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

The Crystal Ball

By Aiko Kaijitsu

The next morning, while Wen was still asleep, I got the crystal ball out again. I polished its smooth surface, and I concentrated and cleared my mind. I took a deep breath. “Focus, show me my sister, Ameiko Kaijitsu.” A light swirled deep inside the nearly pristine crystal.

This time I saw my sister step out of the shower. Water ran down her body. She had a long and beautiful black dragon tattoo on her upper arm. Other tattoos decorated her shoulders. The Jade Archer was dressed in full gear and handed her a towel. Ameiko tucked it across her breasts.

“Uh, hello!” I said.

Suddenly, the Jade Archer whipped out her bow and nocked an arrow.

“We’re not alone in here!” she cried. “It’s a vortex!” She jumped in front of my sister.

“It’s just me, Ping!” I said loudly. “I am using a crystal ball! You must be able to see me somehow!”

Ameiko peeked over the Jade Archer’s shoulder.

“I can see you! Oh my god! It is you! You’re alive! O happy day!” Amieko cried.

The Jade Archer stepped aside and lowered her bow.

“You’re safe too! I can’t believe it! How did you escape the Isabella?” I asked.

“It was Tsuto! He was laying down flat behind a rope drum, and after the dragon breathed, we dropped to the deck. He somehow teleported us over to another vessel he’d served on, the Danger Prize. Their ship had a teleport pad, a scrying ball, and a good ship's doctor. By the way, your crystal ball is flawed. I’m not supposed to be able to see you, you know.”

“I know,” I said, but I was elated. This flaw actually made the crystal ball more valuable to us. We could count on two-way communication with anyone we knew.

“Who is Tsuto?” I asked.

“He’s our brother.”

“I don’t remember ever having a brother.”

“He’s the son of Lonjiku Kaijitsu and Atsuii Kaijitsu. That makes him officially my younger, and your older, half-brother.”

“He’s a half-elf, isn’t he? A spirit boy?”

The Jade Archer grunted. Ameiko looked at her but nodded to me.

“How is it I never knew about him?”

Ameiko and the Jade Archer exchanged another look. “He was shipped off to the New World to preserve the family’s honor,” Ameiko said.

“Did you know about him? Before now I mean?”

“Sort of,” she said. “But I couldn’t speak of him before. Now, he’s a very dashing and heroic brother. Not too long ago, right here in Ordu-Aganhei, ninjas were dogging us, and we were attacked in the marketplace. Tsuto fought magnificently against them.”

The Jade archer crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. "He killed one lousy ninja to my three," she said.

I eyed the Jade Archer. “Do you like Tsuto?” I asked her flatly.

“I’ve never liked any man,” she said. “But that’s nothing, there’s more for you to hear; your sister has picked up a rich and powerful Mongolian suitor, the Prince of Ordu-Aganhei.”

My jaw must have dropped.

Ameiko sighed.

“Yes, it’s true; the Crown Prince has asked me to marry him. He’s an unusual sort, with his perpetual smile and all, but he is a nephew of the great Kublai Khan, so I’ve explained to him that he must prove himself before I will marry him. He must restore our Empire and place me on its throne. Oh, and he has a female Samurai for a bodyguard; the only one in the whole wide world,” she said.

“You have to be kidding! We’re going to be related to the Mongol Emperor?”

“Can you think of a better way to ensure our victory here, ultimately retain control of our Country, and not fight the Mongols after we’re done?” Ameiko asked with a smirk.

She was clearly way ahead of me. “Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out. We’re done here,” I joked dryly.

She frowned. “The Prince has already arranged for Sandru to receive a new caravan, as he kept crying about his silly cargo he lost at sea. We’ll be heading south to Sapporo in a few weeks. We must work to find and gather the people of Japan that already oppose the Jade Regent. Prince Batsai-Khar doesn’t exactly have a Mongol horde here on standby.”

“Ok. We are in Sapporo now. Lo and Xia are getting married. We’ll hold off on the wedding for a month so you’ll have time to get here.”

“Ok, we’ll be there in time for that. What the hell happened to your hair?”

“Uh, I-- nothing, I like it short,” I lied.

“Come on, I can tell Xia’s been penciling on your eyebrows. What happened?”

“I was in an accident,” I said. “Don’t worry, we’re all ok, we have the Seal, we killed the Kamikaze, and we slew the Least of the Five Storms. We have grown powerful, sister.”

“Wow!” she said.

“Lo, Wen, Aki, and Allegro are brave without question and kick ass like nobody’s business. Dipaka is the most effective and devout Holy Man in the world; forget about the Italian Pope. Cairn and Havarak amaze me when they are around. Ochir, Chaka, and her Gnomes are brave and powerful too, but they are not like the others. They remain separate from us. Wen of course does not get along with Ochir. Wen tried to kill him in the name of Bahamut, and now Ochir has requested revenge from his General father back in Mongolia. Unless the letter Ochir sent is going through Ordu-Aganhei and you can stop it somehow, I’m afraid of what will happen if Mongols appear and attack Wen.”

“How do you know of this?”

“Ochir wrote of his threat to me in a letter.”

“Rude, but that’s probably just Ochir. I think you'll find you’re being paranoid. I told you that the Mongol Prince is obsessed with me; I don’t think the Mongols will strike my sister’s husband.”

I hoped she was right, because if they did attack, I would pound them with everything I had. I had been writing up some new spells, and Xia had learned some new ones too.

"We'll wait for you here in Sapporo, unless you want us to come north and give you an escort,” I offered.

"I'm a Princess of Japan, my sister, I already have an escort,” Ameiko smirked. “Ja-ne, and tell everyone I said Konnichiwa! I’m bringing a big satchel of letters for Dipaka. Oh, and there’s some legal packets here for Ochir,” she said. “I’ll bring them too, of course. Who knows what they’re about.”

“All right, I'll tell them, and I'll see you soon. I love you,” I said.

“I love you too,” she said.

I let the ball go dark.

Wedding Plans

“You broke the damn thing Xiao Ping! It doesn’t work anymore!” Chaka came to our room shaking the crystal ball at me.

“It does too work! I talked to my sister with it!” I said.

“Well, I can’t I get shit now!” she said.

“Maybe the person you are scrying on is dead or out of range or something. That particular ball has a flaw that you didn’t mention, the people you are scrying on can see you too, so be careful.”

“That I didn’t mention? Just what do you mean by that Xiao Ping? My spell of identify doesn't provide an owner’s manual! What is the goddamned range on this thing?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow and try again, that’s all I can say.”

“Well tomorrow I’m going to scry on the Minister of the Watch in Beijing, and he waits for incoming messages. That’s the easiest damn Imperial-Seer level connection that can be made! If it doesn’t work then, then you broke it!”

“Alright, but it'll work. You’ll see. By the way, thanks for all of your help lately.”

“Hmmpf,” Chaka said, and stomped out. She had asked to borrow the crystal ball in order to check in with Chabui. I saw no reason not to loan it to her for a while. It had been part of our agreement, after all.

“What in the name of all the Seven Heavens was she doing here?” Wen asked, as he returned home from his riding practice for lunch. “You know I don’t like those gnomes being around here,” he said.

“Oh, just girl talk, some stuff about the wedding, Sit down, my husband, I have your food ready,” I said, and kissed him.

I served him Sushi and tea and knelt silently across from him as he ate.

“What?” he asked, after it had been quiet for a while.

