-------------------Chapter Thirteen, As Told By Xia and Xiao Ping---------------------

Aki and Miyaro

The Story of Aki and Miyaro, by Hsiao Xia, Handmaiden to Aiko Kaijitsu, and Fiancé to Lo Ear-Splitter

Aki sits alone in the lotus position, basking in the warmth of the morning sun. He lifts his head and takes in a deep breath. He observes a lizard sitting on a rock, unmoving, watching as an insect trundles by. Suddenly, the lizards tongue snaps out, and the insect is gone. The lizard blinks its eyes and licks its lips. It is an ill omen.

Aki is being watched. He can sense it most during his morning ritual. The feeling gets stronger as the days pass. That day, the sensation is stronger than ever. He knows that he must leave his friends behind. He must lead his pursuers away. He could write a note for Xiao Ping to explain where he is going, but he knows that if he does so, the watchers might even be able to see what he writes.

Aki also hears the call of the mountain. It is time for him to return to Japan. Aki was raised in the Shudo to understand his place. There is the Sun, the Moon, and the Sea. There is the Mountain. There is the Emperor. There are the People. There is Harmony. Then there is Akira.

He stands up, looks into the sun, and begins to run straight at it. He is a monk, so running is second nature to him. It is in his blood. He runs for two days before he rests.

It is a week later when he enters the snowy regions. His golden hued, half-celestial skin protects him from the frigid temperatures. He crosses frozen stretches of the Gobi. He keeps his head and facial hair shaved. His hair, if he were to let it grow, would be as white as the snow he runs through.

Aki senses them before he sees them; two ninjas. They both leap up from the snow some distance in front of him. They are garbed in white and armed with gleaming katanas. They scurry across the snow toward him, leaving no mark. Their outlines shimmer; they are imbued with a magic effect that baffles their true locations.

Aki moves fluidly, his body an extension of his mind. He whirls; an attempt to trip the ninja on his right. The ninja is practiced; he jumps over the monk’s leg. The other ninja tumbles in close and avoids another of Aki’s planned attacks. His katana finds the monk’s flesh, and it is laid open.

Aki kicks one of the ninjas in the mask and knocks him into the snow. He punches his downed opponent in the gut. He swings his left foot around, and the other ninja is tripped.

One ninja leaps to his feet again in an instant, but Aki’s fist is already smashing him in the face.

The other one is up now; moreover, he has Aki’s number. He cuts Aki above his left eye.

Aki tries to attack again, but the ninjas are shimmering, and he isn’t sure where they really are. His foot flies through empty space.

He sees movement from the corner of his eye. It is a woman. She is very attractive; her black hair comes down in arcs and frames her beautiful face. She has large eyes with enormous black pupils. She is dressed in brown, very differently than the ninjas.

Both men spring up. Aki slams one in the face. The ninja staggers backward, but stays in the fight.

Both ninjas slice Aki with their katanas, and the wounds are terrible. Aki is delirious now. He steels his nerve, and he calls upon the discipline of a monk to persevere.

He hits one of the men with a stunning attack and knocks him down, and he again trips the other.

The woman unsheathes a kukri.   

"I‘m Miyaro,” she grunts as she stabs a prone ninja. The ninja groans and stops moving.

Aki nods to her in thanks. He takes a step back and heals himself.

The living ninja leaps to his feet and turns on Miyaro, slashing open her leather armor. She leaps backward.

Aki trips the ninja from behind and he crashes to the ground.

Miyaro leaps on him with her kukri and kills him.

She stands up and sighs heavily. She wipes the blood from her blade.

She rolls the white ninjas over onto their backs, and she takes potions from their belts. “Drink this,” she says, and hands one to Aki. He bows to her, drinks it, and is healed. She drinks the other potion herself.

She finds several more vials stashed deep in the ninja’s uniforms. She takes these and frowns, and pours them into the snow. “Poison,” she says.

She kicks snow over the bodies.

“I have been sent to find you and take you back home, Akira. Noburo, the Kami of the Forest of Spirits, wishes to speak to you,” she says.

Aki bows. They run together now. They run on and on.

Two weeks later, they are running through Siberia when a band of four white clad ninjas picks them up and pursues them.

They come to a dosojin shrine during the pursuit; and there is a stone mastodon at the side of the trail. Miyaro gets out some pebbles, and scatters them at the mastodon’s feet. “This is a trackers road ward, and these are stones from our destination,” she says. “A Kami inside this statue will help make a way for us. Come, you must now carry me so that we may outdistance our enemies.”

