-------------------Chapter Twenty, As Told By Aiko Kaijitsu---------------------

The Challenge

By Aiko Kaijitsu

Aki wandered through the streets, trying to allow the pull that tugged at his heart to lead him. Although he could block out almost any distraction and concentrate, the sounds of the dying made themselves present in his mind. He roamed the narrow alleys all through the night and into the early morning. As the sun rose, he still hadn’t found what he was looking for. It was the dawn of the two hundred and fiftieth day of the siege.

A large black hound came up to him. Aki knew this was most unusual, for within the walls of Guangzhou, the dogs had long ago been eaten. The immense canine had a strong aura of power emanating from it. Aki was not surprised when the hound spoke into his mind.

“Akira,” it said.

“Yes? Who are you?” Aki asked.

"I am Xin, the Ranger of China. My former self was slain by Ashardalon, the mighty red worm. After my death, Shang-Ti transformed me into a Hound Archon. I cannot fight the Mongols unless they stoop to the employment of Outsiders. This is a war between Men. The Laws of Golden Perfection prohibit me from interfering. Therefore, you must go to Zhao Bing.”

"What do you want me to do?" Aki asked the Archon.

"Go to the North gate, and help the Prince.”

“Let’s go then,” Aki said. They walked to the North gate, and arrived at breakfast time. The men received a ball of rice mixed with carp in a small bowl, but most of the men stashed half of their food for their families back at home. If you staffed the wall, you were permitted to eat. All others went hungry.

The guards bowed to the Hound, and let them through. They climbed the stairs until they reached the parapet. There, Aki found Prince Zhao Bing, and his wife Lyan. Their daughter was there with them, holding Lyan’s hand. She was only three years old.

Aki looked out over the wall and saw that the waiting Mongol army numbered only about twenty thousand. They threatened a city ten times as large.

Aki saw that a man and a woman were coming toward the front gate alone. They bore a flag of parley.

"Here they come again asking for surrender!" the Prince yelled out to his troops. "Are we going to surrender today men?"

“No!” his men shouted and began to laugh.

"Aki!" the Prince cried when he saw the Monk.

"Yes, Prince?"

"Aki, it is you! You can speak now?" the Prince asked. “What of your vow of silence?”

"I found my voice when I returned to Japan," Aki said.

"Glad to have you back in China, Aki. Have you brought my friend Hung-Lo with you?"

"Yes, he is in the city," Aki said.

"Take heart men! Hung-Lo is here! Now the city will surely never fall!" Zhao Bing cried out. "Did you bring an army with you?"

"No," Aki said, "but we bring hope." Aki looked into the Prince’s eyes, and so knew he was a man who was truly good at heart.

"I used to be a spoiled Prince,” Zhao Bing said, “until years ago, when the Legendary Brotherhood came. They trained me in the ways of the Ranger. Since then, I have defeated more than one hundred Jurchen warriors. In the name of my father, I will hold this gate. The Mongols are honorable enough; they will observe their flag of parley. I will go out and treat with them. Do you wish to accompany me?"

"I will go with you," Aki said.

"I'm going with you too!" Lyan blurted.

"No!" both Aki and the Prince cried in unison. Lyan was obviously hurt.

"I’m sorry," the Prince said softly to Lyan, taking her hand.

“This is my wife Lyan, and our daughter Eri,” he said to Aki.

“Congratulations on your wonderful daughter," Aki said, smiling at Eri. She looked up at him with wide, almond shaped eyes. “Eri means blessed prize,” Aki said.

“Eri, this is uncle Aki,” Lyan said. Eri was shy and said nothing, keeping close to her mother.

Aki patted the girl on the head. As the daughter of Lyan, she was half Spiritfolk; the two instantly formed a mystical sylvan bond. She smiled at the Monk and gazed with wonder at him.

"Stay here with our daughter, and keep her safe," Zhao Bing said to his wife.

Zhao Bing and Aki went out to meet the Mongols, and left everyone and Xin the Hound behind. Xin barked twice at them to say good luck.

They met the emissaries two hundred feet from the wall, eight hundred feet from the Mongol’s front line.

"Hmmm, they usually send a General to do the talking," the Prince said, as they drew near the middle-aged emissaries.

Aki saw that it was none other than Kublai Khan himself, and his wife Chabui. The Khagan’s face was lined and severe. His mustache ends were shaped into points, and his forked beard shone in the sun. His flinty gray eyes narrowed as he looked at the Prince and Aki.

Prince Zhao Bing spoke first. "I'll tell you what I’ve told your Generals before you! You are trespassing on sovereign Song land! Recall your army, and beg for the forgiveness of the people of every village on your way back home!"

Kublai Khan laughed, but then he grew serious. "I will tell you this once. Surrender the gate! If you do not, I will slay every man, woman and child in your city! This is not negotiable, save for this: I offer you this one chance, great hero of China! Your champion will fight my champion for this gate, and in this way, we can avoid needless bloodshed. If my champion wins, I will spare the people of your city. If my champion loses, we will return to Mongolia. You have this one chance. Otherwise, my wife will call the power of the Heavens down upon on your walls. When they are rubble, we shall fight man-to-man, swore to sword, until you are all slain."

"Who is your champion? Is it you old man? I will gladly accept this fight with you!" the Prince cried.

Aki gripped the Prince’s shoulder, and the Prince turned to him. He took Aki’s wrist and spoke first.

"I know of your great skill in the martial arts, Aki. Hung-Lo has written many letters to us describing your valor, and I know you are the greatest warrior in all Japan. But before you speak, I must say that I do not accept your offer of being our champion. This is my fight. This fight is for China.”

Aki bowed to the Prince.

Zhao Bing turned back to face the Khan.

“I officially accept your challenge. We shall return within the hour.”

"Buddha is merciful," Chabui breathed in thanks, for it was not her desire to see the populace slaughtered.

Aki and the Prince headed back towards the gate.

Aki was concerned. "I do not think this is a good idea, Prince, the Khan is known to have many extremely powerful warriors. I do not believe you should risk facing his champion.”

"I have won one hundred and twenty battles thus far. Today, it shall become one hundred and twenty one," Zhao Bing said.

"The true path to enlightenment is not the number of battles you have won; it is the number of battles that you’ve avoided."

The Prince stiffened. "Unless my father orders me to, I cannot surrender the gate."

"Then simply delay, rather than fight. I'm sure the Emperor has another plan. There is no shame in knowing when to walk away from a battle.”

The Prince looked at his men. He knew they were fearful. They were men that were going without enough food, and their families were dying.

Finally, the Prince looked back at Aki. "No," he said, "if I defeat their champion, they might even keep their word and go home. If I lose, they might spare my people. Can't you see? I have no choice in this matter. If I must die, then I must die."

