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

Scions

“The blade is called Suishen. It was sold fifty years ago in Guangzhou by my Grandfather in order to finance my Family’s time in exile.  We hope to pick up the trail of the original buyer when we get to Guangzhou. This is the true reason we have chosen this city as our destination. The Katana must be recovered.”

Pang Mei paused to let the words sink in.  After a moment she continued.

“Once we have recovered the Katana we will set out for the homeland by sea, and when we arrive, I will restore the Amatatsu Imperial Line and become the Empress, for I am truly Amieko Kaijitsu, the rightful Heir to the Japanese Empire.”

It was quiet for a while as we tried to absorb this unbelievable story.

Cairn broke the silence. “Only a Man can be Emperor of Japan!” she said.

“Five Men rule Japan,” Pang Mei said, “and as such they are all my Servants.”

“Oh,” Cairn said.

No one else said anything. We had all scrunched into Pang Mei’s cramped office at the Iron Ox. It was hot and stuffy.

Pang Mei nodded to Aki and said, “Bring forth the Warding Box.”

Aki went to the cellar to get the Box. When he returned, she directed him to place the Box on the floor in the center of the room.

“In a moment, we will open the Warding Box, and in doing so, reveal the Amatatsu Seal. Each of you will thus be bound to our Royal Family as an Eternal Servant, and become a Scion of the House Kaijitsu. You must also pledge your loyalty to the House Kaijitsu.”

Several people shifted nervously.

“That is, if you wish to,” she said.

Sandru Vhiski stepped forward a pace and declared his eternal service to Pang Mei in his usual eloquent fashion.  Pang Mei smiled.

“Thank you, Sandru, of course you have always been my dearest friend.” she said.

Aki accepted this honor as well, scrawling his declaration of loyalty on his chalk slate. Pang Mei acknowledged his writing with a solemn nod.

She looked next at Ochir.  Ochir said: “I’ll continue to travel with Sandru’s Caravan as I’ve been hired to be a scout and a guide already, but I’m not gonna swear any Eternal Service to anybody.”   I saw the corner of Pang Mei’s mouth turn up.

She looked at Cairn.  Cairn’s voice was naïve, but her words were not:  “I am a Natural creature of the forest. I am already a good Steward of the Animals of the Natural Realm.  I cannot swear allegiance to you or your family. I’m sorry.”

“Very well,” Pang Mei said.

When she looked up at Lo he stepped forward, held out a gigantic Katana before him, and bowed low. He was wearing new scale mail armor. “I will pledge my allegiance to you and defend you on this quest to restore the Jade Empire.”

Pang Mei looked down at Lo then looked at me. “I think we have found our House Champion.” she said.

I thought so too. No one could stand against an armored Lo with a great magic Katana. 

Pang Mei looked next at Dipaka. “Alas, as a Man of Peace, I serve all living things. I cannot swear an Oath to a single Entity. I will still help you all the same, just as I would help a thirsty lizard on a desert rock.” 

I noticed that Dipaka now had a Halo. At first I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. Since the last time I had visited him at the new hospital, he had developed an actual white glowing nimbus above his head.

Allegro stepped forward and agreed to become a Scion and swore his Oath. His swarthy cousins politely refused, bowing repeatedly, doffing their caps and saying something about only being humble merchants.

Wang Chung accepted and punctuated the end of his Oath with a strum.

Kelda Ox-Gutter was shifting nervously and seemed to be hoping no one would ask her about her loyalty. Pang Mei cleared her throat pointedly after her gaze at Kelda had been ignored for a while.

“I cannot svear my loyalty to you,” she said in a thick Norwegian accent, “I’m sorry, I cannot do this.”

“But we rescued you,” I said. I don’t know why I said that.

“Yes, you rescued me, I thank you for that,” she sighed. “I vill come vith you, for I owe you my freedom,” she said. “I vill join your caravan for a vile, but I cannot bend my knee.”

Pang Mei’s gaze slowly swept over all the assembled.

“Very well,” she said, “You have all decided. I will now order the opening of the Warding Box, so those of you who did not agree to join our Family should leave the room now, or keep your eyes closed very tightly.”

A few left. Others shut their eyes and waited. Ochir yawned.

“Aki,” Pang Mei said, “open the Warding Box, and reveal the Seal.”

After Aki lifted the lid, my conscious mind was quickly overcome by many strong and vivid sensations. I could see and hear many years of history compressed into a freely flowing stream of images and sounds. I could see that my ancestors were present all around me. Their faces were grim. I saw my Grandfather being shipwrecked long ago off the coast, then swimming over a half mile to shore bearing the Katana Suishen on his back. 

I saw him stumble upon the sand and then rise to become a new man in Guangzhou, and then later an older man with sadder and wiser features.  I saw the smiling faces of women, and those of dark haired babes.  I saw my true Father and Mother, when they were young and lived together. I saw myself as a babe and my sister Pang Mei as a child. 

I saw terrible creatures come into the pictures whirling, all sheathed in fire and dripping with lava. Thick black smoke rose from them and they eventually engulfed everything.

