-------------------Chapter Eight, As Told By Xiao Ping and Wen Hung-Lo---------------------

Blue Silk Village

We went on like that for a few more days. The weather was still getting colder, and it rained from time to time. The wagons groaned and rattled along the rutted back roads Sandru chose to hazard. When one of the wains broke a wheel, Sandru said it was time for a town stop. We were nearing areas that were more likely to be under Mongol control, so we wanted to find out anything we could about the occupied north. Sandru pointed to a town on his map. “Here’s a place called Blue Silk village,” he said. “I want you to take your team and go into the village ahead of time and talk to the Lord and get the inn rented out. The food’s supposed to be particularly good there.”

I walked back along the wagon line to gather everyone and I saw Cairn playing with Gun-Gun and the wolf pups. Wingnut had taken to bullying the young wolves, and when he jumped out from under a wagon and pounced on one of the pups, Gun-Gun growled and nipped at him to straighten him out. Wingnut took offense and bit the big wolf. They both snarled loudly at each other and Cairn had to jump between them and settle the whole thing down. Wingnut was very big now at six months, nearly a hundred pounds. He was going to be a great steed for Allegro. Havarak walked up and tossed a fresh pig carcass on the ground. The wolves tore into the pig, and Cairn gave them some goodberries.

I gathered everyone together and we saddled up and headed out. Lo and Havarak were walking, as was their wont, and I rode on the back of Wen’s horse. Dipaka had been loaned a piebald nag, and although he looked out of his element, he was determined to perservere. Ochir had a new pony he bought in Guangzhou and he took up the rearguard spot.

After a while, we could see the yellow thatched roofs of a village ahead of us through the trees.

We could hear faint shouts at first. As we drew nearer to the village, the cries became more distinct. Men were yelling obscenities and they were clearly frightened. As we neared, we saw farmers being attacked by huge insects. They were like giant, two foot mosquitoes, but were much thicker and more muscular. Several of the farmers had mosquitoes with long needle-like proboscises stuck into their bodies, and the bug’s horrid abdomens were pumping and swelling as they drained their blood.

“They’re killing them! They need our help!” Dipaka cried.

I threw my haste spell to speed everyone up. Dipaka nudged his horse’s sides with his bare feet, whipped the reigns, and trotted into the midst of the bug cloud. Lo ran up too, and I had to grab Wen’s waist in order to keep seated when his horse leapt forward. We rode into the midst of the farmers.

Cairn said, “At lasth! Creatures I can shine againsth!” and she began casting a spell.

A mosquito popped out of nowhere and attached itself to my face; its hairy legs whipped around the back of my head and grabbed hard. The pressure was incredible. I couldn’t see or breathe. I felt the proscobis shoot down my throat, and I could only gag. I tried not to panic. I wanted to call for help, but no sound would come out. Suddenly Wen ripped the bug off my face and threw it down on the ground. He'd had a monster draining him too, but he killed mine first, the gallant gentleman that he was. I was relieved, but I coughed violently and spat out blood. I felt a numbness spreading in my throat.

Lo roared and grabbed and crushed a mosquito with his great fist. Green innards oozed out from between his fingers.

“Ochir! Shoot!” I screamed. 

“Ah, no way! These are just natural pests! These farmers probably just stirred up their nest. What are we going to do, help them plow next? I’m waiting in case it’s an ambush. I gotta tell you Xiao Ping, your getting good at taking charity cases.”

“Little-Bow! Way big shambling plant mound! You want a real target? Look over by that house!” Havarak cried. I heard the thrum of the Half-Jurchens bow, and a horrible howling noise. “Arrows work!” he yelled. 

Having been presented with a "worthy" foe, Ochir dashed forward and fired off several arrows at the mound. The Gnome's arrows vanished into the living mass of rotting leaves and vines. It was shaped like a stubby biped with no head whatsoever. The shambling mound was enormous, over twelve feet tall and nearly as wide as a road. It was freakishly large per my understanding of mound creatures. This one must have weighed eight thousand pounds. It had several huge vine tentacle arms that writhed like snakes.

There were many conflicting stories about mounds. Some said that mounds were immune to lightning, others said that they had a weakness to flame. Some said that your weapons would become stuck in them if you tried to kill them. In all the stories, they were bad news.

The mound shambled up and grabbed a farmer that was standing at the rear of a group watching the mosquitoes drain the other men. The creature yanked him off the ground, and the farmer screamed bloody murder as the mound tried to pull his arms out. The other farmers wasted no time and ran across the road and into a field, where they turned and milled about to watch the heroics.

They all marveled when they saw a giant crocodile appear out of thin air. It dashed on its stubby legs with amazing agility straight into the mound and grabbed hold with its teeth. The mound recoiled, and the crocodile yanked a huge chunk out of the mound’s groin area. The beast looked down, screamed, dropped the farmer, and seized the crocodile instead. The farmer got up and ran for his life. He fell down twice, but he leapt back up both times and kept on going.

I looked over at Dipaka. He had two stirges on him, and one was covering his face. I fired a magic missile at each one of them and they both fell off. “Oh blessed be!” he cried. He excised the stirge's paralyzation poison from his body with a powerful prayer and then moved to help the dying farmers.

Lo ran in to attack the plant mound with Suishen. The flames did nothing to the wet plant matter, but Lo still managed to chop a coiling arm off. 

Wen said, “Hold my sword,” so I grabbed it by the hilt and hugged his waist and rode along on a lance charge. I slammed into his back and lost my breath as he collided with the mound. The rotten beast managed to catch the tip of Wen's lance with the crocodile, and Wen had to back up to free it. The mound threw the limp body of the crocodile on the ground and stomped it with a heavy tree stump foot. I felt our horse shudder from the impact, but Wen kept it from bolting. 

Ochir moved up and fired arrows repeatedly into the heart of the mound. The mound was quaking and leaves were falling and showering us. In the face of Ochir's deadly projectile onslaught, the shambling mound turned and tried shambling away. Lo followed the mound and hacked it down with a few more swats with Suishen.

A man's voice called out, “Hi there! They call me Wu! You saved my life!” It was the unsuspecting farmer that the mound had grabbed earlier. He presented himself and bowed.

“They call him Monkey-Chatter Wu! I’m Li-Ang Wu,” a woman came up next to him and said. “We’re exterminators and horticulturalists!”

“What a coincidence,” Ochir said, “I was just speculating that you were farmers who’d been nosing around in a nest.”

Monkey-Chatter Wu gave Ochir a dark look.

Cairn piped up, “Those mosthquitoes were not normal mosthquitoes. They were muthated. This isn’th the farmer’s fault. Something is causing thisth to happen.” She went around and passed out goodberries to the wounded farmers. Dipaka moved from person to person, speaking words of encouragement and tending wounds.

“Be that as it may,” I said, “We’d like to seek an audience with the Lord of your town, good sir.”

“Lord Yu? He’s out of town,” Monkey-Chatter Wu said. “Allow me to buy all of you drinks at the Rising Moon, yes?”

Dipaka looked at Wu and said, “At least three of these farmers need lesser restorations. We’ll need to carefully move them to the inn.”

“Lead the way Monkey-Chatter Wu,” I said. We prepared the wounded and went slowly into the village.

The Rising Moon was a well-kept two-story structure at the summit of the town’s southern hill. A large well-equipped stable was next door. With almost all the area's horses having gone to the war, it was nearly empty. We led our horses in, fed, and brushed them while Dipaka oversaw the movement of the wounded into the inn. Several tables were cleared and farmers were laid out with their feet propped up on rolled tablecloths. A short silver haired matron was there and she aided Dipaka. She applied remedies and cast a few spells. The way she moved and did things reminded me of Cairn.

The main dining room was almost fifty feet to a side with narrow balconies above. There were cracks along the walls and ceiling. The inn and many other buildings had been damaged in recent quakes, Li-Ang said.

There was a big fat pigeon up in the rafters, as large as a peacock. It looked like another mutated animal.

At the center of the inn was a walk-in garden. It was filled with luxurious plants and flowers. As pleasant as the inn was, the real attraction was the food. There was chicken, pork, vegetables, wine sauces, and rice. We ate dinner in style. Ochir at first absolutely refused to try any of the food, and just pushed the food around on his plate with his fingers. “Good, isn’t it?” Monkey-Chatter asked Ochir. Ochir gave him an evil glare. He looked like he was keeping an eye on two people sitting with their backs to the wall near the back door. They had their heads covered with hoods. I could see that they had armored feet. Ochir excused himself from the table. “I’m not really hungry,” he said.

A family of Chinese came forth and introduced themselves to us. There was a middle-aged man, a woman, and four children. The man and woman were dressed in bright formal clothing. The younger children were dressed in work clothes and it appeared they been cleaning most the day. There was a young man around the age of twenty or so dressed like his father, a daughter of nineteen years, a daughter of sixteen years, and lastly a son of thirteen years. The children stood quietly in a neat row behind them.

