Friday, July 4, 2008

"The Elephant Crusade" -- Act I

This week I present to you Act I of "The Elephant Crusade" which is part of the ongoing saga set within the wuxia world of Xiao-tep. "The Elephant Crusade" picks up where "The Ruby Bug" left off two weeks ago.

To read the previous tales:

"The Children of Gods" Act I

"The Children of Gods" Act II
"The Children of Gods" Act III
"The Children of Gods" Act IV
"The Children of Gods" Act V

"At the Peony Teahouse" Act I
"At the Peony Teahouse" Act II

"The Theft of Heaven" Act I
"The Theft of Heaven" Act II
"The Theft of Heaven" Act III

"The Ruby Bug" Act I
"The Ruby Bug" Act II
"The Ruby Bug" Act III

I've taken the liberty to already provide a few links to names within this story. These links do not suggest I mean to make the characters the very same people I allude to. but to simply give you possible background for the inspirations for the characters.


"The Elephant Crusade"
(c) 2008 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


ACT I: The Alchemist of Bizo

DEMONS OF ILLNESS: Wherein the Alchemist Abu Ali Qi Yazid Visits the Bizo Empress; The Catfish Fei Li Mi is Made; Empress Sulia Designs a Monument to Her Late Husband



Four times more beautiful, four times more gracious, four times more sacred was Sulia Laree than any other woman. Her skin was fair, pale, pure white as the finest porcelain. She was not so tall, but her thinness and long limbs made her appear so. She wore flowing silk gowns, mostly of light blues. Growing up, she had fallen in love with the stars of the night sky when first they appeared. On the night they fell, on the night Zom Loa stole away with the Jewel of Zingtai, Sulia Laree was heartbroken.

She became empress to the people called Bizo two days after the stars fell from the sky. She obtained the position through marriage and death. Her husband had been chosen as emperor by a collection of gods that asked him to become the Bizoan ruler. He happily accepted. After his wife gave life to their second child, he was suddenly and tragically crushed by a falling stone that had slipped loose from a monument he had ordered built to honor the gods that had placed him as emperor.

The Bizoans wailed and weeped for their dead emperor and, as their mourning soured to anger, they accused jealous gods and demons for not only the disappearance of the stars but the death of their beloved leader. The question of a new ruler was brought to the public mind and, humbly, softly, Sulia Laree stepped forward into the position. She gave great parades to honor her husband and tributes to his loyal followers. The people, and the gods that had favored her husband, smiled upon her.

The Bizoans carried on with their lives, trusting their new empress and loving her as a daughter to the gods and a daughter of Bizo.

The mood of the people soured once more, however, as Empress Sulia's children grew to speaking age and the Empress was taken ill several times. A small collection of good citizens then commissioned the wonderworker and alchemist Abu Ali Qi Yazid to aid in improving the health of the Empress. Money was collected and saved, a messenger named Shabar was chosen, a horse gifted for the journey and the servant was sent to find the famed alchemist. A year and a day passed before the messenger finally returned with Abu Ali Qi Yazid.

By this time, the Empress was quite ill and her two children were under the care of her servants. Abu Ali Qi Yazid came to her bedside and greeted her. Her fairness, even in sickness, glowed more against the age of the alchemist. He was an ancient man and his face was riddled with wrinkles like a spider's webbing. His back was curved with age. He wore light silk robes as did the Empress, but dyed in darker, midnight blues. He wore upon his head a hat looking much like a rectangular spire. He had no hair upon his head and only thin whispers of white whiskers at the corners of his mouth. His age had drawn his eyes almost shut. He often struggled to peer through his forever squinting eyes. Despite his age, his smile was bright and youthful and full of energy (some would even say of mischief). His laugh, too, seemed innocently devilish, like that of a child that has tied strings to the tail of a cat.

He bent over the sick Empress and said, "Hello, young lady. What's all this business about you being sick? I hear you're quite busy with running the matters of the Bizo, but cannot do so due to your illness. Come, come, what's this all about?"

The Empress looked up at him. His old yet gentle features made her smile weakly as she spoke, "I've taken quite ill, Abu Ali Qi Yazid. I do not know what to do to improve my condition."

The alchemist shook his head. "Please, we'll never get anywhere if you continue to take up half our conversation by using my formal name. Call me Albert."

The eyes of the Empress grew wide with wonder. "Albert? That's quite a pedestrian name."

