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

Guangzhou

Guangzhou is a giant walled port city that is the grand Capital of Guangdong province. As we approached the bustling trade center, the fields dedicated to agriculture gave way to fields choked with hundreds of kinds of tropical flowers. The weather was oppressively hot and sticky. There were horrid buzzing mosquitoes as large as my open hand, and they were constantly biting me. I think they were after my Japanese blood. I had large red bumps from our first encounters with them, but after that Dipaka had given me a repellant that kept them away.

The outer stone wall that surrounded the city was forty feet high and ten feet thick. Although there were many guards atop the wall near the city’s huge gates, we noticed that guards were very sparse along the other main lengths of wall. The people moving up and down the road were largely old and infirm, helped to hobble along on canes by women and girls. We did not see many able bodied men.

It was nearly high Noon. The Sun beat down upon the multi-colored stones that made up the walls and streets of the city. Everything was blurred from the heat reflecting from the rock faces. Sandru led the Caravan up to the city gates. Two men wrapped in tan linens that hid their faces and dark polished armor raised their spears to us when they saw Sandru. He called the Caravan to a halt and got down from the wagon. He smiled and approached them with open arms. They relaxed and began acting like they knew him. Sandru had told me that he had been to Guangzhou twice before.

The Jade Archer had told me that she had been to the city more than several times. I had talked with her in the war wagon as we had come through the mountains and down through the river valley; I also noticed she didn’t really sleep, so as much as just lay still on her bedroll with her eyes open. She was always calm and serene. I had listened to her talking about things with Pang Mei that had happened over a hundred years ago. Her hair was impossibly thick and beautiful even though we had been traveling for weeks in that hellish wagon. I had eventually learned from Pang Mei that she was one of the Spiritfolk.

I had asked the Jade Archer one day if she had known my real Father. She said that she had indeed known him. I asked her if she knew what my real name was. She sighed and looked at Pang Mei. My sister shrugged her shoulders and said that it was for the best that my real name or hers not ever be known to anyone. “We are still very much a Family in hiding,” she said.

“No shit. What is my real name?”  I asked.

“Aiko,” she said.

Sandru had been talking to the guards for about five minutes and after handing them a small sack of coins, I saw them gesturing and pointing in different directions, as if explaining to Sandru how to get someplace once inside the city walls. At last Sandru bowed to them and came walking back to the wagon and got up into his high seat, cracked his whip and cried: “Forward Ho!”

The wagon wheels creaked as we started to move again. The Sun was hammering down on me unmercifully. There were hundreds of people moving in and out of the gates, so we went very slowly through. I saw little girls pushing carts of assorted wares up and down the street, some of them yelling with loud voices. There were other trade wagons as well. I saw pearls, ivory, rhinoceros horns, frankincense, eaglewood, coral, agate, hawksbill turtle shell, gardenia, and rose from the Arabs and Samboja, herbal medicine from Java, costusroot from Foloan (Kuala Sungai Berang) cotton cloth, cotton yarn from Mait, and ginseng, silver, copper, and quicksilver from Korea.

Guangzhou was essentially the gateway for trade with the Song Empire for fifty of the world’s foreign countries. It was where the Pearl River became an estuary and went out into the South China Sea.

Bodies jostled all around us as we finally arrived on the other side of the gate.  I heard some bells ringing in the distance.

Sandru was surprised when a richly dressed man in a winged hat stepped out in front of our Caravan and brought it to a halt. He had a long thin black mustache that hung down on each side of his chin. He wrapped his forearms around each other in front of himself and stood still with his smartly slippered feet pressed together.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said in Chinese, “I am Minister Ling.”

“Well, what is it you want, Minister Ling?” Sandru asked.

“Your Gnomes, if not to put too fine a point on it.”

His Gnomes?” Ochir asked. “What do you want with us Gnomes?”

“Yeah!” Cairn piped up. “What do you want with us?”

He laughed and said, “Why it’s not you Gnomes I want per se, it’s your dog and your pony, of course. My mistress wants to see a Dog and Pony show.”

“Hey,” Cairn said.  “Gun-Gun is not a dog, she’s a Wolf!”

“I see,“ Minister Ling said.  “Perhaps the distinction is unimportant.”

“We’re not Mummers for hire either--” Ochir was quickly interrupted by Minister Ling.

“My Mistress is a bit eccentric I’ll admit, but very wealthy. She will pay very handsomely.”

“Oh!” Ochir perked up. “Our Dog and Pony here are great entertainers,” he said, “Could we have a chance to polish up our act a bit first?  When would we be putting on this show?”

“My Mistress would like to see the show today, if possible. It will take a little over an hour to get to my Mistress’s estate from where we stand here sweltering. Three o’clock, shall we say?”  The Minister smiled and I saw that he had a golden tooth.

“Ok sir!” Cairn said. She stood up suddenly on Gun-Gun’s back and tried to place a flower in the Minister’s hair. He recoiled in horror then pushed Cairn away. “I’m sorry little girl, go away! It’s taboo to touch my head!”

“Oh, my apologies,” Cairn said. She backed up a step and crushed up the flower between her tiny hands and then blew the petals over him in a cloud.

Minister Ling bowed low, and said “I thank you, Madame.” 

“Pay her no mind Sir, she was dropped on her head as a baby,” Ochir said, “Now will this be a public or private performance?”

“It would be a private performance for my Mistress alone, of course. All of you are expected to come however,” his eyes gleamed as he looked at the rest of us. There was something strange about the way he’d said that.

He handed Ochir a small white card, turned on his heel, and went off into the crowd.

“Ok, let’s go, we’ll see you later,” Sandru said and he whipped up the horses.

“Hey! Aren’t you coming with us?” I asked Sandru.

“We’re going to start doing Caravan business. That’s why we came all this way after all, kid.”

I felt stung. Pang Mei, Kelda, and the Jade Archer went with the Caravan too. It went down a side street and after a few moments it was gone.

We were left standing there amongst the throngs in the stinky, hot stone street. Lo, Cairn, Ochir, Allegro, Dipaka, Aki, Wang Chung, and I decided to head for the address on the card.

I stopped walking when I heard a voice behind me ask, “Uh, Miss Ping?” 

Miss Ping?  I turned and saw the young boy Marco from the Caravan standing there in his dun street clothes and brown leather boots with a worn backpack slung over one shoulder.  His long black hair hung down covering one eye.

“Yes?” I waited.

“Uh, can I come with you guys on this one?” he asked.

I thought on that for few seconds. He was here and the Caravan was gone. “I guess its ok,” I said, “Just don’t get lost.”

I had always liked Marco, but I had never talked to him before. Somehow his asking my permission had made me seem more important. He hadn’t really been asking my permission, though. I was going to have to keep an eye on this one.

“I want you to concentrate only on watching out for people paying us undue attention or following us around,” I told him later.  “If you see anything funny, let me or someone else know about it.”