"Allow me to introduce myself, I'm Rongji Hsiao and this is my wife Xue. We are the humble owners of this inn. How can we serve the village’s new heroes?”

“We’d like to rent out the inn for a few nights, maybe a week,” I said.

“How many rooms will you want? Two?” the innkeeper asked. “All of them,” I said. His eyebrows shot up. “We are bringing in a big trade caravan for a rest, and there are lots of handlers and other personnel. There are more than a hundred horses, so we’ll need your stable too.”

The innkeeper grinned as I gave him the money for six rooms for a week. After I was done, I saw the sixteen-year-old girl talking and smiling at Wen. She was beautiful. She had long flowing black hair and a narrow face, with nice cheekbones. She had beautiful straight teeth and full lips to smile with. Her face was perfectly the same on both sides, a mirror image. Her eyebrows made her look very exotic.

“Hi, my name is Xia. What’s your name? Are you a Knight?” she was asking Wen.

“Child, I am betrothed! Perhaps this holy man can fulfill your need for companionship?” He motioned her toward Dipaka.

“But he’s so old!” she said. “What about you?” she looked at Aki next. “What is your name?”

I cringed, and the silence went on for a moment before I realized I had to introduce him. “This is Aki; he is a Monk and has taken a vow of silence,” I said.

“Not a vow of chastity, I hope,” she said. She sat down on Aki’s lap.

“I don’t know anything about any vow of chastity,” I said.

“I am an excellent cook,” Xia said, “can I come with you on your adventures?”

“Well,” I said, “things are very dangerous…”  I told her about some of our more dangerous adventures. She grew only more entranced by the idea.

Cairn went up onto the balcony, climbed up onto a rafter, and shimmied over to the giant pigeon. The old, matronly woman helping Dipaka spoke up. "That's Oscar," she said. She wore gray robes and a wide, heavy cloth belt. “My name’s Wang Pang,” she said. She was giving goodberries to the wounded farmers, and Cairn asked her if she had the craft. After this, they spoke in their own strange tongue, and I know not what they said. Cairn came down later and ordered a plate full of raw meat. She had blood running down the sides of her chin as she ate.

The door opened and a fat, gawky man in yellow priestly garb came in, closely followed by a tall and lanky man with a monk’s haircut and a blue robe. The fat one had a double chin and looked pompous and very annoyed. The tall one was sheepish. Rongji materialized before they could get to the seating stand. “Ah, Father Xiang, how can we help you?”

“You know very well why we are here!” the Priest blurted. “Some from our flock were wounded. Why were we not summoned?”

“The healing was within our means,” Mrs. Pang said, “there was no need.”

A huge pigeon dropping landed near the Priest.

“Why do you keep this demon pigeon around?” he demanded, looking up at Oscar.

“He’s not a demon, he’s a pigeon,” Mrs. Pang said.

“The patients have been well cared for, that’s all that matters,” the tall priest in blue said. I could tell now by their sigils and markings that they were Priests of Shang-Ti, and the Celestial Beaurocracy. The fat one looked at Dipaka. “Who are you?  I assume you are from India. Maybe Tibet? Forgive my rudeness, but what God do you worship?”

“I am from India, and I worship no Gods,” Dipaka said.

“No Gods?” the Preist snorted.

“I worship all the Gods,” Dipaka said.

“All the Gods?  Which is it, no Gods or all the Gods?”

“Both.”

“Both? Do you not know that Shang-Ti created the Universe?”

“I acknowledge that he is a great force of good in the Universe,” Dipaka said.

“Do no preaching here!” the priest commanded and waved a stubby finger under Dipaka’s nose.

“I do not preach,” Dipaka said, “The only thing close to preaching I do is leading by example with my acts of generosity and healing.”

The Priest of Shang-Ti harrumphed and turned away from him.

“I have not seen your kind before,” he said, looking up at Lo. “What are you? An Ogre?” He sniffed.

“I am no Ogre, kind sir, I am a Goliath, we come from the mountains,” Lo said.

“They must be stinky mountains. What Lord do you serve?”

“I serve at the pleasure of the Princess, my life for hers,” Lo said.

“Bah! We’ll see about that,” the Priest said.

“So what will be the remuneration for determining the cause of the noises and the smells, and the large animal mutants?” I interrupted. “I assume you want us to do that.”

“What remuneration? Little girl, I don’t recall asking for your help! We don’t want you to upset the apple cart here. I‘m sure the local militia can handle the problem!”

“The local militia, right, sure, they can handle it,” Rongji said facetiously.

On cue, the door was kicked open and a silence fell upon the room. A burly guard captain and two men at arms marched in. The captain had a geased mustache and carried a sealed scroll. They all wore the family crest of the Yu family on their breastplates. The emblem was a golden phoenix sitting at the base of a mulberry tree. They had riveted metal caps that bore their rank on the front. The Captain's mustache frowned at the peasants.

“This is official business! I want to talk to those that helped the farmers today, and everyone else must leave at once!” the Captain ordered.

Mrs. Pang came forward. “Captain Feng, you will certainly not move those that are lying down, they are in too delicate a condition,” the woman glared at him. He glared back at her, but she didn't back down.

“Very well,” he said, “but everyone else out, we’ll discuss this in another room. Innkeeper! A room if you please!”

Rongji led us into a conference room. I saw Ochir slip out the back door of the inn. The two strange hooded men had gone out with the rest of the peasants. The rest of us went into the room to hear the Captain out.

“Lord Yu’s Mother has commanded me to ask you to investigate the problem with the mutated animals,” he said. “There was a strong earthquake not long ago, and since then normal things have gone funny. There have been strange noises at night, and lingering smells like skunks. We would like to offer to pay you two thousand Jin for this deed.”

“We get paid up front,” Cairn said, “we got sthcrewed last time! If we’re not getting paid up front, and there is sthomething wrong here, we sthould just leave. It’s probably the natural thing.” Cairn could be counted on to have a neutral point of view.

“Two thousand Jin each,” I said.

“Each! Are you serious? Why, we have no such resource at our disposal! How about five hundred each?” Captain Feng asked.

“How about a thousand each?” I countered.

“Look, I only have a total of four thousand to work with for this whole deal,” the Captain admitted. He smiled and his shiny mustache lifted up on the ends.

“Ok, four thousand it is, with two thousand up front,” I said.

“Fine,” he said, “that’s all I have here anyway,” and handed over the notes.

“Where should we start looking?” I asked.

“The east side of town,” Captain Feng said.

“Also, you can’t tell anyone that we've hired you,” Feng said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because Chinese are discreet!” he said.

Later that night we gathered outside the inn to talk amongst ourselves.

“We should go tonight; we got paid half the money up front, so we shouldn’t wait a whole day to get started. As soon as it gets dark, we’ll go. Right now, we have to move the caravan into the town safely.”

We all set about our regular caravan work. Ochir came over by me while I was checking off some load fasteners.

“Want to guess who was listening to everything we said back at the inn?” he asked.

“Who?”

“Livikus Al-Tatar and his bodyguard, Xeldar the Greek.”

“What? Out here?”

“Yep, I asked Livikus why they were out here in this little pimple on the ass of the Song Empire.”

“What did they say? I don’t think they are really enemies for us right now, we left them last on at least even terms,” I said.

“They want the Lord of this town dead. They like his Mother’s, shall we say, “point of view” a bit better than his. I realize this is a non-starter, as we don’t take on bounties like these, but it could be worth thirty thousand to us if we brought the Lord and his two champion guards to mysterious ends. All three of them are out of town, though.”

Thirty thousand Jin?

“I guess it pays to be evil,” I observed. “Well, unfortunately for these bounties, we are not evil assassins. We are going to look into this earthquake issue for these village people for four thousand Jin. There are good members in our group that would do it free, and will just ignore me anyway if I say we’re going to move on. Besides, I think we should look into this matter too. It shouldn’t take long. Aki suspects it’s just a fissure or crack in the earth somewhere that has opened up during the quake and mutated the animals and plants around it.”

“We would need only to deliver the katanas to Livikus as proof of their deaths. We don’t technically have to kill them,” Ochir said.

“Well, we can keep it in mind, but I think you know the answer already.”

“Yeah, I guess I do,” Ochir said.


Tar and Feathers

After the caravan had been moved into the village and the evening of revelry for the traders and handlers had begun, we decided to rest for the night after all. The next morning, Dipaka emptied the inn's main room of wounded farmers and sent them all home healthy. After that we headed out to the east side of town. Ochir tracked the mound’s likely point of emanation to the edge of a dark reservoir. “The thing came out of the water here, is my best guess,” Ochir pointed. I had my water breathing spell ready. I kept hoping we’d be at sea by now, and I had an irrational fear of drowning. I asked everyone to put his or her right hand on top of mine and I conferred the power to the group.

