-------------------Chapter Fourteen, As Told By Xiao Ping---------------------

The Longest Fight

By Xiao Ping, also known as Aiko Kaijitsu

Dipaka and Chaka convinced me that we should head back up the shaft and go back out into the forest to rest for the night. We emerged from the pagoda and headed up the side of the terraced depression. As we neared the lip, we saw a very short old man with a stick. His hair was quite unkempt, and it had a miniature tree branch jutting upward from it. I couldn’t tell if it was woven into his hair, or was growing out of his head. He wore a rough brown robe with a hempen rope at his waist. The old man held himself as would a proud warrior, despite his diminutive stature.

“Konbanwah,” he said bowing, and then he straightened and chuckled.

“Good evening, I mean,” he said. “I forget that you don’t know your ancient Japanese yet, young lady,” he said to me. I had no idea who this miniature old man was, but I was speechless, hypnotized by his wizened brown eyes.

“You don’t know me?” he asked. He looked at me for a while. Then he looked up at the sky and seemed to be remembering. “Oh yes, that’s right; we haven’t met. I’m Fukujin.”

“I’m Aiko,” I said, “and these are my friends.”

“Most of them are,” he said, and looked around at everyone and laughed, “but I should be kind, for I do need the help of all of you. Will you help me?” he asked us.

“That depends on what you need help with,” I said.

“Why does it depend on what I need help with? Are you leery of a heavy burden?” the old man asked.

“Well, no, I guess not, it’s just that we’d like to know what we’re getting ourselves into,” I said.

His manner, which up until now had tended toward cherubic mirth, grew serious.

“If you wished only to shoulder light burdens, you should not have come here,” he said.

“Whatever your task, kind sir, if it is noble enough, we’ll help,” I said.

“Oh, so you’ll help only if the task is noble and easy,” he said. He narrowed his eyes at me.

“That’s not what I meant,” I explained. “We’ll help you with your task regardless.”

“Regardless?” he smiled and laughed again. “So naïve. It’s a good thing for you that I’m a Kami. I want you to retrieve my Ward. He’s a bonsai tree. He walked into the House of Withered Blossoms and I can’t go in to get him out.”

“He walked into the Pagoda?”

“Of course he did, he’s a tiny treant. He has legs and feet. He looks like a broccoli. He likes to stand in flower pots though, so don’t let him fool you,” Fukujin explained.

“Ok, we’ll find him for you,” I promised. This I had to see.

Now the old man smiled from ear to ear, and revealed two rows of gleaming white teeth. Deep wrinkles pinched at the corners of his eyes.

“You and your friends may rest in our haven with the blessings of the forest,” the old man said. “Follow me, I’ll show you the way,” he walked from the edge of the terraced bowl and down into the trees.

We went behind him. Cairn spread blossoms that she had collected from the dead garden as we went. I hoped we didn’t have to follow them later to find our way out of wherever this strange little man was leading us.

When we got to where we were going, it was wondrous. There was a long clear area beneath the boughs of a group of huge banyan trees whose roots only grew away from the clearing. It took a while before I realized that the trees were writhing very slowly, so slowly you couldn’t see them moving while you watched, but if you looked at them once and then again after a while, it was obvious that they had changed. This was no permanent forest hall, as I had first surmised; it was an impromptu shelter, invoked for our benefit.

There was a cone formed of old dead branches at the center of the space. The underbrush had been cleared away.

“We gathered up the wood that fell to the forest floor naturally for burning. A fire will bring you comfort on this cold night,” Fukujin said.

They ignited and stoked a huge bonfire and the embers from it rose steadily into the night sky. The banyan trees had moved to make a circular opening for the flames and smoke to escape. Chaka stood and gazed into the flames, enrapt withal.

Noburo appeared, as well as Miyaro and all sorts of creatures from the forest. There were hares, turtles, ferrets, stoats, parakeets, and on and on and on. They sat and watched us and chittered amongst themselves. All of their eyes were glistening pinpoints as they reflected the flickering firelight.

Noburo explained that if we could destroy Munasukaru in the dungeon below the pagoda, the Kami would then be able to enter the House of Withered Blossoms and they would be able to deal with the horrid spider lords in the upper levels. They would restore and inhabit the House.

“I’m going to go find some berries,” Cairn grumbled and stomped off. Havarak went with her. By the hour that the sun had risen the next morning, they had not yet returned.

Chaka and I coordinated our spells that we readied for that day. Today I wanted to prepare as many fireballs as I could, so I couldn’t ready flying spells for Lo and Wen. Chaka said she would get us all down the shaft the old-fashioned way, and we would walk this one out once we got to the dungeon level. “We’re doing really well so far,” she said. “No one’s dead, and there’s no reason we can’t take the rest of this dungeon out.” I was incredulous at Chaka’s way of measuring our success. No one’s dead? I tried to remember she was possessed by a spirit. “I’m happy with our progress too, but don’t jinx us,” I said. Chaka snorted. She smelled like lamp oil and cigars.

We went back into the pagoda and came to the edge of the pit that dropped into the dungeon. This time the gnomes assisted everyone to rappel down on ropes with gnomish safety line harnesses. Once we were all at the bottom, we put our gear away, and we proceeded back into the underground fortress and through its halls until we again reached Buto’s dilapidated three-story building, went inside, and crossed the catwalk bridge.

We followed the wandering passage on to the opposite side and heard the sound of rushing water. We came into a vast natural cavern. There was a waterfall cascading down from the dark heights, and it poured down into the depths of the earth through massive subterranean tunnels.

There was a vast and yawning crevasse as well, and crouching on the opposite side was a fortress pagoda. It had a long drawbridge that would span the chasm if it was down, but it wasn’t. Another octagonal pagoda of equal size and grandeur crouched above and to the left of the first. It had a high balcony, and we could see the rough shapes of hobgoblins patrolling. It looked like we’d need to fly after all.

