-------------------Chapter Seventeen, As Told By Aiko Kaijitsu---------------------

Ochir and the Daimyo

By Aiko Kaijitsu

The fire popped loudly as Ochir paused in the middle of his tale for a pull from his wineskin. He was telling his story to his son; it was the Mongolian way to pass down knowledge by word of mouth, so in this Ochir made no exception. He cleared his throat and went on.

“After the party disagreed with my appraisal of the situation, which is putting it rather mildly, I rode north alone, and traveled only by night. I bivouacked during the day, and I used my sharply honed ranger skills to hide in the most cunning of places. I didn’t want Xiao Ping or anyone else to be able to locate me through scrying. I took great pains to avoid the main road. After a few days of picking through the trees and underbrush, I came to the banks of the Omono River, which empties into the Sea of Japan after meandering down from Mount Daisen. I found a fallen tree that provided a way to brace against the current for part of the way. I dismounted and led Baderhu across.

I was climbing back into my saddle on the other side when I heard horses. I spurred Baderhu and took up a position in a copse of trees that sat within easy bow range of the water.

“He went into those trees!” I heard a gruff voice call. I saw five men on horseback ride up and skid to a stop on the other side of the river. A larger man on horse rode up behind them.

“I’m sure it was that gnomish archer from the dragon’s cave. He’s over there somewhere! Find him!” he ordered.

I was glad it was going to take them a while to get over the river. Suddenly, I saw the men fly out of their saddles and sail right over the water. They tried to impress me further by twirling their spears all around themselves like fancy experts.

“You there! Hiding in the trees! Hold!” one of them shouted. It was clear that they knew exactly where I was hiding. I got out my terra cotta warrior and called upon my elemental servant to carry me. “It is I, Talus of the sky! I shall bear you aloft like a pillow soft,” my servant said.

“Take me straight up!” I ordered. We shot straight up fifty feet, leaving Baderhu safely on the ground. I fitted a tri-cluster of arrows into my custom-made trinock bowstring clip on the way up, and then triple-thunked the idiot that had the audacity to command me to hold. I knew the extra acid and electrical goodness my bow added to my arrows would teach him a lesson he’d not soon forget.

Predictably, the wounded man sailed down to the ground, out of the fight. He scowled up at me. I gave him the bird. His nearest brother took up doing the shouting. “You have resisted our Imperial Command! You are under arrest, gnome! In the name of Lord Sennaka, cease and desist, or suffer the Lord’s Justice!”

By now they had me hemmed in, practically holding me in place with the tips of their spears.

“Uh oh, it looks like I’ve tried to kill one of your men! He has three arrows sticking out of him! Isn’t that a crime too?” I asked.

“Uh, yes, yes, that’s a crime too!” the soldier stammered.

“Wait a minute!” the General ordered.

The General flew up behind his men and looked sternly at me and my tricked out bow. He rubbed his chin before he said, “I must admit, gnome, you have some skill. Whom do you serve? Does he have a name for you?”

“I am Munkh-Ochir Batbayar, and I serve the great Kublai Khan that rules Mongolia,” I answered proudly. This seemed to impress the General.

“Do you know who I am?” the General asked.

I had no idea who this stinking Jap human could be. “No, should I? Are you supposed to be famous or something?”

“Hmmm,” the General frowned as he considered. Then he smiled a crooked smile. “There is no need that we should come into conflict my friend! However, you must agree to come with me to meet my Daimyo,” his smile vanished. “I insist.”

I looked around. I noticed that the soldiers around me were still powering up, their muscles were swelling magically as they gripped their spears. These stupid brutes weren’t going to take no for an answer. I decided to play it cool. I relaxed and floated downward.

“Your method of inviting a true warrior to meet your Daimyo intrigues me. Let’s just say that I am interested,” I said.

The General raised his hand to stop his men and wafted downward along with me. "I'm still thinking about gutting you."

“I am the property of the Khan, if you choose to damage his property, you’ll be dealing with him,” I warned him. Surely, he would comprehend the nature of his peril. I landed perfectly in my saddle.

The General chuckled as he landed on the ground. Suddenly, the man’s head and face split open from the inside, and a huge blue Oni stepped out of the man’s skin like a bloody moth escaping its cocoon. I should have known. He stank worse than the humans in the slave pits of the undercity.

It was Kazuo the Yojimbo.

“Do you remember me now, gnome?” the Oni asked me, thrusting his huge face into mine. “From the dragon’s cave?”

“I know who you are, and it changes nothing,” I said. “I am still the property of the Mongolian Emperor. If you want me to meet your Daimyo, I guess you’d better lead the way.”

The Yojimbo cracked a horrid yellow grin and we traveled south.

We cut back across the river and so on over to the main route. I had been wise to avoid the road, for there we met a long column of soldiers. At first, I thought it was an entire army. It turned out that it was only the personal escort of the Daimyo. He rode at the head of the column. He wore elaborate fiery-red great O-Yori armor and he had a demonic faceplate visor on his kabuto. There were four elite Samurai around him.

I saw what I later learned was the Typhoon Guard swirling, flapping, and squawking above; a squadron of black Tengus with spears adept at aerial reconnaissance. I was allowed to ride freely on Baderhu behind the Yojimbo.

The Yojimbo managed to schedule an audience with the Daimyo for when the day's march ended. When the sun went down, the column came to a halt.

“I’m going to take you to see the Daimyo now. I can’t take any chances with our new friendship, you understand," the Yojimbo pulled out a wand and waved it over my face. I tried to fight it, but it was no use. I instantly felt like I had known Kazuo all my life. It was magic, I knew, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was charmed. Kazuo was my new best friend. I looked at Kazuo and I said, “Really, you didn’t have to do that,” I explained. “I’m open to what your Daimyo has to offer, and I'm telling you that you didn’t have to do that.”

“Nevertheless, it gives me a warm feeling in my heart,” Kazuo said.

The Daimyo shouted, “General! What do you have there? A short little man of some sort? You Onis have strange tastes indeed!”

“My Lord, this is the Consular General from the Mongol Empire that I told you about,” Kazuo introduced me to the Daimyo. “May I present Lord Ochir.”

“Ah, you didn’t tell me he was a gnome,” the Daimyo said. “That changes matters. Bring him forth so that I can decide what to do with him.”

Kazuo pushed me forward. The Daimyo’s seasoned eyes regarded me through the narrow slits in his visor.

“Well, gnome, what say you?” the Daimyo asked.

“I must say, I find your hospitality rather, ahem, interesting, but I do appreciate what small part of it you have extended to me thus far,” I offered.

The Daimyo removed his helmet and handed it to one of his Samurai. I was quite pleased to see that his scarred face bore the perpetual scowl of a sadistic drill sergeant. His eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. As I had hoped, he was still trying to work out whether what I had said was a compliment or an insult. The Daimyo, although seasoned, was an idiot.

“Tell me why you are here,” he finally ordered.

“My Lord, I was on my way north to speak with the Mongolian Prince Batsai-Khar, who is stationed in Japan ostensibly to take the reins of power of this dung-heap of a country. I have no quarrel with anybody here, and I would suggest, unless you believe that you and your people here can withstand the onslaught of the entire Mongol horde, that you assist the Mongolian nation. Your numbers would compare as a grain of sand on a vast beach to their numbers when they do choose to come. I am only a humble servant of the Khan, but I suggest that you make an alliance with the Mongols, so that when they do come, the Khan will allow you to rule as you are.”

The Daimyo smirked at this. “My advisor tells me that you were seen traveling with an heir from the Amatatsu line.”

“That is true,” I said. “I have been given a task by my Empress, Chabui, to assist the heir in retaking Japan. However, the ultimate goal is simply to gain rulership over all of Japan, so it doesn't matter so much who the figurehead winds up being.”

The Daimyo laughed long and loud. “Japan is ruled by an Emperor, who by Divine authority gave the power to rule to his Regent, who in turn has given control of these Provinces to me. Why would I be concerned with Mongols? They cannot hope to defeat us from across the sea.”

I scratched my head. This moron was even denser than I had at first given him credit for. “I am but a small, insignificant cog in a giant machine, my Lord, and you are obviously much greater than I. Maybe I’m not making myself clear.”

“I am a powerful man, but I do not so quickly judge myself to be your better,” Sennaka said.