She climbed onto Aki’s back and he ran. Every step Aki took was magnified, and they went at sometimes twice normal running speed. The branches of trees seem to move out of their way, but then slap in the faces of the ninjas. Thus did they elude their enemies.

They ran on for days.

Every time they come upon a thermal spring, Aki guards Miyaro as she bathes. He keeps his back to her.

”I am a child of the forest, will you not look at me?” she asks him. “Am I not beautiful?”  

Aki says nothing, and he does not look at her.

“You are honorable,” she says. She scrubs her body and tells him her story.

“I was born on Hokkaido and am the daughter of a notorious bandit chieftain. When I was only a baby, my father led his bandits into the southern fringes of the Forest of Spirits, as they tried to escape from Imperial troops. My father and the bandits set up a defensive position in a grove of ancient trees, but when the troops caught up with them at the grove, they found all the bandits dead. Strangely, all of their heads were missing. They were not beheaded with blades, for their neck stubs were covered with smooth, unbroken skin. It was as if they had never had heads at all. The troops had only been a few minutes behind the bandits. They fled in fear.

“When my father did not return, my mother went into the forest to find him. She met the Kami of the Forest whom informed her that they had killed my father when he had desecrated one of their most sacred shrines. Furthermore, my mother had inherited his dishonor, and unless she made amends, the spirit would hold her to be accountable as well. She was horrified at this revelation, and so she offered me to the Kami to be raised by the spirits and taught to respect them. The Kami accepted her gift, but then my mother committed suicide, sealing the pact with her life’s blood.”

Aki shudders.

“Yes, it is a sad tale,” Miyaro admits.

A week later, they are crossing an icy land bridge that forms only in the winter. He sees the bleached walls of the port city of Ordu-Aganhei ahead. The flag of Kublai Khan flies over the battlements.

They skirt the city at night under the cover of darkness. Aki notices that Miyaro grows more beautiful as they get closer to the Forest of Spirits.

Aki begins to hear whispers, and the wispy voices grow more distinct. Suddenly he hears a voice very close to his ear say, “She leads you to your doom! Do not follow her!”

“It will be only a few days more before we get to Noburo, are you sure you want to remain honorable?” Miyaro asks.

“Where are we going?” Aki asks.

As soon as he opens his mouth to speak, a spirit that had been swirling nearly invisible to the eye dove into Aki’s mouth and down his throat. Aki belched.

“I don’t think we should be going this way. In my opinion, this forest is quite full of Oni’s, and we’d do well to watch out,” he says.

Miyaro blinks at Akira. “You have been possessed by a spirit of the forest,” she says and smiles.

Aki frowns. “That’s not good! You silly woman!”

“Don’t worry, they don’t hurt,” she says.

“I am Issei, and I was killed by an Oni!” Aki screams. “I told them! I warned them all! They cast me out! They said I lied! I was eaten alive! That last time there was an Oni! A real, actual Oni!”

He stops and takes a deep breath and looks down at himself.

“I want to find and kill Onis! With this new form, I can do just that!” he cries.

"Let us go then," Miyaro says.

“I don’t think we should go this way!  Don’t you know where you are going?” he asks.

“We’re on the correct path,” Miyaro says. “And we'll soon be at our destination.”

Aki sees a long, running wooden fence. Standing in front of a wooden archway gate in the fence is a huge Kami guardian.

“This is Noburo,” she says, ”and he has been charged with standing and guarding this pathway door that leads to the House of Withered Blossoms. Aki could see a pale pagoda rising from the pines in the distance. Noburo is a large man-shaped Zuishen Kami, and he bears a massive bow. He is dressed in blue samurai armor.

A host of Kami comes from the woods and surrounds them all. Aki hears whispers all around him.

Noburo raises his hand and explains in a deep voice: “The Kami swore an oath long ago, to guard the Oni of the Five Storms. They were imprisoned in the pagoda, the House of Withered Blossoms. For centuries, the Kami kept the Five Storms contained until one night, one hundred years ago, when most of the Oni’s inexplicably escaped their prison. They don’t know by what magic, but as long as at least one Oni remains inside the pagoda, their oath prevents them from entering.