The Estate

We walked for an hour through the maze of crowded streets until we arrived at the estate. The heat was oppressive. I was almost completely soaked in sweat. It was quite an impressive home, very similar to a small compound. We went all the way around it first to scope things out, and we found out the entrance was in the back and there were two armed guards on either side of it. They wore black polished O-Yori armor of amazing quality. They also had guns. These were three foot black tubes that could fire a tiny lead projectile at such high speeds it could kill a man from as far as a half mile away. I had read that they really weren’t very accurate. Up close, however, a gun could beat just about any other sort of weapon if used correctly.

“Those are Royal Fusiliers!” Marco whispered to me.

“Leave the dog and pony outside!  Only people are allowed within!” one guard said brusquely.

Minister Ling nodded to us that this was correct.  “Yes, your animals must remain here, I’m afraid.”

We left them and went between the guards and into the house. I heard Cairn’s Wolf growling at the guards when left alone with them.

Many of the walls in the house were of framed rice paper, and some of them slid in tracks as doors to reveal other rooms. We were shown into a large outer reception room.  We were left to wait for a while and then some serving maids brought us water and peppermint tea and fanned us with brightly colored folding fans.

Two more maids came in and we heard the sound of a gong. They went to the back of the room. They each pulled back a sliding wall to reveal a small woman and her entourage. We all recognized right away that she was the Mother of the Emperor.

We all bowed low.

Grand Empress Dowager Xie was as stunning as I had read. She was arrayed all in white with long rows of ornate beading, and the lines on her face were indicative of her wisdom and strength. Her accoutrements were all antique, made of silver and gold in fine filigree. Her appearance and demeanor spoke of great wealth and power.

 “This is a city short of heroes,” she began, “please forgive Minister Ling and I’s obvious ruse. I have invited you here to help me find my missing Grandson, Zhao Bing.”  Her voice had a fine silky quality.  It was mesmerizing.

“Down the hole we go,” Ochir whispered.

“He disappeared some five days ago; he was last seen with that foolish jeweler’s daughter.”

“Maybe they ran away together and got married,” I said.

“That is quite impossible, I assure you. He cannot get married without my consent and the permission of the Emperor. No, even he would not do this,” she said.

“The efforts of my top men have failed. This is why we have decided to bring in outsiders. For a bit of fresh perspective, if you will.”

Several in her entourage shifted nervously, but no one said a word.

“There are other young men missing as well. They are not of the Imperial Line like my Grandson, but they are scions of important families. Wen Hung Lo, the bastard son of Governor Wen Tiang Xiang is among them. Chin Nook, son of Lord Chin Mak, Commander of the City Watch, and the Keeper of Keys. Also, Zhang Ming, son of Lord Zhang ShiJie the Minster of Maritime Trade.”

“Have you had any ransom demands?” I asked.

“No.”

“Did they all disappear at the same time?”

“Yes.”

“Can we have any of Zhao Bing’s personal effects?” Cairn asked.

The Empress Dowager frowned.

“She means that Gun-Gun the Wolf has a chance to track him by his smell. Let’s say it’s something of the “fresh perspective” you’ve been wanting,” I said.

She clapped her hands and a tray was brought. The smell of shit filled the room. There was a comb, an unlaundered tunic, some dried wash rags, a clear flask of what looked like urine, and a bowl of feces. I wrinkled my nose, I couldn’t help it.

“We carefully monitor the health of all Scions of the Royal Family,” the Empress Dowager said.  “All excrement is examined daily by Royal physicians.”

“Maybe they went out somewhere in the wilderness and got lost,” Lo said.

“No, Zhao Bing had formal ranger training as a boy. As did his friends. I do not think they have become lost. The sons of the City Lords are friends, but their Fathers are not. Perhaps one of them may have something to do with this. I am thinking foul play.”

“Does your Grandson have any friends left in the city?”

“No, they are all missing.”

Cairn picked up the Prince’s tunic and said she would have to go outside and present it to Gun-Gun.

“Find my Grandson,” she went on, “and I will reward you with ten thousand Jin.”

“We accept,” Ochir said. “Empress Dowager, we’re going to need a license to do business and move freely about in the city. Can you help us with that?”

“Alas, while I can write a letter to the Emperor and request a license be granted to you, it will be three weeks before it will reach him. I suggest you go see Governor Wen for one; it will be far more expedient. Minister Ling will show you out and escort you to wherever you need to go within the City.”

We bowed in farewell and went out with Minister Ling. Gun-Gun and Ochir’s Pony were there waiting for us outside. The Sun was lower in the sky now, but it was still just as hot. I wanted to go back into the house.

“Let’s go visit the girl’s father first. Lead the way Minister,” Ochir said.

“Very well,” Minister Ling said, “we will go to the Jewelry Store of Tan Tai An. This way please.”

“Jewelers are all crooked,” Ochir whispered to me as we followed Ling through the crowds.

“Where did Chao Bing like to hang out?” Lo asked.

“At the Crow’s Nest,” Minister Ling said.

“I hope that’s a bar,” Lo said.

I walked with Marco on the way there. 

I happened to look over at Aki. He had a mischievous grin on his face and he held up his slate so I could see it and it said: “I think we’re about to get framed for murder.”

I laughed.


The Jeweler

When we arrived at the Jewelry store we saw that it was a three story brick building with an elaborate storefront that boasted large glass windows. The sign above the door read “Bounties of the Earth”. I could see lots of beautiful jewelry inside, arrayed on plates and trays. There were other rare items as well, such as polished seashells and chunks of ores suspended between golden clamps.

Minister Ling held the door open for us to go inside. 

As the others were going into the store, Aki signaled me by walking up and tapping my left hand. 

I looked to the west and saw three goons decked out with brand new studded leather armor. They carried clean wooden shields and clubs. They were standing a block away trying to act nonchalant. They looked up and saw me looking at them. They disappeared.

Inside the store was Tan Tai An. He was a tall, lean man whose large eyes were somehow different than a man’s. I knew he was of the Spiritfolk like the Jade Archer was. He had long straight silver hair pulled back into a pony tail. He wore an ashen gray tunic, and he had a worried look on his face. He saw Dipaka and his eyes brightened, for Dipaka’s halo was shining brightly.

“May Siddhartha be praised!” he said, “Welcome to my store!”

Dipaka smiled and bowed low and said: “Yes, may Siddhartha be praised.” His voice was filled with great reverence. 

When Tan Tai An saw Lo and the rest of us coming in he must have thought we were invading his shop. His eyes were full of questions when Minister Ling at last came inside and announced the purpose of our visit.

When he told him that we had come to help find his missing daughter a tear appeared in the corner of his eye.

“Yes, yes! Oh, please help!  Lyan has been gone for five days!” he said.

“Do you know where she might have gone?” Dipaka asked.

“Yes,” he said, and he walked over to the store clerk’s desk and pulled out a ledger. “Let’s see, oh, yes, here it is: three hundred chew she stole from the till box. I know it was to finance an adventuring party; she was talking earlier that day about them wanting horses.”

“One of the boys in that reckless party is the Prince. The Minister warned me that the lad was young and headstrong. Stupid’s more like. He’s probably gone and gotten her killed!” He sagged.

Dipaka moved closer to Tan Tai An and his aura soothed the man’s fraying demeanor. He slowly straightened and took a deep breath.

“She is trained in the ways of magic,” her father said, “but honestly she is a new initiate and not especially gifted. Please find my daughter!”