I felt a sense of well-being come over me. The images gradually faded away.

The Spirit from the Warding Box was whispering to me, promising me power over Death itself. I was enthralled.

After a moment more, the Spirit swirled around us and withdrew, and we saw a white mist go back down inside the box. The sounds receded. Aki replaced the lid. 

Dipaka and Kelda helped the woozy among us out of the cramped office and out into the Great Hall.

“I am worried about Cairn,” I said to Pang Mei.

“Cairn? What are you worried about her for? She seems able enough.”

“It’s not exactly Cairn, it’s her village. She says there are about a dozen Jurchens and a giant Bear that hunt humans and animals in her lands.  We never did get Lord Sywan’s men to go investigate and take care of them.”

“Oh,” Pang Mei said. “Too bad, she lives in the wrong direction. We need to get the Caravan on the road, and Family Scions must remain close to the Warding Box to be aided by its Power.”

“We haven’t offered Cairn anything, yet we ask her for help. She has nowhere to go, and she really needs our help.”

Pang Mei furrowed her brow in frustration.

“Maybe we should ask her if she even wants help.” she said.

“Cairn?” she called to the Gnome. She was ladling a thick stew into a tiny white bowl from a pot that hung over one of the fires.

“Do you want us to go investigate the Bear and the Jurchens that attacked your village?” Pang Mei asked.

“Yes I do,” she said, her eyes brightening at the prospect. 

“We should take care of this for her,” I said.

“You can decide to do nothing, but sooner or later the Bear and his Jurchens could decide to attack Silk’s End,” Lo said.

Pang Mei sighed.  “Very well,” she said.  “How far away is the Gnome’s village?”

“Seven days ride, up in the mountains,” Cairn said.


The Two Towers

Six days later, Ochir was on the track of the Jurchens.  We had left Pang Mei, Sandru, The Jade Archer and the “sanctity” of the Warding box long behind us.  Ochir’s pony shifted a bit on the rocky trail. 

“There’ve been ten or so of them up this way alright,” he said.  “And there’s something else.” He pointed to a set of very large bear tracks. “A bear would need to be twelve feet tall or so to make a track like that,” he said.

The next day it was cloudy and there was a thick fog. Visibility was under thirty yards. We were beginning to make our way up a steeper grade than usual when I looked up and saw two round towers loom up out of the fog. They were two story affairs with wooden doors that sat atop a ridge.  As we got closer I saw that there was a makeshift barricade that had been fashioned with furniture and loose building materials. We saw dark vague shapes moving about behind it. We could see that their axes had a blade on one side, a spike on the other, and a shrunken head with a black topknot on top. We could hear familiar Jurchen grunts and snorts.

“Maybe we should tell these guys we may have killed their King,” Allegro said.

“You guys wait here in the fog where they can’t really see you, and I’ll go up there alone and lead them down to you,” Ochir offered. 

“Sounds good to me,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

Ochir spurred his pony and sped on up the hill.  The Jurchens cackled and laughed when they saw the Gnome coming. 

"You there," they commanded in Jurchen, "Stop where you are!"

Ochir reigned in his mount and stopped.

“Hey asshole! This is a tool booth! You’ve got to pay the toll!” they yelled at him.

Ochir was way too far from the gate to pay any toll. He called out and asked them in perfect Jurchen, “What am I supposed to do, throw the money at you, you stupid fucks?  Make up your minds!”  He pulled his bow out from behind him with one hand and nocked an arrow with the other. He shot at the lead Jurchen and hit him square in the chest. The Jurchen howled in pain and clutched the arrow.

The other Jurchens charged down the hill straight at Ochir. They crashed into his pony with their armored shoulders and swinging axes. Blood was spraying from the pony as it fell to the earth. Ochir flipped nimbly backward (he was a Gnome, after all) and he retreated as fast as he could back down the hill. The Jurchens were right on his tail, though, and they swung their bloody axes in wide arcs at him. He managed to barely outrun them. 

Cairn had ridden her dog up the hill behind Ochir and begun chanting. Two large wolves appeared out of nowhere and sailed over Ochir’s head and slammed into the Jurchens. The Jurchens squealed in fear as the wolves tore at them. One wolf had gotten a Jurchen by the throat and torn it out. Ochir kept running straight down the hill and when he reached the bottom he turned around on the road, put his fists on his hips and yelled, “Come to Papa!”

I saw Allegro and his trained War Mastiff move to lie in wait behind one of the larger outcroppings of rock. He had his dagger and a sack of skipping stones at the ready. The dog was sitting up straight and didn’t move. 

Dipaka with his new Halo hung back from the group, as his sphere of Peace would surely disrupt our fighting.

The front door of the tower on the right side of the road burst open and a fresh bunch of Jurchens poured out. Three of them had long curved battle horns in leather harnesses. Their cheeks bulged out as the low groan of the horns sounded. There was a distant answer from a louder and deeper horn. This was accompanied a moment later by a loud and rumbling animal roar.  There was the sound of a loud creaking gate, like a pen being opened. 