“We can’t fly up there,” I said.

Chaka said, “I have an idea. Everyone hold still!” Chaka gestured and created an illusion that made Lo appear to be the defeated hobgoblin, Buto the Swine Lord, and the rest of us his unfortunate troops. We all marched over to the edge of the chasm.

“I am Buto!” Lo loudly announced, as Chaka gave him Buto’s gruff voice. ”Lower the drawbridge! I bring news of intruders! There’s been a security breach upstairs!” We waited for a while and there was no response.

“Open the fortress or I’ll burn it down!” Buto cried. Finally, there was a creak and a groan and then the drawbridge lowered.

There were four smelly hobgoblin guards waiting for us in the entry hall on the other side. They had yellow fang helmets and heavy morningstars. As soon as we neared, they noticed our relative lack of smelly odor and fingered their weapons. 

The captain sniffed and grunted. “It’s not Buto! I smell gnomes! Like in the cages! There’s some bullshit going on here!”

Chaka hasted everyone, and Lo, Wen, and Aki met the hobgoblins with full force. Guchugar and Guchuluk threw flasks of Greek fire at one of the hobgoblins, and he went up like a torch. Ochir began firing his deadly arrows at the screaming creature, and he nailed it once right in the face. Chaka reached across the front of Ochir’s bow and staid his hand. “Let him burn, my husband,” she said. There was definitely a mania in her voice.

“Don’t let him burn! Go to it man!” Istanoval cried. Allegro furrowed his brow at Chaka and Ochir, then ran over and jabbed the burning hobgoblin and put him out of his misery. He barely kept from catching fire himself, and he had to bat out flames on his sleeve.

Dipaka stepped forward and raised his hand, palm outward. “Stop with your evil fighting ways,” he said. The hobgoblins all hesitated when they heard this, but they mastered themselves and attacked Lo anyway.

Steel rang as Lo parried all of their blows.

“Now, again, I suggest you cease your fighting ways, and go forth and start a new tribe elsewhere,” Dipaka continued.

Lo roared in their faces.

“Uh, ok, we’ll go start a new tribe!” and they ran across the drawbridge, across the open floor, up the tunnel, and were gone. We all looked at Dipaka and Lo. They shrugged.

We moved forward quickly through the entry hall and into the next room. It was a storeroom and was filled with old dried foods. We kept moving. The next chamber contained the statue of a repulsive goblinoid creature with large breasts and a pile of ritual offerings at her feet. All of the offerings were spoiled, and the smell was abominable. There were numerous old dead giant spiders. There was something shiny, and Allegro found a brooch, a scroll, some tools, some armor, a gold plated scale, some locks, and a ring of keys. We went up a flight of stone stairs. This led to a very narrow and smooth ramp that wound around the higher pagoda and passed under the balcony where we had seen the hobgoblin guards. I put a stoneskin spell on Wen. “I want you back in one piece,” I said and kissed him. Chaka made Ochir invisible. “I want you back in one piece too,” she said.

Once we got to the space on the ramp where they could see us, the hobgoblin guards began firing their bows. Five arrows thunked into Lo. He grumbled and staggered backward, but he regained his composure and kept marching forward. He was still under the effect of the clay golem's poison too. After that he had to go with his back to the wall, so narrow was the ledge.

Xia and I threw our magic missiles up at them. They howled back and cursed us.

When Lo got beneath them, he crouched, leapt, and climbed up onto the balcony and slammed into the hobgoblins. They shouted and squealed in alarm.

Allegro threw his stones at them. The rocks struck and ricocheted and they screamed and tried to dodge them.

Ochir, Aki, and Dipaka carefully went up the ramp. It was slow going, it narrowed as it went.

Wen looked at me. “Lo needs my help now, get us up there,” he said. I knew what he wanted me to do. I took his hand and asked Xia to grab my shoulder and we vanished together and reappeared up on the balcony right behind the hobgoblins. Wen announced himself to his foes. “About face!” he cried. Two of the hobgoblins whirled to face him. “By Bahamut’s Bidding!” Wen shouted and ran one through with his katana. The hobgoblin teetered as Wen pulled the blade out. Wen punched him in the face and knocked him out cold.

The rest of the hobgoblins switched to their morningstars. Two assailed Lo, got lucky, and bashed him twice. I heard one of Lo’s bones crack. Lo rallied with Suishen and a hobgoblin went down without a head. Lo killed the next hobgoblin with a back swing. As Lo stood over them, their corpses smoked.

Allegro appeared and backstabbed the last hobgoblin with Istanoval. “Take that!” Istanoval cried. The hobgoblin collapsed on the floor and died. Allegro wiped the blade on the hobgoblin's pants.

Dipaka and Aki made it into the room from the doorway.

Lo was pale, so Dipaka healed him first, and then he healed the hobgoblin Wen had knocked out and roused him back to consciousness for questioning. At first, the hobgoblin tried feebly to grab Dipaka by his throat. Wen grabbed his arm though, and held it fast. Dipaka said to the hobgoblin, “You must flee this place, and join your brethren who have fled from here today, and form a new tribe with them.”

“But we serve Munasukaru! We fight to the death! If we do not, we will suffer unending and brutal punishment at her hands!” the hobgoblin wailed. Dipaka raised his brows at the hobgoblin.

The hobgoblin pressed his eyes shut for a second and then got up and ran and headed down the ramp. Chaka and her three gnomes waited on the balcony above him until he got beneath them and then they dropped Greek fire grenades down on him. The hobgoblin screamed piteously as he died. Chaka was clearly quite pleased with herself. She watched him burn with glee in her eyes.

“That’s my Chaka!” Ochir cried, still invisible somewhere.

Dipaka frowned and had everyone gather around him for group healing. We grew stronger and stronger as he prayed. After he’d gone as far as he could with his holy emanations, he tended our various wounds specifically, until we were ready to press on.

There was a massive set of obsidian double doors in the center of the distant wall. Allegro searched them for traps and then used the keys he had discovered to unlock them. Lo did the honors and pulled them open. We immediately saw an enormous red clay golem lumping down a steep staircase toward us. It had thick bowlegs and no neck. Its arms were long indeed, and they reached out towards us with grasping, stubby fingers. It moaned loudly at us with a round, toothless mouth.

“Oni!” Aki cried.

“It’s not an Oni! It’s a red clay golem! We need adamantine bludgeoning weapons to fight it!” I cried. I remembered this from a dusty manual on monsters I’d found stashed inside a lectern long ago at my school. Made of tons of real clay, these magical constructs were nearly indestructible.

Ochir popped into view as he fired his bow at the clay golem. His arrows thudded almost uselessly into its malleable hide. The golem growled, lurched forward, grabbed Ochir, and slammed him into the floor. The golem slammed him to the floor again, letting go of him this time. Ochir was coated in blood, and was quite green. It looked like the golem’s grip did some sort of poison damage too. Ochir leapt to his feet. “Is that all you got?” he taunted.

Lo drew Suishen, and the blade burst into flame. He rushed forward, chopped the golem, and made a huge smoldering gash in it. The golem groaned and staggered backward.

Allegro tumbled past and behind the golem, and hurled stones from the rear. They thudded and stuck in the monster's clay hide.

Ochir took out his Golden Horde terra cotta warrior; and the figurine melted away into nothing and transformed itself into a genie like zephyr. “I am an air elemental of the Mongol Sky God. My task is to hear and to obey. What is thy bidding?” the air elemental asked.

“Transport me through the air at my will,” Ochir ordered.

“So be it for now, and on and on until the break dawn,” the elemental intoned, swirled around Ochir and hoisted him up into the air.

Chaka fished some adamantine nunchakus from her bottomless purse and tossed them to Aki. Aki ran up to the golem to attack. He expertly whirled the nunchakus all about himself in a continuous and shifting pattern. He struck the clay surface of the golem a few times, leaving long dents. He tried to trip the golem but it was too big.

I threw some magic missiles at it; too late remembering clay golems were immune to magic of any kind. They fizzled when they hit the red clay.

“Don’t do it Xia!” I cried. “Magic has no effect on it!”

“Duh!” Xia cried.

Wen moved in carefully, and when the clay golem tried to pound him, he sidestepped the blow. Wen attacked and cut the golem with his Nine-Fold Spirit sword and it barely left a scratch. “I need another weapon too!” he cried.

The golem next clobbered both Lo and Wen, inflicting horrible curse damage on them, just like Ochir. They both began to turn shades of pale, and their wounds were puffing up.

Ochir floated backward from the fray, and drank a potion in an attempt to stop the poison. He cursed loudly when it didn’t work.

Guchugar came up and offered Wen an adamantine mace. 

“These are gifts from the empire,” Chaka said.

“Consider it foreign aid,” Ochir added, despite being sickened.

Wen took the weapon but gave Ochir a dirty look. He turned and pounded the clay golem with the mace. It left a big satisfying dent in the clay.

“That’s better! How about a haste up here!” Wen cried.

Xia and I moved up and I hasted everyone.

The golem, Wen, Lo and Aki traded blows until Aki finally knocked down and finished the golem. It broke into several large pieces when it hit the floor.

Allegro dug the inanimate golem’s adamantine heart out of its chest and we started up the stairs.

A bare chamber with an arched doorway opened up into a wider area beyond. We saw a grid of crossing beams that spanned a vast pit. Five female hobgoblin ninjas appeared beneath the arch.

“We are Sisters of the Broken Path!” they sang. Leprous, several were missing fingers and one had only a stump where her hand should have been. Their outlines shimmered in the half-light; they were magically blurred.

Dipaka moved forward and told the Sisters that they should mend their ways. He got so close to Lo that he was affected by Dipaka’s peace aura. In response, Suishen flared up in Lo’s hand. Lo’s eyes glowed blue. “No Dipaka,” Lo said, in Suishen’s voice, “these are truly heinous foes, and they must be destroyed! I cannot abide by your peace this day!”

“No! Everyone can be saved!” Dipaka cried.

One ninja tumbled past Lo and two more surrounded and they attacked him in unison. One nailed Lo with a punishing kick.

Suishen’s flames suddenly grew more vibrant. “Oni? Where? I reveal thee!” A visible blast of energy rolled forth from Suishen outward along the floor and then rose from there. It pooled and around two legs, then a torso, and finally, a head.

“It’s an Oni!” Aki cried. This time, Essei was right.

“Tell me your name fool, and I’ll tell you mine!” the Oni demanded. His feet were planted at shoulder width, and he was covered with scars and tattoos. A glinting no-dachi leaned against the side of his chest.

“I am Lo Ear-Splitter! Champion of the House of Amatatsu! I am your death!”

“Amatatsu?” he let out a guffaw. “I am Ichirou, Spawn of Munasukaru!” He gripped his no-dachi, whirled it about himself, and he flexed his muscles and strained his scars and tattoos to their limits trying to intimidate us. I had to admit, I was somewhat impressed.

Wen stepped forth, as Paladins as well as husbands were immune to being intimidated. “Let me introduce myself, I am Prince Wen Tian-Xiang, of the House Kaijitsu, and we are here to cleanse you from this divine Pagoda and make it healthy once again!”

Just then, a blue Oni-Mage Samurai with a katana sprang into being behind us and blasted the rear of the party with a cone of cold.

Ochir and his elemental rolled out of the cone and were luckily unscathed. Chaka, Dipaka, and the two gnomes on the stairs were caught in the blast of ice and coated in frost. Xia and I were up on the landing, so the blast didn’t quite reach us.

Three male hobgoblin Withered Blossom warriors arrived behind the Oni-Mage. They laughed and nocked arrows.

“We’ve got a blue Oni-Mage and three archers back here behind us!” Ochir called out.

“Shoot that mouthy gnome!” the Oni commanded his archers.

They all fired at Ochir, not once, but twice. Ochir was hit several times, and I heard him grunt each time. He still had been greviously wounded by the poisonous clay golem, so he was getting to be in pretty bad shape.

“Two can play at this game!” Ochir gritted, “but I’m going to shoot you, Oni-Mage,” and raised his bow.

“If you shoot me, I’m going to shove this katana up your ass!” the Oni threatened.

Ochir had an answer: “The last thing you’ll see, Oni, is your own forehead splitting open and your brain running down your face and pooling around your feet!” I heard Ochir fire and hit three times out of four. The Oni did not sound happy after that, but he was still in the fight.

I knew the gnomes, while quite capable, could use some help, so I ran down the stairs and fireballed the Oni-Mage and the hobgoblins. Despite being magic resistant, I got the spell through to the Oni and he suffered about half the blast. The Oni’s large frame actually shielded the hobgoblin directly behind him, but the two hobgoblins on each side took the blast full on. They screamed in pain as their hair melted and their skin blistered and fell off. After the fire was over and the smoke had cleared, they were still standing. They all glared at me. I wasn’t looking forward to what was coming next. I tried to stand behind Dipaka.

“Shoot that bitch!” the Oni-Mage ordered. “This gnome is mine!”

The three hobgoblin archers all smiled at me and took aim. They fired as I turned to run back up the stairs. I took an arrow through the back of my leg and another in the butt. The pain was phenomenal, and the arrows paralyzed the muscles they went through. I cried out for Wen and staggered back up to the top of the stairs, and Xia helped me to get out of view. She threw her magic missiles at the Oni-Mage. She got her spell through his magic resistance too, and I smiled for her even as I gritted my teeth.

Dipaka came over to help. “Hold still,” he said, and he pulled the arrows out of my ass and staunched the wounds. It hurt like hell at first, but after he prayed over me, I felt a lot better. Xia held my hand; I must have nearly crushed her’s in my grip.

I saw Aki go on a multi-trip rampage on the female ninjas. In a flurry of martial arts derring-do, he had knocked two unconscious, and a third was lying on her back on a lattice beam.

The other two hobgoblins faced Wen. Wen attacked and disarmed one, then chopped and wounded the other. They kicked Wen in return, but their punishing kicks couldn’t get through his stoneskin.

Allegro snuck around behind the ninja line and held for a good opening.

Lo ran and leapt clean over the line of ninjas to get to Ichirou. Ichirou was at the center of the lattice, like a spider at the center of its web. Lo must have sailed nearly thirty feet. When he landed on the lattice, he raged. He grew to be huge, for he was already enlarged with the wand. Normally, someone would have had to balance on a single beam to stand and fight on the lattice, but Lo was so large now he could straddle the distance between beams, and move fairly surely. He gave Ichirou a devastating blow to the shoulder that would have cut a sow in half. “Do you not feel the power of the family sword coursing through you now? Oni?” Lo asked loudly in Suishen’s voice as he held the sword in place, burning the Oni. “Die now!” Lo demanded.

Ichirou raged, pushed Lo back, and raised his long no-dachi. With one swift stroke, he disemboweled Lo.

“Uh oh,” Lo said.

Lo’s entrails spilled out, fell through the lattice, and dangled there from his open abdomen. It wasn’t over; Ichirou drew back his blade and hacked Lo’s belly again and his bowels fell through the grate. The Oni laughed as Lo looked down in horror.

“Medic!” Aki cried.

Dipaka rushed to help Lo; he had to run and balance like an acrobat as he went over the narrow beams of the lattice. He threw his healing ball at Lo as he went to stop the immediate shock.

I went back down the stairs to help the gnomes.

I saw Chaka douse the Oni mage in Greek fire, and flames licked up his sides. Ochir shot the Oni square in the chest, and then once again, and the Oni-Mage Samurai finally fell backward dead. Ochir also shot the surprised hobgoblin that had been behind the Oni. It shrieked and waggled it’s jowls at Ochir. Ochir smiled back and shot it dead.

I threw another fireball and it burned the last two hobgoblins to death. Chaka cheered and so did the gnomes. 

I felt woozy.

Meanwhile, in a desperate gamble, Lo had cast his shield aside and gripped Suishen with two hands, for he knew then it was all or nothing. He would not last any longer against Ichirou; it was kill or be killed. Lo’s shield clanged to the bottom somewhere far below.

Lo produced a battery of katana strokes that concluded with a thrust right through the Oni. Lo leaned forward and he didn’t pull the sword out. “Suishen will make sure this Oni dies!” Lo roared, and wrenched the blade around too as it flamed, leaving nothing to chance.

The Oni screamed and shook as the flames of Suishen raged within him. His eyes turned to jelly and ran down his cheeks. His teeth burst like popcorn. His skin dried and flaked away from his muscles. Finally, Suishen ebbed, and the Oni’s smoking body slumped down onto one of the lattice rails.

Their thrall dead, the ninjas withdrew from combat, dropped to their knees, and committed seppuku.

“I love this country,” Ochir said, “it’s where all your enemies kill themselves!” He laughed and laughed.

The battle over, Dipaka worked feverishly to repair Lo’s ruined abdomen.

Wen rushed to me and laid his hands on me with his Paladin’s power. I felt a rush as he did it, and I wanted him. We both still had adrenaline coursing through us. “No,” Wen said, "we must resist the temptation.”  He hugged me tightly anyway and we turned back to the aftermath.

Allegro and Ochir searched high and low and stripped the dead of their ownings. After that, we headed back up out of the dungeon, the pagoda, and back up the terraced slope.

When we reached the edge of the forest, Fukujin was there.

“You have done well,” he said, “we can feel it. But there is still more to be done. For now you must come,” Fujikin led us back to the forest clearing to rest again. Noburo and Miyaro came to stay with us again.

I clasped Wen tightly as we lay that night by the fire. I worried about his wound. Dipaka had promised to cure it in the morning. “I don’t want to lose you,” I said to him.

“Go to sleep,” he said. After kissing him for a while, I did.


The Penance of Munasukaru

By Xiao Ping, also known as Aiko Kaijitsu

When we woke up the next morning, Dipaka was already up and had prepared a cold basin. The shifting banyan trees had formed a sort of curing area. Ochir was already under Dipaka’s care. He lay flat with a folded wet rag over his forehead. “Hold still, this may hurt a bit,” Dipaka said. He pushed a poultice bag into Ochir’s sickened golem wound. Ochir hissed. Dipaka prayed. His words to me sounded like a jumble, but after a minute: “Hey, I feel better!” Ochir exclaimed. After Ochir stood up, Dipaka stood and examined the wound, wiped the area clean, proclaimed Ochir whole, and bowed. “Next” he said. Lo went in next. Wen took his turn last. Wen’s golem wound looked terrible. It had stunk so badly in our bedroll last night. I was glad when Wen came out healed. “Thank you Father,” Wen said.

After breakfast, Chaka had prepared to identify some of the items we’d gotten since the battle with the dragon. The banyan trees had made her a sort of fortune-tellers stall. Chaka had a feather sticking up out of a beaded headband. It was just enough to lift my spirits. She smiled at me and I smiled back. One item to be examined was Allegro’s dinged Jingasa; it had been Buto the Swine Lord’s helmet. Wen proffered his Nine-Fold Spirit sword. Chaka looked at Wen with a choice expression but took the blade and laid it on her mat without comment. She waved her hands and fingered the items. She took off her headband and put on the Jingasa. She tapped its edge with a chopstick, and conducted a battery of other bizarre tests. She finally determined that the magic helmet would make its wearer harder to hit in combat, and ward against particularly deadly shots. She handed it back to Allegro, who thanked her most graciously.

She pulled Wen’s sword from its scabbard, and she stood up and held it like a samurai warrior. She mumbled to herself and took several swats at imaginary foes. She stopped and closed her eyes and concentrated for a while. She looked up at Wen and handed it back to him.

Wen’s sword was indeed wondrous; it was broad bladed and crafted of silvery gray steel, with nine golden rings threaded through its spine that glowed faintly with magical power. Streamers of blue and purple silk hung from its pommel. Although the sword was clearly magical, the blade had never spoken, and Wen had not discovered any other obvious powers. Chaka explained that it could perform several different miracles. It could destroy a ghost for the price of three of its rings, or, become far sharper versus undead creatures for one ring, or, drive the possessing spirit from a being for two rings. Apparently, the extinguished rings would replenish themselves, albeit slowly. Wen held up the sword with pride. When the day came we would have to do battle with undead, we would be ready.

Wen looked at Ochir. He had not put the sword away. “Ochir,” he called pointedly.

“Oh no, not again,” Ochir said.

“No, I’m not going to kill you; I’m going to excise your spirit.”

Ochir’s manner immediately changed. “Oh, you mean you can get this Jap out of me? Come on! Let’s do this!” He went over and stood in front of Wen. “Go ahead and hit me. I want to see how much self-control you really have!”

I saw Wen’s jaw clench. “Hmmmm, in that case, I will not attack you, since the spirit contained inside you is at least this way under our watch,” he said.

“That just shows what kind of pussy you really are!” Ochir cried.

Wen grew angry and raised his blade.

Ochir just stood there, grinning.

“Aw, come on, jump around a little bit!” Wen yelled.

Ochir grabbed his crotch.

Wen could take it no longer. “By Bahamut’s Bidding!” he bellowed, and struck Ochir’s shoulder full force. I saw Chaka catch her breath.

Ochir began to bleed terribly from the deep gash, but we saw the spirit inside of him swirl out of his body and shoot off into the woods.

“Oh thank Temujin! Thank you, thank you! I feel sooo much better!” Ochir jumped up and down, and he whirled about a few times. Blood ran down his shirt and breeches, but he didn’t care. Dipaka ran over to help. “Did you have to hit him so hard?” he asked Wen. “He was just standing there.”

“That’s his problem,” Wen said, and walked away. He wiped Ochir’s blood from the Nine-Fold blade and put it back in its scabbard.

“Uh, where are you going? I’m next,” Aki said. 

“No,” Wen said, turning to face Aki. “I’m sorry my friend, but these are restless spirits. You must accomplish the tasks that will grant them final peace. That was not the way to free Ochir. I learned as much when I excised his spirit. I suspect the ghost will pester him now, in his dreams, wherever he goes, until the end of his days.”

“Hmmm…“ Aki said. He crossed his arms. He looked doubtful.

Wen walked away.

Dipaka’s healing work was by this time complete, and it was time to return to the bowels of the House of Withered Blossoms. We said goodbye to Fukujin, who wished us well.

We made the long trudge back to the pagoda, down the shaft and on through the underground halls. We were across the drawbridge, up the ramp, and moving toward the lattice again when we came upon a lone hobgoblin. “Pssst,” he whispered from an alcove. “Holy tribe leader,” he said. “Glug is oberdishway!” It was one of the drawbridge guards that Dipaka had convinced to flee the day before. He still wore his yellow fanged kabuto and clung to his morningstar.

“Yes, my friend?” Dipaka asked. “Come forth from the darkness, you have nothing to fear,” he said.

“I came back, and I’ve been waiting for you to come back. I’ll show you the way down to the cages,” the hobgoblin said. “Without me, you’ll never find them.”

“Cages? What cages?” Wen asked.

“The mistress keeps playthings,” Glug explained. “She keeps them close to herself. She eats them after. They are from your tribes.”

“Our tribes? Sounds like we’d better get a move on,” I said.

“Glug, lead the way,” Dipaka said.

Five minutes later, we found ourselves facing another hundred-foot drop shaft. A very foul odor was rising from this one. We unpacked our climbing gear.

“You’d better be right about this,” Allegro said to the hobgoblin.

We descended one by one, on the ropes. The hobgoblin went down between Wen and Lo. At the bottom, there was a foot of bloody water. The floor underneath the soup was thick with slime and muck. I involuntarily shuddered. It smelled like stool.

We saw more than a dozen rusted iron cages hanging by chains from the ceiling. Several were creaking and swaying, and we heard low moans.

“These ones on this floor are alive,” the hobgoblin said. “There’s more downstairs, and more water, but they’re all dead. The mistress ate those. They’s only bones.”

“Uh, guys, we’re not alone in here!” Ochir warned. He lifted his bow and fired. Two big blurred Onis splashed out of hiding places. One was red, and the other was dun colored.

“You bastards! How dare you come back here! Me, Jiro, and my brother Saburo, we are brothers of Ichirou! You killed him! We must have our revenge!” They splashed forward with their double-ended no-dachi.

Aki ducked a no-dachi swing, kicked Jiro in the face, and knocked him out cold. He fell backward with a splash while Saburo grinned and kicked Aki in the knee. I heard a snapping noise.

“Medic!” Aki cried.

Allegro jumped on top of Jiro and stabbed him repeatedly in the chest until he was dead.

Xia pounded through Saburo’s magic resistance and nailed him with magic missiles.

Ochir went into rapid firing mode and pounded Saburo with arrows.

Aki rallied and tried to trip Saburo, but failed. He settled for a draining touch attack to Saburo’s solar plexus. The Oni screamed and stumbled. Dipaka splashed in behind Aki to fix his knee.

Saburo broke and ran through the water to the rear of the chamber where it angled upward. He dove headfirst into a large hole in the floor and was gone.

Dipaka examined the prisoners in the cages. They were humans and gnomes. They were all half dead, and they had clearly been tortured.

We helped them down out of their cages. Dipaka had the refugees gather around and they basked in his healing aura. They gazed in wonder at his halo. “Ooh,” they said. Dipaka next culled food and water from the very air, and the astounded people ate and drank their fill. “Carefully,” Dipaka said. “Don’t overdo it.”

The gnomes tried to talk to Ochir, explaining to him that they were local Japanese merchants. He paid them no mind, as they were Japanese. His racial bias appeared to have overcome his notion of leveraging a profit from the situation. I wondered whether maybe he actually empathized with his distant relatives, or just plain forgot to be evil there for a minute.

“We have cleared the dungeon behind us,” I said, “but there are long vertical shafts that must be traversed. We’ll have to help you up and out. We must attack the Oni downstairs first, so you’ll need to wait here for us.”

“No! No!” they cried, but Dipaka soothed them. “Stay here with Glug and you will be safe,” he promised. “Glug guards, oberanout!” the hobgoblin said. After a few more assurances, they agreed. They said that if such a holy man said it was safe to remain, they would wait.

We moved over to the hole where the Oni had escaped. Ochir took out his talisman and called his elemental to carry him aloft. “Down the hatch!” he said, and flew down the slider shaft. Lo and Wen clambered down after him.

Waboom! A gout of flame shot up through the hole, quickly followed by a second. They had been caught in two fireballs coming from below. We felt waves of heat against our faces. I sensed a contest coming on.

Quicker than I could say yapple-dapple, two more fireballs hit them. Lo and Wen came right back up out of the hole. They were black and smoking. “Damn!” Lo cried. “Four fireballs?” 

“There’s four Nagas down here, and they just ducked behind rocks!” Ochir called. Somehow, he had survived, when Wen and Lo had been repelled by the fireballs.

Aki and I dropped down the hole together and we saw a dark flooded cavern. We saw Ochir hovering with his elemental just in front of us, as he had not yet moved forward into the main cavern. I couldn’t see the nagas, but it didn’t matter. I threw in a mega-fireball and the entire cavern was bathed in flame. The enemy was discovered by the fire’s searching fingers, and the nagas screamed bloody murder as they crackled and burned.

Saburo appeared from a side passage as healthy as ever. “Now you bastards killed my other brother!” he howled. “The Daughters of Munasukaru are here now! They will deal with you!” He stared as us with wild eyes.

“If she’s procreating, who the hell is she doing it with?” Aki asked. He dashed forward into the cavern, punched one the segmented slithering monster women in the face, and stunned her. “And why do they look like snakes? I know! They must be Onis! They’re Onis I tell you!”

Ochir fired his bow at Saburo repeatedly, nailing him again and again. “Aaaaaaaagh!” the Oni cried.

“Wen! Get down here!” I yelled.

“Shush woman!” I heard Wen yell back. He remained above with Dipaka to get more healing. He and Lo had been burned very badly.

Waboom! I was caught in a fireball along with Aki and Ochir. My already short hair burned off, and my skin turned red and blistered. It was all I could do to keep from screaming.

Suddenly, Allegro flew past me. He held Istanoval in both hands. He flew like a shot. He rammed the dagger into Saburo’s heart, and then nimbly flipped backward.

Blood pumped out of the hole in the Oni’s chest like a fountain.