We asked if there were any of her personal effects available for Gun-Gun’s nose. He went into the back and produced a perfume bottle. We thanked him and told him not to worry and took our leave.

“Let’s go to the Crow’s Nest,” Lo said. 

Minister Ling led the way. I told the rest of the party one at a time about the men that Aki had spotted following us earlier. I pointed this out especially to Marco. “You’re supposed to be watching out for stuff like this,” I said.

Aki showed me his slate.  “3+2=5”

I looked until I spotted them. There were two more nondescript shield and club bearing soldiers following us a few blocks back. I showed them to Marco. “See what they look like?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

Ochir was furious. “Minister Ling, stop for a moment!” The Minister stopped and turned and raised an eyebrow at Ochir.

“Do you have people following us?” Ochir asked.

Minister Ling shook his head no.

“Ok, let’s stop and wait here and see if we can talk to these goons and find out who sent them when they catch up.”

We all stopped and waited. When our pursuers got closer and saw that we were plainly waiting for them, they stopped and then walked the other way until they were out of sight.

Ochir then proposed we duck down an alley near the Crow’s Nest and hide and wait for them. He found a nice alley two streets away. We could already hear the sound of plates and glasses and rowdy customers reveling inside the Crow’s Nest.


The Alley

We all went down the narrow alley for a hundred paces or so, and there were dumpsters to dodge and waste water puddles to jump over. The air was thick with an acrid smoke. We saw half a dozen young women laying around on dirty rugs and threadbare pillows. They had tall water pipes and they were smoking some foul smelling weed. There was a low double door that stood open with a dark blind hallway beyond. There was a grimy red curtain that normally hung down over the doors but was pulled over to one side and held back by a hook. We took up positions hiding in alcoves and behind piles of rags and bags of trash.

We waited and waited. My legs and ankles were getting sore as I crouched on top of a crate behind a dingy sheet that was thrown over a clothesline. A woman kept blowing smoke up my way and getting it in my face. There was a tickling at the back of my throat and I couldn’t help but cough.

“They aren’t coming,” Allegro finally said.

I blew out the deep breath I was holding and relaxed. We all emerged from hiding and stretched and rubbed our sore spots. I looked around for Marco, but he was nowhere to be seen. 

Dipaka looked at the door to the brothel. 

“I’ll go in and look for the boy,” he said. He gathered his walking stick and his halo and went inside. The rest of us waited.

After ten minutes or so they both came out of the brothel smiling broadly and enjoying some private joke.

Dipaka later told me that he had found Marco lying back in a comfy chair getting his feet rubbed by several of the lowborn women inside. He had talked him out of "venturing" any further.

“What were you guys laughing about when you came out?” I asked.

“That is a matter of honor between us men,” he said, smiling.

Whatever.

We went to the Crow’s Nest. It was an enormous inn and tavern, much larger than the Iron Ox back home. It was an old round tower and the first two original levels were constructed of seamless stone. There were two more upper stories, obviously added later and made of wood. When we got inside the place there were somewhere between two and three hundred people milling about the enormous great hall.

A middle aged dark Arabic man appeared wiping his hands on a clean white cloth and said: “I am Sahid, proprietor of the Crow’s Nest.  What can I get you?”

Lo moved forward towards the bar.  “Saki,” he said.

“Don’t worry, we have that here,” Sahid said. “You are in Guangzhou, you know.”

I talked to Sahid for a few minutes on my own and discovered the top floor of the inn was a single penthouse suite with windows that had stout wooden shutters. I paid him in advance to rent the floor for ten days.

I went up to unlock the door for everyone and stow my gear. I paid the innkeeper to have some servants bring me a hot bath and I wound up soaking in the tub until my fingers and toes were all wrinkled. I got out and dried and put on a fresh tunic and went back down to the hall. I saw Lo was still there drinking Saki.

I saw Marco was passed out cold, a line of drool stretching from his lip to the bar. Lo had apparently beaten him in a drinking game.

“You should have a drink,” Lo said to me.

I decided Lo was right. 

The next morning I couldn’t think because my head was pounding. I barely managed to give my offering that day. I threw up twice. Every sound made my skin crawl. Lo and Marco slept all morning and didn’t even try to conceal the fact that they were hung over. Marco groaned loudly. Dipaka tried to help them, but they simply wouldn’t budge until Noon. While we waited, we tried to put together the information we had gathered the night before.

It turned out that Sahid had given us our most promising lead. Lo said that Sahid knew everyone in the quarter. Zhao Bing had been at the Crow's Nest six nights ago. A Korobokoru from the Crownsheild clan had been hired by the Prince and some of his friends to lead an expedition to Thar. They were to have met the dwarf at the north gate and set forth from there. He said that the group the Prince was there with that night seemed somber and worried. There was also a young girl with them. She had a talking Crow.

There was also a dark rumour going aorund that Governor Wen and the Minister of Maritime Trade, two of the fathers who had children involved in the disappearance, were currently on very unfreindly terms. The reason fo this was unknown, but speculation was rampant.

I asked Sahid to call upon the Crownsheild Korobokoru family to see if the dwarf had any brothers that could also lead us on a trip to Thar. I offered an exorbitant amount of pay for the job. He shrugged and sent a lad out to see what could be done.

Allegro went away to buy a new Mastiff to replace the one that had unfortunately been killed in the fireworks accident. Somehow he came back with a cute little puppy. He said its name was Wingnut. It was enchanting. He said he had bought a duck for an old woman, and gotten ripped off by a cadaverous kennel merchant. “I should have bought a leash,” he said.

It was just after Noon when two Crownsheild Korobokoru got to the inn. They were about four feet tall each. They had long arms that were covered in coarse black hair. They had lean bodies and bow legs. They had large deep blue eyes. They were dressed in scale armor and they bore large axes.

“The Crownsheild Fighter’s at your service Ma’am,” they said and saluted.

“Welcome, and thank you for coming,” I said, “we need your expert assistance in following your brother Crownsheild to Thar. We need your knowledge of the area and you’re fighting skills. Can we count on you?”

“As we live and breathe,” they said. They rapped their axe handles on the floor twice each.

I paid them in Song notes five hundred Jin. I heard them grumbling something in their native tongue. Later that day, Aki (who understood Dwarves, apparently) told me via chalk and slate that they had lamented the fact that no one ever paid in real gold coins anymore.


The Bazaar

Eventually we all headed for the North Gate. As we went, we entered a crowded bazaar where there were pen stands strung between tall posts that stuck up from the flagstone square. They were stocked with produce, nuts, dried fruits, and fish.

Allegro was the first to see them, followed by Ochir. Clinging to curtained poles that rose above the fish stand to our front and left were three Ninjas that were looking at us. The crowd was very thick, and Allegro gave the quiet signal that something was amiss. When we looked around us, we saw that we were surrounded. There were at least six more of them. There were two in front, two in back, and one on each side. They suddenly all moved together and darted in to attack.

Dipaka lifted up his thin staff and raised his free hand and said in a commanding voice: “Behold! There shall be no violence here this day.” A wave of calmness seemed to fan out in all directions and it stopped the incoming attack. The assailants had been frozen, their minds locked by virtue of Dipaka’s supernatural power. They could not attack or perform offensive actions. Dipaka’s halo glowed brightly.