We walked right into the cold water. I had no idea what to expect; I had never been able to breathe underwater before. At first, I held my breath. I held it for as long as I could. Eventually I had to breathe, and I sucked in the water. It was cold and hurt my lungs, but I was able to breathe slowly. It was almost as bad as drowning must be. I couldn’t see very well and my eyes stung. I imagined that there was probably feces in the water. We saw a hundred pound fish rotting on the bottom. All the other fish had somehow suffocated. My stomach clamped a few times, but I didn't throw up.

We went down deep into the reservoir and found a grated tunnel at the dam’s base. We pulled it open and went into a dark underwater access corridor. I put a light spell on the tip of my spear. It glowed in the water for ten feet around. Dipaka glowed too; his halo was eerie underwater. After a long distance, the tunnel went uphill and the water level became lower than our necks, and gradually even lower. We waded on and on, until finally the water was not more than a trickle that ran down the middle of the corridor. There was a six-inch culvert in the tunnel floor. These sewer tunnels had been well built by Chinese engineers hundreds of years ago.

We traveled through the sewers for an hour, and every once in a while the sun would make its way through the cracks in the sewer grates above us in the village streets and throw shadow patterns onto the stone walls of the tunnel. We came upon a portcullis set in the right hand wall of the passage. Beyond it was a hallway that led to another portcullis.

We could see two large luminous orbs farther ahead of us down the tunnel. We were peering through the portcullis when Ochir said, “Uh guys, I think we’re looking at a giant alligator here!” 

There was a terrible roar and I saw a giant maw open and snap shut inches from Ochir. The alligator's largest teeth were longer than my arm. The mutated animal had to have been over thirty feet long.

Ochir immediately started firing his bow at the gator. Arrow after arrow slammed into the beasts face, tongue, and throat.

I stepped around Wen and fired the lighting wand at the monster. The tunnel flashed bright blue for an instant, but the searing bolt hardly bothered the gator.

“I’ll take care of this,” Lo said. He pulled out Suishen, ran up, and gave the gator a solid whack. The sword's fire burned the beast and the tunnel was bright with yellow light. The alligator squealed and writhed. It slammed into the walls and shook the tunnel. It knocked Lo into a wall and then snapped its huge jaws shut around the Goliath. "Uh oh!" Lo yelled.

Wen ran forward to help and he laid the gator’s side open with his katana. Red guts poured out and flooded the corridor.

Ochir fired a few more arrows into the beast and it went down. It stopped chewing on Lo and released him. “Ah ha!” the tiny Mongol cried, “Those are my shoes and hand bags!”

“Alright Lo,” I said, “Let’s see if you can lift this gate.” Lo got up and put Suishen in its scabbard, threw his shield over his back, and went over and put both of his hands under a crossbar in the gate. He strained with all his might, and the gate creaked and groaned, but it only nudged up an inch or so. There was suddenly a burst of inky darkness above Lo’s head.

“Hey!” he said, blinking furiously. ”I was blind there for a second! That was a trap! I’m not going through there!” Lo turned and moved over behind Wen. It was not like Lo to be worried about anything, so there must have been some devilry at work in him. 

Thwack! An arrow hit Lo in the shoulder. “Whoa! That hurts!” It had come from the other side of the portcullises where we could see nothing.

Dipaka rushed over to heal the Goliath.

Ochir fired a shot back the direction the arrow had come. “Hey! It just got swallowed by some darkness on the other side of the gates! There’s some kind of dark spell going on down there,” he said. Another arrow flew out and clinked off the wall behind Ochir.

Cairn cast a dancing lights into the darkness, but the powerful void only swallowed the meager spell. Cairn moved to a safer position.

Aki produced a coin and gripped it tightly in one hand. He waved his other hand over it and his fingers glowed orange. When he opened his fingers, I was momentarily blinded, for a brilliant light as bright as day shot out from the coin. Aki tossed it through the gates, and it countered and dispelled the swirling inky darkness on the other side. Then it was gone. Beyond the gates were two scaly Yuan-Ti.

Yuan-Ti were rampant in stories that were told to young children to scare them into behaving. Yuan-Ti were of reptilian descent, and very evil. One of the creatures had a snake’s head, and the other had a snake’s tail and slithered around on it. They were both part man and had normal arms. They fired arrows at Aki. Aki dodged the arrows, then pulled out a light crossbow and shot back at them.

A terrible smell assailed my nostrils. Havarak said there was a dire skunk behind us. “I’ll take care of it,” he said. “Maybe I can add you to my pack,” I heard him saying to the skunk. I was afraid for the skunk.

I spit out a burning pea and it sailed through the bars and hit the wall behind the Yuan-Ti. When it blossomed into a fireball, their hides blistered and peeled as they were nearly burned alive. They were hissing loudly. They retreated up the corridor and out of sight. One of them looked almost dead as it slithered out of the blast area, its tail rattling as it went.

A dirt man rose up from the floor. Cairn had summoned him. He had quartz eyes. He stood there crumbling dirt. He tried to dig around the gate, but the smooth stone walls were too hard. The dirt man saluted and disappeared back down into the floor.

Ochir tried to squeeze through the bars in the gate but he just didn’t fit.

Lo went over, inched, pried, and budged the gate upward until it was high enough for all of us to go under. This required lifting and spiking and took forever. Once Lo had gotten the first gate open, we still had to get through the second.

Lo refused to try to lift this second gate since the first one had been trapped. Dipaka healed him again, but still he refused. Ochir volunteered to try. Aki tied a rope to the Gnome so he could drag him back if something went wrong. Ochir went over and searched the portcullis carefully, but he didn’t find any trap mechanism. Eventually he shrugged and grabbed the bottom rung on the gate and lifted. Nothing at all happened. He shook the gate in frustration.

Suddenly a trapdoor in the ceiling opened and black tar pitch rained down on Ochir and the floor. A tiny metal cockatrice popped out of an opening in the side wall and produced a spark. The entire area burst into flame. Aki tried to drag him out by the rope, but Ochir climbed up the gate to escape the fire. Another trapdoor opened and a load of feathers was dropped on him. This put the fire out, but Ochir was coated in white feathers and looked like a chicken. He climbed down the gate and came out. He’d need a few peasant girls to scrub him raw later to get all the tar and feathers off of him. 

Lo went to work inching the second gate upward. While we waited and wished the interminable clanging was unnecessary, we examined the cockatrice that had sprung out of the wall. There was a little plaque on the bottom of it that read: “Spared any fire damage-courtesy of the Sadistic Gnome Trap Company.”

Ochir laughed. “Oh that’s rich,” he said.

We finally marched on down the corridor. The tunnel was crowded with multi-colored lichens that grew on every conceivable surface. Several thousand feet down the tunnel, we saw light. It was filtering down from a sewer grate somewhere above us. The quake had shaken a probably once secret door in the side of the passage out of its frame, and we could see torchlight beyond. Lo shouldered the door open.

Beyond we came upon a room that was dominated by the presence of a huge marble fountain. It bore the image of a jade phoenix at its source. The sound of the running water made me want to urinate. There was a palpable feeling of magic in the room. There were side couches and tea tables along the walls. The furniture and the paintings that adorned the walls were all hopelessly ruined by mildew and dank. A giant, cracked, purple crystal stood in a tarnished stand in front of the fountain. It looked quite dull and worthless.

We saw three horribly burned Yuan-Ti emerge slowly from behind the fountain. There was now a female Yuan-Ti behind the other two; she had both legs and arms and was actually more human in shape. “No! Don’t burn usss again! We hatessss it! We are not enemies, no…. we would ssspeak to you…”

They seemed to be gambling on getting closer to us before attacking. 

“We earned our entry here!” I cried. “Stay back!”

“Although some of us have earned it more than others,” Ochir said. His eyes were just dark beads, barely visible from inside the tar and feathers.

Lo went up and chopped the talking female Yuan-Ti. She was just as blackened by fire as the other two, but this was the first time we'd seen her. She must have been lurking nearby the gate invisibly before and been caught in the fireball. She went down under Lo’s chop and he moved over and got one of the other ones as well. The last one screamed, “No! You mustn’t kill ussss! We are part of the Wu Jen Beaurocracsssy of the Golden Phoenix! We are charged with sssafeguarding mage craft in the Empire!” The creature hissed and flicked its forked tongue at us. Ochir fired an arrow and it pierced the creatures breast. It hissed and looked at Lo, “I sssuggest you kill that little Gnome fucker behind you!”

Lo turned very slowly as if in a trance. His eyes glazed over and he raised Suishen to strike down Ochir.

“No Villain! You will not approach the Amatatsu House Champion unseen!”

Suddenly a big ugly Oni ogre mage woman with a huge studded club appeared out of nowhere. She appeared to have been approaching Lo invisibly and been revealed somehow by Suishen.

“Foolish flaming sword! I’ll see your fire extinguished!” The Oni lifted her hand and a huge cone of ice and cold came from her palm and enveloped Lo, Ochir, Cairn, and Havarak. I could feel biting cold and flying ice chips hitting me from quite a distance away.

No one could survive such a blast.


