Here is this week's offering of a short story or essay. This short story is number 10 of 13 weekly essay or short story posts.
Entitled "The Children of Gods", this tale appears here on my blog for the first time anywhere as a 4-Act fairy tale. Act 1 and 2 have already been posted and Act 3 will be posted today. The final Act will be posted next Friday. Be sure to check back and follow the adventures of Xiao-tep the Ankh-fish of 100,000 Sorrows and Beauty!
The Children of Gods
(C) 2007 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written prior permission of the author(s) and/or artist(s).
Act III of IV: Xiao-tep Hunts His Father
INTO THE COTTONWOOD CHAMBER: Wherein Xiao-tep Battles His Father; Defeated, Xiao-tep Seeks the Help of Ketsueki Sato; Wu Chan Chu is Born
Xiao-tep slipped into the Celestial Garden. He had hoped to find his mother or father there. Instead, he found a faun playing a soft tune on panpipes, sitting on the green marble bench where once he had slept while his mother meditated.
The faun's fur was smooth, long, clean and colored a mottled black and white. His body was small. His face was youthful with fair skin and sharp lines. He had a small black goatee that descended from his chin and spiraled into two small points. Gray horns like a ram's adorned the sides of his head in swirls. From his shoulder hung a small leather purse.
The music the faun played was enchanting, beautiful. Xiao-tep stood and listened for a long while. When the faun finished his song and put down his panpipes, he called to Xiao-tep.
"Please friend, come. Sit with me." He scooted over on the bench to make room for the fish-god, patting the cool marble next to him.
Xiao-tep joined the faun. "Thank you," he said. "You play beautifully."
The faun smiled and nodded. "It is a gift from the Cosmos. It is my one respite from the universe. I come here on rare occasions to rediscover peace. My panpipes help to create smiles in my heart. Smiles are like butterflies for me... I must chase after them lest they flutter away and escape me."
Xiao-tep only nodded, holding his Spear of Sorrows tightly and leaning upon it like an elderly man might lean upon a cane.
"I've not ever seen you here," said the faun.
"I was here only once before," Xiao-tep reminisced.
"It's such a beautiful garden," the faun said.
"What is your name, friend?"
Realizing his miscarriage of decorum, Xiao-tep stood and bowed, "I apologize for not introducing myself earlier. I am Xiao-tep."
The faun waited for him to be seated once more. "And who are your people?"
"Yes. Every god has people. Who follows you?"
Xiao-tep shook his head. "No one... that I know of."
The faun looked at him curiously. "You are a god, are you not?"
Xiao-tep nodded. "Yes."
"Yet, no followers? Very odd."
Xiao-tep took being called odd as an insult, but was unsure if it was meant that way.
"I am Lupercus of the Luperci. At least that's what the priests have taken to calling themselves. I suppose most of my followers are Roman."
Not knowing what a Roman was, Xiao-tep only looked on in interest.
"I sense you are very young, friend Xiao-tep. If I may be so bold to ask, who are your parents?"
"Lei-zi the Thunder Goddess and Hapi the River God."
"Ahh," understanding washed over Lupercus. "You are a god of gods, not a god of the Cosmos."
Seeing confusion spread over Xiao-tep's face Lupercus explained, "That must be why you've no followers. You are young and have not been assigned a people to rule over by the Cosmos. You are as a ship at sea without sails."
Xiao-tep did not know what to say. He remained silent.
"Shall I play some more for you?" asked Lupercus.
The song was slow with long, bent notes. It haunted the Celestial Garden with an undead beauty. Xiao-tep listened, resting the ankh on his forehead against his Spear of Sorrows. He wanted to cry at the lamenting beauty of Lupercus' song. The willow branch did it for him.
When Lupercus was finished, he looked at Xiao-tep and said. "Your willow weeps for you. May I ask where you got it?"
"From my mother. It was her parting gift to me."
Lupercus nodded. "Such a wonderful gift from a mother to her child. She must have sensed much pain in your future, as I suppose a god of gods must expect. She must love you very much to have given you a gift to ease your pain. It must also be somewhat of a hindrance to carry around. May I?" The faun put out his hand.
Xiao-tep did not want to hand over the willow branch. He had lost it once before and paid dearly for it. Now he was unsure if his friend Brok was angry with him for leaving the Crystalline Cavern or even if Brok was as he said he was. Xiao-tep suspected foul play on Brok's part, yet the dwarf had been so kind and given Xiao-tep the wonderful gift of the spear.
Thinking the only way to gain trust was to first trust others, Xiao-tep hesitantly handed the willow branch over to the faun. Lupercus pulled from his purse several strands of leather of varying lengths and widths. With them he quickly made a bandolier with an attached lanyard braided intricately around the willow so that only half of it hung freely. He then helped Xiao-tep place the bandolier over his left shoulder so that the branch hung over his heart.