One of Cairns’ magic wolves was vanquished by one of the Jurchens. Cairn and her remaining wolves ran back down the hill and hid behind a rock.

Ochir stepped out of the fog curtain and yelled: “Come get me you bastards!” and he fired his bow at the Jurchen and it fell forward onto the road.

The other Jurchens had dropped their war horns and run down the hill and converged on Cairn’s position. So far they had not seen the rest of us, but they clearly weren’t going to drop into our ambush pocket if they were busy killing Cairn.

“Now guys!” she yelled.

“Ok, she blew it guys,” Ochir said, “Attack!”

It was then that we heard the shuffling sounds of a large creature coming.

“It’s a trap!” one of the Jurchens cried. “Let’s get out of here and let the Bear deal with them!”

Lo stepped out of the fog and flew into a transforming barbarian rage. It was amazing to see the normally calm and collected Lo grow in size and become an uncontrollable hulk. His muscles swelled and rippled under his armor. He swung his giant Katana downward at a Jurchen, and the creature raised up one of its arms in a futile attempt to block the blow. The Katana sliced through the middle of its upraised hand and split its arm all the way down to the elbow. The Katana had also split its head, so it fell down dead. Lo roared at the others and spittle flew.

I leapt forward from the fog and threw my sleep ashes on the Jurchens, and four of them went to sleep. I think one was faking it; he was so scared of Lo. Aki’s magic Wasp appeared and descended upon the Jurchen and killed it with a quick sting.

The ground shook when we saw the giant Bear finally lumber out from between the Towers. It smashed its way through the barricade. Pieces of wood and debris scattered everywhere. It roared and stood up. We could see the inside of its mouth was red with blood. It had long bloody claws. It wore a massive jeweled collar that was so gaudy it looked like it could just have been an overgrown circus bear. The front of the collar was slick with blood and grime.

Lo roared at the Bear.

The Bear roared at Lo.

Aki, the Wasp, and Kelda Ox-Gutter all joined Lo to form a motley defensive line across the road.

Wang Chung strummed a rhythm on his Sitar and sang: “Two Wong’s don’t make a White”.

The Bear thundered down the hill.

Ochir fired an arrow and it struck the Bear directly in the center of its forehead. The Bear bellowed and slid to a halt. The arrow was lodged deep in its thick skull. It stood rolling its eyes and shaking its head madly.

This must have emboldened Kelda, for she held her sword in both hands and said, “Let me show you how it’s done boys!” She charged up the hill and attacked the Bear. Her slash barely even left a scratch. The beast ignored Kelda completely and began lumbering towards the rest of the line. Kelda took advantage of this and stepped adroitly behind the Bear and chopped right through a tendon in its back leg. 

“Hah!” she cried.

The Bear howled in pain and sat down on the road with a thump. Blood was gushing from its leg; it would likely die now if left on its own. It stood back up and looked at Kelda and growled loudly. She jumped back.

Lo charged forward and swung his great Katana at the Bear, striking the beast and following through on the slicing motion with a Samurai’s flourish. The Bear cried out again. Lo too stepped back after attacking. The Bear tried to grab at Lo and missed.

I saw Allegro move out from behind his outcropping and begin dropping what looked like large sharply-pointed children’s jacks all over the road.

I held my position behind the front line and performed a short ritual in order to improve the accuracy of my attack and then I threw a Fire Shuriken spell at the Bear, and the fiery disc shot out and struck the creature full force. I used a spell secret the Caravan Fortune Teller had taught me that allowed me to throw my Shuriken twice the distance that the magic recipe normally recommended.

Aki sent his magic Wasp flying out and around behind the Bear, and it darted down to sting the beast. The Bear turned instantly and caught the Wasp in both of its claws and tore it to pieces.  I saw the Wasp’s stinger lodged in the Bear’s paw; it was still pumping venom. The leftover pieces of the destroyed Wasp vanished.

“Wha-cha!” Aki shouted his Kiai shout and leapt into the air and landed a mule kick on the Bear’s shoulder. He bounced off and flipped backward, landing nimbly on his feet. Kiai shouts did not count for the purpose of breaking Vows of Silence.

Cairn leapt out from behind the outcropping and threw a dart that hit the Bear.

Lo stepped back up to the Bear and chopped it again with his Katana and it rolled over backward onto its back. Its legs were sticking upward. Steam began rising from the Bear’s rear end.

“That was intense!” Kelda yelled as she came trotting down the hill towards Dipaka and me. Her eyes were wide with excitement and she was breathing heavily.

Dipaka only shook his head and said: “There was no need to kill the Bear. We did not need to do this.” I could hear a great sadness in his voice. 

Everyone all agreed that it was time to leave. We had just gathered at the bottom of the hill when we heard the thudding of heavy feet. It sounded as though large boulders were being dropped on the ground. Whatever was nearing sounded even bigger than the Bear had been.

We stopped and looked back and tried to peer through the fog. The heavy footsteps abruptly stopped.  A few moments passed and I thought I could hear breathing.

A very loud, deep, and gravelly voice said: ““Fee-fi-fo-fum, who with huge balls of stone killed Ling-Ling?!!!”

