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

Xul-Jarak

We made our way from Xul-Jarak through the fog and mist. It was still hot, humid, and stifling, even at night. We went on for a mile or so, with Ochir and Dipaka using their skills to determine the best place to camp. They picked a place where they hoped we wouldn’t easily be seen by any Jurchen forces that might come looking for us. We did not light a fire.

We began resting and taking our standard watches, so Cairn, Lo, and Allegro were the ones on guard duty when I went to sleep.

I rubbed my sore eyes when Lo shook me awake. He told me that early during their watch there had been a lone Wolf howling out on the Moors. Gun-Gun had answered the howl. Cairn had decided to go with her Wolf out into the night alone to investigate. She had not yet returned.

Ochir and I had been staring into the dark and jumping at shadows for over an hour when Cairn came back. She went over and talked to Ochir. She said that she had tracked a two-legged creature and met a half-Jurchen, half-man ranger named Havarak. She said that he bore a longbow and two hand axes. The Wolf they’d heard howling had been Havarak’s animal companion.

Cairn declared that she trusted her new friend. She said that he should come and meet the group, and we should decide on some way of working together with him to achieve common goals.

Ochir looked on this as suspicious, but in the end he said to go and bring him back. When Cairn left to go get Havarak, Ochir woke everyone up.

I said nothing to any of this, but I had my sleep wand in my hand. I realized this stranger that Cairn had encountered must be the strange figure that we had previously seen on the tor.

We all waited for Cairn to come back. When she returned, she was followed by a tall, dark Jurchen who was trailed by a Wolf. He was indeed only a half Jurchen. The other half appeared to be human. As he was of mixed race, he was quite a bit larger than a human, and more thickly muscled. His skin was darker and more mottled. He carried an enormous longbow, and he had a quiver of arrows slung over his back. He had a hand axe hanging on each side of his belt.  

Ochir pulled out his bow and nocked an arrow. When the Jurchen got within thirty feet, Ochir shouted in Jurchen, "Stop!"

The Jurchen stopped. His Wolf heeled next to him.

"What business do you have here?" Ochir asked in Jurchen.

"What business do you have here?" the Jurchen repeated back to Ochir in Jurchen.

Ochir raised his bow and pointed it at the visitor.

"Don’t move or I'll have to kill you," Ochir said. "Now I'll ask again, why are you here?"

"I guess I’m looking for a pack," the Jurchen said, looking at Cairn.

"That's a stupid answer," Ochir said. "You're out looking for a pack. A pack of what, I wonder? You're a filthy stinking Jurchen. What's your name?"

"My name is Havarak," the Jurchen said.  "This is my Wolf, Grunhawr."

Dipaka looked at Ochir, stepped forward, and asked, "Havarak, do you speak any other languages?"

"Yes, I speak the language of Men," Havarak said, in perfect formal Chinese.

“If you don’t mind me asking: What are you doing here?" Dipaka asked.

"I am here to seek vengeance for the death of my Sister and my Mother. They were both killed at the hands of the Jurchen Chieftain." Havarak said.

"Oh, so you say you want to kill the Jurchen Chieftain, but you might be a spy sent to see what we’re up to!" Ochir said. “Maybe even lead them right to us.”

Havarak appeared to contemplate the Gnome’s logic.

"Very well, as a peace offering, I will tell you something valuable,” he said.

“One of the Jurchens greatest weaknesses is that the Tribes never work together. But now a new leader has appeared. His name is Thrull. Soon he will unify the Tribes that are arriving and gathering in the hills. He will wait until all of the important Tribes have arrived. But it won't be much longer. He bears the Hammer of Gruumsh, and is going to complete some fell and dark ritual that will turn it into an even more powerful artifact. Then he will be the undisputed Jurchen Overlord.”

Dipaka closed his eyes for a while and regarded Havarak. He seemed to be reading him in some way. After a few moments he opened his eyes and looked at Ochir and nodded. Ochir relaxed a bit and lowered his bow.

"I will call you Little-Bow," Havarak said to Ochir. Ochir said nothing.

Havarak turned and looked at me and said: "I will call you Plain-Face."

“That’s fine,” I said sharply. I’ll call you Stain-Face, I thought.

Next he regarded Lo, and he said to him, "I will call you Big-Rock."  Lo smiled at this.

He looked at Dipaka, and then he asked, "May I touch your face?"

Dipaka regarded him for a moment, and then he asked, "With your hand?"

I somehow kept from chuckling.

"Yes, with both of my hands, it is a custom of my mine," he said, after a pause, and then he reached out and he touched Dipaka's face. He felt all around Dipaka’s nose, cheeks, and forehead. He felt Dipaka’s ears.

I shifted uncomfortably.

Finally he lowered his hands, and then rested them on the hafts of his axes.

"I have been observing the fortress of Xul-Jarak for weeks.” He began, “You yourselves have surely seen the All Seeing Eye of Gruumsh. The foul standard flies over the fortress. Soon all the Jurchens will join and fight together. Then the troubles for your People will begin.”

“There is also a horrid mosquito, con muoi, which carries plague to humans, but not to the Jurchen. The parasites are plentiful here. The Jurchen can hide in great numbers where Men dare not go.”

“What are you suggesting we do about it?”

“I will help you fight the Jurchens,” Navarak said.  “I will go fifty paces in front of your group as you proceed. Oh, and there is this. I have a cloak woven by Spiritfolk.”  He wrapped his cloak tightly about himself and disappeared from sight.

We all looked at each other. We told Havarak he could come with us. I asked him if Ochir could use his invisibility cloak for a stealth mission.

He smiled and said: “No, Plain-Face, but, I will be expecting a fair share of the loot.”

"Yeah, you’ll get your share of the loot alright. Now, let us get back to sleeping, if you don’t mind," I said.

Everyone else went back to sleep. Ochir spent the rest of our watch glowering at Havarak. The Jurchen just sat there mindlessly chewing on a stick.

I crawled back into my tent when Aki and Dipaka got up to relieve us. I went right to sleep and I didn’t dream the rest of that night.

