Friday, June 6, 2008

"The Ruby Bug" - Act II


"The Ruby Bug"
(c) 2008 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


ACT II: The Trek of the Ruby Bug

OLD FRIENDS IN NEW LANDS: Wherein Garu Finds the Jewel of Zingtai; Zahir the Indomitable Captures the Ruby Bug; The Friendship of Ebi and Pup



On a grand, large island lived Doko, a fat, happy man who sometimes was a beggar and sometimes a merchant. He would traverse the island, carrying bags of rice or millet or other grains for sale. He would smile at the people he would meet. He rarely ate his own merchandise but so amiable was he that rare was the day he would go without a free meal from some generous family happy to have him as a guest and supply their children with dreams about the adventures, some real and most imagined, as he traveled the island.

Occasionally he would find himself a companion to travel with. They would talk the day away, relieving themselves of their weighty merchandise or troubles as they walked with friendship. His most common companions, however, were rats and mice that desperately desired his grains. He would bend low when one came near and say, "If you be good to me, keep me company on my travels, then by day's end I will share some small portion of my goods with you or, should I find a kind family to house and feed me tonight, I shall stow away some of the food they provide me and feed you as we first head off in the morning." The mice and rats would often do as he said and came to be known as a friend amongst their kind.

Once, Doko found the same rat following him over the course of three travels. He could identify the rat easily by a small tuft of white fur on the back of his right ear that appeared as two crossed lines, making the letter 'x'. Doko named the rat Garu. They would eat and Doko would tell Garu tales, some heard and some experienced, some true and some imagined.

On one occasion a bandit attempted to rob Doko, but Garu attacked, biting at the ankles of the bandit. "Bite him!" Doko urged with laughter, finding the bandit's yelping funny.

The bandit heard Doko's cries as command, however, and escaped thinking Doko a sorcerer and Garu his familiar. Word soon spread that Doko was powerful with rats and never again was he assaulted or robbed. He also, however, found it harder to find a place to bed down for the night as most people were not as keen to have a guest who could command rats least of all witchery.

But Doko was fine with it. He remained fed well enough and happy as he had his friendship with Garu.

While bartering one day in a town, Doko had the opportunity to travel over seas to the mainland and make more money than he had ever heard of. "I could also start fresh there," he told Garu as he talked it out. "No one there will know me as a rat sorcerer. I could eat heartily again. While I will miss your friendship, little Garu, I know you will fend well for yourself. It is your nature. Be well, friend." And with that Doko boarded a ship to leave for the mainland.

Garu was heartbroken at the idea of losing his traveling companion and felt the urge of wanderlust in his heart. He did not wish to lose his friend and knew that he, too, could do well in the new lands. Without notice he climbed the rope staying the ship Doko had boarded to the dock and stole away with the cargo.

The journey was difficult as they were hit by three storms on the way to the new lands. Other rats had boarded, but as a group and they eyed Garu suspiciously and treated him poorly, making him fight them for bits of the cargo for food. He became quite the fighter, learning how to kick furiously with his hind legs while holding his opponents in his fore legs. Finally, Garu quietly challenged their leader and defeated him, spilling his blood and mercifully killing him. Garu became the new leader of the group of rats and they all ate well until they almost neared the new lands.

When the crew of the ship discovered holes chewed in the cargo they knew they had been boarded by rats. Several times a day men were sent into the hold to kill rats. Many of the rats died. In the end, only Garu and two others survived.

The ship docked and they ran for their lives. Garu hid in the port near the ship, eying the passengers as thy left the ship. When he saw Doko he ran to him.

Doko, wide-eyed and unbelieving, looked down at the rat. He recognized the tan fur and the way Garu sat up as he always had when begging for food. He also recognized the tuft of white fur on the back of the rat's right ear that appeared as two crossed lines, making the letter 'x' "Garu?" Doko asked. He bent low. "Is that really you?"

Garu squeaked happily. Doko smiled and laughed and pocketed his old friend so he would not be seen or chased off or worse.

They were together again, friends in a new land.

Time passed and Doko fell ill to an alien illness in the new land. While walking the wide new world they had entered, carrying grain from one country to another, Doko lay down to rest by the road as the starless night passed over. Garu remained by his side all night and in the early hours of morning, just as the fingers of dawn and the head of Etain washed the far horizon, Doko breathed his last breath. Garu cried small rat tears, squealed a soft goodbye and reluctantly left his old friend by the side of the road to be discovered a day later by another traveling merchant.