We heard sniffing noises.

“I smell you out there, Goliath!”  He sniffed a few more times and said: ”Oh ho! Gnomes too??!!!  I’ll teach you bastards to come here and kill my Ling-Ling!”

We saw a huge Stone Giant emerge from the fog as he stumped down the hill towards us. He had hairless gray skin with deep set dark emerald eyes. He had a long thin flinty nose. He wore a thick breechclout of heavy leather. He had an eight foot long carved and crafted club fashioned from a stalactite in one hand, and he had a large rock in the other.

The Giant waded right through Allegro’s caltrops, but they had no effect on the Giant, as the soles of his feet were thicker than the spikes were long. The caltrop tines simply bent over as he stepped on them, or they remained stuck harmlessly in his feet.

The Stone Giant saw Lo first and threw the rock at him. Lo took a step aside and the stone missile crashed down next to him, thudding into the earth.

Aki summoned a Wasp again and it flew straight at the monster, only to find the Giant quite immune to its relatively puny stinger.

Ochir fired an arrow at the Giant, but arrows too bounced off its impenetrable skin.

Lo picked up the boulder that the Giant had thrown at him and threw it back at the Giant, yelling: “Two can play at this game, Giant!”

The rock made it about half way up to the Giant and then bounced back down the hill.

The Giant laughed at Lo.

Cairn summoned another magic Wolf, and it charged the Giant and attacked. It managed by some miracle to get a firm bite hold on one of the Giant’s legs. “Aaaaghhh!” the Giant cried.

The Giant dropped his huge club and grabbed the Wolf with one hand and snatched the pestering Wasp with the other, and slammed them both together. There was a bright flash and a loud bang as both of the summoned creatures vanished together.

”Foolish Mortals!” the Giant screamed. “Do not imagine you can bother me with your paltry summoned animals!”

He retrieved his club from the ground.

“Your pet Bear Ling-Ling squealed like a stuck pig when I killed her!” Lo taunted the Giant.

The Giant growled at this. He found and picked up another big rock.

Cairn moved up and bestowed a virtue on Lo, saying, “May the Fairies be with you!”

I also moved in behind Lo, and I cast a spell on him that would temporarily grant him the magical endurance of a Bear. It looked like he was going to need it.

The Giant was now making a show, and he tossed the rock straight up into the air and then used his club as bat to send the rock careening into Lo.

I was thrown back when the rock slammed into Lo’s chest. I knew I’d heard the cracking of some of Lo’s ribs.

The Giant laughed a long gleeful laugh.  He was quite amused with himself.

Ochir fired another arrow and this time it hit the Giant above its right eye in what must have been a softer area. The Giant yelped and yanked the arrow out. 

Lo charged the Giant, but it stepped aside at the last moment.

The Giant hammered Lo with a mighty wallop. The sound of the stone club crashing into Lo’s shield and armor was alarming. Shards flew off the club when it struck, and Lo grunted and staggered under the weight of the blow.

“Oh, so you can take hit too, can you?” the Giant said with his bad eye scrunched shut.  He lifted his club again to strike Lo.  "Any last words?"

“You’re gonna miss,” Lo stated flatly. The Stone Giant laughed.

The Giant struck Lo over the head and he went down. His skull was broken open. His eyes now stared sightlessly at the sky. My heart sank. We were a week’s travel from the Warding Box and the Amatatsu Seal, and now our House Champion was dead.

“We’d better get out of here!” Allegro cried. 

“Not without Lo we can’t!  We can resurrect him with the Seal back in town!” I yelled.

Aki knew his bare hands could not hurt the Giant, so he dashed in to try and drag Lo’s huge corpse back. I moved to help him. We each grabbed an arm and started slowly dragging Lo back down the hill.

Cairn ran in and leapt from the back of her Wolf to retrieve Lo’s magic Katana. When she picked it up, it magically shrank down to her tiny size. She vaulted onto the back of her wolf and they shot down the road.

“Not so fast my pretty,” the Giant said, after having seen the magic Katana scale down in size when Cairn had picked it up. He stuck his foot on Lo’s chest and placed his weight on him to hold him fast.

“Don’t worry yourselves about him, chumps, he can’t breathe anyway,” the Giant said. “You need to worry about yourselves. You slower Mortals with no mounts will never get away, and I promise you, I’ll grind your bones to make me bread.”

“But,” he went on after a pause, “if you give me the magic Katana I’ll let you go and you can take your friend here’s stinking corpse with you.”

Cairn and her Wolf skidded to a stop and turned around.

We all looked at each other.  We could not hope to defeat the Giant. We had tried everything we could and he was practically uninjured.

I knew we had no choice. However much I knew what the Katana meant to Lo.  I thought about Suishen and hoped that the Royal Katana would be waiting for Lo in Guangzhou.

“Well? What’s it going to be?” the Giant asked.

“Cairn, please give the sword to the Giant.” I said.

“Is this what everyone wants?” she asked.  They nodded.

She rode slowly back over to the Giant and handed him the Katana.