"Now both your hands are free," said Lupercus.
Xiao-tep smiled at the bandolier and said, "Thank you."
"I should be going. I've people to attend to and a corner of the universe to run."
Xiao-tep stood and bowed low to Lupercus. "Thank you again."
Lupercus nodded. "Listen, friend Xiao-tep. Life for all creatures can be quite ugly. Even for gods. Even for the children of gods. We are no more blessed because we will live until the end of times. I would not exchange my place in the scheme of things with mortals, mind you. Some of our kind long for short lives and consider mortals the truly blessed. I do not. They have so little time to get out into whatever world they have and make it worth something. I'd be driven to madness if I were mortal. But I also do not pretend to be fully blessed as a god, either.
"Whatever it is you're hunting, ask yourself this: 'Is it worth the pain it brings upon me?' Don't chase after sorrow and vengeance, friend Xiao-tep. Chase smiles."
Lupercus turned and walked through the brush. Xiao-tep was alone in the Celestial Garden. There he sat for a long while, his spear across his lap. He could feel the restless desire of Aelis within the weapon. His own heart reflected hers. For Xiao-tep and Aelis, amidst a garden of peace, there was only chaos and confusion.
Xiao-tep tried to think on Lupercus' last words. He could make no room for them in his head. He stood, looked around and left the Celestial Garden through a stand of willows.
Flying, Xiao-tep came into the arid desert lands of his father. Winds carried hot sands to rub against his scales. He squinted at the sun, blinded by a glaring blue sky suspended over a wavering horizon. He was in Egypt and below him was the Nile.
He flew over the landscape, eyeing the people there. They were dark and beautiful and all setting themselves about various tasks. The largest gathering was collecting, hauling and hoisting massive cut stones in an immense effort, scaling a monument towards the heavens. Many ceased their industriousness and looked up towards the flying fish-god. He spiraled around them, staring back and exchanging glances.
"So these are my father's people," Xiao-tep whispered. "The first mortals I've seen. They are worthy disciples." Something inside Xiao-tep tugged. His heart filled with pride for these small creatures. He wondered... he thought... he spoke softly, "Wish that I could have such followers. I would hold and behold them with every grain of sand that passes through the throttled glass. I would follow them as much as I would lead." Xiao-tep's heart became overwhelmed.
He heard a few of the men speak of dark omens. Fear struck their faces. Screams were raised, as were weapons and curses. All of them were pointed at the flying Xiao-tep.
Confused, the fish-god flew away from the collected civilization, following the winding path of his father's home and domain.
At last Xiao-tep settled himself by the river far from the city. He stood under tall palms, their fronds dancing and chattering in soft winds. Vegetation as soft as a Phoenix feather lay beneath him. He felt at it with his fins as he hovered there.
"What a glorious home this would be," Xiao-tep lamented.
Anger filled him. The rage of an heritage bequeathed to him filled his heart. His eyes grew dark. His body shook. At last, unable to contain all that he felt, Xiao-tep slammed the butt end of his spear into the ground. The earth swelled around it and sent shockwaves quaking into far off lands.
"Father!" Xiao-tep screamed at the river. "Your son has come home!"
All was quiet except in the city of mortals where chaos spread through the streets at the rumbling earth.
Xiao-tep waited, looking, watching.
The river swelled. Hapi appeared from its depths, but in watery elemental form. He rose and grew bigger, sucking the river almost dry in the immediate area.
Xiao-tep, too, grew in form. His spear elongated as he came to tower over the palms. Aelis quivered within.
Hapi grew ever taller, taller than his son could, but Xiao-tep stood defiant.
"The fish comes home to die," Hapi's voice gurgled, his form dripping and reforming itself.
"No, father," Xiao-tep looked up. "I have come to see my enemy die."
Hapi looked down on the fish-god and laughed. "Am I your enemy? Your own father? Is it no wonder I want you dead? You're a lousy son, ungrateful and unworthy of existence, most especially unworthy as heir to my realm."
"I care not for rule. I know I've no place in the universe. I am a half-breed. An abomination. A hated creature. But I did not make the mold I was born from. I was brought into this world as such and rejected by my maker. The maker of unloved monsters is a monster and deserves only death. And who more deserving to strike that final blow onto you than I?"
"Your mind is twisted," Hapi argued.
"Twisted at birth," replied Xiao-tep.
"You have no place. I do. Who is more deserving of a life in this universe?"
"Perhaps neither of us," Xiao-tep's heart grew cold. His eyes grew darker still.
"You cannot win."
"Then I will die." Xiao-tep took up the Spear of Sorrows. Aelis wiggled within.