Garu wandered for a long time, unsure of things. Hunger finally came to him and he could find no food. He started eating the green mold growing on the rocks of this new land. he survived thusly for many days. then he came a large plain where he found a bit of stone completely covered in green, the Jewel of Zingtai buried there by Zom Loa, peeking from the ground. He tasted it, finding no nourishment and only hardness. He could not quite understand. It appeared to have the moss he had learned to eat, but he knew nothing of jewels or other stones. Deciding the green color was coming from inside the stone, he felt he must dig into it to get at the moss therein. he bit and gnawed until his teeth become sore and one of his long incisors broke. The pain of his teeth and of hunger drove him into a fury. He wanted so desperately to eat that he bit down hard on the stone. A small bit of it came away. He rolled it in his mouth, tasting it for flavor and angry that he found none. Hunger, however, was his driving force and he swallowed the small bit of jewel.

He screeched in agony as his body bulged, his muscles and bones grew longer, forming reforming, breaking and healing. He grew to about the height of a small man, found himself able to stand and walk on his hind legs. He grew hands like a man's. Blood and pain poured from him as the small rat transmogrified into an impossible large one. "What in the hells has happened to me!" he cried and jumped at his own voice. Never before had he been able to speak and the sound frightened him, thinking someone else was nearby saying things. He looked around and saw no one. He spoke again, testing his voice. "What is happening?" he asked no one in particular. He gazed down at himself. He grunted in his throat and heard his scratchy, gravely voice.

"I have been cursed!" He shook his head. "I do not know things and I especially donot know of green stones and witchery, but if this be a curse upon me, I wish I knew what I had done to deserve it so as to avoid doing it ever again!"

He examined the rock he had chewed. His new hands made it easier for him to uncover the thing to discover its truth. He found it to be the giant emerald it was. He thought of his friend Doko's love for jewels, though he had been rarely paid in such a way, and thought of the times he watched from behind a tree stump or bush as Doko had traded coins and jewels for supplies, including food he would feed Garu. "Perhaps," Garu said to himself, "I can trade such a jewel."

Hungrier now than ever, with a larger and therefore emptier belly, he dug the emerald out of the ground and carried it off in the hopes of trading it for a meal.



Zahir the Indomitable was a large man, ugly, hairy and with a nose so crooked as a knotty pines' branches. He was first and foremost a wanderer, pillaging wherever he roamed to attain his whims. He was tall, forearms like oaken roots, and a chest wide and thick. Many, when first spying him, assumed him an Immortal, a demon, a god, a Gifted One. But he was a mortal man.

He wore loose clothes, often a burgundy vest and red and white striped baggy pants with gold cuffs and lapels.

The hair on his head was untamed and greasy. His beard truly extended from his jowls and a thin goatee on his chin. Each was braided and them in turn, braided together.

Zahir rarely gave way to ale lest it be sweetened with honey, but his love of wine -- and especially plum wine -- was unmatched. He would drink the sweet liquors by the jug. As much as he loved wine, he loved fighting more. He lusted after that moment when he stood over a young whelp that moments before convinced completely of their martial abilities. He had lost only once, as a child, when beaten by his older brother.

But more than he loved wine and fighting, he loved women. He loved them not as a romancer, but as an alcoholic, like he, loved their spirits. He imbibed them. He took them in and drank deeply, haughtily, without remorse or thought of recourse. He frequented the brothels of every country he entered. He took the women there ravaged them. He would often combine his loves, appearing in the doorway of an establishment entirely drunk and as he had his way with one of their whores he would beat her senselessly. One such time he beat a poor whore so terribly that she almost bled to death, but when she recovered she gave up the oldest profession entirely for fear of having to pleasure Zahir again or more men like him.

Wherever he roamed he left a wake of damage and illegitimate children.

Zahir was a wanderer and when he drew close to the imp-filled boglands he did so on a walking path used by the fisherman of a nearby village when they took their excess catch to be sold. As he walked a small, glittering, glint of red sparkled in the path before him. He bent low and there he found a tiny bug made of ruby trekking across the path.

"What's this?" he asked, stupid with spirits. "Does wine spoil my sight? A bug? Made of ruby? A living bug of ruby! The gods be damned, I have been made rich!" He picked up the bug clumsily within his meaty hands, fumbling to capture the small thing. When at last he had the bug in his hand he tore from his vest a small scrap of cloth and wrapped the bug up neatly lest it escape. He carried the ruby bug with him for many months, bribing, relieving folks of their money for a chance to peer at the mystic bug.

Zahir brought the ruby bug to the silversmith Ko Fong and paid him to fashion for him a tooth. Ko Fong did so, removing Zahir's right upper incisor and replacing it with the silver tooth. The ruby bug was mounted on the outside of the tooth. And though Zahir could not be certain, he grew stronger and was able to withstand greater periods in which his stamina was tested. He also, Zahir found, grew ill more often than he ever had before in his life.

