked.

“That’s…Literatus,” I corrected her. “Ma’am.”

“Silence!” she snapped.

“But you asked me to speak,” I reminded her.

She did not take my dry comment well, bringing a lightning bolt down within an inch of my bed. The smell of ozone wafted once the crackling ceased. I didn’t even know she had that ability.

“You have wronged me greatly,” Guan Yin said, lowering her duck.

“Is this about the story?”

“Of course, it is!” her voice boomed and echoed.

“But it was all true,” I replied.

“True or not, you have sullied my name,” she said. “And now, you must make reparations.”

“Why are you on a duck?” I had to ask.

“My dragon – Ao Bing – is…on vacation,” she replied, flustered.

“But why a duck?”

“A mutual interested party provided him,” she said, motioning for the shadowy figure to step forward.

A youthful man in dated formal attire approached in a carriage…pulled by two very imposing Bengal tigers. His attire was a mix-and-match of Victorian and Georgian influences, his cravat was flashy, and his top hat seemed to glow with its own aura. The man’s visage bore a striking resemblance to American actor, James Franco.

The Faux-Franco bowed in my direction, “Viscount Petersham, at your service.”

I cocked an eyebrow, “Petersham?”


“Who is Peter, and why is he a sham?” I asked with a half-smile.

He simply looked at me for a moment, then spoke, “Oh! That was an attempt at humor. How precious.”

“And why are you here?” I asked of him again. “Wherever here is?”

“The lovely Bodhisattva and I have come to an arrangement,” the viscount explained. “One that involves you.”

“What for and why me?”

“My, you’re annoying quizzical,” Petersham sighed. “You wronged her and an associate of mine. She brought you to this ‘space between spaces’ where you will be subjected to a Trial by Tea.”

“Trial by-”

Tea!” Guan Yin finished for me. “If you pass, you live. If you fail…”

As if on cue, one of the Bengals roared. I gulped. No one wanted to die in their pajamas, especially not out-of-season Santa Claus pajamas.

“The idea, my good chap, is this,” the viscount said, dismounting from his grand tiger-chariot. “There are two teas in my repertoire that need testing. One was tailored specifically to me, the other – well – named for my feline friends over there.”

“So…what do I have to do?” I queried.

“Simply try them,” Petersham said with a grin.

“And if I don’t like them?”

“That won’t be possible.”

“Get on with it,” the goddess said impatiently.

“Yes, m’dear,” he said with a roll of the eyes.

He stretched out his hand. A platter, a teapot, a metallic kettle, two transparent 8-ounce teacups, and an hourglass perched above his hand.

“How did you-?” I started.

“I’m a dead man with two pet tigers,” Petersham stated flatly. “What can’t I do?”

“Fair point,” I nodded.

“Now, how do you take your tea, lad?” he asked.

Me? A lad? I look older than him! I said inwardly.

“1 teaspoon of leaves, boiling water, three-minute steep,” I replied.

“Only three minutes?!” Petersham looked aghast. “What are you, some kind of dandy?”

“You asked,” I shrugged – an odd question coming from a man with a lisp.

He sighed dramatically. “Very well.”

With a wave of a few fingers from his other hand, steam rose from the kettle – bubbling was heard from within. I wondered where the water had come from, but this was a magic void. Wondering was pointless. The kettle, then, poured the water itself into the pot. I guessed the leaves were already housed within. The hourglass flipped itself over independently and remained suspended in mid-air.

Three minutes passed by with awkward silence. Guan Yin had dismounted the rubber ducky and crouched down to pat the head of one of the tigers. It bellowed a loud purr in response. Petersham made unique use of a snuff box in the interim.

When the hourglass ran its last grain of sand, there was a loud chime. The tigers perked up in alarm. The source seemed to resound from all over. Petersham was unperturbed by it, gingerly waving a finger, and levitating the pot.

The liquor that poured into the clear cup was an even copper with a light gold ring on the periphery. It was a lovely looking beverage. I put cup to lips. On introduction, there was a bit of a citrus bite, followed by a slight tannic lean in the middle. Then it snapped at the top note with a presence of peppers, allspice, honey and Keemun sweetness. So many different flavors were at play – all vying for steeping supremacy.

“Damn,” I said with approval.

“Poetic, isn’t he?” Guan Yin said dryly.

The viscount, however, appeared overjoyed. “And, now, the Two Tigers blend.”

He repeated the same songless dance with a new set of “tea”-quipment. Water boiled, apparatuses flew about, and another clear cup was magically filled. The smell of the rising steam was strong on the nostrils.