Hapi watched as his son circled him slowly. "Fool!" he cried and lunged at the fish-god with a fist growing massive, swelling with water. Xiao-tep tried to fly out of its way, but the fist had grown so large by the time it came near there was no escaping it. The force and form was hard as stone. Xiao-tep was sent flying into the hot desert sand, rolling. His willow branch remained attached to his bandolier, but no tears were flowing from it. Xiao-tep was not filled with sorrow, but hatred and bloodlust.
His grip loosened on the Spear of Sorrows, but he did not allow it to escape.
Xiao-tep flew from the ground, trailing a thousand grains of sand behind him. He braced the spear and flew at his father, guiding his weapon into the river god's heart.
Hapi's form grew soft. Xiao-tep and his spear both flew straight through his father, bringing him no harm. As Xiao-tep passed through, he felt the cool touch of the river, but he also felt a bit of his father. In Hapi was a mixed sorrow. Confused, Xiao-tep turned back on his father. His confusion turned to fury.
"I hate you!" Xiao-tep cried. "I hate you and want you and mother dead! Die!" Xiao-tep swung the spear wildly. Aelis screeched. The nine rings of the spear clanged against each other. Water flew from Hapi's form with every blow, but he was left undamaged.
Hapi turned round to face his son, another fist swelling and swinging at the fish-god. Again, it became too large for Xiao-tep to escape. The water hardened before it struck. Xiao-tep was sent slamming into the ground, sending a furor of sand reaching into the sky.
"You cannot kill me!" raged Hapi.
Xiao-tep escaped the sand falling in on him in the hole made by his wounded body. Again he swung, slashing, Aelis screaming over and over again, the spear's blades biting into the softened face of Hapi the River God.
Hapi stood unaffected. Xiao-tep could not damage his father.
Xiao-tep stopped his crazed attack. He stared at his father but said nothing.
"Your sadness and anger kills me more than your spear," Hapi confessed. "I did not want to bring a child such as you into a universe that has no place for him. I've never had a son. Only girls. I desire a son to help me rule more than anything, but when your mother told me of your impending birth I knew only pain lay ahead of you. I did not want you not because I did not love you, but because of the suffering you would feel at the hands of the Cosmos. No half-breed god has a realm or a people. A creature without a place has no purpose. What life is there for one such as you?"
Xiao-tep heard his father's words. He knew then he could not defeat his father. Not now. Tears began to fall from the willow branch.
"Death was my one and only merciful gift," Hapi explained. "Not because I hate you, but because of my love for you."
The willow's tears fell to the sands and slowly mixed, melding with the water of the Nile. As it did, Hapi felt for the first time his son's sorrow. He reeled, fighting to keep composure. He looked at his son. "You are stronger than I knew," was all he could say.
"I don't want to be," spoke Xiao-tep.
"Come, son. Lay down beside me. Let me do my duty. Allow me my one merciful gift to you."
Xiao-tep wanted so badly to be embraced by his father, even in dying, but he kept thinking of his mother and their selfish, lustful act that had brought him into this world.
"My death would solve nothing," Xiao-tep said.
"It would solve everything," Hapi argued.
"No, you are wrong. I would die, you would carry on. I would never know peace."
Hapi straightened himself. "You cannot possibly kill me."
Xiao-tep heard the mortal cries from the city carried to him by the winds. Anger swelled in him. "But I can kill your people."
"No!" Hapi raged. "You will not! You must not! I will slaughter you here before you've the chance! You are a demon for thinking such things!"
Xiao-tep flew off towards the city. Hapi dived into himself and chased after.
Floating high above the city, seeing the chaos within as the people ran about in confusion from the quakes he had caused, Xiao-tep wondered at their frailty. He could not muster the strength or anger to destroy such small, beautiful, delicate creatures.
Hapi watched from beneath the river.
More tears fell from Xiao-tep's willow branch. He began to float higher and higher, ascending into the heavens. Hapi raised up and screamed after him.
Xiao-tep entered the expanse of existence, flying ever faster. "If a demon I am," he spoke to his now far-off father, "then a demon I shall become."
Xiao-tep flew deep into the darkest parts of the universe.
The priest Awiti prayed quickly at an altar set up to Hapi. The river god appeared before him inside of an idol.
"Dear Gracious Hapi," spoke Awiti, "what unsettles our lands with tremors? Are you displeased with us? With the monument?"
"Did you see the flying fish earlier?"
"Yes, Gracious One. We thought him an omen."
"He was no omen. He is a demon. He is the cause of all your troubles and mine. He is our sworn enemy."
"Yes, Gracious One. Has he come to destroy us?"
"He had, but I was able to dissuade him in a fierce battle. We are safe for now. But trust that creature with no secret, he means us harm."
"Yes, Gracious One."
Within the arid lands of the river Nile, a hatred grew in the hearts of men for the one named Xiao-tep.
