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

Ochir and the Ainu

By Aiko Kaijitsu

“Oh, this one is funny, trust me,” Ochir laughed and slapped his knee.

“I was stuck in that hell hole of a mountain fortress. They had been ignoring a hairy Ainu man they had locked up in their dungeon since we'd seized it. I gathered up Guchugar and Guchuluk and headed down to pay him a little visit. I was the one that had discovered that the fortress even had a dungeon. I found the trapdoor in the back of the stable under a pile debris so uninteresting no one had ever thought to look under it.

The dungeon itself had three halls that radiated outward from a central hub.

When we got there, Hatsue was there checking the doors.

"Lord, Ochir, it is an uneventful night, is it not? What are you doing down here?" she asked.

“That’s two questions, right?” I asked. “I only have to answer one,” I joked.

“Boys,” she said, nodding to the engineers.

I asked her a question of my own. "What are you doing down here?"

"I asked you first," Hatsue said.

"I'm just making sure everything’s secure," I explained.

"Everything is," Hatsue said.

"Well, have a nice evening," I said, and turned to go back up the stairs.

"I wasn’t born yesterday Lord Ochir. I think you came down here for some other reason," Hatsue said. “What was it?”

It looked like I was going to have to explain myself.

"Well, this is a little embarrassing actually; I came to talk to the Ainu captain locked in your dungeon. He has some information which could be very helpful to us," I said.

"He hasn’t said a word since he’s been here, as far as I know. If you can get him to say anything, great. You mind if I sit in?" Hatsue asked.

"Actually I do," I said.

"That wasn’t really a question,” Hatsue said, with a haughty cant to her head.

“Listen, the Ainu are well known for their bow-hunting skills. Gangnum-Sum is teaching me to be a better archer. I hate to admit it, but that hairy ape is actually helping me to shoot more accurately."

"People on these islands like to perfect a task before we move on to the next one," Hatsue said.

I left that alone.

"Well, if you're going to question the Empress’ prisoner, and I am the trusted Lieutenant of our Lord, I must insist that I sit in on your interrogation," Hatsue said.

"As I said, it's not an interrogation, obviously, it's an archery lesson. I don't know how interesting it will be for you," I said.

"When you first met me, I was giving an archery lesson. Carry-on Lord Ochir, I will decide how interesting it is," Hatsue said. She opened the door and we went down to Gangnum-sum’s cell.

"Fine," I said, as I knocked on the door. "Hey, Gangnum-sum! Wake up! It’s time for our night shooting lesson!”

At first, we heard Gangnum-sum slowly start moving around in his cell, and then he pressed his bearded face to the bars in the window.

Hatsue found the key and opened the door. She was even more gullible than I had hoped. She unlocked Gangnum-sum’s shackles and we went out into the courtyard to practice. At first, she ordered a couple of the guards to light torches. I asked her not to; I told her that I wanted to do this with my natural night vision.

She went and stood by the gate.

We went over to where the moonlight didn’t reach. Guchugar and Guchuluk were helping. One set up a straw target. They gave Gangnum-sum his own bow and a quiver of arrows. One fitted him with a canteen and a bag of jerky.

We spent a minute or two firing at the target. Gangnum-sum was just as blind as a bat, but Hatsue didn’t know that. Still, this was his fortress, so he played along great.

Finally, he loped silently across the courtyard, opened the woodshop doors, and went inside. I saw the glints of his eyes for a second looking back at me, and then he was gone.

I fired for another minute or so, and then stopped and waited. I got out a soft cloth and began polishing my bow.

After a second minute of silence, Hatsue asked, "Is everything okay? I don't hear any practicing."

"Shit! Find him boys!” I cried, trying to sound alarmed.

"I need some light here!" Hatsue ordered, and two guards rushed out and bumbled as they lit the torches.

After a search of the fortress, there was no sign of Gangnum-Sum. He’d gotten away clean.

"I didn't expect him to go that fast," I honestly said. "My lady, I'm very sorry that he escaped on your watch!”

"I must report this to Yiro! There will be a reckoning in the morning!” Hatsue snorted and she stormed off.

She was the one that had unlocked the door, the one that had unlocked his shackles, and the one that had let him out. She’d done everything that had made his escape possible. I almost couldn’t contain myself.

“Yes, you Japanese practice one thing to perfection all right!” I called after her.

I laughed and laughed. We’d be back in Mongolia by morning.


Family Feud

It was the summer of the year 1272. Honshu now had a wise and vibrant new Daimyo, and the people were happily coming to terms with the prospect of better times. We had all set up residence at Seinako Heikiko.

People had heard of us and we were attracting followers from all over Japan. Lo was attracting warriors and Sumo wrestling types that bowed and said, “We are ready to serve the Empress, but we must be tutored by the mighty Lo!"

There were young holy men for Dipaka, Monks for Aki, and so on.

There were mages coming to train under me, for the Jade Regent had long ago closed down all of the magic schools. I assigned most of this work to Xia, but I did spend some time getting to know the new recruits. I worked with them too for about a month off and on. 

I sat cross-legged over my brazier as I performed my morning ritual. It was time for another taboo. My taboos would now be four. First, of course, I had to remain chaste. This was not the same as a vow of celibacy, in which one cannot be married. Chastity included any sexual contact. Of course, I had a son, so there were times when I enjoyed my marriage. I could not command magic for a day following any transgression. So too it was with my morning rituals. Failing those, I would also be powerless. Likewise with ingesting meat. My fourth taboo would be harder. From that morning on, I would always speak the truth.

Wen groaned when I told him. “Don’t we get to talk about your taboos first?” he asked.

“Not with my magic,” I said. “Anyway, we have to go to our rendezvous with my sister, so go get ready.”

“What’s to get ready?”

“We’re going to see the Empress; you’re not going dressed like that are you?”

“I can’t go to the Empress chamber at this time of night! It would be unseemly.”

“How about I make you invisible? You won’t have to get ready or have to be seen.”

“No! You don’t get it! I’m a Paladin! I don’t go anywhere invisibly!”

“Fine, then it’ll just have to be unseemly. Besides, I’m going in right beside you. Someone would have to be really sick to think something unseemly was going on.”

“Just to make sure, I’m getting the Father and the Monk,” Wen said.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll get Lo and Xia.”

A few minutes later, we all gathered in Ameiko’s sitting chamber. Ochir, Chaka, and the two engineers were not present. I had called the impromptu meeting because I strongly wished to present the thoughts I’d been having about the Mongols. Although I didn’t expect our meeting to rise to the level of actual treachery, I did want to ensure absolute secrecy.

After we were all inside the room, we closed the doors and windows and Ameiko invoked a private sanctum. It was a magic that prevented eavesdropping of any sort. The only way to hear the conversation was to be in the room. I cast a true seeing spell to take care of that.