The next morning we argued and argued about the best way to get back into the fortress. If there were any dead buried somewhere near us they would surely have been awakened.

I asked Marco if he had any spell scrolls I could copy into my spellbook. I was hoping he would have a scroll of invisibility I could copy and cast on Ochir. He showed me his collection; he had a web, a knock, and a few others. Knock was a spell that opened doors, even big heavy ones. We talked about using the knock spell on Marco’s scroll to get back into the fortress, but we knew that they had two sets of huge doors.

I copied the knock spell with Marco’s permission from the scroll into my spell book that morning. I memorized two of them for that day as I tried to ignore Lo arguing loudly with Ochir, something about Lo not being happy with the Gnome’s tone. I still am not sure what it was about.

It turned out no one wanted to march right down their throats. Marco mentioned that he happened to have a potion of Invisibility.

“Why didn’t you say so before, Marco? One of us can sneak in there and scope things out. In fact, I think Ochir should drink the potion and--"

“Ok!”  Marco said, “I’ll go!” and he swilled down the potion and popped out of sight. I smacked my forehead. I should have known.

I was beginning to imagine all sorts of horrible things that might have happened to Marco when he reappeared. 

“They’ve stuffed the Wyvern’s carcass, the Ogre’s corpse, and the bodies of the other Jurchens we killed into the hole on the west side of the fortress. It’ll be certain death getting in that way again, they'll pick us apart as we’re trying to get through,” he reported.

“That talking Crow will know the way down to find the prisoners,” Ochir said, “Once we get in again, it should show up to help us find them.”

“We could climb up the outer wall to get to the second floor,” Allegro said.

At first I thought Allegro was crazy. We needed to get down into the dungeons underneath the fortress, not go up to the second floor. I had to admit, however, the other ideas all seemed like out-and-out suicide.

We gathered ourselves and walked around the fortress so that we would be coming at it from the back side. Havarak went fifty paces or so in front of us. We didn't want to go so far afield that we might stumble into Jurchen army camps or sentries. If we did, we wanted Havarak to be discovered first, giving us a chance to react.

After we made our way around the fortress, we took up positions behind an outcropping some distance away. We were hidden by the fog. Allegro snuck up alone to the base of the nearest buttress.

He had apparently chosen a crumbling section of wall to climb. Allegro quietly got out his rope and his climbing gear. He hooked the rope to his belt.

He started to climb. He made his way upward very slowly. He located sure footholds and found secure places to hold onto. He had made it nearly halfway up when his foot slipped and one of his hands lost its grip. He was unable to quickly find a new foothold and he had to drop back down.

The second time he made it to the lip and pulled himself up and over the battlement. The Jurchen sentry patrolling that section of wall didn’t happen to be looking in his direction. Allegro went up silently behind him, pulled out his dagger and stabbed him hard right between the kidneys.

His dagger blurted: "Gotcha!"

"Shush!" Allegro said, and he shoved Istanvol back into its scabbard.

The dead Jurchen slumped quietly to the ground as Allegro helped ease the body to the walk.

He secured a rope and lowered it down to us.

Ochir went up the rope first. Marco followed.

I watched in wonder as Cairn used her magical druidic abilities to first shrink Gun-Gun down to the size of a small fox. Then she summoned a tiny air elemental that carried the Wolf up through the air. Gun-Gun’s fur was flowing upward in the wind. His jowls were flapping and his tail was sticking up. The air elemental placed Gun-Gun carefully on the top of the wall.

Havarak picked up his Wolf and draped him over his shoulders like a stole and climbed up the wall. He ignored Allegro’s rope.

It took a while, but we all managed to get up to the roof of the fortress. We did so quietly and without being noticed. It was almost a miracle. We were positioned next to a second floor outer curtain wall. There was a door across from where we came up. I hoped no one popped out of it.

The narrow walk behind the parapet ran in both directions, one way ran along the broad back of the fortress. The other, more heavily guarded, led around the corner to the balconies. The entire walk went all the way around the fortress.

We peeked around the corner and we could see more Jurchens sentries. They were stationed on the buttresses and all around the perimeter of the courtyard on the balconies or in arrow slits. We could see the controls for the crane that stuck up out of the center courtyard. There was a huge bag full of rocks hanging from it.

Havarak pulled back his mighty Longbow and there was a great creaking noise. He let an arrow loose with a low thrum. The Jurchen on the next buttress dropped like a stone. Havarak had another arrow in his bow immediately.

Ochir, Lo, and Aki charged around the corner.

Ochir shot the Jurchen guard on the other side of the crane while Allegro moved into a covered position on the next buttress. Lo ran over with his giant katana and killed the sentry Ochir had just shot and wounded.

Aki ran past everyone else, apparently intending to incapacitate all of the guards on that level. He ran out to the two Jurchen guards that were on the far side of the crane.  As he got close to them, one of the guards shot him with an arrow. It went right through Aki’s abdomen, and the Monk gave the Jurchen a look that said: “You’ve just made your last mistake.”

Aki jabbed the Jurchen in the neck with a lightning-quick knuckle and it went down in a heap. Aki appeared sickened; the arrow must have pierced a vital organ. There was a dark ooze coming from the wound.

Havarak shot and killed another Jurchen that was standing on the far buttress.

Deiter and Dunitz and I moved cautiously around the corner. They leveled their crossbows and began firing at Jurchen targets. I went behind them with Lord Sywan's wand of sleep in hand, and Aki’s wand of enlargement in the other. I judged Aki was already more than forty feet distant, too far away to use the wand of enlargement on him. I used the sleep wand instead to try to put the Jurchens on the other side of the rope bridge to sleep. One collapsed just at the edge of the hole.

Wang Chung cast a mirror image spell on himself and there were now multiple copies of him floating around. He sang one of his ribald songs, and it sounded like a choir of irreverent bards.

Lo began sprinting toward the wide gap where a rickety rope bridge went across. Aki had already danced over the bridge, past the sleeping sentry, and was heading towards the distant Jurchens on the opposite side of the courtyard.