Exhausted, the river god Hapi retired to the large, cool tent of his frog harem. The tent was colorful and filled with water and fans. There he lay amidst the croaking beauties he dearly loved.
The frogs gathered round him lovingly. They asked what was the matter.
Hapi smiled. "Nothing of real concern," he said. He rested for a long while before taking one of the frogs. Her name was Nebet and she gladly offered herself. That night she grew full in the belly with his child. As they lay together they spoke, enjoying the night.
"How I wish you would give me a son," said Hapi.
"I would choose if I could, Gracious One. But it is in the hands of the Cosmos."
Hapi sighed. "I know. You've all given me daughters, though. I long for a son I can accept into my home. The Cosmos are cruel with their fate. They kill me without the courtesy of spilling my blood."
"Some day," Nebet soothed. "Some day a son will come to make you proud. Perhaps even this little one within me now would be that son."
"But you are a mortal. Demi-gods are tolerable, but hardly ever allowed to help a father rule. Such is the way of things."
Nebet knew not what to say. She caressed her growing belly.
"I must go. I've things to do in the night," Hapi said.
Nebet watched as he left the tent. She rubbed her webbed hands over her belly and knew then she was to have yet another girl. She sighed with sadness for Hapi, but smiled at the blessing of her daughter.
In the wee morning hours the frog demi-goddess was born as a large tadpole. Hapi came in to see his daughter. He kissed her, loved her and set her aside in the waters. He knew, like his other daughters, this would be the last time he would see her. Demi-gods and gods rarely mixed company unless the demi-god challenged the power of the gods. Only then did gods react or respond to demi-gods and then only through war. To avoid such things, Hapi would do what he had always done with all his frog-daughters.
A mortal man came into the tent. He was tall for a human, but puny compared to the river-god. His skin was dark as night. He was dressed in short pants and a loose blouse. At his waist hung a saber and three flintlock pistols where slung to his chest with leather holsters. The ladies of the harem knew him well. He was Kem Seqdew the Slave Trader, his ship the Mew Khet. He looked over the young tadpole demi-goddess.
"She is quite healthy," said Kem Seqdew.
"Then we've a deal?" asked Hapi.
"As always, Gracious One."
For a large offering at the altar of Hapi, the young tadpole was sold into slavery to Kem Seqdew.
He traveled with the frog demi-goddess for a few years, until she was fully grown, all over the world. She served aboard his ship and saw most of the continent of Asia.
She grew fully to a size taller even than Kem Seqdew. She was a frog in every way except size and stance. She stood on two legs. She towered over all mortals, had sagging breasts and a pudgy paunch. Dripping water weeds clung to her forehead and temples and about her waist. From under the weeds at her waist came issuing forth a constant black smoke that smelled of dew and was cold to the touch, like a bedeviled marine layer. Her neck below her wide mouth was thick and wobbled as she moved. She croaked and gurgled as she spoke. Kem Seqdew named her Kat Depet, "The Work Servant", and called her simply 'Kat'.
One night she approached her captain and master while he stood at the fore of his ship watching through a mist for obstacles in the water.
"Captain," she croaked. "Why is it I am so different from all the others aboard this ship? Why do I not look mortal?"
By this time, Kat had served enough time aboard the Mew Khet that Kem Seqdew saw her as his own child. He had once intended to sell her into slavery elsewhere, but the chance either never came or, for reasons he could not fully understand, he never acted on the opportunity. Lying, Kem Seqdew said, "You were born deformed. Your mother and father could not care for you. They sold you to me as a slave because they knew I would care for you. And I have, have I not?"
Time went by and by. Years fell away from the stars. A Briton man by the name of Yannick signed on to the Mew Khet. His eyes were wild and dark, his face ravaged by fights. Not much was known of Yannick as he kept to himself, but some whispered he was wanted in five countries for the murders of various individuals. He was often seen at night, when all his other duties had been met, throwing and consulting bones. On one such night, Kat approached the wild Briton.
"What is it that you do there?" she asked.
"I consult the future. Everything is decided by the Cosmos. This gives me an idea where to go and what to avoid. And who." He looked at the frog curiously. "What is your story?"
"Yes. From whence do you hail?"
"I know little of that. My mother and father sold me into slavery to our captain."
"Is that what he told you?"
"You know nothing of your unnatural origins?"
"Surely you see the difference in you and the rest of the crew."
"Yes. That is what prompted me to ask the captain about my origins."
Yannick nodded. "We on this ship are rare men and women. Most of us are scoundrels, thieves, or murderers. We have little choice but not to care who we take up ship with. That's why few of us do little more than look at you a second time. We've our own agendas to keep. And the agendas of others to escape.
"You are no normal creature, Kat. I suspect you a mystical creature. A demon, perhaps. Or a spirit fairy. Or maybe even the work of some god. With your lack of knowledge about your true lineage, I suspect the gods. Only the gods are prone to lie to cover up details."