To my utter surprise, I saw Tsuto sitting invisibly in a seemingly empty chair in the corner. He was silently biting his nails.

I hadn’t seen him in so long I thought he’d left Japan on his old ship. I guessed now that he had been lurking unseen around my sister all this time.

"First of all, we have to make sure that everyone here is aware of everyone else's presence," I said, looking pointedly at Tsuto. 

"You didn't have to do that, sister,” he said.

Everyone looked at the empty chair in surprise when they heard his voice.

I looked at Ameiko. “I'm not sure it would be appropriate for me to say what I need to say in front of Tsuto. I don’t know where he stands. In fact, I would feel much better if he left.”

"Who the hell is Tsuto?" Lo asked.

Tsuto stood up and made himself visible.

"That's a good question Lo, who the hell are you, Tsuto?” I asked.

"I am well known by our sister, and I am here by her invitation! Or is this no longer true?” He looked at Amieko.

“There's no need for this to go the unfriendly way," I said. "You haven't told me any of your tales.”

“I grew up on the streets of the seediest city in the New World! I’ve dealt with far badder bitches than you!” Tsuto cried.

Bitches?

"Wait a second there," Wen said, moving towards Tsuto.

“This meeting isn’t even about confronting you, Tsuto. Why are you getting so defensive?” I asked.

“There is no reason to argue,” Dipaka tried to interject.

“Stay out of it!" we all shouted at Dipaka.

Dipaka retreated, being a very wise, wise, man. I hoped that someday I would have half of his wisdom.

“Fine, stay or leave. It's up to you. I don't care," I said. "I’ve decided to say something to my sister, for the record.”

All of a sudden, I saw Tsuto’s face change, and he became very handsome. Suddenly, I knew that all I had seen of Tsuto was false, and he was a beautiful being. His golden features now shone and accented his handsome, angular face.

“All I'm asking is for you to give me a chance,” Tsuto said.

“Wen, should I give him a chance? Is he evil?” I asked. “If you're not evil, I'll give you a chance. My husband can tell of you are an evildoer are not, but before he reads you, I give you the opportunity to leave so I can speak to my sister alone.”

Tsuto’s face went back to normal and he frowned and looked very unhappy, but he didn't move.

Wen gave the all clear.

“So, you're not evil after all. I guess you can stay,” I said.

Tsuto’s face twisted. “You know what? I object to that! Why is his judgment the end of everything?”

“He’s a Paladin, by definition his judgment is the end of everything,” I said.

“I've known many California Highway Paladins, and they weren't all honorable sorts, sister. I hope the Eastern variety is better.”

“Maybe you can tell me some of your New World stories at some point, so I'll know who you are,” I said.

He rolled his eyes at me, but I turned away from him. I braced myself and faced my sister.

“I have come to the point in my training where I must take on a new taboo,” I said.

Amieko rolled her eyes, "Really sister? Another taboo?" she asked.

“Yes, it is the way of the Wu Jen. I must now always speak the truth. So there are a few things I must now say, for soon I shall likely find speaking a luxury.”

“Go on then, say what you must,” Ameiko said.

I swallowed hard and set out.

“I must say that I disapprove of your Prince Batsai-Khar. I feel that he is not good for you.”

You could have heard a pin drop. I looked around at everyone else. “I don’t think I’m the only one with this opinion,” I said.

“We've had this discussion, Pang Mei,” Sandru said, using her old name to remind her of just how long he had been her dearest friend.

I went on. “Unfortunately, the time is drawing near when your decision on the Prince will write history, and so I have to ask if it is your true intention to marry him. But--” I paused before I added, “if we don’t like him, then my heart tells me you don’t like him either.”

Ameiko grew angry then.

“I'm hurt. I'm truly hurt. You actually think that any man is going to get the drop on me?” her voice was low, but she trembled because she was so angry.

“If he survives, and he's the hero that I know he can be, then I'll marry him and he'll be the Empress Consort and he’ll guard my Palace. That's how it's going to be! It's not going to be Mongol Emperor big-brother over Empress little-sister!” Her eyes were blazing. 

I went for the final push. “I'm worried about you too. You have to have real love and fulfillment in your life, and I don't know if he's going to provide that. You can’t give that up for anything. Perhaps you could find another, someone right for you. Someone that deserves you.”

“Frankly sister, I’m surprised you’re entertaining this Prince Batsai-Khar too,” Tsuto said. “He gives me the creeps. If someone here were man enough to get rid of the Prince…” he trailed off.

“So, you don’t like him either?” I asked Tsuto.

“Like I said, I’ve been around the world; you’d do well to remember that.”

“We could form a plan of action, but if you want to leave here and continue on this way, that's fine. You will have my blessing,” I finished.

“Let me take care of it; put your mind at ease, sister," she said. 

Tsuto winked at me. My fear of my brother had ebbed a bit, but it was far from gone.

“The next item is easier, and has to do with Lo. Princess Aishwarya-Sen paid Lo a visit and tried to whisk him away, indicating that Malthus had sent her. Malthus is getting more determined to have Lo return to the Reservation as she had originally asked. The Princess even tried to cast a spell on Lo to compel him to return. I tried to scry on her several times, but I can’t get through. I fear something terrible has happened,” I said.

“We would like permission to leave for the Reservation,” Lo said.

“Certainly, Lo, you are our House Champion; you must go. I wish your people well,” Ameiko said.

“We're going to teleport to China in the morning. Is there anything else you want us to do while we’re there?" I asked.

"Well," she said, “not in China, but here I have need of a mage.” She looked at Xia. “Did you learn that teleport spell like I asked?”

“I did, my Empress,” Xia said.

“Xia will stay here with me, to facilitate my travel. I need to move about freely too, sister. Keep in regular contact, and if anything goes wrong, I can send Xia with a rescue squad,” she said.

Crap. There went my cohort. Xia was not an apprentice anymore; she was a full-blown sorceress.

I didn’t know what I would do without her.

“Fine," I said.

“I would speak to Lo before he goes,” Xia said, sounding as if she might burst into tears.

Lo went over and bowed before his wife. Xia kissed his head and said, “Do what you have to, my husband.”

Lo rose.

I wasn’t exactly sure what Xia meant by that, and I was a woman. This was definitely a shade of gray.

“The third and final subject regards Ochir,” I said. “Chaka has postulated the idea that he’s back in the party. We haven’t said no, but I’m not so sure that’s what the rest of us want.”

“You can’t bring up the Ochir situation without bringing up the Mongolian situation,” my sister said.

“Fine, we won’t bring up Ochir, and he travels with us,” I said. “I guess that’s that.”

“Chaka was the one that asked me to give her a little credit for controlling her man, if you are going to go back to China; I suggest you take her with you.”

“Since I have to speak the truth, I cannot give Chaka much credit for controlling Ochir.”

My sister was livid.