"Kindly sir," said Marcin to Zahir as they sat in an elaborate drinking house filled with plush pillows and tapestries. Marcin was an extravagant merchant, wearing gold on his fingers and in his ears and nose and carrying with him a stable of five stallions and three men that tended to all his wares. He was fat, another sign of his success and wealth, and rarely stood except to walk into a drinking house or inn. "I know fine collectors from all over the world. May I inquire as to a price that you have on the bug?"

"To see it? A mere coin of the realm, enough for a drink of wine," responded Zahir.

Marcin shook his head. "That is not what I intend. What I desire is to own your bug. Surely I can match any hefty price you could quote."

Zahir considered this, then shook his head, "Rarely do I need such elaborate frippery, but I've discovered I'll grow more money if I keep this bug, enough to get me free drink and whores the rest of my life at least and that is all I care for."

Marcin stared at Zahir. "I wish to have that bug, kindly sir, and I will pay any price. If it is wine and women you desire, perhaps I can set up a deal with the owner of this very drinking house to provide you both until the day you die."

Again Zahir considered Marcin's offer. Again he shook his head. "And what if I travel to another land? Would you follow me and negotiate such a deal with a drinking house there? No, I will keep my bug."

Angry, dejected, Marcin called for his servants to help him off the pillows and left Zahir alone. But a few hours later, after Zahir had drunk himself sleepy, Marcin and his men returned with a fourth man in tow.

"Kindly sir," Marcin said as his servants shook Zahir awake. "I wish to discuss the matter of the bug again."

"Huh? What? The bug?" Zahir blinked the wine from his eyes. "Oh," he said as he recognized Marcin. "The pestering merchant. If you've a coin, I'll et you see my bug. Nothing else can be discussed between us."

"I thought, perhaps, a man such as yourself occasionally enjoyed a good gambling game. I brought this man here," at this the fourth man, a massive taller and thicker than Zahir with a fat paunch, stepped forward. "to challenge you to a drinking game. If you can can hold more drink at the end, I will grant you your prize of choice. If he, however, consumes more than you, I get your ruby bug."

Zahir burped. "I've already been drinking. He looks sober as a newborn."

"That is the offer."

"Then I refuse the offer," Zahir lay back on the plush pillows behind him.

"Perhaps I should introduce the two of you first. This is Macia Thrace, a mercenary."

Zahir lifted his head and eyed the tall, rotund man. "Well met," he mocked and lay his head back down.

"Your name?" Macia grumbled, feeling the insult of not having the stranger with the bug introduce himself in return.

Zahir waved a hand, as if shooing a fly, and said nonchalantly, "I am Zahir the Indomitable, master of the fight, of wine and of women. Now let me sleep."

"Sit up and drink or stand and fight," said Macia.

"Go away, Macia. As a mercenary surely you know what it is to imbibe and need rest. I will play games with you later." Zahir rolled over on his side, his back to Macia and Marcin.

Further insulted, Macia approached, grabbed Zahir's arm and pulled to lift him up. Zahir spun lazily, kicking a leg out and sweeping the legs of Macia who fell with a mighty, muffled thud atop several pillows. Zahir readjusted his position as though about to sleep, opened one eye and peered at the fallen Macia, smiled and said, "Rest with me, friend. Then we will play."

Macia growled as he stood. "Stand, coward! Stand and fight!"

"I thought you wanted to drink?" Zahir kept his eyes closed.

"Either will do," Marcin interjected.

Zahir sighed. He sat up and called for more wine. "Very well. We will have both. First Macia the Mercenary and I will drink as carousing old friends. Then we will fight. But," Zahir caught Macia's attention as he sat near him and said, "be warned, friend, if we fight it will be to the death. I am no cleric, no man of mercy. I have learned better than that."

Macia nodded. They were brought wine. They toasted to one another's deaths and laughed hysterically as they told tales of past exploits. They caroused as old friends, as Zahir had said.

And though Zahir had been drinking long before Macia, though Zahir took two drinks to Macia's one, it was Macia who at last feel forward, face buried in a pillow, from too much drink.

Zahir looked to the nearby Marcin, who was stunned. "Your man is no man," Zahir told him.

Marcin's face grew red with rage. "Kill him!" he commanded his three servants.

The three men charged, bending to grab Zahir who hurriedly stood, his arms caught by them. One man grabbed each arm and the third fondled Zahir to find the hidden ruby bug.

Zahir shifted his weight and sent the servant holding his right arm toppling into a pile of pillows with a hip toss. He grabbed the neck of the man holding his left arm and so great was the squeeze he placed there that his thumb punctured the servant's throat and sent him reeling away, gasping for air.

The third servant, bent low, looked up. Zahir thrust his pelvis into the servant's face abd sent him falling backwards on his butt. Zahir was on top of him then, using both hands to strangle the servant. His face turned red with strain as the servant's turned purple.

