Fishermen stopped to watch the bedraggled crew in the boat. Three days had passed, and the men had not eaten. Two had already died, the bodies thrown into the river to lighten the load. Such a disrespect to the dead would anger the spirits and ancestors, but Tai Shi felt the spirits were angry enough. As for the ancestors, if these snake men proved as powerful and numerous as they appeared, it wouldn’t be long until all joined their ancestors. By noon the day after the battle, the armor and weapons had also gone overboard.
The final man on the boat was with Winter squad, a bright, young alchemist by the name of Rai. A few final potions around his belt allowed the men to sustain themselves on water alone, though there was only so much of the liquid and the men were already badly beaten. Tai Shi suspected Rai held out a bit with the elixirs, but the captain couldn’t begrudge the youth the selfishness considering the circumstances, and he didn’t want to rouse the youth to some act of stupidity when cornered.
Dock hands were sitting on empty crates, talking, drinking, gambling, and a few even pissing off the piers. When the small boat was spotted, everyone went into action, shouting out towards the men. Most of the calls were incomprehensible, each drowning out the other. News of Zu and Lu Tan was asked for. One or two wanted to know if the men were alright, and if anything could be done to aid the strangers. Soldiers started to the docks and slowly pushed back the curious peasants until all the docks were empty.
A soldier in bronze plated leather armor stood at the end of one dock. He wore a bronze helm with gold inlays and held a spear of green wood with a bronze tip. He said, “Haven’t had many of your kind this way. The south has been pretty quiet.”
“It has been cut off,” Tai Shi said. The three men rowed to the dock where the armored man aided them.
“Cut off? You don’t look well. Cut off by what?”
“What’s your name?” Tai Shi let Rai go first, then aided Jung up to the dock. The soldier on the dock extended a hand to help up Tai Shi.
“Tua of the Bleeding Spear. You?”
“Tai Shi. This is Jung and Rai. We’re from Zu. Lu Tan is conquered.”
“By what?” There was a skeptical look on Tua’s face, which Tai had expected.
“I’ll tell you everything after we rest.”
The three men were escorted by Tua to an inn. The city was very busy, and large throngs were heading towards the docks. Several whispers were heard about the people from the south. Rumors had even started about how the spirits beat the visitors into submission for fishing too greedily, and how Bai Ding would never suffer such a fate due to the gentle fishing practices of the city. Tai Shi was too worn down to argue or comment on any of the conjecture, and just continued to the inn where he could find something resembling comfort.
The Worthy River was on a canal dug through the city to fields far to the west. Water was brought in from the canal, though it was forbidden to dump refuse in it. Some children swam in the canal, though they were fended off from time to time by the elderly. Jung snapped when he saw the youths playing in the canal, “Out of the water!” His eyes were wide and his breathing became erratic and raspy. “They’ll swallow you. Out. Out right now. Before they….”
Tai Shi silenced his friend and dragged him into the inn. Tua looked at them suspiciously. “What did you see down there, that causes men to act like that?”
Jung was helped to a chair, where he continued to move back and forth, muttering incomprehensibly under his breath. Tai Shi said, “Tua, can you take us somewhere private? I will speak to you there. See to Jung and Rai, that they have food and a bath.”
Tua motioned to a few people, and food was set out, along with hot drinks. “Follow me.” The two went into a back room, a curtain separating it from the rest of the inn. There was a booth with a wood table. It was a tight area, but it was segregated well enough. “So what happened?”
“There are snake men down stream. Our men were devoured whole after being poisoned. There were five of us, but two died rowing here. We are the only survivors.”
“Is this one of those, ‘the spirits are after us for our sins,’ speeches? I’ve been getting enough of those already. Everyone’s saying the south disappeared, and it must be the spirits.”
“I don’t think it is. I think there was something else in the river.”
“Then why are they after us? I don’t see why they would want to eat us.”
Tai Shi thought a while. “We took their fish.”
Tua quirked a brow.
“As long as these creatures had food, they staid in the river. We took the food. This is why the spirits warned us.”
Tua laughed, “You’ve been in that boat too long. You should eat and rest and we can discuss in the morning. I’ll send a small squad to look into it.”
With urgency, Tai Shi grabbed Tua’s arm, “Don’t do that. These creatures, they appear as we do. It’s a clever monster, and you will not see those men again. Do not send men. Trust me on this at least.”
“As you say, friend.” Tua firmly removed Tai Shi’s hand. White marks were left where the fingers had gripped. “But honest, you need sleep. Your mind isn’t working right.”
“It’s not.” Tai Shi put his head in his hands, tears starting to well up. The images were all there, of his friends and soldiers which trusted him, poisoned and fed upon. “Nothing is working right anymore, Tua. Nothing will ever be fixed.”
Tai Shi was led out into the main hall. Food was placed in front of him, and all three men were brought to a corner table, far from the other people. Two strong looking men sat at tables near the three from Zu, keeping away anyone with enough courage and curiosity to brave the insane men with questions. Tai Shi didn’t like the treatment, but he understood why it was happening. Jung didn’t have enough wits about him to figure out they were cut off, while Rai was too inexperienced to see it as more than a courtesy to three very hungry and tired men. But Tai Shi could allow the naivety, as ignorance was better than a tantrum from a hot blooded youth.