“Well, as long as we are speaking the truth—“

“Remember, we do a lot for you,” I quickly said. “Ochir may even have been violated by the Yojimbo for you! We don’t really know for sure!”

Wen and Lo laughed, and the tension broke.

“What about you?” she looked at Aki. “You're awfully quiet; don't tell me your vow of silence is back.”

“No my Empress, yet I have nothing to contribute to this conversation, these decisions are above my head,” Aki said, and bowed.

"We would still like for you to share your wisdom, and if your wisdom is silence then we will take that as good advice,” Amieko said, looking at me.

"Yes, I wish other people would use wisdom when they spoke,” Aki said.

I turned to Aki. “I thank you, Aki, I’m very grateful for all that you have done for us, I suddenly realize we haven’t thanked you near enough.”

“Don’t thank him for doing his job,” the Jade Archer said.

“Exactly,” Aki said.

“Hey, I’ll be speaking the truth from now on, so I’m warning you guys,” I said. I looked at the Jade Archer.

“Make sure Yoshi survives all this, please, Jade Archer,” I begged the elf.

“I did not wipe your husband’s nose; I’m not going to wipe your son’s ass,” she spat.

“I didn’t mean for you to wipe his ass, I meant for you to shoot the people that may try to hurt him,” I retorted.

“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” she snarled.

“I’m thinking about burning your hair off right now, so let’s end the meeting right here, shall we?” I said.

Ameiko ended the sanctum and we went back to our bunks. We had to get some sleep. In the morning, as we’d planned, we were heading for Giant country.


Giant Country

At our second stop, after the usual six-second appearance at the Prone Crone, we found The Forbidden City was largely deserted. Kublai Khan and Chabui had gone south to personally oversee the fall of the Song Empire. They were supervising the siege of Guangzhou.

"We should go down there and see what's going on," Chaka said.

"No,” I said. “First we need to go to the Reservation.”

“Read this,” Chaka handed me a scroll, which had been sealed by the Song Emperor. The seal was already broken.

I unrolled it and read it aloud:

The middle Kingdom is at stake! All heroes of the land are to bring all forces available to Guangzhou and relieve the siege of the Mongol Empire!

“Maybe there's a chance here to repay a debt," Chaka said.

“I've asked my husband if he wanted to visit home before,” I said, and looked at Wen.

“I believe that my Empress promised you that when the time came she would save the Royal family of the Song Dynasty. You can save the Song Emperor and his family, and come to their aid," Chaka said.

Wen gave me a look. "What am I supposed to do?" he asked.

“Do you want to go see your grandfather before he dies? Can it wait a day or two so we can figure out what's going on with Malthus? I'd rather leave this up to you two guys,” I said.

“This is a party decision then. Obviously, Chaka and Ochir will want to go to Guangzhou.”

Wen looked at Lo.

"It depends on how important it is to you," Lo said. "While it is true that I am anxious to find out what machinations happened with my old friend Malthus, it is also more importantly about my father and the rest of my people.”

“Very well, we shall go to the Reservation first, and then we'll go to Guangzhou. They've lasted this long, they can surely make it a few more days," Wen said.

“I'm sure those Goliaths could use some special Mongol help. Give me a day here to load up some supplies for them," Chaka said.

“Of course,” Wen said.

“First, everyone has to come and see Munkh-Ochir Ganbaatar,” Chaka smiled.

We went to see Ochir and Chaka’s baby. He was beautiful. He was actually nearly the size of Yoshi. I thought he would be tiny. I guessed that Gnomes started out roughly human sized and then grew more slowly into their frames.

I was able to hold him for a while. I wondered what he would become, in time. I wondered what Yoshi would become. I wondered if the two would ever know each other.

After we popped out of Beijing, we arrived at the Proud Peacock. It was an inn that stood outside a good-sized trading post that was bustling with activity. We saw two elephants swaying slowly and shitting outside. They bore enormous howdahs packed with supplies. They were like the decks of small ships. They had dozens of Indian bearers working on them, climbing all around, checking rigging and dolloping salve on the elephant’s sores. It looked like all of the officers were gnomes. It was a comical sight, the tiny gnomes bossing the much larger Indian men around. There was a tiny office hooked onto the back of one of the howdahs. An old gnome inside was swearing and comparing various incongruous bills of materials.

A huge blat split the air as an elephant trumpeted so loudly I thought I wouldn’t hear again for the rest of my life. The elephants stank, as did their Indian handlers.

They had Mongolian standards, made up in the Indian style. They were clearly of the Batbayar army.

Ochir looked at Chaka, "You may finally have the honor of meeting your Father-in-Law.”

A gnomish Captain came up to Ochir and smartly saluted. “I'm Captain Grizzlebeard. Are you our General’s son, Munkh-Ochir Batbayar?”

“I do have the honor of being that,” Ochir answered, and swelled with pride.

The Captain grinned, snapped his fingers, and looked back at his cronies. Apparently, he'd won a bet.

“Where is my father, Captain? Is he in town, or is he out and about?" Ochir asked.

“I'm not privy to that information sir,” he said, with another salute.

"Who's your Commander?" Ochir asked.

“I report to Aishwarya-Sen, your Father’s eighth wife.”

“Would she be anywhere around?”

“She comes and goes as she pleases, and her location information is above my rank, sir. My mission here is to guard the supplies going to the Khan’s army along the Silk Road.”

“We’re on our way to the Goliath reservation. Did you encounter any combat on your way here?”

“Sure.”

“With whom?”

“Someplace down south; some local Lord with some Jurchen troops for cannon fodder and a few officers.”

“Was that near the Goliath territory?”

“No.”

“What about near there?”

“We haven’t been there, but we did hear that the Hubidai took his company that way,” the Captain reported. “We refer to that area as Giant territory, actually. The Goliath city itself is now called Jorgenfist. Have you been out of the country or something, sir?”

“Yes, Captain, now take this down and have it sent to my father by courier at once: I'm on the continent; I'm heading to Jorgenfist, and I will be coming shortly thereafter to Guangzhou."

“Yes sir!”

At the trading post, there was an actual Shrine to Dipaka. A painted poster bore his likeness. It was a sacred area where people placed their spare food in offering. The poor could come and take the food if they needed it.

“I have never been prouder than at this moment,” Dipaka said. I thought I saw a tear in his eye.

Aki flipped up Dipaka's poster, and underneath was a more faded poster of someone named Father Wong.

“And yet, the goodness of this is not to be denied,” Dipaka said.

The next day, we teleported to the Last Yak's outpost. Wen came out of the stable there with a new horse. “His name is Jinzhang,” he said.

We headed for the Reservation. We saw a few goats and a heard of yaks along the way. We saw a dire tiger way off in the distance. He was shading his eyes with his paw as he regarded us.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a cat shade its eyes with a paw,” Aki said. “That’s no cat.”