Marcin struggled to stand from his seated position. Seeing this, Zahir quickly raised a hand and slammed a palm into the nose of the servant he was strangling, driving it upwards and breaking part of the servant's face. Zahir then stood and grabbed the fat Marcin. The people in the drinking house screamed, running, emptying out. Zahir was left alone to slowly choke the life out of the fat merchant.

Zahir searched the dead merchant's body, found a sack of coins and left the drinking house without paying for the wine he and Macia had been drinking. "Once again," he smiled, "I get free drinks."

Zahir walked into another country where he signed with an independently owned ship filled with scoundrels like himself and assigned as privateers on the seas. He sailed with them for many months, looting merchant ships from other countries and chasing wine and women in every port. He did not know how to swim, but had he known, he thought, that such a life was possible he would have learned to do so and taken to a ship long ago.

To his great surprise Macia Thrace, the mercenary he had once caroused with in a game of drink, signed on the same ship and they became partners in future exploits. They would often recount their first meeting and laugh hysterically and toast to one another's deaths.

Tragedy, however, seemed to follow them. The small ship, named Baqir, was twice caught in monsoons and four times boarded herself. On each such occasion the ship lost more than half her crew in bloody struggle for life.

At last the whole ship was taken ill, so ill that six of the crewmen died. The sickest of all, it seemed, was Zahir the Indomitable. He was allowed to lay in his hammock bed, unable to move or eat or drink, barely capable of speech. Rumors were started. Many of his fellows knew of the ruby bug he carried and it came to be known as the object that cursed them.

"Zahir," the men said, "you have brought onto our ship a thing so foul that we, too, are made foul by ill-fortune and illness. Give us the bug so we may throw it into the sea."

Zahir, soberly afraid for the first time in his life, accepted he would soon die. He asked to see the captain of the ship, a man named Faraj, who kindly granted the requested. Captain Faraj went to the dying Zahir's side.

"I fear," whispered Zahir, "the men may be right. I fear the bug is cursed. I do not know its origins, but I remember where I found it. It was on a path near the boglands and a small fishing village. I feel the best course is to rid this ship and my fellows of this bug and I feel it best to send the bug back to the lands in which I found it. I can only counsel. Had I the strength, I would gladly take a rowboat and return it alone, but I will die soon, Captain."

Captain Faraj nodded. He reached into the mouth of Zahir and, with a small spat of blood, removed the tooth. With a knife he extracted the ruby bug from the silver tooth and stored it in a small wooden box inlaid with abalone the color of green jade in his own quarters. He then told his men to set a course for the boglands, that they would return the bug and rid themselves of the curse.

Zahir's last words were heard by his old friend Macia. "Wherever that bug doth go, follows with it a trail of blood."

"So many time I've toasted your death," Macia told him, "and now that you near death, I wish I hadn't."

Zahir smiled weakly.

Zahir the Indomitable succumbed to illness en route to the boglands. He died sober, hungry, and without a woman at his side. He went without a fight. He merely slipped into a deep sleep and never awoke.



In a small country in a small part of the world lived the family Sor. They were a poor family of meager means and the local authority's taxes, which were exorbitant, took the last bit of wealth they could claim. They were starving, living sixteen to a hut and struggling to raise rice in a time of great drought. The Cosmos, it seemed, had destined them to a life of harshness for one day Lady Sor, a waif from starvation, approached her husband and said, "Dear husband, I fear what I must tell you. I am pregnant."

Husband Sor looked at her in astonishment. "Are you certain?"

Lady Sor nodded. "I've not menstruated and last night, as I lay sleepless in the heat of the summer's night, starving and angry with the way of things, I felt our child move."

The family gathered round her and the matter was discussed. "It's been so long," said Husband Sor, "since I've had any water except that which I suck from the soil that I cannot believe my body could make any fluid. Now my wife is with child and it will surely die as we've no food nor any means to care for it. When this cild is born, we must do the proper thing and bury it, alive, as a sacrifice to the gods in hopes of rain so that we may not all perish."

"No!" cried Lady Sor. "I cannot kill my child!"

"We are so poor, to bring a child into this home is to kill it," argued Husband Sor. "To bury it is to release it from the bondage in which we live."

But Lady Sor was adamant. It was her mother, an elderly woman lying next to her own grave, that suggested, "We must bundle the child and set it adrift. We must carry it to the sea over the hills and allow the gods there to guide the child as they see fit. If the child is to die, it is their will. If the child is to live, they will sail it to new lands and a new home."

"But, Grandmother Sor," Husband Sor called her this though they discussed the death of her grandchild, "we are all needed here to work so that we may earn what little we can for the food the local authority sells to us. Not a one of us can spare the time to carry the child over the hills to the sea and set it adrift.

"No. It cannot be done. We will bury the child when it is born."

"Perhaps," Grandmother Sor said, "I could take the child. I am near my own death. Every day I lie here while I watch my family toil to feed me us all, myself included. Age has stricken me nearly immobile."