“We want you to go into the pagoda and find out what happened. If needed, you may kill the last Oni to allow the Kami to enter again.

“We know that your adventuring friends seek to depose the Jade Regent, and he is aligned with the Five Storms. They are going to come ashore in a few days. Go west Akira, and bring your friends back here to help you.”

Aki bows. He turns and runs west. Miyaro follows him.


Spirits

By Xiao Ping

I watched the empty horizon as we rowed eastward. The clunk of my oar in its oarlock had become monotony. In contrast, my mind was reeling with the unimaginable. I could not stop dwelling on what the Seal had revealed to us. Ameiko was alive? And her friends? The happiness I felt for this news was overwhelming, but I wanted to know more. How did they escape death? It was true that even I had survived the dragon’s scalding breath weapon with Dipaka’s help. Of course, it had killed Xia. I felt terrible about that. I watched her as she slept in the bottom of the boat. She looked so young.

I planned to throw Lo and Xia a huge wedding if we could ever get to some place like home.

As hard as I tried to keep my mind off it, I kept thinking about what the Seal had said about there being a new Scion. There was another Kaijistsu? A Prince? Seeking to reclaim his birthright? It was just impossible. I had no way of comprehending this new development. Everything about it screamed of falsehood and farce, but I surmised that the Amatatsu Seal wouldn’t prevaricate about such things. What was next, a whole family of Kaijitsu’s coming along on a raft? I guessed that I should be happy to have a new brother, but so far, I wasn’t. It felt like life had betrayed me once again. I wanted to talk to Ameiko right away. Why hadn’t she told me? I couldn’t begin to guess. Who was he? Was he a good person? Was he dangerous? Could he be trusted? I had seen the first mate a time or two while we were on the Isabella, but I had never talked to him. I remembered that he had had a shrewd look about him; the look of someone acquainted with the worst humanity had to offer. As difficult as it was, I would have to reserve judgment of him until I met him again. My blood was boiling. I was jealous, and I couldn’t help it. I looked at Wen rowing in the bay beside me. I wondered if he could sense my evil thoughts.

Xia and I couldn’t row for as long as the men could, so we took turns rowing and sleeping when the winds were wanting. Xia had joked that I’d resurrected her just in time to help row the boat. I could have waited until we’d gotten somewhere civilized, she’d joked.

I never could have waited. I needed Xia. I never knew when fate would take the Seal away from us again.

I kept pulling on my oar. My palms and fingers were blistered beyond recognition. Dipaka asked if he could heal them for me but I wanted to feel the pain. I deserved it. 

Eventually, we saw land. At first, it was just a thin, dark bar on the horizon. As the day passed, it gradually widened and grew taller until it became Hokkaido.

“We’ve made it!” I cried.

When we finally landed on the beach, I ran up through the cold surf, knelt, and kissed the sand.  “Finally,” I said.

We got the horses ashore, everyone gathered up his or her things, and then I folded up the Origami. We had to leave the battered rowboat from the Isabella on the beach.

“What do you know, there’s a road here and it goes north and south,” Ochir said, now atop Baderhu. “Which way are we going?”

I looked at the Unicorn. “Dipaka, can I ask your Unicorn a question?”

“She is not my Unicorn, as you well know, she is my companion. You may certainly ask her whatever question you wish,” Dipaka answered.

“Oh, she’s your companion eh? Is that what they call them now days?” Ochir quipped.

Dipaka rolled his eyes.

I walked over to the Unicorn and bowed.

“Wise beast, can you point us in the direction of the House of Withered Blossoms?”

The Unicorn regarded me balefully and then turned her head away without answering.

“Dipaka, is there a sugar or something I can give her to make her like me?” I asked.

“You must give her an actual reason to make her like you, not just sugar or something,” Dipaka said.  “You must also be as pure as the driven snow in order to touch a Unicorn.”

“I’m pure! I’m a virgin!” Cairn cried, and ran over to pet the Unicorn. The beast nuzzled Cairn.

“It was just a simple question; you don’t need to be a virgin just to ask a question do you?” I wondered. I hoped it was that, and not my selfish thoughts.

“Let me try.” Dipaka said. “Oh, great and benevolent creature! Do you know the way to the House of Withered Blossoms?”

The Unicorn pointed her spiraled horn north and east. She neighed brilliantly and reared, and then she dug her hooves into the road. She waggled her rear back and forth, and her long fur waggled too.