I thought of Cairn. I wondered what had ever become of her and Havarak. What had happened to Allegro? No one knew.

Eventually, the cat disappeared. Thankfully, we must not have been what it was looking for.

At last, we came unto a wondrous city of smooth stone. It had strong, soaring spires with mighty flying buttresses and a thick battlemented curtain wall.

It surely hadn’t been there the year before, so it must've been built using very powerful magic indeed. In fact, I’d never heard of such power in all of history. Once, a holy man had managed to destroy Jericho, but no one had ever brought forth a whole city.

There were multiple camps of giants in siege positions around the city. There were three camps on our side of the fortress alone. From a distance, we could make out details in the first camp. There were several dozen Hill giants milling about, cooking and eating. The male giants played a game tossing bladders stuffed with dried beans at two holes in the ground for entertainment.

“Catorce Four Bagger!” an excited giant cried.

Their camp was right up next to the road, so they would surely see us if we tried the direct approach.

We could hear whizzing now and again above our heads. Big and invisible things were roaming the skies.

We elected to power up and fly over the giant encampments anyway. I cast fly on the horses, so Wen and I were on Jinzhang, and all the Gnomes were on Baderhu. I gave the potions of flying I bought in Beijing to Lo and Aki.

We flew at a hundred and twenty feet above the ground. I cast true seeing. Chaka covered us with an illusion of a murder of crows, so no giants below would see us.

We were going along great, until a wyvern came to investigate the flock of crows that undoubtedly smelled unlike any other. Ochir readied his arrows, but held his shot.

Jinzhang went crazy. He couldn’t see the wyvern as I could, but he knew something big was there. He was neighing, bucking, and rearing in mid-air to the point I thought we were going to fall right into the giant’s hands below.

We fell behind and were revealed as the crows moved on. As it turned out, the wyvern was no longer interested in the crows; he was interested in us.

The wyvern struck. It de-cloaked as its tail wrapped around my waist like an iron band. It yanked me off Jinzhang’s back and was now flying away. I looked down at the surprised giants staring up at me.

I felt poison coursing through me.

“Aiko!” Wen cried. He tried to give chase, but Jinzhang was just too unwieldy.

“Don’t worry! I’ll be at the fortress!” I cried. I opened a dimension door as I hurtled through the air. I opened it on the parapet of the fortress. Two Goliaths with bows looked down at me in utter surprise when I rolled to a stop at their feet.

“I’m here with Lo! Akala’s son!” I cried. “My friends are coming in! We are having a bit of trouble!”

“We know who you are, Missy,” they said.

The illusory crows flew over the wall, and Dipaka, Aki and the gnomes appeared on the parapet walk with me. Everyone was there except Lo.

Lo had turned back to save Wen.

Another wyvern had appeared and begun attacking Wen too.

Wen had his Hanzo blade out, and was doing his best to stay on Jinzhang’s back and fight two wyverns.

I was relieved when Lo grabbed Wen by the scruff of his neck and pulled him off Jinzhang and left the struggling horse behind.

There was a rending noise as the wyverns seized and tore Jinzhang apart. The crass giants below cheered.

Lo flew with Wen over the wall. “Lo! Put me down, man!” Wen cried.

Lo dropped Wen to the parapet in a heap.

After we’d brushed ourselves off, we went with the guards down to meet Malthus.

First, we met Lo's brother, Keo. “Lo! You’re back!” he whooped, and leapt into Lo's arms and tried to bumble him to the ground.

“Oh please!” Lo said. Lo caught his brother before his face hit the dirt, and they wrestled for a minute.

“This is such a marvel! Who built this city?” Dipaka asked the Goliaths.

“The Empress of the Mongols. She came here with her people and did this in one month,” they explained.

“Who is it that assaults the city?" Lo asked, after he and his brother stopped roughhousing.

“Giants. They have not assaulted the city, they're just trying to intimidate us right now,” Keo said.

“I know its giants, but who is the leader of the giants?” Lo asked.

“We aren’t entirely sure of that,” Lo’s father said as he came up with Malthus and four extra-rugged Goliaths.

Princess Aishwarya-Sen walked with them. “I told you he would come,” she said.

“Why are you in a city?” Lo asked Malthus. “It is Northern Spring; you should be up further, at a higher elevation this time of year. Why are you in this place?”

“That’s what I asked her,” Lo’s father said.

“We are here because we have been given this land by the Empress of the Mongols, Chabui, and we will hold it, that’s why. In addition, I cannot bring my goliaths to fight giants in the open field because we have no one to lead them! Your Father’s too old! And your brother’s too young!” Malthus cried.

“If you had followed the migration pattern, you wouldn’t be in this situation. There’s a reason the Goliath’s follow the migration. There’s a reason we are nomads. We do not hole up in cities.”

“If you want to be in charge, be my guest!” 

“Back to my question then. Who leads this rabble of giants?” Lo asked.

“Mokmurian is the head of the largest clan. We believe he is their leader,” she said.

“How many giants are gathered here?”

“There are thirty Black Fist hill giants. There’s the Red Shield and the Night Shade Ogres, two allied clans that have maybe fifty ogres between them. There’s the Maidens of Minderhall, a dozen brutish female stone giants. There are also a couple more groups of giants of unknown origin,” Malthus said.

“Why can’t I scry on you?” I asked Malthus.

“I protect Malthus from being scryed upon,” Aishwarya-Sen said.

“And that brings me to my next question,” Lo continued. “Why is she here?”

"Yes, why is this crazy woman here?" Dipaka asked. Aishwarya-Sen looked at him and smiled.

“She’s my advisor. She gave me good advice; she told me when the giants were coming. I got them inside the city before they arrived,” Malthus explained.

“Aiko, can you please release Malthus from the charm that is obviously upon her?” Lo asked me.

“I have not charmed your woman,” Aishwarya-Sen said.

Aki asked Wen, “Who here is evil?”

“No one here radiates any evil,” Wen said.

"Not even the crazy woman?" Dipaka asked.

“Lo, perhaps you and I need to speak alone,” Malthus said.

“I got him here. The rest is up to you,” Aishwarya-Sen said to Malthus.

Lo went into Malthus' hut alone.

Aki raised an eyebrow.

It was a good thing Xia wasn’t there with us.

--------------------------------------------------------------

Lo sat on Malthus' bearskin bed. He noticed how attractive Malthus was. He became uncomfortable in his armor.

“Fate has played us cruelly. I was shunned, and now, I’m married. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

She lit a candle and took off her clothes for him. “You are the strongest Goliath ever recorded in history. And there’s something else. I have discovered the secret of the Warhulk class. I have trained four Goliaths. They need a Champion. If you will not be that Champion, at least let me have a chance to let your son be that Champion.”

“As tempting as it is, I must stand fast,” Lo said, but his eyes were feasting.