"You think me a god?"
Yannick shrugged. "I know nothing. I can only suspect." He thought a moment, then drew his knife. "Allow me your hand."
Kat stood straight, "You'll not kill me."
"That is not my intention. I intend to see if you bleed."
"I can do it myself."
"It is not the same. I must do it."
Kat's hand shook nervously in Yannick's. He pricked her finger lightly with the tip of his blade. A droplet of red blood formed there.
"You are no god, nor demon," he said releasing her and putting away his knife. "No mortal such as I can harm a god or demon. I suspect you may be half-blooded."
"You may be a demi-goddess: half mortal and half goddess. You may have some of the powers of your godly parent, but the mortality of the other."
Yannick would disappear in the next port. Kat often wondered about her conversation with him. Again she approached Kem Seqdew on the matter.
"I am so different from others. What is my true history?" she demanded.
"Shut your mouth, slave! You've no right to talk to me that way!"
"It is my history and I've the right to ask!"
Kem Seqdew approached her, lowering his voice. "Were I to tell you, both our lives would be moot."
"Your life is moot if you don't tell me!" screamed Kat.
Kem Seqdew laid a hand on his sword.
"I'll kill you," Kat warned.
"You act with treason and mutiny in your heart."
"I ask only a simple question."
"The answer is not so simple," said Kem Seqdew. His heart softened for Kat. "You are the child of a harem of frogs. I can say nothing more."
Kat grabbed her captain by the neck. Her massive, webbed hand wrapped around his flesh. "Tell me my parents' names!" she screamed at him.
"I cannot!" He choked out. He grabbed for his pistols.
Her hand tightened its grip. He tried to speak, but couldn't. Her fingers loosened a bit.
"Ha-Hapi... the River God!"
Kat threw Kem Seqdew into the deck. She then jumped over the side of the ship into the ocean waters. She swam to the closest shore.
The Mew Khet sailed on without her.
Kat came to the shore and there watched the marine layer lift from the ocean and disperse into the clouds high above. She turned and walked inland, leaving the only life she knew behind. Near the beach she had landed upon she found a path and, following it, came to a town filled with traveling merchants and farmers. As she entered the town she took notice of the locals staring at her and whispering to one another.
Someone screamed and ran.
"Wu chan chu! Wu chan chu!" Several of the men cried out. Bells were rung, whistles blown. Confused, Kat ran back in the direction from whence she came, but was blocked by town guards menacing her with thrusting, primitive spears. Unsure what she did, what law she broke, she became fearful and angry.
"I mean no harm! I am a stranger here!" she gurgled. No one seemed interested in her words.
The guards pressed forward, thrusting their spears.
Fearing for her life, Kat grabbed one of the spears and pulled until the guard's grip slipped away. The rest of the guards attacked in a storm of confusion. Kat swung the spear and her free hand wildly, smacking and slapping and stabbing away the guards. They flew under her strength, many being crushed with the force of her blows. When she saw an opening in the pressing attacks, she ran. Her legs contracted and she jumped far from the town in a single effort. She let the spear fall from her hand as she flew through the air in escape. She returned to the same beach she came to when she first swam from the Mew Khet. There she sat on a large stone and pondered her future and the events within the town. She grew hungry.
She thought of Yannick's words. "I am not accepted," Kat explained to herself. "Except by murderers and thieves who have little choice over their companions. I am an outcast, a criminal without the crime.
"If my place is as a criminal, then a criminal I shall be."
Her heart hardened. She vowed to herself to find her father and discover the truth of her birth. She would find this Hapi the River God and demand answers as she had with Kem Seqdew.
As she finished her vows, she heard an approaching merchant on the path. She hid in a large collection of brush nearby.
The merchant was a man. He whistled happily as he walked. To Kat's surprise and dismay, he did not continue on down the path as she had hoped he would. Instead, he turned onto the beach, lowered his pack of goods to the sands and sat on the very stone she had been sitting on moments before.
Kat watched as the man removed his slippers and rubbed his sore feet. He then reached into his pack and produced several small rice balls. He looked up to the heavens as if to pray and said aloud, "Wish that I would have a companion on these sojourns to keep me company."
Kat could smell the sweet and delicious rice balls from her hiding spot. Her stomach growled.
The merchant jumped to his feet. "What's this?" he called. "An animal come growling at me?"
Still filled with the fear of her confrontation with the townspeople, Kat hesitated in answering, but this merchant was alone and appeared completely harmless. She stood and stepped out of the brush.
The merchant's eyes grew wide and he took a step backward. "W-what are you?"
"I am Kat Depet, once a sailor and a slave. I mean you no harm. I mean no one harm, but I am afraid I hide here because the townspeople fear me. If only they knew I fear them more." Kat did her best to appeal to the merchant. "What you heard was not my growl, but my empty and starving stomach. Your rice smells sweet."