"Let's go see his Champion," Aki said.

As they prepared, the Yellow guards wailed and gnashed their teeth. Lyan begged her husband not to go. "You don't even have your horse my husband! Are you crazy!"

Zhao Bing said to Aki, "I sent Anh Hai back to An Nam, to live with Cop cua Rung, the Ranger. The stallion was raised by him. I could not bear the thought of his death."

“Anh Hai? The brother of Chi Hai? The Sister?”

“The very one,” Zhao Bing said.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Prince, but Chi Hai was killed in Japan.”

“Did she die well?”

“Yes, you could say so,” Aki said.

“Good,” the Prince said.

Lyan cast several protective spells on her husband.

"I promise to bring him back alive," Aki assured Lyan.

With that, the two went back out through the gate.

A massive half-Jurchen, almost a full eight feet tall, stood in front of the Mongol ranks. He was largely bare, save for a plated breechclout, and his muscles were piled up in masses of thew and sinew. Veins rippled all over his frame. His shoulders were so broad that his head was but a nub, too small for his body. Aki saw that his waistplate of strength was more elaborate by far than the belt Lo had won from Genghis Khan. His axe and spear were of ultimate quality. He was the champion of the richest King in the history of the world.

"A Jurchen? Why, it’s my favorite enemy!" Zhao Bing cried. The men on the wall laughed.

“My champion is Bolo!” the Khan shouted.

The Khan’s army cheered for their champion, and Bolo smiled and raised his hands in the air in response to the adoration. He flexed his biceps one at a time. Then he gripped his hands together at his waist and made his pectorals jump, first one side, and then the other. The Mongol troops banged their swords on their shields, and cheered.

The Khan raised his hand to command silence.

"Prince Zhao Bing, I congratulate you on your honor. Remember, the Mongol Empire is merciful to those that surrender. The time to fight has come.”

The Khan lowered his hand with a chop.

Zhao Bing unslung his bow and fired three arrows at Bolo in short order, whisking the arrows from his quiver with a rapid over the shoulder motion. All three arrows thudded into the giant’s chest, but Bolo remained as unmoving as a stone.

Then, as inexorable as a predator, Bolo began to move. He first took slow steps toward Zhao Bing, and then he gradually picked up speed. When he reached the halfway point, he launched his spear like a javelin at the Prince. The spear made a warbling noise as it left the Jurchens grip. It hurtled through the air in a great arc, and then came down and went right through Zhao Bing and stuck into the ground. The crowd on the wall gasped.

The spear would have skewered an elephant, but their Prince shimmered and stepped out of his magical cloak. He was unharmed.

“Displacement, ladies and gentlemen!” he cried. The crowd on the wall cheered for their Prince.

Bolo roared at the crowd up on the wall. He grew so angry he got bigger. The crowd booed him, so he roared again and grew another size larger. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaggh!” he roared.

"Bolo! Make it quick," Kublai Khan commanded.

“Bring it on!” Prince Zhao Bing cried. He drew his katana with one hand and his wakizashi with the other, and stood his ground.

Bolo charged and took a mighty sideways chop with his ax, but Zhao Bing easily ducked the blow.

Zhao Bing sliced Bolo four times, leaving bloody cuts across his chest.

Bolo only laughed and raised his axe over his head. Time slowed as the axe reached it's highest point. The axe began to fall.

Bolo hacked Zhao Bing with a blow so mighty the earth rumbled when it hit the dirt. The Princes’ body, made of flesh and bone, was no match for the finely honed admantium axe head, as heavy as an anvil.

The crowd on the wall fell silent as the Prince fell in two pieces.

Bolo’s head shook and sweat flew from his brow as he relished the death of the Prince. He screamed in a horrible frothing frenzy, and he stomped Zhao Bing’s bloody remains and looked around wildly. Bolo was searching for someone else to kill, because his bloodlust had boiled his brain.

His eyes settled on Aki.

"Bolo! Calm down! I command you!" Kublai Khan shouted.

Bolo ignored the Khan, and charged Aki instead. Aki dropped to the ground and tried to trip the Jurchen with a sweep kick to no avail. Bolo again raised his axe to kill.

Chabui rushed forward in order to calm Bolo. “Stop now! Rak-ka-la-grik-va-Gruumsh!” she commanded.

Bolo suddenly looked up at Chabui. It happened in an instant. He leapt the ten feet that separated Aki and the Khan's wife and chopped her clean in half with his axe. Her corporeal form magically dissipated as the blade passed through her body. A white gleaming spectral force arose in it's place. She shimmered and opened her mouth.

There was a terrible sucking noise, and everyone's ear's popped. The air filled with static charges.

The Mongol army was fearful; for clouds quickly rolled in from out of nowhere, and began to roil and churn over them in a circular pattern. A hole appeared at the center of the maelstrom, and Chabui’s glowing soul was taken up directly into heaven. A shaft of golden light carried her upward. Then, the clouds closed up, and she was gone.

Kublai Khan raised his hand, and one thousand archers simultaneously fired at Bolo. He was utterly obliterated by the cloud of arrows. There was a mist of blood that settled onto a stack of wood and bone splinters.

"She warned me against having berserkers in my army," the Khan said. “I never listened.” He looked at Aki, “I expect those gates to be opened.”

Aki picked up Zhao Bing's remains and slipped through a dimension door back into the city.

Aki did not order the gate to be opened, and the Mongols waited.

Aki carefully wrapped the Prince’s remains in white linens and a shroud to preserve him. Lyan cried over her fallen husband.

Finally, news came that the city had been infiltrated by giant gnomes, and the Emperor had surrendered.

Aki surrendered the gate.

They knew that the Mongols would come for Lyan and her daughter, as they were members of the royal family, so Lyan took Eri and disappeared into the sewers beneath Guangzhou.

“Do not worry, Aki, I am a rat of the tunnels among other things, and we will be fine. Take my husband’s body to the Ministry, to your Lhama,” she’d said, and then left.

Aki drank a potion of flying, lifted Zhao Bing, and flew for the Ministry to find Dipaka.


Welcome to the Jungle

By Aiko Kaijitsu

My friend Wen,

I write this because of your fight against Gallomere the Giant. It has caused me to reflect on some things that I have been mulling over in my mind.

I remember a gangly youngling, unsure of himself, wanting desperately to prove that he belonged with the Princess.

Then I think of the man that bested the Giant in the arena, helped us win the day, and secured peace for my people.

As your unshakable faith in Bahamut leads the way, I wonder if the great Dragon would accept the worship of a Goliath.