“You are certainly my better; I am making that judgment myself. I say again, you should forge an alliance with the Mongol Empire. If you cooperate, the Mongols will be content to leave those that served them well in charge. I’m just trying to facilitate that process. When the sky darkens in the distance and you can see the hurricane coming, it will be too late to stop it.”

“I am impressed that the Mongols would send a warrior to do their diplomacy instead of a diplomat,” Sennaka said.

“Oh, I am not the actual diplomat,” I explained.

“You are not? Why are you speaking to me, if you are not the diplomat?”

“Because the actual Ambassador is my wife, whom I was charged to protect. She has seen fit to divorce me. I believe now she is a traitor, and she has taken the side of those that wish to seize this land.”

“Do not make the mistake of thinking that I will allow myself to underestimate you, lone ranger. I have heard enough,” and he made a gesture to his men to execute me. It was unmistakable.

I stood proud. Several Samurai came forward to do the deed.

“Oh no, my Lord, not quite yet,” Kazuo stepped in, "the gnome needs to be debriefed before anything like that can happen. He has valuable information about the Kaijitsu family and their Royal Seal.”

“Very well, do what you must to get the information I need. You have until dawn, and then he will be executed,” the Daimyo took his helmet back and covered his face again. "Let's hope this one will be in better shape in the morning than the last one was. I don't like executing people that can't walk."

The Yojimbo took me by the arm and roughly led me away. “You’re going to tell me everything you know, gnome. Just wait and see what I do to you.”

Kazuo threw me into a stockade cart and locked the door. “I’ll be back after I get some grog. You'd better get some beauty sleep."

I heard him chuckling as he walked away. 


The Island of Shadows

By Aiko Kaijitsu

“Without Ochir and Chaka, we are tactically down at least twenty five percent of our strength,” Wen said. “We’re going to have to run a tighter ship.”

“Look at it this way, our negotiating possibilities have increased a thousand fold,” Dipaka said, “there won’t be arrows flying past the heads of the people I’m negotiating with while trying to get them not to fight us.”

“Or into the heads of the people,” Lo said.

I didn’t know how they could be so calm about all this. “I know Ochir isn’t here anymore to shoot people and spoil your peacemaking efforts, but he’s out and about somewhere doing who knows what,” I said.

“That is more of my concern, above everything else; that he could actually be out there killing even as we speak,” Dipaka said.

“I can’t let him be in the party after he shot Xia. He promised he wouldn’t do something like that again, and I believed him. Lo was right the whole time. We can’t let him be around because he will hurt someone. I'm also worried about Chaka and her gnomes.”

“They are competent field agents, I’m sure they will find their way home just fine,” Xia said. “I’m not worried about them.”

“Oh, Chaka will make it home on her own,” Dipaka said, “this I know.”

“If you have to get any gnomes back for the sake of success, I suggest you try Chaka,” Lo said. “Don’t even think about Ochir.”

“I tried to get Chaka to stay,” Dipaka said. “I have found women loath to forgive their men.”

“Yeah, but we don’t need Chaka to forgive Ochir if he’s not in our party. He won’t be around anymore for her to be mad at,” I said.

Dipaka shrugged. “You can waste time if you want to, but she’s not going to change her mind.”

“You know what? You’re right; we’ll go to the island without Chaka.” O-Sayumi still needed to be rescued. Delays weren’t what we needed.

“If you aren’t going to use Focus to scry on Chaka, shouldn’t you talk to Ameiko?” Xia asked.

I took out the crystal ball. “Focus, show me my sister.” A swirling blur formed in the air and then became clear. We saw a battlefield slick with blood.

Pang Mei had one foot on top of an Oni she had just slain. Her silken scarf flickered in the wind. “Our foes crumble before the Tide of Honor!” she cried.

Prince Batsai-Khar was posing bloodied and jubilant over another dead Oni. There were more dispatched Onis lying around everywhere.

Okimoto Ezume, the female Samurai, was just to the Prince’s right. She slaughtered a downed Oni with her katana. Blood sprayed onto her face and helmet visor. She called for a torch and bent down to burn the Oni’s corpse.

Dark green arrows stuck up out of almost all of the dead Onis. The Jade Archer picked her teeth with a splinter of wood.

Wang Chung was singing an impromptu song that illuminated the heroism of Ameiko and her company. I waited until he was done.

“Sister, it is I, Ping,” I said, in order to call attention to my intrusion. Ameiko turned to face me. She looked proud.

“What happened, did they jump you?” I asked.

“No, we jumped them. You aren’t the only brave adventurers around, you know.”

“Where are you?”

“We are en route to Seinaru Heikiko.”

“We have made contact with the Geisha at the Teahouse, and we are on our way to rescue one of her best girls for her,” I paused and swallowed. “We also have a serious problem, sister. Ochir finally lost his mind and attacked Xia as part of an ongoing confrontation with Wen and Lo, and then he left and we don’t know where he went. We think he headed north. Chaka left too and went south. Everything with the ambassadors went to shit.”

“The gnomes are Mongolians, why don’t I have the Prince of the Mongols handle it?” Ameiko asked.

“That’s fine with me, you'll find Ochir?”

“No, you’re the one with the crystal ball. Scry on Ochir, let me know where he is, and I’ll arrange for a pick-up. The Prince can deal with him afterward. I’ll just complain that Ochir is attacking my people and it needs to stop,” Ameiko said.

“I tried to scry on him already. I couldn’t get a bead on him,” I reported.

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if he shows up here on his own,” Ameiko said. “If he does, the Prince will deal with him. You’ll have to live with the consequences, though.”

“He’s been screwing us since day one,” Lo said. “He must be dealt with harshly.”

“I think it would be easier too if he was dead and gone at this point, but he’s not,” I admitted. “You can’t always get what you want.”

“Either you want to deal with the gnomes in your own fashion enough to break off from your rescue mission, or you can let me deal with the gnomes.”

“We’ll go rescue the Geisha,” I said, and nodded to Ameiko.

“I wish you success,” she said.

I put Focus away, and got out the Origami. I waded out into the surf and then spoke the command words that turned her into a ship. I grabbed her line and pulled her in.

“All aboard,” I said.

“Hey Lo, how about we work on you charging first into combat?” Wen asked Lo as we got into the ship.

“What?” Lo asked, incredulous. “I’m a barbarian! How else am I going to engage the foe? I can do a lot of harm with some momentum!”

“I know, but from now on, let me go first, huh?” Wen asked, "or, how about this: next time we have combat, it'll be my turn to charge the enemy first?"

"Sure Wen, I guess,” Lo said, with a puzzled look.

We left shore and began rowing toward the island. Although we had nary a sailing skill between us, I figured we could at least go straight across the water. We had already learned it was imperative to have someone at the rudder, so Wen steered. We were about halfway across when we were marooned on a coral reef. Lo tried to push us off the reef, but wherever he went on the boat, he made it too heavy at that point and he couldn't budge it. Aki finally managed to push us off the reef, cleverly gaining the advantage by using an oar as a lever.

“Apparently, only the good Father is fit to guide us,” I said. “Would you mind steering Father?” I asked Dipaka. “Of course not,” he said. Wen climbed down from the upper deck and took over Dipaka’s bench and oar. Dipaka went up and took the tiller.

As we got closer to the island, the atmosphere grew thick and gray. Shrouded by gripping mists, the private island occupied a particularly secluded spot on the coastline. It looked to me like we were entering a zone where color itself was slowly disappearing. Everywhere I looked; there was a definite desaturation effect. Something was very wrong.

“Does it look a little on the gloomy side here to you?” I asked Wen.

“Too gloomy,” he said.

Suddenly, we heard laughter rolling at us from every direction, and dark shapes came through the fog towards us over the waves. The shapes became flying men with barbed spears.

“Hold steady, and don’t attack the man-onis,” Dipaka said, “There’s no need to fight.”

As they converged on the boat, looking to tear us all apart, they stopped when they encountered Dipaka’s holy aura. They instantly calmed and looked at each other dumbly. They had absolutely no idea what to do next.

“Shoo!” Dipaka cried, “Shoo! Go and contemplate the error of your ways! Get going!” He waved at them with his free hand while he steered with the other.

Wen pointed his sword at them. “So, who do you serve? Are you the Jade Regent’s lackeys?” Wen demanded to know.

“We serve the Lord of the Island, and we’ll let him deal with you!” they screamed and flew off into the fog.

“Hey, would you guys mind towing our boat to the island?” I cried. There was of course no answer.

“Nice work Dipaka,” I said. Everyone was amazed. Dipaka smiled and shrugged. "It is what I've always said."