The bridge didn't look like it would bear Lo’s weight, so the Goliath leapt clean into the air and tried to jump the twenty foot gap. He sailed across, but the crumbling floor on the other side gave way and he nearly fell. He wound up dangling with both of his arms outstretched and clinging to the edge, holding up all his weight and his shield and katana too. I let out a deep breath when he managed to pull himself up.

After that, Lo was frustrated; he kicked the sleeping Jurchen that was there over the edge. The Jurchen crashed to the floor.

“No!” Dipaka cried. “We don't kill sleeping people!” He rushed forward.

“These aren’t people, they’re Jurchen scum!” Lo yelled.

Suddenly a long line of Jurchens with loaded crossbows filed out of a door on the opposite side of the compound. They all fanned out and took up positions along the balcony. A deep and gravelly voice from somewhere down below in the courtyard shouted: "Shoot and kill that Holy Man!"

A hail of red feathered crossbow bolts flew at Dipaka and Lo. They ducked and dodged the missiles, but one still hit Dipaka. He let out a sharp cry and ran across the rope bridge with the bolt sticking out of him. He ran directly at the Jurchen at end of the line of crossbowmen. Lo did the same.

Dipaka did this in order to stifle the attacks of a large number of enemies with his aura of peace. Lo intended to systematically hack his way through the Jurchens one by one. Unfortunately, Dipaka's aura prevented Lo from attacking at all, as his mind had become peace-locked. He was just too close to the powerful Healer. Lo bellowed in frustration.

We could see Aki across the courtyard on the other side of the compound, now with the Jurchen crossbow line between us and himself.  He was engaging the guards there in hand to hand combat, taking them down one by one as he went.

Allegro retreated and joined Marco and Cairn who had gone the other way down the back wall of the fortress.

Ochir climbed up onto the crane, converting it into a catbird seat. He sat high up in the rigging and fired his arrows down at the Jurchens. He taunted them with Jurchen jibes.

I fired the wand of sleep at the line of Jurchen crossbowmen. One fell asleep and went over the railing. He woke up and screamed after he crashed into the courtyard floor below.

The Jurchen crossbow line tried retreating from Dipaka's aura of peace, going the same direction Aki had gone. Then they all stopped and began reloading their crossbows.

On the back wall of the fortress, Cairn, Marco, and Allegro were having their own problems with Jurchen sentries.

Cairn had been severely wounded when two Jurchens had emerged from a door and sneaked up on her from behind. She had cast a spell on herself when we climbed up that made her skin as tough as bark. A Jurchen blade had still managed to cut through her spell and she was now bleeding heavily. She had bolted away on her Wolf, and moved to a safer position behind Allegro and Marco. She then had then begun summoning Wolves.

Allegro and Marco fought to protect her. They managed to severely injure one of the raging Jurchens.

I heard the creaking noise of a door opening behind me. The horrid stench of filthy Jurchen assailed my nostrils, and I heard the familiar stump of cleated boots on stone. I turned and saw Raxor appear around the corner behind me. He lifted his halberd high over his head and shook it back and forth and screamed. There were two Jurchen bodyguards in front of him growling and brandishing their weapons.

The bodyguards moved up to me and the dwarves. I took a step back and fired the sleep wand in their faces. One fell asleep. Deiter and Dunitz stepped forward. One dwarf hand-axed the sleeping Jurchen and the other stepped in front of the second before it could get to me.

Ochir fired an arrow at the Chieftain from up on the crane. It nicked Raxor’s shoulder, and the angry Chieftain looked up.

"Come here and fight me like a man," Ochir said. Raxor’s bloodshot eyes narrowed.

Raxor drank a potion and his skin turned into a rough bark, and then he thwacked Wang Chung with the halberd, sending one of his mirror images scudding over the side of the fortress. Wang Chung waggled his tongue at Raxor and tried a daze monster spell.  It simply had no effect. The Jurchen Chieftain just laughed.

Havarak stepped up behind me, and I heard his bow creak.

“You knew this day would come, Father," he said. Father?

"Havarak!  Why, if it isn’t my favorite rape-born bastard son!" Raxor cried, “It’s so nice of you to drop by! You picked a good day to die!” He swung his halberd deftly about and brought it to a stop under his arm.

I felt the arrow loosed over my shoulder, and I saw it strike Raxor. Blood oozed from his chest where the arrow struck. He merely bared his yellow teeth at us.

Havarak ordered Grunhawr the Wolf to attack his father. The Wolf bounded over the Korobokoru and tried to bite the Chieftain. The Chieftain blocked the Wolf with the head of his halberd, and then broke its back with a quick backward strike. The beast yelped and lay still.

“No!” Havarak cried.

Allegro was fighting for his life against the Jurchens at the back corner of the fortress with Marco and Cairn.

The Jurchens fighting him flew into a rage and screamed: "Taste Jurchen steel worm!"

One of them hit Allegro with a solid swing and he was severely wounded. He stumbled once but somehow regained his footing. Another Jurchen tried to attack Allegro, but he missed and knocked a chunk of stone from the edge of the battlement.

I backed away from the fray a bit further, trying to get some cover behind the parapet. I fired two magic missiles at Raxor and they seared him good.

Ochir fired two arrows in rapid succession, and they both sprouted from Raxor’s chest. More blood seeped out, but the Jurchen Chieftain had not even slowed down. He was like a piece of iron.

Aki had gone nearly all the way around the perimeter of the fortress, dispatching the Jurchen sentries. He was almost around to where Cairn, Allegro and Marco were fighting. He skidded to a stop, paused for a moment, then got out a potion and drank it.  He turned back to face the long line of crossbowmen.

Lo came back across the rope bridge (it turned out it could bear his weight, after all) and headed over to help us fight Raxor. 

Dipaka kept corralling the long line of Jurchen crossbowmen with his peace aura until they were all trapped between him and Aki.

Suddenly, new foes appeared. Behind Raxor, a strange heroic looking man in wonderous plate mail stepped around the corner. His armor was the color of cobalt, and overlapping plates cascaded down his arms and legs. Gilded symbols and flowing scrollwork covered every inch of his armor. His close fitting helmet left his face exposed. He had thick black eyebrows, dark eyes, and high cheekbones.

