------------------------Chapter One, As Told By Xiao Ping--------------------------
The Bridge

This is the chronicle scribed by Xiao Ping, Most Chaste of Maids. The year was 1268, and the weather was sunny and warm. It all began at a "Y" intersection east of my village in the Sichuan province of southern China. Mistress Pang Mei had sent me to meet a caravan arriving from Tibet and lead it back to our village, Silk's End. I had only my spear, Win Ju, and my Wu Jen magic taught to me by old witch Xiao Lu to aid me on my journey.

Mistress Pang Mei did not speak of the caravan's cargo or mission. This was often her way.

The local flatfoot, Fang the Bad Axe (yes, Bad Axe) was pacing at the end of the bridge bellowing in a loud and drunken voice at several different groups of nervous wayfarers who were converging along the roads leading to the bridge. Fang demanded that anyone wanting to cross the bridge would have to pay him a toll. Fang was one of Lord Sywan's most trusted officials, and this deranged behavior from him was wildly out of character; he was acting as though he had been possessed by some evil spirit. No one seemed to know what to do. I needed to cross the bridge to meet the caravan, so I walked up behind Fang where he couldn't see me. I hoped that I could run past him somehow.

One of the travelers approaching the bridge on Fang's end was almost eight feet tall. He had rough gray skin and dark brown patterns tattooed all over his body. He was clearly growing impatient with the delay. "I'm not going to stand for this," he said. "I'm going to show this fool what I think about his toll!" He unsnapped and took his axe from his belt. The other folk were content to stand back and watch Fang rave and block the end of the bridge. One of them was a very thin older man from India dressed in homespun linens. He had a tall, thin walking stick and he was accompanied by a smart gnomish archer.

"Peace will be had here! There's no need to fight!" the man shouted.

The goliath pointedly ignored the man and began to move toward Fang, threatening him with the axe. "I'm not paying your toll! This isn't a toll bridge! I'm going to kick your ass instead!"

The Indian man's eyes widened and he shrieked in alarm. Fang waved his axe at the Goliath. He covered himself with his shield and yelled, "Bring it on big boy, I've fought bigger than you! I'm going to enjoy showing these people how to knock a giant on his ass!"

I pulled out some ashes, whispered a few words to the spirits, and threw them at Fang to put him to sleep. I was relieved when he slumped to the ground. I yelled out to the others that the magical slumber would be short, and that we needed to knock him out with a rock or something before he woke up.

The man from India stared at me in horror. "Oh no! No one shall attack the helpless man! There will be no violence here today!" The source of the Indian man's confidence puzzled me, as he bore no sign of any capacity for harm. I noticed that his gnomish archer had gotten an arrow nocked and ready to go. 

"You put him to sleep?" The goliath picked Fang up off the ground by the front of his armor, woke him up with a shake, and bellowed: "I don't fight sleeping men! I fight fair!" He flung Fang backward. Fang managed to land on his feet, he rallied and struck the goliath with an axe blow that would have killed Ghenzhuo the Strongman twice over. A gout of blood sprayed all over the stony road.

The goliath's rage blossomed; his face turned red, and he literally appeared to grow in size. His arms were enormous. The courses of blood coming from his neck slowed, as though somehow staunched by his primal anger. His axe swept up, down, and into Fang, slipping past his shield and biting through his shoulder armor. The rending sound was horrible. Blood poured from the wound. Fang grunted, swore, and stumbled a bit, but he didn't go down.

I called the spirits and brought up a magic shield in front of myself. It didn't make me feel any safer. 

The Indian man walked up behind the injured goliath. His thin hand traced holy signs in the air and he used divine power to heal the big man's wound. 

A previously unremarkable yet surely swift Monk leapt from the crowd and karate-chopped Fang at the base of his neck. Fang was utterly stunned; he dropped his axe. I heard the snap of a bowstring and a gnomish arrow appeared in Fang's chest.

He keeled over into the dust. His laminate armor sounded like storeroom shelves collapsing.

I ran up and picked up his battle axe. The gnomish archer produced some rope and tied him up and the goliath drug him over by the roadside. 