I cannot hope to match your devotion to him, or walk the path you do, but I would like to put my faith and prowess at his bidding nonetheless.
I do not know if you will accept my faith, and worship of Bahamut, but seeing you in action, I realize that I stand to learn from Bahamut and his following, and it would be a great honor if your Church would accept me.

Please let me know what I need to do to become a follower of Bahamut so that I may begin slaying evil in his name.

Your friend always,

Lo

Lo remembered the letter he had written to Wen, only a few days before. The situation was already vastly different. Wen was back in Guangzhou with the Princess, and he had chosen to come with Xia.

They had been tromping through the jungle for hours. “The Scepter told me to come here,” Xia said. “It must be around here somewhere.”
“What must be around here somewhere?” Lo asked, hacking away some enormous leaves with his backup sword for Xia to step through.

“That,” Xia said. She pointed to an elaborately carved temple, white as bone, that appeared to be cut from a stone hill. It was overgrown with jungle ivy. There was a lone warrior out in front, standing with his hands behind his back.

“Let’s go,” Xia said.

They walked up to the man and bowed. He had a black mustache and beard, and speckled gray hair tied in the back. His tunic was a deep canary, and his sash was red. He had a sword on either side of his waist, and they looked to be of the finest quality.

“I am Cop cua Rung, the Ranger of An Nam,” the man said. “Why have you come?”

“I have come seeking sanctuary,” Xia said.

“Who are you?”

“I am Xia of China, and this is my husband Lo.”

They bowed again.

“This is the Scepter of Five Rings,” Xia said, holding up the five fingered stick.

Cop cua Rung took a step back.

“Don’t worry, I’m a Sorceress, I know what I’m doing with it,” Xia said.

“Perhaps not, if you bring it here,” the Ranger said.

“Allow me to make one thing clear,” Lo said, perhaps speaking to Xia more than to Cop cua Rung, “the whole purpose of this exercise was to keep the Scepter out of the hands of the evil Khan. If we now take the Scepter out of An Nam, we will be caught, and the Scepter will be taken. I propose we destroy it. Then, no one will have it. When the Mongols come asking us for it, we’ll hand them the broken pieces.”

The Ranger raised an eyebrow at all of this. “Perhaps we should hear what the lady thinks," he said.

Xia thought for a while, and finally a tear rolled down her beautiful face. She rubbed the wound where Ochir had shot her with an arrow.

"I am a Daughter of China, and my homeland has been invaded. And why? Because I was too weak to stop it. But I don't think I'm weak anymore,” she said, and the Scepter glowed.

Lo stepped in front of Xia. “Look at me. You're not going to succeed. Without the staff they will not be able to truly claim China. If you try to wield the staff, I will follow you, but you won't succeed.”

“My apologies, I am first and foremost your wife, I have pledged to serve you in all your endeavors. I am also the consort of Princess Aiko Kaijitsu, and I'm bound to my mistress as well, who by the way, gave me her blessings to have the Scepter. I'm a Scion of Amatatsu, bound and resurrected by the Seal. If I take the Scepter, and fight for China, I will betray all of those vows.”

“No, Xia, you mustn’t.”

“You know that I must," another big tear rolled down her cheek. "I must break all of those vows. So the Mongols will come after me and not my friends. I will have heroes to help me, my love,” she said, and looked to the Ranger.

Lo went on. "That Scepter was used to control the Dragon! Just because the Scepter is gone, it doesn't mean China will not exist! Why throw away your life over it? China will come back! Why do you think it won't? Do you think China is not going to survive without that staff?"

“Hmmmm, I don't like what you're dragging my country into," the Ranger of An Nam said. “Maybe you should go to Tibet."

"But, sir, there are Champions here. I know of your friends. I am Chinese; I cannot give up the Scepter of China.”

Lo could bear it no longer. His heart was breaking.

“I cannot live without you. There will be no reason for me to go on." Lo said, sitting down in Seppuku position. "I will end my misery now, it will be too painful to go on without you.”

The Ranger stepped aside.

“No!" Xia cried. She ran and jumped on Lo, wrapping her arms around him. “You cannot do this Lo! We’ll be together again! Once you have Japan, and I have gathered my own band to resist the Mongols, we will meet again! On that day we will liberate China! That day our purpose will be one again,” Xia promised.

“You do not think they will send assassins after you?" Lo asked.

“There will be no assassins in my jungle,” Cop cua Rung said.

"Trust me, Lo said, "I swear to you, break the staff, and after I have fulfilled my vow to Aiko, we will come back here and fight the Mongols tooth and nail, and we will take back China."

"We’ll  have a lot better chance at it with the Scepter," Xia said.

"Then leave it here," Lo said. "Hide it."

“You're right, I have to hide the staff. And I can only hide the staff with myself. I can cast the kind of spells that stop people from scrying on me.”

“If you do this, I may lose my position,” Lo said.

“How?”

“Because I helped you,” Lo said.

“No, that's what I mean, basically our marriage will be at an end, Princess Aiko will have to disown me, and the Empress will have to disown me, I went rogue and ran away.”

“Gee, why don't I just disown breathing while I'm at it.”

“Stay with me for a while, at least for tonight," Xia said.

“Of course I will,” Lo said, and they kissed deeply.


General Ochir

By Aiko Kaijitsu

Back in Mongolia, Ochir and Chaka set about the business of running their new city. Ochir had endless sessions with his Father the Khan and the great Kublai Khan himself. Ochir, rather unhappy with the outcome of the situation regarding the Scepter of Shi, issued the following decree, having been duly recorded by his assistant:

By Order of General Munkh-Ochir Batbayar, Commander of the Kublai Khan’s Southern Army:

† An Extermination Force of Two-Thousand (2,000) elite troops will be drawn from Bataarbayan Khan’s Army and immediately dispatched to Blue Silk Village.

† Upon arrival at Blue Silk Village, a perimeter will be established and a complete blockade of the Village is to be imposed. No persons, material, food, livestock, fuel, water, or medicines may enter or exit the Village.

† The Captain of the Extermination Force will notify the inhabitants of Village that unless the sorceress known as Hsiao Xia, daughter of Hsiao Rongji of Blue Silk Village, returns the Staff of the Five Rings, of which she stole from the Great Kublai Khan, within a fortnight (14 days), the village will be completely destroyed. The Staff of Five Rings must be returned directly to General Munkh-Ochir Batbayar or Munkh-Ochir Baatarbayan Khan in its original, undamaged, and unmodified condition. 

† After one fortnight (14 days) of the blockade’s establishment, the Extermination Force will completely destroy the Village. Every man, woman, child, will be executed, and all bodies burned completely to ash. All animals and livestock will be slaughtered.