The Lady and the Oni

Ochir and Havarak managed to roll out of the way of the deadly ice cone, but they were still coated in bone numbing frost.

 

Cairn was blasted against a wall and then slammed to the ground. She stopped moving.

 

Lo would have been killed instantly, if it weren’t for Suishen. The sword flared up brighter than ever, and sheathed Lo with fire and heat. The Oni had to shield her eyes it was so bright. Suishen's power kept Lo safe from the cold.

 

Dipaka tried to dispel the suggestion spell that was at work on Lo's mind with a dispelling prayer, but the Yuan-Ti’s domination magic was just too strong. The healer moved over to Lo instead and put him in his holy sphere of Peace. “Ok, big fella, calm down,” Dipaka said. Lo’s eyes were still glazed over, but he couldn't attack Ochir or anyone else while so close to Dipaka.

 

The Oni was enraged. “I’ve had reports on you Holy Man! Your file is thick! Moreover, I know your Mother!"

 

Dipaka was surprised. "File? What file? My Mother? What are you talking about?"

 

"Silence knave! I 'm not playing twenty questions with you! I'm going to kill you all! This club is Oath-breaker! You will know it when I lay it upon you!” She was gripping the giant kanabo with two hands out in front of her. She had adopted a wide stance and was shifting her weight back and forth from one foot to the other. She wore a hideous rotten-toothed grin.

 

Aki jumped in and gave the last Yuan-Ti a solid punch, and it wobbled on its tail. He kicked it in the side of the head and it went slack and collapsed to the floor.

 

Havarak ran over to Cairn’s body and checked to see if she was still alive.

 

“Hey, Baby-Buddha! Cairn is going to die! She needs healing now!” Havarak was cradling Cairn in his arms.

 

Dipaka whirled, bent his head, and thrust out his open palm from where he stood. A white ball of holy light rolled forth and enveloped Cairn. The light closed her wounds and she came around and opened her eyes. Havarak was relieved, he set Cairn down on her feet and he shouted, “Baby Boo, I am in your debt!” He picked up his bow. Havarak now turned to the Oni and fired at her face. The Oni caught the arrow across the ear. Blood sprayed onto the Oni’s shoulder, and she rubbed some off between her fingers and looked at the redness. “You injured me?” 

 

Ochir followed Havarak’s arrow hit on the Oni up with three more of his own. The Oni looked angrier and angrier each time an arrow pegged her. She roared and charged forward. 

 

Wen moved into her path. The Oni growled, “Fool! You have volunteered to be the first pab to fall!” She cracked Wen once and he nearly lost his footing. She raised the club to strike him again. I held my breath as Wen expertly side-stepped a second wallop. The Oni was angered further when she saw that Wen was still standing.

 

“Have you not heard Oni? We are Immortal!” Wen shouted.

 

Suishen’s voice rose and was stern: “Why are you not attacking the Oni, House Champion? Such Ogres are my favored enemy! Snap out of it!” Lo shook his head and his eyes cleared. He gripped Suishen and focused on the Oni.

 

I threw several magic missiles at the Oni, but she had some sort of magical resistance around her that swallowed them up. 

 

“Your magic is worthless and weak!” the Oni taunted.

 

Wen once again could not overcome Dipaka’s holy power of Peace. He could not do anything offensive, so he stood his ground.

 

“Your philosophy is going to get your friends killed!” the Oni sneered at Dipaka.

 

“It’s more than a philosophy, it is life itself,” Dipaka said.

 

The Oni stopped talking when Lo hit her with Suishen. Lo whacked her a second time for good measure. I could hear the sizzling of the Oni’s flesh.

 

Havarak dropped his bow and whipped out the two axes he always wore on his belt. “Meet Snick and Snack!” he said to the Oni. He leapt in and managed to chop the Oni once in the side of the head.

 

Ochir carefully loaded a poison arrow and shot the Oni in the neck. The Oni staggered and blue veins spread from its gob. “There's more where that came from!” Ochir cried. He fired another poison arrow and hit the Oni in the leg. Blue veins spread across her thigh.

 

“Aaagghh! Poison! You cheating Gnome!” the Oni screamed. “I am of the Five Storms! You will never set foot on Japan! Before I leave this battle I will take one of your lives!”

 

“I’ve heard of something called Hari-Kari, maybe I could help you with it,” Ochir taunted.

 

Wen turned and looked at Dipaka, “Back off Dipaka! Would you get out of here so I can fight the Oni?” Dipaka walked over to Wen instead and healed him. Wen sighed.

 

I fired a couple magic missiles at the Oni again hoping to get lucky this time, but they fizzled just like the last ones.

 

“Your girlie powers are nothing! You’d better grow up bitch! Don't try to set foot on Nippon!” the Oni bellowed.

 

Aki swept the Oni’s feet out from under her. She wore a look of surprise as her feet went up and she hit the ground hard on her back. She was utterly stunned. Aki grabbed her leg, twisted it, and put the Oni in a submission hold. Lo buried Suishen in her chest. Her eyes rolled back and she shook violently and then stopped moving. Lo held the sword in her for a while, and then pulled it out. Lo’s shoulders slumped as Suishen let go of the Goliath's mind.

 

“She might be faking!” Cairn cried. She closed her eyes and her skin mottled and turned gray. Her muscles swelled up and she grew claws. Her nose lengthened and her mouth filled with sharper teeth. Course hair sprouted out of her and she literally turned into a Wolf. “Raaaaaarrrr!” the Wolf growled. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. Cairn was a Werewolf.

 

Havarak tried to stab the Oni, but he could not bring himself to finish the helpless beast. I myself wanted to do a leaping spear attack on the Oni, but Dipaka’s proximity and amazing influence made me realize how wrong this was. Wen said, “Come on Father! Leave so we can kill the Oni!” but Dipaka refused. He looked at Wen and the rest of us. He healed Wen some more with another prayer. “I will never walk away,” he said.

 

“Of course Father, I’ll defer to your judgment,” Wen reluctantly said. 

 

Aki broke the Oni’s neck with a loud crack. Dipaka frowned at the Monk. 

 

He explained via his slate that the race of Oni had been declared unworthy. Long ago, an enemy Oni that was fighting a Monk of his Order had surrendered in combat. Such quarter had never before been granted. The Monk decided to forgive the Oni. Later, during a siege, the Oni returned to its evil ways. It killed the civilian people the Monk had sworn to protect. The Monk returned and slew the traitorous Oni and then killed himself, so great was his dishonor.

 

We collected up the Oni’s gear and cut the heads off the dead to give to Captain Feng. Ochir explored the rest of the sewer tunnels nearby and found a spiral stair going up. We went upward, through a rusted floor grate, through a few dark halls, and found ourselves in a wine cellar. There were Venetian vintages there that were decades old. We had to be in the Lord’s manor. Soon a guard asked us how we’d gotten in there. We said we wanted to see the Lord. He took us to see Lady Yu.

 

“How did you get into my house unannounced?” she demanded.

 

“We found these in your basement,” Ochir said, lifting the heads of the Oni and the three Yuan-Ti. “What do you know about harboring an evil Oni and these snake men in your basement?”

 

“I know nothing of those,” Lady Yu assured us. “You are the people I hired to look into this. Therefore, you found a way into my house from the sewers. My house has plumbing. I will summon our Sage and he will take down your statements. We shall determine what occurred.”

 

“Where is Lord Yu?” Ochir demanded.

 

“I have ruled this Province with my Husband for twenty years, Zhuru, so I am sure I can take care of things while my Lord Son is away for a few days,” she seethed. She seemed uncomfortable with a squad of battered and bloody strangers in her home.

 

“Then show us to your door in an honorable fashion,” I said.

 

Lady Yu nodded. Eight guards arrived to escort us out.

 

“I have an interest in this story,” Dipaka remained behind and said. “I would love to talk to this Sage.”

 

“No Holy Man, you must go too, you’re with them,” the Lady said. 

 

Captain Feng was waiting for us in the outer hall; his moustache was smoothed and looked like it had been freshly greased. He had two Jin notes in his hand. He handed them to me and smiled. He smelled of alcohol.

 

Aki stepped up to shake the Captain’s hand. Afterward he moved away, and watched the Captain closely. The Captain wiped his hand on his shirt.

 

Then the Captain shook Wen’s hand. He and Wen exchanged a look. Wen’s eyes narrowed. The Captain smiled back at him. 

 

”You have been paid, and you have fulfilled your obligation to the Lord of this Province,” the Captain said to Wen.

 

“Only Lord Yu himself can determine that,” Ochir stated.

 

We were ushered nonetheless out into the courtyard. Lady Yu appeared in an upper window with a fan covering her face. Wen looked up at her for a while, then he gave her an apologetic look and she lowered her fan and nodded to him. He bowed and we went out into the street.

 

“She’s a fair woman,” he said. “Good, but proud. She’s not evil. Captain Feng, on the other hand, he's evil. I can tell.”

 

We got on Wen’s horse and we rode back to the village.