“No one attack or do anything offensive!” Dipaka warned. “If no one attacks, we won’t even have to fight these Ninjas.”

Marco was near one of the thugs on the right side of our formation that was coming from an alcove. For what reason I’ll probably never fathom, he jabbed the Ninja in the gut with his rapier. Blood squirted out and the man broke free of Dipaka’s holy power.

“No!” I yelled.

Allegro threw a rock with all his might at the attacker, but the agile Ninja leapt aside.

What happened next was in slow motion for me.

The enraged Ninja thrust his katana right through Marco’s torso. Marco’s eyes flew open and the Ninja pulled the sword down and out to gut him. I saw his entrails spill out into the street. He fell first to his knees, and then to the ground. The crowd of people scattered, and screams filled the bazaar. Blood was everywhere.

I had tears in my eyes instantly. My chest was gripped by a terrible squeezing fist, and I could not breathe.

I felt a sudden blinding surge of incredible power come from nearby and I saw an envelope of white light surround Marco. His wounds healed themselves, and he somehow slowly got back up. He looked down to see that his wounds were healing through the cut in his shirt. He tried to find them with his bloody fingers, but they were gone. The white light faded away.

I knew then that he had the Amatatsu Seal in his backpack.  It’s power was unmistakable.

“Wow,” he said.  Wow my ass. This kid dares to have taken the Seal?

I put the Ninja to sleep with my wand. “Let’s get the fuck out of here!”

Dipaka continued to radiate the mind numbing power of goodness that kept the other Ninjas at bay as Lo grabbed the sleeping one and threw him over his shoulder.

Suddenly, the remaining Ninjas melted into the crowd and were gone.

“Marco, give the backpack to Lo at once.” I said.

“But Miss Ping, I am supposed to have it, Miss Pang Mei said—“

“Marco, give the backpack to Lo!”

“Hey guys, not here in public,” Allegro said. “Let it wait until we’re out of the City.”

I reluctantly shut my big mouth and we took off.

I was seething all the way to the gate. I was almost wishing the Ninjas would try jumping us again. I couldn’t look at Marco.

After we had made our way through the North Gate, we left the city environs before we sat the Ninja down and tied him up.

We took his gear and stripped him to his loincloth. We found three empty potion bottles in his belt pouch. I read the labels and determined that these Ninjas had been juiced up when they came to attack us. They all had been given super strength, stamina, and speed for the very purpose of killing a large group.

If it hadn’t been for Dipaka’s Holy power, we might all have been assassinated.


Feast for Crows

Lo asked the Ninja who he worked for.  The Ninja said nothing.

“He’s a Chin goon!” said one of the Crownsheild Korobokoru, pointing at the prisoner, his eyes wide with fear. “Don’t you know anything? Those guys were all Chin Mak’s men.”

Chin Mak, the Commander of the City Watch, Keeper of Keys. We hadn’t interviewed him back in the city.

“How much did they offer to pay you?” Ochir asked. His voice was angry.

The prisoner was silent.

 “Why, I’m going to carve your true name, "Dog" on your forehead, so everyone that sees you will know just who you are,” Ochir said, and he pulled a thin dagger from his belt and moved towards the bound captive.

“Wait, wait, wait a second,” said Lo, with his fingers on his sword hand pressed together. He often did that when he was about to get angry.

The Ninja said: “Alright!  Alright! I’ll tell you. It doesn’t matter anyway. A hundred Jin for a capture or five hundred Jin for taking you out."

Dipaka had moved over to Ochir and placed his hand on the Gnome’s shoulder. The effect of calming on the area was palpable. Ochir shook his head and turned and walked away.

In the end we decided to turn the man loose in his loincloth. I didn’t know if this was the best idea, but killing him seemed extreme to me. I guessed we’d find out someday. Ochir said as much.

We headed north with the Crownsheild Korobokoru guides. Ochir was tracking, looking for evidence of Zhou Bing, the other lost boys, Lyan, or their horses.

After we had gone a few more miles I asked Marco to hand over his backpack to Lo for safekeeping. He had a bunch of excuses for how he had come to have the Seal, and about how Pang Mei had created a duplicate Warding Box and Seal to be a decoy, and how they had hidden the decoy in the wagon.

I said I didn’t give a crap about his bullshit story; he wasn’t in trouble with me. The Seal had to be protected by the House Champion. I knew Pang Mei would have told me about such a crazy plan. At least she better have. This boy had the real Seal, and Pang Mei the fake. We were now responsible for returning from this deadly adventure with both Marco and the Seal in one peice. Aki had been right. I should never have agreed to bring Marco, and I should have marched him back to his uncle Maffeo the second I knew he had snuck away from the Caravan.

It would be smart to turn around right now and go back to the Caravan with both Marco and the Seal, but we had learned enough about the strange disappearance of Zhou Bing and company to know that they might need our help right away. Aki felt Lo might fall in combat and thus endanger the Seal, but I remembered Lo’s strength and determination. I also remembered his Ring. If anyone could get the Seal back to the Caravan in Guangzhou safe, it would be Lo.

That night passed with us taking what had become our standard watches: the early shift was Allegro, Cairn and Lo. The second shift came just after two and was staffed by Ochir and me. Ochir watched with his bow at the ready, and I watched with Lord Sywan’s Wand of Sleep in my hand. Sometimes I got up and walked around the camp to stretch my legs. Aki and Dipaka both rose right on time to relieve us as though they shared unflappable internal clocks.

I crawled into my tent and laid down on my bedroll and went to sleep. The only thing that came to me in my dreams at first were images of the camp and the flickering torches. Then I was plagued by nightmares, and I saw the screeching Wind Demon, the Servant of Pazuzu. He came to kill me and eat my flesh. I was terrified. I ran away from him, going down a spiraling square stairway, deeper and deeper into darkness.

I felt the Seal begin showing me images again. I saw my Father selling the Royal Katana Suishen to a tall and broad shouldered warrior. I was shown images woven by artists with grave and artifice, and I saw the likeness of the sword’s buyer was akin to that of Governor Wen’s. By age I guessed he was the Father or an Uncle of the Governor of Guangzhou.

“Go to Xul-Zarak,” the Seal said to me in a whispering voice, “you will find Suishen close by.”

I woke up with a start and sat up. Suishen?

Only the sound of the wind rustling through my tent came in answer.

We went on like that for several more days. Eventually the road split. We called a halt. We could either take a route that kept us on the jungle track we had been traveling on, or a route that went out onto the moors. For some reason, Gun-Gun couldn’t pick up any scent. It wasn’t looking good. Ochir was able to use logic and field sense to track the group. We took the road that led into the moors. Allegro switched to a pith helmet just for the occasion. We all laughed.

After several days we entered some woods. At a clearing we came upon the site of a great battle. The bodies of many Jurchens lay rotting on the ground. Murders of crows were flocking to the easy feast and the air was filled with the cacophony of their shrieks as they tore away at the corpses. We saw several straight lengths of ruined wall that still stood although the buildings that they had been part of had collapsed long ago.