We kept on rowing.

We slowly glided into the Namidakame Lagoon. A very large sand bar in the middle of the lagoon had a few huts squatting on it. More gray huts and larger buildings formed a bleak town on the main shore. There was a strange smell, something vague and quite unfamiliar. It was like ozone, but with an inky soft coating. We saw several bone white natives crouching and rocking on a dock that jutted out over the lagoon. Their white make-up was caked and they wore only rags. One of them, a woman with her breasts openly dangling, dove into the water and didn’t come up for a long, long, time. The men did not move. Finally, she resurfaced, and she dropped some pearl oysters into her bucket. The men pried them open while she rested.

The pearl merchant’s barge was moored at a longer dock further down the beach, but it had obviously been utterly abandoned.

A crumbling villa stood off from the rest of the town. It looked like the place the pearl merchant must live. It didn’t add up though, this place looked as though it had been abandoned years ago. The shutters dangled from broken hinges, the outer façade was sagging badly. Black vines had engulfed a large portion of the estate.

The loss of color became visually jarring. We sidled up to the town’s dock. We moored the Origami and piled out. The natives moaned when we came near them. It looked like they were lost in some sort of trance.

We walked up the main street into the town. At first, there was no one about. Then, a handful of villagers came out of some of the huts. They moved towards us in a strange, sickly fashion.

“You there! Villagers! Do you need food, water, or medical attention? Dipaka asked.

As we got closer, we noticed that their pallor was a peculiar shade of blue.

“Oh no, I’m detecting serious evil here!” Wen said. “These aren’t villagers! They’re ghouls!”


The Villa and the Merchant

By Aiko Kaijitsu

The ghouls broke into a run and slammed into us at high speed. One got hold of Dipaka by his arm, wheeled him around, and started trying to eat him. Dipaka’s holy protection prevented him from being seriously injured by the ghoul’s teeth, but paralysis was still a danger. Dipaka wrenched himself free. “Back, foul creature!” he cried.

Ghouls streamed out of the huts. Lo stomped forward and thrashed through one of the ghouls with Suishen, but he was quickly covered by marauding undead. “Off!” he roared, and ghouls flew in all directions. He rubbed at the bloody bite marks. “Ow!" he complained. "Watch out, they sting!”

Two of the ghouls seized and chomped on Aki, but he was immune to their ghoulish paralysis. Aki threw them back and swept their feet out from under them. They flipped over, charged in low, and tried to claw his ankles. He kicked them away as fast as he could.

A ghoul grabbed me and I felt jagged teeth trying to chew my arm off. I tried to push the smelly ghoul away with my telekinesis, but the corpse somehow ignored it. I kicked it square in the balls and the brute only gnashed at me. Wen came over, hacked the ghoul with his sword, and shouted, “Get away, undead minion! Bahamut has blessed me with this Hanzo blade!” He kept pressing and drove the ghoul away from me. He was a good husband.

I tried direct pressure on my throbbing arm. It was bleeding like crazy and I couldn’t stop it. I felt paralysis creeping up to my shoulder, and I struggled to keep moving. “Dipaka! Help!” I cried.

“Fear not!” Dipaka shouted. He spread his upturned hands and let out a brilliant blue burst. The light healed us instantly, but it burned the ghouls. They screamed in agony as their skin curled up and fell away in strips. After the light waned, they glowered at Dipaka with unbridled hatred.

“Dipaka! You’re hurting them!” I cried. “I’ve never seen you hurt anything before!”

“My healing destroys undead! It doesn’t count as violence!” he shouted.

"Great!" I cried. "Keep doing it!"

Lo was tossing ghouls straight up into the air and hacking them with fiery chops. Wen and Chi Hai kept several ghouls at bay on their own front. Aki shook, rattled, and rolled, and kept a whole cluster of ghouls busy.

Some of the ghouls were by then down and twitching, but the mounting swarm was relentless.

Dipaka let out another healing burst and suddenly all the ghouls were blasted out of existence. They fell, turned to ash, and blew away in the wind. After they were gone, Dipaka’s shoulders slumped and he leaned heavily on his stick. After a time, he straightened, and looked to our wounds.

We searched the town. Aki announced his conclusion after we had poked around and looked everywhere. “Not another creature in town, living or undead. What’s next?” he asked.

We all looked over at the dilapidated villa. There was an old smudged sign on a pole that read: The House of Prose. A winding stairway led up to the house. Lanterns lined the way and croaked in the wind. There was an unkempt garden surrounding the house. As we neared, we saw that the villa was a brick curtain-wall structure that was only an outer shell. An open gate faced north, and we could see the rooms inside were created with shoji; rice paper wall panels that slid in tracks.

There were a couple of girls in the front area dusting and making a pretense of keeping the place up. Their short kimonos were faded and worn, and they had blue veins showing through pale skin. Their eyes were sunken and vacant. It looked like they had been ill-used; they were quite battered, and one had what looked like a dark handprint on her thigh.

“I hate to say this, but these cleaning girls are just as evil as the ghouls were,” Wen said.

“The Master has guests,” one pale girl murmured to the other.

“Who is your Master?” I asked. “We are looking for Yugureda Shosaito. Is he your Master?”

“Yes, he is our Master, but we know nothing of his whereabouts. We just clean the house here; we have no real knowledge of the Master or his evil experiments.”

“Evil experiments, you say?” Dipaka asked. “You must repent of your evil deeds, ladies,” Dipaka advised them.

The girls took one look at Dipaka's blue halo and ran off down the hall. They went around a corner and were gone. We heard a gate slam as they headed for the hills.

We found the villa otherwise deserted, so we looked for a way to get to the basement. Aki found some stairs leading down. They descended into a subterranean chamber hewn from solid rock. The room was cool and moist, and a stack of crooked shelves was choked with all sorts of vials, flasks, and bottles. The cellar smelled strongly of acid and urine, so I had to hold my nose. Several of the old jars on the shelves had cracked and been leaking for some time.

A set of double doors stood open and led into a hall filled with a bizarre inky darkness. The walls of the dark corridor were slate gray and engraved with dense, maze-like patterns. They appeared to be perfectly milled by artisans like none of this world. Everything had a perfect satin finish and looked strangely blurry, as though multiple shadowy duplicates of the corridor were placed over each other and vibrating in space.

All of our light sources were strangely muffled, including Dipaka's halo. The light I always put on Win Ju was no more than a red-orange glow. It didn't matter what we tried to do to get more brightness, a dim half-light was all we could muster. Shade and shadow ruled. “We must be on a demi-plane of Shadow,” Dipaka surmised. I had made a rudimentary study of the known planes myself, and I guessed that he was right. A gateway had led us out of our own reality and into a pocket dimension.

After we were done trying to make more light, I walked back to where the warriors were waiting. They were lost in their own world, talking smack amongst themselves.

“You’re more protected? What makes you say that?” Lo asked Wen.

"I am protected by Bahamut; all you have is Suishen," Wen chortled.

"Listen son, it's not a competition," Lo said.

"You're right, my Hanzo blade is much better than Suishen, there is no competition!" Wen laughed.

“I would watch what you say regarding your family’s katana,” Lo said in mock reverence, placing his hand on Suishen’s pommel. “It can hear you, you know.”

“That’s ok; my sword may be better than yours, but your wife has a better ass than mine,” Wen chuckled.

“Wen!” I shouted.

My husband stiffened.

“Can we get back to our rescue mission now?” I asked, with a clear edge in my voice.

“Whoa, did it just get cold in here?” Lo asked. “I know I felt a draft in here," he went on.

We pressed onward in stony silence, and we encountered a passage that led to the left and a passage that led onward. We explored a few hallways and found only more hallways.

"It looks like a maze, guys, what are we going to do?" I asked.

"Follow either the left or right hand wall, and you can't go wrong," Dipaka said.

"It's a tried-and-true method," Aki confirmed.

We followed the left-hand wall until we came upon a curtain that hung across the passage.

“What now, guys?”

“Hmmm, there must be a better way. Do you have that Inro that belonged to O-Sayumi?” Aki asked.

“Sure,” I fished it out of my knapsack and gave it to him. He began examining and considering the items carefully. I had looked at the assortment and had been unable to make anything of them.

We passed through the curtain and into a thirty-foot square room, when suddenly peels of high-pitched supernatural laughter rang out.