 

When we got back to the inn, I went to Pang Mei’s room and knocked my secret knock.  

 

“Come in sister.” Pang Mei was sitting cross-legged on her bed reading some scrolls, and the Jade Archer was leaning on her bow and looking out the window.  

 

“What are we going to do next?” I asked. 

 

“What is your plan?” Pang Mei asked. 

 

“Our small group will dress up like merchants, and take one wagon north from here with our trading license and try to make it through to Hangzhou. We’ll try to get through to General Dan and report the caravan delivered at this village so he can come out with his forces and meet us halfway. Maybe we’ll be able to find out if the Sapporo Wind is in port somewhere. If General Dan can’t come out and get the Caravan, I’m guessing that the Polos would consider selling the goods to the Mongols to avoid a total loss.”

 

“So the rest of us are to lay low here?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Okay, this was close to what we were considering, but you have volunteered,” she said.

 

“There’s something else. Livikus Al-TaTar offered Ochir some high bounties for killing the Lord here and his two men at arms. He won’t move on those, since he’s contractually obligated to the Caravan. He did not make a secret of Livikus’ offer. He told me all about it.”

 

“Livikus will have to do his own dirty work this time," Pang Mei chuckled.

 

“If the Caravan eventually disbands, I think Ochir would rather side with the Mongols in this War. I think he’ll wind up going his own way. I don’t know if he plans on going to Japan or not. I guess maybe if Sandru and Dipaka are both going, he might go too. He also reminds me that the Mongols will not stop conquering after the remnants of the Song Empire have been swept away. They will sail on Japan.”

 

“He’s a Gnome, what do you want? 

 

“He’s a good ranger, archer, and friend.”

 

“I have friends I’ll never see again,” she said. The Jade Archer said nothing. She kept looking out the window. She could have been a statue. 

 

“Don’t get caught by the Mongols. If you do, don’t fight them. If you fight, they won’t let you surrender. They’ll kill you, or worse.”

 

“I know,” I said. It was the Kublai Khan’s way. Every other year the Khan would have his ambassadors sent throughout the provinces to find virgin girls. A hundred maidens were chosen and brought to the great Khan. When the new girls arrived, the older harem women would spend an evening with the new arrivals to see if they had good breath, were clean, slept without snoring, and had no bad smells anywhere. The successful girls were welcomed into the harem and filed into the Khan’s bedchamber at night, although he had several more traditional wives. The rest were had by the Khan’s army and made to serve for years. I didn’t want to be captured by the Mongols. I pushed the thought out of my mind and changed the subject.

 

“Aki and Dipaka went to find the Sage and see what he knows about all this. Dipaka is very curious about the “files” that the Oni with the big club mentioned.”

 

“Yes, Kimandatsu was the Oni we faced at Ravenscrag. We only hoped we had killed her. She fell over a cliff into the sea. Her club created the mind controlling spells that Dipaka found on the Ninjas. It is a powerful weapon, make no mistake.” She paused a moment. There was something else, I could tell.

 

“What?”

 

“There was also a Ninja captain back at Ravenscrag that disappeared in a puff of smoke.”

 

Now she tells me.

 

We talked on for a while about sister stuff. She had a letter from Mom and Dad back in Silk’s End. Both they and the Iron Ox were doing well. They wrote that Ranger Bing sent us greetings.

 

Dipaka knocked and came in with Aki. “It turns out you can learn a lot by having an actual conversation and listening to someone,” he said. “We went and managed to have tea with our friend the Sage. Lord Yu actually went to talk to General Dan with a dozen or so of his guards. They left a week ago and are due back here in three more days.”

 

“Ok,” Pang Mei said. “is there anything else?”

 

“There’s lots more. The Sage told us that three hundred and fifty years ago, the Wu Jen formed a Cabal called the Order of the Phoenix. They had their arcane fingers dipped into many secret places in the World, with splinter cells in every land. They were a collection of interlocking sects bent on world domination. They created many secret projects that would aid their burgeoning Empire. One of the projects was the creation of a magic fountain that would make livestock larger in times of famine. One of these was uncovered by the quake, and this is why the animals were mutated. The waters from the fountain mingled with the other water the animals commonly drank.”

 

“What about the Yuan-Ti?” I asked.

 

“That one’s a little less clear. It was rumored that the Golden Phoenix had enslaved or was in league with the Yuan-Ti. They disappeared long ago along with the Order. Maybe they were put to sleep, or into some sort of long-term stasis. Maybe the earthquakes just rattled them out,” Dipaka said.

 

“The Oni also carried a letter from a crazed woman in my home village that claims to be my Mother,” he said. “Someday I must return home to cure her of this lunacy.” 


The Five Thousand

We made ready to head north with just one wagon laden mostly with rice. The six of us disguised ourselves as merchants. The Polos and the Gallos helped us get the details right. In the end, I was wearing a stained brown tunic and a straw pointy hat. Ochir flew his Mongol tribal clan banner on the right front corner of the wagon. “This can help us,” he said. Cairn and Havarak stayed behind. A retarded Gnome girl Werewolf and a stinky half-Jurchen didn't fit in well as merchants in Mongol territory. We were pushing it with Lo.

 

I copied Pang Mei’s whispering wind spell into my spell book before we left, so we could send messages to each other when within range. It looked to me like it could be counted on for about as far as the eye could see. I could see a way to make it work further away, but it required me to let go of the magic when it was loose and do things that were cautioned against. 

 

As Dipaka drove the wagon north towards Hangzhou, the sky grew dark ahead, as though a storm brewed. As we neared, it became clear it was no storm. Plumes of smoke rose from fields, villages, granaries, and barns. The columns merged in the sky and became a massive wall of black stretching from horizon to horizon. The Mongols were destroying everything.

 

We began to see bodies; they were gaunt, yellow withered corpses, lying in scant rags along the sides of the road.  

 

The next day a line of refugees began to pour southward towards us from Hangzhou. They were malnourished to say the least. Their jutting bones were their most prominent feature. Some had weeping sores and horrid rashes. It was heartbreaking. I remember thinking before that the Mongols were noble for allowing the surrendered enemy to live and go free. These people were suffering horribly. There was nothing noble in this War.

 

Dipaka brought the wagon to stop. He climbed down and oversaw the distribution of our entire load of rice, salted fish, and dried apricots. At the end of three hours, nearly five thousand had been fed and Dipaka had even convinced them to keep some food in reserve so that they might survive to reach safe southern towns. The first settlement they would hit going south was Blue Silk village. 

 

“Make sure you give Lady Yu our very best!” Ochir said, chuckling. Wen frowned.

 

Dipaka and Aki said that they would pay the Caravan for the rations we distributed to the refugees. I decided I’d contribute too. It felt good to help people. 

 

We pressed northward. The desolation began to seep into our pores. Houses and barns were naught but ash, and crows hopped and pecked atop dead livestock. The pall of death was upon the land. It was very dark even during the day. It always smelled like burnt wood and rotting meat. It was overwhelming.

 

We were within five miles of Hangzhou when Ochir called a halt. He went scouting off the road and looked for a couple of Mongols he said he had seen watching us from the tall grasses. When he came back, he said they were gone.

 

We could finally see the city of Hangzhou from about a mile away by the time the noonday sun arrived. Hangzhou had been built over the marshy delta of the Yangtze River. The river itself cut right through the city. It had impressive outer walls almost fifty feet high and twenty feet thick. There were quite a few guards patrolling the battlements, even on the Song side. The Mongols controlled the northern areas for the Khan, while General Dan and his troops controlled the southern areas. Several wide bridges spanned the river, but they were well fortified at each end. It wasn’t possible for the Mongols to move a huge army southward, but determined groups of cavalry could apparently penetrate the swamps in small numbers. These raiding parties were wreaking havoc on the people and the lands of the south.

 

We saw a column of dust rising from the road ahead. As it got closer, we saw that it was caused by a throng of Mongols on horseback. One of them was a large muscle-bound Mongol with a long horse’s tail that hung from the back of his helm. He flew the banner of the great Hubadai Khan, the nephew of Kublai Khan. 

 

“Stay on your mounts, it’s a raiding party,” Wen said. 

 

“You should speak for us when they get here, my love, they will not understand me,” I said quietly to Wen close to his ear. “You need to deal with these warriors as an equal.” 

 

Wen was abashed. “Well, I don’t know about that…me deal with them? I think Ochir should talk to them! If things go badly with Ochir, then I’ll talk to them.”

 

Ochir rode out to meet the leader with his banner flying. The leader motioned Ochir to ride into formation to prove his knowledge of Mongol signal practice. Ochir fell roughly into their line as they fanned out and encircled us, and the leader smirked.

 

“I am Aju Quickhand, Captain of my Company! You have come into the realm of the Empire of the Mongols! You will surrender and your lives will be spared!” Aju made a spiraling motion with his hand. The circle the riders had formed around us got tighter.

 

Ochir rode forward out of the circle and trotted his horse over to be in front of us.