“Wen, we must stop making love at night for the time being,” I said.

“What?” he spat out his food. “Why? There’s no danger in this sleepy town!”

“Ochir sent me a letter, and I think there could be danger,” I explained.

“Ochir sent you a letter? What letter? I demand you show it to me!”

“I’ll read it to you,” I said, “while you eat.”

I began reading the missive to Wen, but I had gotten only as far as “fecal pile Lo” when he leapt to his feet and upturned the low table. His lunch was all over the floor.

“Stop it right now! Don’t read on! If you do, I might have to go kick that gnome’s ass!” he stormed out and slammed the door behind him.

He didn’t speak to me in the familiar after that. I was hurt, but I knew why he was so angry. Because of my taboo, he was already a deprived husband.

I had almost wished Wen had let me finish and then gone and smacked Ochir. I knew it was for the best that he didn’t. I was very angry about Ochir’s letter. I had imagined all sorts of terrible responses to it. I had fantasized about a strange fireball accident befalling the runner that carried Ochir’s letter to his father. I could teleport myself with a thought now. I could make it several hundred miles outside of Beijing and be back in Sapporo in around twelve seconds. Ochir didn’t know that. I imagined the look on his face when I dropped the story about the strange accident reported in a Beijing newspaper only a few days before in front of him.

But I knew he would only find another way to call upon his father.

I went out and bought four boxes of salt to make myself feel better. Dipaka only shook his head sadly. He guessed what they were about. I put them away in the cupboard. It was good that he was around.

I truly doubted that anyone possessed the power now to swoop down unexpectedly and kill any of us, not without one hell of a fight. I wrote two nasty letters back to Ochir, but I burned them both. In the end, I decided that Ochir was just trying to start up more shit. I knew he was angry at Wen over his honor and the honor of his Empire. I couldn’t blame him. I had to remember that we were all an effective team in times of peril, and Chaka and the G’s weren’t necessarily part-and-parcel with Ochir. Finally, I decided to ignore his hateful letter. I hoped it would be the reaction he would detest the most. I didn’t show Lo the letter. I knew Lo would become angry and outraged, and his startling metamorphosis might occur. I wanted him to be happy at his wedding. He had finally grown ready to call the stale argument a bygone. Ochir apparently had not.

Three weeks later, we all went with a wedding planner we hired to look at the site he’d chosen for Lo and Xia’s exchanging of vows. We gathered around the town’s central fountain and stood among the busy market carts and stalls.

“We’ll have to hold the ceremony here, none of the Churches in town will allow, well, shall we say, a giant, to come inside. Who needs them anyway? If they don’t believe in us, why should we believe in them? Right? Now, don’t worry, we’re going to scootch all of these booths back. Outdoors is always the best sanctuary I always say!  Let’s see now, we can place the bride and groom here,” he said, and pointed to an area in front of the fountain, “and the guests can stand over here…” he extended his arms and walked stiffly as he described the décor he was planning.

Wen was walking with Xia instead of me. They were talking quietly to each other. I felt more than a little jealous. I tried to take my mind off it. I trusted Wen and Xia with all my heart.

I wondered where Cairn was. I was looking forward to her pretty flowers at Xia’s wedding. Now that I thought of Cairn, I realized that I hadn’t seen Aki or Allegro in a few days. I wondered if they had gone to go look for Cairn and Havarak.

Suddenly, a fire shuriken shot up, and Guchugar yelped. Katana wielding ninjas began popping out of nowhere. Townsfolk began screaming and running in every direction.

I began to fly and sailed straight up, over the canvas peaks of the market stalls. I had a commanding view of the market.

Wen cast a protection from evil on Xia, and she cast a spell on herself. He glanced up at me. I knew he wanted to be hasted. I smiled back. That would have to wait. I wanted to try something else.

Chaka screamed in horror as a ninja thrust his katana right through her chest. Blood sprayed out and ran down her belly as he drew the blade back. Ochir’s eyes widened and he took aim at the ninja. His arrows flew unrestrained. The peppered ninja fell back and disappeared.

Lo roared and picked up an entire fruit cart and slammed one of the ninjas with it. Fruit exploded and rolled everywhere. Lo lifted the cart afterward to see if he’d killed the ninja. The ninja limped away. He vanished once he’d scuttled about ten feet. “Take that!” Lo cried.

I called on my new telekinesis spell and used the force to yank one of the ninja’s feet out from under him. He landed on his ass and had no idea what happened. As he tried to stand up, Guchugar seized the opportunity and crushed the ninja’s skull.

Two ninjas popped up from behind some fish crates and threw glistening shurikens that thudded into Guchugar’s chest. He turned blue; shook violently, threw up, and fell dead.

"Oh no! They are using vile poison! They are evil beyond evil!" Dipaka cried. He moved over to engulf the remaining ninjas with his peace aura. “Away with thee! There shall be no more fighting here!” and the ninjas all ran off and disappeared.

Dipaka quickly knelt and spoke several phrases over Guchugar’s body. The dead gnome suddenly coughed and sputtered back to life. He lay there, rasping.

“Behold! He is restored to life!” Dipaka announced.

Chaka bowed very low before Dipaka. “Thank you Holy Man,” she said. Dipaka knelt and healed Chaka, and she pointedly rubbed the inside of his leg. “Nice,” she said.

“Stop that Meiko! I have taken a vow of chastity!’ Dipaka cried.

“Who’s Meiko?” Chaka asked. Then she laughed.

“I can’t see them, but I don’t think they’re gone! Let’s get the haste going down here Xiao Ping! What are you waiting for?” Ochir cried. He activated his Mongol figurine and his air elemental swirled into being. He commanded it to carry him through the air. “As you wish,” the elemental said.

I hasted everyone.

Chaka beat out a speedy rat-a-tat warning on her drums. "You assholes better get the hell out of here! I'm a Mongolian Ambassador! I’ll see that you pay for this!”

As if in defiance, three ninjas appeared from behind stalls, each with a katana in one hand and a shuriken in the other. They advanced on Ochir, Chaka, Guchuluk, and the still prone and wounded Guchugar.

One ninja looked at Ochir, but threw his Shuriken down into Guchugar’s chest with a thud. The new dose of poison stormed through Guchugar and he had another massive seizure and died again.

Dipaka was beside himself. “No! Stop! Why are you killing them?”

The other two whisked their poisonous shurikens at Guchuluk, and he wrenched several times and fell dead too.

“No! This is senseless killing!” Dipaka cried.

More ninjas materialized and came at us from different angles. Wen kept one at bay before Xia, and she harried them with magic missiles.

I blinked in disbelief when the first mate from the Regina Isabella, Tsuto Kaijitsu, suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the street. He attacked a ninja, artfully dodged a thrust, and then parried another thrust with his Siangham.

Tsuto was very tall and exceedingly thin, and he had an aquiline nose. His pointy ear tips were a sure sign of his elvish heritage. He was still dressed in brown, hardly a royal color. There was a bow slung over his back.

"O my sister Princess, I bring you greetings!" he announced, as he whirled and stabbed another ninja in the heart and killed him dead. "Our sister Amieko is soon to be here with Sandru and the Caravan."

“Big Brother, or whoever you think you are,” I said, “let’s save the introductions for when we’re out of this mess, shall we?”

His eyes narrowed. He ducked a mortal blow. He knocked a ninja backward. “Whatever sis!” he cried.