We were instantly surrounded by three specters with orange, glowing eyes. Their shadowy, dark, and translucent forms assailed Dipaka first; they wrapped their black tendrils around him and I saw Dipaka’s blue life force waft out of his mouth and flow into the specter's gaping maws. They were feasting like kings on the intertwined life forces of Dipaka Bhasa and Genghis Khan.

“They’re sapping my strength! They’re going to kill me!” Dipaka cried as he wrenched free. He spoke a holy word that instantly replenished all of the life force stolen from him. “I’m ok, but I have to retreat!” As he began to move, the specters raked him again, stealing even more of his essence. Dipaka rushed through a gap and headed back the way we’d come in. His homespun garb fluttered and billowed around him as he ran to the hallway. It was tactically brilliant; if Dipaka had remained in place and chosen not to restore himself, he would certainly have been killed by the life grubbing specters.

The frustrated apparitions turned to face the rest of us. Xia blasted one with a batch of magic missiles. I whisked Xia and I through a dimension door and into the hall where Dipaka had gone. We weren’t going to stand around in a room filled with deadly undead either.

Wen, Aki, and Lo engaged the specters in the room. The battle raged back and forth, and the boys were giving as good as they got.

My spiritual ally yanked on my sleeve and I saw a huge wraith walk un-noticed out of the wall and look down at me. It was a smoky, black shape with flickering pinpoints for eyes. Its dark mouth opened and my heart was seized by sheer terror. I was motionless as the shadow reached down and placed its ice-cold hands on either side of my head. It lifted me off the floor, pushed its face into mine, and began draining my life. I felt my very essence being pulled out of me. I nearly broke my own neck trying to break free.

“Put her down, asshole!” Xia screamed, and pounded the wraith with magic missiles.

“By Bahamut’s Bidding!” Wen cried, and broadsided the wraith with a flurry of Hanzo steel. I fell to the floor and rolled away.

The massive dread wraith smashed Wen to the ground and headed for Xia.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Lo shouted as he leapt in front of his wife.

The dread wraith stopped and cackled with glee. “Fool, nothing short of the supernatural can stop the Lord of Shadows!”

“Well, guess the fuck what!” Lo hollered, raising Suishen. He swung the flaming katana through the air and sliced right through the dread wraith.

“No!” the shadow screamed.

Lo hacked the apparition again and its visage stuttered. It struggled to stay on the shadow plane.

“No!” the Shadow Lord howled. “I cannot be driven away!”

Xia and I opened fire with our magic missiles.

“Curse you bitches!” he screamed as the missiles pounded him out of existence.

After he was gone, I collapsed and lay on my back gasping for breath. The smell of burning hair and flesh filled my nostrils. Wen ran over and knelt down beside me. “Are you ok?” he asked.

“I think so.” It felt like I had been run over by a turnip cart. I pressed hard on the back of my neck to deaden the pain.

Aki had finished off the specters; he stood watch as Dipaka tended our wounds.

“We’re leaving this wretched dungeon right now,” Dipaka said.

“I totally agree,” I said.

“And I’ll need the morning to repair the life drain we’ve all suffered here,” Dipaka said.

Wen helped me to my feet and we retraced our steps back out of the shadow plane, and found ourselves again in the villa’s dank cellar.

We left Shosaito's house and camped on the beach. Aki said he saw the two cleaning girls from the villa moving about that night, some distance away. They ate the stranded shellfish deposited on the beach by the waves. Aki left the girls alone. He said that he had imagined they had transformed themselves into terrible monsters and danced in the moonlight. In the morning, there was no sign of them.

As the sun began its climb into the sky, Dipaka prayed and restored us and provided us with a hero’s breakfast. We set out to return to the shadow maze and to keep looking for O-Sayumi.

“I know the way through the maze,” Aki said.

We all looked at him.

“I have surmised the intention of the Inro,” he said.

“Lead the way then,” I said.

After we entered the villa and made our way back down to the cellar, Aki led us through a thicket of passages, curtains, gates, and rooms. Some tenebrous worms eyed us once, but we hurried past them.

We came at last to a very different room where the walls were made of polished obsidian. I heard Xia catch her breath.

There were two completely nude women kneeling in the room.

They were facing each other with their eyes closed, and were keeping perfectly still. Their pure white skin made a stark contrast to the surrounding obsidian. Golden bands circled their brows. One woman was in her seventies. Her thighs were emaciated and her knees swollen. Her breasts sagged terribly over her distended abdomen. Her chin had vanished long ago and her ancient body was covered in liver spots.

The other woman was young and voluptuous. Her full, round breasts would be the delight of any man. Her thighs were full and rounded, and her pubic hair was trimmed neatly into a stripe. Her face was perfect; she had regal cheeks and a beautiful mouth with soft and sensual lips. If this was O-Sayumi, it was no wonder she was popular at the Teahouse.

I looked at Wen. He was checking out his sword’s pommel. I looked back at the women.

“Uh, hello,” I said. The women didn’t respond. “Um, you're naked, and we’re coming in,” I warned. “You might want to cover yourselves.”

They still didn’t move. I noticed the room was heavily perfumed.

We moved into the space and walked around the women. Dipaka examined them closely and uttered a quick prayer. He looked up with sadness in his eyes. “They’re dead. Well, not so much dead, I would say, as empty. Their souls have been removed. I would hazard that this one is O-Sayumi, and this older one must be Shosaito’s wife, based on the family portraits I saw upstairs.”

“Who would do such an evil thing?" Aki asked. "And why?"

There was only one way to find out. A single door stood closed beyond the women.

Lo opened it, and revealed a supply closet. It was the end of the road.

“Damn it!” I swore. Whoever had done this was long gone.

We all sat around while Dipaka prepared an impromptu service for the dead women, after he first directed us to stretch them out and cover them with sheets.

We were waiting for Dipaka to finish preparations when I smelled the faint smell of tobacco over the heavy perfume.

“Why do I smell tobacco?” I asked. Aki was sniffing around the room too.

I went into the closet and it was the strongest in there. I motioned Lo quietly over to the back wall.

“Let’s power up,” I said.

When we were ready, I nodded, and Lo smashed his arm through the wall. Orange light shone from the hole. Lo bashed through the rest of the wall, sending debris flying everywhere. There was a corridor beyond, and at the end of it was a brightly lit room. We went down the hall and looked into the space beyond.

A white-haired old man sat calmly at a decorative table on the far side of an expanse of polished marble floor. He was sipping tea and smoking a long slender pipe. He was dressed in a rich, embroidered robe. A tall urn made of gold and alabaster was standing near the edge of the table.

“There was a perfectly good secret door in that wall, you know,” he said, in a deep and sonorous voice.

He sat down his teacup. He raised his hand and a silver stiletto blade emerged from his index finger. He stirred his pipe with it.

“I thought you would never leave. I waited and waited to smoke, knowing it would surely give me away. Your holy man had the effrontery to over-linger with his fanciful ritual for the dead. My dead! Finally, I could take it no longer. It is of no consequence. It will be to your detriment, not mine.”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“You are a stupid bitch,” he said to me. “I am obviously Yugureda Shosaito.” I noticed his nose was long and pointy, and his eyebrows were rather bushy.

“Why are you down here?” I asked.

“Because I belong in Hell, and this is the closest I can get to it in my own house.”

“Why do you belong in Hell?” I asked. Perhaps he would tell his tale if I could weather a few more insults.

“Because, as if it were any of your business, I conspired to cheat death, and make a longer life for my Luthien. Alas, in my folly, I lost her,” a tear rolled down his cheek.

"I'm sorry," I said.

“But your prize, the nubile one you desire so strongly, is still here,” a smile flickered across his face.

“Where is she?” I asked.

He tipped over the alabaster urn. Thousands of pearls poured out and cascaded all over the floor, bouncing and rolling everywhere.

“Her soul is trapped in one of these pearls,” Yugureda said.

“I take it you’re going to flee while we take time hunting for the right pearl?”

“As I said, you are a stupid bitch,” he replied. He put his pipe down and stood up.

“Let me show you what I am used to,” he said.

He raised his crooked right hand and flooded the corridor with lightning so powerful it kept arcing from person to person even after the main bolt had died out. I was half electrocuted and my hair was standing on end. A heartbeat later, Yugureda used his other hand to drown us in even more lightning. I screamed and fell to my knees, struggling to stay conscious.

Shosaito smiled and his teeth shone in the crackling light. He waved his hands in a circle, and a mammoth shadow cat and two greater shadows materialized before us. They advanced on Wen and Lo.