"If you cannot work here," answered Lady Sor, "you cannot carry a child to the sea."

"I can," argued her mother. "And I will."

"You could not survive such a trip!" cried Husband Sor.

"Then you will have two less mouths to feed."

After much arguing it was decided Grandmother Sor's suggestion was the best. The child was born, a male child they named Xi-Wang. They bundled him and placed him in a basket that could float, kissed him, placed him in his grandmother's arms and given compassionate farewells. At dawn the day after his birth Grandmother Sor set out with the child, heading over the hills to the sea.

The trek was long for her as she was very old and more than once she almost dropped the child, but her love for the child and her family pushed her on. She stumbled here and there, but did not stop, not ever for water or shade, on her way over the hills.

At last, at dusk, she came to the sea and placed the child in the wet sand where the tides were slowly moving in. She fell prone on the beach. Her body absorbed the cool feeling of the water beneath the sand. She drew in her last breath and died beside the basket, the child within hungry and crying.

The tide came in and swept him away. Some time later the body of Grandmother Sor was also taken by the sea.

The child floated all the next day, sailing madly atop the currents, until a fisherman from the fishing village near the boglands spotted the basket heard the child and steered his small boat towards him. The fisherman plucked the child from the water, took him home and raised him as his own. The fisherman named the boy-child Ebi.

Ebi grew to be a strong man and learned the trade of his father. His origins were never hidden from him, but more than once his adoptive father expressed his love for Ebi as his own son.

His father died as Ebi was entering manhood, leaving his seaside cottage and boat to him.

Knowing the young Ebi must be lonely, a nearby neighbor and friend brought to Ebi the gift of a dog. "I know a dog is another mouth to feed," said the friend, "but perhaps you could find use in him. He is a small dog, the runt the litter. He was born to my brother's bitch. He is a farmer in the northern part of the country. The dog is already a good swimmer. Perhaps you could make of him a fisherman?"

They laughed at this, but Ebi happily accepter the dog. "Now I can have an ear to listen to me sing as I fish," Ebi joked.

The following day Ebi loaded his boat with his usual small meal, his cane pole and his new dog. As he fished that day he sang to the dog who nipped playfully at the fish that was brought aboard. Ebi laughed hysterically at this. "It would seem you'll make a fine fisherman indeed," he told the dog.

He spent the day singing and laughing, watching the dog rest when he grew weary with excitement, his head lying on the bottom of the boat. "Are you sleepy, pup?" he asked and laughed. "Is all this hard work too much for you, pup?"

Later in the day, as Ebi rowed his boat back into shore, he watched the dog wagging his tail when the cottage came into view. "Are you glad to be home, pup?" Ebi asked, but as he neared the shore the dog jumped from the boat, splashing frantically through the seafoam and nipping at the gnats collected in the air above the beach. Ebi found this funny and laughed so heartily that his boat slowly drifted back to sea. When his laughter slowed, never quite stopping, he rowed back into shore to teh awaiting dog. "Have you a fun day of play, pup?" he asked.

It was then Ebi realized he had yet to name his dog, that he had been calling the creature 'pup' all day long. "You'll need a good name, pup." said Ebi.

That night as they ate a meal of fish and warmed themselves by a fire, Ebi considered the dog. It was a white dog, a small spaniel with burgundy-colored ears and tail. the ears ended in long curls of fur. As they rested Ebi wondered at a name. At last he climbed into bed. The dog sniffed at his feet and lay beside him. Ebi smiled, laughed. "You're always welcome to share warmth here, pup," he told his dog.

Time passed. Ebi could think of no good name. He said at last, "Think that I must forever call you 'pup'. Is that fine with you, Pup?"

The dog jabbered and yapped, wagged its tail and nearly smiled.

"Pup it is then."

They lived happily for many years in peace wit the sea, helping the nearby imps of the bogs and growing old as friends.



A stranger came into the fishing village many years later. He was a traveling merchant and when he heard the tale of Ebi's discovery by his adoptive father, he paid Ebi a visit.

"Have you any knowledge of your life prior to arriving here in the village?" asked the stranger.

Ebi shook his head. "No, I have none. I was told I was much too young to be at sea, however, perhaps a mere few days old."

The stranger said, "I believe you to be Xi-Wang, son of the Lady Sor. For many years she has spoken of you with great sadness in her eyes. They set you at sea because they could not afford to feed you, to care for you. Most of your family is now dead and Lady Sor is dying."

"I've a family?" asked Ebi. He heard more of the stranger's tale and soon decided he must go to see this woman before she died, before he lost his chance to meet what was perhaps his mother.

"She is quite near death," said the stranger. "You would have to go this instant and ride madly to reach her side in time."

Ebi considered this. "I have no horse," said he.

