The Dragon Tongue War Part III

by Paul Davis

Part I
Part II

The inn was normal enough with people eating questionable hunks of meat and drinking a strange smelling brew. Villages could be close to each other, and yet the culture was so different. A good deal of the meat was raw, something common for fish. However, Shu noted it wasn’t fish. From some of the interesting bones and tendons the people were gnawing at, every bit of the creature was certainly used. More than likely an ox or cow, Shu thought, though he had never seen such large hunks of the meat.

Ming was turning pale. He stood still a moment and whispered to Shu, “Whatever you do, no eating the meat.”

Shu nodded, staring at the meat more carefully. Sure raw could be dangerous if allowed to sit too long, but most of it looked fairly fresh.

The barkeep took Shu out of his culinary thoughts, “You two needing food or room? Plenty of either, few travelers of late.” The voice was gravely, with a slight gurgling. The man was sweating profusely, wearing thick clothing. His hair was dark and thick on his face and head.

Ming stepped forward, “No thank you, sir. We were just checking the local color. Every village has such an interesting culture in and of its own.”

“Travelers for the sake of travel, then? Mighty nice gear for that sort of folk.” As conversation continued, eyes started to move to the pair. Shu squinted at one person and noticed the patron had slit eyes.

Terror started to seep into Shu’s nerves, his body becoming weak. He tugged on Ming’s sleeve, “I do need a bit of a rest. The heat’s getting to me.”

Shu was helped to a chair where the boy collected his wits. Ming continued to speak, “We had some good fortune back a bit. Bandits made off with what seemed to be Ta Ning’s entire treasury and we helped the merchant regain it. Quite the thankful merchant.”

The barkeep eyed Shu, “Sounds it, it does. Boy need some water? We’ve plenty.”

“I think he’ll find his footing soon enough. Either way, we must be going. I have heard Lu Tan has some rare items and we should be seeing what we can buy from there. It’s amazing what the lazy traders will leave off here, so I’ve been told.”

“Few places have items as we do. Make your way there, then.” The barkeep cleaned tankards, the patrons continued to watch, but Shu and Ming were left alone when they exited.

Shu was breathing hard when they were in the street and slumped down against the wall of the inn. “Ming,” his voice was quiet, but frantic, “Ming, we shouldn’t….”

Ming kicked the boy, then helped him back up. “We really should. I know the prices will be outrageous, but if we want to make pay for the year, we’ll need something of worth. Big risks, big gains, all that. Now keep moving, Shu. Now’s not the time to fret such small things. It’s only money.”

The boy was helped along the road and they went north. The people moved south as the sun started to set and when the chance was given, Ming brought Shu into an alley. “We need to leave here. Your cursed stories of spirits is true.”

“What do you mean?” Shu didn’t need to ask, but it was the obvious response to deny everything happening, and that’s what he felt safest doing in that moment.

“Don’t play dumb, boy. The scent of those drinks? Those are not from here. The flesh they ate?” He smacked Shu’s gut, “Same as hangs on you and me. We get to pay for our ancestors.”

A knot formed in Shu’s stomach, and he did what he could not to vomit. “I can’t be right.” Then Shu flinched, a sudden pain in his ankle. When he stepped away he saw a snaked. Blood and venom dripped from the fangs and Ming crushed the creature’s skull. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?”

“Shu, don’t talk like that. It’s just a snake. I know we have some anti-venom at the camp. Just keep moving and keep your spirits up.” Ming held the boy’s hand and started out of the alley, but stopped when he saw town folk blocking the path. He turned and saw a swarm of snaked slithering towards them.

“Ming, go. I know you can get onto the buildings.” Shu slouched down. His ankle was already swelling.

“I can get you up there, kid. Don’t you….”

“Just tell people it was something great. Tell them I slayed an army of poisonous creatures. Not that I was bitten, cowering in this alley.”

“You slayed a thousand great serpents. Your name will be remembered, Shu.” Ming placed his thumb on Shu’s forehead, then kissed it. “May you find peace with your ancestors, Shu. They’ll be proud to accept you into their numbers.”

A weak smile appeared on Shu’s face, his color gone, “Thank you, Ming. Now go.”

Ming jumped between the two buildings until he had flung himself atop a house, out of Shu’s sight. The snakes stopped approaching the wounded man, but the villagers had started to advance. Shu weakly stood up, pulling out his sword, “You won’t take me so easily.”

Moving away from the building, Shu tried to walk to the throng, but the poison was too strong. The sword fell from his hand and soon he collapsed to a knee. A woman came up to him, “Your kind tastes good, did you know that? The river provides, this is what our family would say. But then it stopped. Until it provided you.” Her jaw unhinged, dropping grotesquely wide. Shu could see jagged teeth as her mouth enveloped his head. It was dark and damp as he was devoured whole, muscles contracting and relaxing around him to usher him deeper within the creature.

Once more Shu tried to struggle, everything from his knees up consumed. It wasn’t the way he would die. But his struggles were met by nips in his calves, and he could feel more poison coursing through his veins. Finally his head swam and he lost himself to the darkness.

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