As we got closer to the old walls, we found that the crows were not alone. We heard loud growling and rending noises. We peeked over a ruined wall and saw a large creature eating a dead horse. It had a thick, shaggy coat of fur and feathers. Its color was mottled and ranged from black to light brown. Its huge frame was like a bear’s. It had the face and hooked beak of an owl. It’s large round red-rimmed eyes were filled with madness.

Ochir decided to seize the initiative and he rode out from where we were behind the wall on his pony and got out his bow and arrow. I heard his bowstring snap. “Ouch! Son of a bitch!” He yelled.

There was blood spurting from his finger. It was obviously cut to the bone and required immediate medical attention. He reigned in his pony and stopped.

The Owlbear didn’t need to be struck by an arrow to decide he wanted to be rid of Ochir. The beast screeched and flapped over the dead horse and charged quickly across the ground. The creature seized Ochir’s pony with both of its claws and heaved it up into the air and slammed it back down on the ground. It sunk its beak into the side of the flailing pony. Ochir managed to leap away from the pony at just the last instant, landing nimbly on his feet.

Wang Chung began singing the old song “Man who put cream in Tart not always a Baker!” His magic aura spread out and surrounded us, making us have better focus. I could see that much more clearly, hear much better, and respond to things much faster than usual.

Aki moved forward down along and around the right side of the ruins, but he had made it only as far as a nice covered position behind a low wall when we heard the second Owlbear. The female shambled out from the trees and bushes and screamed at its mate. I fired the Wand of Enlargement at Aki and he grew to be twice his normal size. Aki was now taller than the wall he was behind, so the female Owlbear saw him and rushed over to attack with its long claws. It swung its huge arms in wide arcs, yet Aki adroitly ducked each and every swing. Aki’s uncanny speed made the creature look like it was moving much more slowly than it actually was. Aki jabbed at the Owlbear, but the beast was fast enough to dodge his punch.

Dipaka grabbed his linens and ran to Ochir’s side to heal his gushing finger wound, even though the raging Owlbear was only ten feet away.

Cairn moved up behind another ruined wall section and began chanting to summon a wolf.

Allegro sneaked through a hole in one of the ruined walls and moved into position closer to the first Owlbear. He chucked a skipping stone at the brute. It bellowed with rage.

Wang Chung dashed in and helped Dipaka bandage Ochir’s bloody finger.

The two Korobokoru fighters kept in tight formation with Marco. I fired a couple of magic missiles at the female Owlbear, and it roared in anger.

Lo sprang into action and went over to help Aki, and it was strange now to see them fighting next to each other, for Aki at the moment towered over Lo. Lo began whacking the Owlbear with his great sword.

The first Owlbear took Ochir’s Pony and ran away, heading towards the tree line.

We took some more shots at it, but the beast ignored us and it vanished into the woods.

With everyone else battling the remaining Owlbear, it wasn’t long before she screamed and went down. 

Ochir and Allegro split up and made an assessment of the battleground. Allegro whistled when he saw a Korobokoru among the dead. He called the Dwarves over to take a look. They cast their hoods over their faces when they recognized their Brother Crownsheild. It turned out his name had been Dorn. The names of the Korobokoru that were with us were Deiter and Dunitz.

We began digging a shallow grave, then Deiter and Dunitz jumped in and dug the grave so deep that we could not see them after a while. Eventually they climbed back out. “If we’re gonna bury Dorn, we’re gonna do it right,” they said. They knocked over one of the ruined stone walls to create some large rubble and piled it neatly over the filled grave. Lo helped them to pile up the larger chunks.

Dipaka led a short but reverent service for Dorn. Cairn stared in wonder at what the Korobokoru were doing with the rocks. She said that the wolves she had grown up with had no such burial custom. She said that she had learned she was different from the wolves that had raised her when she had found stone piles in the wilderness.

We piled the Jurchens into a great heap and burned them. A huge black column of smoke rose hundreds of feet into the sky. The smell was horrible.

We went back to heading along the track through the woods and then back out onto the moors.

A day later we had an adventure with a huge wild Boar and some Jurchen troops.

Ochir had snuck up undetected on a small Jurchen camp, and he had used a mage hand cantrip to remove the latch pin on the Boar’s pen. The Boar had nosed its way out, and Ochir had then shot it in the rear sending it squealing and careening out of control. It ran out amongst the lean-tos that made up the Jurchen camp.

The leader of the Jurchens had happened to see the arrow fly out and figured out where Ochir was. He then smashed a jar of some sort of poison on his curved falchion. Poison dripped down the blade and he grinned horribly. He stumped over to Ochir. The rest of his men were armed with heavy war axes and crossbows.

Ochir fired a shot at the leader and feathered him. The Jurchen raised his falchion high above his horned helm and brought it swiftly down on Ochir’s shoulder. Blood poured out and soaked Ochir’s shirt. He staggered.

Lo bellowed with rage and then began a sprint towards Ochir, and he leapt right over the heads of the Jurchen line and bowled in to the leader from the flank. He stabbed the Jurchen Captain with a hard thrust.

Dipaka bravely moved forward into harm’s way and used his calming influence on half of the Jurchen troops that were off to the right side of the field. They lowered their crossbows and scratched their heads and were unable to shoot at us.

Ochir took two steps backward and fired his bow at point blank range into the leader’s face. When the arrow buried itself in the Jurchen’s brain, it fell forward dead. Ochir fired another arrow into the back of the Jurchen’s head to make sure.

The Jurchens that Dipaka’s aura had been keeping at bay suddenly backed away from him until they were outside the reach of his calming aura. They all raised their crossbows and fired at Lo. A few bolts were turned aside by Lo’s scale mail. One stuck out between the scale plates in his armor, but the quarrel didn’t even slow the Giant down. He turned from the dead leader Ochir had killed and charged back into the fray with the Jurchens.

The wild Boar decided to attack the rest of us, but Allegro jumped in front of Marco and stabbed the Boar with his talking dagger, Istanvol. Istanvol yelled: “For the Cause!” and began singing a ditty about the merits of eating bacon as a course at every meal. This didn’t help so much as make me hungry.

Three Jurchens all charged Aki at the same time. As they came in close, however, Aki attacked each one with a lighting quick strike. One was struck in the throat, another poked in the eyes. The third was kicked in the gut. They were all sent flying. When Aki landed on his feet all three attackers were out of the battle. He snapped into a defensive stance, ready for more.

Ochir began shooting at the Jurchens that were firing at Lo. Lo was also now heading their direction, so the Jurchens turned and fled into the woods.

The rest of us had surrounded the Boar. Gun-Gun and Cairn’s summoned wolf attacked it from behind. They managed to pull the Boar to the ground.

Marco stepped out and stabbed the prone Boar with a spear. The angry Boar got back up. Lo made it over and stuck the Boar with his sword. 

Aki whirled his Kama with the spiked chain attached. It whistled as it split the air and tangled the Boar against a large bramble covered stone.

It struggled for a while, but then finally quit squealing and trying to escape.

“Looks like bacon’s back on the menu, boys!” Allegro said. He knelt and began cleaning and carving meat from the Boar’s carcass.