The Healer shook his head, asked the giant to get out of the way, and began administering aid to Fang. He pulled the arrow out of his chest to keep him from dying. 

Most of the other wayfarers saw their opportunity and ran across the bridge. As the people dispersed, I overheard the gnome archer ask the Indian man if they ought to be getting on to Silk's End in order to rent out the inn for the caravan.

I introduced myself as the guide sent by Mistress Pang Mei to lead the caravan to the village. The Indian man introduced himself as Dipaka, and explained that he was scouting ahead of the Tibetan train along with his archer compatriot, Ochir. Dipaka said it would be a few more days before the caravan arrived.

Ochir turned out to be more than just an archer, though, for a while after we had tied up Fang, he came to me and produced two tiny scrolls and said, "He was carrying these. Do you know where the place on this map is?" There was a map of some ruins, and a letter bearing Lord Sywan's broken seal (likely jostled and undone in the struggle, I'm sure) giving the bearer the legal authority to notorize documents and prescribe justice up to and including capital punishment throughout the Song Empire. I realized after a moment, having spent a year as a scribe, that the paper was unofficial, and the handwriting brusque. It occurred to me that Lord Sywan had not been seen in public for a month or more.

"I don't know where the area on this map is, but if someone wanted to run around doing Lord Sywan's business, they just might make up a document like this. It's a forgery," I said.

Ochir raised his eyebrows. "Do you know anything about this?"

I told him that I didn't. He decided to retain custody of the map and letter.

After Dipaka performed several more healing rituals on the goliath, the giant explained that his short name was Lo, but that his nomadic clan moniker was "Too-Much-Saki", and that he had been expelled from his clan because of his drinking. He always drank, he said. He seemed very large and sad to us all. I asked him if he wanted to be hired to guard a caravan, because Mistress Pang Mei had asked me to look out for burly fighter types. Lo said that he didn't have anything else lined up, so he agreed to come and see what it was all about. "What about him, can he come too?" he asked. "I don't know his name, he hasn't said a word since I met him on the road four days ago," Lo said.

The surely swift Monk carried a slate and some chalk, and when we asked who he was he turned his slate towards us and it said: "Aki".


The Iron Ox

After traveling for a half a day with Fang draped over the back of a burrow, we arrived in Silk's End. The White Tower of Lord Sywan was clearly visible against the sky in the distance, and the ornate white walls of the Iron Ox were gleaming in the evening sun.

Mistress Pang Mei is the owner of the Iron Ox, my Father and Mother are the proprietors, and I am the serving girl there, so I know the inn well. The back slope of the inn covers the guest rooms, and the long sloped roof in front shelters the main hall. It's a nice, cozy place. They put Fang in a guest room, and Dipaka the healer stayed beside him and prayed. I did not tell my father about Fang's strange behavior, or about his forged paper and map. Ochir had insisted. He paid my father to rent out the whole Iron Ox for a few days, and he said that the caravan personnel were due for a long rest. He told my father that Fang was his prisoner, and that he was actually a Mongol agent. He was only four feet tall or so, but he sure acted like an official Mongol.

Late that night, while we slept, Ochir was the first to hear them. A door banged loudly in the dark and Ochir was instantly on his feet with his bow in his hands. Something slammed into his door with a loud crash, but it held fast. The strange guttural sounds of pigs came muffled through the door, along with the sound of heavy boots. The grunts and squeals he heard through the door became words to Ochir, and he knew it was Jurchen speech. The second time they rammed the door, the frame gave way with a loud crack, and two armored Jurchens filed into the room. 

"Where is Captain Fang? We know you have him here!" 

Ochir fired an arrow at one of the Jurchens and it hit him in chest. The Jurchen looked down at the arrow and laughed.

Lo rose up from his bed, he was a big, swift, deadly shadow in the room. His took his axe and sent a Jurchen to the floor screaming, looking for his arm.

I was down the hall in my room, and I ran from my door as my father, a grizzled and wiry old veteran of many uprisings and put-downs, rushed from his. He had his old garden axe in his hand. My mother frowned at me and then closed and locked the door behind him. 