 

“My Lords,” he said, “we are not combatants, we’re traders. We were trying to deliver supplies to the troops. Unfortunately, we were overcome by Chinese refugees, and they stripped our wagon. But we have many more wagons to the south.”

 

“If you are not combatants, tell them to remove their hands from their weapons.” Aju said.  

 

Wen and Lo eased up and took their hands off the hilts of their katanas when I nodded to them.

 

“This wagon belongs to Maffeo Polo and his Family,” Ochir said.

 

“Rider,” the Captain said, “I have been kind enough to tell you my name, what is yours?”

 

“I am Munkh-Ochir Batbayar. I am called Ochir.”

 

“You are associated with Temujin. Ahh! Good.”

 

“Woman! Declare yourself!” He was now looking at me.

 

“I am Xiao Ping, I am a simple tradeswoman,” I cast my eyes down and said nothing further.

 

“Clearly you guys don’t have complete control over this area yet, since those refugees overpowered us,” Ochir said. The stunned Captain turned his attention away from me and back to Ochir. He clenched his jaw and was silent for a moment. 

 

“The day is growing short, we will camp! Unhitch your horses and pitch your tents!” He was commanding his own and men and now us.

 

Half of the Captain’s men were on watch at any given time throughout the night. Lo stayed awake all night and stood near me. Lo noted that two of the Captain’s men had left on horseback during the night but had returned before daybreak.

 

In the morning, there was a huge Mongolian camp breakfast and everyone pitched in to help. After it was over and all the pots and pans were away, the Captain stood up to speak.

 

“We will lead you and your wagon to a ford in the river that allows us to cross into this area. You will speak to my leader Hubidai Khan. He will decide what to do with you.”

 

We followed the Mongols into a boggy area. The guides really knew what they were doing; one false step and one could be sucked under and never seen again. They had sniffed out a safe way through. They joked about how they had sent innocent Chinese farmers tied to ropes ahead of them out into the bogs and tested for solid routes. Many of such men had been drowned when pulled out of the bog too late. Sometimes the ropes had been tied around the farmers necks just for fun, they said.

 

How our guides knew the way, I knew not. I could discern no sign. We would never be able to find our way back through the bogs on our own. We slowly but surely forded the river, and after the crossing we actually had passed by and gone somewhat north of Hangzhou. The Mongols hooked around and headed back south after a while and we went into the Mongol controlled area.

 

We went over a hill and the land opened up. We could see armies of humanoids. There were Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Persians. 

 

There were twenty thousand infantry alone stationed on the Mongol side of the river. There were also one thousand toughened cavalry. There was a siege work and artillery corps involving another five thousand troops. Another five thousand Mongol riders of Hubidai moved up and down the river testing for weaknesses in the Song line.

 

Off in the distance atop a great steed we could see Hubidai Kahn. He radiated incredible power.

 

Aju tried to obtain an audience with his Khan, but his Khan had no time for him. He was left to decide what to do with us.

 

“This is what we’ll do," he said. "Two of you will stay here as hostages. Me and my whole command will escort the other four of you back to your caravan."

 

“I will gladly stay behind and talk with you,” Dipaka said.

 

“Oh no, not you Holy Man!” Aju laughed. He looked at me. His face was now very serious. 

 

“She will stay here, and one escort of her choosing,” he said.

 

Lo said, “This is unacceptable. I must object.” He locked eyes with Aju. They stared at each other with clenched teeth and jutting chins for a long time. Eventually, they both relaxed. They appeared to have called it a draw.

 

I was trying to decide who was going to stay and be a hostage with me. I wanted Wen, but I knew what I had to do. I pointed to Ochir. Wen looked at me with concern in his eyes.

 

“The woman has decided,” Aju said.

 

“You would let a woman decide?” Dipaka asked. Captain Aju visibly angered and looked at Dipaka. Dipaka raised his hands in a gesture of peace. “Whoa there,” he said.

 

Wen and Lo both grumbled, but I whispered my plan to them and they dropped it. 

 

I kissed Wen and hugged him hard. He said that I shouldn’t stay and he offered to fight his way out of there with Lo and Aki. I smiled and told him to stay safe on his journey and to come back to get me.

 

Wen, Lo, Aki and Dipaka went back to Blue Silk village with an armed escort of one hundred mounted Mongols.

 

Ochir and I were now guests of the Mongols.

 

We were taken to a stockade prison that was surrounded by Ogres and Persians and thrown roughly into a cell. Ochir and I had to share a waste bucket.

 

The Jailer turned out to be a female Gnome. Her name was Chaka Khan. She had bright red hair and a tight athletic build. She came, unlocked the door, got Ochir out, and talked to him. She told him that her previous duty station had been in Vienna, and that she loved it there. She could talk about nothing else.

 

It turned out that she knew about Ochir’s famous Mother and about her Horse. This pleased Ochir greatly. It turned out that Chaka was from an influential Gnomish family that had long supplied the Mongol hordes with entertainment, special event planning, battlefield spell support, and construction documentation for siege machines meant for destroying ones large-scale foes. I could tell they were attracted to each other. It was a match made in Gnomish heaven, wherever that might be.

 

Chaka came to our cell door smiling on the second day and took Ochir away with her and didn’t come back. At least I didn’t have to go to the bathroom in front of him anymore. The food they gave me was horrible. It gave me diarrhea.

 

On the third day, some rough guards came and they took me to a normally appointed room, not a cell. It was high up in one of the stockade’s corner towers. It had its own private garderobe. I could squat over the round hole. There was a real stuffed straw mattress with a quilted cover. There were clean rushes on the floor. Ochir must have convinced Chaka to move me to a better room. There was an open window here, and I could now think about flying away. Ochir was being kept warm at night by Chaka, I was sure of that. 

 

I missed Wen so bad my heart hurt. I imagined him galloping into the Mongol’s camp on his big steed, killing them with his lance and blade, battling his way to Hubidai Khan, then vanquishing the Mongol in single combat. I knew now that I was falling in love with him. I thought about him like nothing else.

 

I stared dejectedly out the window for days. The fare got little better. I could see that the Mongols were completing work on a huge covered siege engine, but I wasn’t sure what sort of projectile it was going to fire. 

 

One time I heard sounds of activity coming from inside the engine. I heard Gnomish voices, some hammering, and a few loud curse words. Suddenly there was a loud whoomp whoomp and the ground thumped beneath the tower. A column of smoke rose up into the sky from the engine. The swearing inside went on for a few minutes. I saw a blackened Ochir and Chaka roll out of it coughing as I watched.

 

I knew I could rely on my Wu Jen spirits to turn invisible and fly away, and I knew I could carry Ochir away with me when it was time to escape. I never would have been able to carry Wen on such a risky flight, at least not with his armor and gear on. It looked like Ochir was staying here though. He was a Mongol and so was Chaka. 

 

One day Chaka unlocked the door and Ochir came into my room. He tried to tell me that the Amatatsu Family should consider siding with the Mongols and help them win the war against General Dan and the Song. Then we could forge an alliance with the Mongols and thus hand Japan over to them peacefully. 

 

I didn’t know if I was ready to trade away a Nation and a people I did not yet even know. I told him I simply wanted to make it to Japan first. If he wanted to stay here and help the Mongols, that was fine. “Suit yourself, Xiao Ping,” he said. He left me alone again. I heard Chaka lock the door and walk away.


Flight

I was almost ready to go find the Sapporo Wind and sail to Japan all by myself when Pang Mei’s whispering wind arrived.

 

“General Dan to attack at three in the afternoon… a distraction… Caravan and everyone mobilized… Please return safe… I love you!”


I returned her message with my own: “I can get out… I’ll meet you there… I love you too!”


Right around three, I began to hear hoofbeats and distant fighting. The Mongols were beating loud war drums. There were armies clashing south of the city. The cries of dying men and horses could be heard.

 

I waited for Ochir. He knew to find me when the battle started. After half an hour, he still hadn’t come. 

 

I stepped back and called upon my spirits. I turned invisible and let them lift me off the ground. They carried me slowly over to the window. I crouched for a moment on the windowsill and looked out over the Mongol camp. I committed it’s layout to memory. 

 

Then I flew away, just like the wind, free and unseen.  

 

Up and up I flew. I got as far away from everything as I could. The air was crisp and clean. When I got a few thousand feet up, I looked down. I could see all of Hangzhou and the lands surrounding. The wandering Yangtze River was silver green in the sun and went on forever. It was blocked by Mongol troops. I could see the bogs give way north and south to blackened hills and scorched pastures. I could see the East China Sea.

 

There were three thousand Chinese warriors that had come out of the city heading south. General Dan was leading them. Two thousand were infantry with melee weapons, the last third were archers. A thousand Mongols that had managed to get behind the lines and coalesce south of the city faced them. The troops had converged and were fighting intensely. The crunch of weapon on armor was deafening.

 

There were a hundred or so Mongols now escorting our Caravan. I watched as they peeled away from the column to join the main Mongol force that was now involved in the skirmish with the Chinese. 