"I do," claimed the stranger. "My business is done and I travel in the direction you need to go. I will ride with you."

Ebi, excited and rushed, went to his friend and neighbor who had given him Pup. "Dear friend," said Ebi, "would you kindly care for my Pup in my absence?"

The neighbor shook his head. "It is not desire that keeps me, but economy. I have a house filled with children and while surely they would love a dog to play with, I cannot feed another mouth. But fear not: all dogs are scavengers and survivors at heart. Leave him at your cottage and he will fare well enough on his own until your return."

Ebi thought on this. He returned to his cottage and knelt near Pup. "Pup, dear Pup. I must pursue the chance to meet my mother. I fear I must leave you here, but know I that you will fare well. The journey is long and will take some few days riding hard on horseback and I simply cannot take you with me. Stay here and I shall return to you." At this he kissed Pup's forehead, gathered a few things together, mounted the stranger's horse with the stranger and rode off in a hurry, leaving the small fishing village behind.

Pup sat watching, feeling the pull of his leaving master as Ebi quickly faded from sight. Pup did not eat or drink the rest of that day, nor did he sleep or play, nipping at the gnats flying over the beach. Instead, he sat watching the road his master had taken, waiting to see a sign of his return.

Kalavata flew overhead later that day. It occurred to Pup his master, his friend, Ebi may not return. Pup lay on the road watching, considering things.

At last Pup stood up and trotted lightly down the road, smelling for his master's scent, following the path he had taken.



For two days Pup followed the scent that grew weaker. He, too, grew weaker, finding it difficult to forage for food. He went gaunt, thin with starvation until his ribs could be seen through his flesh. He panted heavily, drinking when he could find water, fresh or stagnant.

Pup came to a small farm along the road. He went to the door. The cottage he had shared with Ebi had a doorway without a door and could not figure out the obstacle. He sniffed the air and could smell fresh death as the old couple of the farm, the eldest of a family, lay dead inside, taken in the night by terrors and coughing sickness.

Pup found the farm's well. It had attached a gravity-fed system that slowly renewed fresh water in the troughs of the animals on the farm. He drank from it. he sniffed the air and smelled chickens. Salivating hunger drove him to find the coop.

Pup invaded the coop with ferocity. He ate one chicken and was about to eat another when mad growls came to him. The farmers' dog, a wolfhound, had found Pup and was angry with his intrusion.

The wolfhound barked.

Pup back away until his butt touched the side of the house.

The wolfhound attacked, biting and clawing. His mouth grabbed hold of Pup's ear and he shook his head. Pup yelped in pain and fear as his right ear tore from his head. He bit again and gouged out Pup's left eye. The wolfhound pressed the attack, his teeth sank deep into the belly of Pup.

Pup, desperately, placed all four of his paws on the wolfhound's chest and kicked. The wolfhound backed away, the air rushing from his chest.

Knowing he had no choice, knowing he was weak with hunger though he had just eaten, knowing he hadn't the skills or knowledge to outrun or out-fight the wolfhound, Pup determined he must kill while he had the chance. He pounced. The wolfhound, stealing choking for air, collapsed beneath Pup. they roiled in the dirt, kicking up dust. Pup bite down on the wolfhound's neck. Tasting blood, his jaw clenched further and he whipped his head side to side, tearing the throat out of the wolfhound.

Pup sighed, spitting out the hunks of the hound in his mouth. He sniffed at the dying dog. He lay down for a moment, panting, afraid, jittering with nerves and watching the wolfhound's chest rise and fall quickly. He then rose and returned to the troughs to drink deeply. He licked his wounds, many of which were deep and bleeding profusely. He lay beside the cool well and slept for a while. When he awoke, he was afraid once more. He was hungry, but wanted to leave the farm behind. He licked his wounds some more before stepping back onto the trail, anxiously trotting with in the direction of Ebi's scent, his one ear flapping as he went.



Ebi did not make it in time to meet his mother. In fact, she died as he rode into the village. But he attended the funeral, a meager funeral it was, and visited with the people who had once called her friend. The stranger that had loaned himself and his horse excuse himself from Ebi, stating he had business to tend to. Ebi never saw him again.

After a few days' consoling, sharing tales and working with his dead mother's friends to thank them for their kindness as they fed him he gathered up his belongings to head home.

On the morning he left the village he was met on the road by Pup.

Astonished, Ebi stared. He could barely recognize the beast that ran up to him and sat, busily working its tail back and forth in happiness. "Pup?" asked Ebi as he knelt. "Is that you?"

Beaten, battered, missing an ear and an eye and with a hole in his belly, Pup barked softly, affectionately at his master. Ebi held Pup in his arms, crying. "Oh, Pup. Oh, Pup. Oh, Pup. What has happened to you? Did you truly follow me all this way?"