"What is going on here? Get out of here at once!" my father yelled.

Two Jurchens that were just entering the narrow hall from the front room turned their hideous faces to my father and I. One of them ran right at father and ran him through with a spear, and he cried out like I had not heard him cry out before.

The other Jurchen charged me, so I frantically called a spirit to daze him. He went off course and missed me, and then stood dumbfounded, batting at his head.

Lo came shambling out of the room and up the hallway with Ochir and Aki behind him. Lo hollered loudly at the top of his lungs, "Hey you!  Stupid Jurchens! Sorry about your dead friends, but they fought like little girls!"

The Jurchens snorted and turned away from us when they heard that. They lowered their spears and advanced on Lo.

Lo hacked one down, and Ochir and Aki teamed up to trip and then kill the other.

We all steadied ourselves and took deep breaths as Dipaka worked his healing magic on my father and the others that had been hurt in the fight. The healer seemed to always be in motion, moving from wound to wound, praying and willing the spirits to knit and repair the injured flesh beneath his hands.

We went out into the main hall and saw that the front doors had been kicked open.

We eventually discovered a sewer grate that had been pushed out in a back alley a few blocks away. That explained how they got to the inn without raising the alarm. A squad of Jurchens would have gotten some attention in Silk's End. Allegro was the one that had found the open grate; he was a Halfling and a Polo from Italy. Whether I had seen him first back at the bridge, or later that night at the inn, I couldn't say. He seemed to have appeared somewhere along the way, and he was apparently a caravan employee like Dipaka and Ochir. Everyone decided to go back to the inn and go back to bed. 

I thanked Dipaka for saving my father. He said that he was glad to have done it.


The Tunnel

The next day, there was a huge discussion about what they would do. Ochir said that they should try to track the Jurchens back to where they came from by going down into the sewer tunnels. He wanted to know why they had come to find Captain Fang, why Fang had the papers and the map, and why he was acting like a crazed loon. Dipaka said that they had a day to two to wait anyway, and that it never hurt to help. Allegro nodded and said, "Sure, why not."

Lo and Aki decided they would come as well, since they too had to wait before the caravan got to town. Ochir officially started their stints early.

"It's gonna be dark in the tunnels, Allegro and I will be able to see naturally of course. What about the rest of you?" Ochir asked.

I cast a magic light on the tip of my spear, and everyone looked at me.

"Ok, spell girl, do you want to come with us and light our way?" Ochir asked me with a grin.

I was thrilled. "Sure," I said. "But we should get a lantern too. Wait here."

I returned with a colored lantern and then we went a few streets over to the open manhole and climbed into it. Dipaka carried the lantern after we all made it down. Lo could just barely fit through the hole.

We could see maybe twenty feet or so of the tunnel as we moved forward. We could smell foul smells, and the tunnel's roof had roots and tubers hanging down from it. There was a runner that carried the sewer water and a slick ledge to walk on. After forty yards or so, the way opened into a small tunnel on the left, and a large cavern on the right. The water ran down some natural steps and disappeared into the cavern.

"Yeah, there's been Jurchens down here," Ochir said, examining the sewer floor. He motioned for everyone else to wait and be quiet, and he went quietly down the left passage. We watched in surprise as a heavy brown net dropped on him, and several Jurchens leapt up from behind rocks and began grunting and cursing. They pulled out knives and moved to attack Ochir.

Lo charged into the cave until he found that he was too big for it; he couldn't quite reach the Jurchens. He was at least able to keep the Jurchens away from Ochir. Lo grabbed and ripped the heavy net from Ochir with one hand. Freed, he leapt to his feet. Lo backed out as he threw the net over his shoulder. "We might need this," he said.

Aki breezed past and began a martial arts combat with the Jurchens, his unarmed stances were lighting quick, and his attacks with his fists deadly. He seemed to know just where to hit his opponents in order to quickly incapacitate them.