"W-well, I have some extra food. Perhaps the gods have sent us across one another's paths. I have food and you are hungry. Come, come... eat with me on this rock."
Together the merchant and the frog demi-goddess ate. They remained sitting in silence throughout their meal. It was not until they had eaten their fill did the merchant begin a conversation.
"I am Ketsueki Sato," he said.
"You are a merchant? What are your wares?" Kat asked.
"A merchant of sorts. A collector more likely."
"Not entirely. I collect things of any age, though my interests lay mainly with immortals."
"I do not understand," Kat said.
"Allow me to explain. I collect not objects of art, but souls and soldiers. I gather around me those willing to swear loyalty and in return I promise them a great future filled with whatever they desire."
"Well, for example: what is it that you wish more than anything?"
Kat sighed. "I wish to know the truth to my origins."
"Then in that I can help you."
"In many ways. I am not quite what I appear. I am an immortal myself."
"An immortal!" Kat looked at Ketsueki-as-Merchant in astonishment.
"Indeed. But before we carry this any further, please tell me of yourself."
"For the past several years I have served as a slave aboard the ship Mew Khet, but when I discovered my captain and master had not been honest with me about my early life I jumped from the ship and landed here."
Ketsueki-as-Merchant nodded. "Have you an inkling of your birth?"
"Before I fled my old master, he told me Hapi the River God was my father. And prior to that a Briton had said he suspects me of being a demi-goddess."
Again Ketsueki-as-Merchant nodded. He knew the name Hapi well as the god that was stirring up quite a bit of chaos in his search for some odd fish. He told none of this to Kat.
"Well, perhaps I can arrange a meeting between this Hapi and yourself if you do something for me in turn."
Kat's heart grew with excitement. "You would do that? What is it that you desire? Ask anything!"
Ketsueki-as-Merchant's voice grew low, commanding, serious. "Join me in usurping the Yama Kings of Hell. Join my army of demons and for your servitude I shall grant you audience with Hapi the River God."
Kat looked on in wonder and silence. Finally she said, "I am your weapon to command."
Ketsueki-as-Merchant smiled. "There is one small problem, however. I must set you on a task."
"As I said," Kat answered. "I am your weapon. Command me."
"If you are a demi-goddess, though your powers may be great, they're not as great as they could be. To truly fight in my army you must be immortal, incapable of death by all except at the hands of other gods or demons. You must become truly immortal."
"How do I do that?"
"Yes, indeed, how?" Ketsueki-as-Merchant thought for a moment. Then an idea came to him. "Not far from here is a river that empties into a lake. In that lake resides a kappa demon. Upon his head rests a bowl of what is traditionally thought of as water. The only way to defeat the demon is by tilting the bowl and spilling out its contents. But I know the truth: that bowl is filled with the same elixir alchemists so desperately try to recreate, an Elixir of Immortality. But the kappa and their demonic friends tell tales of it being water so that it will be emptied and diluted into nothingness when spilled into water or on land.
"Go. Find that kappa and drink the elixir from the bowl upon his head."
Kat nodded. "It will be done."
Kat traveled until she found the river. She followed it as it emptied out into a lake. There she gathered some reeds and bamboo and made for herself a makeshift raft and set herself adrift atop the waters. Once to the center of the lake, she cried out, "Kappa! Come out! I wish to fight you!"
An odd creature looking like the offspring of a tortoise and a baboon floated out of the water and stood upon the lake's surface. Thin, wet hair skirted along his head. His skin was green and scaly. He looked at the frog demi-goddess in wonder. "Who are you?" he asked.
"I am Kat Depet and I've come to drink the elixir from the bowl upon your head."
His eyes widened with fright. "Who told you?"
"Ketsueki the Immortal and Antiquarian."
The kappa demon laughed uproariously. "You think him an immortal? An antiquarian? You fool! He plays games with you! Go away and allow me to go back to waiting for a proper meal to pass by."
"I will not go without the elixir!"
"Did you not just hear me? Ketsueki has you duped, girl! He is a demon like me!"
Unsure whether or not to believe him, Kat challenged, "Hand over the bowl or prepare to fight!"
The kappa said nothing.
Kat squared herself and jumped from the raft at the water demon. She delivered a punch to his chest that knocked him down into the water. Kat followed him into the lake.
The kappa raised himself to stand on the water's surface once more. Kat looked up from under the water and wished she could do the same, and suddenly she was. She looked at her feet and how solid they felt against the water's surface.
The kappa smiled. "Learning new skills? Who are you exactly?"
"I am Kat Depet, the daughter of Hapi the River God."
"Ahh," said the kappa.