“Of course, she would answer you,” I said, giving the beast a sour look. She snorted back at me. The colored scales on her back glittered in the sun. She was half-ugly and half-beautiful. She wasn’t at all like those white western Unicorns from European children’s stories. She was a Sin-You.

“We know the way now, let’s get a move on,” I said.

We followed the road north. I hoped we could find somewhere to head east into the forest later on.

“Oh no! I’m scared!” Cairn cried. “It’s a pine forest! Druids are helpless in forests!”

After five miles or so, we came upon a bridge that went over a river. For some reason, it reminded me of the old bridge on which I’d first met Lo, Dipaka, Ochir, and Aki.

Standing alone at the top of the curved span was Aki. He had his hands crossed in front of him, and he was as still as a statue.

We all stopped in our tracks. We stared at him in disbelief.

“Welcome home, Princess and Friends!” Aki’s voice was clear and beautiful just as I had imagined it would be.

“Welcome to the Land of the Rising Sun!” he said.

“Aki!” I cried. “You’re here!” I leapt down from Chi Hai, “and you’ve got your voice back! How in the world did you get here ahead of us?”

“I have my ways, but it doesn’t matter. We have an Oni to kill. It can be found in the House of Withered Blossoms,” he said.

Wen dismounted, looked at me, and then marched up the bridge toward Aki to shake his hand. Aki immediately became nervous. “Uh, let’s not hug,” he said, and took several steps backward.

Now I was worried. Remembering Chaka’s unnervingly convincing illusion of Wen, I said, “Ok, if you’re the real Aki, say something only Aki would say.”

“I will not be tested! I refuse to stoop to that level!” he cried. “I have no need to defend myself to you or anyone!”

I sure hoped this wasn’t the real Aki.

“Aki, please say it,” I asked again.

He got out his slate, scribbled on it, and when he showed it to me, it said, “Fuck you!”

Cleary something was amiss.

“If you’re done interrogating me I would like to introduce Miyaro,” Aki said, and a pale woman came up behind him on the bridge. She reminded me instantly of the Jade Archer. Her hair was lush and rampant, and her face was perfect. She had large black pools for eyes.

“Your friend Aki has been possessed by a Spirit of the Forest,” she explained, “and the same will happen to you!”

A new spirit shot toward Ochir. Ochir raised his bow and fired an arrow at it out of sheer instinct. It went right through the apparition. I caught a fleeting glimpse of an angry genie mask helmet. The spirit punched into Ochir’s chest and disappeared.

“Whoa,” Ochir said. “This feels weird! I’m possessed by an evil spirit! Hey! I don’t really feel any different!”

Ochir’s voice changed abruptly and became deeper. “I am Onashi Taisuke!” he announced, in a hatchet like staccato. “I am the Angel of the Five Storms! I am the Warden! I was killed by prisoners that escaped by deceit!”

Ochir’s voice returned to normal. “That was weird!” he said. “Hey, if I start shooting at you guys or something feel free to knock me out,” Ochir said. “You officially have my permission!”

“I look forward to doing it,” Lo said. We all laughed.

“Ha-ha,” Ochir said.

“Look! Over there! It’s an Oni!” Aki cried.

I looked to where Aki was pointing and his “Oni” looked like a dire tiger to me. It was huge; it must have weighed close to six thousand pounds. In a moment, it turned and was gone. We could hear only rustling leaves.

“If you‘re hungry cat, we can feed you!” Havarak called out.

The cat growled loudly in response. It hadn’t gone away. I was getting a bad feeling; the hair was standing up on the back of my neck. I looked around for more spirits. I threw up my haste on the group just to be on the safe side.

The tiger moved out of the bush. It was growling and baring its long, sharp incisors. It was clear that it was thinking about attacking us. Ochir fired off a shot. The arrow lodged “crack!” in the tiger’s skull. The tiger stopped and roared and blood came out in a fountain where the arrow was lodged. Ochir shot the dire tiger twice more.

Wen mounted, spurred Chi Hai, and headed for the great cat with his lance lowered.

“Why do you want to kill a creature when it hasn’t attacked us?” Dipaka asked. “Ochir is charmed by a cruel prison master, remember?”

“Ugh, you aren’t lying.” Ochir grunted. “With this Jap inside me, I feel like I need a shower.” 

Wen slowed and raised his lance. “Uh, I was just moving to a better position,” he said. “What should I do Father?”