The alchemist chuckled. "Which is why I rarely use it. It has no spark or sparkle, no flavor or flair, no entertainment value. Now, I ask of you, would you rather be treated for illness by Abu Ali Qi Yazid or have demons casted out by little old Albert? It's a gimmick, a calling, a professional name. Albert is my birth-name."

The Empress laughed a small way and her servants standing nearby smiled, pleased she at least was happy enough to laugh.

"What ails you?" asked Albert.

The Empress sighed. "I've been quite lethargic and depressed and unable to remove myself from bed. I feel as though I may become sick at any moment and spill forth my small meals, what little I can eat lately, all over the room. I do not know what exactly ails me."

"I do!" claimed Albert. The servants nearby hummed softly with murmurs and excitement. "You said the thing yourself, the demon that plagues you is no more than old Mister Sadness. I'm told you recently lost your husband and took over his position of power. That's certainly a lot for a seasoned general to conduct himself with, let alone a fair beauty such as yourself. All you need is some fine entertainment, perhaps a day in the country and good fruits. Oh, do you have good fruits? I've had this abhorrent craving for watermelon lately that has driven me to several far reaches of different lands to find good watermelon."

"It's true, Mistress," spoke Shabar, the servant that had retrieved the alchemist, "I found him in a small bazaar in the northern lands eating watermelon. He had two more in his sack with him. I had to promise we'd provide him with watermelon as payment to convince him to come with me."

The three giggled and laughed at this.

And so a grand picnic was planned by Albert the Alchemist and the servants for the Empress Sulia Laree and her two children. They rode into the country and sat upon a crested hill overlooking the valley of the Bizo on a bright, warm day. They ate fresh roasted chicken and grapes and olives and breads and for dessert they had sliced and placed before them many, many watermelons. Albert squealed with joy and good humor as he plunged himself into the moist, sweet fruits.

Sulia Laree's illness lifted and they returned home.

To honor Albert, Empress Sulia said, "I will make a monument for you if you wish. You are now and shall forever be friend to the Bizoans. How may we honor you?"

Albert said, "You never truly overcame your grief for the loss of your husband, though you are in better spirits. If you want to purge yourself of all illness you must first honor your passed husband. Do that instead. I need no honor but your friendship. And, may I remind you, I've already received my payment." At this Albert patted his belly beneath his robes and licked his lips with thoughts of the watermelons he had eaten.

Empress Sulia laughed. "Thank you, friend. Perhaps, then, we could persuade you to stay for some time? We would deem it honorable to call you a fellow citizen. Please, stay."

Albert thought on it. "Will you provide me with more watermelon?" he asked.

"We will provide you with whatever your heart desires," assured the Empress.

That is how Albert the Alchemist, otherwise known as Abu Ali Qi Yazid, came to be a Bizoan.

Time passed and Albert became fast friends with Empress Sulia's son Adad and her daughter, the eldest of the two, Alecto. He became their tutor and oft told them tales of his previous journeys and adventures. Albert became a respected, well-liked counsel to the Empress and her people.



Things did go on in this way for some time when, as the children grew, Albert noticed they became forlorn. When he asked what the matter was, Alecto said, "Oh, Albert. We are very sad. We do not spend all day working at chores or playing as do other children. We have no friends because we are always with you, studying how to read and write and add and subtract. We are so very lonely."

Albert thought on this a long time. He, too, did not consider the arrangement to be their tutor so wonderful. He enjoyed teaching them, however he, on many days, seemed to be more their nanny than their teacher and tending to them took away time from his desired magical studies. He spent a great deal of time studying upon the matter. At last, he decided to make for the children a friend and nanny at once. As the children enjoyed going to the riverside where he would often instruct them, Albert went to the river and there he found a gigantic channel catfish the size of a small man. He caught it with a large net. With a bit of potion and after a month's studying turned the fish into something that could breathe air as a man, with intelligence enough to speak and read and write. But the catfish flopped around on the floor and cried out, "I cannot swim where there is no water! Please, give me legs!" But Albert did not know how to do this. He did, however, know how to make things levitate for a short time. "Perhaps," Albert told the catfish, "if we pray together for some good time I can come up with just the right ingredients to make it so you can levitate at will and at all times." The catfish agreed and soon he was not only able to float about gently in an upright position as a man might walk, but he was also able to fly. With some training he soon was able to grip things with his fins as though he had hands.