She took off Lo’s armor.

“Do you want to remember any of this?”  Malthus asked.

“Yes,” Lo said.

“Me too.” 

--------------------------------------------------------------

The next day, all of the giants came out of their camps and assembled for war. We gathered and looked down on them from the wall while they formed ranks.

“I want to go out there and lay waste to all these stinking giants,” Lo said.

No one else said anything.

“So, where’s dad?” Ochir asked Aishwarya-Sen.

“Your dad’s off doing your dad’s stuff,” she said.

“I could be doing dad’s stuff too,” Ochir said, ogling her rear.

“Ochir, you are a disgusting little creature! Never speak to me again,” she said, frowning.

Chaka frowned at Ochir too.

One giant came forth to parley. He had hairless gray skin with deep-set dark emerald eyes. He had a long, thin, flinty nose. He wore a familiar leather breechclout.

Suddenly, I recognized him. I had wanted a rematch with him for a long, long time. He still had Lo’s old magic katana, the one he’d redubbed Ling-Ling. It was the giant that had defeated Lo.

Lo ordered the gate opened. He went down and stood in the gateway with Suishen at the ready.

The stone giant walked forward and stopped. I could feel the giant's feet thudding through the ground.

“I believe we’ve met before, Goliath,” the giant said in his rumbling basso voice. “I am Gallomere, Captain of this army,” he said.

“You know who I am,” Lo said, “so let’s dispense with the niceties. You’re evil and it’s time for you to go down.”

“Evil huh? Well, let it suffice to say I’m not here to fight. I’m here to challenge you to a match at the Wormhole. It is the custom of the giants to play over territorial rights instead of shedding wholesale blood. In this case, the prize is your city. If you do not wish to field a team to play the game, I’ll take your refusal back to Mokmurian, and then we’ll have war,” he said. “Of course, you can always forfeit.”

“It sounds like you’re the only one that wins anything. What do we get if we win?”

“We’ll leave you alone,” Gallomere said.

“So let me get this straight. You think you’re bargaining from a position of strength?”

“Uh, yeah,” Gallomere turned and motioned at the giants assembled behind him.

“I don’t accept your offer. Tell your Mak-who-ever I’ll slay him too,” Lo said.

“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then,” Gallomere said, and turned and stumped away.

Lo came back in and ordered the gate closed.

“Hey, this is a Mongolian stronghold!” Ochir blurted.

It apparently had dawned on Ochir that the city was officially a Mongolian city, even though it had Goliaths in it.

"And, since I'm the highest-ranking Mongol here,” Ochir began, “I need to defend this place.”

"I don't mean to correct you, but I think Chaka is the highest-ranking Mongol here," Dipaka said.

"In Japan, that's true," Ochir said. “But not here.”

"I don't know," Chaka said. "Aishwarya-Sen is the wife of a Mongolian General and she’s a Princess, so technically she might outrank you."

Aishwarya-Sen looked at Dipaka. "I don't think we should let the Goliaths go against the giants and slaughter each other. We have to negotiate a peace."

Dipaka nodded, but said nothing to his nemesis.

"Well, for once, I'm with Lo. When they come back here tomorrow, we're killing every last one of them," Ochir swore.

We broke up and set about waiting for the next day and the bloodbath to arrive.

That evening, I saw Lo talking to Malthus. I was close enough to hear what she said.

She looked at Lo with her large blue eyes. "You are wise Lo; you bought us another night. Now, surely you will give me a son.”


The Game

By Aiko Kaijitsu

That night Lo mulled his decision.

Aki wanted to have a battle-royale and drive out the invaders, but the odds were not really very good we would survive a battle with a hundred giants.

Ochir wanted to go right after the head of the snake, Mokmurian. Chaka had to keep him from going to attack the giant’s supposed leader right then. He wanted to fly up high into the sky and come down on the giant shooting the entire way. Of course, that would only make them angry, and the original problem would remain.

Lo asked his father about the game Gallomere had mentioned.

“It’s a simple but popular game,” he said. “It’s very exciting. It’s played high up on the mountaintop, where the great worms live. The object, of course, is to get your team’s rock into the other team’s goal. The rocks are placed at the center of the arena at the start. There are narrow ledges and walkways to run on, but below are the worms.”

“That sounds easy enough,” I said. I was imagining using telekinesis to pick up the rock and move it directly into the goal.

“Yeah, except the rock weighs five hundred pounds,” Akala said, and his huge eye winked at me.

“Oh,” I said. “I couldn’t hope to move a rock that big with magic.”

“There’s no magic,” he explained. “The rocks themselves are cut from anti-magic basalt. It radiates null magic for the length of a giant’s arm, at least. If you have the rock, no magic can harm you. But it can’t help you either.”

“Harm?” I asked. “This is a friendly game, right?”

Akala looked at me with his best un-impressed look. “What do you think, gooey one?”

“Anything goes?” I asked. “You can’t get killed playing rockball, can you?”

“Well, there’s no outright killing, but if you fall into the pits, you’re not coming home. If they want to kill you for some reason, there no stopping fighting on the field. Giants have the upside of being absurdly strict about their rockball games. If we were to play their game and win, they would leave us alone. Giants think in terms of centuries, and this territorial thing is rather standard, so they would leave us alone for a hundred years, at the least,” he said.

“If we do this,” Lo said, “I want to make sure that Gallomere is on the other team. I want to fight him again.”

“Oh, he’ll be the Captain of his team,” Malthus said, taking Lo by the hand. “But you won’t have time to fight him my dear; you’re going to be carrying the ball.”

“Damn,” Lo groaned.

“Don’t worry Lo,” Wen said, “I’ll take care of Gallomere for you. Xia will be another matter.”

--------------------------------------------------------

So it was that I became a rockball player.

The arena was high atop a mountain. We had to be carried up the steep slopes again, clinging to the backs of the goliaths. I got the same goliath who had carried me when we rescued Keo. He was very respectful and didn’t pretend to slip and fall this time. The goliaths were now in awe of us. Being a player in a rockball game was apparently a big deal.

The winds became fiercer as we rose. As we neared the summit of the mountain, we heard the sounds of a lively crowd. After we got up over the lip, we were stunned by the view. We could see for miles out over the dun steppes, and the sky above was a massive blue vista striped with fast moving clouds.

There were rows of giant stone seats that surrounded the gigantic arena. They descended ten feet at a time, and were filled with all manner of mountain creatures. There were garguns, rock trolls, galeb durs, gargoyles, stone golems, troglodytes (they were too stinky had their own box), firbolgs, firbeegs, goliaths, gnomes, and of course, all kinds of giants. Someone even had a pet Xorn.

They were all stoked. Their jubilant calls thundered from the walls, and they had elaborate chants that rolled around the arena like ocean waves. Gnomes went with trays of ale and wine up and down the aisles. One was accidentally knocked to the ground when a fight between two ogres broke out. Onlookers laughed as the tiny gnome made the enormous ogres pay for the whole tray afterward.