He was accompanied by a smaller man arrayed in a similar but less grandly adorned suit of plate mail. Their armor was strange to me at first, but then I recognized the symbols of the Al-Tatar. This was a hired Emissary and his Bodyguard. I knew that there were such things as Professional Emissaries, retained by royal and wealthy houses to do their bidding. What were they doing here?

“Raxor!  Are you going to let these meddling kids take your fortress? Maybe we have laid our trust in the wrong Tribe? Kill these unscrupulous intruders! If the Broken Fang boys can’t do the job, perhaps the Roaming Eye boys can!”

The Ambassador cast a spell and an overpowering blast of fear and doubt ran through me.  Are we going to make it through this?  The question came to me unbidden. I thought of jumping over the side and letting my ring of Feather Falling carry me down.

The door on the other side of the rope bridge opened again and four huge Jurchens came out. Their skin was black in color, rather than the usual Jurchen gray. They each had the crude symbol of the Roaming Eye on their shield. They were even more thickly muscled than standard Jurchen Brutes. They spotted Lo and charged. They all leapt easily across the gap and engaged the Goliath.

Lo turned to face them. He brandished his giant katana and raged. He chopped the first one with a solid swat, slicing through the muscle of the dark Jurchen’s arm. The wounded monster howled and spit goo at Lo.

Raxor dropped his halberd on Dunitz, and chopped the dwarf’s axe hand clean off. Dunitz screamed as his hand and his axe both fell to the floor. Blood shot out the end of his forearm. He grabbed the bloody stump and keeled over. Raxor beamed.

Raxor brought the halberd up and down again and chopped right into Dieter’s head through his helmet. Dieter had strength left for just one feeble axe swing at the Chieftain before he collapsed. Both of the valiant dwarves that had been keeping the foes at bay were down.

Raxor batted away another of Wang Chung’s mirror images, then he got lucky and his halberd found the real Wang Chung. The pole axe split open the Bard and he went down in a heap.

Raxor moved forward to face his son. He had hacked down everyone else that had stood in the way.

The Jurchen regular next to him jabbed his spear through Dieter’s heart as he lay on the ground, killing him for good. Feelings of horror and guilt began to sprout within me.

The four Roaming Eye Jurchens all grunted and attacked Lo. One of them brought his weapon down on Lo’s hand where he gripped his katana. One of Lo’s fingertips skidded to a bloody stop on the floor, and Lo dropped his katana. He swore. He had to fend off the Deep Jurchens with only his shield as he conducted a fighting withdrawal. His finger was bleeding like mad, and blood was getting on everything as he fished a bottle out of his belt sack. After Lo pulled the cork out with his teeth and sucked down the potion, the bleeding stopped.

I fired two more magic missiles at Raxor, but this time they had little effect. Ochir shot him again with yet another arrow, and still the Jurchen Chieftain remained standing.

Havarak dropped his bow and pulled an axe from him his belt. He stuck it sideways between Raxor's legs and pulled it back, catching him by the ankle. Raxor toppled over backward. Havarak pulled a second axe from his belt and chopped his father with a solid whack, and then another. He chopped and chopped his way through the barkskin spell until blood came up. Finally, the Chieftain stopped moving.

Havarak was completely bloodied and exhausted. He slowly stood up.

Dipaka was now running back towards Lo’s position, for it was clear he was going to need help with the more formidable Jurchens.

On the far side of the fortress, Cairn's Wolf Gun-Gun tripped the last of the Jurchen sentries. Marco stepped in and stuck the fallen Jurchen with his rapier, killing it.

The Ambassador chanted devilish mantras and summoned a great hell hound, and it appeared over my fallen friends, ready to breathe its fiery breath weapon. Smoke was coming from its nostrils, and molten lava dripped from its mouth. It smelled of fire and brimstone. It had short, orange fur. Its teeth and tongue were dark black. My knowledge of the planes told me that this was a very dangerous Hellspawn dog from the plane of Acheron.

"It looks like your fight here is lost," said the Ambassador. “I am Livikus Ar-Tatar. This is my bodyguard, Xeldar. I demand you cease hostility immediately and declare your loyalty to the Kublai Khan."

He was looking at me.

I looked around and assessed the situation. As I hesitated, the Ambassador ordered the fiery hound to breathe on Havarak and the bodies on the floor. The beast bathed Havarak in flame. He screamed in pain as the fire burned him. The fire was so close to me I felt the blistering heat. Dieter, Dunitz, Wang Chung, and even Raxor’s bodies were all burned. They were on fire and smoking. The sickeningly sweet smell of burning flesh filled my nostrils. Raxor was killed right then and there. The Korobokoru’s bodies were all blackened with soot. Wang Chung still wriggled a little bit.

Havarak backed up, smoldering, and lowered both his axes. He stuck out his lower teeth.

“All right! All right! I’ll swear loyalty to the Kublai Khan!” I cried.

“Ah, that’s better, I thought you might. But really I want something more. I know why you are here.”

I thought for only a second and said: “We represent the Royal Family of Japan, and we are here to rescue kidnap victims! I am only the second Princess in the house, but let me save the Bard! I can give him a potion!”

“If you swear to bring the Son of the Emperor to me, instead of to the old bitch,” Livikus Ar-Tatar said. 

I looked around. Lo and Aki were impossibly far away.

“You’ll have to say it out loud.” he said.

“Fine,” I said. “I hereby swear loyalty to Kublai Khan and his Emissaries and promise to bring the Emperor’s son to you first when we find him.” The Emissary smiled.

“That’s better. You may heal your friend.” 

He whistled at the Roaming Eye Jurchens and motioned to the sentries to stop fighting. They retreated and held their weapons.

I dashed over to Wang Chung and tried to give him a healing potion. His mirror image spell was somehow still in effect, so I was forced to guess which one was really him. I took a deep breath and made my guess. I poured the elixir into his mouth. I guessed wrong. The liquid spilled out uselessly onto the floor.