Allegro and I moved down the stairs into the larger cavern to get a better angle on the smaller tunnel. He was gripping a dagger in his left hand, and a large, smooth skipping stone in the other. It turned out that there were more Jurchens hiding in the cavern, and we heard their hideous laughter behind us. My blood ran cold. I saw Lo’s eyes react and he bellowed a battle cry back over our heads.

I turned to see four foul Jurchens with spears moving in quickly to attack us. I cast a sleep spell on them. Three of them immediately lay down on the floor and began snoring. Lo chopped the head off of the standing Jurchen with a huge sideways chop. Lo looked down at me, and raised an eyebrow, and said, "Nice work, little girl, that's three to my one."

Three more Jurchens emerged from the shadows and woke up their sleeping troops with sharp jabs. They laughed at me and helped their friends get to their feet. 

"Crap!" I cried.

Lo shrugged. "Them's the breaks, kid."

I threw another sleep spell at the new troops that had woken the first sleepers, and they too fell asleep. Lo smiled at me and bowled into the Jurchens; I dashed back up the stairs and ducked behind a boulder.

Lo fought tenaciously, Ochir fired repeatedly, Aki punched again and again, and Dipaka healed and staunched bleeding wounds. Allegro's skipping stones ricocheted from one surprised opponent to another. Soon, we managed to get the upper hand and had all the Jurchens bleeding on the floor. Ochir questioned one of them but the Jurchen refused to talk. Ochir got out his dagger at one point but Dipaka gave him a stern look. Ochir kicked the Jurchen anyway and he passed out.

They decided the piggish fighters were not worthy of life, being inhuman and wholly corrupt. Ochir and Lo granted them eternal sleep. Dipaka was quite upset and prayed for us all. "There was no need to kill them," he said. 

"They were evil scumbags," Lo said. We rifled their packs and pockets and found they had some Jin and other valuable trinkets we could take.

We returned to the Inn. My father reported that he had released Fang when he had found him tied up. A revived and sober Fang had threatened legal action and worse against Mistress Pang Mei unless he let Fang go. 

They stayed at the Inn for another night as they pondered what to do next. Fang was gone, the tunnel was full of dangerous Jurchens, and we were no closer to figuring any of it out, or even any closer to determining if there was anything to figure out.

We decided to return to the sewers, and see if maybe we had killed enough of them to get through.


Back Down the Tunnel

We went back down again into the gloomy tunnel with the lantern lit. We got as far as the area where we fought the Jurchens. We crept along silently as we approached the intersection. We could distinctly hear the crunching of bones.

Two massive Oni sat indian style on the floor of the cave supping on the remnants of the Jurchens we had slain. One was picking gristle out of his teeth with a splintered leg bone. The other was munching heartily on green soft tissues, and black blood was running down his double chin.

"I hates eatin’ Jurchens! Don’t you Chen?"

"Yeah, sure. They're stringy and tough, and they taste like crap."

"I smell sumpthin else."

"What?"

"Them!"

I realized the one with the double chin had spotted us. They both were climbing to their feet and grabbing their weapons.

I was amazed at how big they were, their mighty arms were even thicker than Lo's. I didn't know if my sleep magic would work on them. I stayed put, cast my spell, and hoped for the best. One of them went down. The other was facing Lo, Aki, Allegro, and Ochir. Suddenly, three Sergeant Jurchens appeared behind the Oni, obviously older and more experienced than the others we had fought. They were also wiry and shorter. I think they actually had stripes.

The bull-strong Oni landed a couple of lucky scimitar blows on Lo, and he fell to the floor. The Oni howled and beat its fat chest. Dipaka rushed in to aid Lo, even though the danger was great. One of the three leader types poked the sleeping Oni and shouted for him to get up. The other two rushed forward. All five of them engaged us in combat.

I used my sleep ashes again, but this time, my spell fizzled on the Jurchens. They kept on coming. Lo was conscious again, but he was only now getting back to his feet.

After a short and furious battle, only one of the Onis was left on their side, and he retreated down the tunnel the way the Sergeants had come. He cursed us as he went.

After Dipaka had healed most of the wounds we had sustained, his face was drawn and haggard, and his strength was clearly spent. "I can heal no more this day," he said, and he sat down for a while on a large rock. I was beat as well.