† After the executions have been completed, all items of value -- precious metals, jewelry, weaponry, and silk -- are to be collected and transported to the main Army garrison in Guangzhou. 

† All cemeteries and burial sites in the Village will be excavated. All items of value found in the graves will be seized and transported to the main Army garrison in Guangzhou. All remains of the exhumed deceased are to be thrown into the Village.

Cancellation or Modification of these Orders may only be made by Direct Order of General Munkh-Ochir Batbayar or Munkh-Ochir Baatarbayan Khan.


Brewing Storms

By Aiko Kaijitsu

We returned to Tan Tai An’s jewelry store, and went back down into his subterranean living quarter. Tan Tai An was terribly upset. Aki had arrived before us with Prince Zhao Bing’s remains. Aki came out of the bedroom with a look of sorrow on his face. I’d never seen that before.

Tan Tai An burst, “Oh, Bodhisattva! Please use your power to restore my son-in-law! Oh, please, I implore you!”

Dipaka put him at ease. “Of course, my friend, fear not, I will restore him. Everyone, help gather the needed things,” he said. Dipaka prepared while we went into the bedroom and unwrapped Zhao Bing. I saw that he had died horribly.

Tan Tai An danced anxiously as he watched Dipaka work.

When Dipaka was ready, he began with long, arduous prayers over Zhao Bing. Dipaka bathed him in white light and gathered the Prince's dispersed life forces. He kept concentrating the light on Bing, working hard to heal the horrible damage done by Bolo. After a few more minutes of miraculous work, Prince Zhao Bing took a new breath.

“Oh, thank you!” Tan Tai An cried, and hugged Dipaka after his miracle was done.

“You are welcome as always,” Dipaka said.

Wen helped Prince Bing get to his feet. “Hey man, it’s been a while,” Wen said.

“Hey, what’s up, Lo,” Bing said. “Did you get the name of the ox-cart driver that hit me?”

My husband smiled. I had always wondered if Wen’s friends from Guangzhou had ever called him Lo for short. “I hear you bravely fought the best the Mongols had to offer,” Wen said.

“Yeah, I guess I did. I thought it was my day to die. It is not the worst thing that’s ever happened though,” Zhao Bing said. “I wanted to experience Dipaka’s power first hand,” he said reverently, and bowed to Dipaka. “You are without peer, Father,” he said to him.

The two friends went on to discuss how Bing would go into the tunnels to find Lyan and Eri. “Don’t worry, I know where they go, I’ll catch up with them,” he said, clapping Wen on the shoulder. “It will be a while before we can put up a true resistance. Go do your duty.”

"Sure," Wen said.

I sat down cross-legged and pulled out Focus and scried on my sister Ameiko. I found that she was located in a small village in the wilderness outside Kyoto. I explained the situation in Guangzhou, and the problem with Xia. Her report was equally grim.

“We have discovered that the Jade Regent’s armies are large, and we will not be able to defeat them in the field. There are too few Japanese troops against countless Onis. The only thing we can do is send in a strike team.”

“Tomorrow we will be there, and we are coming to rescue An Mei,” I said, and ended the transmission.

Chaka wanted to stay in Mongolia, seeing to logistics, collecting taxes, and raising an Army; but Ochir insisted that she come with us to Japan. I knew she wanted me to ask her nicely to go.

I decided that getting back to Japan and out of Mongolia was the best idea. The problem was, Lo and Xia were still gone. I didn’t know if we would ever see them again. I knew scrying on Xia with paltry magics like Focus or my own spell would be fruitless. The likes of the Mandarin would be trying to find her.

"We must rescue An Mei, so we need you and Ochir's help. Apparently, the Jade Regent has large numbers of troops, so I don't know how we'll ever fight them all," I said. “I think we’re reaching the end. It’s pretty much over.”

"Don't worry, Xiao Ping, a whole bunch of Mongols just got freed up when China fell,” she said.

I sighed.

"Xiao Ping, I have been given authority to raise an army, but it will take time and money," Ochir said.

"If I stay here in Mongolia, I can raise an army in a month. I’m a miracle worker with this sort of thing. If I come with you back to Japan now, by then time I get back, a bunch of lessers will have botched everything and it will take me much longer to sort it all out,” Chaka said, looking at her husband.

"No, it is my order that you will go back to Japan with me," Ochir said. "Xiao Ping, I want you to scry on Xia, and tell her that if she does not return and relinquish the Scepter, her entire village will be executed.”

“What!” I screamed at Ochir. “You said you would rule better than the Song! Killing a whole village of innocents over a stupid stick is absurd! You can’t be serious!”

“Oh, I’m dead serious, I issued the order myself,” Ochir said.

Wen moved towards Ochir. “If you can’t speak, then you can’t give the final order,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter if you kill me, the village will be destroyed in two weeks if Xia doesn’t appear with the Scepter.”

This was too much. This was not only atrocious, base, beastly, damnable, depraved, despicable, execrable, flagitious, hateful, and heinous; it was malicious, repulsive, revolting, spiteful, vile, villainous, and wrong.

It was way too much. I couldn’t even believe my ears. I wanted to throw up.

“Wen, kill him!” I cried, unable to control myself. Wen drew his Hanzo blade. I began summoning haste.

Dipaka sprang into action. “No, no, no, no! No violence!” He raised his hands to stop us. Wen and I hesitated.

Chaka jumped in front of Ochir. “You can shut the fuck up now! Are you just trying to start shit? You’re joking right?” she asked, yelling in his face.

“Oh, I assure you, I’m not joking,” Ochir said.

“We have to stop him from this threatening crap,” I yelled at Chaka.

“You’re the one who just told Wen to kill Ochir!” Chaka yelled at me.

“Yeah! After he threatened to kill all the people of Blue Silk village! I was fine with the whole end of the China affair, until he said that!” I screamed, pointing at her.

She paused and said in a much quieter voice, “Of course, you’re absolutely right. I’m not here for the Scepter. You helped us take China, now I’m going to help you with Japan. Don’t worry about Ochir. How long have you been around Mongols?”

“Too long!” I cried.

“Ok then, you know what they are like! We can’t change who they are! We are not worried about the Scepter, we have other people to take care of the Scepter.”

“Ok, fine!” I cried, utterly disgusted. I wished Lo was there.

“Let’s go rescue my wife, for god’s sake!” Allegro cried, unable to stand it any longer.

“I’m sorry Allegro, we can’t leave just yet, I have to go deal with this Blue Silk village threat against innocent people,” Dipaka said. "It's my understanding from Kublai Khan that Baatarbayan Khan rules southern Mongolia, so I have to talk to him. I’ll come right back."