The Ambassador laughed. Wang Chung sputtered and died. I pressed my eyes closed and clenched my teeth.

Cairn’s summoned wolves by this time were free from fighting the other Jurchens. They charged in and tried to attack the Ambassador, as Wolves often did not abide by the deals of men. Livikus merely smashed them one by one with his morning star. 

“Hmmm, little wolves, what fun you are,” he said, smiling.

His hell hound had been waiting there smoldering for a while now. I knew that it could only remain corporeal on the Prime Material plane for so long, just like Cairn’s summoned beasts would expire after a time. I knew it took tremendous energy to hold a conduit to Hell open.

Aki and Lo were slowly moving closer and closer to us. Lo had recovered his katana and was ready to fight again. Havarak was still a bit dazed, but looked capable of fighting on.

Finally, the Hell Hound vanished.

Lo and Aki sprang into action. The Ambassador and his bodyguard made for the door back down to the first level. Lo opened an adjoining door and was able to dart down a hall and step in front of the exiting Ambassador as he tried to go down a flight of stairs.

“Out of my way, Goliath! I am Livikus Ar-Tatar! You pledged allegiance to me!”

“No, I didn’t,” Lo said.  “You got our Bard killed.”

“No! It was I that gave you the chance to save him. I can’t help it if your Princess is an oaf!” he said.

Lo chopped the Ambassador with his great katana. It sliced through his fancy armor. Blood shot up and drenched the Mongol. It flowed down his armor plates, and he dropped first to one knee, then the other. He slumped backward. A pool of blood began spreading on the floor beneath him.

Aki had moved into position next to the downed Mongol and his bodyguard. Lo now loomed pointedly over Xeldar. Havarak, Dipaka, and I came around the corner and added to the pressure. Marco, Allegro, and Cairn appeared at the other door.

Xeldar began sweating. “I give up!” he said.

“See how it feels?” I yelled at him.

Aki tapped me and showed me his slate: “Renounce the alliance now!” it said. His eyes were wide. If he had not taken a Vow of Silence, I think he would have scolded me just then. Anyway, I knew what he meant.

I looked at Xeldar. “Just one thing. I officially withdraw the loyalty of my Family from the Kublai Khan as stated before as it was given under duress, and we have no intention of delivering any son of anyone to you or any agents of the Khan upon their rescue. Got it?”

Xeldar nodded, but I felt sick. I’d cheated to survive the battle. I had thought about Pang Mei and her “Royal” reputation, but I had really only wanted to save Wang Chung. Too bad it didn’t work. I hated to admit it, but I was already starting to miss Wang Chung.

Dipaka revived the Ambassador and we gave him back his morning star. We were not about to take any chances with actually angering the great Kublai Khan. The Ambassador kept eyeballing Lo and Aki and he grudgingly seemed to accept the terms of the new agreement.

Dipaka healed Dunitz but his hand would remain severed. Dipaka bandaged his stump tightly with white linen. Dunitz cast his hood over his face out of grief for his brother Dieter. We put his hand in a cedar box and did our best to console him. We helped him prepare a travois for dragging Dieter’s body behind us. I felt so bad for him.

Ochir had a long private chat with Livikus Ar-Tatar. What they discussed I couldn’t say.

Everything was interrupted when Lyan’s Crow finally found us. It landed on Aki’s shoulder.

“Awwwwk!” it croaked. “Lyan down below! Help, help, help! Please hurry!”

We all looked at the Raven.

“It’s about time you turned up! Where have you been? Lead the way, Crow,” Ochir said.

“Awwwwk!  Follow me!” the Raven screamed. It flapped down the stairs.

Lo picked up Wang Chung’s body and put it over his shoulder.

Finally on our way to locate the kidnapped Scions, we all went down the stairwell after the bird.


The Hammer of Gruumsh

We proceeded to go down into the dungeons beneath Xul-Jarak. We descended a narrow and dark switchback stair with equally narrow landings. It had been concealed behind a secret door that Marco had found. The stairs were cut from solid bedrock. Ochir went down quietly first to check it out.

After the first landing there was a large octagonal room that was fifty feet across. A domed ceiling stood above, and there was a twenty foot hole in the middle of the floor. We could hear the echoes of what must be an underground waterfall.

Ochir saw eight Jurchens standing guard duty. They weren't leaning idly on their spears; they spotted Ochir as he soon as he came down the stairs. Ochir aimed and fired an arrow at one of them.

Lo rushed to the bottom of the stairs and got jabbed hard with a spear for his effort. He managed to chop most of the meat off a Jurchens leg in reply.

When I got down the stairs I fired the wand of sleep at the Jurchens and one of them closed his eyes and toppled silently into the hole. 

Dunitz ran down and tried to attack one of the Jurchens, but the wily creature jabbed him in the shoulder instead. Dunitz cried out in pain. His face turned red and he swung his axe with his one hand with all his might. It struck between the brute’s ribs, opening a sucking chest wound. The Jurchen stumbled about, trying desperately to breathe until it fell over. Dunitz chopped it again and it died while clinging to the Korobokoru’s leg.

Aki tumbled his way through their spears. He punched two of them in their snouts and they flew backward into the wall.

Allegro threw a skipping rock and it nailed one of the Jurchens in the face. The Jurchen grinned back at him with ragged teeth and a bloody nose.

Cairn came down the stairs and shoved her javelin into one of the Jurchens that was lying prone.

Dipaka stayed at the top of the stairs with his peace aura and let us fight the guards down below. After they were all dead, he came down the stairs sadly shaking his head.

We regrouped and took in our surroundings. The walls were adorned with lurid murals. They depicted the supposed genesis of the Jurchen race. The Jurchens were fashioned from shit by Gruumsh. He clumped the shit and shaped it with his hands and they rose and went off beating drums. Gruumsh then taught them to forge iron and make weapons. They were shown bowing before Gruumsh and going off to wars and battles and victories. Jurchen women and slaves crouched and serviced the Jurchens before the battles, the victory feasts, and the sacrifices. The images were surprisingly detailed for primitive Jurchen artists.