As he took the handle and held the blade aloft, the Katana grew another six feet longer to match the Giant’s size. He appeared quite pleased.

He took his foot off of Lo. We drug his body away.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” he said in his gravelly voice.

“I’m going to call my new sword Ling-Ling.” He swung the sword a few times from side to side in quick chops, testing its weight.

“Scram!” he shouted.

We were gone.

I thought I was dreaming that night when the white drape we’d placed over Lo’s body sat up. It didn’t move again for a few seconds, then all at once Lo stood up, and the sheet fell to the ground. 

“What happened?” he asked, rubbing his eyes with his fists. “I have a headache,” he said.

Dipaka said Lo’s cracked skull had closed up, and it appeared he was going to be just fine. I guessed that the miracle must have come from the magic Regeneration Ring. I had read of powerful Rings of Regeneration during my long study of Chinese magical devices, but none had ever been reported to be able to completely restore life itself. 

After we returned to Silk’s End, we made arrangements for the Caravan to depart.

We tied down loads with ropes and tarps, battened down hatches, double-checked food stores, and made structural upgrades to the undercarriages of the wagons. Sandru oversaw all the details and logistics associated with the long journey ahead. “It's better to be safe than sorry,” he would say.

The Polos hired some Gallos, they were young men who had signed up to be guards.

Each of us got a job assignment. Lo was Pang Mei’s personal guard, and he had finally gotten the oversized sword that he had paid the blacksmith in the village to make. I was to be a Spell Caster.  

Ochir recommended to Sandru an armored war wagon he had found for sale nearby. We all chipped in and added the wagon to the Caravan. We made up a secret compartment inside the wagon in which to store the Warding Box and the Amatatsu Seal for its long journey east.

Finally, one clear day, the wagons rolled.  Everyone in Silk’s End turned out to see us off. 

Sandru beamed as the wains began trundling down the road.


The Road

We had been traveling for days, and the countryside was beautiful. The Caravan had been making its way up and down long winding slopes since we had left the village proper, and there was just as often a long fall on one side of the road as a steep incline on the other.

The Dadu River was on our right as we went, sometimes close to us and other times far away from the road. Its waters were a deep blue color. Mountains of varying sizes were jumbled sentinels on either side of us, and the Sun glinted from their snow capped peaks. Eventually the Mountains gave way to green rolling hills and we could see much further out over the wondrous landscape.

In the village of Leshan, where the Minjiang and the Qingyi mingle their waters with the Dadu, we saw a Gigantic Buddha, sitting stoically facing Mount Emei. As the joining rivers danced at his feet, his enormous hands rested on his knees. The great statue had been carved from the side of a red cliff, and it was well over two hundred feet tall. I had learned during my studies that this was the largest statue in the Known World, and I had been looking forward to seeing it.

The statue’s carving had been started during the Tang Dynasty by a pious Monk named Haitong. The Monk had hoped that the watchful Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that had plagued the shipping vessels traveling down the river. When funding for the project was nearly eliminated, Haitong gouged out his own eyes before the Bureaucracy to demonstrate his piety and sincerity. The funding continued. Several years later he passed away. After his death the construction effort was quietly ended. Seventy years later, a Jiedushi decided to fund the followers of Monk Haitong in order to complete the project.

The construction resulted in so much stone being carved from the cliff face and dumped into the river below that the currents were indeed altered by the statue, rendering the waters safe for passing ships. Gods often worked in mysterious ways.

We had our meal that day at Buddha’s feet. I was able to climb up and sit comfortably on his toenail. Some of us explored the catacomb of stairways and rooms that had been carved into the cliff on either side of the statue.

The local people in Leshan said to us: "The Mountain is a Buddha and the Buddha is a Mountain." They laughed and showed us their rotten teeth.

Wang Chung improvised a song about the Mighty Giant Buddha on the spot, and there was another visiting Minstrel there and he too sang an impromptu song about the Buddha. It became a contest to see who could create the best song about the statue, and Pang Mei was the official judge. For some reason I wondered if anyone would still be singing those songs about the Giant Buddha of Leshan hundreds of years from now.

After we left Leshan there was little to do to while away the time as we traveled, so I tried to sleep in the wagon during the day and write in my spell book as we camped at night. Even a consummate scribe cannot form characters in a wagon jolting along bumpy roads. We had discovered a spell scroll in the Jurchen Chieftain’s lair that would make several mirrored versions of the caster appear and float around to confound attacking enemies. I carefully copied it into my spell book by the light of a lantern.

One day we met another Caravan coming down the road in the opposite direction. They were Merchants from Chengdu. They were quite friendly after their appraising eyes had evaluated our wagons. After some introductory small talk, they offered to let us see the magical items they had for sale.

I perused their trays and trinkets for a while and didn’t see anything I wanted. When I showed them the Rod of Metal and Mineral Detection we had found in the Chieftain’s cave I saw their eyes light up. One fat merchant came forward and rubbed his hands together and ordered a chest brought at once.

"Let me deal with your friends first," he said, "then we’ll talk about the Rod."