Dipaka went by himself, for he bade us to remain behind. We wished him luck. He called his unicorn to carry him through the streets. He saw that there was no one dying in the alleys anymore. All the people he passed bowed in respect to him and paid him due reverence.

When he arrived at the Ministry of Maritime Trade, the gnomish guards escorted him inside after he reminded them that Aishwarya-Sen held him in high esteem.

Dipaka went across the floor and saw that there was a great abacus propped up against a pillar. Baatarbayan Khan was counting and moving the beads over one by one with a malstick. His assistant was checking off each neighborhood on a map, and Dipaka heard that they were discussing charging residents a fee for being foreign.

“If they didn’t come from here, they should have to pay more,” the Khan insisted.

Aishwarya-Sen came into the vast room, straightening out her hair, and looked radiant. She cleared her throat when she saw Dipaka, and the Khan stopped abruptly and looked at her. “What is it now, woman? Can’t you see I’m busy counting my chickens?”

She nodded at Dipaka. The Khan looked at the Holy Man, then he blew out a breath and put his fist on his knee.

“What can I do for you son?" he asked, and then chuckled. “Ha, ha! That’s funny! Everyone else calls you Father, and I call you son! Ha!”

"Ochir Khan, as the Minister of Peace, I come before you to file a formal protest.”

“What? What's a Minister of Peace? Who made you Minister of Peace?" the Khan asked.

"The Great Kublai Khan did. Your boss."

Aishwarya-Sen nodded to her husband again. A look of annoyance crossed his face. "All right then, son, what's your protest?"

"Your actual son, who is my brother, has ordered Blue Silk village to be wiped out if the Scepter of Five Rings is not produced.”

“I got twenty-four sons, and thirty-seven more cases pending. Which son are you talking about? The oldest one?"

"Yes, the oldest one, Ochir the General. Chaka's husband, surely you remember her?”

“Hmmmm, yes, my son the General. What did he do? Raise your taxes?”

“No, like I said, he came to my friend and said that he was sending an army to wipe out Blue Silk village if the Scepter of Five Rings does not reappear," Dipaka said.

“Yeah? So? That's standard operating procedure," Ochir's father said.

“To kill the people?” Dipaka asked.

“No, to hold them hostage, because in this case quite frankly there's a fugitive that has possession of state property.”

“That's different, I don't have a problem with holding people hostage, but your son said he was going to have the village wiped out in two weeks if Xia does not produce the Scepter.”

“Oh, we’ll  give that at least a year or so. If we wipe out the village, first of all, we’d lose the tax revenue from that village,” he pushed over another bead with his malstick, “second of all, that's like a bargaining chip that we have on her, and we’d do well not to really take away her only real reason to return.”

He stopped and took a sip of gnomish ale. He set his glass back down and snapped it’s rim with his forefinger. It rang throughout the Ministry.

“You know what you should do, son, instead of talking to me and wasting MY time, how about YOU find that Chinese bitch, and YOU tell her to give back the Scepter, and maybe WE will forget about killing ALL the people she ever knew,” the Khan said, and cackled with horrible glee.

“I have far more important things to do than chase down your damn Scepter,” Dipaka said, the edge in his voice betraying him. Despite his best efforts, he was growing angry with the Khan. “How many people do you have on this mission? I don't think you need me, the healer, to go look for a Scepter.”

The Khan stopped laughing, taken aback at Dipaka’s boldness, but said nothing.

Aishwarya-Sen cleared her throat then. “Would you agree Dipaka, my son, that if the Scepter were to be  recovered, then there would be no need to hold Blue Silk village hostage?”

“Certainly,” Dipaka said.

“I’d like your blessing, then, and I’ll undertake my own mission to recover the Scepter, and I promise you that I will not kill Xia. In this way, both your friend, and your village, will be saved.”

“You can go after the Scepter if you want, you can do whatever you want with the Scepter, what I care about is avoiding the eminent destruction of a village that has nothing to do with the Scepter. The person that has the Scepter hasn't lived in the village for a couple of years, and they have no real connection with her anymore. That's the part I disagree with. Especially now that they're all Mongols. They're not Chinese anymore, they're your people. The Kublai Khan's people.”

“Wu? Have you done as I asked?” Aishwarya-Sen said to someone and waved her hand.

“Yes, mistress,” a tall slim man came out of a vestibule. He was dressed in a simple tunic, and he had a writing tablet and a quill. He was clean shaven and young.

“Excuse me, your eminence,” he said, bowing to Dipaka, “but I have been assigned to be your aide.”

Dipaka looked at the man up and down. “Greetings, good sir, I am Dipaka Bhasa, who might you be?”

“My name is Wu, and here's a letter I wrote on your behalf to Chabui, you need only sign it. Blue Silk village is much more within her sphere of influence than within that of these gnomes down here,” he said.

“What does it say?" Dipaka asked.

My dearest majesty and most radiant friend Chabui,

I hope this letter finds you well. I am greatly concerned. Blue Silk village has been erroneously placed under armed guard, and their complete destruction threatened by General Munkh-Ochir Batbayar. This is unacceptable. I would consider it a personal favor between our faiths, if you would personally see to it that no harm befall the people of Blue Silk village. To ensure the compliance of the Khans, as long as troops remain stationed around Blue Silk village, I, as the Minister of Peace, decree that no less than fifteen percent of Mongolia’s wealth be spent solely on welfare, building hospitals, and helping the poor. When the troops have withdrawn from Blue Silk village and returned home, the tithe amount shall be justly amended to ten percent.

Dipaka Bhasa, Minister of Peace

“Okay, my mother’s going to recover the scepter, and Blue Silk village will not be destroyed,” Dipaka said, signing the letter.

“Yes,” Aishwarya-Sen said, smiling when he had accidentally called her mother.

Dipaka looked at the Khan. “Well, is it so?”

“Are you bothering me again now, son?” looking back from his abacus.

“I want to know if you agree,” Dipaka asked.

The Khan got a gleam in his eye. “I don’t want to talk to you! I know! I’ll give you a reason to never talk to me again! Do you really want to know the whole story about your supposed mother here? Do you want to know why she regards you as her own son?”

“Yes,” Dipaka answered.

“When I sacked Nabawip, so many years ago, there was a missing Prince. At first, he was hiding somewhere in the city. Then, the Princess produced her son. But he wasn’t the real Prince at all. He was you!”

The Khan laughed wickedly, and Dipaka was aghast.

“You see, she tried to hide her true son with a normal family, trading her son for theirs. She thought we would simply kill you, and her own son would live out a normal life. But I guessed what she had done. Just to get her goat, I killed all the boys in the entire city. I had their heads piled into pyramids outside the gates! Of all of them, I allowed only you to live!”