We gathered up the weapons that the Jurchens had dropped. There was a hideous masterwork falchion that the leader had used, and four crossbows.

I took two of the crossbows and two racks of crossbow bolts and gave them to Dieter and Dunitz.

“Use these well,” I said.

Ochir found a potion bottle and an Amulet. We didn’t really have any way to determine what sort of magic powers the items possessed. Wang Chung looked at the writing on the potion bottle. 

“I’ve never seen it’s like before. Very difficult,” he said.

"Let me see that,” I said.

“Oh sure, like you’re going to be able to read it?”

“Of course I can read it! I’m Xiao Ping!” I said, snatching the potion away from the surprised Bard.

It was an obscure dialect, but I was able to recognize that the symbols were those of healing herbs. It was a simple potion of healing.

About the Amulet, no one knew. Ochir shrugged and put it on.

We stayed that night in the Jurchens’ lean-tos after dragging their bodies away.

The next morning, Ochir examined the ground, and he scanned this way and that, back and forth. He shook his head, and then he went over the area again. When he was done, he leaned up against a tree with one hand and rubbed his chin. “There’s no sign of the kids anymore. Only Jurchens and horses.”

“They could be dead, but we haven’t seen them,” Lo said.

“We’re on the right track. We have to assume they put them on horseback. They have been marching for days. The youths may be too weak to march for such a long time. The Jurchens are probably forced marching; so we’ll need to do it too,” I said.

We went on the next day without stopping. When night fell at the end of that day of marching, we were dead tired. If we went on for a third day, we were going to be exhausted and worthless. We made the difficult decision to stop for the night, and the next morning Aki decided we should march for two days at a time, then rest for one night, and so on.

One night when we were camping, we saw a man’s silhouette against the night sky a great distance away on a low tor. He was alone except for a large wolf or dog that was sitting beside him. Cairn said it was a Wolf. Allegro and Aki decided to go find out who the stranger was.

They came back two hours later and said that whoever it was had managed to lose them. Allegro said that Aki had decided to leave a sign for the strange individual. As of the next morning, no one had appeared.

We were traveling along the road when Aki spotted a huge shadow swooping down on us from the fog. He signaled us by snapping into a ready position and pointing up at the sky. A large monster appeared. It had huge bat like wings, the body of a Lion, and a human face with a flat nose and wide mouth. Its ugly face was pasty white with red spots. It had jagged teeth, and spikes protruding from its chin like a wise man’s beard. Red spines went along the ridge of its back. It had a long tail that ended in a heavy club covered with deadly barbed spikes.

It swooped down beside us, and whipped its tail at Lo so a bunch of spikes flew off and nailed Lo's shield.

Wang Chung began singing “A Song of Sixpence” to heighten our senses.

Dieter and Dunitz raised their crossbows and fired at the Manticore. Their bolts went wide; the wind generated by the creature’s flapping wings blew them off course.

Ochir fired his arrows and several of them struck the beast.

I threw magic missiles at it and it flapped back skyward.

Allegro threw a rock at the Manticore and hit it in the ass.

Aki summoned the magic Wasp and it flew up to attack. It stung the monstrous creature. The Manticore was now suffering from several wounds, and was clearly becoming more concerned for its safety now than its hunger. It flicked its tail spikes at the Wasp and destroyed it.

The wounded Manticore harumphed and flew off into the fog, looking for easier prey.

We went on and on in the wretched heat. Fog was our constant companion, it seemed. 

We finally got to where we were going late one night during a forced march. The mists parted to reveal a fortress.

Stalwart and strong, this was a very large gray stone edifice. Jurchen guards patrolled the walls at roof level, and we could see them passing every minute or so.

The moors stretched out like a rolling sea beyond the building. On the low hills we could see the torches and bonfires of camped armies. We heard the sounds of armor, weapons, drums, and guttural noises from far off in the distance. Several burning rings delineated separate armies, each with their own tribal war banner. It looked like four or five Jurchen war tribes. 

Their presence here could mean only one thing. Invasion.


Xul Jarak

Xul-Jarak, or the Gray Citadel, was an ancient and heavily scarred two story Jurchen fortress that sat upon a twenty foot high crag that rose up out of the moors. It had survived countless ancient sieges. There was a ravine that went all the way around it that served as a dry moat. The ashen gray walls were themselves another twenty feet high, and were supported by great stone buttresses. The walls were lined with three foot stone battlements. A stone ramp led across the dry moat over to the gatehouse, which had a set of heavy doors.

We saw the top of a very tall wooden crane sticking up out of the center of the structure. There were thick ropes that hung down from a pulley high up on the crane into what below must be an open courtyard.

Ochir, Allegro, and Aki decided to go alone and skirt the tower. We hoped they could find another way in. The rest of us waited some distance from the bottom of the ramp, and were hidden from the enemy sentries by the fog. Ochir used his Whisper Gnome power to cast a silence spell on himself. Nothing could get within twenty feet of Ochir without being rendered absolutely silent. The magical effect moved with him as he went. This rendered all three of them unheard.

We watched as they went over to the ramp and one by one dropped down over the side and into the dry moat. They walked along the bottom and headed around to the west side of the tower. After a few moments, they were gone.

When they got a quarter of the way around the fortress they saw a large, gaping hole in its side. They carefully made their way up to the opening, working their way through the rubble.

They were mildly startled when a Raven flapped down from the hole and landed on Aki’s shoulder. Its beak was snapping open and closed as though it were madly squawking. Ochir’s silence occluded its cries. The bird hopped to Aki’s other shoulder and stayed there.  He waited at the edge of the opening while Allegro and Ochir moved forward.They peered through the hole and saw only darkness. They moved cautiously through the gap. There was a large amount of rubble to navigate in order to get through. As their eyes adjusted to the deeper darkness, they saw the base of the crane they had seen from outside. There was a raised well, and pools of water from recent rains. There was a large loading platform nearby. The yard was about forty feet wide by sixty feet long. On the right hand side were the inside doors of the massive outer gate. On the opposite wall was a smaller set of stout wooden double doors that were propped about halfway open.

There was a huge pile of debris off to one side that had a giant two legged lizard laying on it. It had an armored tail with a long stinger. It had leathery bat wings and huge jaws filled with long sharp teeth. Its hide was covered with cruel barbs. It appeared to be sleeping; its eyes were closed and its breathing was steady. The group moved in absolute silence, the magic of the spell cloaked them completely.

As they moved into the courtyard and toward what they hoped would be the inner winch room doors, the Wyvern shifted in its sleep. Ochir was moving past with his bow in hand when the dragon’s eyes opened. It lifted its head on its long neck and regarded him hungrily.

Allegro threw the rock at the Wyvern and ran back. The beast spread its wings, and lunged forward and tried to sting Ochir with its tail. Ochir leapt aside. The beast's mouth opened wide as though roaring. A clear liquid dripped off its teeth. It arched its neck and reared its head back.

Allegro dashed boldly forward and stabbed the Dragon in the belly. He pulled the dagger downward and opened up a large gash. The beast jumped backward and upset the crane and knocked over some of the crates that were stacked on the landing platform. The beast lowered its head and looked angrily at Allegro. Its lip curled.