They approached each other and exchanged blows, water flying all about them. Kat punched the kappa in his chest. The kappa answered with a sweeping kick to her feet that nearly made her fall into the water. Kat reached her long arms out and locked the fingers of each hand behind the head of the kappa. She then pulled forward and down, lifting her knee into the demon's falling face. The kappa reeled from the attack. Kat followed with a two-fisted blow to his chest. As he flew backwards from the impact, Kat's tongue lashed out and caught the bowl. She pulled the bowl back into her mouth, tipped it and drank its contents. Her body surged with a tingling sensation.
The kappa was shocked. Kat spat the bowl back out at him, empty. He caught the bowl and sank below the water's surface, defeated.
Kat returned to Ketsueki's side at the beach.
"Did you do it?" he asked.
"Good!" Ketsueki-as-Merchant danced with delight.
"Tell me," Kat demanded. "Are you a demon?"
Ketsueki smiled and changed into his natural form. "Indeed I am. Is that a problem?"
Kat knew she could not trust a demon, but she saw no other way of finding her father. "Not as long as I get to see Hapi."
"You have my word," Ketsueki laughed. "Now one more thing, Kat Depet will never do as a name for you. You are no longer a slave. We need something more appropriate." The demon thought for a moment.
A name came to Kat immediately. She blurted it out. "Wu Chan Chu."
Ketsueki looked to her and smiled. He repeated, "Wu Chan Chu. 'Warrior Toad'. Though, you are not a toad."
"It is what the townspeople called me."
"They must have thought you a toad demon. I like the name, nonetheless. Wu Chan Chu it is." Ketsueki held out his clawed hand to the newly named Wu Chan Chu. She sighed and clasped his hand. In an instant they were gone.
Gentle breezes carried cottonwood puffs on the air. The chamber's courtyard filled with the tiny bits of white fluff. They swirled, dancing like faeries upon a hill.
The chamber was filled with cottonwoods around a small walled palace of white with red lacquered trim. A perpetual sunset lit the chamber as if fire constantly burned just beyond sight.
All was quiet, calm.
Xiao-tep came through a stand of cottonwoods to the front gates of the walled palace. He did not know if he should knock. He was unsure of the location and it's inhabitants, though he had a guess...
As he raised a hand to knock on the massive gate, a voice came to him.
"May I be of service to you?"
Xiao-tep whirled to see standing no more than a few steps from him the demon Ketsueki Sato.
"I have come seeking aid," Xiao-tep said.
"From whom?" asked the demon.
"From whomever resides here within the darkest heart of all existence."
Ketsueki smiled, almost laughed. "Fortune is with you, for I am Ketsueki Sato, ruler of this realm and corner of the Chamber of Dismemberment by Sawing. This is my own chamber-within-a-chamber: The Cottonwood Chamber. Now, tell me, who are you and why would you seek my help?"
"I am Xiao-tep, son of Hapi the River God, and I come to learn the secrets of demons so that I may challenge my godly father and slay him for the wrongs he has committed upon me."
Ketsueki smiled with delight and understanding. "A vengeance you seek? How beautiful. And against Hapi. It would seem he has been quite a busy god."
"How do you mean?"
"Nothing, lad. Come, enter my courtyard and we shall talk more." Ketsueki waved his clawed hand and the gates opened. Xiao-tep followed his host through the gates and into the courtyard.
Xiao-tep marveled at the beauty of the chamber and palace. He watched the small cottonwood clouds pass by. He caught a slight movement in the corner of his eye, but when he looked he spied only more falling fluff.
"This place is beautiful," spoke Xiao-tep. "Are you certain this is a layer of Hell?"
Ketsueki laughed. "Of course it is! We demons have a taste for the finer things, too."
As they approached the palace Xiao-tep examined the finely carved woods lining the walls. Within were illustrations of fierce battles and demonic toads. He ran his fingers along their edges, feeling a sense of power and beauty within.
"Those are the tales of my people," explained Ketsueki. "We demons have a place in the universe, too, and we take pride in our heritage."
Xiao-tep nodded in understanding.
Ketsueki lead the fish-god into the palace where they sat on tatami mats as a small red and purple imp served them hot tea. Once the tea was served, the imp tugged at Ketsueki's elbow. The demon sighed and raised his arm to reveal a third nipple hidden in the hair of his armpit. The imp dragged over a small stool and stood there drinking the demon's blood from the nipple. Ketsueki reacted in no way to the activity. Xiao-tep decided to do his best to ignore it.
"I believe I can help you," Ketsueki said as he drank the tea with his free hand.
Xiao-tep nodded. "I would be most appreciative."
"One thing, however. How exactly am I to help you?"
Xiao-tep hadn't thought of this. "My father thinks me a demon. I suppose I came here to become one."
Ketsueki shook his head. "It is practically impossible to become a demon. One is born a demon or is not."