Aishwarya-Sen said nothing.

“So, you're now the Prince, but because of her deception, she got her own son killed!” He laughed hideously again, and he clapped and rubbed his hands together.

“Don't you feel better now, son, after talking to me?” He kept on laughing, amused by his own cruelty.

“Peace be with you,” Dipaka said, and turned and walked towards the doors.

“You should not have told him all those lies,” Aishwarya-Sen said to the Khan as her son went.

The guards opened the doors, and let Dipaka back out into the street. The sun shone upon his face, and warmed his dark skin. He shook his head sadly. As he got back onto his unicorn and headed for the jewelry store, the Khan’s hideous laughter still rang though his head.


The Rescuers

By Aiko Kaijitsu

Lo and Xia made love. As she was a sorceress, they enjoyed pleasures both aerial and sweet. All thoughts of Seppuku were driven from Lo’s mind.

“I’ve made my decision,” Lo said, after they lay back, spent. “I’ll go to Japan, give up Suishen, come back here, and help destroy the Mongols. They will send assassins after you. I can’t go back to the party anyway. We will face the Mongols together.”

“If that is your desire,” she said. “I am glad.” They stood up and got dressed.

Xia hugged Lo fiercely for a long time. Lo felt a pop, and when he looked up, he saw the banners of Prince Batsai-Khar flapping in the wind next to a two story inn. They were now outside a Japanese village.

“I will go and relinquish Suishen, and come back here immediately,” Lo said.

A big tear rolled down Xia’s cheek. “Lo, my love, remember what I said on our first night together. And tell the Princess I will always love her,” she said, and vanished from Lo’s sight.

Lo’s mood grew instantly foul.

He turned and headed into the village. He saw that it had been recently attacked. There were men digging graves, and some of the structures were damaged and smoking.

It was by then a Mongol camp, and guards scanned the skies for onis, and hounds were led and sniffed around everywhere. Lo saw that Hirabashi Jiro’s men were in evidence as well. There were about a thousand soldiers total.

“Lo!” I cried, when I saw him approaching. I tried to give him a hug, but he made it clear that he did not want one. “You don’t want to do that,” he said.

“I’m sorry, Lo,” I said. It was all I could say, but I felt terrible. I was sorry for everything.

After some discussion, Ameiko explained that she wanted to come with us into Kyoto. I thought about that for second.

“And what should I do about Tsuto?" she asked.

"Where is he, anyway?" I asked.

"I've seen him snooping around once or twice. He begged for my forgiveness once, so I scolded him and he left. What can we do?"

"Unless you want to find him and screw some real loyalty into him, I assume he'll show up at the worst possible time and screw everything up. What can we do? What does he want?"

“He wants the Shinobi coin," Ameiko said. "He wants it so bad it's driving him right into madness."

"Allegro has the coin, so it's in as safe a place as it ever will be, for he has the stout constitution of a harfoot. Plus, we may need to actually trade the coin to secure his wife’s release. You shouldn’t come with us this time to rescue An Mei, but after that, we’ll know enough about the Palace to think about bringing you in. Where are we supposed to make contact in Kyoto?"

"You want to find a man named Asachi Isao. He is sympathetic to our cause. He’s the leader of the resistance, so ask for him after you’ve gotten to the Teardrop Teahouse.”

Ochir, Chaka, and Prince Batsai-Khar excused themselves and went outside to discuss something amongst themselves. It was just as well, the rest of us needed to talk privately ourselves.

Ameiko sighed, and wrung her hands.

“My fiancé has asked me to write him a letter, asking for a Mongol army to be sent to Japan. I have not written him such a letter, but each battle we fight shows that we do not have enough strength to prevail.”

Aki cleared his throat and said, “I do not think a Mongol army coming here is a wise idea, once you invite the Mongols, you will never be rid of them. You can attack the body, or attack the head. I say you attack the head with a strike team.”

My sister smiled at Aki.

“Empress, I beg a private audience with you,” Lo said. He was clearly still angry about what Xia had done, and about what his life had become being around our family and the Mongols.

“Can my sister come too?” Ameiko asked.

“Indeed,” Lo said.

I went for a walk with them and we found an empty side room. I could have magically sealed our conversation, but I was getting to the point that I didn’t care what the Mongols heard.

“I will make it brief, and I will say this once. I would give my life for both of you, but you must know what you do. I don’t think you understand. The Mongols have taken my people, they have taken Malthus, they have taken my child, they have taken our traditions. And now they have taken my wife. If you invite these people into your land, they will take everything. This you must know. These people are not your friends.”

My sister looked up at Lo with her almond shaped eyes. “This I do know, yet I cannot touch. We are royalty, and blood must not be on our hands. But I do not disagree.”

“My mission is clear,” Lo said.

“You already know I agree with him, but for now we can only rescue An Mei,” I said.

“I will take care of it when the time comes,” Lo said.

“Someone may beat you to it,” Ameiko said. “You guys better get your disguises together, if you’re going into Kyoto tomorrow. I’m so sorry about Xia, Lo. They say not buy your lover shoes, or they will run right out of your life. I should not have asked Xia to learn that teleport spell.”

--------------------------------------------------------------------

Prince Batsai-Khar beamed.

“Congratulations Ochir, you have been made a General! And Chaka, being adopted by Kublai Khan makes you a Princess! Well done! We are family now!”

The Prince’s smile finally faded for a moment. “Whenever we go up against the onis, we are finding that we can actually defeat their leader types ourselves. It’s the rank and file on our side that drop like flies. They cast a few deep slumbers and our men are out. These are onis. We need tougher troops.”

“I can solve that quickly,” Ochir said. “I can get the Ainu. I helped their leader to escape. They are an unruly people, but he swore that he would assist me in my time of need. We can arm them with masterwork weapons."

"Good," Prince Batsai-Khar said.

"When I talked to Kublai Khan himself, he said that he wanted Amieko to beg before he would actually send an army to help us here,” Ochir revealed.

Prince Batsai-Khar’s smile returned.

“Once I am married to the Empress, I will be able to bring as many Mongol troops here as I want. The rumor is that Chabui has passed on. Do not worry, we will get our troops here, one way or another.”

--------------------------------------------------------------------

The next morning, we regrouped and made ourselves up as merchants, and we headed for Kyoto the old fashioned way. When we got there, there was a public execution going on somewhere else in the city, and the gate was practically unguarded. The few sentries that hadn’t left their posts to watch the blood spill looked at me for a while, and Dipaka too, but let us in without much question. I knew they were probably low level onis that looked like humans. They must have been pretty distracted not to have recognized us by our descriptions alone.