 

The Caravan kept going and even sped up, as it headed now towards the city gates. A few lines of General Dan’s men formed up and made a wall that blocked anyone that tried to get to the Caravan.

 

I flew down, landed on the back of Wen’s galloping horse, and hugged him from behind.

 

“I was wondering when you were gonna get here,” he said.

 

“Did you miss me?” I asked.

 

“You know I did,” he said.

 

“Ochir stayed behind,” I told him.

 

“I knew he would,” Wen said. “I don’t like your friend very much, but he has a better sense of reality than the rest of you.”

 

We were nearly to the city gate, but the Chinese warriors were being rapidly slaughtered. They were being pressed back even faster than the wagons could go, and the trailing wain was lost. The driver was torn to pieces when the Mongols got hold of him.

 

General Dan fought and held the gate personally until we were all through. The entire grounds area in front of the gate was slick with blood.

 

Two thousand Chinese were lying dead in the fields south of the city when the gates closed. I felt sick.

 

General Dan mopped his brow and talked to Sandru, the Jade Archer, and Pang Mei. The General oversaw the unloading of the wagons and the enumeration of the horses.

 

“Because of your Caravan,” General Dan said, “Hangzhou can now last through the winter. The members of the Legendary Brotherhood that have served here were asked to surrender their mounts to feed the court two years ago. They are mounted again. They are in your debt. Fifteen tons of rice, fish, and other supplies will go a long way when there was nothing before. Thank you.”

 

Two days after we got back to the city, snow began to fall. It went on falling for weeks, and there was a knee-deep blanket of snow on everything. Some roofs caved in, and the walks and thoroughfares had to be constantly cleared. We couldn’t really go anywhere outside of the city, and the Sapporo Wind wasn’t found in this section of the city’s accessible port area.

 

Sandru paid us all for getting the Caravan to Hangzhou. He said he would only pay Ochir when he returned, and he would not give Ochir’s or anyone else’s share to me for safekeeping. I can’t say that I blame him, and it was probably just as well.

 

The Brotherhood assigned Wen and I a little house to live in. It was a cottage abandoned by the regular populace when the city was evacuated. There was no food there, but there was some furniture. We could build a fire in the log fireplace, and it had a central garden. We pretended as if we were normal people living in normal times.

 

One day Wen came home from his drills, and he could barely contain his excitement. “General Dan is going to assign me a war horse! I need your help,” he said to me, “in order to be introduced to the Emperor at the New Year’s festival next month you have to be introduced to him too using your real name.”

 

“Of course Wen,” I said, “We met the Emperor’s Mother before, the Grand Empress Dowager Xie. We saved his Son when we saved you. He knows who Pang Mei really is already.” I was overjoyed and I hugged him. He lifted me off my feet and kissed me. I knew how much he had wanted his war horse and how long he had waited. 

 

“General Dan said that when he has the Emperor’s ear he will suggest that we be married during the festival by the Emperor himself!”

 

“Will you marry me? Here? Now? During the festival I mean?” he asked.

 

“Yes,” I said, “Yes, yes, yes!”

 

Our happiness was short lived. We were blown off our feet a few minutes later when the first Mongol fireball hit the city. Our house was half leveled, and the roof was mostly blown off. Three of the houses next to ours were completely destroyed and burning brightly. Wen and I were unhurt, except for some minor scratches and bruises, but we were blackened with soot. I couldn’t believe that there had been so much structural damage. I was estimating the probable size of the fireball when someone warned, “Here comes another one!” 

 

We looked and saw a huge ball of flame shoot upward into the sky, reach its apogee, then hurtle down into another neighborhood. We could hear people screaming. Plumes of black smoke began to rise into night. Many more fireballs struck Hangzhou that evening.

 

I knew it was the Gnomish engine.

 

We were all summoned to meet the next day at a special meeting of the Legendary Brotherhood. Wen polished his armor all night and I wore a new dress and went in fine filigree. I put on royal make-up for the first time, Pang Mei helped me.

 

General Dan thanked everyone for coming and started the meeting. After the invocations, he addressed Wen.

 

“Wen Hung-Lo,” he began, “if you succeed on this mission Son, you will join the Legendary Brotherhood with a special dispensation to accompany your Bride and restore her and her sister to their proper place.” He looked at me, then back to Wen. “You have my blessing Son. I will ask that the Emperor marry you during the festival.” Everyone cheered and clapped. 

 

He asked ten soldiers to step forward. “Eight of these troopers are stalwart fighters and two are Priests. They are part of your command for this mission, Son. You must take out that trebuchet. We will attack at a bridge, and we’ll draw them out onto it. You fly across with your magic and take out that seige engine.”

 

It sounded easy enough. They were all talking smack after a minute and I got bored.

 

Suddenly I noticed the beautiful girl Xia from Blue Silk village standing in the crowd. When I looked at her, she smiled at me and waved. I smiled and waved back; I couldn’t believe she was here in Hangzhou. After the meeting was over, I excused myself and told Wen I’d find him later. He went to hang out with his new Brotherhood pals. I went over to find Xia. I found her waiting for me by a column.

 

“You look nice today. Back in my village you only wore some old clothes and no make-up,” she said.

 

“You look nice too,” I said. “What are you doing here?” I asked her.

 

“I rode north alone a few days after you left my village. I kept thinking about you.”

 

“What? You were thinking about me? And you rode here all by yourself?”

 

“Yes, and only mostly by myself. I cooked for a caravan some of the way,” she said and moved closer to me. I felt electricity in the air between us. She took my hand, turned my palm upward, and traced the lines on it with her forefinger. I trembled.

 

“It’s just as I thought,” she said, then looked into my eyes. “I’m going to be your Handmaiden.”

 

A Raven landed on her shoulder and squawked at me.

 

“Meet Spad,” she said. “He’s my Familiar. He helped me follow you here.”

 


Hangzhou and General Dan

Wen Hung-Lo, a journal of a Servant of the Heavens

 

By Bahamut’s Bidding

 

Good Month 10, 3966
We left the lair of the Frozen Shadows behind. I hope that their power in my homeland is broken. Our Caravan is in good order. The Platinum Dragon has blessed our journey with victory so far.

 

Good Month 13, 3966
We come to a village fifty miles south of the capital, Hangzhou. It is called Blue Silk village and it has a problem. Giant mosquitoes and a shambling grove of bamboo attack the farmers as we enter. We save the peasants and defeat the monsters. I barely break a sweat. This has become old hat. Thank the Dragon.

 

A grateful peasant named Wu invites us to the village inn,The Rising Moon. Dipaka and a local herbalist patch up the wounded peasants. The innkeeper has a pretty daughter who sizes me up like a prize steed. First a spirit folk girl, then a Japanese Princess and now an innkeeper’s daughter, it’s been a good year. I pawn her off on Aki; I hope he forgives me.

 

The local authorities show up. They have a bureaucratic priest who gives Dipaka the third degree. I tell you what, that healer is smooth. He talks his way out of being charged with heresy. Then Captain Feng ushers us into a private room and offers to pay us to do his job. I don’t like the looks of this fella but from what I gather this village needs our help. The animals have mutated to gigantic proportions and upset the order of things. There’s more to the story but I’m a simple man. I just need my Bride to point me in the right direction and for Dipaka to stay out of my way. That is until I get a bloody nose.

 

Good Month 14
We secure the Rising Moon for the caravan. Aiko, Aki, Dipaka, Cairn, Havarak, Lo-Saki, Ochir and I head off to solve the woe that has befallen this prosperous village. Havarak named us Plain Face, Side Kick, Baby Boo, Cairn, Big Rock, Little Bow and Over Bite. I struggle not to give him a name.

 

Ochir tracks the shambling mound that we destroyed the day before to a reservoir. That is why the Zhuru have such large snifters. My Bride, the Princess and an accomplished Wu Jen uses her magic to let us breath underwater.

 

General Dan spoke of another princess he knew from Tibet. Her magical prowess was only matched by her beauty. He told us how she sacrificed herself to the evil dragon, Ashardalon in the Well of Lost Souls so General Dan and their friends could escape. It was a heroic but sad tale and the last adventure of the Epic Eight. I only hope that my Princess will not meet such an end, not while I still draw breath. I break my stylus upon this journal with the strength of my conviction.

 

After swimming through the reservoir full of bloated oversized dead fish, we find the sewers. We defeat a giant alligator. Havarak tames a giant skunk. Ochir amuses us by being tarred and feathered from a trap of Gnomish making.

 

Then it gets serious. Three Yuan-ti, snake men that use darkness and evil, attempt to thwart us. Aiko unleashes her ball of flame. They shed their crispy skin and retreat further into the sewers, directly beneath the castle of the Lord of the village.


We press our advantage. Then it happens again. A Yuan-Ti seizes Lo-Saki’s weak mind and orders him to attack the party. A She-Oni comes out of nowhere and starts to clobber us with her huge tetsubo she calls Oath Breaker. I try to fight her but guess what? Yup! Dipaka gets in the way. I stand there feeling strangely peaceful while the Oni blasts us with a cone of frost and plays ping pong with my head.