Yugureda Shosaito was no pearl merchant, he was a powerful wizard, and we were in deep, terrible trouble.


Victories

By Aiko Kaijitsu

Yugureda was not finished; he threw waves of exhaustion past the huge cat and the greater shadows in order to engulf us in fatigue. I became so utterly tired I couldn’t get to my feet. Lo visibly sagged. Wen's shoulders slumped, and his arms hung at his sides. “I’m soooo tired,” he said.

 

“Me too,” Lo said, “I can barely keep my eyes open.”

 

“Fire in the hole!” Xia shouted, and threw an inferno into the room. Even Lo and Wen were caught in the blast and blown backward. Both were blackened from head to toe, and this time Wen’s hair was gone. 

 

Both of the greater shadows were destroyed, and all of the clothing and hair had burned off Yugureda. He was naked and blackened beyond all recognition. His scalp and forehead had all burned away, leaving a bleached white skull showing beneath. Yugureda clutched his heart. “You bitch!” he spat, and then he fell forward dead.

 

Lo lumbered towards the shadow cat, and struck it with Suishen. The cat reeled and tried to withdraw sideways, but Wen was ready with his Hanzo blade. Aki kicked the cat hard several times. Finally, it turned into a noxious vapor cloud and rushed out of the room.

 

We looked through the soot-coated pearls one by one.

 

“Damn!” I cried. “Which one is it?”

 

Dipaka scratched his chin. “You’d think he would have kept it handy. He didn’t know he was going to die of a heart attack, so he wouldn’t drop the pearl with the rest of them. He thought he was going to defeat us.”

 

All of the items that had hung at the wizard’s belt had fallen to the floor when it burned away. We looked through Yugureda's things, but found no pearl.

 

“What about his pipe?” I asked.

 

We looked at his charred pipe but it didn’t seem like it could hold a pearl. We tapped out the dottle and looked down inside, and there was definitely no pearl.

 

He had possessed a rich dark wood inro that had been elaborately carved with a scaled dragon weaving its way in and out of the surface of it. It was encrusted with emeralds, and had one chamber. The braided himo had burned away, so the netsuke was now separate. I opened it and found tobacco safe inside. I figured it might be valuable, so I closed it back up.

 

“Wait,” Dipaka said. He took the inro and opened it. He carefully shook the tobacco out onto the table. A shiny black pearl, much larger than the others, was among the brown leaves. Dipaka picked it up and examined it. He closed his fingers around it, held it close to his chest, and closed his eyes for a moment. He took a few deep breaths.

 

He opened his eyes. “She is here,” he said.

 

“Well, what do we do now?” I asked.

 

Dipaka and Aki went over to O-Sayumi’s body. Aki pulled back the sheet. They found a dimple on the front of the golden band that encircled her head.

 

“It looks like it fits,” Dipaka said. He took a deep breath and placed the pearl in the band.

 

We waited, but nothing happened.

 

“Well, we might need the power of a shadow Wizard to do this,” I said.

 

Xia tried a few times to dispell the pearl and free O-Sayumi, but that didn’t work either.

 

“I believe there is another way to release her,” Dipaka said. “We should smash and destroy the pearl.”

 

“What? If it doesn’t work, O-Sayumi will be surely gone for good,” I said.

 

“No, I do not think so; there is a precedent for this in stories that are told among my people. I think that we need to do something soon, although O-Sayumi’s body is well preserved, I wouldn’t want her to be out of it much longer,” Dipaka said.

 

Aki asked me for my mortar and pestle so I dug them out of my component satchel. He placed the pearl in the mortar and placed the pestle over top.

 

He raised his open palm and held it a foot or so over the handle. He let out a shout, and slammed his palm down and crunched the pearl.

 

At first, there was nothing. Then, a wispy opalescent cloud formed over the mortar and moved over to O-Sayumi. It hovered about over her body, then wafted into her nostrils and vanished.

 

O-Sayumi opened her eyes, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

 

“Where am I?” she asked.

 

Xia dug out some old clothes and she and I helped O-Sayumi get dressed.

 

I explained our mission and the outline of events since we reached the island. I explained that we were a royal family bent on restoring the rightful person to the throne, and that we were sent by O-Kohaku from the Teahouse to find and rescue her.

 

“It is my honor to have such noble rescuers. I pledge to aid you as I may in your quest to restore order to the land; in fact, I know the Daimyo’s younger brother, a much more tempered and wise Samurai. I will speak to him of your honor and bravery. Thank you, truly,” she said, and she bowed deeply to us.

 

We all bowed to her.

 

We negotiated the maze and left the shadow plane, and after we had all arrived safely in the cellar, the pocket world collapsed with a loud hiss.

 

O-Sayumi retrieved a wondrous Samisen the wizard had stripped from her. She said it could tell of the past, present, and future when played by one of sufficient skill. 

 

We left the villa and headed down to the beach. The color had returned to the atmosphere. We saw the housekeeper girls watching us from behind some bushes.

 

“These are undead, their upper torsos can detach and suck peoples blood, so they have to be dealt with,” Aki said.

 

“It’s fireball time, Xia,” I said.

 

“Wait a minute,” Lo said, “Xia; don’t do Xiao Ping’s dirty work.”

 

“I won’t then, my husband,” she said.

 

I fireballed the undead twice myself and destroyed them. Lo was right, I should do my own dirty work.

 

We left the island and rowed back across the water on the Origami while Dipaka steered. We escorted O-Sayumi back to the Teahouse in Enganoka. 

 

While we were there, O-Sayumi asked Hetzuru Sennaka to come and meet with us. When he arrived, O-Sayumi had him come in disguise, and she revealed him to us from behind a curtain. He looked young for a Samurai, but he seemed very wise. 

 

“Even though I cannot go directly against my brother, I do know a group of Samurai that were once ordered to extract an unfair tax from a certain village. Since the villagers could not pay, the Samurai were ordered to destroy the village. They did not wish to kill the villagers, so they pooled their own money to pay for the village. When the Daimyo discovered the truth, they were dismissed. They may want to assist you. After I have contacted them, expect them to come unlooked for.”

 

O-Sayumi presented us with her magic Samisen, and O-Kohaku rewarded us with a powerful Karyukai tea set that could inspire great courage in its sippers. They said that the items were very powerful and could help us in our quest.

 

I scried on Ameiko. After the pleasantries, she had news. “We are still supposed to be traveling south, but we are currently stopped in the Ainu fishing village of Usukeshi. We have not yet crossed over onto Honshu. The Prince wants to wait before crossing. Chaka is here. She wanted to hire a wizard to teleport her back to the mainland. I’m trying to convince her that she still has a job being the Mongol ambassador. She can always stay with me as long as she likes, and I will help her in everything that she tries to do.”

 

“This is actually welcome news,” I said. 

 

“But, we do have a problem though, since she has been reporting to the Prince, he has caught wind of it.”

 

“Caught wind of what?”

 

I knew already.

 

“The fact that your husband and our House Champion struck and wounded a Mongol ambassador in melee combat.”

 

“In that case, I’ll bring them immediately and they will answer to any charges the Prince wishes to bring,” I said. 

 

Lo and Wen were two of the most lawful men I knew, so I had no doubt they would stand up for what they had done. I knew they would explain why they had done it. Then we would see. A reasonable person would consider what they had done self-defense after Ochir had fired on Xia. He was a danger and they stopped him without killing him. I wondered what the Prince would say about Ochir’s ridiculous attacks on Malthus and Xia in front of my sister. 

 

“The Prince is not issuing any charges; however, he noted that if I still wanted to be Empress, I’d better learn how to handle my servants. Come at once sister. We have much planning to do.”

 

“Fine, a few of us will be there shortly,” I ended the transmission.

 

“Let’s go,” I said.

 

Wen, Aki, Xia and I teleported to the Ainu village, while Lo and Dipaka remained in Enganoka. We had already been to the village before when we had hired a barge to cross the Tsugaru straight. I remembered that the heavily bearded men we had seen there had watched us with the strangest blue eyes. The Ainu were hunters, fishers, farmers, and gatherers living in harmony with nature. The Ainu told us that they lived all over Japan one hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun. Three thousand years before, the Children of the Sun came to the Islands, they explained. They slaughtered and enslaved the Ainu, and the Ainu were forced to flee to the northern island to find refuge. 