Allegro searched the little complex of caves in the area, but found nothing. Only the onward leading tunnel remained.

"Maybe we could go overland in the same direction as this tunnel, and avoid this underground route." I said.

"Not a bad idea, it shows trees on the map. It's got to be above ground," Ochir said.

"It sounds like a long shot, but it sure beats getting killed down here," Allegro said.

Reluctantly, we returned to the Inn bruised, bloodied, and sore once again after we had looted the Oni and the Sergeants. We left their bodies where they lay. I couldn't help but think that if any more enemy Jurchens or Oni had come down that tunnel, we all would have been dead.

We divided the spoils when we got back. I had stashed away a shiny gold ring I found on the felled Oni. I knew it was magical. Wu Jen can feel the power of magic pulsing through all things when they want to. I put the ring on and waited to see what would happen. I didn't feel any different. It was said that some magic rings would render their wearer invisible or as light as a feather. I looked in the mirror. I could still see myself. I jumped up and down. I was still heavy.

Dipaka donated his entire treasure share to the village people of Silk's End. He counted and stacked the coins carefully then gave each man and woman his or her equal share of Jin. This seemed normal for him. The people lined up for a mile that day and talked to each other while the village children played games in the street. They all thanked Dipaka. They said they couldn't believe their good fortune. The market stalls stayed open late that night. Men could be heard yelling and laughing into the early morning hours.

What the others did with their money, I didn't see. I kept mine. I saw Lo drinking his.


The Caravan

The next day the Caravan arrived in Silk's End. Mistress Pang Mei and everyone in town came out to see it roll up the road. There were ladies in bright dresses, children shouting, and men shielding their eyes from the sun. Everyone was sharply dressed. The breeze was crisp, and one group of boys was flying a kite.

There were three enormous carts in the van, and sitting atop the foremost was Caravan Master Sandru Vhiski. He wore a huge red turban and a thick black beard. He had many shiny gold rings and a great ruby necklace. He threw wrapped candies and firecrackers to the children, and they scrambled to get them. We could hear sharp reports as they played with the toys.

He smiled and laughed as he clambered down from his high seat. "Hello Pang Mei!"  he shouted. Pang Mei met the big man with a hug. 

A music man came up from the back of the van and introduced himself to us all as Wang Chung. He played a song of greeting. As he sang, the town’s children and young girls danced. I thought he was fairly talented, but he was not as good as Mistress Pang Mei.

There was a fortune teller as well, and she did palm and tea readings for everyone and smiled a jagged smile.

There was Mistress Pang Mei's old freind, the Jade Archer, and she performed amazing feats of archery for all to see. She shot an apple off the top of a post from one hundred yards away.

There was a family of swarthy Italian brothers and cousins, and they were drinking, laughing, and making rude comments in Italian.

We decided to meet that night at the Iron Ox for an informal meal to discuss the Jurchen situation. Mistress Pang Mei told Sandru Vhiski that she would be inviting Pu-Yang-Bing, the town Ranger. Sandru at first seemed displeased, but in the end he said: "Oh well, after this we’ve got a long way to go, and we might need all the help we can get." I wondered what he meant by that.

At the meal Mistress Pang Mei decided we should go as a group to find the ruins overland. She said that she could not go with us; she had important affairs to take care of. She decided to send Ranger Bing and Wang Chung with us in her stead. The Ranger nodded, and he appeared confident that he could help us find the ruins.


The Ruins

The next day we set out, trying to move in the same direction that the sewer tunnel ran beneath the ground. There were certainly no Jurchens or Oni to encounter above ground during the day. As we went roughly north, we had to ford a couple of deep streams and cross several paddies. It rained that day off and on, and we were soaked through.