Xiao-tep sighed in defeat. "Maybe you could teach me knew skills? Powers? Anything at all that would be helpful I would gladly accept and grant you a boon of my service in return. If only to call you master and learn some little thing that could grant me the ability to challenge my father's power."
A wry smile grew upon Ketsueki's face. "A boon of service, eh?"
"Anything that you ask," Xiao-tep replied.
The imp stopped his suckling for a moment to look at the fish-god, then returned to the nipple.
"Then so it shall be. I will teach you all that I know. In return I ask that you join my army to usurp the Yama King of this layer of Hell."
Xiao-tep nodded. "Agreed. As long as I can later challenge my father's power, I will do as you ask."
Ketsueki gave Xiao-tep a grand tour of the palace after their tea. He showed off the vast armory he had collected and prepared, the sleeping chambers for his largely demon toad army, the demon toads themselves, and the feasting hall. The whole palace was kept clean by a second small army of imps much like the one that followed Ketsueki like a little lapdog.
Hearing Xiao-tep explain his heritage, Ketsueki decided a god deserved to be a captain in his army and thus granted him a battalion of his own to command. He also was granted private sleeping quarters.
That night, as Xiao-tep slept restlessly, his Spear of Sorrows close to his side, he was awakened when someone shook him violently. Looking up, Xiao-tep saw the small imp that had followed Ketsueki everywhere.
"Please, do not tell Ketsueki I came to you. I come to warn you not to join his ranks," the imp said in a whisper.
"Why not?" Xiao-tep asked.
"Ketsueki does not intend to keep his promise to you. He never keeps his promises. At least, he keeps them only so much to keep you bound by contract to him. If you join his army, he will never help you in your quest. Even if you defeat the Yama King of this chamber, he will set his sights higher and higher and you will have to remain forever in his service with the promise he will help you one day. His promises are only words."
"How do you know this?"
"We imps have been his servants for more than a century already. We are caught. If we renege on our agreement, we will lose his precious blood that keeps us alive, but he will never allow us to return to our homeland. If we could, we would find other blood to survive, but here we are trapped and under his command. We were meant to serve him a few short years. Deny your contract and run, even if it endangers your life."
The imp jumped from his bed and disappeared into the shadows of the room.
Xiao-tep grabbed his spear and got up from the bed. He looked around, even flinging open the door and looking down the hall outside to find the imp. He could find no trace of the little creature.
Xiao-tep spent the rest of the night sleeplessly thinking about the imp's tale and warning. He did not know even this imp's name let alone trust him, but then he truly did not know the demon Ketsueki, either. Unsure if the contract he had made with Ketsueki would be worth a potential life of servitude, Xiao-tep made his decision: Even if the imp had lied, he felt his choice to leave the Cottonwood Chamber was safer than discovering any truth to the imp's words later.
The next morning, Xiao-tep met Ketsueki in the courtyard and challenged him.
"Do you intend to keep your word?"
"Of course!" Ketsueki defended. "What's this about?"
"I've a feeling you've no intention of allowing me to fulfill my services to you," Xiao-tep said. "I've reconsidered our agreement. I'll be leaving."
Ketsueki filled with rage. "You will go nowhere! You are a captain in my army now and forever shall be! We've a deal!"
Xiao-tep shook his head. "I'll be going." He turned and floated toward the massive gates of the walled palace.
"You'll not be leaving. This is my chamber. No one enters or exits without my permission."
Xiao-tep tried the gates. He could not budge them. He turned to look across the courtyard at Ketsueki still standing near the entrance of the palace.
"I break our contract!" Xiao-tep yelled.
"And I'm forcing you to keep it!" Ketsueki answered.
"I'll find a way out of here!"
"There's only two ways out of here: by my permission or by my death!" Ketsueki said.
"Then I turn the choice over to you," Xiao-tep answered as he floated back towards the demon.
Ketsueki laughed. "You think yourself a demon slayer? You can't even destroy your own father! You're a mix-blooded bastard and a fool! No wonder Hapi wants your head!"
"It's true! He's got half the universe hunting you! I should have delivered it to him instead of foolishly dealing with you. I suppose that's the course I'll have to take now."
"If you want to serve my father and take my head, come for it!"
Ketsueki clapped his clawed hands together twice. With a flurry of smoke and a rush of the palace doors opening the frog demi-goddess Wu Chan Chu appeared. She now wore wide, fat brass knuckles on her fists. Pieces of plate adorned her shoulders and chest and upon her head rested a black and red horned helmet.
"Wu Chan Chu!" Ketsueki commanded. "Prove your loyalty! Blood yourself upon this fish!"
Wu Chan Chu croaked in obeisance.
Xiao-tep hefted and readied his spear.
Be sure to check back next Friday for the fourth and final Act of "The Children of Gods"!
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