We walked down a long boulevard until we came to the Teardrop Teahouse.

Mdm. Hsu, the proprietor, greeted us at the door after we walked up the path. We settled on a big table in the corner. We ordered tea and tipped very generously. We noticed that many of the menu items were unavailable, although war had surely never touched Kyoto.

"Welcome,”  Mdm. Hsu said. “What can I do for you?" she asked, after we had been served.

"I am looking for a man named Asachi Isao," I said.

"He will be here shortly, he was notified as soon as you arrived. We have been anticipating this. We have been waiting for you a long time. I am not only a geisha, I am faithful to Amaratsu, the Sun Goddess.” She looked at Dipaka. “There are aspects of her worship that involve mercy, and help of the suffering. I am so honored to meet you,” she said to him.

"I am honored to meet you as well," Dipaka said. While she appeared to be a kindred spirit, Dipaka knew that she was likely overplaying things a bit. It was of course, the geisha way.

Shortly, Asachi Isao arrived. We all stood and bowed to him.

The old man looked at me for a long time. A wistful look came across his face, and he said, "You do look like your mother."

"I do?" I asked.

"Yes, child let me hold you!" Asachi Isao cried. He hugged me for a long time before he let go.

"I am an old friend of Hirabashi’s. I have prepared rooms at our compound to secretly house all of you. My family is one that remembers and honors the Amatatsu family. We have much planning to do.”

“Um, I should probably tell you, I’m not Ameiko. I’m Aiko, Ameiko’s sister, and we usually precede her party. She will come here, at some point. Maybe then we can go to the compound and do the planning? I'm sorry, right now we have an urgent mission.”

“Oh,” Isao said.

I explained to him about An Mei, and about how she had been captured and taken to the Imperial Palace.

"Yes," he said, "they have captured my daughter too, same as your An Mei.” Now a tear appeared in the old man’s eye. ”And, she’s not the only girl that’s been captured. Help us, please."

“I’m sorry to hear that, we’ll get her back for you,” I said. "Is there a secret way in? Is there anything you know about that might help us?"

"Well, I don't know if there is a secret way in or not, but I do know about other things. Soto Takahiro, the Jade Regent, was the lifelong friend and bodyguard of Emperor Shegure. They grew up together as children. However, since taking the throne, Takahiro has changed. His hand falls heavy upon Japan. His Regency has not been what the people expected. The Jade Regent is right now holed up in the Imperial Palace surrounded by his most trusted allies—Anamurumon, his magistrate; Renshii Meida, his seer and lover; and his assassin, the Raven Prince. The Jade Regent issues all of his orders through his magistrate, Anamurumon.”

“For all we know, the Jade Regent isn’t alive anymore,” Dipaka said.

“No one knows if Emperor Shegure is alive anymore, either,” Isao said. “He is presumed dead. The only reason the Jade Regent has a claim on the Throne in the first place is that Emperor Shegure must have granted him the right of Regency. The Jade Throne would accept no other. Without the Emperor’s blessing, Takahiro would have no mandate to rule. Because the Throne accepts him, so do the people.”

“But since the people never see him, this other person can order whatever they want,” Dipaka said.

“After you rescue the prisoners, you should seek out the Imperial Shrine, it’s on an island in Kyoto bay. I wouldn’t try to teleport there, you need to go by boat.”

After a while, word came that there would be another public execution. This time we knew the victim. Habesuta Hatsue had taken it upon herself to reconnoiter to the capital, to make up for her dishonor in allowing the Ainu prisoner to escape from Seinaru Heikiko. She had been captured.

“Oh, no, we must hurry,” Ochir laughed.

Lo was steadily sharpening Suishen, and saying nothing.

I hugged Asachi goodbye and we left to help Hatsue.

The grounds of the Imperial Palace constituted an island dominated by a massive plateau upon which the fortified palace stood. Two moats separated the island from the rest of Kyoto. Within the grounds themselves, the island included both a public marketplace and several parks. The people were granted access to these spaces for shopping during the day, but they were closed after dark.

A stone bridge crossed the moats, and led to a vast courtyard somewhat overshadowed by the Palace itself.  We crossed the bridge under an illusion designed to make us appear as if we were regular people coming to the market to watch the execution.

“Be quiet,” Chaka said. We waited in the audience. The execution was late getting started.

There was a massive gatehouse that straddled the way that led to the Palace. It’s two oaken doors stood closed. It was built sort of up onto the plateau next to it, and from this higher perch sat a twenty-foot guard tower and a thirty foot bell tower just beyond. Two guards scanned the crowd from the lower tower.

Suddenly, the doors barked open and four samurai led Hatsue out. It appeared that she had been badly tortured. Her clothes were torn, and she had long, red weals on her body.

Dipaka moved to the front of the crowd so that she could be healed by his proximity.

They threw her roughly down onto the low platform. She whimpered and lay still.

“Now here this!” one of the samurai cried, obviuously the Captain. He was about to go on, when suddenly, Suishen let out a golden burst, and as it spread, it revealed a huge oni hovering over the crowd; an Inquisitor. The symbol of Raidan was upon him.

Suishen’s voice boomed: “I am Suishen! The Amatatsu Blade! I have come to reclaim the Throne!”

Lo’s eyes glowed blue.

The guards in the tower fired arrows at Lo. “Grrrrrrrrrrrr!” Lo growled back at them.

Arrows flew at Wen too, and he dodged them all. Wen looked at Lo and cried, “Come brother! We go together!” Because Lo stayed close to Wen, he could get in near Dipaka and still attack.

Lo dropped his shield on the way in. They both laid into the onis and blood flew everywhere.

Allegro sprang into action, and began climbing up the guard tower to get at the two archers. When he drew near the window, he threw a bead into the tower. A huge ball of fire erupted inside, and the onis bellowed in rage. I knew it would be enough to burn their hides off, but it wouldn’t kill them outright.

Ochir shot the Captain with a tri-shot, making the oni begin to wish he hadn’t gotten out of bed that morning.

Aki shouted using his rumbling “voice of Japan” at the Inquisitor above us, about the same time I fireballed the Inquisitor too. The oni reeled in the air, but flew down towards us after righting himself.

The Captain held his sword on Hatsue, and looked at Dipaka and asked, “Who are you, and why have you come here?”

“I have come to rescue all the captive young ladies. And heal the world,” Dipaka said. “You can give up peacefully now, it is never too late to repent.”

The oni Captain was so enraged by Dipaka’s surreal response that he looked down at Hatsue, and then, instead of killing her, he charged Dipaka.

Dipaka had cleverly drawn the Captain away from Hatsue.