 

Suishen flames to life, protects the Goliath from the cold, overrides the Yuan-Ti’s charm, and makes short work of the Oni. Aki, Ochir and Havarak quickly finish off the Yuan-Ti. Dipaka heals our wounds so the only thing left to do is to collect our reward.

 

There is some local intrigue, between the local Lord’s mama and her Captain. I am glad that Aiko is smart as well as skillful. She takes care of the details honorably.

 

We must continue with the quest to deliver the warhorses and supplies to General Dan. We cannot afford to become entangled with the antics of the rustics.

 

Good Month 17
We decide to take one wagon filled with supplies and ride towards the capital to scout out the way. Since we expect to see Mongols, the Gnome takes the lead. With the wagon is the Princess, the Monk, the Healer, myself and Suishen wielding the Goliath.

 

Good Month 18
War is upon the land. Just a few miles north of Blue Silk village, the fields are blackened, the huts burnt. Are the corpses of livestock called deadstock?

 

Good Month 19
Along the road, we encounter thousands of hungry people struggling to carry, push and pull their scant possessions. Every minute, my fellow citizens fall along side the road.  We stop the wagon and pass out the rice and the salted fish too. We lost a day travel and our wagon is empty but we gave hope to all these people. Making sure everyone in the skinny throng get a handful of food is the work of the Heavens. Dipaka is in his element.  He is elbow deep in the peasantry and only his calming presence prevents a riot as starving people see our heavy bags of rice. When they say their portion is not enough, Baby Boo tells them to boil it in water, it is more than it seems. Imagine telling the Chinese to cook rice. There will not be any rice left to throw at our wedding.

 

I see Aiko feeding an orphan with her long fingers. Her hands that can unleash death are capable of giving life as well. It is a good day.

 

The Gnome harrumphs at our effort but he does take joy in giving the crowd directions to the fat village that we left. 

 

Good Month 20
I see a real Mongol for the first time. He is short, about 5 feet 4 inches. His body is broad and his arms thick. He weighs a good 180 but the pounds are not on his chicken legs. His hair is wild underneath his leather helmet with over sized furry flaps. His face is round and wind dried and craggy. His eyes are narrow and fierce. He wears a mottled beard. The hands are nimble and callous and hold the reins of an expert horseman.  He rides a shaggy pony, built for endurance and bad weather. He is armed with lance, sword and bow. His armor is a chain shirt fashioned in the western style but he holds a round wooden shield with the symbol of Teylas, the barbarian Sky God. He names himself Noyan Aju Quickhand and he leads an arban of ten riders.

 

Ochir joins them and they surround our wagon. Lo and I want to fight, Dipaka does not. Aki says nothing. No surprises there. After much posturing from the peacocks of the encounter, I myself among them, we are to follow them to their camp across the river. The Gnome tells them that we have a caravan full of supplies to deliver to the Mongols. I slap my forehead in dismay. Aju wants to speak to his Khan for further instructions.

 

Good Month 21
They lead us through the swampy delta of the Yangtze until we cross the marshlands then we double back to the city from the north side of the river. I now see the enormity of the situation. Their army is vast; thousands upon thousands of goblinoids await to devour China. They come in three varieties; bug-eyed, slack-jawed and flea-bitten. If I had a good horse, I would ride them all down. They also have Ogres and a tumen of Mongols. 

 

We get a glimpse of Hubidai Khan from a distance of a thousand paces, he has a personal escort of a thousand riders and by his bearing, he has defeated a thousand foes. General Dan has told me of this barbarian. Years earlier, Hubidai kidnapped Brotiki, the princess of Tibet, intending to add her to his harem. Brotiki was in love with the General’s best friend, The White Archer-cher-cher-cher. So they rescued her from the Khan and he swore vengeance upon the General and all his friends and their homelands. This may be the root cause of the war.

 

Apparently Hubidai has no time for Aju. The Noyan has to make his own decision about what to do with us. His brow furrows and he scratches his head. He decides to go back and get the rest of our caravan, but he will leave two hostages behind at the Mongol encampment. I volunteer immediately. He says that my Princess will be one of them and she may choose the other hostage.

 

She picks Ochir. I turned white then red. She whispers in my ear. Her slightest touch commands obedience or at least I trust her enough to let her go.

 

Good Month 21
The rest of us ride back to Blue Silk village with Aju. His arban is now a jagun of a hundred riders. On our way we pass within sight of the gates of Hangzhou. I say a silent prayer to the Dragon for the protection of my Bride and my People.

 

Good Month 24
We have rejoined with Pang Mei at Blue Silk village. According to our plan we are to be escorted by the barbarians to deliver our supplies. I did not see a path where these over laden wains can cross, but I’m no ranger. Besides those sneaky sisters have something up their sleeves. We travel north under close guard.

 

Good Month 26
Our route once again gets us within five miles of the Capital. We see an Imperial army dressed in bright yellow bearing the White Chrysanthemum of Emperor Lizong march from the city. They are three thousand strong, two thousand heavy infantry and a thousand archers.

 

Mongols drums can be heard across the countryside. Within an hour, a thousand riders gather for war. Aju and his men cannot contain themselves. They leave the Caravan and ride towards the battle. Sandru, the caravan master orders us to drive hard to the gates of the city.

 

The enemy fighters are more seasoned and just plain better then ours.  It is an archery dual at first. They ride in and out of range, targeting the archers. Soon the Song volleys slow to a trickle. The Yellow army retreats. The Horde harasses with their bows until they’re out of arrows. Then they charge. General Dan personally holds the Mongols off at the gate. He stands on a heap of broken bodies as he fights. I decide to go to the General and fight by his side.

 

Then Aiko, my Aiko returns! She appears out of nowhere on the back of my steed. I kiss her. The din of battle, the sight of death is gone. There is only my Princess. She is safe.
 
May Bahamut be praised!

 

It is but a moment.

 

One of our wagons loses a wheel. What befell the drivers I will not say. With them are two thousand of the three that marched out from the city.

 

Finally as the sun dips beneath the horizon, our Caravan is safely inside the walls. We made it.

 

We lost one wagon with three men and four horses. We also lost one Gnome, but we gained a giant skunk.


Good Month 27
The city of Hangzhou is largely empty. Most non-combatants have fled or starved. Our party is bivouaced in spacious houses. I’m summoned to General Dan. He gives me a mare. This four year old is named Chi Hai (Big Sister). She was foaled in Annam by the ranger Cop Rung, a member of the Epic Eight. She is descended from and named after his first Warhorse, General Dan said.

 

I thank him profusely. I tell him about everything since I was nine. I am not the most gifted rider, but I practiced and practiced. I tell him about Suishen and the Princess.


He says, “Hang on loosely, but don’t let go. If you hang on too tightly, you’re going to lose control.”

 

Such wisdom. I wonder if he is still taking about the mare.

 

Good Month 30
It has been snowing for days. The city is now a white city, it seems all the blood and suffering has been made clean. Aiko and I live in our own house and we rub the sores of the journey from one another. I gaze upon her while she sleeps; she is as the first snowfall of the season.

 

Winter Month 7
I have trouble with my drills. I can’t sit comfortably in my saddle. I just can’t hit the ring with my lance at full gallop. The General says, I need a filly. I thought I already had a mare. I ask him if he’s talking about a horse. He says the Emperor wants to meet your Bride and her Royal Sister at the New Year Festival. If we make a good impression he will give us his blessing for the Marriage.

 

I ask Aiko for her hand. She says yes. We will marry on New Years Day.

 

Last Month 26
The last seven weeks have been the best time of my young life. I leave for military duty in the morning and come home to a clean house and a hot meal at night. Aiko and I talk about children to raise and nations to build.

 

With the horses of Annam, the Brotherhood has opened up the supply routes from the south.


Last Month 29
We are attacked during the night. Huge explosions rock the city from the great seige missiles sent over the wall by the Trebuchet, a super weapon. In the morning, fires still burn in parts of the city.

 

Last Month 30
General Dan admits me to the Legendary Brotherhood. We are an order of Holy Knights dedicated to the service of Heaven and Earth. We stand for honor. We protect the innocent. We vanquish evil. He says I can go to Japan. They need a good smiting. But first he gives me a mission and a command. I’m giving a squad of eight elite soldiers and two clerics. Our mission is to take out the Trebuchet. The Legendary Brotherhood and the Imperial Army will also launch a massive attack along the front. We are to take part in what General Nguyen Hai Dan calls the “TET Offensive.”

 

Xia, the innkeeper’s daughter has come to the city. She is Lo’s girlfriend and my Bride’s cohort. I see no two ways about it; I must ask Lo, the Goliath to be my best man. He is the House Champion and the wielder of Suishen.

 

I’m over it. Bahamut be praised. 

 

.

 

 
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