There were four equidistant niches that formed a square and overlaid the octagonal shape of the room. Each one was occupied by a stone statue of a historically important Jurchen warlord. They all held up a running lintel that ran around the perimeter of the room. The architrave was engraved with all sorts of Jurchen runes. They appeared to tell the story of the Jurchen code of honor.

We went down a landing to the second level, and four screaming warrior statues with axes leered at us from the niches in the room. It was getting much cooler; the underground spaces were barely touched by the blistering heat we had come from above ground. This level was very similar to the one above it. There were two small subterranean streams that entered the chamber from different sides and then flowed downward through the hole in the floor.

Standing in the middle of one of the streams was a large statue of the Jurchen God, Gruumsh. I knew something of Gruumsh from my studies. Gruumsh had one eye. His name was never spoken by Jurchens that were not Shamans. Gruumsh is called: "He-Who-Watches" or "He-Who-Never-Sleeps". His all-seeing eye never closes, so Jurchens behave as though Gruumsh were always watching and judging them. The statue held up a torch in his right hand a spear in his left. I recalled that, in order to become a Shaman of Gruumsh, an acolyte was required to gouge out one of his own eyes with a dagger in a bloody ritual. Random initiates were sometimes selected and sacrificed to Gruumsh while their friends were forced to look on. It took huge balls to be a Shaman of Gruumsh. Innocent bloodshed was the preferred way of pleasing Gruumsh.

I worried about the Emperor's son and his friends. There were no Jurchens on this floor to be seen. Were we too lateWere the prisoners being sacrificed even now? I imagined them on their knees having their throats slit, one by one.

I decided to watch Havarak closely as he came down the stairs behind us. He was at the rear of the party; he'd agreed to watch our backs and guard Wang Chung and Dieter's bodies if a fight broke out. I saw his eyes brush the statue of Gruumsh, but his face remained stoic.

We decided that the area was empty, so we went on further down the staircase. The sound of the waterfalls became louder, and it continued to get cooler.

The third level was much the same as the second, except that it had three sets of double doors spaced evenly in the octagonal walls. We could see the water falling past, down through the ceiling and then through the floor. The edge of the hole was wet. There were four Jurchen Shaman statues in this chamber.

Scrawled on the floor in Jurchen we saw: "Hey assholes! Down here!"  Next to this there was an arrow drawn that pointed to the hole in front of us. Although they evidently thought us stupid enough to try to go down through the hole, we decided to go down the staircase instead.

I shivered on my way down. I clutched Win Ju. The fourth level of the dungeon was now downright frigid compared to the outside summer temperature. Too bad my stupid light spell didn't give off any heat.

This was the level where the waterfalls finally hit the bottom, splashing into small but very deep black pools. The smell down here was horrible. This level had the same well formed octagonal walls just like the others, but now on our right side was a natural tunnel beyond a collapsed hole in the wall. It led away to who knows where.

Muffled drums began. The dungeon itself vibrated. My spine tingled.

There was an ornate set of double doors to our left. They had been liberally drenched with blood. Blood had been tracked on the floor in and out of the doors. There were life-sized Jurchen elite guard statues standing at attention in recesses on each side of it.

Next to each statue were several actual Tainted Jurchens. They had thick wire masks bolted over their faces. They had strange elongated necks and their shoulders were pushed down to a hideous angle. They slobbered and drooled and waited for intruders.

Allegro and Ochir went down first. They were brave little souls. Ochir fired his bow and pegged one of the Tainted Jurchens in the eye. It screamed a terrible scream.

Allegro threw a rock and somehow it bounced from one Jurchen to the next until three of them had been hit by the same rock. The Jurchens were not amused. Allegro whooped. One of them chopped Allegro with an axe and tried to bite him. Allegro jumped back out of the way.

Ochir fired again at his target and the Jurchen gagged and went down. His dying body thumped the floor and made fleshy flapping noises. The other Jurchens raged and chopped Ochir twice with their axes. Aki was close behind Ochir so he couldn't retreat. The Gnome gritted his teeth and fought on. He was bleeding badly.

Lo leapt over Ochir into the space the Gnome had cleared and laid into the Tainted Jurchens like a threshing monster. Blood sprayed out in all directions as he sliced back and forth and chopped up the Jurchens.

Suddenly, two Wyverns emerged croaking from the natural tunnel. They were not nearly as large as their mother had been, but their stingers were likely just as potent. They flapped their wings and came directly at Lo and Ochir.

They breathed a horrid cloud of gas over the Giant and the Gnome. Ochir accidentally breathed it in and was slowed. His reflexes were now dulled, and it was as though he were fighting beneath the sea.

Lo took a deep breath before the cloud got to him; he held it and puffed out his cheeks. He was holding his katana and shield up before the flapping beasts, rotating and taking measured steps. They tried to bite and sting him. He swatted at the drakes, but most often they always swooped out of range. They were locked in a dance of death.

I fired Aki's wand at him, and he grew to be the giant version of himself. He headed down the stairs and down the hall to the doors. He peeked through the crack. I don't know what he was seeing inside, but I could tell from his expression it wasn't good.

The doors burst open and a huge Warg flew out followed by a bunch of heavily armored Tainted Jurchens. Aki was thrown back by the onslaught, but he rallied quickly and fought back. He launched a series of martial arts combination attacks. His giant-sized fists and feet pummeled the Jurchens. The Tainted returned the favor though; they both stabbed their spears right through Aki. Aki fell to the ground. They jabbed him a few more times as he lay there unconscious.

Allegro attacked the Warg and stabbed it with Istanvol.  “Yo-Ho!” the dagger cried.  The Warg yelped and started bleeding like crazy.

I went down the stairs and put one of the Tainted Jurchens to sleep.

Dipaka ran hastily down the stairs in order to save Aki. This brought him close to Ochir, and as a result Ochir could not attack the Jurchens because of the Healers peaceful aura. The Gnome sighed and rolled his eyes but elected to use the time wisely and drink a potion of healing. 

Dipaka was now kneeling beside Aki’s prone form and the enemy occupants of the room could clearly see them both.