The catfish had four pairs of barbels upon his face - one pair atop his mouth, another pair at the corners of his mouth appearing as though whiskers of a mustache, and two pair below his mouth forming an odd, wispy beard. The catfish was a golden brown and as he flew the sun glinted off his scales with the color of an iridescent honeycomb. Albert named him Fei Li Mi, the Flying Honeycomb.

Albert explained to Fei Li Mi that he had made him thus so as to tend to the children. Fei Li Mi enjoyed the idea and soon was introduced to Adad, Alecto and even the Empress Sulia. They adored him and Empress Sulia made Fei Li Mi a permanent member of her court.

Each day that Albert came forth to take the children to the river to study, however, Fei Li Mi grew very jealous. "They are my charges," he once told the Empress.

"Indeed," she conceded. "But they must have a good education. Not all people are allowed such things and they must take advantage of Albert's vast knowledge lest they become poor beggars in the streets. If you wish, why not ask if you may accompany them for their studies?"

Fei Li Mi did so and he was welcomed. The jealousy subsided in a small way. But soon a plot grew within Fei Li Mi's belly to kill the alchemist. Each night, after he had put the children to bed, Fei Li Mi would sneak away to train with one of the armed men of the Bizo army in the ways of fighting. He learned to use the pike, the naginata and the longbow efficiently, though his favored weapon was the guandao. He knew not when he might strike, but knew he would one day kill Albert.

Then, one night, as he was putting the children to bed, Albert appeared to say goodnight to the children. "Good night, dear Albert! Good night, dear Fei Li Mi!" called the children. "We love you both so very much!"

Hearing this, Fei Li Mi knew he could not kill the alchemist without breaking the hearts of the children he loved so much. He abandoned his plans, though he did not abandon his training. Without the need to further hide his training, he announced it to the Empress and she was pleased. "I am happy one so close to the children has learned to defend himself and protect them. Carry on with your training." She then gave Fei Li Mi a red sash to wear over his left shoulder and across his chest, as was the fashion for the Bizo soldiers. He was made a full member of the army. She then commissioned a smith to make for him a grand and glorious guandao made of gold. It was etched along the oak handle with images of all kinds of fish, as was the blade. A long red cloth, much like his sash, was tied to the pole just below the blade. The children each gave him an additional piece of cloth to tie together with the red cloth. Alecto gave him a bright yellow cloth while the cloth gifted to him by Adad was as blue as tropical seas. It was a heavy weapon but he wielded it with mastery. The weight simply gave him the ability of greater impact and greater blows.

So amazing was the sight of the catfish that he became as a hero among the Bizoans. His acceptance by the people allowed him to introduce Adad and Alecto to other children and they made, for the first time, friends their own age. But both child agreed their greatest friendship was with Fei Li Mi. They loved him and their friends came to love him. Fei Li Mi was soon given the name Protector of the Children by the people of Bizo. Fei Li Mi happily accepted the title and often he was observed watching over the children of Bizo as they played, making certain they were well and safe.



All went on joyfully. Then one day Shabar came to Albert and said, "Some time ago, you mentioned that the Empress will never purge herself of illness lest she build a monument to honor her passed husband. I have been wondering, can any person, even those loved by the gods, ever be free of illness?"

Albert nodded with thought. He said, "This is quite the question for a simple servant. It is a question many great minds have pondered, gone mad over and sent themselves into hermitage to discover an answer to. If illness can be a demon of the mind, not just some outward working entity, can any person ever truly be free from illness? It would seem, at times, we mortals - and I say mortals for I cannot expound about the Gifted Ones for I am not one and I have met very few in my life - would curse ourselves with worry and doubt and fear and, ultimately, resulting illness. Wish that I had an answer, friend, but I do not. I can only suspect that when one frees oneself from worry, doubt and fear can we potentially become pure and impenetrable."

Shabar's face soured with thought. "I do not wish to see our beloved Empress suffer any more."

Albert nodded, understanding.

"Is there anything you can do?"

Albert considered matters. He said, "Again, I cannot alter her mind. That is her realm alone. But I can alter her physical state. Know I the recipe for the Dancing Water. It would free her from all future physical suffering except any that may occur at the hands of a Gifted One or a God. That I would happily do for her."

"Have you taken this Dancing Water yourself?" Shabar asked.

Albert shook his head. "No, I have not."

"You are not a Gifted One? Surely you must be!" Shabar demanded to know. "Why would you not become immortal? I thought all alchemists were immortal!"