They sold a magic Ring of Protection to Ochir, and Aki wrote down what he wanted on his slate. After he had haggled with the Merchant for a while, the fat man handed me a magic Wand. He told me it was a Wand of Enlargement, and I snickered.

Aki asked me to use it for him in his stead before combat as his Vow of Silence would prevent him from saying the wand’s command word. We decided to test it on him and he grew to be twelve feet tall, four feet taller than Lo.

Lo got some new scale mail armor that had been infused with protective magic, and Cairn bought a magic Pearl that would allow her to recast any of her Druidic spells that she had already cast during any given day.

The fat Merchant pulled me aside after the others had finished shopping and offered me ten thousand Jin for the Rod. I accepted.


Fireworks

Two Suns later we were making our way down a hill when we saw a covered wagon parked at a landing below. To our right, there was a twenty foot drop that went down to a rough ledge. Beyond that there was a steep hundred foot drop down to a rocky ravine below. To our left, the terrain was so nearly vertical that only a mountain goat could hope to tread there.

The road itself turned right at the landing where the strange wagon was parked and then continued on downhill.

The wagon had two draft horses at its front. As I looked closer I saw two small bundled figures sitting behind the horses holding the reigns. I could not see their features.

We heard a "Yee-hah!" and ten nearly naked green skinned Bakemono moved out from hiding under the wagon. Their flat and round goblinoid faces were contorted in snarls of rage, and they had hideous yellow fangs. They all screamed and taunted us, their bluster designed to frighten less determined travelers into abandoning their wagons. Sandru raised his hand and called the column to a halt some distance away.

As some of our group moved forward cautiously on foot, I activated Lord Sywan’s wand of sleep on the bandits and two of the snarling creatures went down.

Allegro approached cautiously along the right side of the trail leading his Italian Mastiff.

Cairn burst into action and rode out ahead of us on her mount; she stopped halfway down the hill and began chanting to summon her Wolves. They appeared and rushed forward into the milling crowd of Bakemono.

Wang Chung was right behind her and he began playing his Sitar and sang: "Man that Argue with Wife All Day Get No Piece at Night". His aura bolstered our efforts.

Kelda ran down the hill with her sword and summarily chopped the head off one of the toothy beasts. She let loose with a primal scream as blood sprayed up from the falling creature’s neck and it’s head rolled away.

Aki whirled the Kama over his head and his Wasp appeared and flew down the hill and began to sting the Bakemono.

Lo charged down the hill and was moving so fast he leapt right over Cairn and Wang Chung, and he bowled into the Bakemono and began hacking them apart with his great sword.

Ochir fired arrows at the goblinoids, and several collapsed.

Suddenly, a large flap on the side of the covered wagon facing us opened. There were four Bakemono inside, and we saw that the wagon was packed with hundreds of brown tubes that had wooden sticks strapped to them, and I knew right away that they were large and dangerous firework shells. Two of the creatures placed rockets across the edge of the wagon rail, while the other two lit the fuses with glowing embers they held in small bowls.

The rockets whooshed and shot from the wagon, and I saw a huge trail of bright sparks coming from a rocket that came at me and exploded with a huge bang and red streamers shot out in all directions. I was caught only a few feet from the explosion; how I survived I couldn’t say. I was burned badly in several places, and my silken garb had several burning holes. The flash of light and the loud bang was momentarily disorienting.

The other shell hit Wang Chung directly and exploded, and a shower of large green sparks engulfed him, Cairn, and her mount. Wang Chung fell to the ground screaming and covering his eyes, and there were burning embers smoking on him in several places. Cairn held on for dear life while her canine bolted to escape the area of the blast.

Allegro let his Mastiff loose, and it hurled itself into the fray with the Bakemono and slammed one to the ground and got a bite lock on its throat.

Kelda was still hacking her way through the remaining fiends as was Lo. Dipaka and Aki rushed forward to aid Wang Chung; he had stopped moving and screaming but was still on fire. They put him out with a cloak.

The two Bakemono that were on the front of the wagon threw off their wraps. One pulled a long tube from the under the seat, and the other produced a stick with a red end and struck it on the floor of the wagon. The stick’s tip burst into flame and the grinning creature lit the end of the tube. Sparks and colored balls of fire began to shoot out. The Bakemono was aiming the firing candle at Lo and the others that were fighting the goblins on the ground. The bright fireballs were flying wildly, and some of them struck the Bakemono as well as those in our group.

I now could hear the sounds of battle from behind me, and when I stole a backward glance I saw that several large Oni had emerged from the rocks and outcroppings on either side of the road. They were attacking the Caravan wagons directly, and Sandru, Pang Mei, the Jade Archer and the Caravan guards were fighting them. We had walked into a trap.

I saw the goblins in the wagon preparing to fire two more rockets, and I wondered why they weren’t aiming them at us directly this time. The two rockets shot upward and at an angle from the wagon, and they struck the sheer mountain face on our left and exploded in showers of red, yellow and blue. It would have been a beautiful display, had it not started rocks falling. Small rocks dislodged larger rocks, and in moments an avalanche of boulders was falling down on top of us.