"Kill the holy man!" we heard from inside. Thrull’s servants were all about him, adorning him in ceremonial raiment and applying colored pigments to his face. It was clear that the sacrifice of the Scions was eminent. The drums picked up speed.

The Crow flew off Marco’s shoulder and into the ceremonial chamber through the open doors. "Lyan!” it squawked, “Help is here!”  It veered inside around some pillars and was gone from sight.

I fired the sleep wand again and this time two of the Tainted Jurchens fell asleep. Dunitz killed one of them with an ax blow to the skull. He killed the other with a boot to the face.

“That’s for Dieter!” he yelled.

The drakes continued to flap madly and attack Lo.  He was growing tired fighting them off. 

“Looks like we’ve got company!” Lo shouted. There was a column of eight Jurchen regulars coming out of a set of double doors across the room from us. I fired the wand of sleep again and put four of them to sleep.

The Tainted Jurchens that were too close to Dipaka and Aki’s position and were unable to attack, so they backed up out of Dipaka’s aura and broke out their slings. They cackled and loaded sling stones with practiced ease and tried to hit Dipaka with them. They both missed. Dipaka hadn’t even moved. They howled in frustration.

Aki got to his feet, and Dipaka helped him rise. The Monk gritted his teeth; he would need a few seconds to gather himself.

Dipaka moved strategically into the door opening, and stood his ground. He intended to try to thwart attacks by creating a bottleneck with his peace aura.

Inside the room, Thrull raised both of his hands and said: “Behold True Power!” He lifted a massive maul high up over his head. “Behold the Hammer of Gruumsh!” His servants all withdrew, bowing in fear as they went.

He lowered the massive hammer to waist level as he took a step forward. The head of the maul alone must have weighed over thirty pounds.

He raised the Hammer of Gruumsh over Dipaka.  A evil grin split his ugly face. He was clearly unaffected by the Healer’s aura of peace.

“You can kill my body, but you can never kill my soul,” Dipaka said.

“Then I’ll kill your body!” he boomed, then slammed the hammer into Dipaka’s head.

It shattered into thousands of shards.  Dipaka smirked.

Thrull’s eyes popped open and he screamed, “Noooooo!” He looked at the palms of his empty hands. Then he clenched them and shook his fists.

“No, no, no!” he cried. “What have you done?” he shook uncontrollably.

“You are like a little boy, stomping his feet but doing little damage,” Dipaka said, smiling at him.

Thrull screamed an order to his sergeants: “Naazlog, Daazlog, you stupid cocksuckers, get him! Rulgar, throw your fucking Javelins!  Aaaaaaaaagh!”

Two enormous Jurchens shambled forward. They were wider, stronger and darker than any Jurchens we’d seen so far. Their skin was jet black. They were Deep Jurchens from far below the earth. Their eyes were milky white with tiny black pupils. They both threw barbed spears at Dipaka, and somehow, both missed. 

Ochir shot an arrow at Thrull, and it stuck out of his shoulder.

Rulgar, a Deep Jurchen javelin thrower was behind the other Deep Jurchens. He had two Jurchen servants that were handing him fresh javelins. He threw one at Dipaka with all his might. It too, like the Hammer, shattered when it struck the Healers skin.

“I thank you for honoring the peaceful nature of our conversation,” Dipaka said with pride.

Dipaka appeared most earnest in his desire for peace, but he had to know his words would enrage the enemies.

“I appreciate you coming over here to talk with me,” Dipaka said calmly to Thrull.

“There’s nothing you can do but die! Everyone! Get him!” Thrull cried.

Finally a javelin went through Dipaka’s magic protections. It went all the way through him, and it remained lodged in his body. Dipaka doubled over at first; but then he straightened. It was the sort of wound one didn’t normally survive.  His face contorted with pain.

“We will break you!” Thrull taunted him.

Dipaka only shook his head sadly and clutched the javelin that had skewered him and said, “You will break my body, but never my soul.”

“I’ll take this as a token of your affection,” Thrull said, and violently pulled the javelin out of Dipaka. Blood poured out of the wound. Dipaka’s linens were all quickly soaked with blood.

Thrull cast the weapon to the floor and snarled. He took his bare hands and wrapped them around Dipaka’s neck. Dipaka remained the picture of calmness and serenity. Thrull began to squeeze his neck, shutting off his air.

Aki whirled his Kama over his head, and the Wasp appeared. It tried to attack Thrull, but the massive insect was repelled by some repulsive power that surrounded the Overlord. It was as though it had bounced from an invisible force field. It zoomed over and stung one of the drakes instead. The wyvern screeched back at the Wasp and bit off one of its legs.

Lo pounded on the other drake’s spiked armor. It screamed at him and bit his shoulder.

The four sleeping Jurchens were awakened by the four that were behind them. They got up and laughed and swarmed Lo. 

Allegro leapt from a rock and stabbed one of the wyverns with his talking dagger. “Hooray!” it cried.

Aki jumped over to Thrull and punched him in the side of the head. The Overlord shifted but still held onto Dipaka’s neck. He eyed the Healer with one eye swollen shut.

Havarak sprang into action when he saw Dipaka being choked. He ran over and whaled on Thrull with his two hand axes. Blood flew from cuts opened on his arms as Havarak chopped at them. Nothing seemed able to release Thrull’s grip on Dipaka’s neck. Thrull's black eyes were now locked wide open. Now Dipaka tried to break Thrull’s grip; his brown skin was starting to turn gray.

Cairn went over to thrust her Javelin into Thrull, but he had a spell on him and she jabbed Dipaka instead. Her javelin shattered in her hands when it struck the Healer. Cairn looked at Dipaka in wide eyed wonder. His Halo glowed brightly, even as he was being strangled.

Thrull’s grip ultimately weakened, and Dipaka managed to wrench free. Thrull reeled backward a step. He flexed his hands and looked down at them in disbelief.

Dipaka took deep breaths and his color came back to him. He remained blocking the doorway.

“I will shield my friends with my body,” he rasped. He had dark bruises all around his neck.