 

Their women wore dark almond shaped tattoos around their mouths, and their teeth shone extra brightly when they smiled. We saw them sitting around in a large circle. Some sang and played instruments. Many were clapping in unison. In the center, four of the young men were toying with a bear. They each had a rope tied to one of its legs, and they were making it walk around inside the circle. A much older man came up with a knife and was clearly going to cut the bear’s throat.

 

I moved to intervene, but Aki held me back. “It is their way,” he said. “This is a religious ceremony; it is not for us to interfere.”

 

I turned and went into the courthouse; I didn’t want to see the sacrifice.

 

Inside, there were quite a few Mongol guards from the caravan stationed in strategic locations. My sister and the Prince were there; Sandru was at Ameiko’s shoulder, and Okimoto Ezume was at the Prince’s side. The Jade Archer was watching the doors. Chaka was there with Guchugar and Guchuluk.

 

My sister was holding Yoshi. He was smiling a great big smile and his cheeks were rosy. I was overjoyed to see him. I saw his eyes light up when he saw me. Resplendent, they looked like a painting.

 

“Esteemed sister, you have returned, having done much good throughout the land. I am glad to see that you and your husband are well. And you as well, Akira, and of course Xia.”

 

We all bowed.

 

The Prince addressed me next. “We welcome you, Aiko Kaijitsu, and your husband, Prince Wen. I have heard that you have rid Japan of many evil foes.”

 

Wen bowed, but said nothing.

 

“Well, who will tell me the tale of your rescue of the Geisha? Who is the bard among you?” the Prince asked.

 

Xia stepped forth. “If it pleases my Lord, I will tell you of our adventure.”

 

If it was possible, the Prince’s smile grew wider when he saw Xia. “Please, my flower, proceed.”

 

Xia artfully told the tale. Ameiko came down and Wen and I played with Yoshi while she told it. I played peek-a-boo with him and kept losing.

 

The Prince applauded at the end of Xia’s story and everyone else joined in. 

 

“Very good! Very good! You have told us a wonderful tale. Now I have something in the way of news for you, Aiko,” the Prince said.

 

“Oh?” I asked.

 

“Yes, your old party member, Ochir, well, I’m afraid that he is the son of a friend of mine. Word has it that he has been captured by a rapacious Oni that serves Daimyo Sennaka. I’ve been informed that he is being held in one of the Daimyo’s luxury retreats, Shuryo Onsen.”

 

“We must rescue him in that case,” I said, seeing where this was going. 

 

“I think that would be a very good idea,” he said. “And let’s just say that if you do manage to bring him back, we can have a fresh start between our peoples,” he explained and he smiled at me.

 

I didn’t particularly want a fresh start with his people, but apparently, my sister did. These Mongols were getting to be downright infuriating. I wanted to lift Prince Batsai-Khar up into the air with my telekinesis and tell my sister it was time to rid our island of the Mongols, but I knew she didn’t want that. 

 

If I was going to be a part of rescuing Ochir in order to wipe the slate clean, I wanted to make sure that slate included Wen’s throwing Ochir off the Isabella. I was assuming that Chaka hadn’t told the Prince of this and was keeping it as another hole card, and I didn’t want her to have it anymore. 

 

“Does that include what my stupid husband did to Ochir on the boat?” I asked. I sounded like an idiot, but I didn’t care. I could see these idiots backing out of their so-called “fresh start” as soon as it suited them.

 

“Huh?” Wen smacked himself on the forehead. 

 

The Prince frowned at me and then looked at my sister. “Yes, how you choose to take care of this affair will tell me a lot about who is fit to rule,” he said.

 

I could have choked the Prince. 

 

My sister looked at me with a look that said, “You’d better fix this.”

 

“We will leave at once,” I said. We went outside and played with Yoshi for a while longer.

 

Okimoto Ezume came out too. She stood and watched us play with our son as we sat in the grass. Finally, she stepped forward and cleared her throat.

 

“I am to take Prince Yoshi back inside, it’s time for you to leave,” she said. “If I know Daimyo Sennaka, your friend Ochir won’t be alive for very long.”

 

“As you wish, Samurai,” I said. “Thank you for taking care of my son,” I kissed him and handed him to her. I bowed to her as well.

 

She turned and took Yoshi back inside.

 

“Gather round,” I said, and we teleported back to Lo and Dipaka in Enganoka.

 

“So what are we doing?” Lo asked.

 

“We are going to rescue Ochir,” Aki said.

 

“What?” Lo did not look happy.

 

Wen sighed. “I thought about saying that it was all ridiculous, but it’s just like what happened with Genghis. We have to save the Mongol’s asses again,” he said.

 

“I still think we did the right thing when we thwarted the return of the evil Genghis Khan,” I reminded Wen. “In this case, we’ve been given our marching orders by my sister.”

 

“Let’s march,” Aki said.

 

Lo didn’t move. His face was stone.

 

I looked at Wen. He looked at Lo.

 

“The Empress gave us an order, Lo, we have to go rescue Ochir. We are Amatatsu Scions, if we don’t obey our orders, who will?” Wen asked.

 

“Fine,” Lo said, “we’ll go rescue and return Ochir to the Prince. They didn’t specify what condition he needs to be delivered in, did they?” 

 

We all laughed, but I knew Lo was serious.

 

We mounted up and rode out to find the walled mountain resort of Daimyo Sikutsu Sennaka, Shuryo Onsen. 

 

Spad the Raven helped us locate the fortress after two days ride. We grouped up and planned our assault. As we were doing so, a bunch of men appeared.

 

They said they were Ronin sent by O-Sayumi and Hetzuru Sennaka. They said they were going to place themselves on the roads in such a manner as to block the villa from getting standard reinforcements during our assault. We welcomed them and powered up.

 

We decided to fly over the outer wall, and begin the attack from inside the fortress, since this method had worked pretty well in the past.

 

Wen and I were astride Chi Hai, while Xia and Dipaka were on Mayor. Lo and Aki flew by themselves.

 

We all flew over the walls and began our assault. There were Tengu with light leather armor and shortbows providing air support for the Daimyo.

 

I threw an eighty-foot fireball at them, but they all miraculously flew around it and avoided it completely. Xia hit and killed two of them with her smaller fireball. "That's the way you do it!" she cried.

 

Lo charged the left hand side of the Tengu formation wielding Suishen with two hands. He killed a crow-man with one swat, and there was a cloud of blood and black feathers.

 

Wen went for his own Tengu, and charged. I held on for dear life, expecting a massive collision when Chi Hai got to the Tengu, but the Tengu dodged and cackled as he wheeled past, and he nocked an arrow and looked at me. 

 

Aki flew up and blasted two Tengus with his Ki shout. They were blown back so hard they dropped their bows and spiraled towards the ground.

 

One tried to charm Lo but he was immune. “Ah, your puny magicks cannot charm me! My friend Wen the Paladin has protected me from you with his mighty magic!” he bellowed.

 

The Tengus were terrific archers. I got a blast of pain with an arrow through my leg and felt another arrowhead sticking me in the arm. When I looked down, I saw the second arrow had gone into the left side of my body and was actually sticking out through my ribs up under my right arm. 

 

I saw two arrows sticking out of Wen. He acted as if they weren’t there. I wanted to cry, but all I could do was squeeze him and hang on.

 

Armored Samurai ran out of the building onto the veranda. They had huge Daiku bows. 

 

“We are the loyal Samurai of lord Sennaka! Who are you that fly in and attack us unannounced like foul ninjas?” 

 

“I am Prince Wen Tiang-Xiang! We are the House Kaijitsu, and with our Healer, we are Immortal!”

 

“Immortal, huh?” They fired their bows and two more arrows sank into Wen. 

 

The others fired at Aki but he dodged their missiles.

 

I saw Ochir appear on the balcony over the veranda. He was moving very rapidly and had obviously been hasted.

 

“It’s Ochir!” I cried.

 

Kazuo the Yojimbo’s familiar voice ordered, “Kill one of them; I leave it up to you.”

 

Ochir licked his lips and fired his triple shot at Wen. They all thunked into his chest. I felt the points sticking through his body against my breast. I was holding him around his waist, and blood was pouring over my arms and soaking my sleeves. He had taken seven arrows; he was going to die if I didn’t get him out of there. I wasn’t in such great shape myself.

 

The Yojimbo appeared as he threw a cone of cold on us, so now Wen, Chi Hai and I were frozen to each other too. Aki engaged the Yojimbo, and began his martial assault.