“Be at peace,” Dipaka rode his Unicorn over and threw a ball of healing at the tiger that stopped the fountain of blood coming out of its forehead.

Despite Di’s effort, the cat suddenly sprang and pounced on Ochir. It raked Ochir with a massive claw, but Baderhu was a combat horse, it kept the gnome away from most of the other attacks. Ochir was still bleeding badly.

Aki flying-kicked the cat in the haunches but it only moved over a few inches.

Xia and I threw our magic missiles at the cat. Someone yelled something about a tiger skin rug.

Baderhu clopped the tiger twice with her hooves and tried to take a nip for good measure.

The tiger roared and this time knocked Ochir from Baderhu’s back and scratched him badly again. Ochir rolled and shot back up and fired an arrow into the beast’s chest. The big cat stopped, growled, and then sat down. Ochir shot it again, and the tiger lay down on the ground. Ochir placed his boot on the tiger’s head, and he lifted his bow again—

“Don’t kill it!” I yelled. “Please don’t kill it!”

Ochir fired anyway, but by some freak accident, the arrow bounced back from the steel toe of his boot and cracked him square in the forehead. He was utterly stunned.

"Whoa,” he said.

I don’t claim to know what it was that had stopped Ochir from killing the tiger. I almost felt the forest itself breathe a sigh of relief.

“Go ahead She-Wolf, heal the cat,” Havarak said.  

Cairn ran over and gave the tiger a goodberry to keep it from dying. The tiger didn’t get up, but Cairn left a pile of goodberries beside it for when it did feel better.

We set out once again for the House of Withered Blossoms.

It would be a seven-day journey, Aki said. 

We had been traveling for three of those days when we smelled smoke on the wind. I saw a lone wisp of black smoke begin to circle around us. It came near me and made a face. I swear I saw a cigar in its mouth.

Wen waved his arm at the smoke and it drew back from him.

“It’s an Oni!” Aki cried. 

“Everything is not an Oni!” I yelled at Aki. I threw a magic missile at the smoke, but it went right through it. The smoke laughed at me.

Dipaka rode up to the smoke but it was not affected by his aura either.

The spirit circled us all again and then leapt into Chaka Khan. Her eyes rolled back in her head for a long while, and when they came back down, I swear they had fire in them.

“I am Meiko!” she cried. “Burn, baby, burn! Hey, hey, hey, it’s better to burn out than to fade away!”

Another one of us was possessed.

“Can everyone here go on? I asked.

“Just cuz I’ve got a baby on board and bat in my belfry doesn’t mean I can’t play the drums anymore,” Chaka said.

I looked at Aki. “Yes,” he said to me, more like I suspected Aki would sound this time, “the spirit’s control is not complete, although it may seem so at times from my speech. Do not worry; we can still proceed into the House of Withered Blossoms. We can still slay the Oni.”

Cairn flew down from being an eagle, and turned back into herself.

“There’s three stone giants headed this way!” she cried.

Not more than ten seconds later, we saw the giants loom through the trees. They were lean and muscular, stood around sixteen feet tall, and had deep sunken black eyes. They had rather gaunt facial features. Their noses were long, narrow and flinty. They had gray smooth skin. They wore thick leather overalls, and they were fetching rocks out of their shoulder bags.

“We all go for the horse in back with the pipsqueak on it,” the largest giant ordered.

They all wound up and threw rocks at Baderhu and all three hit. Baderhu neighed and collapsed. Ochir was barely able to leap to safety. He had his bow out to fire at the lead giant in an instant. He began to pincushion the giant, staying by Baderhu all the while.

Havarak joined in on the archery contest, and the giant was so big a target they could hardly miss.

“Good work Yu, and nice aim Ye! We’re having horsemeat tonight boys!” The giant looked down at Ochir and Havarak. “These arrows are for a smaller enemy, wouldn’t you say?” and then brushed their arrows from the front of his overalls.

“Gather around for the haste!” I yelled to everyone.

Chaka and gnomes queued their elaborate drum sequences.

Lo ran up to the head giant and drew Suishen from its scabbard. The giant’s eyes widened when he saw the flaming brand. Chaka’s gaze locked on the flickering blade too. She had a maniacal grin on her face.

Wen lowered his lance and said, “You might want to dismount, my love, I’m going to charge these chumps when they reach the road.”