In time we reached the ruins. Their rocky, crumbing fingers pointed upward at the gray sky. Some were just piles of stone that were flat and wide, leaning this way and that. Some had twisted as they crumbled, creating strange art. It had once been a network of stone buildings that now had saplings growing in their living rooms. Since we had walked so far, we decided to rest and have a hot meal before exploring the ruins. We made a fire and cooked a pot of noodles. Wang Chung played "If I were the King of the Goats" and some other song with no words. Allegro left to scout the decaying place out on his own. When he returned he said it was just an old abandoned village, but he had found where there could be a dungeon under one of the much larger, central structures. He produced a couple of rabbits to put in the pot.

Later he showed us some collapsed stairs that turned into a tunnel after we spent some time clearing rocks and debris. Lo used his great strength to move the larger boulders. We all went down into the passage; it was very steep and choked with rocks, making headway difficult. The lantern's light revealed a tight passage that grew wider as it led away. The passage walls were made of hewn stone. There were iron buttresses every so often. Each buttress had an empty torch bracket. The dank smell was horrible. We could hear the reveling of many rough voices coming from far away down the hall. Water dripped down on us from above.

We moved quickly but quietly. We passed a small branch or two on the left and then the right, as these were impassable. We came upon an intersection, with several other passages leading off in different directions. Several Jurchens  were on guard duty and they sounded the alarm when they saw us.

"Ah, the interlopers are here," said a voice. "Seize them and throw them before Chief ChunLuc! He’ll know what to do with them!"

They seemed to be coming from everywhere. Grunts and howls echoed in the corridors, and Jurchens came forth from the tunnels and descended upon us from all directions. They had Dao weapons of all sorts, and we could see that they all had foul symbols on their chests.  

I grabbed for my sleep ashes and threw them into the faces of the Jurchens bearing down on us from one of the tunnels. Some of them went to sleep. The ones that didn’t kept coming. 

Aki was giving them a great fight, he was leaping and dodging the Jurchens while punching and kicking them. He always seemed to be gone just when a Jurchen would have him pinned down and tried take a swing at him.

Allegro threw skipping stones and they kept bouncing and striking more than one enemy. The brutes screamed and bellowed in rage as the stones harried them.

Wang Chung hung back and sang, "What Hath I Wrought?", and auras emanating from him gave us heart.

Ochir was perched on top of a large boulder and was firing arrows and fletching the Jurchens. Suddenly, his bowstring snapped, striking his face and temporarily blinding him. He began mechanically working to re-string his bow, his hands moving out of habit.

Lo was fighting like a madman and raging like a devil. He had already thrown the net on some of the Jurchens, and the others he was hacking down. He was so effective at killing them, they all ganged up on him. I saw Lo go down amidst a flurry of Jurchen blades. After they were done with Lo, they turned to the rest of us.

A low, gravely laugh came from one of the tunnels ahead of us, and the Jurchen Chieftain came forth. He had a massive black topknot and big, bushy, slanted eyebrows. His hairy skin was covered in black war paint. He had a white half moon on his breast. He had a great golden ring on the forefinger of each hand, and he was holding a curved Kama. He shouted commands to his troops, and he ordered them to kill us all.

Dipaka had sneaked up under the Jurchen line somehow and was administering to Lo. I saw Lo start to move again. One of the Jurchens coming into the fray noticed Dipaka healing the Goliath. He screamed in rage and charged Dipaka with a long Ji. Dipaka cried out in alarm, and Ochir fired a wild shot even though he couldn’t see. The arrow miraculously missed all of us and nailed an enemy Jurchen right in the throat.

It seemed like a one in a million shot, but it didn't hit the one charging Dipaka. The Healer was speared. He didn’t cry out, he just keeled over and laid there. The murderous Jurchen pulled out the Ji, swung it around himself with a flourish, and laughed. A big pool of blood began to form under Dipaka. Suddenly Ochir's arrows began finding their marks. "I can see now!" he yelled. Arrows kept thudding into the proud Jurchen until he fell forward dead.

Lo had finished climbing ponderously to his feet, and he was moving towards the Chieftain, pushing and wading through the Jurchens. He was running on pure adrenaline. He was trying to kill all of the Jurchens that stood in his way. I could see that his effort was going to be in vain. There were just too many of them.

I was out of options. I hurled my spear at one of the Jurchens and it hit him in the gut. He went down, his hands clenched around the wooden shaft, his eyes pressed tight.