Albert breathed deep. "I am happy where I am. I enjoy the changes of the seasons and in myself. I was born a mortal curious with alchemy. I shall most likely die as such, though that is only my suspicions. I cannot sooth the future."

So Albert and Shabar approached the Empress with the offer of immortality. She was shocked, surprised, delighted. She asked many of her people what they thought on the matter and it was revealed she was so well loved that the Bizo people delighted in the thought of having her forever master their lands. "So be it," said Empress Sulia to Albert. "If it is the will of my people, I must do it. Mix up your elixir. I will drink it."

Albert left Bizo to gather ingredients from all over the world. After three months he returned and for three months more he prayed, mixed, researched and fasted while making the Dancing Water. At last, frail with hunger and concentration, he came before Empress Sulia and gave her the elixir in a small crystal flask. She drank deeply from it and became immortal. Her people cheered. Sulia Laree came to be known as the Eternal Empress.

Albert regained his weight and health. He continued his instructions to Adad and Alecto while Fei Li Mi watched nearby. Soon, though, Sulia Laree the Eternal Empress fell with some crippling illness. Albert was sent for. He leaned over her as she lay in bed as he had the first day they had met. "What is it, Empress?"

"Last night, while sleeping, I dreamed of a time as a child I was playing with a cousin under the star-filled night sky. It was a few days after the stars and night first appeared. It was such a happy time. Now my children barely know a world with stars. They were much to young to know them when they fell. How I miss them. And I realized I had almost forget them! Do you remember the stars, friend Albert?"

"That I do," he nodded. "Though, you are correct. I barely, vaguely recognize the thought. But you must not let the matters of heaven concern you."

"Not concern me? I am the Empress of the Bizo. What affects the world affects my people and affects me."

Albert nodded. "Perhaps, but if you insist on worrying over the matters of Heaven, perhaps I should, if it is not too bold, suggest to you to not lie here crippled with worry or wonder or what have you and instead rise up and do something about what is on your mind."

Angered by his boldness, Empress Sulia sat up. "Fine, then! I will!"

She immediately sent word for her friend Stork, the mother of Motharus, to come pay her a visit. Stork, being an old and loyal friend of the Empress, did pay a visit.

"So long has it been since we last visited together," said Empress Sulia. "Much too long. Many things have changed since our last meeting."

Stork nodded in agreement as she perched on the back of a chair provided to her by the servants. "It has been much too long," she agreed. "I am afraid the changes in the world and in my life have kept me from visiting. I had met a man and fell in love and with him had a son, though my son now has gone astray from me and I do not know his whereabouts. When last I saw you, dear Sulia, you were going on and on about some handsome, rich beau you had met."

Empress Sulia blushed. Then the blood ran from her face and she grew sad. "I married him. So great a man was he that a council of gods asked him to rule the Bizoans. He died in horrible tragedy. Now I am alone and ruler of the Bizo. Well, I am not alone, but friends and husbands are different things."

Stork nodded. "I know this well. I, too, lost my husband. Does this explain the sorrow I see in you now?"

The Empress nodded. "It does. And the other night I had a dream and I dreamed of the stars. You live in the Heavens, dear friend. What happened to the stars?"

Stork said, "I do not truly know, but I have heard rumors that Zingtai the Birdwing of Night had a jewel stolen from one of her wings. It was her jewels that were the stars. And with one missing, she can no longer fly. She fell and with her went the stars."

"How very sad," the Empress said. "If only there was a way to help return her jewel. Who would do such a thing? Who would rob another? Did they not know it would affect everyone?"

"I have no answers to those questions, I'm afraid," said Stork.

The Empress sighed. "I and my people, it would seem, are forgetting about the stars. Dear friend, dear Stork, can you help in this?"

"I would love to. But how?"

"The heavens, have they a library?"

Stork shook her head. "No, though some of the gods have their own. But no library exists that is shared by all the Heavens."

"Could you make one of the chambers in the Heavens into a library and there record all the things that have and are happening in the world that you hear of and see? Can you do this?"

Stork nodded. "Yes, I could do that."

And so the Library of Heaven was created and Stork began recording all things in history by engraving them onto shale and placing them into the chamber. The collection of shale tablets came to be known as the Record of Memory. Where once before there was no past or future in the world, there was only the present, now Stork had given the world the gift of memory and thoughtful planning. Memory of the stars returned to those who had lived to see them. For those far too young, they still knew nothing of the Jewels of Zingtai but what the elders told them.