“Ok,” I said. I jumped off the horse and Wen trotted and then galloped toward the two giants on the right side. They threw rocks at Wen as he came, but they missed. The giant in front nimbly sidestepped Wen’s lance charge though, and Wen had to reign in Chi Hai and switch to his katana.

I wanted to help, so I threw an empowered fireball at them. The ground shook when it went off. It missed Wen but still engulfed both of the giants. The giants screamed as their hair burned away. “Hey! We’re leaving! We don’t want any more fire! Feng made us do it!” they cried. They dropped their bags, turned, and ran away as fast as they could.

Wen raised his katana and waved it at them. “And stay out!” he cried. He looked back at me and frowned. I shrugged my shoulders and blew Wen a kiss.

Dipaka went over, healed Baderhu, and helped the bloodied horse regain its feet. Ochir gave his horse a potion to boot.

Havarak abandoned his bow and ran over to help Lo, and he attacked Feng with Snick and Snack. Two bloody chops later and Havarak leapt back.

Lo went into slow motion and swung Suishen back and forth in two massive arcs, and sliced through the giant’s protective overalls. Suishen left huge smoldering gashes, and the giant fell to the ground with a crash.

Lo let out an ear-splitting roar.

“That’s my Lo!” Xia cried.

Dipaka healed the giant, while the rest of us went through the giant’s bags. Giant’s bag’s were the stuff of legend. Ours contained a hundred pounds of stinky horsemeat and some more rocks.

After Dipaka had healed the giant, it got up and began bowing and backing away.

“Oh Holy Man, thank you! I’ll never do any evil ever again!”

I smelled smoke again, but the black cloud from my fireball had already dissipated.

“Ochir! Kill that giant with fire!” Chaka ordered in a gruff voice.

What was she doing?

The two engineer gnomes wrapped and lit the end of Ochir’s arrow after he had drawn back his bow.

Just as Ochir took careful aim, his bowstring snapped. “Shit!” he cried.

As he got out a new bowstring, the giant ran farther and farther away until it vanished into the forest.

“You stupid idiot!” Chaka went over and kicked Ochir in the ass.

“It’s not my fault my bowstring snapped!”

“You need to get better bowstrings,” she said icily.

Chaka lit up a cigar she had snatched out of Guchugar’s vest pocket and stomped off.

That was the second time since we entered the Forest of Spirits that nothing more than fate stopped Ochir from killing. It seemed to me that Karma was working overtime among those towering pines.

“I sure will be glad when we can get these lousy spirits out of us,” Ochir said.

After Dipaka had healed and given everybody a clean bill of health, we pressed on.

The next day we found an empty ring in the forest, and we could see the sky above us. We stopped and Cairn walked out into the middle of the clearing.

I saw a spirit appear and swirl around her and then spiral down into Cairn.

“Cairn!” I cried, but there was nothing to be done.

“I am Bokeghan the Breaker!” she turned back to us and cried. “I ate some poisonous berries one day that drove me mad! I killed my own wife and daughters!” Cairn was starting to get angry. “I killed them with a dull axe as they lay in their beds asleep! I ran away to this clearing and I died from the poison!” Cairn was now pulling at her hair. “Eeeewwww,” she made a sour, angry face. “Eeeewwww,” she growled again.

“They’ve all gone crazy Wen!” I cried.

“That happened long before we ever left China,” Wen said.


The House of Withered Blossoms

Six days after we arrived on the island of Hokkaido, we found the House of Withered Blossoms.

We didn’t hear the forest animals anymore as we came upon a vast clearing. Icy steppes and natural terraces cascaded downward in concentric rings. It was like a huge natural bowl. At the very center at the bottom stood a porcelain pagoda. It towered so high that it rose beyond the lip of the depression.

It was covered with frozen vines but you could still see it’s once glorious golden rooftops. All sorts of wondrous creatures were depicted on its walls. It was a hundred feet square at its base, and it had eight levels.

A wintering garden surrounded the House of Withered Blossoms. Gnarled trees grappled with unseen foes. Huge blossom bushes clumped and watched the bouts. Thick and dry webs blanketed everything in a gauzy layer of white. In its day, the garden and the gleaming tower must have been a magnificent sight to see. It was now just mostly dull and gray.

Clouds of violet blossom petals floated and wafted everywhere throughout the garden.