Chaka broke out an obsidian wand and threw a fireball at the ninjas. It was a weenie burst, and the ninjas chuckled under their masks. "It’s only an Illusion!" one of them jeered at her. “Isn’t that just like a gnome? She tries a parlor trick in a pitched battle!”

Ochir let out a battle cry and fired his bow like a dun fiend, he killed one ninja outright, and he almost killed another with two more arrows. Xia followed his deadly shafts with magic missiles and she finished off the second ninja.

Several ninjas advanced on Chaka. Dipaka threw a sanctuary on her, to save her life. The prayer would keep the ninjas from attacking her.

"There will be no killing of pregnant women on my watch!” Dipaka insisted.

The ninjas, unable to attack Chaka, attacked Xia instead. I held my breath. By the grace of Bahamut, they all missed her.

"By Bahamut's bidding!" Wen cried, and he smote one of the ninjas.

"Is that all you’ve got, Prince Wen?" Tsuto asked. The lanky half-elf deftly finished the ninja off with his siangham.

"Oh, and as I haven't yet had the pleasure, congratulations to you on your marriage to my little sister,” Tsuto said. His voice was strangely sibilant.

“Thank you,” Wen said, as he killed another ninja.

"That was a big mistake, attacking my Xia!"  Lo bellowed, and chopped one of the last two ninjas in half.

The last ninja backed up, looked around at Lo, Wen, Ochir, and Tsuto. He reached into his mouth and bit down on a concealed capsule, and conveniently dropped dead.

Dipaka checked them all. “They are all quite dead,” he reported.

“Yep, someone didn’t want us finding out who sent these guys,” Ochir said. “This was a goddamned assassination!”

Tsuto began whistling a low tune. Over that, we heard some sniffling, and a low, childlike wailing sound.

We looked around. Chaka was crying over her two dead henchmen.

“They killed them! The bastards! They didn’t stop until they were dead!” Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “They even came back to make sure they were dead! Somebody is responsible for this!” she sobbed.

She turned to Wen. “I bet you’re happy!” She turned to me. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that you can’t resurrect them with your stupid Seal!”

“Chaka, I’m so sorry,” I said. Guchugar and Guchuluk weren’t Amatatsu scions, so I really couldn’t restore their lives.

Ochir went over to comfort his wife. She clung to him and buried her face in his chest. “Why? Why? Why?”

“Don’t cry Chaka, I will raise them in the morning,” Dipaka said softly.

Chaka released her kung-fu grip on Ochir, looked up at Dipaka through her tears, and swallowed. “You can do that?”

“I will pray throughout the night for them, and tomorrow they will live again.” 


Just as Dipaka had promised, he brought Guchugar and Guchuluk back to life. Chaka was ecstatic. Dipaka kept them cloistered with him the rest of that day in due penance; he hoped he could sway them from their lives of violence.

Even after a day of reckoning, they said, “We are innately immoral father, and we sure appreciate being raised, but in changing for the good we’d be going against our natures. We sure do owe you, though. A big favor, you name it. If you want us to whack somebody, or just break a leg; we’re your boys.”

“Haven’t you idiots been listening? I don’t condone violence!” Dipaka cried, exasperated.

They looked at each other. They didn’t know what to say. “We’ll donate our money to charity then?” Guchuluk ventured.

“Now that sounds a lot better, but you need only donate ten percent to be in accordance, anything above that is voluntary,” Dipaka said. He helped them over the next few days to properly establish the Gnomish Children’s Benevolent Fund of Sapporo. They would receive ten percent of the two gnomes income from then on.

Several days later, Ameiko came to town with the caravan. The new caravan was enormous. The line of wains stuffed to capacity went on forever. There were at least a hundred guards on horse. The banner of Ordu-Aganhei flapped at the front of the column.

Prince Batsai-Khar rode beside Pang Mei on a massive destrier complete with gleaming chain barding, and he wore ornate O-Yori armor that was inlaid with mother-of-pearl and engraved with golden dragons. He had a golden crown on his head. He smiled constantly as he rode. He was an attractive man.

Behind him rode Okimoto Ezume, his Royal Guard. She was a big girl, yet she was beautiful. I had imagined her face would resemble a pinched flesh balloon. Instead she had gracefully high cheekbones, and an angular chin. Her long black hair flowed out from under her open kabuto. She wore a hara-ate to protect her torso and allow her to ride a horse. Her arms were protected by lacquered kote.

Apparently, she had received a special dispensation from the true Japanese Emperor years before to hold the rank of Samurai. After he went missing, the Jade Regent had revoked her status. She fled to Ordu-Aganhei and came to serve Prince Batsai-Khar. Her black eyes bored into mine when I looked at her.

Sandru sat high atop the foremost wagon and waved. He wore an orange travel turban, and was dressed in his brown leather road garb. “Hello my friends, we meet again!” He climbed down from his high seat and came over to us.

“Where the hell is my back pay, you old swindler?” Ochir shouted.

“Quit whining about your damn back pay, scoundrel; my ship sank too, you know!” Sandru growled.

Suddenly they laughed and clasped each other’s shoulders.

“Did you hear about the little swim I took?” Ochir asked.

“Hey, leave me out of that, I was with the Princess at the time!” Sandru pulled off one of his great pinky rings and gave it to Ochir. “But we all took a bath when that dragon came, eh? Ha-ha!”

Ameiko came around and gave us all hugs, starting with me. She smelled like lilacs in the springtime, and I was jealous all over again.

“I’ve brought mail for you all!” she announced. Wang Chung came forth with a huge bag of envelopes and packets.

“Here’s one for Lo,” she handed the shocked goliath an envelope.

“Here’s a few official ones for Ochir, and one regular letter, oh, and one for Chaka,” she gave those to Ochir.

“Here’s one for you, Sis. It’s from Marco; you’d better not let Wen see it.” I put it away. She smirked.

“And here’s a big stack for Dipaka, including a first-class parcel,” she said. “It looks like you’ve touched a lot of lives, Padre.”

“Oh, thank you,” he said, smiling at his pile of mail. 

We threw a big welcoming party for the Prince and Ameiko that night. We all partied into the wee hours of the morning. At one point I went outside to get some air. Lo came too.

“I think you should read this,” he said. He looked worried. He handed me his letter. I noticed that it bore the Imperial seal of Kublai Khan. It was from Malthus.

She wanted to unite the disparate Goliath tribes and deprecate several of the more barbarian Goliath customs, like throwing malformed newborns over cliffs or sending the gnarled and infirm out into the wilds to be eaten by animals. She explained that the Khan had granted her a charter to build a Goliath city, and that she could choose whatever husband she liked to rule it. She had chosen Lo. He was to return to the reservation in one year’s time in order to marry her and assume leadership of the tribe. There were threats she said, gathering at the fringes of their lands. She had already secured the Emperor’s blessing.

I looked up at Lo. “Oh shit,” I said.

“I love Xia, and I’m going to marry her,” Lo said. “That’s final.”

Ameiko came out. She took a deep breath of fresh air and blew it out.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Lo has been arranged to marry Malthus back home. He has been asked to return in a year.”

“Well, you can marry Xia now, and go back and marry Malthus there. Xia will live here with us, and she’ll never know about it,” Ameiko suggested.

“No, that would be lying to Xia. We can go to Malthus now and tell her that Lo cannot marry her, as he is betrothed to Xia,” I said. “Then she can choose another husband.”