 

Lo charged after another Tengu and feathers flew.

 

“I’m going to teleport us over the wall!” I yelled in Wen’s ear. “We’ll heal ourselves and fly back over and rejoin the fight!”

 

“No! I’m in prime fighting position! I’m not going!”

 

“You’re going to get killed, dumbass!” I screamed at Wen.

 

“Heal yourself Wen!” Lo cried.

 

“You married a Prince, not a coward!” Wen yelled.

 

“I married a dead man!” I cried as I pictured the other side of the wall. When I got there, I was alone. I was so mad at Wen. 

 

“I want to apologize for my wife, she’s a bit emotional!” Wen yelled.

 

Dipaka threw a healing ball at Wen to help him some. “Thank you father!” he cried.

 

“I’ve got Yojimbo down!” Aki called.

 

“Xia! Finish the Yojimbo!” Lo cried.

 

“Ochir must be charmed, hasted, and who knows what else!” Xia cried. “I’ll dispell him!” I crossed my fingers; Ochir had to stop shooting at Wen. “I got rid of the haste! I don't know if we'll be able to tell if he’s still charmed!”

 

I flew back up over the wall to see Wen and Chi Hai charging Ochir. “Your reign of terror will be at an end, gnome, one way or another!” Wen swore as he pierced Ochir and then backed up some. Ochir’s eyes were wild, but he certainly didn’t go down.

 

Ochir backed up and raised his bow. I saw him look at the Yojimbo lying on the ground before he looked back at Wen. 

 

I knew this was going to be it.

 

Ochir fired. His arrows almost disappeared into Chi Hai and only the fletchings protruded. The great warhorse’s head drooped as the fly spell began to lower his corpse gently to the ground.

 

Wen leapt for the balcony railing and barely made it.

 

Two more Daiku arrows sprouted from Wen, making nine. Another arrow struck Xia. Aki took one too, and so did Lo.

 

One Samurai tried to attack Dipaka with a katana, but lost all hope of being violent when he hit the holy man's peace aura.

 

I cast haste on Lo, Wen, and Aki; they were some distance from me, but were bunched in a group.

 

The Daimyo Sennaka came out onto the balcony from inside and walked past Wen. He was clad in O-Yori armor. He looked at Ochir. "Finish him and your place in the new order of Japan will be assured!"

 

He looked next at Lo, and flew from the balcony. "House Champion indeed! I challenge you to a fight to the death!" Sennaka cried and charged Lo.

 

Lo braced himself for the Daimyo's flying charge. He snagged Sennaka as he flew in, but the experienced warrior sliced open Lo's face.

 

Aki moved to intercept Sennaka as well, and punched him hard. 

 

“You have made your last mistake, Daimyo!” Lo bellowed. He began swinging Suishen, and gave the Daimyo a very solid chop. The Diamyo fell to his knees. Lo chopped him again.

 

“Tell my brother to rule the Province wisely,” Sennaka said, and Lo chopped him one more time, and finished the corrupt ruler once and for all.

 

A split second later, I looked back up at the balcony. Wen was moving toward Ochir. He chopped Ochir and blood began to flow.

 

“Everyone! Lay down your arms! This conflict is over!" Dipaka cried.

 

The remaining Tengus turned invisible and flew away. The Daimyo's Samurai said, "We will not flee, you have nothing to fear from us, we will now serve the new Lord of the clan with honor."

 

Ochir was still nocking an arrow to keep fighting Wen.

 

“Drop your weapons and surrender fool! We’re here to rescue you!” Wen yelled at the gnome.

 

“Yes, we are here to rescue you!” I yelled.

 

“Kazuo said you were here to kill me! Why is Wen attacking me?" Ochir shouted the question.

 

"If I wanted you dead just now, you'd be dead!" Wen cried. "I held back! You know it! Ameiko and your Prince sent us!"

 

Lo moved over to the body of Yojimbo. As he drew near, Yojimbo suddenly moved and tried to open a dimension door to get away. Lo disrupted the spell by slapping the Oni's arm with the flat of Suishen. Then he plunged the sword into Kazuo, killing him.

 

The charm on Ochir was finally broken.

 

Ochir leapt to the ground and fired three arrows into the Yojimbo’s dead body. 

 

“Well, I appreciate the assistance," Ochir said. "You would have rescued me without being ordered to do so, right?”

 

"Yes, but I couldn’t find you with Focus or my own magic,” I said. 

 

Wen was mourning Chi Hai for a while, but then he went into the stable and came out leading the Daimyo's horse. He mounted and trotted around the bailey a few times.

 

“This is a good warhorse,” he said. "Chi Hai died with honor."

 

The next day, I scried on Ameiko and made my report. The Prince intimated that with the Daimyo gone, he would cross over from Hokkaido to Honshu officially. They would take up temporary residence at Seinako Heikiko.

 

We stayed at Shuryo Onsen for a week or so, learning about the place. One bright day we rode for Seinako Heikiko. It was going to take two days to get to the mountain fortress, so we decided to stay at an inn for the one night. After it had gotten dark, Lo went outside for some air. Wen and I went up to our room, leaving Dipaka and Aki engrossed in a deep philosophical discussion.

 

Lo was outside reading the stars as his father had taught him when a hooded figure approached. Lo could tell the wrapped figure was female.

 

“Lord Lo, I am an emissary from your lady, Malthus. I bring a message for you," the strange woman said.

 

"If you do, you had best come inside and tell me," Lo said, and they went into the inn.

 

Lo went and stood by Aki and Dipaka, who stopped talking when the hooded stranger approached.

 

“You have nothing to fear here, please, you may remove your hood with us,” Dipaka said.

 

She looked at Dipaka from within her cowl and trembled. 

 

“Someone trembles because of my presence?” Dipaka wondered.

 

“Your lady Malthus has need of you for a few days, that is all I can say," she said to Lo.

 

“That requires that I get Mistress Ping to teleport us to the Reservation," Lo said.

 

"There’s no need for that," she waved her hand in front of Lo adding, "I suggest you leave with me now." She tried to use magic to compel Lo, but failed. Lo had gotten a new cloak after the last adventure, and it had protected him.

 

Lo knocked her to the floor in a kneejerk response to her charm attempt, and the woman's hood fell back. It was the beautiful Indian woman, Princess Aishwarya-Sen.

 

"Isn't this your mother?" Aki asked.

 

“Oh no! This is a crazy woman," Dipaka explained. "Look at her, she's maybe thirty!"

 

“My son,” she said as Aki helped her to her feet. “It is no matter if you do not believe me. I am on a mission of righteousness. I want to bring together two who will bring forth a child that will continue to rule the Goliath people for the next Generation. I am working for the force of good. There will be no violence. I’ll return him in few days," she promised.

 

"No, I cannot marry Malthus," Lo said, "I am married to Xia."

 

The Princess Wira-Sen thought for a moment. “I see you wish to do this the hard way," she said, and in a flash of magic, she vanished.

 

Lo came and knocked on our door. Wen and I were having a fight, so I was glad to see Lo.

 

“Come in,” I said.

 

“We need to go and find out what’s going on with Malthus,” Lo said.

 

I tried scrying on Malthus two different ways, and got nothing.

 

"After we get back to Seinaru Heikiko, we'll go visit your reservation," I promised.

 

We left the inn very early the next morning and rode all day without stopping to get to the fort before daylight flagged.

 

As we approached the castle, Ochir rode back to us to report. “Uh, guys, I don't want to alarm you, but there’s been a battle here.”

 

We rode up to the gate and saw scores of dead Ninjas, Onis, and Tengus lying all around the courtyard. The woodshop doors were destroyed, and one of the fort’s chimneys had collapsed and was a nothing but a pile of rocks. It looked like they had come in over the wall and through the secret back door at the same time.

 

Ameiko and the Prince were there along with everyone I could think of. The Daimyo’s brother Hetzuru Sennaka, Geisha O-Sayumi, Samurai Hirabashi Yiro, Hatsue the Sohei, Wang Chung, Sandru, the Jade Archer, Chaka and the Gnomes, and Okimoto Ezume. There were scads of ronin and warriors everywhere, bleeding, moaning, and patching each other up. Dipaka moved to help them. 

 

Prince Batsai-Khar spoke. “Ah, I see you are here to congratulate us on our victory! We were foully attacked by a great Oni and a master Ninja! We have repelled them! You have been successful too I see, for here is Ochir!”