Pup answered with a simple wag of the tail.

Ebi returned to his mother's village and asked for herbs and food for Pup. The people there were poor and could do little to help the dog, but they made attempts. They spoke also of the wonderful friendship between Ebi and Pup.

With healing herbs and extra food, Ebi and Pup took to the road, heading back home. On the way Ebi stopped by the old farm. He discovered the kindly elderly couple that had made a meal for him and the stranger on their way to see his mother were now dead. He stopped for a day to let Pup rest as he buried the couple properly. Pup sniffed the air towards the dead wolfhound who had crawled up under a grove of nearby trees and died, but he remained far from him. He whimpered at Ebi throughout the day, wanting desperately to leave the farm. On the next day, after a night's rest, they did. And on that day, as they stopped to rest in the shade of an old oak, Ebi eyed his dear old friend. "you are the greatest friend. I love you," he told Pup as he hugged him.

As Ebi returned to the fishing village he was met by his neighbor. Ebi shared the experience of the journey and told how Pup had followed as the neighbor fed them, welcoming them home.

Ebi returned to his cottage that night and as he did he spied a large ship in the distance. Between it and the shore was a small rowboat with three men. They came ashore and hailed Ebi.

"Wll met," said one. "I am Captain Faraj of the ship Baqir. This is the boglands, is it not?"

Ebi nodded. "Close to. The bogs themselves are beyond the hills behind my cottage."

"Then we have a gift for you," said Faraj. One of the men with him produced the jade-colored box and handed it to Ebi. "Consider it a gift," said Faraj, then hurriedly boarded the small boat. His men started rowing, fighting the currents to return to their ship.

"What is it?" Ebi called.

"A gift!" cried Faraj.

One of the men with him, a conscious needling his mind, called out, "Take care for with it follows great harm!"

Faraj reprimanded him. The men drew hidden weapons and watched Ebi.

Ebi grew afraid. He watched as the men returned to their ship and under the curtain of Kalavata's wings set sail, fleeing from sight like a wraith in a dark cave.

Curious, Ebi entered his cottage and made a fire. Pup lay at his feet as he examined the box. He opened it. Inside was a small pouch and upon opening that out crawled a small bug made of pure ruby.

"How," Ebi wondered, "could a small bug, a bug of ruby, bring anyone harm?"



Black tentacles whipped out, one after the other, slowly pulling Zom Loa into the boglands. He came the next morning, the morning after Ebi had received the ruby bug from Captain Faraj, seeking shelter and food. Ebi, cautious for he had never witnessed so many people coming into the small village as he had in the last weeks, invited the odd man in. "Are you a Gifted One?" Ebi asked as he stared at the man's tentacles.

Zom Loa nodded, proudly stating, "That I am."

Ebi fixed for him a meal of dried fish. "I would have fresh fish if it were not that I returned from a journey yesterday," he explained.

"I am on a journey myself," replied Zom Loa. "What was the nature of your journey?"

"I went to visit my dying mother."

This startled Zom Loa as he recalled the deaths of his own parents. "I lost my mother many years ago," he said. "It was difficult for me. I am sorry for your loss."

"Thanks you. What would the business of your journey be?"

Zom Loa considered lying, but felt he had no reason to fear a simple fisherman. At the same instance, however, he felt he should not be completely open with his destination and purpose lest he be followed. "Adventure," Zom Loa settled. "All us Gifted Ones seek adventure."

Ebi laughed. "I've heard that."

They shared a meal and several stories, which Zom Loa ate up almost as voraciously as the dried fish. "You were set adrift as a child as well?" he asked Ebi.

Ebi nodded. "That I was, thought I never knew the purpose until recently. I believe it was due to the poverty my family lived in. Perhaps they felt I had a better chance surviving on my own at such a tender age rather than with them."

They chuckeled at this absurdity, but a pang of truth hit them both.

"I never knew my real family," said Zom Loa.

They shared more stories and discovered they liked one another, perhaps in that they shared so many similarities. Ebi invited his guest to stay the night and rest from his journeys. Zom Loa gladly accepted.

As they sat by a warming fire that night, their feet propped, Pup sleeping nearby, they chatted lightly. Ebi kept watching his guest's tentacles, venerating them.

"As a Gifted One," said Ebi, "perhaps you could aid me in some small matter."

"As repayment for your hospitality, I would," said Zom Loa.

Ebi left Zom Loa by the fire and returned the box Captain Faraj had given him in the beach the night before. He opened it, opened the pouch and produced the ruby bug. "Would you know anything of this?" Ebi asked and told the tale of how it came into his possession.

Zom Loa's eyes grew wide with greed. "With such a bug," he thought to himself, "I could repay that bastard king the money he claims I've stolen and cease my running." He said none of this to Ebi, however, stating, "It is indeed a marvel. What is it?"