“That reservation is over two thousand miles away. You can’t go back there now, it would take months!”

“Not if I teleport us there,” I said.

Ameiko raised her eyebrows. “You can do that?”

“It would take several leaps each way and a few days, but I could do it,” I said.

“Has anybody asked Xia about this?” she asked.

We all looked at each other. Dipaka came out.  “What are you guys talking about?”

Lo explained it all.

“I think I have to show her the letter,” he said.

“No, don’t do that,” I said.

“Well, perhaps you could preface the letter with an assurance that you love her and that you will most certainly still be marrying her,” Dipaka said.

Hmmm... maybe, I thought.

Xia came out. We all stopped talking and looked at her.

“What?” she asked.

Lo went over to her and got down on one knee.

“What’s going on? You’ve already proposed to me, silly,” she laughed. Lo took her hand.

“Xia, let me first say that I am still going to marry you, but you should know about this, as you will be my wife,” he handed her the letter.

She read it and burst into tears.

“What are we going to do? How can I get married with this hanging over my head?” she sobbed.

“Xia, I’m going to tell you again, you are my betrothed, and I am going to marry you. How about this: we can get married now, and we’ll say that the letter arrived afterward,” Lo said.

“That would be dishonorable,” I said.

“Well, maybe it’s time for dishonorable,” Lo said.

Xia stopped crying. She swallowed hard and shored herself up. “You just have to tell it to me. That you are my husband and our love for each other will have no second, not empresses, emperors, or anything like. I need that oath from you,” Xia said.

“Then you shall have it,” Lo knelt, pulled out his dagger and put it to his own throat. He drew a thin line of blood. It ran scarlet on his gray skin.

“Love of my life, my heart is always yours and no one else’s. I will make you my wife, and that is that,” Lo said.

“Of course you must go back and tell her that you cannot marry her! Tell her that she has no chance, not ever!” Xia cried.

Lo stood and then bowed. “Very well, that is what I will do,” he said.

Dipaka went over to help Lo.

“I’m sorry Dipaka, this wound must heal on its own,” he said. "It is the goliath way."

The Reservation

The next day Lo came to our room with his traveling stuff. I had my pack ready.

“You ready to go?” I asked.

“Sure, but I think Chaka saw me with my gear.” Lo said.

“What’s going on?” Wen asked, groggily. He sat up and stretched.

“We’re going to Lo’s homeland for a few days, remember? I told you about it.” I said.

“Oh yeah, have fun,” Wen said.

Lo said, “Wen, we need to trade responsibility for a while. I swear on my life that I will keep your wife safe. In the meantime, you must look after my betrothed.”

Wen nodded. “Sure, Lo.”

There was a knock at the door.

I went over, opened the door, and it was Chaka. She had her travel gear too. “Hey, it’s me, let me in,” she said.

I waved and Lo ran and hid in the bathroom.

“Why come in, Chaka.” I was going to talk my way out of this.

“Where are you guys going?” she asked.

“You guys?”

“I see Lo’s backpack in the corner; I may be short Xiao Ping, but I’m not blind!”

“Ok, we’re just going back to China for a few days, nothing to worry about,” I said.

“Nothing to worry about? You're not going to China, you're going to Mongolia. What if you run into Mongols? No. I’m coming with,” she said.

“You know she’s right, she can talk to them and get them to leave us alone,” Lo said, coming out of the bathroom. “I’d like to avoid any imperial entanglements if at all possible.”

I sighed. “Alright, we’re going to teleport there right now,” I said. “It will just take a few seconds.”

I smelled something terrible. “Lo, close the bathroom door please.” 

“Sorry,” Lo said.`

"Damn, Lo," Wen said.

“What about Ochir?” I asked Chaka.

“What about Ochir? You let me worry about Ochir,” she said. “You said it’s just for a couple of days right? He won’t even know I’m gone. He’s been spending all his time hunting for some craftsman to add some new power to his bow. The oven is off limits. What about the Seal? You can’t take that by teleport, right?”

“I gave it back to Ameiko already,” I said.

Wen helped me to put on my pack and I kissed him goodbye.

“Let’s hold hands, take a deep breath, and I’ll take us there,” I said.

I thought about a tavern I remembered from our travels with a humorous name. As soon as I pictured it completely in my mind, we were in front of The Prone Crone, about four hundred miles outside Beijing. It was raining.

A drunken dwarf stumbled out of the tavern's door. “Hey guys! A giant just appeared out here with two little girls,” he sloshed. “Damn, that’s some good drink!”

“This is only the first stop,” I said.

“Thank god,” Chaka said.

“Keep holding hands.”

I pictured the Yak’s Path Outpost in the upper steppes of the Gobi.

“Ok,” I said. “You can let go now. We’re on foot from here.”

We hiked toward the dam. Chaka rode on Lo’s shoulders after several minutes of a rather one-sided negotiation. After two hours, I felt a scrying attempt on me. I had the crystal ball in my pack so I knew it wasn’t a friend of ours. I pressed my eyes shut, leaned against an outcrop and tried to fend off the viewer. After a few seconds it passed. I guessed it was the Mustache.

“You ok?” Lo asked. 

“Yeah, I’m fine, but I think someone just tried to look in on us, so let’s keep moving.”

We made it to the dam that afternoon. The goliaths were working steadily. We saw that the stone dam had gotten a bit higher, and the wooden dam now had a re-enforced wooden fortress at each end. They had repaired the breach that Bloop had made.

Lo yelled and several goliaths saw him and waved. We followed him down into the site. We were taken to the center of camp and we saw the huge goliath woman directing the workers.

“Lo!” Malthus yelled happily. ”I didn’t expect you to be here so soon!”

Dawn-Caller helped Lo’s father come out of his tent.

“Lo!  Welcome home son!” he said.

“Welcome Father,” Lo said as we neared.

Lo hugged his father and his tribe-mates each in turn.

“Lo, Malthus here has earned the respect of the tribe, and you must marry her and become the tribe's leader,” his father said. “You will lead us into a new age, one where we are at peace with the Mongols.”

Malthus smiled at Lo.

Lo shifted and then looked at the ground. “There’s just no other way to say this. I am betrothed to another, a human woman,” he said.

“You are to marry a human?” his father asked. “Is this her? I thought the one you liked was easier on the eyes.”

Malthus frowned at me.

I shook my head.

“No!” Dawn-Caller suddenly yelled. “No! This is wrong! It is not the goliath way! Of course Lo must marry Malthus and produce young and strong goliaths! How could you fall in with these puny humans? Come back home Lo!”

“I was banished from your tribe! While so banned I made oaths to others! I am the Champion of the House of Amatatsu, and this is not something I can dismiss!”

Lo drew Suishen before them. Flames cascaded up the blade, even in the afternoon sun.

“You think that little fire you have there is power?” Dawn-Caller roared. “Behold the power of the mountain!” he stretched forth his hand and lifted.

A massive rock man earth-elemental pushed its way up out of the ground. Clods of dirt and rocks fell about our feet. The creature was fourteen feet tall.

“I do not question your power, Dawn-Caller,” Lo said. “But I must see my task through and put Ameiko Kaijitsu on the throne of Japan. This is about my solemn oath to others. Going against my oath goes against everything that you taught me. I can return in a year.”

Lo’s father said nothing to this.

Malthus spoke. “Goblins have been seen camping at our borders; I fear that in a year’s time, there will be no reservation left to return to.”