 

Ochir came forth and bowed. “I have returned,” he said.

 

“Let us have a grand ceremony!” the Prince ordered.

 

We went inside. “Where’s our son?” Wen asked the female Samurai.

 

“He is safe in the nursery, come with me,” Okimoto said, and took us to him.

 

Yoshi was playing with a pair of tiny armored horsemen that bore lances. He bashed them together and one’s lance broke.

 

“Yeah!” Wen cried. “Hey little warrior!” and went over and sat down to play with him. Yoshi’s eyes were filled with wonder as he played with his father. I watched them have their jousting. Like father, like son.

 

That night, after all the bodies had been hauled away and burned, and the woodshop doors repaired, the Prince had a makeshift dais constructed for himself and Ameiko in the courtyard. There were three chairs on the dais. Torches were everywhere, and a huge bonfire had been built near the gate. The walls of the courtyard reflected the yellow light. The stars twinkled above our heads, and an aurora waved in the ebon sky.

 

We all gathered and stood in two angled lines before them. Hundreds of warriors surrounded us. Everyone was talking and laughing amongst themselves. Wang Chung sang warm-ups and Chaka played the drums. O-Sayumi was ready with a flute and fluttered soft notes. She was so beautiful. Her hair was even more luxurious than the Jade Archer’s.

 

Finally, Ameiko stood and a hush fell on the crowd. She was dressed in full regalia and wore white face makeup with a red dot on her upper lip. Her hair was elaborately coiled on the sides of her head.

 

“I am humbled to stand before you all this day, all of you who have graciously pledged your loyalty to the house Kaijitsu, whether through word or deed. We have reached an important landmark in our quest to topple the Jade Regent, and restore the rule of Japan to a rightful Imperial line. The north of Japan is ours."

 

She looked at everyone and smiled. There was a huge cheer and everyone clapped and stomped their feet.

 

At that moment, our rebellion had begun.

 

Ameiko sat and the Prince stood. His smile at last seemed fitting. “The Mongols have come to protect Japan like a little sister. The Empire will place this beautiful woman on the throne of Japan and there will be peace. I will rule over you well and benevolently, as I love your Empress. I love her more than anyone else; if any man should wish to challenge that, let him step forth!”

 

No man spoke. 

 

Aki? Sandru? Wang Chung? Jade Archer? No one moved. Come on, guys.

 

“Hetzuru Sennaka!” the Prince shouted. 

 

“Yes?” the Samurai spoke up.

 

“Come forth!”

 

The Samurai stepped forth. His armor shone in the torchlight.

 

Ameiko bore a sword on a tray and brought it to him. She knelt before him, and lifted it up. The crowd gasped. He took it, closed his eyes, and held it to his breast. 

 

“I present you with your brother’s sword,” she said, “and his Province.”

 

Ameiko stood. The new Daimyo bowed very low.

 

“Your brother wished you to rule the Province well in his stead,” Lo said, and surprised everyone. He resumed his straight-lipped expression after the comment. 

 

Ameiko pulled out the Warding Box. “Do you wish to become a Scion, and declare your loyalty upon the Amatatsu Seal?”

 

“It is with great regret that I must keep my loyalty for my people, who I shall rule with their best interest in mind. I’m sure that is why you have chosen me to rule the Province. You have my loyalty as my Empress.” He paused. I thought he looked at Prince Batsai-Khar before he finished. “I am certain your interests will never go against the people.”

 

Ameiko smiled and put the box away. “Please, Daimyo, join us, and take this third seat with our thanks,” she said.

 

The Daimyo sat very formally, as did the Prince.

 

“Many of you know our House Champion. His name is Lo Ear-Splitter. He is here and represents the very best of the best, the epitome of character and strength. Lo, come forward.”

 

Lo came forth, knelt, laid Suishen before Ameiko, and said, “May your reign be long, my life is yours to take.”

 

She leaned forward and kissed his scabby head.

 

“Aiko Kaijitsu,” she said. "My sister!"

 

I came forward. “Congratulations are in order my Empress and my sister! We have seized the day and taken a position here in Japan where you can begin to rule with goodness and warmth. I hope that the rest of our conquest be swift and precise. Long live the Empress!”

 

Everyone cheered.

 

She came down and led me up to Prince Batsai-Khar on the dais. He took my hand and kissed it. It made my skin crawl, but I bowed anyway. I returned to my place.

 

“Dipaka Bhasa! You are truly the greatest of healers. Without you, the world itself would be injured," Ameiko said.

 

“May your reign be the most peaceful to ever grace this land,” Dipaka said. 

 

She smiled at him. “That is my fondest hope as well, but before there will be peace, there will be a time of struggle.” 

 

She looked next at Aki.

 

“Akira of the Order of the Mountain, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have done the good that your order would have wished.”

 

“The Monks of the Long Pagoda pledge their allegiance to bring peace and prosperity to the people, and bring the Jade throne to the rightful family,” Aki said and bowed.

 

“Prince Wen Tiang-Xiang! My sister’s most noble husband. I am proud to call you a brother and uncle to my nephew.”

 

Wen bowed and said, “My Empress and my Prince, we have done as you requested, we brought back the criminal Ochir. Like you said Prince, we will start again.”

 

The Prince stood up and looked over the crowd. “Yes, where is Ochir?”

 

Chaka pushed Ochir forward.

 

“Lord Ochir, you spent some time in the company of the Jade Regent’s men. Your freinds came and rescued you. Perhaps you have something that you would like to share about your stay with our enemy?” Ameiko asked.

 

“Yes, do give your report General!” the Prince said.

 

Ochir cleared his throat. “First, I must give congratulations where they are due for achieving a hold on the north. As for my time of incarceration, I’ll explain. Because of a rupture of logic and reason, I was cast out of the party, and while I was on my way to see you, my dear Ameiko, I was accosted by the Oni of the Daimyo. I was alone. There were six of them. I shot two of them, but they offered me a free chance to travel and meet the Daimyo. I took it. Only later did the Yojimbo charm me with a magic wand. That charm was not lifted until Lo killed the Oni General.”

 

“Tell me then, you are a trained huntsman of the Empire, what do you estimate the chances of the Princess to gain her country without our aid? You who have seen the enemy up close," the Prince asked.

 

“Honestly, since I’ve been there, we would need to replicate a thousand fold. They cannot succeed without us.”

 

“We Mongols cannot allow you to fail,” the Prince said. A murmur rippled through the crowd.

 

“Might I say one thing: the grace, the beauty, and the wisdom of Ameiko, augmented with the logic, the reason, the law, and the order of the Mongol Empire, and you Prince, would be a force the world has never seen,” Ochir postulated.

 

“Well put,” the Prince said.

 

“Ah, but what about Love?" Ameiko asked, and broke out into song. She sang an incredible aria, and we were all instantly overwhelmed. 

 

Ochir made up with Chaka. He even apologised, saying, “First of all, Chaka, I never stopped loving you. Second, I was wrong for being angry with you. Third, I think that you have the credentials to be another model mother. Fourth, I forgive you for being a traitor. And fifth, even if I’m tried for treason for staying this, I hold you in higher esteem than the Emperor himself.”

 

“Well, I guess Ochir’s back in the party,” Chaka said.

 

I made up with Wen. “I apologize Wen, I just wanted to keep you alive,” I found myself saying, even though I didn’t do anything wrong.

 

“I hope he does not step out of line,” Wen said to me under his breath.

 

Ochir was not finished.

 

“As a measure of my gratitude to the Princess, and as a gesture of goodwill, I will send a letter to my father to call off the hunting of the fists of Bahamut. I pray it’s not too late.” 

 

That was a big gesture on Ochir’s part.

 

We all now milled about, the formal nature of the ceremony fading.

 

“Let me get this straight, Ochir’s back in the party?” Dipaka asked me.

 

“Are you looking at me? I’m not the Empress or the Prince, I would say no,” I said.

 

“I am not happy,” Lo said.

 

“That’s a different issue,” Dipaka said.

 

“Chaka wheedled it,” I said. “Ochir didn’t kill Wen when he could have, so I’m not going to say anything now.”

 

“I'm going to build a school for healers in Enganoka,” Dipaka said. Guchugar and Guchuluk came up and each gave him an envelope stuffed with currency for the benevolent fund.

 

"I guess it's hard to say no when they are donating for the good," he observed. 

 

"We'll see," I said.

 

I guessed that we would.

 

 

 

 

 
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