The smell was awful. The scent of death and decay was overpowering. I retched a few times and then had to breathe through my mouth. My eyes were watering despite the cold.

It was quite surreal.

“I’ll find a place to hide the horses and Gun-Gun before we go inside,” Havarak said.

“Go to hell!” Cairn cried. “Leave Gun-Gun alone! You’re always trying to be alone with her!”

“Shut up, She-Bitch!” Havarak snapped back. He stomped away.

Allegro went down to inspect the pagoda’s front doors. They were huge bronze double doors that were decorated with three-dimensional dragons. Their open mouths pointed outward in all directions like a fan.

“It’s a trap, I can tell right away,” Allegro said. If I mess with anything here, something nasty is going to shoot out of these dragons mouths.”

“What do we do?” I asked. 

“I’ll try to disarm it, I guess,” Allegro said. He moved up slowly to the door. He got out a long wire and carefully slipped it down one of the dragons throats. There was a click, and the trap was sprung. A spray of deadly daggers shot out and six of them buried themselves in Allegro.

“Medic,” he moaned. He stood still as Dipaka rushed to his aid. Dipaka pulled the daggers out one by one and dropped them onto the ground.  “At least they’re not poisoned,” Dipaka said. He healed Allegro after they were all out.

“That’s ok, I was looking to buy a collection of matching cutlery anyway,” Allegro said.

Lo and Wen went into the House of Withered blossoms first. Lo pulled the doors open. The hallway inside led only left and right, and was choked with webs. Lo went left, and he hacked and burned away the webs with Suishen.

After fifty feet, the hall turned right, following the outer wall of the structure. A board snapped up and showered Lo in knives. Since Lo was much taller than men were, they got him in the legs. “Ouch,” Lo said. Dipaka came over to help.

We saw a staircase that went up to the next floor. I wanted to go up the stairs, but Aki passed beyond them and followed the outer wall, and disappeared around the corner.  What the hell?

“Onis!” we heard him cry after a few seconds. “Onis! Come on guys, help me kill them!” We ran around one corner and then the next to see him sending his wasp into the central room of the structure. Twelve magic missiles shot out and destroyed the giant insect.

I hasted everyone. We ran through the door and after a fast combat, blasted through four enormous spell firing spiders that were roosting in the corners of the room.

There was a wide hole in the center of the floor, and it dropped down into darkness and out of sight. Aki pointed down the hole.

I cast a fly on Lo and Ochir, and they flew down and engaged some dark hobgoblin defenders on top of a subterranean fortress wall.

Chaka jumped down with her two engineers and feather falled herself just before they hit the ground.

I gave my feather fall ring to Wen, and he held me tight and we jumped down and stopped right before the ground too. I don’t know whether I was more scared or thrilled. It was like a hundred feet to the bottom.

Havarak came down on a rope. Cairn flew down carried by an air elemental she had summoned. We sent the feather fall ring up to Xia on a string, and then she floated down.

Meanwhile, Lo had climbed up onto the subterranean wall and had the surprised defenders well in hand. After they were all dead, we opened the door beyond them and peaked through. 

“There are arrow slits covering the hallway beyond,” Allegro said. “If they are manned with archers…” he trailed off.

“Whoever goes in, I’ll put a stoneskin on you to protect you from the arrows. They won’t expect them to have no effect,” I said.

“I’ll do it,” Ochir said. I touched Ochir on his head to place the spell.

He went in, shouting obscenities, and sure enough, a volley of arrows struck him and bounced off his stone skin. “Rubes!” Ochir laughed and taunted them.

Lo rushed through the door after they’d already fired their arrows, and the frightened archers retreated. Lo ran to the end of the hall and burst through the next door.

The rest of us followed.

We ran into a much more open area, and there were several rows of pillars, and some steps that went down into a more natural cave. There was a chasm that cut across that, and there were two rope bridges that went over the chasm. Several huge piles of rocks and debris appeared to have come down from the ceiling of the cavern over the years. Far across the cavern was a three story building that didn’t quite reach the ceiling. The structure was wooden and in very bad repair. A catwalk ran from the top of the building across to a cave mouth in the sidewall of the cavern. The chamber was lit with many torches and several pit fires.

On the other side of the chasm, the cave bustled with activity. There was a corps of hobgoblins there, with three masked animal handlers in the front. They were stoking and whipping their beasts into a frenzy. One was a Dire Boar, and the other two were armored Warpigs. They squealed horribly.