I tried to dodge the bouncing boulders but a good sized one struck me and I was knocked to the ground. I tried to cover my head, and although not normally religious I prayed like mad for Shang-Ti to save my life. No more of the large stones hit me while I was down, and after a few more seconds of thundering the rock fall slowed and mostly stopped. I looked up coughing and wiping dust from my eyes and saw that everyone fighting the goblinoids at the wagon had not been in the area where the rocks had fallen.

Allegro had moved up behind his raging Mastiff. The huge dog instinctively leapt into the wagon to attack the Bakemono inside. Allegro threw his dagger end over end into one of the two goblins on the front of the wagon. The dagger buried itself in its chest and it stumbled and fell with its large burning match stick torch into the back of the wagon. It tried frantically to grab the burning torch but it was too late. Sparks from a fuse began to fly, and a shell burst inside the wagon with a flash bang and shower of white spinning wheels. The Mastiff and the Bakemono in the wagon howled and screamed in unison as more of the shells began to explode in a chain reaction.

Everyone near the wagon turned and ran away at top speed.

Ochir ran up to where I was and leapt up on a boulder and shot one of the horses that was harnessed to the wagon. The arrow pierced the horse’s hind quarter, and it reared and tried to break into a mad gallop. The wagon lurched forward, but the other horse had already collapsed. The wagon pitched and rolled as the crazed horse pulled, so strong in its fear that it dragged the dead horse and the wagon towards the edge of the cliff.

Allegro barely had the chance to get out of the way before the horse and wagon went over the edge. The explosions continued, and as the wagon crashed and rolled down the embankment, rockets and colored fireballs shot out in all directions. There was a cacophony of thunderous bursts, and I couldn’t help but think of the grand and excessive displays that came at the end of shows we would see at Chinese New Year.

Allegro was laying face down peering over the edge of the cliff, but not even a cry from his Mastiff could be heard over the din of the explosions.

Dipaka, Cairn, and Aki quickly moved to treat our burns and injuries, but there were so many. I felt like I’d been rolled over a camp fire. Some of us drank healing potions we’d gotten from the Fortune Teller in order to get moving again.

When we made our way back to the wains, we saw all the remaining Oni that were fighting Pang Mei and the others conduct a fighting withdrawal and melt into the rocky crags. I saw several of the large ogre-like Oni lying dead in the road.

Though we were badly banged up and burned, we were all still alive. I saw Sandru cradling his left arm. Dipaka said it wasn’t broken.

We all judged that we would need to camp on the landing that night. As I finally drifted off to sleep in the safety of the war wagon with Pang Mei, I remember hoping the Oni wouldn’t come back to attack us while we slept.


The Demon

The first thing I remember hearing when I woke that night was Cairn screaming.

I heard her Wolf barking and growling madly outside, and I heard shouts of alarm from Allegro and Lo. I looked through the arrow slits and by the light of our camp torches I saw many dark, furry, rat-like creatures with human faces and hands swarming the camp. Several of the Ratlings had surrounded Cairn and were trying to kill her. She was already bleeding profusely from a bite wound.

Pang Mei, the Jade Archer, and Kelda Ox-Gutter were in the wagon with me, and they were scrambling from their bedrolls and looking out the arrow slits to see what was going on.

One of the Ratlings bit Lo as he unsheathed his sword. He howled and grabbed the hairy beast with one hand and threw it over the side of the cliff and down into the ravine. Any sound of the creature’s falling death scream was drowned out by the wind.

Cairn tried to drink a healing potion but the Ratlings knocked it from her grasp. They overwhelmed her and pushed her to the ground and began gnashing at her with their teeth. Her Wolf attacked the creatures and drug one away from her by it’s tail.

I cast a spell and two fiery missiles shot out at another Ratling and it scurried away from Cairn. This deterred it only for a moment, it returned quickly and resumed its attack.

Allegro was fighting several Ratlings of his own, and they tried to work together to gain a flanking attack on him, but he was too wily. He stepped out from between them and stabbed one in the gut.

I heard Ochir yelling something muffled from my left, he was apparently working to distract the creatures. I knew he bunked in one of the other wagons,so everyone was now awake and alert to what was happening.

I heard Lo yell: “Incoming! Two big winged creatures!”

Suddenly the wind picked up and became a veritable screech. The reinforced iron clad back door of the war wagon was ripped off completely by large clawed hands and thrown aside. The hinges were bent up and the lock was pulled from the door frame. My blood ran cold when I saw the Demon.

It’s skin was the color of thunderheads, and it had a great gaping maw that was lined with needle sharp teeth. It had one red glowing cyclopean eye. It had huge black bat like wings that spread more than eighteen feet.

I saw that it was marked with the same strange markings that I had seen the High Priest of Pazuzu Nevakali wearing.

Beyond the Demon was our old friend the Yamabushi Tengu from Lord Sywan’s Tower. I guessed it was time for his revenge.

The crow-like Tengu with its dark beak leveled his bow at Kelda Ox-Gutter. Her eyes widened with fear.