“Goblins have been in these mountains for years, Malthus. Why do you think that now they will attack?” Lo asked.

“I cannot prove this, but I believe the Mongols are still going to try to wipe us out. I think they are secretly backing the goblins. I have found evidence of the pasty humans in their camps. That would not happen unless they were aiding them. Otherwise, they’d have been eaten, and I’d be finding their bones instead of their tracks.”

Chaka shifted.

“If we are attacked in great numbers, I fear for what might happen,” Malthus said.

“The Mongols will surely let you finish their precious dam,” Lo pointed out. “Malthus, we can be here quite quickly if need be, as you can see. I am truly sorry that I have chosen another,” Lo said. “You must do the same."

I waved at her. “I will scry on you guys once a week, and if anything happens, we’ll come and help you.”

Malthus had misty eyes now.

“Lo, we have to respect your decision, you have clearly given it a great deal of thought,” his father said.

He looked up at the turning sky, as was his way. “You will not be re-shunned.”

Lo let out a sigh of relief.

“Come on, I want to stay at the Yak’s Outpost tonight,” Chaka said. “I always feel like I’m about to get stepped on around here.”

“We must go,” Lo said.

“Maybe when I die, I’ll be re-incarnated as a Princess,” Malthus said.

I didn’t know if she really wanted that, being a Princess was nothing like I thought it would be.

The Wedding

The wedding day dawned bright and clear. Xia wanted a Shinto style ceremony, even though she and Lo were both Chinese. “We are going to live in Japan from now on,” Xia said. “We are now Japanese.”

We rented a completely separate room at the inn for doing our make-up and getting ready. Xia, Ameiko, and I wore white faces with ruby red lips. Xia wore a luxurious wig filled with expensive combs and decorative ornaments. Xia donned an ancient white silk shiromuku we’d discovered at a small shop in Sapporo, and Lo wore a dark blue and gray haoiri-hakama we’d had specially made for him.

We decided to exchange vows instead of doing the sake ceremony, as Lo could no longer drink.

Everyone was there, but Ochir remained outside the main ring of guests and kept a sharp eye out for more ninjas.

Dipaka began:

“We are gathered here together this day to unite Lo Ear-Splitter and Hsiao Xia in holy matrimony. Anyone that wishes to speak before the couples give their vows may do so. First, there will be a song and a reading.”

Chaka and Wang Chung played their instruments and sang the praises of Lo, then read a two-part poem about Xia. At the end, Chaka said, “As ambassadors of the Mongol Empire, Ochir and I hereby bless this union,” and she bowed very low.

Then it was my turn. I stepped forward.

“Lo and Xia, I am filled with pride this day to see you come together as one. You both have shown commitment beyond that ever imagined by our House. There is no loyalty greater that that shown by you Lo, or you Xia. Lo has demonstrated a strength and restraint beyond what could be expected of even the greatest House Champion.

“Xia, I am glad that you came to us from Blue Silk village and followed us until we met again. You have been a selfless heroin, and I hope none of this has overwhelmed you. I want you to be happy with Lo, and I truly respect your skill and your amazing abilities. I wish nothing but the best for the both of you.”

Xia and I ran to each other and broke from tradition; we hugged and cried. Our makeup showed the paths of our tears.

Wen cleared his throat. “I daresay that Bahamut is overjoyed at your union! You have the blessings of my wife and I. Beautiful Xia, and strong Lo, I bid you both good fortune, and wish that you may never be separated!”

Ochir said, “I pray to Buddha any children you might spawn of this union not be hideously deformed mongoloids!”

Chaka frowned.

Dipaka piped up, "Luckily, we have the gnome’s blessings and I too would like to bless this union between these two individuals and their cultures, and help construct this holy bridge. I also take this moment to remind the great warrior that now his truest and greatest battle is to keep his wife protected for the rest of her life," Dipaka said. He nodded to the bride. It was Xia’s turn to give her vows.

"Lo Ear-Splitter, House Champion of the Amatatsu line, I vow that I will be ever faithful to you with all my heart. I will never complain, and I will fulfill all duties a wife is bound to perform. I will always champion your causes, whatever they might be. So I say unto thee.”

Lo vowed: “Xia, I vow to love you at all times, whether in sickness or in health. I swear this by all in the World. So I say unto thee.”

Dipaka concluded: “With these honorable oaths being sworn, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may now honor your bride with a kiss.”

Lo picked up Xia for their kiss and everyone cheered. Someone released some doves that few away as fast as they could. Spad the Raven squawked at them. He flew down from the fountain and landed on Lo's shoulder. Everyone cheered again, and threw rice verywhere.

After the kiss, we went into a waiting tent and Ameiko and I helped Xia change into her irouchiakake, a beautiful silk kimono with red, gold, silver, and white colors. It featured a crane, which symbolized long life.

We went in a procession back to the inn for the reception. We all danced and partied like fiends. Wang Chung, Chaka, and Ameiko played and sang all sorts of songs. Mostly they played thumping vibrant dance songs, but later there was one about a gambler, and yet another about a hotel no one ever left. Ameiko played her samisen for a long time at the end of that one. I was thrilled. I was so proud of her. Not too many people could play as well as my sister.

The Prince smiled the whole time. It was creepy. He sat with Tsuto.

Near the end of the reception, Xia changed into her ceremonial furisode, a red kimono with wide sleeves only worn by an unmarried woman. This tradition symbolized the last time she would ever wear a furisode.

Of course, everyone gave Xia decorated envelopes stuffed full of cash.

After Ameiko sang a final, sad and sweet ballad, it was time for Lo and Xia to retire.

We had rented out the best suite in the house, and we’d set it all up for them.

The rest of us kept drinking and carrying on until the sun came up.

A few days later Xia wanted to go shopping, and Ochir never had found an artisan capable of modifying his bow, so Xia, Ochir, Chaka and I took off for Beijing one afternoon. 

We held hands and popped by the Crone and then right into Beijing.

There we went our separate ways, Xia and I to the upscale market, and Ochir and Chaka to who knows where. I knew that Chaka would have the resources to get them teleported back to Japan when they wanted to return, otherwise, she never would have taken the chance that I was mad enough at Ochir to leave them in China. She was right; I certainly wasn’t going to bring them home with us, not after that letter. I would go back and tell Wen that Ochir was over a thousand miles away and it would take him months to catch up to us, if he ever did. Even Dipaka wouldn’t be able to argue with the solution. No violence involved. Even if Ochir’s father came down from the heavens and destroyed my husband, Ochir would be denied the pleasure of watching it happen.

After we’d gotten a borderline reasonable deal on a rod of lesser maximize for Xia, we stayed one night and then went back to Japan. We made a stop on Kamikaze Island and picked up Mayor. He was grazing at a clump of beach grass when we found him. He looked up when he heard us coming. He neighed and trotted over to Xia.

“O Mayor, we could never leave you here forever!” she hugged his neck. It was a short hop from there to Sapporo.

When I got back to our room after stabling Mayor, I explained to Wen how I’d left Ochir behind in China, and I pushed my husband down and made love to him right then and there. There was no time for sweet talk, I needed my husband. He was happy to get back into the swing of things.

We waited a few more weeks before we left to go talk to the Ronin my sister wanted us to recruit. It was a happy time for Wen and I. We spent a lot of time with Lo and Xia too.

One bright morning we unstabled Chi Hai and Mayor, Dipaka summoned his Unicorn, and we took the main road south out of Sapporo.