Ebi shook his head and put the bug away. "I know nothing of it. I thought, since you are a Gifted One and your kind often is wealthy with knowledge, you might know something of it."

Zm Loa lied. "It is a mere bug, though it is made of ruby."

That night, as Ebi and Pup slept, Zom Loa lay awake thinking of the ruby bug. He wondered if he could, like a thief, steal away with it in the night. He kept his eyes wide, hoping to train them to the night so as to navigate the dark cottage. He went to the table near Ebi's bed and grabbed the box. He opened it quietly and took out the bug. A small whine near whine made Zom Loa jump, his fingers fumbling for the bug and finally dropping it.

Pup, who had come to his side, quickly snatched the ruby bug up in its mouth as a gnat and swallowed it.

"No!" Zom Loa cried hoarsely.

"What's that?" Ebi awoke.

Pup coughed spasmodically.

For a moment Zom Loa's tentacles shot out, some at Pup and some at Ebi. Those creeping towards Pup wanted to choke off the bug's passage so as to keep it from sliding further down his throat. Those reaching for Ebi wanted to kill him in fear. they finally slacked and Zom Loa spoke in the darkness, "It is your Pup. He seems to have taken ill."

Ebi, worried, set fire to a lantern and inspected his Pup who was coughing, choking wildly, the bug crawling all throughout his gullet.

Zom Loa grabbed up the box and showed it to Ebi who had yet to see it. He lied once more, "He must have gotten after your bug."

"Oh, Pup!" Ebi cried. "He has been known to nip at and eat the gnats. Now this."

Ebi tried to keep Pup calm, but could not. The dog, convulsive and frightened, ran outside onto the beach.



Neboshazzar flew through the cold night sky, descending on village after village to steal away with newborns and loved ones. Once in his possession, Neboshazzar would eat the hearts and bowels of his victims.

He came to a small beach near the boglands. Far below he could feel grave concern, the love of mortals, and it sickened him. He spied those on the beach. One was a mortal man, the very an from which he could feel love flowing. He thought of killing this man, but found instead his love for a dog was the source of the commotion being made.

the evil, dark harpy dived onto the beach, extending his silvery claws and snatching up the coughing dog.

"Pup!" cried out Ebi as he watched the horrid creature carry off his friend before running in the direction Neboshazzar flew.

Zom Loa grabbed Ebu by the arm. "That is a most wicked creature. Yo can do nothing for your dog," and though Zom Loa secretly desired teh ruby bug, he was willing to give up hope of owning it to avoid Neboshazzar.

"I have to! He is my friend!" and Ebi ran.

Zom Loa followed closely behind him.

Neboshazzar came to rest atop an old, dying oak named Dodona. Dodona shook in the wind with the intrusion, but was too weak to throw the vicious Neboshazzar from her limbs. As Neboshazzar was about to feast, the ruby bug slipped into Pup's stomach. He grew to incredible size, falling from the oak. Neboshazzar perched atop the tree and watched as the once dog turned into a massive, bipedal demon with canine features. It grew to a size taller than the old oak. Its head remained as Pup's had been except it grew four massive teeth like tusks, two upper and two lower. His forehead sprout spiked horns. His torso came to be as a man's with a thin layer of fur. His front legs grew into muscled arms with gigantic clawed hands. He remained missing and ear and an eye.

The new creature gurgled evil laughter as it swatted at Neboshazzar. "Think you could eat my soul?" the demon-dog spoke. It laughed some more. "Your ugliness amuses me. Come, bird, join my ranks. I've come to ruin the world, too. Together we can be quite powerful."

Neboshazzar screeched with horrible joy.

Ebi watched this all from a safe distance. He stepped forward. Again Zom Loa held him by the arm and said, "Don't. He is a powerful thing now, unlike your Pup."

Ebi turned on him, his eyes streaming with tears. "He's my Pup," was all he said.

He stepped towards the demon-dog and called, "Pup? Is that you? It is Ebi, your old friend. Pup?"

The demon and the harpy looked down on Ebi.

"Pup?" asked Ebi.

The demon, now far from the being that was once Ebi's Pup, did not recognize this small mortal that approached. It picked Ebi up in a clawed hand, brought him to its mouth and bit the fisherman in half. As he chewed, laughing, he threw the legs to Neboshazzar who bloodied himself feasting on them.

Zom Loa watched it all from underneath some brush. He watched as they spoke; as they ate; as the demon-dog grabbed Dodona and stripped it of it's dead branches, uprooting it and making it into a club for itself.

Neboshazzar landed on the demon-dog's shoulder. The demon wandered off.

Zom Loa, when he felt it was safe, ran off to find a path and carry on towards the Peony Teahouse.


I hope you enjoyed Act II of "The Ruby Bug". Check back next Friday to read Act III!

No comments: