-------------------Chapter Sixteen, As Told By Aki and Aiko Kaijitsu---------------------

Aki and Miyaro

By Akira (Aki)

I turned away, not looking as her body was carried away by the Spirits of the Forest. The Kami have spoken and my mission lies ahead of me. I drew in a long breath, wiped all emotions from face and walked back toward camp…

“Gotcha!” I yelled as I tackled her from behind. 

She giggled in delight.

“How do you do it, Akira–chan?” Miyaro inquired as she stroked my arm with her index finger. “How do you always manage to find me? Even my spirit-folk friends have a hard time locating me when I choose not to be found.” 

I gave her my impish smile and replied, “Because your tail sticks out from behind the bushes and trees.”

Whack! She hit me in the arm. I could have easily dodged it with my years of martial arts training, but I allowed her to land a solid blow to my shoulder. I did deserve it for teasing her.

Miyaro is a Kitsune, a shape shifter, one of the spirit-folk. Kitsune’s natural form is a bi-pedal fox. Miyaro is fast, cunning, and very beautiful. I actually prefer her in her fox form instead of her human form because it more readily reflects her mischievous nature. 

Although her footfalls and movements are very light with her years of living in the forest and her skills as a rogue, my years of meditation have honed my eyes and ears to a level that few have surpassed. I think only Allegro has managed to avoid my keen senses from time to time. 

It felt strange to be there holding her in my arms. My mission had been all-consuming. Japan needed an Emperor to unite the land and bring hope and prosperity to its people. All I thought about and meditated upon had been this mission, until she came walking out of the desert - a mirage that took real form. The first word I spoke since my self-imposed silence was “Miyaro.” I had forgotten how long it had been since I drew sound from my voice. Ten years? Fifteen years? I had lost count.
 
“I believe you are the first person who has completely butchered my name,” Miyaro said haughtily. When we first met, Miyaro was in her human form, with long red hair - the color of autumn leaves - cascading down her back. Her skin was dove white, her lips were crimson rose, but it was her eyes that transfixed me. They were warm amber with flecks of gold.

“I must apologize, your beauty is making me a little flustered,” I said playfully, and gave her my boyish smile.

She blushed and replied, “You, sir, are a flatterer, but you are forgiven.” 

Our first meeting was over six months ago. She and I are so much alike. I was a child of the Kami raised by monks. She was a Kitsune raised by the Kami of the forests. Neither of us was quite human. We felt more at home in the forest with the animals and trees than with our human brothers and sisters. 

Miyaro was not like any other woman I have met. A few months back, we were playing hide and seek near an old tree by the side of the road. I spotted something glinting in the morning light. It was a pair of wedding rings on the ground next to the tree. They looked to be quite valuable. I thought Miyaro would surely have slid them into her pocket, but she did the most intriguing thing. She dug a small hole where she had found the rings and placed them into the hole, then covered the hole. She laid down leaves from the trees to hide the tracks. 

When I later asked why she had done that, she only smiled and said, “I remember the couple that owned these rings. They were very much in love. They always stopped at this spot on their way to Sapporo to sell their goods. I think the husband died a few years ago from old age and the wife came back here to bury his ashes and place the rings. I just wanted to make sure nobody takes the rings nor disturbs his rest.” 

Miyaro was a breath of fresh air in this turbulent time. Despite her rogue-like nature, she really did not care much for material things. She was more fascinated with flowers and insects than gems and jewelries - Dipaka would have been so proud. 

My thoughts were interrupted by a deep, low rumble. I looked to the ground and then to the sky. The ground wasn’t shaking; the birds weren’t taking to flight. 

“Aaakkkkiii.” My name rumbled through my mind, it carried on the wind and echoed through the trees, but no one seemed to hear it but me. I looked at Miyaro. She also appeared confused, but at least I knew that I was not the only person hearing my name. 

“Aaakkkkiii…cooooommmme hooommme.” The voice rumbled again. “Aaakkkkiii…cooommmme hooooommmme.” Then the rumbling stopped. Everything was normal and quiet again.

Then I realized who the voice belonged to - Mt. Fuji, the most ancient and powerful Kami on Japan. The Great Kami did not speak often and certainly not to a junior monk like me. Something must be wrong. 

“We must travel to Mt. Fuji.” I told Miyaro. “I am being summoned back to my monastery. We must make haste.” 

Miyaro just looked into my eyes, nodded and replied, “I know a shortcut.” I smiled. She was indeed the perfect companion. I didn't have to explain the crazy voices in my head because she heard them too, living amongst the spirits of the forests. 

We traveled to the southern part of Hokkaido, and crossed the channel over to Honshu with Miyaro leading the way. She knew every twist and turn, and where to find food and water. Travelling over the island of Hokkaido was fast since the Great Forest covered most of the northern island. Our journey slowed somewhat when we got to the mainland of Honshu. Miyaro wasn’t as familiar with this new land as she was with Hokkaido, but we still made good time. 

Despite the vast distance, it took us less than twenty sunrises. The monastery sat in the valley at the base of the Great Mountain surrounded by a sea of cherry trees that stayed in perfect bloom year round. A stream of water rolled down the side of the Mountain; its origin lost behind clouds that always surrounded the Great Mountain’s peak. This hidden valley at the foot of the Great Kami had been my home for over nine thousand sunrises. 

Following the lightly travelled trail, we crossed over the wooden bridge that spanned the water that journeyed down from the top of the mountain. The stream meandered on, losing itself in the cherry grove beyond. The trail continued over a little hill; on the other side lay home. 

Looking down from the top of the hill, my heart sank. The ancient thirty-foot wooden structure, which many called the Mountain Pagoda, lay in ruin. The monastery that had stood untouched by time and weather for nearly a thousand years lay in ashes - all the knowledge in the vast library was gone from this world. My brother monks surely must have perished in its defense. Tears welled up in my eyes. Miyaro sensed my emotional turmoil and squeezed my hand.

“Father Abbott!” I exclaimed as I ran into the ruins that had long ago burnt out. I climbed over the debris and ashes, and tossed charred and broken objects out of the area where the main prayer hall used to be. There were bones and burnt corpses everywhere but nothing that identified the Father Abbott. Tears streamed down my face as I continued in my task of locating the Father Abbott’s body. Miyaro came over to help push and move debris aside, not speaking. She knew I needed time to let my emotions - anger, sorrow, and helplessness - run their course. 

“Put your heart at ease, my son,” a voice said, “the Father Abbott has gone to a better place.”

I whirled around. Anger flashed, ready to meet the attacker head on with fists, feet, and rage. I looked around, but I did not see anyone. Until I looked down.

A small plant with what seemed to be hands and legs stood staring back. The creature looked more like one of the bonsai plants that the Father Abbott cultivated in the small garden near his chamber.

“Akira-san, I am Bushi, a Fukujin Kami. The Great Kami,” he looked up to the Great Mountain, “has instructed me to wait for you and tell you what transpired a few weeks ago,” he said respectfully. “Three weeks ago, a wounded soldier stumbled into the valley, seeking aid for his injured leg. He brought news of the war that has spread throughout the country. He hoped to rejoin his unit as soon as his leg is healed. Father Abbott tended to the soldier’s injury himself. Late that night, when the Father Abbott came to check upon the soldier, he, the assassin, struck. When the Father Abbott approached his bed, he did not see the wounded soldier. The Father Abbott realized too late the wounded soldier was not truly wounded at all but an assassin.  From under a cloak of invisibility, the fully healed soldier dressed in black garb, drove his wicked blade dripping with poison into the Father Abbott’s back. It wasn’t the poison that claimed the Father Abbott’s life; it was the precision of the blow. The soldier had spent the day observing the Father Abbot’s movement, learned which hand and feet he favors and the direction he turned when called upon. Every movement spoke volumes of the Father Abbott’s strengths and weaknesses. In the end, it was a very calculated sneak attack. The entire monastery erupted into chaos and flame. The assassin had not traveled alone; an entire elite ninja clan came with him. Under the darkness of the new moon, they chose to attack with invisibility and precision. The surprise attack was well coordinated and planned, not one monk brother escaped the massacre that night. Without the Father Abbott to lead the counter attack, the monks could not get a footing against the ninja clan.” 

“Why didn’t you or the Great Kami intervene or help my monk brothers or the Father Abbott?” I protested. “Why?!”

“You already know why,” Bushi said solemnly.

Miyaro stepped to my side and grabbed my hand, “It’s because it would upset the balance of this world,” she said. “The Kami’s purpose is to keep the Oni at bay. If they interfere, the Oni will only use this opportunity to reach further into this world. That is why you and I are here, Akira-chan. We are the agents of the Kami. We act on their behalf without upsetting the balance.”

“They could have warned the Father Abbott!” I said, my tears streaming freely.
 
Bushi continued, “Yes, we could have, but the cost would have been allowing a Great Oni to also intervene or allow a secret to be answered, such as the whereabouts of the real Amatatsu Seal. Instead of burying your brothers, you could have been be burying an Empress. Everything has a cost; a yin for every yang.” 

“Go, Aki, go and find the people responsible for the Father Abbott’s and your brothers’ death,” Bushi said. “I cannot tell you their names, but I think you are smart enough to know who they are.”

“Of course I know. They are the elite ninja clans of the Five Storms. They were worried that the Monks of the Mountain Pagoda would aid the Kaijitsu Family in retaking the Jade Throne,” I snarled.

“You are correct. They are worried. You have already managed to defeat Munasukaru, the Least of the Five Storms. Aki, The Great Kami wants to cleanse this land of the evil influence of the Five Storms. That is why he sent the people you.”

Bushi smiled, “And one more thing, Aki, The Great Kami says that you should begin your search in Enganoka, but you didn’t hear it from Him,” Bushi winked and disappeared. 

I looked at Miyaro. “You know you don’t have to go with me. I can do this on my own,” I said. 

“And let you get all the credit? I think not,” she replied. “Besides, I am also an agent of the Kami.”

“I know I can’t stop you. And you will only follow me anyway,” I acquiesced.  “Hey, don’t you think it’s ironic that the little tree kami is called Bushi?”

“It means warrior,” she giggled. 

We both laughed as we turned back toward the North. Deep down, we knew that Bushi could probably kick both of our butts with one limb tied behind his back. 

It took us less than a week to reach Enganoka. The little port city lay northwest on Honshu facing the Sea of Japan, only a few days south of Akita. Enganoka was a somewhat seedy port. The buildings and docks were old and run down, and the people downtrodden. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were attacked for the clothes on our back, much less the meager coins in our pouch. 

“When we get into Enganoka, let me do the talking,” Miyaro said. “Otherwise, your diplomacy skills will either get us killed or thrown in jail.” 

“People just don’t get my sense of humor,” I gave her a smile.

“No, it’s because your diplomacy ends with you telling them to talk to your hands and feet!” she joked. 

After a half a day wandering the streets of Enganoka and through her various connections, showing (cough) her charms and greasing the right palms, Miyaro managed to set up a meeting with three of the ninja clans of the city. 

“This is it,” she said, as she stopped in front of a large two-story hall with a black roof. The building was in a market area the locals called Kuroi Yane. The market was surrounded by a maze of outdoor huts, tents and market stalls. Of course, the clans wanted to meet in this area. So many entrances, exits, and people as soon as you stepped out of a building you could completely disappear into the crowd. Of course, there was also the strong likelihood that we were already surrounded by hundreds of ninjas dressed as peasants, beggars, and merchants. 

As promised, I let Miyaro do all of the talking. I was too busy making sure we weren’t stabbed in the middle of negotiations. The three ninja clans together were called Nokizarusan, or “Three Monkeys”. There was Ishibasho of the Black Lotus - a balding middle-aged man; Hosokaya Kazu of the Dragon Shadow - the youngest of the Three Monkeys who always wore a half-smile on his face; and Kondo Yori of the Emerald Branch - a plain peasant woman with a thick neck and hard eyes. I think they were insulted when I called them “Monkeys”. It wasn’t as if I had given them their nickname. 

In the end, they were simply for hire and wanted to be paid. Either we paid them to stay out of the fight and out of our way, or we paid them to help us to defeat the Five Storms. And they weren’t asking for just any coin. They wanted their payment paid with the First Coin ever paid to the First Ninja, Shinobi Fuhonsen. As a token that we were serious, they wanted us to bring them this “Dragonmaw”, the favorite weapon of a ninja named Kaibuninsho.

“Well, that was a waste of time,” I said to Miyaro after we left the meeting. “I think they are playing us like a trained monkey.” 

“Greetings, my good travelers,” an old, blind man called out to us. “For a coin, I will play you a song.”

Thinking he was a bard, I reached into my pocket for a gold coin. After all, being surrounded by so many incredible and talented musicians – Chakka, Wang Chung, Pang Mei - I was beginning to develop an appreciation for music. The old man began singing. 

Holy Kami Above! He was dreadful, I thought. Being eternally diplomatic, I stood there patiently while he finished his song. Miyaro and I both clapped and thanked him for his interesting melody and gave him another coin. 

As we walked away, he said, “On your journey ahead, one of you will meet your death; seek me when that time comes for I have the power to give life’s breath.” When we turned around, the old man was gone.

Miyaro and I looked at each other and shrugged. Odd, I thought. 

Two days after our meeting with the Three Monkeys as we approached the same bridge we crossed a few weeks back, I got a strange prickling on the hairs of my neck. Nothing seemed to be amiss. There’s the same farmer that we passed tending the crops that last time we were here. As we got closer, I raised my hand to wave to him. With incredible speed, he closed the distance between us and raised his weapon, a nunchaku, and brought it down on Miyaro’s head, between her eyes. She didn’t even have time to shriek. Her body crumbled to ground. I didn’t have to check her to know that she was dead. I had landed many blows as this assassin did, with that amount of force, in that location, and knew from experience what it could do. I didn’t have time to mourn for her. Rage consumed me. I threw punches and kicks that came naturally to me. I don’t even remember what happened during that fight. My hands deflected and landed blows; my feet swept the ground. My body moved like a dancer performing a musical piece that I had practiced for years. I was no longer in control of my body, for my mind was somewhere else - replaying the weapon landing on Miyaro’s beautiful brow, again and again. When it was over, the farmer lay bloody on the ground. He was still breathing but very shallowly. 

“I should let you bleed to death,” I spat as I stood over his bleeding body, “for murdering Miyaro. You deserve it. A thousand deaths would not quench my rage!”   

“But, I do not have the wisdom of The Great Kami to judge you. I can only show mercy and let the Kami decide your fate.” I poured a potion of healing down the assassin’s throat to stabilize his bleeding. I kept one hand firmly planted on his arm to keep him paralyzed – my Blessed Touch of Golden Ice, a gift from The Kami. I realized that I could not carry him and Miyaro’s body both, so I stripped him naked and left him paralyzed and lying by the side of the road like the carrion he was. 

“May The Kami have mercy on your spirit,” I prayed as I walked away. 

I walked back to Enganoka carrying the body of Miyaro. The warning had come to fruition. I had to look for the old man. After hours of combing the streets and the market, my search came with no success. Miyaro was much better suited to this task than I was. I couldn’t waste any more time trying to find him. Time was of the essence. I located a stable and purchased the fastest horse I could find. Dipaka could bring her back to life, but I had to make haste. 

We traveled as fast as the horse could run. I could have run night and day with my Kami eyes and monk speed, but unfortunately, the horse could not. 

Days and nights passed. I eventually made it back to the island of Hokkaido and eventually to the northern city of Sapporo. The horse was on the verge of collapse from exhaustion. I felt bad for the horse, but I had to push him to make sure that we got to Sapporo in time to bring Miyaro back to life.   

At the gate to the great city of the North, a melodious voice I have known for too long boomed down on me. 

“Aki!” Wang Chung greeted me. “Open the gate!”

“Wang Chung, my friend, I have missed you so! It has been too long!” I cried, as I gave him a big bear hug. “I am sorry to be abrupt, but I am in a hurry. Is Dipaka here?” 

“No, he’s not. He’s on a mission with Princess Aiko. However, she checks in with the Empress practically every day with her crystal ball. Besides, you need to see the Empress anyway. She has news for you. Who is that?” Wang Chung asked, as he pointed to Miyaro’s body.

“A very good friend that died while defending me. That’s why I need to find Dipaka,” I said sadly. “Come, my friend. Lead the way.”

Minutes later, I was ushered into the presence of the Empress in the modest throne room. 

“Long life and prosperity to you Empress!” I bowed. 

“Greetings and welcome, Akira-san,” the Empress sang. “Allow me introduce my fiancé, Prince Batsai-Khar of the Mongol Empire.” My jaw dropped as I turned my head toward the huge, garish figure decked out in obscenely bright colors. I had already noticed the clownish man there, but I thought he was a local shaman, not a Prince of the Mongols. 

“My bride-to-be has spoken of you. Serve me well, my subject, and you will be well rewarded,” he boomed.

Sandru Vhiski slid up next to me and whispered from the side of his mouth, “Pick up your jaw and bow.” I did what Sandru said, and clenched my teeth to form a strained smile and bowed again. 

“Did he just call me his ‘subject’?” I asked in a whisper, “and I thought you were in love with the Empress.”

Sandru turned me around and walked me out of the hall.  “We all love the Empress, Aki,” he remarked coyly. 

“True, but I don’t want to sleep with the Empress, Sandru.”

Sandru smiled and nodded, “True enough. Let the peacock share her throne, but it is I who will share her bed.”

“You better get not let the Jade Archer hear you say that. She may put in arrow in your behind,” I said.

“I’m a generous man, Aki. I am more than willing to share my bed with both women.” 

I could only shake my head. Sandru was playing a dangerous game, but that was just Sandru. “Great risks, great rewards,” he reminded me.

“Spoken like a merchant and rogue,” I said.

“An entrepreneur,” Sandru corrected me with his mischievous grin. 

Later that evening, I was summoned to the Empress’s sitting room. 

“Thank you for seeing me, Empress.” I bowed as I entered.

“How may I help you, Akira-san?” she asked frankly.

“I need to get a message to Dipaka. I have a fallen friend that requires his healing touch. I have seen the miracles with those whose faith and devotion to the greater powerful can achieve. These enlightened spirits can cure terminal illnesses, regrow a lost limb or bring back the dead.” 

“That will not be a problem. I expect to hear from Xiao Ping in the morning when she contacts me with her crystal ball. I will give her your message to bring Dipaka.”

“Thank you, Empress.” I bowed and begged her leave.

As I backed myself out of the door, she said, “Oh, Aki, Sandru mentioned that you wanted me to identify a few items that you found on your journey.”

“I completely forgot. Yes, I would be ever so grateful,” I said as handed the sack with the assassin’s equipment to the Empress. “Empress, be wary of the coin. I sense a restless, evil spirit lies within.” Then, I backed out of the Empress’s chamber. 

As promised, Xiao Ping and Dipaka appeared early the next day. Xiao Ping’s power has grown. She has the ability to bridge vast distance in a very short amount of time. She calls it teleportation.

After a quick reunion, I told them the story. Dipaka was taken to Miyaro and he prayed over her to see if his power would be able to bring her back to life. After what seemed an eternity, Dipaka shook his head. 

“She has been dead two days too long for my power to bring her back to the land of the living. I am so sorry, my friend.” My last thread of hope evaporated with his pronouncement. 

“Thank you for trying, Dipaka,” I said numbly. “I understand. I will make arrangements to send her back to the forest.”

The Animal Spirits arrived early the next day as if they knew my thoughts and needs. I had spent the night saying my good-byes. As Miyaro’s body was lifted up, I placed a pair of rings in her hand, closed her palm and laid it on her breast. I turned away and headed back to camp.    


Hanzo Blade

By Aiko Kaijitsu

We had managed to ride hard away from the mountain holdfast and so made our escape. We camped for the night in a sheltered clearing Ochir had located. The next morning, it came time to scry on Ameiko and make sure everything was ok. Chaka had drawn a smiling face on the side of the crystal ball, so we had taken to calling it Focus. I called upon Focus to establish a connection. Ameiko explained that Aki had returned to Sapporo, and that I was to come at once and invite Dipaka. Apparently, his formidable services were required.

“Oh, but of course, it is my supreme desire to help," Dipaka said, when I asked if he would come.

“Ok,” I said, “just hold my hands, Di.” I took his hands in mine. “Now take a deep breath and hold it.”

I pictured my sister’s room at the inn; and we were there in an instant. Dipaka looked around and exhaled. “Oh, what a strange sensation! Now, who needs my help?” Dipaka asked.

“Come with me,” Aki said, and they left me alone with my sister. She looked well.

“Miyaro was killed by what we think was a highly skilled ninja," she said. "He resorted to guile to get close to her. Aki blames himself, but this sort of treachery is not to be imagined. It is an affront to humanity.”

“Do you love the Prince?” I asked her.

She looked down. “You didn’t even ask what happened to the ninja.”

“Aki let him live, you don’t need to tell me that. Do you love the Prince?”

“Does it matter?” she looked back up at me. “Do you love Wen?”

“Yes, I do,” I said.

“Did you love him when you were first engaged?”

“Wen won my heart, that’s all that matters now. Can this Prince win yours?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” she smirked. “Speaking of your husband, I have something here for him.”

She went over and pulled a long box out from under her bed. She opened it, and a katana-like sword lay within.

“Its Wen’s custom made Hanzo blade; he traded Oathbreaker for it. He must have told you about it.”

He hadn’t, but I didn’t really mind.

“Take it out,” Ameiko said. “I’ve never seen a sharper blade.”

“No, Wen wouldn’t want me to mess with it.” I closed the box. “I shall bring it to him. Thank you sister.”

We all attended a memorial service Dipaka held for Miyaro the next morning. His powers, great as they were, could not span the gulf of time that she had been dead. Fitfully, it rained. Nature itself was as sad at Miyaro’s passing as the rest of us were.

Somehow, Noburo and Fukujin appeared just then near the edge of town. They would not come near the humans, so Dipaka, Aki, and Allegro brought Miyaro’s body out to them.

“We shall place her in gentle repose in the heart of the Forest of Spirits. There she will remain until time out of mind, with her woodland friends watching over her, until someday you return here, Holy Man, and resurrect her,” Fukujin said. Rain dripped off his leafy hat.

“Perhaps one day I will,” Dipaka said. “I shall try, you have my word.”

“Oyasuminasai,” Noburo said. They bowed, turned, and took Miyaro home.


Back to the Fortress

By Aiko Kaijitsu

Sometime later, Allegro explained to us that when he had originally arrived in Sapporo, he had gone to the post office to see if he had received a response to the letter he’d written to An-Mei. An envelope with a flowery scent had been waiting for over a month. “It’s been stinking up my mailroom,” the old postmaster had chuckled. “I remember letters like that. Good luck to you, my young friend.”

An-Mei had written that the war was now affecting her village, and Lord Yu and his mother had become stuck in a terrible position. They could surrender to the Mongols, and be hounded by the Chinese; or they could hold out, and be hounded by the Mongols. An-Mei and her silk industry were likewise caught in the middle.

Allegro had wasted no time heading for the coast and booking passage to Hangzhou. After he had arrived in Mongolia, he had rented a fast pony and ridden south to Blue Silk village.

Since he was of the Polo family, and popular with the Khan, he could move quite freely throughout the Empire, or so he had hoped. Luckily, no one ever paid him any mind.

When he got there, he knocked on An-Mei's bright blue door.

When she opened it, she dropped her rolling pin, hugged Allegro, and kissed him hard.

“Well, I’m back,” he said.

An-Mei pulled him inside and slammed the door.

The next morning, they were able to calm down, eat two breakfasts, and talk some more.

“I’ve had a letter from Marco,” An-Mei told him. “He says I should side with the new Emperor, Kublai Khan. Marco offers to arrange for my protection. He tells me that he has written Lord Yu and urged him to flee south if he doesn’t swear allegiance to the Khan. Marco says a crushing defeat of the Song is inevitable. The Khan is redoubling his efforts. He is seeing to it personally.”

She paused for a while and then she said, “I could join with the Khan, I suppose."

“What do you really want to do?” Allegro asked.

"Now that you're here, I'll do what you say," she said.

"I want you to come to Sapporo," he said.

"I'll need a commitment for that," she said.

"Of course, I said I would return when I was a made halfling, didn't I?" Allegro smiled.

An-Mei blinked and smiled back. “You mean it?”

He knelt down and produced a wondrous ruby ring. Her eyes grew wide when she saw it, for it sparkled like the noonday sun.

She accepted his proposal and they planned their wedding for Midsummer’s Day.

“You know, I have over a hundred employees; this will be no easy task, my love,” she said later, as they lay in bed.

“Forget about it,” Allegro said. They kissed and made love again. Eating wasn’t the only thing Halflings did more than humans.

Allegro paid the expenses for all of An-Mei’s employees to move across the sea. They sailed to Japan in style and then joined a caravan that brought them to Sapporo.

That was how Allegro caught up with us. “Hey, wait for me!” Allegro cried.

Allegro ran toward Aki, Dipaka, and I, just as we were about to teleport back to our camp near Seinaru Heikiko. He skidded to a stop and joined hands with us. “Guess what guys, I’m getting married! An-Mei’s moved to Sapporo!”

“Congratulations!” Dipaka said.

“That’s great Allegro; I don’t want to put a damper on your joy or anything, but we were just about to assail a mountain stronghold, are you ready?” I asked.

“Silly Ping! Why else would I be here?” Allegro asked with a grin. Having a fiancé apparently sat well with him.

“Alright, hold on!” we all squeezed each other’s hands and I pictured our camp back on Honshu.

Once we arrived, I presented Wen with his new Hanzo blade. I knelt before him and held it up to him across my palms. “Behold!” I cried.

Wen’s eyes lit up; he reverently took the sword and drew it to inspect the blade.

“Wow! I hope you approve that I spent my fortune on this,” he said.

“Of course I approve.” I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen him quite this happy. I was a little jealous.

“Are you ready for the assault?” I asked him.

“Am I?” Wen cried. “Let’s go woman!” He snacked the sword back into its scabbard and slid it down into his belt.

We mounted up and rode back to the fortress. Ochir took us a completely different route this time; it led us to a spot from where we wanted to launch our attack. We knew from our last visit that they had an open courtyard, so we were going to fly over their outer wall and drop in on them unexpectedly.

Xia cast flying spells on Chi Hai, Baderhu, Lo, and herself. I used my own spell for flying. Allegro broke out a bandolier of potions and drank down several. I wondered how he didn’t just explode from all the magic entering his system simultaneuosly. I remember thinking that halflings must naturally have iron stomachs. He floated up off the ground and smiled. “Allegro Polo, ready to go!” 

Dipaka rode behind Wen on Chi Hai, as my husband was the only one with enough divine authority on his own to be immune to Dipaka’s violence dampening peace aura. Dipaka gripped his hands in front of Wen and hung on for dear life. “Oh, why oh why don’t you guys ride camels?” he asked.

Chaka rode behind Ochir on Baderhu; she sat with her back to him so she could have her drum kit in front of her. Guchugar and Guchuluk rode in Ochir’s saddlebags. Baderhu was literally going to be an aerial attack platform.

Aki summoned his giant wasp and rode on its back.

Xia put a protection from arrows spell on Wen, Lo, and the both of us. Finally, Xia made me invisible, and then she vanished too.

Wen gave the order, and we all lifted off the ground and flew toward the fortress. Up and up we rose, high up over the treetops. We leveled out as we headed for the wall. We were sailing along at roughly one hundred feet above the ground.

Chaka began sounding out a confident cadence on her drums.

Wen was at the head of our column, and I was invisible, so he hailed the enemy when we reached shouting distance. “We have come in the name of the rightful Empress of Japan!  We demand your unconditional surrender! You are guilty of crimes of banditry against the indigenous peoples!” Wen brandished his Hanzo blade. If they were the least bit impressed, they didn’t show it.

Arrows began flying at us from the sentry stations. Most of them bounced off Wen and Lo’s protection spells, but one arrow socked Ochir, and he was outraged. “Oh, you asshole! You wanna piece of me?” He shot a clutch of three arrows that nailed the sentry square in the chest.

To my amazement, he wasn’t slain. The bandit just laughed and fired another shot at Ochir.

“Watch this,” Allegro said, and he shot the chuckling bandit square in the forehead with his crossbow. The bandit dropped straight out of sight.

“Hey man,” Ochir cried, “that one was mine!”

“Sorry,” Allegro said, with a mischievous grin. “You just need to aim higher.”

Dipaka unbelievably used his holy machinations to convince one archer to abandon his bow and leave the fort for greener pastures.

By this time, we were all high over the courtyard.

Xia and I kept to the sky, since there were two enormous vengeful wood spirit golems still down there. Xia and I wasted no time blasting one with fireballs. It burst into flames and roared to life again.

Lo glided directly down into the courtyard with Suishen blazing and hit the ground running.

Black smoke and sparks rose from the burning wood golem as it lumbered to meet Lo, a billowing mass of dancing flames. As they collided, the golem smashed Lo with a crackling stump fist. Lo was shaken but managed to chop off the golem’s arm in return; and the woodpile reeled and stumped backward.

Suddenly, splinters blew out of the golem, turning Lo into a pincushion of flaming pins. “Aaaaaaaagh!” Lo screamed.

The woodshop doors opened, and the carpenter Kamuy-paro and his tiger-bitch assistant appeared. The old man stayed inside the shop and tossed a fireseed through the doors at Lo, and it erupted and engulfed Lo in white-hot flame. Our House Champion screamed in agony as his skin burned away. Even as the flames died, the tiny woman shifted into her huge tiger form, charged out, and pounced on Lo. Her claws ripped open his charred flesh, and blood ran freely down his body and legs. She landed on the other side of him and roared.

Lo was taking a bath. He wasn’t going to be able to survive much more punishment.

“Lo’s in trouble! We need to get down there!” Dipaka cried into Wen’s ear. “Not a problem, Father,” Wen assured him. Dipaka threw his healing ball at Lo as Wen expertly maneuvered Chi Hai to the ground right next to Lo and the big cat.

“I know you are a feline infested with evil! By Bahamut’s bidding, I smite thee!” Wen shouted, and hacked the tiger with his Hanzo blade. Blood spewed out in a great gout onto the ground. The beast roared and fell back, but Lo was waiting for her. He brought Suishen to bear on her three times, and each swat left a long, smoking wound. The big cat skittered sideways and yowled terribly.

“Oh! Tos Katun! My consort! Spare her and I’ll withdraw from this battle!” Kamuy-paro swore. His eyes were wild, and he held up his open hands.

“I don’t think so!” Allegro swooped into the woodshop, and buried Istanoval up to the hilt into the Druid’s chest before being thrown back. The old man drew his scimitar. His hair was disheveled and he was breathing heavily. “Why you little ankle-biter!”

“Is that supposed to be a wisecrack about us short folks?” Ochir flew Baderhu down to where he could see the Druid through the doorway and fired a clutch of arrows that thunked into Kamuy-paro.

“Aaaaaaaah!” the Druid screamed. “You have no honor! Flying over our wall and attacking us while we are defenseless? And you offer us no quarter? What kind of Japanese are you?”

“I’m not Japanese,” Ochir said. “I’m Mongolian.”

Aki gave me a nod, and we coordinated our effort. He leapt from the back of his wasp and I enlarged him as he fell. The gigantic monk broke his fall by smacking the woodshop’s roof with his open hands, and then he swung through the doorway feet first into the Druid and knocked him flat on his back. The druid’s scimitar skidded across the floor. Aki smashed the carpenter’s face in with a massive fist strike. When Aki stood up, Kamuy-paro did not.

Xia killed the tiger form of Tos Katun with a battery of magic missiles. The shapeshifter turned back into a small Japanese woman after she was dead.

A host of barbarian archers flooded the courtyard. We were surrounded.

A large barbarian in a breastplate and shield came forth. He carried a huge scimitar.

“Who is your leader?” he looked at Wen. “It is you?”

“I am Prince Wen Tiang-Xiang, and we have come to take this fortress in the name of the Amatatsu!”

“I am Ilgamal, Lieutenant of Seinaru Heikiko, and I am a loyal soldier! I will not surrender my master’s fortress without a fight! Leave now or be destroyed!”

“Fat chance, Lieutenant!” Ochir shouted.

The barbarian looked up at Ochir flying on Baderhu along with Chaka and the gnomes, and then he gestured and gave an order to his archers in his own tongue. He smiled broadly.

The bandits all raised their bows and shot at Baderhu. The arrows thudded into her belly and flank and she neighed shrilly and bucked in pain and fear. “Whoa! Whooooaaaa!” the gnomes cried as they hung on for dear life. Ochir had to grab the reins and pull back hard to keep some control of her. “You assholes!” Ochir cried.

Xia in the meantime had pounded the other golem with a fireball, so our fighters below still faced two gigantic burning wood golems. The smaller one made a terrible cracking noise and suddenly threw out splinters, and all of our warriors were peppered again with flaming wood shrapnel.

Guchugar and Guchuluk chucked alchemy bombs at them and the explosions resounded from the walls of the fortress courtyard. Both of the golems disintegrated and became piles of white crumbling branches and ash.

A door opened in one of the buildings, and a very large barbarian appeared. He was very broad of shoulder, and his mighty thews knotted as he gripped his shortbow. His black beard was matted and haphazardly braided. His teeth were rotten and many of them were long gone. His leather armor was of amazing quality though, and was punched with thousands of elaborate interlocking designs.

“I am Gangnam-sum, Lord of Seinaru Heikiko! You are interlopers! Archers! Ignore Ilgamal’s order! Don’t shoot the mare! Kill their giant instead! Like this!” He raised his bow and shot Lo in the neck. Blood shot out in a huge arc.

We watched in horror as the archers began firing at Lo. Each arrow tore into Lo’s charred flesh and each splayed head burst through the other side. Blood was running everywhere.

“Does it hurt?” Gangnam-sum asked with a diabolical mirth in his voice. “Keep shooting men!”

The arrows ripped into Lo. Lo fell first to his knees, and then fell sideways to the ground. He shuddered, drew a final rasping breath, and then slowly froze. Suishen sputtered in the bloody mud and went out.

“No!” Xia screamed. Her voice came from everywhere. 

Dipaka stepped over Lo’s body and knelt to perform a ritual.

“Maybe we’ll just kill your priest next!” Gangnam-sum shouted. “Two can play at this lack of honor game!”

“Oh yeah! Try this out for honor!” Ochir fired at Gangnam-sum, and three arrows thudded into the barbarian’s chest. He looked down in disbelief. Blood began to run out of his mouth.

He looked up with rage in his eyes.

“Kill the priest,” he ordered.

A thicket of arrows disintegrated as they contacted Dipaka. Dipaka smiled at Gangnam-sum. “Your physical arrows are no match for the power of the universe,” he said.

“Oh, hell no,” Gangnam-sum said. “If it isn’t the Dali Lama! We’ll have to kill another one of his friends then!”

More archers had now entered the courtyard, and it wouldn’t be long before they were killing us off one at a time.

“Megaball!” I cried, and I threw the eighty-foot fireball down there. Everyone else was back far enough, but I wanted to exclude Dipaka and Lo who were much closer to the archers. I don’t know what happened, but somehow I slipped, and got them too. Dipaka’s eyes shot open as he saw the ball detonate; he used his split second of warning to drop to the ground beside Lo.

Half of the courtyard was bathed in fire, and all of the foes were ablaze.

Lo’s body was practically incinerated, and the back of Dipaka’s robe burned off. 

“Oh shit! Sorry Dipaka! I slipped!” I felt so bad. I was so relieved that I hadn't killed him.

“I’ll be ok!” he cried.

I hoped Lo’s body wasn’t burned up beyond saving.

We heard Xia’ hypnotic voice charming Ilgamal, she was attempting to woo him over to our side with a powerful spell.

The stalwart warrior was unaffected, and not amused. Xia’s invisibility remained in place even though she had tried to charm Ilgamal, so powerful were her new theurgies.

“Witch! Reveal yourself! And I’ll make a proper woman out of you! Or are you so haggly that you must be shrouded by your magic at all times?”

“What? What did you say?" Xia screamed. "Haggly?”

“Leave her alone!” Wen warned, and he trotted Chi Hai over to face Ilgamal. Wen engaged the barbarian and sliced his arm open during a brief exchange of blows.

“Hey, nice sword!” Ilgamal said. “I’ll be taking that!” and he knocked Wen’s Hanzo sword right out of his hand. Wen’s eyes followed the blade down to the ground. Ilgamal jabbed Wen in the gut, as Wen had no way to block the thrust.

Wen backed Chi Hai up, and Ilgamal stood his ground.

“I’ve got him Ilgamal!” Gangnam-sum raised his bow and aimed it at Wen’s back. I held my breath, I knew his arrow was going to be magical, and Wen would be vulnerable. Just as he was about to kill my husband, his bowstring snapped. I looked up and thanked Bahamut from the bottom of my heart.

Gangnam-sum shook his faulty bow in a blind rage, and he threw his quiver to the ground. His arrows spilled out all over the place. Gangnam-sum retreated into the doorway and slammed it shut.

Ilgamal still faced Wen. There could be no retreat for him. As he raised his scimitar to slay Wen, Ochir fired a cluster of arrows that dropped the barbarian. He fell on his back with Ochir's arrows sticking straight up out of his chest.

Suddenly, Xia popped into view over Ilgamal’s body. She bent down, lifted his chin, and looked into his eyes. His face filled with fear. “Do I look haggly to you?” She threw his head back, stood up, and shot Ilgamal over and over again in the face with her magic missiles. Within seconds, he was dead.

“Xia!” Dipaka yelled. “What are you doing?”

Xia had tears running down her cheeks, and she didn’t hear Dipaka. She looked up from Ilgamal to see who was next. Her eyes were bloodshot and filled with hate.

Aki was a whirlwind taking out the regulars, I saw him knock five bandits to the ground in a handful of seconds. 

Allegro was a battle machine too, and every time he dispatched a bandit, Istanoval cried, “For the halflings of Blue Silk village!”

“Since Bahamut is merciful, I will give you this one chance to leave this fortress!.” Wen told the remaining archers as he dismounted and picked up his Hanzo sword. He gave them a look and they allowed him to retrieve his blade. They stood there, waiting.

“Go!” Wen ordered.

All the bandits ran for the front gate.

I wanted to fireball them. I wanted them dead. It was hard not to kill them.

“Don’t do it Xiao Ping!” Dipaka put his hand up. I hesitated and lowered my hand.

Xia raised her hand slowly. “Those men killed my husband. They have to pay.”

Xia’s fire bead sailed over, erupted on the bandits, and incinerated them. They all screamed as their faces melted away and their flesh fell from their bones. After their screams died away, there was only silence in the courtyard. The smell of cooked flesh filled the air.

“Oh, if I did something like that, I’d never hear the end of it,” Ochir said. “Xia, I wouldn’t recommend going on any boat trips with Wen anytime soon.”

Xia looked at Ochir with stone dead eyes.

Dipaka shook his head sadly.

The battle over, I flew down beside Lo’s burned body and picked up Suishen. I lifted it and held aloft the artifact katana with both hands.

To my surprise, Suishen burst into flames. I watched the fire cascade up the blade. Suddenly, I felt ultra-powerful, just like a true Samurai.

“Don’t get any ideas, woman,” Suishen said. “My flames are not for you! They burn for the Prince that rides in your womb!”

That must have been when I fainted.


Return of the Samurai

By Aiko Kaijitsu

Wen was there when I opened my eyes.

“Oh, thank Bahamut!” he said. “You’re awake!”

“What happened? I must have dozed off,” I said.

“Dozed off? That was yesterday!” Wen cried.

Then I remembered.

“Dipaka says you’re pregnant!”

I took his hand. “Wen, we’re going to have son.”

“Yes we are, and I intend for my son to be healthy! From now on, there will be no more teleporting, fireballing, flying, feather-falling, scrying, or memorizing spells of any sort,” Wen was commanding me. “No more of your magic! I’ll see to it if I have to!”

“Uh, excuse me, she still needs to open the door in the Shrine,” I heard Aki say to Wen. “If we had the Seal, we could probably open it. Hopefully, it will open for her, a true blood heir, or we’re going to have to go back to Sapporo to get the Seal.”

Wen and Aki helped me to my feet.

“I assume it won’t take any magic to open the cache,” I offered.

“Well,” Wen hesitated, “I guess it will be alright.”

“Is Lo dead?” I asked.

“No, Lo’s alive,” Wen said, “that regeneration ring of his could put a puddle back together.” Wen stopped me and held my arm. “He’s not completely better yet. He was badly burned.”

They took me to a room that served as a shrine, and there was a statue of Amataratsu, goddess of the Sun. There was a list of names that went on and on as a memorial to long dead Samurai at her feet. There was a round door in the middle of the floor. It had a big, concealed hinge on one side, and there was a large lifting ring at its center. Lo was trying to lift it. Allegro and Dipaka were watching.

“One- two-- three!” Lo gave the ring a mighty tug and pulled. His feet were planted on either side of the door, and veins stuck out of his neck as he strained with all his might. “Aaaaaaaaagh!” he bellowed. Lo became enraged, and his arm and leg muscles grew to be almost twice their normal size. He pulled as hard as he could on the ring. Sweat was pouring down his face. I thought he was going to blow a gasket. Even the stone around the door seemed to groan a bit. Finally, he gave up. He blew out a huge breath. “It can’t be done,” he said, “it’s going to take a true heir to open this.” He took turns shaking his arms and legs to loosen them up again.

Lo was terribly scarred from head to toe. His ring had regenerated him once again, but not the fire damage his tissues had sustained. Dipaka said he would be able to take care of that.

“I’m glad you’re alive Lo,” I said. I walked over to the door and Lo stepped back. “Let me try,” I said.

“Be my guest,” he offered.

“This will finally tell us if all of this has been a bunch of shit,” I said.

I reached down and gripped the ring. I took a deep breath and pulled on the door. There was a snap-hiss as stale air escaped around the door’s edges, and then the massive stone lifted quite easily. I got my fingers under the edge, pulled and then pushed the door the rest of the way up, and propped it open.

“I’ll be damned,” Lo said.

We laid down flat on our stomachs and peered into the darkness below. I threw a light cantrip on a bag of coins and dropped it in. It landed right in the middle of a huge splayed tiger skin rug, twenty feet below.

What was down there was indeed an armory. There were racks of weapons and armor; it was what amounted to a complete set of masterwork armament for ten Samurai. Everything an Empress would need for a squad of royal guards.

There was also a majestic folding screen, a delicately carved chest, a magic helmet, and an adamantine katana. We assumed that the katana was Jiro’s family sword. We spent an hour making a full accounting of the armory, and then we closed the door.

Ochir and Allegro declared the fort cleared and in the possession of the House. We set about learning about the castle, and thought about staying there. I didn’t like it; I wanted to have my baby in Sapporo. Honshu was not as safe as Hokkaido, for here, the Daimyo was evil and in league with the Jade Regent. In Sapporo, we could possibly count on a safe refuge near the Forest of Spirits.

We decided to send Spad the Raven to find Jiro in the field and alert him of our victory. Three days later, Jiro and his band of ronin arrived at the fortress. They rode in through the gate. “We have been victorious! Here is a friend of yours, I believe,” Jiro motioned to Gangnam-sum, who was bound, gagged, and hung from a branch two ronin carried between them.

“We must retire to the shrine, Jiro, and I will present your family katana to you with my sister in attendance,” I said.

“Is she here already?” Jiro asked.

“No, she will appear to be with us using my crystal ball. She won’t be coming here,” I explained.

Jiro’s eyebrows rose. “Lead the way, Princess.”

I took Jiro to the shrine and I showed him the statue and the door to the cache. I opened the door for him. Wen hadn't come down yet, so I used my telekinesis to raise the adamantine katana up from out of the dark vault. I had it float toward me and I took it, and I held my crystal ball up in my other hand.

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

There was a swirl in the ball and a vortex appeared in the air. Pang Mei was there, alone.

“Welcome to Seinaru Heikiko, Hirabashi Jiro,” she said.

Jiro bowed very low. When he straightened, I knelt and presented him with his family katana. He took it with great reverence. He bowed again, and he looked at me and said, “You are truly a Princess of Japan.”

Next, he turned to Ameiko, knelt, and said, “And you are truly the Empress.”

“Hirabashi Jiro, you are a Ronin no longer. I hereby bestow upon you your honor, and make you a Samurai. Rise, as you are an honored warrior once again, for I am the true Empress of Japan.”

Jiro rose. He stood pin straight and his jaw was firm. “Thank you, your majesty,” he said.

“Now,” Ameiko went on, “you will use your men to garrison Seinaru Heikiko for me. I’m sure my sister and her party will be returning to Sapporo.” Ameiko looked at me, and I nodded.

“I will call upon you in the future, Hirabashi Jiro. When the time is right,” she said.

“Yes, your majesty,” Jiro said.

After that, we went back to Hokkaido. We rode on our horses; Wen of course would not allow any more teleporting. I obeyed my husband. Since I wasn’t casting spells, we got to enjoy each other at night.
  
After Wen had fallen asleep one night, I stayed awake and wondered if my mother had known magic. Could she have ever used magic when pregnant with my sister, or me? I had studied hard, and kept my taboos, but I had always been strangely adept at theurgies. I was innately a Wu Jen, just as I was by nature a woman, and soon, a mother. I didn’t want my son to have to be anything he didn’t want to be. I knew Wen would want him to be a Paladin or at least a Samurai, but I wanted him to be able to choose what he would be in the world.

I realized that our son would need a world safe enough to choose what to be in.

We arrived in Sapporo without so much as a kobold rearing its tapered head. The road had been the most dangerous thing we had encountered on the entire ride. There had been a smelly barge hand that had gotten lippy out on the straight, but Wen had taken care of him with a punch in the nose. I had wanted to hold him out over the water for a while with my telekinesis, but alas, spells were off limits.

After we had settled into the inn again, I went to Dipaka to have him look at me and see how the baby was doing. When I got to his room, Chaka was coming out. She was finally getting closer to giving birth, but she still had a ways to go.

Dipaka examined me next and gave me hope for a healthy baby. When I was leaving, Xia was arriving. I smiled at her, but she didn’t look at me and she rushed inside. I tried to ask her what was wrong, but she closed the door before I could finish my question.

I hoped Dipaka would handle it, whatever it was, and I went back to tell Wen the good news. Still, I was worried. It wasn’t like Xia to hide things from me. I asked Dipaka, but he said he would not reveal the nature of his treatments of his other patients to me. “It would be unseemly,” he said. “It should be made into a law, that no physician should ever reveal information about the health of his patients, not even to lawful authorities. A blabber-mouthed doctor can make patients afraid to seek treatment.”

We planned Allegro and An-Mei’s wedding. An-Mei was officially asked by Ameiko if she wished to become a family Scion, and she agreed. I asked Ameiko if she thought it was wise to open the warding box in Sapporo so often. “Let them come,” she said.


A Wedding and a Baby

By Aiko Kaijitsu

We geared up for a halfling wedding, which usually would have been a grand old party, but An-Mei wanted a small affair. Midsummer’s day dawned bright and clear, and streamers flickered from pike tops in the playful wind.

Dipaka had opened the wedding with a few words of invocation and the time came for An-Mei to give her vows to Allegro. Her white dress was beautiful, and almost seemed to glow in the sun.

“I have come to this new land for a chance to live in peace and happiness, and to raise a family in a country free of war. I have truly found a partner in this dream,” she said. “I vow to love you and cherish you for all the length of my days,” An-Mei vowed.

Dipaka beamed with pride as he heard an earnest desire for peace in a voice other than his own.

Next, it was Allegro’s turn. He was dressed in a smart blue silk suit fringed with golden roping. He was adorable.

“I’m not a man known much for my words, so, simply put, this is the most important day of my life. I have found the perfect partner. You are to me are as untarnished as glittering gold. You will be the sparkling jewel in my eye, until my eyes close forever.”

It was so touching, I started to cry. I saw Ameiko and Xia crying too.

“You have chosen well, Sir Hobbit,” Prince Batsai-Khar said. “I deem your silk maiden worth ten good warhorses. What say you?”

Allegro grew fierce. “I would rather give up my life for her! Remember good sir, that I’m a Polo, and quite friendly with your uncle.”

Prince Batsai-Khar remained stoic at first, but then sat back and smiled. “Oh very well, you are hereby blessed,” he said.

Ameiko placed her hand on the Prince’s hand for a moment, and then stood and bestowed her royal blessings on the couple.

Lo gave the couple a bundle of flowers. One flower inside the bunch was false, but looked just like the others. “Love her until the last of these flowers wilt,” Lo said, and handed them to Allegro.

Allegro scratched his head, but thanked Lo anyway.

“I pray to Buddha that your children have ten perfect little sticky fingers and toes just like yours, Allegro,” Ochir said. Ochir always knew just what to say.

After the ceremony, I went to take it easy and work on my journal, but the rest of them partied all night long. The next day, I heard there was even dancing in the streets.

After the wedding, Ochir and Chaka left Sapporo to return to Beijing. “No son of mine is gonna be born in a foreign country,” Ochir had said.

In November of the year 1271, our son was born. I was in labor for twenty hours. Wen and I had long before given up our intimacies, given my new girth and general demeanor; so I was very tempted to teleport my son out of me more than once. I had no idea how a baby was going to come out from between my legs. Dipaka began gripping my hand while I was in pain, and then he asked Lo to do it. “She has one heck of a grip,” Dipaka said, “and I’m going to need my hand.”

I pushed, huffed, breathed, swore, and promised that I hated Wen, Dipaka, and Lo. Aki held one of my shins locked tight, while Wen held the other. Dipaka waited between them. I was too busy screaming to feel humiliated.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of pain and agony, it was over. Everything let go, and relief flooded my being.

I heard crying, and it was the most beautiful sound.

Dipaka laid my son on my chest, and I felt his skin on mine for the first time. He stopped crying, and an indescribable joy filled my heart.

We named our son Yoshi. He was small and plump. He had a tuft of black hair and little black slits for eyes. When he opened them wide in surprise or glee, they sparkled like jewels. Wen was so happy; he took Yoshi in his arms and smiled. Yoshi smiled at his dad. I was so overjoyed. I didn’t think anymore about Onis, Ninjas, thrones, or anything like that.

Wen had rented a house and hired a girl to help us. Xia of course lived with Lo; she was a Sorceress in her own right, and no longer a handmaiden. Lo told me later that Xia had miscarried. I had never even considered the possibility that they could have children. There were all sorts of species in the world; I guess I really had no idea what was possible. Apparently, compatibility wasn’t necessarily the problem. “Dipaka said it was very unlikely that she could ever bear a child. Dipaka said that he thinks he may be able to help,” Lo said.

“If that’s what you guys want, I hope it works out for you,” I said. I knew it must sound insincere, but I really did mean it.

Eventually, a whole year had come and gone since we left Seinaru Heikiko behind us. Ochir and Chaka had returned to Sapporo, but had left their new son back in Mongolia to be raised in the Forbidden City under strict supervision. They were anxious to resume their mission.

Wen and I left Yoshi under the care of his nanny, my sister, the Jade Archer, and the Prince’s female Samurai. He was safer there than anywhere. Wen preferred to keep most things with our son private, so I promised Wen I would not write about Yoshi in my journal.


The Teahouse

By Aiko Kaijitsu

We headed back to the island of Honshu and went to find the port of Enganoka. Ameiko said that there was a powerful Geisha there, and we would need to make contact and introduce ourselves and try to win her trust. The Kiniro Kyomai Teahouse was our destination.

Enganoka was on the west side of Honshu, built on a series of steep terraces that extended from the port level to the top of the hills where the richest houses turned up their noses at rest of the city. The entertainment district was built among the uppermost levels. Centered on a large street, called the Way of the Songbirds, two gates stood at either end of the wide avenue and were manned by local guards, who checked out all visitors. They kept out beggars, and worse, Ronin, who tended to be rowdy as well as penniless, and were forbidden by decree. The guards were obviously suspicious of heavily armed strangers, and they questioned us when we tried to enter and spent half an hour checking us out.

"We can't let you in with all these weapons," they finally said.

"I'm tired, horny, and thirsty, so just open the gate and let me in!" Ochir ordered. They frowned.

Lo leaned over and intimidated the guards. "It would be very wise of you to let the little man in," he said.

“Uh, ok,” they said. The guards all took three steps back and let us pass into the street. It was teeming with people. As we walked down the way, Aki came over to Wen and me.

"I have been to this city before. Five ninja clans operate around the city. Three of them have approached me and they are aware of you and your sister, and her intentions on the throne. They wanted me to get the coin that I found when I was attacked by the ninja that killed Miyaro. I didn't know who he was at the time, but later the coin tried to possess me. It is very, very evil. I was not able to keep it. I turned it over to your sister and she placed it inside the warding box. It is on the same level of magical power as the Seal, I think. The clans desperately want this coin. I couldn’t keep the coin; eventually I would not be able to resist its power. I'm sure whatever it wanted me to do; it would not have been a good thing,” Aki reported.

"Are the ninja clans evil?" I asked.

"I do not know whether they are good or evil, or whether or not it matters. They can help us, hinder us, or stay out of our way. We will need to deal with each of them. In addition, where we are going now, we are certainly known as well,” Aki warned.

We saw an elaborate building front and there were a group of armed guards outside. They bore the insignia of Sikutsu Sennaka; they were men of the Daimyo. They were jostling a lone unarmed man and laughing.

One of the guards asked, “Are you the traitor from the village of Ujioshi? If you say yes, we’ll let you go!”

“Yes I am, whatever you say!” the desperate man cried, “I am the traitor!”

“You are a liar! There is no village called Ujioshi! You are a smuggler and a thief! You are sentenced to death!”

Two of the men grabbed the poor man by his shoulders and pushed him down roughly to his knees.

“No!” the man cried. “Don’t kill me!”

Another guard drew his blade and raised it to chop off the man’s head.

I held out my arm and lifted the poor man straight up into the air, and took him up twenty feet out of the reach of the guards. They were so surprised, they didn’t react at first.

Lo roared, drew Suishen, and it burst into flames. “These are not men! These are Oni! Do not be fooled by their appearances!” Suishen cried.

“Oni? They think we’re Onis? In that case, I guess we are!” Two of the men flew up from the ground to where I held the man in mid-air and one seized the poor bastard while the other chopped off his head. His severed head made a loud crack when it struck the street, and then it clunked around unpredictably before rolling under a cart.

I was furious.

The other four Oni flew up and threw deep slumbers at us and put Guchugar and Guchuluk to sleep. Chi Hai lay down and went to sleep, and Wen was forced to dismount as he asked Bahamut to bless his Hanzo blade. Allegro’s mastiff opted for a nap too, so Allegro rolled to his feet and came up with Istanoval out.

The crowd screamed and began running in every direction.

Chaka threw a haste spell and began banging out a rhythm her drums.

Aki opened his mouth and Ki shouted with his Voice of the Forest, which stunned and severely damaged two of the Onis. The force that affected them was a sonic vibration so powerful it was akin to a fireball in its destructive wake.

Lo grabbed the old brown net he had gotten during our first adventure, and flung it at one of the flying Oni. It wrapped around the man and he fell to the ground, ensnared.

Ochir flew straight up, firing arrows like a fiend into the Onis.

I grabbed the Oni that had chopped off the peasant’s head and forced him to the ground. “No!” he cried, as he magically came down in front of Lo.

Lo chopped him in half with one mighty stroke. The two halves of his body fell to the street and turned into a hideous Oni. Now, the crowd really screamed.

Xia fireballed the flying Onis, and one of them dropped; the others were severely weakened.

One of the Oni engaged Aki, but couldn’t keep a grip on him. Another sliced Ochir open with his no-dachi and yet another buffeted Wen and knocked him back.

Suddenly, we heard Chaka scream, and turned to see a farmer leaping back into the moving crowd with a bloodied blade. Chaka had blood running down her front, for she had been viciously stabbed. “He tried to kill me! I’ve been poisoned!” she cried. Dipaka rushed over to help her.

“It was the ninja!” Aki cried. “Try to find him!” Aki looked at all the people frantically one by one trying to locate the assassin. Allegro searched through the crowd as well. Ochir studied faces.

Lo threw his shield to the ground, went two-handed, and raged. “Remember to burn them!” Suishen cried. Lo killed two more Onis. “It’s about time, it’s been a year since we’ve done battle,” Suishen cried.

“I think I found him!” Ochir called. We watched in horror as Ochir fired an arrow at a bent crone that was dawdling around a shop window. She stiffened but remained standing. Ochir hit her again with two more arrows, and the old woman straightened and began casting a spell. She was no crone.

Just as I tried to seize and lift the disguised assassin with my telekinesis, the old woman vanished.

Wen rented an Oni’s armor with his Hanzo blade, thus killing the Oni with a mighty blow.

Allegro and Aki killed the Oni that was caught in the net.

Lo used Suishen to burn away the Oni’s bodies. Surprisingly, the people now milled about normally and ignored us.

After that, we sought out the Kiniro Kyomai Teahouse.

We found the Teahouse sign and were met at the gate by a young and sensual maiko, or apprentice geisha. Maiko literally means “dance child", and such young apprentices could also be known as hangyoku, or “half-jewels”, for they were paid half the wage of a full geisha. She wore a flowery a long sleeved kimono, and she introduced herself as O-Kahami.

She was a young teenager, a very fresh faced girl.

“Do you have an appointment?” she asked.

“Does cash need an appointment?” Ochir asked.

Chaka translated: “We have brought gifts for the honored Geisha, gifts from the Empire.”

“Like I said,” Ochir said. “I guess my Japanese is rusty.”

The girl was aghast at Ochir’s crude behavior. She let us into the parlor and hurried away to fetch her mistress.

Shortly thereafter, an older woman appeared. “I am O-Kohaku, Mistress of the Kiniro Kyomai Teahouse. How can I serve you?”

“We want to talk to you, about the Jade Regent,” I said.

She sat down and ordered the younger girl to bring us all tea.

“I wonder why strangers from lands so distant come to Japan,” she said. “I see you are paired in couples already, but it is no matter, geishas are trained in many arts and can stimulate your mind as well as your body.”

“We did not come here for entertainment,” I said.  "Allow me to begin.” I introduced everyone in order. 

“I didn’t think you came to me for my geisha. Now that you have introduced yourselves without falsehood, I will say that I am aware of your family and its brewing attempt to topple the Jade Regent. You are here to see if I will help you. These are politics. We geisha must maintain a policy of strict neutrality; the affairs of others cannot concern us. I wish to ask of you something personal. What have you heard of the ronin Jiro? I remember when he was a Samurai," she said.

"He is a Samurai once more," I said. Her eyes seemed to light up some then. I briefly related the tale of our meeting with Jiro.

“Surely you must have a stake in this matter?” I asked her. “This Jiro has joined us.”

"Yes, I hate the Jade Regent; my hopes of seeing the Emperor Shegure back on the throne have faded. He has been gone for a long time, and the Jade Regent will soon be the legitimate ruler of Japan. You are likely too late."

"How so?" I asked.

"Well, by rule of law, if there is no legitimate claimant to the throne for so many moons, the Jade Regent will have the authority to crown himself, and author a new ruling line in Japan. That will be the day when you will walk upside down and we will all fall into the sea. Timpa, Timpa, Timpa, Ti.”

“And it is into the sea, we do not wish to fall, as my friend Ochir here will attest, so thus we must depose the Jade Regent, and you must help us, and give us whatever aid you may,” I said.

“I could help. I have many contacts amongst the nobles and merchants in these provinces. However, I have my own problems. One of my most talented and respected geisha, O-Sayumi, has gone missing. She is adored by the local nobility; she has even received gifts from Sikutsu Sennaka’s younger brother. The Daimyo’s brother Hetzuru is a gentle and honorable man that doesn't share his brother’s views or his methods.”

“What if we were to help you with your problem?”

“Well, if you could find her and return her safely, I suppose I could help you then,” she said doubtfully.

"Where was she last?" Aki asked.

“She was scheduled to meet a wealthy pearl merchant named Yugureda Shosaito, a regular client of the Teahouse, and she traveled to his private island. She never returned. The merchant himself claimed that she never arrived at the island, but I think O-Sayumi is being held on the island against her will.  She is the most desired geisha in the Province.”

I pulled out Focus, and held it up before her. “Here, since you know her, you can use my crystal ball to scry on her.”

“Alas, I cannot use a crystal ball. You must use it on my behalf; I do have a lock of her hair amongst her other things.” O-Kohaku sent the young maiko to fetch O-Sayumi’s personal belongings.

“Yugureda Shosaito has always been obsessed with O-Sayumi, and she has always refused to see him. I don’t know why I made her go."

The younger girl returned with the items and begged us, "Oh, please, please, you must find O-Sayumi, for she is my sister!”

“Sip!” O-Kohaku said, and silenced the girl. The child handed us a piece of folded Rice paper and an ivory inro, a small Japanese carrying case. It had a geisha on the side, and it opened as though it were a stack of trays.

The paper bore a short poem:

“I must discover
what lies inside of myself
To enter your place
Through darkened shattered gates,
the reflection is not me.”

Inside the stacked inro, there were three small compartments. In the first compartment, there was an empty silkworm cocoon. In the second compartment, there were two interlocking stone rings, one of yellow calcite and one of lapis lazuli. The third compartment contained three camphor wood beads on a corded ring.

“Where exactly is this private island?” Ochir asked.

“It is not far from shore, but you must travel fifty miles to get to the narrowest point for crossing.”

We left the Teahouse and headed for the docks to try to find out more.

The harbormaster told us that the pearl merchant’s barge had not been seen for more than a month, which was very unusual. The barge in fact used to visit the port every two weeks or so to transport supplies. Yugureda Shosaito was only actually on board on rare occasions. During his visits, the merchant did little more than bring pearls to sell to local dealers and spend time in the entertainment district. His barge had been around for years, and was very well known.

The next day, we set out heading north to find the point where we wanted to cross over to the island. We traveled all day by the roads. The sun was finally setting, and the horizon was a brilliant shade of red. We decided to set up camp for the night, and tackle the island fresh the next day.


Fracture

By Aiko Kaijitsu

As we set up camp, the sun disappeared, and we set up the light. I thought the day was over.

“I don’t know why the sun sets in the west,” Lo said to Xia, just to make conversation before the watch started.

“You live in your own world, don’t you Lo?” Ochir asked.

“Unfortunately, I live in a world where I have to listen to your mandering,” Lo said.

“Oh, you’re making up words now? There’s heads of cabbage that have forgotten more words than you’ve ever learned,” Ochir said.

“Ok you two, that will be enough of that,” Dipaka said.

“It’s a steady stream,” Lo said. “What’s even more amazing is that he actually believes the crap that comes out of his mouth,” Lo said to Dipaka.

“Every time I pull out my bow and fire an arrow, it definitely speaks the truth,” Ochir said.

“That’s true, but that’s about all you’re good for, a weapon to be used against an enemy,” Lo said.

“That’s exactly what I am, a cog in a machine,” Ochir said.

“Ok, then do me a favor, don’t try and discuss morality with me,” Lo said.

“Morality?  There’s a strange subject. You know what I’m not? I’m not a hypocrite,” Ochir said. “What about what Xia did? All you guys have already given her a pass on what she did. She executed all those men in cold blood that Wen allowed to leave.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a big difference! You killed someone that was on our side, and in her case, the guys weren’t on our side, they were enemies regardless,” Lo said.

“No! In her case, the guys were no threat to the Japanese Empire, and in my case, Malthus was a threat to the Mongol Empire,” Ochir argued. “Xia gets nothing and I get thrown off a boat to die!”

“Those men had just killed her husband,” Wen said. “She killed them in a time of anger, not cold blood.”

“Still, she killed innocent people, and they were no threat! You guys are letting her get away with it, so you are hypocrites!” Ochir charged. He was getting very angry.

“Blah, blah, blah…” Lo said.

“All right,” Ochir got out his bow, nocked an arrow, and aimed it at Lo.

“Ok, go right ahead and shoot me,” Lo said, “go ahead, I give you permission.”

“Hey! I beg of you to stop this!” Dipaka cried. He ran forward but couldn’t get in front of Ochir fast enough.

Suddenly, Ochir fired his bow at Xia. The arrow thunked into her chest. She looked down as blood began to run down her breast. “What did you shoot me for?” she asked in a faraway voice.

“I shot you because you committed the same crime I committed and you should have to pay for it too,” Ochir stated.

Dipaka got between Ochir and Lo. “Everybody, stop it now!” Dipaka cried.

Lo looked at Dipaka. “How long can you stand there? As soon as you leave, there is going to be a fight, so you might as well get out of the way,” Lo said. “He just shot my wife!”

“I’m here now and I’m not moving,” Dipaka was firm.

Wen drew his Hanzo sword and walked over to Ochir. He was not affected by Dipaka’s peaceful aura.

“It is Bahamut’s will I do this day, by his bidding,” Wen said calmly. He chopped Ochir with the sword and the gnome winced and began to bleed profusely.

Ochir dropped his bow and tried to get a potion of healing out of his pouch, but Wen knocked it out of his hand. “Oh, no you don’t,” Wen said.

Lo was close to Wen now, and he was able to attack Ochir, even as he was within Dipaka’s aura. He hacked Ochir once with Suishen and Ochir collapsed to the ground. He was clearly close to death.

I telekinetically lifted and moved Ochir’s bow and quiver of arrows into the air, and drew them over to myself. I took them and held them tight.

I saw Xia’s arm come up to finish Ochir.

“No Xia, don’t do it! Please don’t kill him!” I cried. She hesitated. She looked at me like had spoiled her party, and then she vanished from sight.

Dipaka went over and healed Ochir to keep him from dying.

Lo put Suishen away and said, “Lesson dealt, and I hope, lesson learned.”

Chaka put an Ioun stone on Ochir and Guchugar and Guchuluk slid his unconscious body into her bag of holding.

I walked over to the gnomes. “Give me the bag,” I said to Chaka.

“What?” she asked.

“He can’t come out of there again! Give me the bag!”

“Come on Xiao Ping, you know I’m not giving you the bag,” Chaka said.

“Then we’re going to have a nasty fight here,” I said, pointing at her. “We need to straighten this out right now; he’s not coming out of that bag. He is in custody! You don’t shoot my Xia, under any fucking circumstance no matter what nation you’re ambassadors from!” I was very angry, and Chaka could see that.

“Ok… well, I’m going to call the mainland, and see if Ochir can be re-assigned. I think it may have come to that,” Chaka said.

“I think it has, I don’t want to see him around anymore,” I said. I crossed my arms. It looked like Chaka understood.

Lo laughed. “Chaka got Xiao Ping’s angry finger, usually I’m the one that gets that finger.”

I returned Ochir’s bow and arrows to Chaka. It wouldn’t be right to keep them, they were highly valuable.

Aki went over to Xia. “I want you to know that I’m very disappointed in you, for your killing of those men.”

“They killed Lo!” Xia cried. “I mean, they meant to kill Lo, I mean, they would have killed him, I mean…”

“I know what you mean, but that’s not an excuse to kill them,” Aki said.

“You definitely need to atone,” Dipaka said to Xia.

“But they were bandits!” Xia cried. “You’re on Ochir’s side?” She began to cry. “What do I have to do with him?”

“Nothing, we are bringing this up now because Ochir has forced us, in a way,” Dipaka said. “Still, you must atone for what you did. Other things you did were evil. Come with me into the woods. I can help you to atone.”

“Very well, Father,” she said. They went into the woods. When they returned a while later, they were both chatting and smiling.

“I have used a spiritual power to cleanse Xia’s soul before the universe, and I offer the same chance to Ochir, if you would convey my offer to him,” he said to Chaka.

“I am technically higher in rank than Ochir, and could order him to eat feces, but I can only advise him to atone,” Chaka said. “I’ll go try to talk to him,” she said. She went away into the woods alone.

I turned invisible, floated a few feet off the ground, and followed. I wanted to know what these two said to each other. I stayed a ways back, so I couldn’t see them, but I was close enough that I could still hear them. I supposed that no one would ever truly be able to secretly follow or listen in on a gnome, let alone a very savvy gnome like Chaka, so I guessed that maybe Chaka didn’t care if I listened in.

“You came this close to making me a widow! Picking a fight with Lo, and Wen, and shooting Xia? You think that’s what your child wants, what I want, and what your Emperor wants?”

“Are you done?” Ochir asked.

“No, I’m not done!  As the ambassador to Japan, I must insist that you go before Dipaka and seek atonement for what you have done!”

“No.” Ochir refused.

“No?” Chaka was incredulous.

“If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to do the things here that need to be done.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Fine, you can go back to freaking Mongolia and guard a herd of Yaks!” Chaka cried.

“You’re pissed off,” Ochir said.

“Yes! I’m pissed off because you endangered everything.”

“The point had to be made, that Xia killed those men, and everyone gave her a pass. They tried to murder me.”

“They just made Xia atone, Ochir, and you need to atone too.”

“I’ll apologize to Xia, if Wen will apologize to our Emperor,” Ochir said.

“Wen will never agree to that.”

“We’ll show them that we are better than him. I’ll apologize to Xia, and he won’t apologize to me or agree to apologize to the Emperor. That will show everyone that we’re better than him.”

“You can apologize with no stipulations. I’ll not ask Wen that, it will just be insulting him all over again. If you do not seek atonement, I will ensure that you are sent back to Beijing where you will play only the part of doting father.”

“If you refuse to offer Wen what I gave you, you will be a widow,” Ochir said.

“Fine,” Chaka said, “now get back in the bag. I don’t want you killed.”

I floated back to the party and turned visible again.

Wen said, “I move to kick Ochir out of the party.”

“Yes, I agree,” I said.

“And I,” Lo said.

“And I,” Xia said.

“I vote that he atone, and remain in the party,” Dipaka said.

“I vote he remain as well,” Aki said. At first Aki had threatened to abstain, but Lo had leaned on him a bit.

Allegro was nowhere to be found.

“That’s four to two, and even with Chaka’s vote for Ochir, which may even be in doubt, Ochir is out of the party,” I said.

Chaka walked into the camp. “Oh, so that’s how it is? Come on now; let’s have a talk before we do anything rash. Just us girls.” Chaka led me and Xia out into the woods.

“We have to end this conflict,” I said. “We have to separate Ochir, Wen, and Lo because men are flawed. There’s no help for them. They have war juices that run through their bodies, and when we are not at war, the juices run still, and they must find faults with each other.”

“I have a couple things to say about that, but on the surface, it appears that is the case. But by giving in to one side or the other, we are letting our men folk control this party,” Chaka said.

“Wen is a Paladin, and he’ll lose his Paladinhood if we don’t split up,” I said.

“If Ochir leaves I have to leave with him, and I’ll have to continue this mission with your sister’s group, and you’re going to be two people short against these heinous Oni’s you are fighting. You could fail without our help. For Wen, tolerating Ochir gives him a twenty percent better chance of success of saving a lot of lives.”

“To you and me, there are gray areas, to Bahamut, there is no such gray area, and your husband has made his last mistake. We can’t travel together. You’ll have to go with my sister.”

“Then maybe we may have to go back to Mongolia and say we failed in our mission,” Chaka said.

I shrugged. I didn’t know what else to do. Ochir had to go.

“What if Ochir apologizes to Xia?” she asked.

I knew that Ochir had already promised to apologize to Xia. This was up to Xia though; my knowledge of it didn’t matter. “Alright, it’s up to Xia, then,” I said.

“I don’t know, I’d really have to feel it,” Xia said doubtfully.

“Oh, he feels really bad about it,” Chaka said. She looked at me. “If you can see fit, when Ochir apologizes to Xia, is it possible you could nudge Wen into some act of contrition for throwing my husband off the boat?”

“What? Nice try! My husband can’t travel any more with you people! We can’t back our way out of this problem now! He’s not going to go anywhere else with any of you gnomes, he can’t help it; it’s what Bahamut tells him to do.”

Chaka looked at me. “Xiao Ping,” she said, “at least try?”

“Ok, I’ll go talk to Wen and see,” I gave in. “Wait here, I guess.”

I walked back to the men’s group with Xia.

“You want sausage or bacon?” Wen asked one of the other men.

“You’re changing the subject. Why did you throw Ochir off the boat?” Aki asked.

"It's not why did I throw him off the boat, that's obvious. The question you should ask me is why I did it when I did it."

"Exactly, that was the question I was going to ask," Dipaka said.

"Because, that was the spot, according to my navigation, that we left Mongolian waters, and entered Japanese waters, and the Mongol Empire had no jurisdiction."

"But was he not an Ambassador at this point?" Aki asked.

"Whether or not he was a diplomat is certainly in question, out there on the high sea. Certainly, being a diplomat does not excuse you for committing a murder,” Wen said.

"You committed murder when you threw him off the boat, when he couldn't survive in the icy sea,” Aki said.

"He survived, didn't he?"

"That's not the point. You literally threw someone off the boat that couldn’t swim."

"It is not murder, its justice," Wen said.

"I will have to disagree, and of course I don't condone what Ochir did either,” Aki said.

“I am obligated to arrest Ochir if I see him," Wen said. "In fact, I'm obligated to kill him outright. Only if Xia or Chaka begs mercy for him will I spare him, and only then if I am given some guarantee he will be safely imprisoned for the rest of his days.”

Dipaka got down on his knees, and begged Wen not to kill Ochir. “Please, oh please, don’t kill Ochir.”

"No, no, Father, get up! Your head can never be lower than anyone else's!" Wen cried.

Dipaka refused to rise.

"Very well, I will not slay him on sight. There must be a trial," Wen said. “I don’t know why you guys don’t seem to understand why I tried to kill Ochir. I wish the two of you would condone this; you were both there when he murdered Malthus. I tell you what—“

"You should've put him on trial first, not thrown him off the boat, and only now think of bringing him up on charges. This just proves you did this in an underhanded way," Aki said.

"Yes, it seemed deceitful, the manner in which you did it," Dipaka said.

"Honestly Father, I was just trying to save a lot of people a lot of trouble," Wen said.

"We know you're a good person, but you had a lapse in judgment at that time," Aki said.

Lo harrumphed and spoke up. "I want this question answered, and it's this, Ochir has continually done evil things, and he's never had to atone for any of it. Not one evil thing he’s done. When does it end?”

"I've offered him atonement, but I will not force him to atone. I don't force any of you to do anything, just like I didn't force Xia to atone,” Dipaka said.`

"Well Father, there comes a time when Ochir will not listen to you, and that's what Wen and I are for!" Lo shouted and beat his chest.

"I disagree, and that's what this discussion is all about," Dipaka said.

"Well, the way I see it, I can't agree. Ever. By your reckoning, evil people can go ahead and do whatever in the hell they want, as long as they listen to you, even if they don't atone, they can go right on doing evil!" Lo said.

“There is always a chance for redemption prior to death,” Dipaka said.

“What about the victims?” Lo cried.

"Very well," Wen finally said, "if Ochir will atone for his deed, I will atone for mine. I did not give him a fair trial before tossing him into the sea."

"If Ochir atones, I'll agree to it, but that's the only way I’ll agree to it,” Lo said.

“Ok, boys, I’ll go talk to Chaka,” I said, and went back into the woods. I supposed Chaka had listened to the entire conversation, but I didn’t see her until I got to the spot we’d left her. I told her the deal.

“Ok,” she said, “I’ll talk to Ochir. Go back to your camp.”

I turned and went back to the camp, so she could get Ochir out of the bag of holding and talk to him again. This was the strangest conversation I’d ever been involved in. Of course, I turned invisible and floated back to eavesdrop. There was no way I was going to miss this.

When I got near enough, I heard Chaka talking.

"You realize that people staked their reputations and stuck their necks out for you! I arranged it so that Wen will atone for what he did to you, and you will atone for what you did to Xia,” Chaka said. “No? Why are you shaking your head?”

"You must have a really bad case of wax in your ears! I didn’t say atone, said I said apologize," Ochir said.

"It's the same thing," Chaka argued.

"It's not the same thing, apologize means saying I'm sorry, and atone means something religious. The word atone never came out of my mouth.”

"Let me be your advocate here, you must atone, not apologize, or be kicked out of the party! If you are kicked out of the party, I’ll have to make a decision. Follow my stupid husband, or divorce him!" Chaka screamed.

"This is what's going to happen,” Ochir said, “I'm going to walk out there I'm going to go straight to Xia and apologize to her, and then I'm going to ask Xiao Ping to use her crystal ball and I'll bow and apologize to the Empress of Japan. Then Wen will have to apologize to my Emperor.”

"No. You're walking out there to do one of two things. Either you're going to atone, or you're going to say goodbye," Chaka said.

"There's a third option, I can apologize and then say goodbye," Ochir said.

“Fine,” Chaka said. “I’m done with you. You’re the dumbest ass in captivity.”

They headed back towards the camp. I hurried to get to the campsite ahead of them.

I tried to act non-chalant when Ochir and Chaka eventually walked out of the woods.

"My current husband has something to say to Xia," Chaka announced.

Both Lo and Wen stood cross-armed in front of Xia.

“You have a lot to answer for, Ochir,” Wen said.

“I must be a mirror then," Ochir said. "For you are the one that has a lot to answer for, but I am here to speak with Xia, not you.”

"Speak your mind, gnome," Xia said.

Ochir moved to get past Lo and Wen and get closer Xia, but they blocked the way. “This is as close as you are going to get,” Lo said.

Ochir suddenly tumbled around Wen and Lo, got on both knees, and pressed his forehead against the ground at Xia’s feet. Xia raised her hand to let Lo and Wen know it was ok.

Ochir rose and took out a big sack of coins, and handed it to Xia. “I know you're not a materialist, but this is all the money I have. I apologize very sincerely for using you as a pawn, you are just an innocent person, and I totally understand what you did to those men, however, by any measure of justice or balance, what you did was more terrible than what I did, and for you to get off scot-free while I am thrown off a boat to die, well, I just can't stand for it. I apologize for what I did to you; yet I think what I did will serve to teach a lesson about the truth and hypocrisy to your husband and Wen. I'm going to leave. I will never harm a hair on your head again. In spite of the people you have around you, you've got a friend in me.”

“Are you finished?” Xia asked.

“Yes, I’m done,” Ochir said.

Xia dumped the sack of coins over Ochir’s head.

Wen and Lo burst into laughter.

Ochir sadly turned and walked over to Baderhu, mounted up, and rode away.

Dipaka went to stop him. “Ochir! I implore you, don’t leave!” he cried.

Ochir rode off into the dark and didn’t look back. Dipaka ran after him. “Come back!”

Chaka gathered up the gold coins and put them back into the bag. She gave Xia another chance to take the money. “It’s not even paper money, its real gold,” Chaka said. Xia still shook her head.

Dipaka came back out of the darkness into the camp light alone.

“Chaka, you better go with him; you’ll need to keep Ochir safe,” I said.

Chaka looked at Lo and the rest of us. “Don’t worry, you’ll never have to see him again, with any luck I won’t have to either. I’m riding in a different direction.”

“Before you go, a word,” Dipaka said, “for the sake of your child, do not abandon your husband. For the sake of your family.”

“I don’t need any man to raise a child, and I’m going back to Beijing. I’ll raise my son myself.”

“I wasn’t suggesting you needed a man, it’s was your family I was worried about.”

“Uh, well that was all possible until Ochir started shooting people in our party. Now I can’t stay with him either, can I?” Chaka asked.

“I’ve just been trying to save our family,” Dipaka said.

“Well, you’ve done a pretty piss-poor job, Father,” Chaka said.

“I gave you all the tools you needed to keep your family and party together. Everyone has a choice in this life, and apparently, that choice has been made here, on both sides. Consider it.”

Chaka snorted and walked off. She got on Mayor's back along with her two engineers. “Send me a letter if he atones,” Chaka yelled from the darkness as she and Guchugar and Guchuluk rode away.

“Well I tried,” Dipaka said. He went over to Wen. “Wen, I’m still offering you the chance to unburden your soul,” he said.

Wen now refused. “I am not denying that your way is powerful and convincing, Father, but there is another way. A harder way, a way that is more clearly defined, a Dragon’s way. It is the way of Bahamut, where Evil is not tolerated. I did Bahamut’s bidding when I threw that gnome off the Isabella, and for enacting the wishes of my God, I will neither apologize nor atone.”

Wen turned and walked off into the night.

 

 

 

 
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