At the bottom were the pits, the rocky crags where the purple worms came to feed. The long and massive amaranthine beasts tunneled into and out of the pit walls, leaving behind holes that collapsed as often as not. Hundreds of feet below, the bottom of the pit was a gravelly hell of writhing boulders and stones. If you fell in there, you’d be dead for sure. Howling winds swirled, and dust devils sprang up on the ledges one hundred feet below the lowermost seats.

There was a small raised island at the exact center, towering fifty feet above the ledges. Thirty feet of it sat upon a larger platform twenty feet high. Two massive polished black stones were positioned atop the spire. Our team’s rock had a blue ring around its equator, while theirs had a red ring. Two narrow walks led out in either direction, and meandered over to join a wider ledge that ran around the entire bowl.

There were two insets on opposite sides, one red and one blue. Each goal platform was large enough for an entire team of giants to stand.

We walked past a bunch of plinths allotted for betting. Aki went and talked to a giant Athach that was stationed at the end of the row. He had no legs and stood upon his waist, but he was ten feet tall nonetheless. He had a third arm that came out if his chest and allowed him to take bets on either side of the table, both lines at the same time. He stank like feces, yet no one seemed to mind. He had two massive lower tusk teeth, but he spoke with Aki well enough. I saw Aki hand the giant a stack of currency.

“I can’t believe its even odds!” Aki said when he got back. “They actually think we have a chance at winning!”

The rest of us quickly put money down on ourselves to win. Lo put down three thousand. Wen and I ventured five thousand of our currency. Chaka put down five thousand of her and Ochir’s money.  Dipaka smiled and watched as we gambled. “A fool and his money are soon parted,” he said.

We were ushered down into a deep underground room that actually had hot running water and a massive pool. We could have taken baths, but I was afraid of the naked giants down there.

We were moved into a team room that led to the arena walk. Our team was introduced first. We were the Puny Ones. Malthus went out and called our names in her stentorian voice, and we each came out and went over to our starting ledge. The cheering was enthusiastic for each one of us. I guessed they were happy to see someone new in the game. I had enlarged Aki and Wen with the wand, so along with Lo, we had three players of reasonable size, but the rest of us were puny by comparison.

Next, the other team was announced. They were called the Giants, of course.

First, there was an enormous dire bear named Embers, and Gallomere himself led her into the arena on a leash. A huge cheer greeted them. He had apparently upgraded his pet bear after we had killed Ling-Ling. I remembered the gory and gaudy collar Ling-Ling had worn; I wondered if she had ever been in these games.

Gallomere raised his hand and the crowd fell silent. “I am Gallomere, Team Captain!” The crowd all stood up and applauded the stone giant. He took a bow.

Next were two piebald trolls, known as the Bruise Brothers. Their green skin was mottled with large patches of pure white. They carried ransuers and wore thick breastplates. They stood side by side and whirled their ransuers all about themselves in perfect unison, creating a unique martial arts display. Thumping and drums accompanied their antics. “Hurek and Durek!” Gallomere announced, and the crowd went wild.

A Jotenblood hill giant named Lokansir was followed by a Runeslave giant called the Feeb, and they drew hoots. Lokansir looked like an enlarged ogre of the very grumpy variety. The Feeb was dark as ebon night, and had a large glowing rune on his chest. He dipped and bobbed constantly; something about him was not right.

Next was a towering Taiga giant named Cinderma that had a lush mane of fiery red hair. It was curly and stuck out in all directions. Scars and tribal patterns covered the gray skin of the brutish woman. Skulls and stone fetishes hung about her waist, and she bore a massive club. She wore no covering over her breasts, but they were small and compact, not the type that would get in the way during combat.

Riding on her shoulder was a tiny barbarian kobold with an equally blazing red shock of hair. Her name was Enga, and she had a bandolier of grenades slung between her breasts. She threw one up into the air. As it reached its apex, it exploded with a huge bang.

The entire arena went berserk. There was so much stomping I could feel our ledge vibrating.

The cheering went on until Gallomere drew a hush by raising his hand once again. He raised his horn to his lips and blew out a long note.

Seconds ticked by and the crowd began to murmur in anticipation.

Suddenly, two red dragons flapped up over the side of the arena. They alit on the edge of the stadium, screeched, and blew out gouts of flame into the air.

“Encontredor and Sulaminga!” Gallomere cried. The crowd exploded. The sound was deafening.

“That’s bullshit!” Lo hollered, furious that Gallomere had two dragons on his team, but even Lo Ear-Splitter’s protest was drowned out by the crowd. They weren’t the world’s oldest or largest dragons, but there was no doubt they would be able to carry their rock through the air, while we would not.

“And now,” Gallomere said, “All bow before Mokmurian!”

A huge giant with white hair and a white robe appeared from an entrance that emerged in a special box especially for the Lord of Giants. He was accompanied by a beautiful woman with a cloud of black hair. A row of smaller giants filed into the box after them.
Everyone bowed or at least fell silent.

“Let the game commence!” Mokmurian commanded, and sat down to watch the game.

Two long, deep horns sounded out together.

The dragons immediately swooped down to seize both rocks.

We sprang into action; I cast haste, and Chaka fired up her little drummer girl routine.

Ochir blurred and lofted himself into the arena with his air elemental. Chaka stuck close behind him, rat-a-tat-tatting as she went. The crowd gasped as Ochir immediately drew his bowstring and struck Sulaminga with his triple shot. The dragon screeched and leapt off our team’s rock and clipped Ochir with a claw. Ochir rolled with the blow and righted himself, fired again, and took the dragon under the wing.

Suddenly, Aki, Lo, and Dipaka appeared at the base of the thinnest spire, thirty feet under the ball. Aki had folded space and taken a Monk’s step through a dimension door to get them there.

Cinderma and the Runeslave leapt from their goal and hurled boulders at Lo, and one bounced off Lo’s shield. The other caromed off the ledge and into the worm pit below.

Encontredore picked up their team’s rock and began moving backward, but he was flapping his wings furiously in order to stay aloft and was going rather slowly. Aki leapt up and tried to stun Encontredore with a temple strike, but the brute was too single-minded. He shrieked at Aki and headed for the side of the arena with the ball.

The Bruise Brothers went around the arena counterclockwise, while Gallomere, Embers the Bear, Cinderma, and the Feeb went around the other way. The Jotenblood stayed near the goal with his feet planted and his club ready. He roared a terrible oath and the entire arena shook. I noticed the kobold had disappeared.

Lo slung his shield over his back and humped it up the spire to our rock. He took the massive stone with both hands, took a deep breath, and leapt from the summit. He crashed to the ledge below, got to his feet, picked up the ball, and headed for the next drop.