Albert consulted with Stork, who told him how badly the Empress missed the stars and her husband. Albert, afraid he had angered the Empress too much, approached her and asked if there was anything that could be done to appease the Empress.

"Be kind and gentle," was all Sotk gave as advice. She then left the lands of the Bizo.

Cautiously, Albert approached Empress Sulia. "Empress? If I may have a word?" he said.

"Come to me, Albert. You are a friend. I had no right to rage at you. I feel better and I had only to act upon my own illness, an illness caused by my own mind. Come, say what you will, we are friends once more and friends should speak their minds together without fear."

Albert smiled, happy to hear this, though yet wary. "I would like to suggest another picnic. This time, however, later in the day - some time before sunset - and with notice placed to the people to watch us from the valley."

"What ever for?" the Empress asked.

Albert smiled devilishly, as a child might. "It is a secret."

Together they laughed.

The picnic was had and it was much like the one before. Adad chased his older sister Alecto around the hill threatening to place odd bugs in her hair while Fei Li Mi attempted to calm them; Shabar joined them and sang a few songs; the Empress laughed delightfully as Albert ate his fill of watermelon. Dusk came and went and when Kalavata flew high overhead Albert asked Shabar if he could see the people in the valley. "I cannot see if they have gathered and are paying attention. My eyes are much too old and small, you know," explained the aging Albert.

Shabar chuckled and glanced into the valley and saw the people gathered there, wondering what they were meant to do. "They are down there, though perhaps a bit confused by all this."

Albert chuckled. "That's fine. They'll soon know." And Albert set fire to small bits of paper and pipes he had brought with him. Each was filled with some recipe of fine grain, some powder that burned hotly and brightly. From the pipes exploded colorful shots that screamed through the air before exploding into sparkling colors and raining down towards the people in the valley. At first, many people - including the Empress herself - were afraid of the loud noises and witchery that Albert commanded to light up the night sky. But when the people looked they saw the beloved nighttime stars being temporarily replaced with glittering, colorful fire. The people cheered. The Empress cheered. The children cheered.

Shabar quickly dressed himself in green vines and shrubbery and a mask. With a tube at the end of a chain that he swung around, he began to dance as great colorful sparks of red fire fountained out of the tube. The Empress laughed and clapped with her children sitting in her lap. It seemed the whole world held its breath so as not to miss a single moment of what Albert would later call "my fireworks display." He was much loved thereafter.

On the way back down from the hill, after the fireworks had all been burnt and the picnic was over with, Albert said to the Empress, "I fear I cannot replace the stars entirely, but I was hoping at least to bring them back for a moment."

Adad said excitedly, "Mommy, mommy! Were the stars truly like Albert's fireworks?"

The Empress nodded. "Very much so, but they remained in the sky all night long. And they did not make the adventurous booms. They were silent, but beautiful."

"Boy!" Adad exclaimed. "I sure wish someone would return those stars!"

Fei Li Mi secretly wished he could return the stars he heard so much of but could not remember seeing for himself. He wanted so desperately to please Adad and Alecto by returning the stars, but knew nothing of how to go about doing such a thing.

The Empress smiled sweetly. She never again suffered from crippling illness, though sadness never truly became a stranger to her.

The next day she began a public program wherein the goal was to build a library in honor of her dead husband. It was to be the largest building ever attempted by the Bizoans and the plans were elaborate, some few even claimed impossible. Shabar was one of them. He said, "To do what you ask, we will need men stronger than the strongest gods."

"Does not my late husband deserve this honor?" asked the Empress.

"Absolutely!" Shabar answered.

"Then do not question it, Shabar. Simply carry it out."

"But if we use smaller stones, we can still build to the same specifications. Smaller stones would be easier for the people."

"And smaller stones speak of smaller deeds. My husband was glorious man. He deserves no less," argued the Empress.

Shabar thought a long time over matters. He consulted with Albert, who said, "In my travels, I have heard of great and mighty creatures called 'elephants'. They are said to be enormous, three or four times the size of a man and ten times stronger. It is said they can be tamed and used for work. In fact, I think people in some parts of the world do just that. If we had elephants here, we could surely do as the Empress asks."

Shabar considered this. "I have never heard of such creatures. If they do exist, how could we get them here? And where would they come from?"

Albert shook his head. "That I do not know."


Thanks for reading Act I of "The Elephant Crusade"! I hope you enjoyed it. Be sure to check back next week for Act II!

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