“Hey, wait for us!” Ochir and Chaka rode up behind us on Baderhu. Guchugar and Guchuluk were sticking out of the saddlebags, a gnome on each side. 

“Nice try ditching us back in Mongolia Xiao Ping!”

The Ronin

It was eventually decided that Ameiko and Prince Batsai-Khar would travel with the caravan, while we traveled south on our own to locate a possibly sympathetic Ronin called Hirabashi Jiro. Ameiko said the Ronin might be found in a lush river valley three hundred miles south on Honshu, across the Tsugaru Straight. He was supposedly a good man, one that settled scores with marauding bandits on behalf of the beleaguered peasants. While we were doing that, Ameiko intended to negotiate with the ninja clans, and then persuade the great Geisha and the Hand of the Merchant Class to help us.

The road wound south from Sapporo through dangerous mountains, and for a long time it skirted Uchiaru Bay before it dead-ended in the Ainu fishing village of Usukeshi. We hired a flat barge to take our horses across the straight to Oma. We saw bearded Emishi men fishing for tuna in tiny boats that dotted the adjacent cape. Gulls filled the air.

“Hey, Xiao Ping, someone’s eyeballing us from the edge of that tree line! Put the biggest and hottest fireball you got right there in those trees and take care of them!” Ochir cried.

I didn’t see a thing. “What? I can’t just lay waste to the tree line!”

“What are you waiting for? Damn it, they’re gone now! Really Xiao Ping, here we are in enemy territory, and you’re just going to let them get away?”

“Enemies? We don’t have enemies here,” I said. “We’re trying to muster the good guys on this one!”

“Right!” Dipaka said. “There’s absolutely no need for violence on this mission!”

“There was someone in the trees spying on us, and—you know what, forget it,” Ochir gave up, disgusted.

Ironically, I did want to fireball that damned forest. It was the seductive nature of my power; it physically coursed up my spine and gripped the back of my neck. It was a tension that could only be released if I unleashed my fire and caused some serious damage to something— or someone. So far, these feelings had been easy to suppress, but they had lately been getting harder to push aside.

When we got to the shore, we led the horses onto land and rode on. Guchugar and Guchuluk always stood watch stationed on the ground under the rope trick during the cold nights. Chaka reasoned that the enemy would think that the gnomes were dead, so they may not attempt to scry on them. We took our regular watches as usual, so we could drop out of the rope trick if the gnomes gave the alarm. The gnomes slept in Ochir’s saddlebags during the day, so they could stay up all night. Chaka seemed to have quite a knack for the logistics of this sort of thing.

Eventually we came to the feet of Mount Iwate, which was actually a volcano. As we made our way around it, a green valley opened up before us. We found that the Kitakami River ran along the bottom of the valley. It had been seven days since we left Sapporo when we reached the area on our map where Pang Mei had hoped we might find the Ronin.

A clump of wood huts with thatched roofs crouched on an embattled hillock that overlooked the northern riverbank. The place seemed downright inhospitable at first, since most of the surrounding fields were overgrown with brambles. Several figures were visible in the distance, west of the hill, digging a long ditch, trying to mark off the boundary of a rice paddy. In a clear field, a group of youths was practicing with short bows at a line of straw targets. A lone adult figure called out instructions to them in a deep, yet female voice.

Ochir encountered them first as he scouted ahead of the rest of the group. Ochir positioned himself behind the practicing lads, and he waited for the smallest boy's turn to fire. Just as the young man’s arrow missed the target completely, Ochir fired a shot right into the bull’s-eye. Instantly, the surprised instructor looked around to see where the truer arrow had come from. She readied her naginata, then she uttered a prayer upon her weapon, and its edges began to glow and hum.

"Declare yourself! Friend or foe!"

"I am neither. I am a traveler looking for Hirabashi Jiro,” Ochir answered.

The woman looked up when she heard our horses approach.

I cleared my throat and said, "Konnichiwa, my lady, we have come to seek an audience with Hirabashi Jiro, the great Ronin, and we are here to help. I am Aiko Kaijitsu of the house Amatatsu, and these are my friends. We are here to muster the assistance of those that oppose the Jade Regent.”

"I am Prince Wen Tiang-Xiang, her husband, and a Fist of Bahamut," Wen assured the woman.

"I have never heard of you and I have no reason to trust you," the woman said.

“Allow me,” Dipaka said, and came forward on his Unicorn. As soon as the woman saw the mythical beast, her expression of concern changed to that of wonder. She handed her glowing naginata to one of the children to hold. The boy looked down at it with an expression of puzzlement.

"Holy Man, may I have your permission to approach?" she asked Dipaka.

“Certainly you may. I am Dipaka Bhasa, and I have come to heal the world.”

She approached slowly, and the Unicorn sniffed her to make sure she was pure. I could tell by her holy symbol that she was a Paladin of Amataratsu, and she would have taken a vow of chastity similar to my own. The Unicorn nuzzled her and they embraced.

"I am a Sohei, and my name is Habesuta Hatsue," she introduced herself and bowed.

We all bowed in return.

"You work with this Ronin?" Dipaka asked.

"I do."

"So he really does good deeds, then?"

"That's a matter of judgment; he could do better," she said, smiling.

The Unicorn was nuzzling her. "Allow me to lead you to the main hut," she said. She walked along a dirt path and took us to another cluster of huts that huddled around a watering hole and a fire pit. The youths followed and stared at us. We must have appeared novel or odd to them. Most of them kept staring at Lo; some looked at the gnomes with interest.

Inside the hut, there was a clay fireplace and a low table. A firkin of sugar stood on the corner of the table, and the rudiments of daily life were everywhere. A beautiful quilt hung on one wall. A grindstone stood in a corner. Sitting on a smaller low table was a Shogi-ban, a Japanese chessboard.

“A Shogi set! I know how to play!” I cried.

"I am a warrior Monk from the mountains,” Hatsue said, “so I have had plenty of time to work on my Shogi skills. After we’ve had our tea and completed the formal introductions, we’ll play a game," she said. "Other than playing Shogi, I've spent my life defending the settlers here from things that have encroached upon our borders,” she explained, as she began the tea ceremony. She poured out the tea and gave us each a cup in turn. We introduced ourselves.

Ochir expressly forbade Chaka from taking any tea.

"Oh my God, Ochir! I can't believe you're going to make a scene! I’m the Mongolian Ambassador to Japan! It’s my job to take tea with those I meet," she said, “not to mention polite.”

"Still, I forbid it," Ochir said, "It’s my job to make sure that nothing happens."

Dipaka came over and cast a spell on Chaka that would protect her from the possibility of poison.

Hatsue didn’t even bat an eye.

"Thank you," Ochir said, and then he went outside to pass the time with the children.

Dipaka brought the teacup to his lips for the purpose of diplomacy, but he was still going against his way.

After we were all done, Hatsue put the cups away and set up the Shogi board. “Why don’t you go first,” she said to me.

Sente and gote are the sides in Shogi. I played gote. Hatsue’s game was regimented and straightforward. The way an individual played Shogi revealed a great deal about them. I lost the game after nearly thirty moves. It was grueling toward the end.

"Good game," she said, after it was done. "You're quite talented for a beginner. Your game has revealed a great deal about you. You like to be patient and keep your options open, but then you want to protect too much, and make too many rudimentary mistakes. However, you fight to the end. I have heard of a Shogi variant from Cathay, where the player can place the opponent’s captured pieces on the board to act as their own. Like turncoats. That drop variant hasn’t caught on here in Japan. There is Honor here.”