Dipaka ducked the Captain’s first katana swing, and then a second. The Captain was enraged. “Oh you’re so smart, holy man! What about this?” He whirled. “Kill the prisoner!”

The other onis jabbed Hatsue with their blades, and killed her dead. Blood pooled under her body.

“Oh! They are pure evil!” Dipaka cried.

“Yes, we are!” one oni shouted, and attacked Wen with a katana in one hand, and a wakizashi in the other. Wen was now bleeding from several big gashes. Lo took a few swats from another samurai. Dipaka rushed to help them, taking a wound himself from a katana in the process.

Ochir shot and killed the Captain with a second tri-shot. “Six arrows, one oni dead, I think the Empire can afford that,” Chaka said.

“It’s not the arrows they can ill afford, it’s the archer,” Ochir said.

Chaka, Guchugar, and Guchuluk each threw a fireball bead like Allegro’s into the confined tower.

After the blasts, Allegro leapt in through the window and planted his dagger into the heart of an oni, killing him. He killed the other oni too.

"Hoooray!" Istanoval cried.

Back on the ground, an oni saw Dipaka healing Lo and attacked. His weapon shattered against Dipaka’s skin, and Wen laughed.

“You can’t hurt him! He’s immortal!” Wen cried. “He's the Minister of Peace!” 

“Minister of Peace? I think he should be the Minister of Pieces!” the oni attacked Dipaka again, and this time the blade held, and Dipaka was bloodied some more.

“Doctor! Heal thyself!” Aki cried. Dipaka took a moment to patch himself up after that.

Aki engaged the Inquisitor coming down to get us. Aki hammered him severely with punches and kicks, and the Inquisitor was teetering. I shot him with a magic missile volley and polished him off.

Lo and Wen slew two of the samurai onis, then together hacked down the last oni in the courtyard.

The citizens that had come to watch the execution had all fled. Drums of alarm arose from deep within the palace.

Dipaka healed everyone as I put Hatsue's remains into my bag of holding.

There was the gatehouse door still to get through, so I cast a knock spell on it, and Wen and Lo easily pushed open the doors.

We went through. There were four typhoon guards up in the bell tower above us, and Lo clambered up the first tower to get at them.

Ochir shot up at them, harrying them from his position on the ground. Allegro fired his crossbow at them.

Lo leapt from the lower tower, whirled about in mid-air, and grabbed the bell tower, kept climbing upward, and the guards hastily switched to their katanas as Lo climbed in the window. They screamed as they were slain. Lo jumped back down and we kept moving.

Peach trees lined the path for a ways, and these gave way to rows of statues stationed atop stone pedestals. Carved in the likeness of samurai warriors, they were terra cotta soldiers, and each stood at attention with a clay katana and a wakizashi at their side.

When we were halfway down the way, the statues sprang to life. We bolted and ran faster than they did, so we kept on going, paying them no mind.

Another bridge went over a stinky creek. The road to the palace rose and doubled back on itself as it made its way up to the gate. We dashed up the slope, but the statues were still coming.

Four giant Yai onis flew out of the main castle down towards us, firing arrows that were hitting us. Instead of engaging them, we bamphed up to the door of the Palace. The Yai onis screamed in frustration.

Chaka used her chime of opening to get us quickly through the doors. We slammed them shut behind us.

Four guards were in the entry hall, and the first one attacked Dipaka and his weapon shattered. Dipaka did a mighty healing burst on us all, helping everyone at once.

Four clockwork golems appeared ahead of us and charged. We dodged them and ran down a narrow side gallery, and then emerged into a large area.  An elevated circular wooden stage filled the center of the space.

Nine oni-monks stood upon the stage, waiting. The one in the center said, “I am master Sudoshi Sento! I will prove to you that I am the best martial artist in Japan!”

He instantly leapt into the air and came down in front of Aki. He punched Aki, just once. Then he sprang away, and landed behind his line of men, in exactly the same position as he had started.

“Oh, you are such a great monk!” Aki jibed. “What bravery is there to be found behind your line of men?”

The other foes were closing in fast. Wen and Lo were already battling the first wave of them.

“Forget An Mei, we can just share Chaka,” Ochir joked darkly at Allegro.

“An Mei is up those stairs over there!” Allegro cried. There was a sea of golems, guards, and monks between us and the staircase. “I can feel her! She’s near! Chaka, can you get me to those stairs over there?”

“Hold onto your skivvies!” Chaka grabbed Allegro and they both reappeared on the stairs on the other side of the room. “Now go!” Chaka said.

Allegro went on up the stairs alone. He saw a set of double doors ahead of him, and a set to the left, but he chose to go down the hall to his right. Somehow, he knew where to go. He moved down the hall, and thought he heard the soft voices of women.

There was an adjacent gallery space, and soiled paintings of tranquil scenes belied the terrible true nature of the room.

The female captives of the Jade Regent were held therein. An Mei was among them. She was as white as a ghost, Allegro thought.

Three beautiful human women were their wardens. The three comely witches were all seated around a large tub, stroking and cleaning a reddened prisoner. They all looked up when Allegro cleared his throat.

One witch tried to cast a spell in order to paralyze Allegro, but Allegro, being a halfling, still moved quite freely afterward. “What mockery is this?” the woman cried, wrinkling her nose at him.

“I suggest you come over here and sit down by me, you handsome man,” the second witch said, but Allegro, usually taken in by such flattery, did not budge. The woman frowned.

The third witch, furious the other two’s spells had failed, leapt to her feet, and cast a powerful charm of her own at Allegro. “Come, to mother, pretty,” she said, “let me hold you in my arms!”

“No!” Allegro cried.

The three women came towards Allegro, and now their fingers were like hairy spider legs.

Allegro tossed a bead at them, and the fireball engulfed the women. “Aaaaaaaaagh!” they screamed, as their hair and clothes all burned away.

“Damn hobbits, practically immune to magic! They should have all the luck! Let’s try a different approach,” one said, and all three of them turned into horrid, giant spiders.

They all skittered and charged and tried to bite Allegro, but he was able to fight and tumble his way over to An Mei.

One of the spiders did scratch Allegro with a claw like appendage. “I curse you!” the spider chittered. Despite his great constitution, Allegro felt the power of the curse beginning to work on him.

Allegro grabbed An Mei and ran like hell. The other girls just watched blankly as she was rescued.

“We’ll come back for you,” Allegro assured them.

Back downstairs, we were barely holding our own against the rabble steeped against us.

Just as Allegro appeared on the stairs again with An Mei in his arms, the bell in the gatehouse tower rang out, and all the troops attacking us suddenly withdrew.

We didn’t stick around to find out why. We rushed back outside and bamphed the hell out of there.

 

 

 
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