The liquor had brewed only a slightly deeper copper than Petersham’s namesake blend with a very even and sweet aroma. Malt was also there but understated. Flavor-wise, it possessed a very crisp forefront, which transitioned to a strangely floral middle. It tapered off nicely without much lingering bitterness.

“A strong morning cup, for sure, but one polite enough to call you a cab afterwards,” I said.

The viscount looked puzzled. “I don’t quite follow.”

“It’s a sex reference,” Guan Yin growled, arms akimbo. “He does that.”

Again, Petersham was un-phased. “Splendid! You passed!”

“All I did was like the teas,” I said.

“That’s all that was needed,” Petersham said, clasping my shoulders. “You live to drink another day.”

With that, the youthful – and possibly immortal – lord retook the reigns of his tiger mounts, bid a gloved farewell with a “toodleloo ” of his left fingers, and rode off into the darkness. The cups of tea and brewing equipment, however, remained suspended in place – hovering. All that remained were me, the tea, an ill-tempered goddess, and a rubber ducky.

“Okay…” I started. “I passed. Guess that means I get to go now?”

“No,” she said.

“No?” I gulped – voice a little higher.

“You get to live, yes,” Guan Yin agreed. “But I get to determine the ‘where’.”

I said nothing, but my gaze narrowed.

“Here in the void,” she said with arms outstretched. “This suits you perfectly.”

“So, it’s like that, then,” I said, taking the cup with the Petersham blend.

“It’s like that,” she repeated.

I also grabbed the cup of the Two Tigers blend. “You’ve never read my work, have you?”

“You work?” she chuckled.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”

I held out both transparent cups so she could clearly see them. At first, she appeared puzzled…but then her eyes widened. I bore a toothy grin as I poured the contents of one cup into the other.

“NO!” she screamed.

“You forget, Bodhisattva,” I began. “When I blend, I don’t think of the consequences. And when I drink…”

One of the cups began to glow. The copper liquid bubbled and churned from other. Out of thin air, a third cup appeared. No, not a cup. A mug. I moved the three together. The shape looked…oddly (but appropriately) phallic.

“This. Is. MY CUPPA!!!” I bellowed, taking a swig.

Both blends combined tasted like all the things that men are made off – earth and smoke with an astringent stubbornness that couldn’t be quelled. I relished in the power. This was true tiger’s blood.

Cracks and fissures of glowing light pierced the pocket void-realm. The “ceiling”/sky/whatever flaked and crumbled. Shadows retreated and the intruding rays of luminescence penetrated ever-inward. Guan Yin screamed as her handiwork unraveled in mere moments. Without a means to retaliate, she retreated to the solace of the rubber ducky and made a hasty retreat.

As the last of the shadows receded, I found myself back in my haphazard room. All was in shambles, but it was the mess I had made – not the goddess. My bed was as I left it. Yet I still held the combined, phallic-looking tri-teacup.

“This isn’t over, Clitoris,” boomed a disembodied woman’s voice. “Those blends were his, and he still owns you until you finish.”

“His? He who? Finish what?” I asked the ceiling.

There was no response, only the echoes of tittering laughter.

“That’s LiterATus!” I corrected…to no one in particular.

What had she meant by being owned? Who was I indebted to? Who owned and/or made those blends? Not Petersham, he said they were commissioned. Then whom?

The realization hit me when I looked down at my computer.

The rubber ducky? Petersham? I inhaled sharply. HIM?!

I was in someone’s debt, someone for whom I owed a writing project. So long as it went incomplete, he owned my soul. Without further thought, I fired up the computer and went to writing. Shivering all the while, imagining his eyes (and ducky) were looming over me.


Thanks are owed to Jackie, one of the co-pilots of Tea Trade, for passing the two Devotea blends my way.

Thanks, also, to The Devotea himself – Robert Godden – for making them. They were superb. (As if there was ever a doubt. One of these days, I’ll have to pick his brain for the recipes.)

You can buy the Lord Petersham blend HERE.

You can buy the Two Tigers blend HERE.

And, lastly, thanks to Jason Norman (my cousin) for helping me out with some last-minute Photoshopping. Much obliged.

Oolong Way from Gnome (Part 1)

Gnomish Charcoal Sketch by Robert Norman

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.

“Your point?”

My point is you should show a little courtesy. You are not in your lands. Politeness goes a long way here.

“Duly noted.”

There was a long pause.

“Can I get back to work now?”

As you wish. Just remember…don’t underestimate them.

“Them who?

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.

“Uh, hello.”

“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…

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