“Keep both hands on the ball, Lo!” Wen yelled.

“You don’t need to tell me!” Lo cried.

Wen and Malthus were heading around the arena to intercept Gallomere and the others.

I flew off our ledge and upward. I blasted Gallomere and the rest of his group with a hot fireball that brought cheers from the crowd.

The Bruise Brothers leapt from the outer ledge to the inner one without bothering to go all the way round to get across. Hurek made it all the way; Durek barely reached the ledge and had to climb up. Hurek stood right in Lo’s path.

It was then that Akala and Keo shot and killed Sulaminga. Her corpse turned slowly in mid-air and then plummeted into the worm pits. The crowds responded with a hush. Encontredor roared in anguish.

“Since you guys finished that one off for me, I’ll take the giant on the right!” Ochir called. He flew over, fired at Cinderma, and pegged her in the chest. She bellowed with rage and threw a rock that clipped his leg and flipped him a few times.

Encontredore now carried the ball behind Gallomere and the other giants coming along the ledge, heading for the goal.

Wen and Malthus engaged Gallomere and Embers together.

Gallomere lashed out and caught Wen in the face and he was flung backward. Wen’s faceplate was bent up over his eyes so he couldn’t see, and his helmet was still buckled tightly under his chin so he couldn’t get it off.

Aki ran, skipped, flipped, and flew up over the giant’s line, then dropped down on Encontredore cracking him square in the snout with both fists. The dragon curled up and rolled into the wall, and the ball popped out.

The crowd watched as the ball rolled right over to the edge, but didn’t fall into the pits. The crowd got very loud then; they were hoping to will the ball over the edge just by vibrating the mountain.

Lo charged Hurek with the ball tucked under his chest. Hurek was exceedingly fast; he whirled his ransuer out and around and took Lo’s legs out from under him. Lo landed on his back and our ball rolled to a stop against the base of the spire. Hurek jumped forward and sat on Lo’s chest, pinning him. They began punching each other like maniacs.

Durek finally clambered up onto the ledge behind Hurek. Suddenly, I knew what to do. I concentrated on my telekinesis, and I pushed Durek right over the edge. He screamed as he fell into the pit and found the violaceous beasts waiting for him.

Malthus had to face both Gallomere and Embers alone while Wen struggled to right his helmet.

As I watched, time seemed to slow way down, just so I could better experience the horror of what I was seeing.

First, Embers ripped Malthus’ arm off with her teeth, rendering her effectively defenseless against Gallomere. Blood sprayed all over the bear’s snout and collar, and the hungry bear immediately began stripping the arm bones of their meat.

Gallomere raised his katana and hacked Malthus down. He chopped her until she fell, and then he stomped her body against the stone floor. The sound of her crunching bones was heart wrenching. Even her armor was crushed out of shape. Blood was pooling everywhere, and was running down into the pit.

Gallomere laughed. “Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum! I smell the blood of a goliath scum!”

The Feeb went over and bobbed, grunted, kicked, pulled, and scooted Malthus’ shattered body over the ledge. The worms would take care of her.

“I have done this for you Lord Gallomere! Now kill the other one my Lord! He still can’t see!" the Runeslave pointed out.

After throwing a ball of healing down at Lo, Dipaka tried to climb down from his ledge and navigate twenty feet of sheer cliff, but he slipped and fell when he was about halfway down. He landed on his back with a smack.

Suddenly, Enga the Kobold appeared visible, hovering in mid-air right over Dipaka, grinning. She put the tip of her spear to his belly. She broke through his sanctuary and his weapon-shattering defense and shoved it into his stomach until it hit the rock beneath. She twisted her spear back and forth, and blood gushed out.

Dipaka’s eyes were wide, so stunned was he by her evil.

“Why, you’re soft as bread, Holy Man! We're going to get to know each other real well now; the only thing that could make this any better is if you suddenly became a gnome!” she cackled with glee. She pulled out the spear and floated back a ways to enjoy her handwork. “I hate gnomes.”

Dipaka only got up and spread his empty hands. Blood ran down his waist. “You should surrender now. You cannot hurt me.”

“We’ll see about that,” Enga snorted and floated back some more. She took a grenade from her chest, and pulled the pin with her teeth.

Chaka winked at me and dispelled Enga. The kobold’s fly spell vanished. She dropped just a few feet to the ledge, unhurt. Enga stuck her tongue out at Chaka.

“Nice try! Say goodbye to your Holy Freind, gnome!” Enga smiled wickedly and drew her arm back to throw her grenade at Dipaka.

Just as she did so, I pushed her over the edge.

Her eyes snapped open as she realized she was falling into the pit. She tried to grab the ledge, but her grenade struck the edge and went off. So did the rest of her grenades. Enga was blown to smithereens.

When the smoke cleared, the crowd was quiet, and they were all looking at me.

Chaka and I saluted them all, and the crowd went crazy.

Ochir fired at Cinderma again and she finally dropped unceremoniously to the ledge, half dead. She looked like a bleeding pincushion.

I looked back at Lo, still fighting Hurek. The troll suddenly jumped up and jabbed Lo with his ransuer. Lo leapt to his feet, seized Hurek, and began wrestling him toward the edge. Lo grew in size as his rage consumed him, but Hurek pushed back.

Wen finally managed to pull off his helmet. He threw it to the ground, held aloft his Hanzo sword and said, “By Bahamut’s bidding!”  Wen engaged the Runeslave and executed a series of sword blows that killed the bobbing giant.

The crowd cheered for Wen.

While Encontredor tried to recover his wits, Aki moved and punched Embers right in the nose and got the bear’s attention away from Wen. Embers pushed Aki to the ground with his massive mitt, wrapped his huge mouth around Aki’s shoulder, and bit in deep. There was a terrible cracking noise, and Aki’s face betrayed the pain he was enduring.

Encontredor got back up, crawled over to the ball, and recovered the fumble. He flapped his great wings and started flying back toward their goal.

Gallomere tried to slice Wen to ribbons as he had done Malthus, but Wen kept moving adroitly from side to side, avoiding the giant’s blows. The huge katana kept striking the floor all around Wen and stone shards were flying. The crowd laughed at the comic sight. Gallomere was furious. “Damnit!” he thundered. “Stand still, pipsqueak!”

“You cannot strike the righteous!” Wen cried. Finally, Gallomere clouted Wen good. His stoneskin absorbed most of the blow, but my intuition told me Wen had a severed collarbone. Blood ran down the front of his armor.

“Hah!” Gallomere laughed.

Hurek and Lo were locked in a fantastic dance of grappling maneuvers, both the ball and the ransuer forgotten on the ledge. Just as Lo would almost have Hurek nearly over the side, Hurek would come back with an amazing reversal.

