Saw him drivin' down the 61 in early July
White as a cotton field and sharp as a knife
Exhausted from the river crossing and her battle with the whiskered serpent, Lu climbed up the bank and made camp there at the joining of two game trails. One ran along the embankment, the other westward into the deep summer forest. There were two large and weather-smoothed boulders there, and one of them had been worn so to form an overhang where she might be protected from rain or prying eyes. There Lu dug a fire pit, and set to cooking the fish she had gathered from the river (before being interrupted by the serpent).
As twilight settled on the land, she heard a disturbance in the brush, the movement of a large creature approaching. She rose into a crouch and grabbed her spear, and watched the figure of a man of her own people, emerge into the clear space where the two paths met, right at the edge of the firelight.
His skin was dark like Lu's, and his beard was black and bushy. He wore fine hides, richly dyed and masterfully stitched, that bore no dirt of travel and a wide hat of reeds sat atop his head. His eyes flickered like embers and his left foot appeared burnt, with blood and pus oozing from the cracked and blackened skin.
"Clever Lu of the Forest," he greeted her in a deep and pleasant voice. His teeth were stained black by betel leaves.
"You know my name, but I do not recall having given it to you."
"The spirits are chatty, and your deeds have spread far and wide. May I sit?"
"Upon the other side, stranger. And give me your name, since you have already had the pleasure of discovering mine."
The man laughed, and made a sound akin to a large stone dragged over bones.
"[Untranslatable], that is my name. But you may call me whatever you please." He sat across from Lu and the fire pit separated them.
"I'll see that I do, old man."
"Ah, that will do. It is a fitting name."
"Take what you will of my catch." Lu motioned to the remaining fish. "I have eaten my fill for tonight."
The old man smiled his black smile and took a fish, devouring it swiftly.
"Ah, a fish for an old man and all is well." He tossed the stick on which it was cooked into the flames. "I have heard, Lu of the Forest, that you seek to steal Hō-ō's crown of fire."
This she had not wished to hear, for she had kept secret the purposes of her journey to the west.
"And from whom did you hear this?"
"From a merry band of nymphs, with whom you shared a great deal of palm wine half a moon ago."
But Lu would not let this shake her, and kept her countenance still.
"They spoke truly - I shall steal into the very center of his court and swipe it from his brow, leaving neither sight nor smell behind."
"I praise your ambition, but are you certain that your cleverness might carry you through to success? If word has reached me, then word will reach Hō-ō's agents in time. Perhaps it will just be one of many such paranoid fancies as grip him these days and he'll pay it no mind, moving on to his next rumor come the morning. Perhaps the messenger will be waylaid and never reach the court. If none of that comes to pass, if he should learn of your little plot and recognizes it as a threat, if that happens..."
The wood of the fire shifted, sending up sparks.
"Then you're just fucked."
"I wish that it weren't so," the old man said when he saw that Lu would remain silent. "What of Tubalkhan Flint-Knapper? I had heard that he traveled with you.
"He has gone south to meet with the mouldywarps for a time. We plan on reuniting further along."
"Ah, good. Good."
The old man then took a small, smooth stone from the ground, held it up to his lips, and breathed upon it. Then he tossed it into the fire.
"I have given to that stone a hidden word of power. It is a weapon that will destroy Hō-ō utterly and all his court. Not even their bones will remain. It will bind the iron star Chicxulub that rides now above the dome of the sky to your hand and will. He shall have no defense against it, and in a single stroke it shall safeguard your people against his wrath. The crown will be yours.
"When the fire dies away and the last embers cool, what I have spoken to the stone shall be forgotten, and never again be found on or under the earth."
Lu had not expected this, and asked only:
"What then, do I owe you in return for this?"
"Nothing at all, clever Lu. I am a giver of gifts, I ask for nothing in exchange than they be used to their fullest. It brings me joy, to see what people do with what I give them. Take it, and may your people live happy and unafraid of dragons' wrath."
Lu narrowed her eyes.
"Who are you, old man? What manner of spirit are you?"
Again the old man smiled.
"I am [the shadow in the amygdala] just an old, old man."
The old man snapped his fingers, and at once a great plume of smoke billowed from the fire, stinging Lu's eyes and biting her throat. When her vision cleared and coughing ceased, the old man was gone.
The stone remained where it sat in the fire pit.
Lu sat by the fire in contemplation for a time. She was deeply troubled by the old man's words, and shamed by the thought that her own idle actions might endanger her whole quest. She longed for Tubalkhan's presence, but his counsel was many miles away and would bring no comfort to her doubts this night.
And so the night passed, in intervals standing, sitting, and pacing about like a stalking cat. Lu fed the fire as it burned low as her mind turned sleepless gyres. She did not trust the old man, whatever manner of man or spirit he was. But she had found no lies in his words (for Lu was a bullshitter and a tale-teller, and skill recognizes skill). Out of distrust of the old man or her own pride, she would have at any other time let the fire go out and covered the pit with dirt. But with her great error brought to light, and the danger that followed behind, she kept the fire fed in increasing desperation and shame.
Should Hō-ō prepare himself, and her cleverness be not enough, she could not resist him. He might end her in a breath or a lazy snap of the jaws. And in retribution he would likely go out among her people and make greater demands of sacrifice. Should Lu fail, many more than she would die through her failure. Any who survived would curse her name forever.
The night watches passed in agony.
In the grey mist before morning, when only dim coals remained among the ash and charred wood, she plucked up the stone and held it to her ear. In a fading whisper, it spilled its secret and spoke no more forever.
She kept the stone in her pouch for the rest of her journey, secret from even Tubalkhan. She had chosen in the end to learn its hidden word and unuse it - to rely on clever plans and cunning work and nimble hands as she always had, to better master those arts so that she might humble Hō-ō without resorting to the word that might kill him. (For without his crown, the great king of dragons would be no mightier than old Pan-Pongo)
Of course, her cleverness failed her in the end. Discovered and with death inescapable, she drew Chicxulub down from above the sky and smote Hō-ō and all his court, bringing to the world demon-haunted Winter with her great act of violence.
It was this act, and the long years of starvation and cold to follow, and the horror of the Daemonomachy to come, that led to some among the Ancestors to leave the fires of Lu's camp and go out into the world alone, and with them they had fear-gifted whispers of the Red Law.
Lu would never see the old man again, and spoke not of him to anyone, but during the tribulations to come and the peaceful spring to follow she would imagine him in the distance, laughing.