“Mother!” Saburo screamed. He grabbed his breast and turned to flee, but he stumbled and then pitched face first into the water. He didn’t get back up.

Suddenly, the nagas all vanished beneath the surface. Only some ripples remained.

“Mother? Mother? I’m your wife now, remember! I’m coming dear!” we heard a new voice. A huge green, goblinoid woman with black curly hair appeared from the side passage and waved a naginata. It was like a sword on a long stick. “Yes my pretties, what does the divine Munasukaru have to eat today? Something fat for a change?” Her large breasts were outlandishly oversized for her stick like body. She must have been watching her figure recently. She had a mustache, which hung down on either side of her chin. She picked a booger from her long nose and flicked it at the wall. “I’m going to hang you from the ceiling and flick nasty boogers at you!” She threatened Aki and Allegro. “After that, I’m going to eat you, feet first, one bite at a time! You won’t die until after I’ve eaten you up past your asses!”

She looked down at her dead husband and stopped. She poked him and he didn’t move.

“My son,” she whimpered. She lifted her head and shouted a concussive death shout at us. Our clothes whipped around us and water sprayed and stung our faces. We could feel the sheer power emanating from Munasukaru the Least. We were in big trouble.

I threw a fireball at her, and called a retreat. I scrambled back up the tunnel. Ochir was right behind me.

“Uh oh!” Aki cried. As he and Allegro tried to retreat, the Sisters rose from the murk between them and blocked the way out. Aki tumbled around his hissing adversaries. Allegro tried to swoop past his, but he wasn’t so lucky. The nagas stopped him and barred his way.

After Aki was up and out of the hole, Dipaka engulfed us all in a glowing umbra of healing that began to rebuild our strength.

As we healed, Chaka called operation fire-in-the-hole. “Ok, we’ve practiced this one boys,” she said. Her two gnomes sprang into action and broke out telescoping poles, and with surprising speed, they connected them together with short v-shaped crossing rods, and they became rails for a rolling device. Chaka rolled the PD bomb out of her magic purse onto the rails, lit the fuse, and pushed it down the track towards the hole. Guchugar and Guchuluk skillfully aimed the track, but for a heartbeat or two, the shell rolled around the lip of the hole before it went in.

We heard the bomb carom down the shaft. Then there was nothing. 

“Wait for it,” Chaka said. She rattled off a short drum roll. When she stopped, the floor leapt underneath our feet, and the muffled roar was deafening, even in our cavern. There was a standing ripple wave created in the water we were standing in.

“Sorry Allegro!” Chaka shouted down the hole.

“Little Buddy!” Lo cried. He jumped down the hole to find Allegro. We heard him roar and engage the nagas in a fury of splashing. “I don’t see him! He’s dead!” Lo yelled.

Wen jumped down next, followed by Ochir. I jumped down too. When I got to the water, I could see Lo and Wen fighting the nagas, while Ochir hovered and fired arrows that pegged Munasukaru.

“Damn Gnome!” Munsukaru cried. “That’s too bad you’re a stinking gnome, gnomes aren’t very tasty, and they give me diarrhea too!”

Allegro’s Jingasa rose silently from the water behind Munasukaru. Allegro had Istanoval in his hand, and when he had risen high enough behind her, he stabbed Munasukaru right in the back. He punctured her lung, and she began to rasp and make a sucking noise. She could barely take in a breath. She was done for.

She whirled and snatched Allegro with her free hand.

“I’m going to bite your head off and chew it up in front of your friends, hobbit!” Blood flecked Allegro’s face as she spat the last word.

“Don’t call me that!” Allegro cried, and shoved Istanoval into her eye. She screamed and threw Allegro into the ceiling. He struck so hard rocks rained down, but he bounced back and flew towards the way out.

“Oni!” Aki charged and slammed both of his fists together into Munasukaru’s chest as hard as he could. Munasukaru staggered and fell backward. Aki dove on top of her and held her under the water with his hands clamped around her throat. Thus did the separate purposes of the Monk Aki and the Gossip Essei poetically converge. One was bound by honor, and the other was bound by revenge. Both wanted that Oni dead.

“You might want to cover your eyes,” Lo said to Dipaka.

Aki held her under the dark water until her feet stopped kicking.

So ended Munasukaru, the Least of the Five Storms.

I fireballed the last two nagas and killed them both. Their charred corpses floated like scum.

We gathered the treasure from the bodies and headed out of the dungeon, with the freed refugees in tow. The going was slow.

The forest Kami army assailed the spider lords in the upper fortress; we heard the din above us as we finally made our way out of the pagoda. Glug waved goodbye to us. I guess it didn’t occur to him that he didn’t live there anymore.

Fukujin stood at the top of the terraces, waiting for us. He had a broccoli standing on his shoulder. “I’ve found my Ward!” he said. “Thank you! In addition, you have done your duties. You must come with me to our haven for one last night, for you have our thanks.” He led us back to the banyan grove.

After the fire was started, I went out into the woods to relieve myself.

Ochir walked over to Wen. “Wen, give me your sword so I can strike Chaka with it. I want to drive the spirit from her, and I’m not about to let you touch her,” Ochir said. “So, can I use your sword?”

“No you may not.” Wen refused. 

“Then give it to Xiao Ping and let her do it!”

“No, I will not. If I can have a possessed wife, so can you!”

“Xiao Ping is not possessed!” Ochir said.

“She’s possessed with her career,” Aki said. The fire crackled and popped. I think they thought I couldn’t hear them. It looked like men were all the same after all.

Chaka closed her eyes, hummed, and concentrated on driving her spirit out of herself on her own. Try as she would, try as she might, the spirit would not let go and stayed inside her. Eventually, she lit up a cigar and shrugged.