I moved quickly over to Dipaka's body. I was always considered a plain girl. I was never considered a weak one. I picked up Dipaka and hauled him up over my shoulder. I was ready to carry him out of there and back up the stony passage.

Lo went down again, and two grinning Jurchens approached him with long knives. They were clearly going to stab and finish him. Ochir, Ranger Bing, and Allegro were seriously wounded, yet they taunted the Jurchens with their arrows, stones, and insults. The Jurchens looked up, jumped over Lo, and charged forward. Aki did a dive roll in behind them and shoved a crumbled healing leaf down Lo’s throat, forcing him to swallow it. Lo coughed and sputtered as the battle raged around him. "Aghhh! That tastes terrible!" he yelled. He jumped to his feet. He balled his huge hands into fists. There was a clear path to the Chieftain. He charged.

I’m not sure exactly what happened in those final moments. Ochir and Allegro were both fighting furiously. Aki was battling numerous Jurchens and there were still more Jurchens coming. We could see a whole tribe, maybe forty Jurchens or more, coming up towards us from yet another of the wider passages that came to that crossroads. 

Dipaka grew very heavy on my shoulder.

Lo bowled over the Jurchens that had foolishly jumped in front of their Chieftain. The Chieftain’s eyes grew wide as he saw Lo thundering towards him. He raised his Kama in defense. 

Lo batted the weapon aside and grabbed the Chieftain by the throat and yelled at him to order the Jurchens to surrender. The Chieftain struggled for a second, and then I saw his hand reach into his belt pouch. 

"Look out!" I screamed to Lo. Lo wrapped his other hand around the Chieftain’s neck and squeezed. The Leader’s black tongue stuck out and a small dagger fell from his hand. I could see venom glistening on the blade. The Chieftain tried to pry loose Lo’s mighty hands, but he could not. He turned dark red and fell unconcious.

Lo let go of him and he slumped to the ground. Ochir growled in his best Jurchen speech for the crowd to back off, but they kept coming slowly forward. Lo hauled up their unconscious leader by his top knot in front of them and roared. They all ran away.

We knew it wouldn’t be long before the Jurchens would shake off their initial fear and come back to attack us in large numbers. Ranger Bing told me to set Dipaka down and he produced a healing potion and helped Dipaka drink it. The Healer got up and leaned against the Ranger for a moment, then stood on his own.

"Let’s get out of here," he said.

We hastily searched the area, and discovered the Chieftain’s quarters. There were heaps of skins and bones all around. The smell of rotting body parts was overwhelming. There was a large heap of mangy furs in one area. 

Some of the victims of the tribe had been fabulously rich. There were thousands of Jin scattered across the cave floor. We found a huge emerald, a couple of matching sparking yellow topaz stones, some ornate vestments, and a high quality sitar. Apparently a musician had died along with the others. There were some thunderstones, and a small bag of jewels. There was a magic scepter, two magical potions, and a spell scribed on a scroll. There was a magic hammer as well.

We all went out the way we had come in, up the steep passage and then out of the ruins. It had stopped raining, and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds from time to time.

After we had limped all the way back to Silk's End, we divided the items amongst ourselves. Dipaka again donated his treasure share to the village. In addition to his regular donation, he pre-paid Mistress Pang Mei so that qualifying pilgrims would be able to stay nights at the Iron Ox without cost for many nights to come. Father was glad to be friends with Dipaka, and so was I.

One of the Chieftain’s rings turned out to be a wondrous magic item, a ring of regeneration. We all decided that Lo should have it. We all hoped that it would help him stop falling in battle. I think that included Lo.

We gave the magic sitar to Wang Chung the music man, naturally. 

The Jurchen chieftain’s magic Kama was among the things we brought back. We gave this to Aki. Aki found a miniature cloth scroll hidden inside the handle. His eyes studied it intently for a few moments. I saw a red Wasp emblem on the back side of it. He scribbled something down on his chalkboard, and showed it to us.

"I know where we’re going next," it said.

 
 
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