I cast my last magic missile spell for the day at Thrull. His protection spell couldn’t deflect my missiles. His eyes rolled in his head.  His anger had become a splitting thunderhead.

“Surrender immediately or we’ll start killing the prisoners!” Thrull threatened.

At that moment, one of Ochir’s arrows finally felled one of the wyverns. It fell to the floor and shuddered when it died.

Lo chopped a wing off the other wyvern, and it spiraled down to the floor. It flapped around in circles but generally fled.

All of the eight Jurchen regulars turned and ran.  Lo chopped down two of them as they tried to get away.

Aki pulled off one of his famous stunning attacks. He immobilized Thrull with a blow to the shoulder. The Overlord collapsed straight down and lay like he was dead on the floor.

Thrull’s personal Shaman came out with a black rat perched on her shoulder. She tried to give him a potion but Aki knocked it away. He pointed back at the caves. The Jurchen woman and her rodent went.

Ochir was breathing rapidly now and was enraged. “I’m going to kill him!”

“No! He’s helpless!” Dipaka cried, but his voice was very hoarse and faint.

Thrull was laying face up and unmoving. Ochir went over and fired two arrows, one into each of Thrull’s eye sockets. Suddenly Thrull’s feet drummed the floor, and then he lay still.

Dipaka sighed.

Ochir fired more arrows at the other Jurchens still in the ceremonial chamber. After the death of the Overlord, the Deep Jurchens retreated back into their caves and were gone.

I heard a girl start crying and I saw the Crow fly out from one of the caves and land on Aki’s shoulder. He went over and found all five of the Scions huddling, cold and hungry, in an alcove with a filthy sheet hanging over it. He brought them out carefully. They were dirty, smelly, and a bit malnourished, but otherwise seemed whole. Their eyes were like vacant graves, and they said nothing. I supposed I would not have had anything to say, either.

The Amatatsu Seal said to me in my head: Suishen is here. 

“Which one of you is Wen Hung-Lo?” I asked.  The one with buck teeth and very slanted eyes stepped forward.

“What is it Ma’am?” he asked.

“Where is your sword?” I asked.

“That old thing?  What would you want with that old sword?”

“Where is the sword?” I repeated the question, and I waited.

He shrugged and went over and reached into an alcove and pulled out something wrapped in a dirty cloth. He removed the cloth and presented it to me. It had a deep, black, smooth finish.

I took it with both hands and unsheathed it. The blade gleamed. It was flawless.

It still could have been any other katana to me, but this was Suishen, the Royal Katana of our Family. I could feel it. Yes. Lo’s eyes widened.

“Let me try it,” he said.

I handed it to Lo. It magically grew in size to accommodate the Giant’s stature. Lo smiled broadly.

“Let’s go home,” I said.

“How about we do that after we’ve gathered up the treasure?” Allegro said.

After returning to Guangzhou, we used the Amatatsu Seal to resurrect Wang Chung. It had recharged itself slowly over time; our boring journey home from Xul-Jarak had been a long one.  We resurrected the Bard secretly in the Crow’s Nest’s upper penthouse without much ceremony, for we didn’t want to call attention to the power of the Seal.

Wang Chung rubbed his eyes and stood up. “It’s a beautiful day!” he said.

After we brought Wang Chung back from the dead, the Seal’s vital force was drained again. I figured it would be a week now before its power would return.

Dieter’s body was dragged away by Dunitz on his travois. Dieter was not a family Scion and the Seal could not raise him. I’d given Dunitz his treasure share plus a little something extra.

I didn’t know if I’d ever see Dunitz again. I cried that night and prayed to Shang-Ti for those Korobokoru. I felt guilty that Dieter was dead, and that Dunitz had lost his hand.

I was going to have to pick out a Japanese God.

We returned the Emperor’s Son to Grand Empress Dowager Xie. She smiled at Zhou Bing, but he was embarrassed and said nothing. Minister Ling gave us twelve thousand Jin in notes, the ten thousand as reward as previously agreed, and two thousand more for horses we had never returned to pick up because we had been run out of town by Ninjas. Minister Ling smiled at us. I noticed his gold tooth again.

We went to Bounties of the Earth and Tan Tai An whooped for joy and hugged his daughter tightly. He gave us all magic rings that would allow us to fly. They would only work once, and then only for a short while. 

The Crow squawked at Aki when we left. Lyan had never said much of anything, and her eyes had been haunted. I wondered what the Jurchens had done to her.

We went to see the Governor to return Wen Hung-Lo safely to him. We even brought Pang Mei and the Jade Archer with us. We were hailed as heroes and we were presented with official passes good throughout the Song Empire, so we could now trade and travel freely by the grace of the Governor. We presented Wen Hung-Lo to him.

He looked at Wen Hung-Lo and his brow creased. He was silent for a while.

“I have something to ask of you, Lord Governor,” I began.

“Yes, I know,” he said. “It would be foolish for a Governor to not know what is happening in his own Province. Your lovely Sister paid me a visit a week ago, and she told me all about it.” He poured himself a glass of Venetian wine.

I looked at Pang Mei.

“You want my Katana.”  He stopped pouring and raised his eyebrows. He was a fatherly sort.

“Yes, that’s right.” I swallowed. Something didn’t feel right.

“Your Father sold it, many years ago,” he paused, and lifted the glass of wine and observed how the light passed through it.

“Yes, my Lord, that’s what I understand.”  I waited.

“You can take it with you,” he said, setting his glass down. “But it must remain with its current wielder. You must take Wen Hung-Lo with you on your journey to Japan.”

Wen Hung-Lo smiled at me. His buck teeth were also crooked. I looked at Pang Mei. She nodded and smiled. The Governor picked up his glass again.

“My foolish boy here is not, shall we say, a truly cherished member of our family, for the circumstances of his birth were such that his marriage to a real Princess would be quite impossible,” he paused and looked at me. He swirled the wine around in his glass.

I didn’t know what he was getting at. Pang Mei winked at me.

“While a true Princess for my son is far too much to ask, a marriage to a lesser, secondary Princess would be a most desirable thing,” he said.

I just wanted to die. 

 

 
 
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