Aki closed his eyes and applied his iron will against his spirit. He had helped to destroy the mighty Oni, so Essei the spirit, fulfilled in death, spiraled out of Aki’s body. It waved to us, and then flew off into the forest. Aki sighed in relief.

We divided the items; I wanted the crystal ball, it was my heart’s desire. I was dying to scry on Pang Mei and spy on Tsuto. I guess I was possessed. Chaka took it though, and put it in her bag.

Allegro got the Thundering Naginata of the House of Sugimatu, Munasukaru’s repeating crossbow and her screaming bolts, a magic brooch, and an amulet. I think he got some bracers and a few potions too.

The Do-maru of the Broken Flesh armor went to Aki. Munasukaru’s potent magic ring of protection went to Ochir.

Lo got a beautiful magical folding Swan Boat, which he gave to Xia. Xia cried she was so happy.

Chaka tried to keep the crystal ball in her bag. She had the ioun stone too.

“Is there a reason I can’t have the crystal ball?” I asked her.

“Ochir pointed out that me and my gnomes were the most valuable operatives on this mission, thanks to my bomb stunt. And by the way, we’d be happy to let you use it to contact your sister,” Chaka said.

“I couldn’t agree more with Ochir’s opinion of your performance; you and your people have been instrumental, but I am the Wu Jen in the group, this is a Wu Jen item, I am the party leader, and I want the crystal ball!”

Chaka took out the crystal ball and eyed it. Then, as though she had discovered a crack in it, she said, “AIright, I don’t want the crystal ball anymore; I want the ioun stone. It makes it’s wearer have no need to eat or drink.”

“Ok, then, if I get the crystal ball, I’ll be able to prepare an extra stoneskin every day for Ochir.”

“Agreed,” Ochir said.

“The magic word for it is Focus,” Chaka said, handing the gazing ball to me.

With that, I secured the ball. I wrapped it up in a soft cloth and put it away.

The refugees dispersed and were led to their homes by the friendly forest spirits. They said they would spread the word of their rescue and of our heroic deeds throughout the island. They said they would spread too the teachings of Dipaka as a river flows, from mountain to sea.

The two gnomes we rescued wanted us to go to Sapporo. They had been snatched by the hobgoblins as they had traveled through the forest months ago. One of them had been eaten.

“I will lead you to Sapporo tomorrow,” Miyaro said. “It is within the confines of the forest. We may all travel there in complete safety.”

“But first, another night together with us,” Fukujin said. That night, we partied like it was New Year. Fireflies flew in elaborate formations orchestrated by Fukujin, creating wonderful three-dimensional images of dragons and other strange creatures.

Wen and I began cuddling that night, and I lost my spells.

The next morning, we made ready to depart and said goodbye to Fukujin, his bonsai, and Noburo. Miyaro clicked and led the way. Aki walked beside her.

Wen and I rode together on Chi Hai.

A week later, we arrived in the first civilized town we had seen since arriving in Japan. I got everyone nice private rooms at the inn. The place reminded me of the Iron Ox.

Wen and I had a few drinks at the bar, went to our room, and made love. We stayed up most of the night after that.

I got up early. I stood as if in a trance after my rituals and watched Wen sleep for a while. His chest went slowly up and down. I loved him so much.

As I walked past the door, I noticed that a letter had been slipped through the crack during the night. I picked it up and opened it. It smelled faintly of sulfur.

“Dearest Xiao Ping,

As we’ve finally managed a minute or two to catch our breath since landing in Japan, I thought it important to share a few thoughts with you. You and I haven’t had anything approaching a meaningful or productive discussion about what happened on board the ship, and I frankly don’t think one is possible as long as your husband is nearby. Therefore, because I do not wish to argue, a letter will have to suffice.

Your husband, along with his sycophant fecal pile Lo, has done nothing but obsess upon my dispatching of the seditious Goliath traitor. The bile that has issued forth from Wen’s mouth has ranged between mindless, fanatical, moralistic rants void of any substance, to libelous bald-faced lies. I’ve always looked past Wen’s childish outbursts out of respect for you, and have exercised an incredible amount of restraint.

Unfortunately, like a sniveling, cowardly two-bit alley thug under the cover of darkness, after purposefully diminishing your capacity to cast spells through sexual deceit, and in direct opposition to even the most elastic interpretation of his own religion’s code of “righteous”, “honorable” or “holy” behavior, your husband took it upon himself to commit an amateurish attempt at cold-blooded, premeditated murder against an unarmed father-to-be. Worst of all, he attempted to assassinate a duly-appointed diplomatic representative of the Mongol Empire, one who just happened to be sent by the Empress on a mission to ASSIST YOUR FAMILY.

If his actions weren’t so monumentally hypocritical I’d actually be able to laugh this entire incident off and simply forget about it. However, nothing is viler or more disgusting than a self-righteous hypocrite who holds an undeserved position of power, trust, and esteem. Furthermore, when one attacks a servant of the Empire, he may as well be attacking Kublai himself.

Because Chabui personally charged Chakka and me with this mission, I am Duty-bound to assist you and your family in conquering this miserable rock. You can rest assured that our commitment to fulfilling this mission is unshakable. We are at your service.

However, it is with a heavy heart that I inform you that Wen’s fate is sealed, along with that of his fellow cultists the “Fists”. I have notified my father of what has transpired. My father and the Empire, not I, will see to it that Wen pays for this outrage. 

I’m not sure which will demand a higher price-- my family’s sullied Honor, or the insult to the Empire. Either way, I strongly suggest that henceforth you make the most out of every waking moment you have with your husband while you still can. 

Yours faithfully,
Ochir

I folded up the letter and tucked it into my journal. I desperately needed to talk to Pang Mei. I carefully got out the crystal ball and gazed into it.

“Focus, show me Ameiko Kaijitsu,” I commanded.

I saw only darkness.

 

 

 
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