There were four huge hill giants, and they had rock sacks slung over their shoulders.

The handlers released their pigs and they squealed and charged forward. 

I saw the opportunity I’d been waiting for. I had learned a way to make my fireballs twice as large as normal. The way it worked, the actual radius of the blast was doubled, so instead of a forty-foot wide explosion, it would be an eighty-foot ball of fire. I had calculated using geometry that an eighty-foot explosion was roughly eight times larger in volume than normal, not twice as large, as you might at first guess. This effectively equaled nine regular fireballs going off all at once. Even at ground level, it was as if more than six fireballs had gone off at the same time. Nothing would be able to escape.

I threw the spell, and I empowered it with my magic rod. The entire end of the cavern was engulfed in flame. All of the giants and hobgoblins were bathed in fire. It was as if a Mongolian trebuchet bomb had gone off inside the cavern.

They all were still alive, but they stood motionless for a split second after the fireball. Their mouths dropped open, and one hobgoblin died of a heart attack and fell into the chasm from the surprise alone.

Wen, Ochir, and Lo all looked back at me in awe after seeing the massive blast.

“I love you Aiko Kaijitsu,” Chaka said. “Do that again!”

I could actually only do the megaball once a day. Today, I was done. The enemy didn’t need to know that, though. “It will be my pleasure!” I yelled back to Chaka. I had the presence of mind to step into an alcove where I could not be seen. I didn’t want four rocks and several flights of arrows all coming at me at once. Xia jumped in behind me.

I had hoped they would all die or run away from the fireball, but they didn’t. The hobgoblins got out their healing potions and drank them. They laughed and threw the empty bottles on the floor.

Chaka cast a haste spell this time, I had cast mine already. The fighters all ran out to fight, killing the three Warpigs in short order. Ochir fought and killed the Dire Boar by himself.

Cairn began summoning a pack of wolves.

The fighters engaged the hobgoblins and giants in a terrible melee, but the enemy had been burned so badly they were dropping like flies.

I peeked out from my alcove and saw a new row of hobgoblins appear on top of the structure in the next cavern. They all had bows. I saw their chief among them as he explained their strategy. I guessed what it was; they would pick us apart one at a time while we tried to finish off their brethren on the floor.

I cast a wall of ice in front of them to keep them from shooting. It went from the top of the wall in front of them to the ceiling of the cave. I could hear shouts and cursing from behind the ice.

They had to waste valuable time putting down their bows and getting out weapons to break through the ice. They screamed in pain and complained to their leader, but he ordered them to continue. I knew that the area near the wall would still be so cold that just getting near it would cause frostburn.

Ochir fired a few arrows at the leader, and one bounced from his Jingasa. Realizing it would have gone through his head but for his lucky hat, the commander retreated from the roof.

Once the archers on the roof got their bows back in their hands, they all chose Dipaka as their target. Dipaka grinned from ear to ear as all of their arrows shattered.

The foes on the floor were all dead by this time, so Lo flew up onto the building. The slaughter then began in earnest. Cairn’s pack of wolves appeared up there too, and Cairn herself was carried aloft to supervise the carnage by her air elemental servant.

Xia and I hid while the mop up happened. I watched Cairn hover in mid-air with her elemental. I wondered for the first time if a seafaring ship might be carried aloft by a team of large air elemental servants.

Allegro approached the dilapidated building with Istanoval out. Xia and I watched as the leader rushed out from hiding inside the ramshackle and headed for Allegro. He wanted to take at least someone with him.

Xia and I looked at each other and we both jumped out of the alcove and let loose with our magic missiles. They pounded him, but it was not enough. The raging hobgoblin reached Allegro.

“I’m going to spit you like a pig!” the captain gloated.

It was the split second Allegro needed. He jammed Istanoval right into the hobgoblin’s groin. The hobgoblin’s eyes rolled back in his head and he fell down dead.

“Take that, foul creature!” Istanoval cried.

The battle was over. Cairn had her elemental carry her across the bridge and she snooped out the next dungeon area; but she came back and reported seeing only an empty cavern with a waterfall in it.

I wanted to rope trick, rest, and recover right there in the dungeon, but others wanted to go back up the long shaft and take our chances in the Forest of Spirits.

My mind told me that I needed to be in the House of Withered Blossoms, but I just wanted to find Ameiko.

 

 

 

 
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