I’m sure my face was red. I tried to take what she said as constructive criticism and bowed.

“The time has come. Now the Ronin will see you.”

“Thank you,” I said, “isn't this is the part where you tell me that you’re the Ronin?”

She laughed at that. “No, you’ve been reading too many stories. I’m not the Ronin.”

“I am the Ronin,” a voice said, as a man entered the hut. He was an impressive figure; he was dressed in a black hitatare that bore the mon of no Daimyo. He had a long, black, flowing topknot, and his face was clean. He appeared to me to be in his late thirties. Tucked into a black obi cinched around his waist were a wakizashi and a plain wooden practice sword. He bowed.

"I am Hirabashi Jiro. Since you are in my encampment, I will tell you a little about myself,” he began.

"I was born in the Imperial Capital, and raised among the retinue of the Governor. My father, Kito, was a well-respected Samurai. I was trained as a Samurai in my early years and served Daimyo Sikutsu Sennaka, the current Governor of this province. In my idle time, I cultivated a love of history, poetry, and the classics. I also witnessed firsthand my Daimyo's legendary cruelty.

“When the Jade Regent assumed control of Japan the Capital exploded in a bloody conflict between my master and the Hiroshigama clan.”

He paused for a moment.

“I found myself on the losing side. I had two brothers. Their names were Hito and Ichiro." He swallowed. "They were both slain, as we fought for our lives against the Hiroshigamas. Following the massacre, I was forced to flee the Capital, now a man without a Lord. It was only with the help of my father that I managed to escape. The blade of my family I do not have, and I will use no true katana until I have recovered the sword.”

He fell silent, and he rested his hand on the pommel of his practice sword. He was finished telling his tale.

I stepped forward.

"Allow me to introduce myself and my companions; I am Aiko Kaijitsu, of the House Amatatsu. We are only an advance party for the true heir to the throne, my sister, Ameiko Kaijitsu. The strike team you see before you recently slew Munasukaru, the Least of Five Storms. We have come here to see if you are willing to join us in our quest to restore my sister to the rightful throne.”

“I see,” he said.

“We have worked long and hard to come to this point and we seek out those who have the same beliefs. We wish to gather forces to remove the Jade Regent.”

“I hear you Aiko. Is there any other that might state their name and purpose before me, as she has done?”

“I am Lo-Earsplitter, and I am the House Champion of the Amatatsu family.” Lo stood tall.

“Lo carries our house katana. We found our family’s katana hard to come by as well, but we managed it. I have written an account of it, if you wish to read it.”

“I’ll read it,” Hatsue said. I dug it out of my pack and handed it to her.

“Ah, you are a lucky man indeed to have your family sword,” the Ronin said to Lo.

“Indeed,” Lo said.

Dipaka glowed a bit brighter. “I am Dipaka Bhasa; I am here to heal the world,” he said.

The Ronin bowed very low before Dipaka. “That is noble indeed. I think that with your halo, you must be divine.”

“I am only a man,” Dipaka said, “just like yourself.”

The rest of my companions introduced themselves.

The Ronin motioned for us all to sit.

“The time has come. Now I will pose to you a philosophical riddle, and I want to listen to all of your answers,” the Ronin said.

He nodded to Hatsue. She cleared her throat.

“There once was a Daimyo, a Samurai, and a peasant,--”

“This is starting out like a joke, not a riddle,” Chaka quipped.

Hatsue gave Chaka a dark look, but then she went on.

“The Daimyo received a matching katana and wakizashi set as a gift. He demanded to know if the blades were sharp enough to kill a man by cutting him in two with a single cut. Therefore, he ordered his Samurai to test the blades on the peasant. The Samurai loathes his terrible duty, but he cannot disobey his master. He must make two cuts.”

“What would you do, if you were the Samurai?”

Dipaka went first. “I could only kill myself, as I can do no harm to others, but in my dishonor for being disobedient to my Lord, I would have to take my own life with one cut.”

Chaka went next. “You could walk away Dipaka, in my opinion there’s no dishonor in refusing to obey a crazy man. However, I, on the other hand, would send for the nearest gnomish engineer, and have him construct a mechanical whacking arm that could grip and chop with the wakizashi, and then I would chop the peasant into three parts with two simultaneous whacks!”

The Ronin raised his eyebrows at this.

He looked at me.

“This is easy; I would kill only the evil Daimyo. I would allow the peasant to live. Then I would be a Ronin,” I said.

Jiro didn’t react. He looked up at Lo.

Lo said, “I would kill the peasant with my first chop, and then myself with the second chop, to express my disagreement with my evil lord.”

The Ronin looked at Wen.

“I am of the same mind as Lo here,” he said, “except, I would kill the Daimyo, and then myself, so that the innocent peasant might live, and the tyrant be wiped out. I would be forced to kill myself, as I would have surely dishonored myself by killing my Lord.”

“Hmm,” the Ronin said. “Your answers have revealed something about each of you.”

 Apparently, that was it.

“If you agree to Jiro’s holy quest, I will give you this quiver of flaming arrows,” Hatsue said.

“I would prefer straight arrows,” Ochir said, as he sauntered back into the hut.

“What is this quest you speak of?” I asked.

“There is a mysterious bandit lord that operates in the southern part of this valley. He resides in a hidden mountainside fortress called Seinaru Heikiko. Half of his bandits are always in the field, and the other half remain in the fortress. While my people set up decoys and attack the bandits in the field, you will attack the fortress and confront the bandit lord. My family sword is within. Please recover the blade, and return it to me. That is all I ask. You may even keep the fortress as your own afterward, to establish a base of operations for yourselves while you conduct your campaign on Honshu.”

“That’s not a bad idea, we need to establish a base of operations,” Ochir said.

“My house katana is a legendary adamantine sword, that of my ancestor, Hirabashi Akikasa. The sword is supposedly held in a secret cache of weapons inside Seinaru Heikiko. The cache can only be opened by a true imperial Scion of Japan. When you return with the katana, this will prove your heritage."

"We will go forth to find this Seinaru Heikiko fortress, and return your blade to you," I promised. I hoped my experience with promising a katana to someone would go a bit better this time around.

The Fortress

The next day we set out to look for the hidden fortress. Dipaka went scouting ahead with Ochir this time. Dipaka wanted this to be a bloodless mission. He said he wanted us to walk into the fortress, and walk out with the katana. I was sure willing to give it a try, but I foresaw blood, and lots of it.

Dipaka and his Unicorn did sniff out a better way; we had the choice of trying to sneak in a side door instead of going down their heavily guarded throats. We chose the side door; it was also easier to hide the horses while we were inside the fort. After quite a bit of searching and backtracking, Ochir found a path that led to the mountain, but it dead-ended into a solid rock face.

We got off our horses and tethered them to the trees.

"There has to be a secret door here, I can see marks that look like they disappear right into the wall. All the same, I can't see it or figure out how to open it,” Ochir said, scratching his head. Chaka cast a spell on him that made him a bit more astute, and then he found a hand catch that sprang the door. The huge rock slab swung silently open.

"Open sesame!" he cried.