The Wyvern lurched at Allegro as fast as lightening and stung him square in the chest. The stinger pumped deadly poison into his body. The normally swarthy Italian turned a ghastly shade as the poison shot through his system. Allegro dropped his dagger and his skipping stone. He fell to his knees and blood trickled out of both corners of his mouth. He fell forward with a sickening thud, and the enraged Wyvern continued raking Allegro’s back with winged attacks.  Blood was flying in all directions. No one could possibly survive such an assault.

Ochir moved aside and fired his arrows. The Wyvern whipped its head around and nipped at the Gnome, and raked him with a razor sharp wing tip. Ochir collapsed now too, bleeding, and his bow slid over the floor.

Aki's eyes narrowed when he saw all the carnage before him, the courtyard had instantly become an abattoir. Aki placed his hands together in front of him and bowed his head. A light near as bright as the Sun burst from Aki, filling the courtyard, blinding the Wyvern, and shining out of the hole in the side of the tower. It shone out through the fog, and we saw it shooting forth from the fortress like a beacon of Holy Light. He carefully backed up into rubble filled passage.

I grabbed Lo's attention and handed him the magic Potion of Flying.

"You'd better drink this, you need to get up there fast," I said.

Lo popped the cork on the potion and said, "Bottoms up!" He downed the potion, grimaced, wiped his mouth on his forearm, and shook his head from side to side.

"Well it sure isn't Saki," he said, "but I feel lighter already."

He took a few steps forward and lifted off the ground. He began to fly quickly over the rugged peaks around the West side of the tower and disappeared.

The rest of us hustled our way down to the ramp and leapt over the side. I fell swiftly and I almost struck the rocks below, but my Ring of Feather Falling caught me. I landed lightly and went on running. Deiter and Dunitz leapt from the side of the ramp and slid down the side of the ravine. At the bottom they stood up and kept going. We all ran down along the bottom of the moat until we could see the hole in the side of the tower. We couldn’t see Lo, he had already flown inside. Aki was there with his back to us. He was whirling his Kama over his head. I fired the Wand of Enlargement at him. He grew to fill the hole.

We couldn't hear any sound coming from within the Fortress.

We clambered our way up twenty feet over the rubble until we could look past Aki into the courtyard. We were just in time to see Lo strike the Wyvern's neck so hard he nearly chopped its head off. The Wyvern arched its back, stuck out its wings, and then collapsed to the ground. Aki’s magic Wasp stung it one last time before disappearing.

It didn't take us long to regroup. Dipaka waved a smelling salt under Ochir’s nose. The Gnome’s eyes opened. He looked around, uncertain. The Healer helped him get to his feet.

Dipaka went next over to Allegro’s body and checked to see if he was still alive. He started trying feverishly to save him.

Ochir made an attempt to harvest the venom sac of the dead Wyvern, but he worked a bit too quickly and the venom accidentally spilled out.

Dipaka finally rose from Allegro’s form and shook his head sadly. There was nothing more he could do.  Allegro was dead.

Lo lifted and carried Allegro's body out of the mighty Jurchen fortress.

We quickly picked our way back down the rock pile and into the ravine. We went back along the moat as fast as we could go. We clambered back up onto the ramp with the help of Dieter, Dunitz, and some spikes, and then we ran together out into the cover of the foggy night.

We ran for about a hundred feet or so before we stopped. We put Allegro down on the ground and rested for a minute. Ochir’s silence spell finally wore off.  Everyone was still breathing heavily.

“We need to use the Seal’s Resurrection power to bring Allegro back from the brink of Death,” Dipaka said.

“Put the Ring of Regeneration on him!” I yelled.

“It will not help him Child,” Dipaka said, “he has already passed on.”

“Come on!” I yelled, and covered my face with my hands.

I didn’t want to admit it, but I knew in my heart that Dipaka was right.

Lo carefully lowered the backpack to the ground. Marco came forward and unbuckled the flap. He pulled out the Warding Box. He opened it and revealed the Amatatsu Seal inside. He
put the box next to his dead kinsman and placed Allegro’s pale hand on the
Seal.

The Seal reacted almost at once. A white light from inside it surged and moved up into Allegro’s arm.  The light enveloped him. He shuddered and took a deep breath, then coughed a few times. The white light faded. Dipaka helped Allegro sit up and gave him some water from a skin. I could feel that the Seal’s power was now completely spent.

Buon Compleanno!” Allegro said.  The air smelled like a fresh spring morning.

We put the inert Seal and the Warding Box back into the backpack.

“We need to get back in there now,” Lo said, heaving the backpack over his shoulder.

Aki scribbled on his slate, and he showed it to us: “Raven inside, maybe trying to tell us something, silence may have blocked a message.”

“What happened to the Raven?” we asked.

Aki shrugged. No one knew.

We headed back into the fortress. This time we all crept down into the rocky moat and finally crouched at the base of the hole in the collapsed outer wall.  We waited outside while Ochir sneaked in alone.

He hugged the wall as he went along. Out in the courtyard there were a few rows of basic Jurchen guard troops. There was a set of double doors and out of them came the voice of a Jurchen war Chieftain.

"Aaaaaagh!  These no account bastards killed my Wyvern! Thrull will crush these weaklings when they return! They've come here to disturb and meddle with our sacrifice to Gruumsh! I knew I smelled the rotgut blood of weaklings!”

Ochir decided to use his mage hand spell on the pulley at the top of the crane to create a small diversion. He rocked it back and forth, making the rope sway a bit. The contingent of Jurchen guards that were standing around the crane didn't even notice. They were tired, yawning, and shuffling their feet.  He tried to throw a ghost noise over their heads.  Still no reaction came from the guard Jurchens. We waited.

Dipaka picked up his stick and gathered his linens about him, and marched right out into the courtyard. The surprised Jurchens saw him, but they lowered their spears. They were not able to attack. Dipaka’s Holy influence was upon them. The rest of us moved into the courtyard behind the Holy Man.

Suddenly the double doors flew open and a huge muscular Jurchen stepped forth.  He had black tribal markings that distinguished him from the peon troops. He had spiked hair and tarnished silver arm bands.  He had a long spear in his right hand.

"There you weaklings are," the he cried, “I knew I smelled shit! Why aren’t you assholes attacking them?”

They all pointed at Dipaka. Realization set in. “Ah ha, Holy Man routine, huh?  How bout we make you a nice new hole!

He threw his spear at Dipaka. It rang as it bounced off Dipaka's chest and shattered into thousands of shards. It was as though it had turned to glass when it hit Dipaka’s skin. The Jurchen leader was stunned.

Suddenly, the Raven that had appeared before flapped its way down from the second floor and landed on Aki’s shoulder. It began croaking: "Help, help, help!" 

It kept on talking in Chinese: "Danger close! Dwarf dead! Five alive! Jurchen need sacrifice! Lyan down in dungeon!  Down deep!”  We all looked at each other, amazed.

“Help, help, help!” it screamed.

It was of course, a talking Crow. I knew that it must be a magical Familiar animal to Lyan.  Sometimes sorcerers summoned animal companions and taught them to speak and do other simple tasks. Raven Familiars were known to be highly intelligent.