“I see you thought you escaped, bitch!” he screamed at her. He fired the arrow and it sunk into her chest. She grunted and held her sword level in the cramped quarters and jabbed at the attacking Demon, but her common sword could not damage the beast.

The Jade Archer fired her arrows at the hellspawn. The cold iron tipped missiles she chose from her quiver pierced the Demon’s thick hide and its face contorted in pain. A howling wind whipped through the wagon. The injured beast leaned forward and clawed at Kelda with both hands. She pulled back in the nick of time, but a follow up swipe left her with a trail of bloody scratches.

Pang Mei began playing her lute and praying fervently to bestow virtue upon us, though the notes were lost in a tornado. I felt protective power begin emanating from inside the hidden Warding Box.

“Aaaaaaaargh” Lo cried and began to rage, his muscles swelling. He reached over the back corner of the war wagon and hacked a tip from the Demon’s wing with his great sword.

Dipaka appeared with his walking stick and halo and moved towards Cairn. Aki was coming up behind him.

Ochir had moved up to a wagon that was behind the Tengu and the Demon and fired his first arrow over top of the deck at their backs. He dropped down behind the wagon after his shot. Wang Chung and the old Fortune Teller had moved up next to him, they were taking defensive positions and invoking magical protections.

I fired two magic missiles at the Demon. The energy bolts seared the beast and it staggered back a step.

Lo reached for the creature’s neck with his loose hand and pushed it back from the doorway and away from Kelda. He took his sword and carved his name “LO” in the Demons chest. Its maw opened wide to emit bloodcurdling shriek and it balled its fists in unbridled rage. It would focus only on Lo from that moment on.

The Tengu fired a Ray of Enfeeblement at Lo, and when it hit him it drained the strength out of him. His muscles shrank back to normal size. The rook cawed out a terrible laugh.

Allegro was still battling the Ratlings and killed one with a stabbing thrust. Cairn was unconscious and bleeding. Her Wolf had managed to keep the Ratlings at bay and had killed two of them, but he had been horribly wounded in the meantime.

Dipaka got close enough to Cairn to stop her bleeding, for he was so powerful a holy man his radiance alone could clot blood.  She would not bleed to death, at least not for the moment.

Aki summoned the magic Wasp from the Kama and it careened into combat with the Tengu. Now the crow was visibly blurred by a protection spell, but the Wasp stung it anyway and stunned it for a second. Aki slammed into the Tengu with a flurry blows that knocked it back.

I tried a sleep spell from my wand on the Ratlings outside the wagon but it had no effect.

Ochir sneaked under the wagon to get up underneath the Tengu and the Demon. He fired his arrows from a crouched position and harried them from cover.

The Tengu took notice of the arrows coming from under the wagon and cast a spell of charming on Ochir. He commanded Ochir to start shooting at us. Luckily Ochir’s Gnomish power of will won over and the charm had no effect.

The Demon attacked Lo full force with many rapid fire attacks and wounded him grievously.

Lo’s response was a smooth two-handed level swing that chopped the Demon in two through the waist. Lo yelled a victory cry over the writhing body parts. The huge wings were flapping around on the road.

The Tengu’s eyes widened and he crowed an order to his Ratling soldiers and they began popping and disappearing as though they had never been.

Kelda clambered out of the wagon to engage the Tengu in melee, and she stabbed it through a wing. Allegro struck the Tengu with a rock, and I threw a fire shuriken that went wide of the mark.

“You had better believe I’ll be back to kill you all!” the Tengu cried. He too popped and vanished.

Dipaka revived Cairn, reassured everyone, and healed the many wounds of the injured. “A brave dead man earns only a brave funeral,” he said.

We stayed awake the rest of that night, for there was no going back to sleep. I didn’t want to dream of the Demon. We dragged its body parts away from camp and threw them down into the ravine.

The next week saw us out of the mountains; we emerged into a vast river valley that was lush and green. We elected to park our caravan at night outside of settlements along the great road, and for many miles we followed the waters of the Yellow River.

We stopped to camp outside Yunyang, Gong’an, and many other villages. One day some forest drakes tried to eat our horses while many of us were in Jingzhou on errands. Luckily, Lo and Ochir were guarding the wagons with the Gallos and they spotted them first and scared them off.

From Yunyang and on down through Changsha we had left the river long behind us and set out to follow the road almost due south to Guangzhou.

One day we met a single column of an army coming north. Their commander saluted us and said: “Don’t worry, General Dan will not fail!” I knew that their insignia meant they were troops commanded by the Celestial Bureaucracy. We passed each other by without incident. I couldn’t help wondering where they were going, and who “Dan” was.

It had been thirty seven days since we left Silk’s End when we finally arrived outside Guangzhou. We could see Baiyun Mountain from the road. The morpheme ‘bai’ means “white” and ‘yun’ means “cloud”, so Baiyun literally means White Cloud. It was aptly named. There were also real clouds shrouding the peak’s sides. Forested hills marched up to its feet.

Pang Mei, Sandru, and I stood quietly that morning for a while after breakfast and looked on the buildings and streets of Guangzhou.

“I hope Suishen is still here,” she said.  I hoped so too.



 
 
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