I threw a light on the tip of my spear and we went in. Another unmarked slab blocked the passage after just forty feet. “Ah, on the second door, the engineers always move the handle to another spot, but usually it’s just on the opposite side,” Ochir felt around until he found it. He backed up and cast a silence spell on the door, and Guchugar and Guchuluk came up and examined the door very carefully. After a while, the gnomes nodded the all clear, no traps.

Dipaka stepped up to open the doors, while Ochir stood beside him with his bow ready.

Dipaka pushed open the door.

Beyond was a large, well-lit workshop that smelled of freshly cut wood. Sawdust was everywhere, and four old stone columns supported the ceiling. They sat in a three-foot deep depression that was below the floor level. It looked like it was supposed to be a luxurious bath. There were blue and white enameled tiles lining the entire forty-foot square pool area. A trough ran from out of the west wall and then on to a hole in the south wall. Three stout wooden tables ran down along the east wall and bore carpentry tools, awls, files, saws, mallets, and axes. A massive set of double doors stood between two of the tables, and it was barred with a cold steel rail. In the north and southwest corners of the room, two wooden stairways promised an upper floor.

Inside the woodshop, we saw an old man working. The old man had a cute young female helper, and she had seen us open the door.

We were still standing in Ochir's silence spell, so we had to move forward into the room.

“Uh, oh, someone’s found the back door,” the girl said to the man.

The old man turned and saw us, and said, "Um, hello, my name is Kamuy-paro, I am the carpenter of this fortress, and what is it I can do for you?” he asked, and began wiping his hands with a rag.

"I am Ochir, and this is the great healer, Dipaka," Ochir said.

Dipaka stepped forward. "I wonder if you can help us kind sir, we are trying to find a sword, the Hiribashi blade.”

"Well," he replied, "I am not authorized to go into the armory, but if you'll kindly wait here for a few moments, I'll go and get the Lieutenant."

"I don't want to interrupt him while he’s on duty, if you would be so kind as to show me to the armory, I'll just go and be on my way," Dipaka said.

“I see, very well,” he said, “I have something I need to finish up here, do you mind waiting for just a minute?”

Dipaka nodded.

While we waited, I saw the carpenter cast several spells on himself; finally, he cast a spell on his female assistant.

"Don't worry, I won't let anyone attack you, I just want to get the sword," Dipaka said.

"Very well, let me show you the way," the man said.

"Thank you very much," Dipaka said.

They moved over to the barred double doors. The slight female lifted the huge and heavy bar from them and set it aside without even straining.

Something was very wrong. Regardless, we followed our hosts closely, and hoped for the best.

We came into a large outdoor courtyard that was empty with the exception of a cluster of huge stacks of chopped firewood and brush. The fortress of Seinaru Heikiko was cunningly constructed around the inside of a large mountain cleft that was open to the sky. There were two main wings of structures dominated by two tall chimneys. The first thirty-foot tall chimney was roughly shaped like a warrior and stood a silent sigil over the courtyard. The second was a fifty-foot tall chimney that loomed stonily over a stable. A tiny stream of rippling water formed a pool to the south that was partially filled with fallen boulders. There was a large wooden wall with a gate to the south; it spanned the end of the cleft. The gate was heavily barred.

As soon as the old man walked to the middle of the courtyard, he waved his hands, and suddenly the cluster of giant wood piles got up and moved rapidly towards us. They were eight feet tall and nearly as wide. Their arms and legs were masses of cut logs, broken branches, twigs, and brush. The sound they made was a deafening cacophony of snaps and creaks. They were amazingly fast.

Chaka whipped out her wand and threw a fireball that engulfed two of them. They shrunk back from the fire; it was clearly their weakness. Guchugar and Guchuluk chucked flasks of alchemist fire at them to fuel the flames.

"Fire, fire, fire!" Chaka chanted. Meiko, the pyromaniacal spirit, was still trapped inside Chaka.

One of the wood piles jumped forward and slammed Chaka to the ground. Lo bull-rushed the creature and threw it back.

Another slammed its fist into Dipaka, but its arm literally disintegrated when it struck Dipaka's holy nimbus. The creature didn’t notice; it was mindless.

Xia threw a mighty fireball at one of the shambling wood heaps. Her very first fireball was hotter than one of mine. The wooden beast burned up and fell to pieces. It crackled and smoked, and sparks sailed everywhere.

Wen drew his nine-fold spirit sword and attacked a wood creature with incredible zeal.

Ochir fired shots at the pretty girl. He hit her with the first shot, and suddenly she changed into a tiger. Ochir hit the tiger with two more arrows, and she roared in frustration; the sound rebounded from the sheer walls of the cleft.

Dipaka cast a sanctuary spell on himself. "Thanks for your help, but I think we'll find our own way to your armory, this way seems quite dangerous!" Dipaka said.

Guards began to appear everywhere, in windows, out of doors, and up on rooftops. They all had bows. They began firing at us, and Ochir was the first one of us nailed by an arrow.

“Ow! You bastards! You wanna trade shots with me?” Ochir cried. “You wanna trade shots with me?” He fired back at them, and their cries added to the confusion.

The carpenter threw a greater dispel magic at Dipaka, and this took down Dipaka’s sanctuary spell, but not his holy aura.

The tiger bounded forward, intending to pounce on Ochir, but when she moved into Dipaka's peace aura, she was stopped cold by it. The tiger gave the carpenter a dirty look, and said, "You're supposed to have dispelled it!"

"I did! I don’t know why it still works!" the old man cried.

Dipaka smiled. "Just give us the katana and we’ll leave!"

Wen shouted, "I'm afraid the conditions are much worse than that! We're taking this fortress! If they renounce their evil ways, then we might let them leave!"

The old man threw a fireseed at Dipaka that exploded near him and burned with a tremendous heat. It burnt the hell out of Dipaka. Smoke was rising from his blackened skin, and his homespuns were all but flaking away.

“Ow! I’m burnt!” Dipaka cried.

"Out! Out I say! I hate pushy Hari-Krishnas! The only donation you're going to get from me today is fire!" the old man bellowed.

"Who are you?" he asked, looking at Ochir. His eyes were blazing.

Ochir flipped him the bird.

"If you don’t answer, I will name you! I will call you: the Ass of Buddha!" the old man’s hideous laughter rang from the fortress walls.

"In Buddha’s brown eye you will!" Ochir yelled back.

"I am an aspect of Sosano-wo! Amataratasu’s brother! Japan is for God, Shinto, and me! You don't belong here! I will cleanse you from the face of Japan!"

Xia threw another fireball at the splinter creatures. Another one crumbled and went down to her ravenous fire.

Wen killed another one of them in single combat. He hacked it to kindling.

Lo chopped and burned up another one with Suishen.

Horns blatted throughout the fortress. They were now on high alert. Arrows struck dirt everywhere around us.

Wen was slammed by one of the wood creatures, and so was Lo. They were now bleeding heavily.

The wood piles suddenly gave off incredible bursts of deadly splinters that had us all reeling.

Ochir flew up thirty feet with his air elemental and he fired one shot of three bundled arrows. All three arrows struck the old man, but they bounced off him and scattered all over the ground.

The old man gave Ochir a terrible grin.

“Shit!” Ochir cried.

“Let’s get out of here!” I screamed.

"Dipaka, withdraw!" Wen yelled. Dipaka looked up from healing himself and dashed back to safety.

We backed the hell out of there. The gnomes slammed the double doors shut, and Lo barred them with the steel rail.

We rushed back through the woodshop and the secret doors. Back outside, we jumped on our horses and rode for our lives.




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