We would never know if the Raven could have warned us about the Wyvern sleeping in the courtyard the first time. Even if it had, it probably would have made no difference.

Cairn arrayed five stones before her on the ground and began summoning woodland creatures. After chanting for a while, she bent down and picked one of them up. After this she resumed her chant.

Wang Chung flat picked a droll tune on his Sitar.

The Dwarves and I moved together into the fortress through the hole. We noticed that in the upper storey of the courtyard, a dozen archers had appeared in various arrow slits and windows. I watched in horror as they all loosed a hail of arrows at Dipaka. Three arrows slammed into Dipaka's chest, and his face scrunched with pain. He staggered and leaned precariously on his stick. His aura still pervaded the area.

Lo moved carefully through the compelled Jurchens. The Jurchen leader pulled out a sword stepped forward and began fighting Lo.

I fired the Wand of Enlargement at Aki. He rushed inside and used his much larger size to leap up and grab onto the balcony’s edge and pull himself up onto the second floor. He slammed into a row of archers that were firing down into the courtyard. He threw one archer right over the rail.

Ochir went to investigate the winch door on the right hand side of the gates while Allegro went to examine the door on the left side. Jurchen warriors burst out of the right hand door and attacked Ochir. Ochir fired his arrows at them and kept moving.

Allegro laid caltrops down in front of the second winch room door. He fell back and waited.

Dieter and Dunitz both began firing their crossbows up at the archers in the balconies. One of their bolts hit home. Dieter cheered. I fired Lord Sywan's wand at the Jurchen archers in the arrow slits and a one of them went to sleep.

Cairn continued to concentrate on summoning. She had picked up several more stones, but as of yet no animals had appeared.

The door Allegro had laid the caltrops out in front of popped open and several Jurchens came forth. They shuffled carefully through the caltrops and shot at Allegro with their bows. Allegro managed to dodge their shots.

One of the Jurchen archers in the balcony that wore a skull helmet shot an arrow through Aki’s thigh. The Monk grabbed it and took a few steps backward. He grimaced, snapped the arrow, and then pulled both halves out. He threw them down, and moved forward to attack again.

Lo had managed to finish off the leader in the courtyard when a huge Ogre appeared in the doorway.  It had a horribly tapered head, crooked teeth, and large swollen cheeks. Its shoulders were hunched up to its ears. It roared loudly and snorted. The smell of shit and musk filled the air.  It had a huge collar around its neck and it had a long leash chain hanging from it. 

The Ogre was yanked back from the doorway by something large.

There was a highly decorated Jurchen warlord holding the Ogre's leash with one hand and an ornate halberd with the other. He was huge for a Jurchen. He was licking large, spiky teeth with a black tongue.

Lo moved up and through the doorway and into the next room. The Ogre and the Jurchen Chieftain were accompanied by elite Jurchen Brutes.

Wang Chung began singing the hilarious song, "Silly Ogre, Turds ain’t for Eatin."

The Ogre attacked Lo and crunched a bone with his club, but Lo ignored the Ogre and attacked the lead Jurchen instead. He jabbed him in the chest soundly, forcing him back.

The lead Jurchen seemed surprised.

“I am Raxor, Commander of Legions!” he cried. "You have to fight my Ogre!"

“Your career is quite at an end,” Lo said. "But I'll deal with your Ogre first, if I must."

Lo sliced the Ogre with his great sword.

The Ogre smashed Lo with its club.

Lo chopped off the Ogre's club arm. The Ogre howled. It picked up the club with its other hand, and swung it around in a circle. He pounded Lo’s shield hard.

Lo got a lucky break and shoved his sword straight through the Ogre. The Ogre's lifeless body fell to the ground. Lo pulled out his sword. Pools of blood began forming at Lo's feet.

Lo retreated backward into the doorway, forcing Raxor to move into Dipaka’s Sphere of Peace. Lo knew that this would cause him to have to stop fighting.

Raxor moved forward and hacked Lo with his halberd anyway. Blood sprayed out of Lo’s arm. The Chieftain had resisted Dipaka's Holy power.

Wang Chung hurriedly stopped singing and moved up behind Lo and cast a healing spell on him.

Cairn finished chanting and picked up the fifth and last stone. Suddenly, a host of three Wolves and two Crocodiles appeared behind Raxor. Cairn trilled out a woodland attack command. The creatures all began biting at the Jurchen Chieftain. The Brute Jurchens attacked Cairn’s Wolves and Crocodiles from the rear.

A row of archers on the second floor all fired their arrows at Aki, and the giant Monk dropped to one knee. There were now several arrows sticking out of him. We saw him fall to the floor above us on the balcony; I could see his arm hanging over the side. Blood began dripping from his hand.

Dipaka saw Aki’s plight and shuffled over so he would be directly beneath him. Dipaka’s healing radiance stabilized and began healing Aki.

Marco ran up under the balcony and drank a potion, then he rose straight upward through the air. When he reached the level of the balcony, he grabbed the railing and pulled himself over. The Jurchen archers across the way spotted Marco and they all fired their arrows at him. My heart was in my throat. Somehow by the grace of Shang-Ti the arrows missed him. Marco made it over to Aki and helped him get up. Dipaka's Holy power had healed him.

I kept firing the wand of sleep at the Jurchen archers; Dieter and Dunitz kept firing their crossbows. We were having some success, over time less of them were shooting back at us. Dieter got hit by an arrow, but he only grunted and kept on firing.

A new pack of reinforcement Jurchens ran up on Aki and Marco's position on the second floor. Aki leapt in front of Marco, and as three of the Jurchens foolishly rushed in to attack, Aki dropped them all simultaneously with a swift roundhouse kick. Marco stayed behind Aki and unrolled a spell scroll. He read it aloud and a giant spider web appeared and ensnared the rest of the stunned Jurchens.

Lo battled Raxor as he and the Brutes tried to deal with Cairn’s Menagerie. Eventually, the Brutes were all dead and Raxor was staggering and bleeding from many cuts and scrapes. He gripped the haft of his halberd with both hands and gritted his teeth. He was breathing very heavily. His eyes shot open and he tried to kill Lo with a massive swat. Lo blocked the halberd and kicked Raxor backward to the ground. Raxor stumbled and rolled backward, then he leapt to his feet and retreated through a single door at the back of the rubble strewn room. The animals nipped at him as he went.

Ochir and Allegro finished off the winch room Jurchens and opened the gates, then came up some stairs they had found and helped Marco and Aki finish off all the Jurchen archers on the second floor.

We gathered together in the courtyard by the crane once all of the organized resistance on both floors had ceased. There were some Jurchens simply standing in the courtyard, drooling.

Many of us were too heavily wounded to risk exploring further. Dipaka patched us up right there as best he could.  We searched the dead for clues and trinkets. We found nothing.

“That Holy Power of yours is getting to be very helpful,” I said to Dipaka when he came over to heal Deiter.

“Yes it is, isn’t it,” he said, beaming. He was clearly very proud.

We went out through the open gates and into the fog, leaving Xul-Jarak behind us. 

 

 
 
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