The crowd was cheering for them both. At one point Lo wrapped his arms around Hurek’s waist, lifted, and held the troll upside down. Lo bellowed as he tried to squeeze the shit out of Hurek. The crowd exploded when Hurek sank his teeth into Lo’s groin. Lo dropped the troll like a hot potato and Hurek fell on his back with a slap. Lo looked down and checked to make sure his nuts were still there, and then he picked up the hysterically laughing troll and threw him right over the ledge.

“Nooooooo!” Hurek screamed as he fell to his doom. The crowd roared.

Right in the middle of all this, Ochir up and shot Mokmurian. Red blood showed on the giant Lord’s white robe. Mokmurian looked down, unable to believe he’d been hit by arrows. The Giant Lord stood and glared down at Ochir.

Chaka appeared to have been anticipating just such an action, for she grabbed Ochir by the ear and they both vanished.

Mokmurian smirked and sat back down.

The battle of Aki and Embers raged on. Aki managed to escape a pin and stun the great bear, so he leapt up and kicked Encontredor as the dragon flew by with the ball, trying to knock it loose. The dragon snorted at Aki and kept on going.

As the dragon got ever closer to Akala and Keo covering our goal, the two goliaths fired arrow after arrow into the dragon. Encontredor lost altitude slowly until he collapsed on his chin and the ball rolled free.

Aki was busy finishing off Embers, so I thumped an ice dome over their rockball. It would be a while before they got it back now. The crowd booed me.

On the other side, Lo recovered our ball. He backed up, charged, and leapt thirty feet over certain death and made it to the other side. Now there was nothing but the Jotenblood between Lo and victory for us Puny Ones.

Wen and Aki were both fighting Gallomere. They fought together quite effectively, Aki distracting the giant while Wen struck with his Hanzo blade.

“You may win the game, but you’ll not kill me!” Gallomere promised. He was teetering, spitting out the last words of a battle-addled fighter. He looked up at Mokmurian and had the look of someone who had had enough. He was imploring the Giant Lord to stop the game. "To the death!" Mokmurian ordered. Gallomere frowned and readied himself for Aki and Wen.

Aki stepped back and bowed to Wen.

“Thank you for leaving me the honor of the final blow,” Wen said, and he did a spinning leap attack, cracking Gallomere in the side of the head with the flat of his Hanzo blade, at last knocking him out. Wen had hoped to keep Gallomere alive, but the giant collapsed so near the edge of the pit that he slid down to the whims of the worms below. Dipaka moved to save him, but it was too late. Dipaka shook his head sadly and looked to the sky.

Lo barreled towards Lokansir. The Jotenblood stood planted on the ledge, blocking the way. He braced for impact.

Lo hurtled into the Jotenblood. He leapt into the air and pushed Lokansir’s face down with one hand as he vaulted over the hill giant. Lo kept his other arm firmly around the ball. He came down on the other side of Lokansir and kept on running.

The crowd turned into absolute thunder, and the arena was rumbling.

Lo headed for the final climb. He leapt and caught the edge of the goal with his free hand. He swung the ball up onto the platform first and then pulled himself up. The Jotenblood leapt and tried to seize Lo’s legs in a valiant last-ditch effort, but Lo kicked him in the face.

Lo picked up the ball and then slammed it into the pocket at the back of the platform.

A single horn blat signaled the end of the game.

The crowd roared, stomped, hooted, and danced drunken jigs.

Lo turned to face the crowd and bellowed, “Remember Malthus!”

Dipaka raised his hand and cried, “Everyone, quiet please! I have something to say!”

The crowd fell silent, and looked at Dipaka.

“Yes, remember Malthus, and Gallomere, and Enga, and Sulaminga, and Hurek, and Durek, and all those that died here today. May their souls be at peace! And now, we will have a moment of silence for the dead!” His words rang from the arena walls.

Almost magically, even those already leaving the arena stopped and observed Dipaka’s moment of silence.

“Thank you! Their spirits appreciate your reverence,” Dipaka called, and the spectators began filing out. Mokmurian gave Dipaka a strange look.

We got our winnings before we went back down the mountain. They grudgingly paid up. “Well, you all are cheaters, but a deal’s a deal,” the Athach said, as he counted out our notes.

Chaka and Ochir showed up to collect their winnings too. Ochir appeared none too happy. I knew he’d gone along with our plan until he had definitely tipped the game in our favor, but he still had to try his plan anyway. I had been wrong about Chaka, she had controlled Ochir.

We climbed back down the mountain and went back to Jorgenfist.

Dipaka examined Akala after we got back. He peered into each of the goliath’s old eyes and asked him a bunch of bizarre questions. He convinced Akala to let him pray and conduct rituals over him. Akala agreed and Dipaka soothed the goliath’s brain and psyche with powerful healing arts.

“He’s sustained many concussions. His brain was badly scarred. I’ve been able to do wonders for him though,” Dipaka said when he was done.

Akala had returned to being fully lucid and capable of leading his tribe once again.

“I don’t know how I can thank you enough,” he said to Dipaka. “Hey, I have an idea. Men, I want you to build a shrine to Dipaka,” Akala ordered, then looked around at all of us. “Now, which one of you is Dipaka?”

Our hearts sank.

“Nah, I’m just joking,” Akala said. He clapped Dipaka on the back. “Thank you, Father.”

“That’s not really in the best of taste,” Dipaka said, “but I accept your thanks.”

“Ah, what a great game, son,” Akala said, “We went against the Giants and won.”

“We sure did!” Lo laughed, and clapped his father on the back.

“But at the cost of Malthus,” Akala said.

“Indeed,” Lo said.

I thought about Malthus, Lo, and Xia. My mind was boggled.

We watched from the walls as the last of the giant army packed up and went home. We stayed a while after that, watched the sun set in the west, and then turned in for the night. We needed to get some sleep. The next day, we were heading into a real war zone.


Guangzhou

By Aiko Kaijitsu

We bamphed outside Tan Tai An’s Jewelry store, Bounties of the Earth. We walked up and tried to go inside, but it was dark and locked up tighter than a drum.

I knocked and peered through the glass. A minute passed and I rapped again. He just had to be home. After a few minutes, I saw Tan Tai An’s head pop up from behind a counter and he rushed to the door to unlock it.

“Come in! Come in!” he cried. “I don’t let anyone in anymore, but when I saw it was you, I had to open the door,” he said. His long silver hair was loose and hung around his shoulders. He still wore his ashen gray tunic, and he had another worried look on his face.

I hugged him. He was one of the truly real people we had met on our journey.

He looked at Dipaka. “May Siddhartha be praised!” he said, and bowed, and added, “Welcome again to my store! Your halo is even brighter, my friend!”

“Yes, may Siddhartha be praised,” Dipaka bowed.

He looked at Wen. “Wow! You’ve really changed. I remember a skinny boy!”

“Tianxiang is my husband now, and we have a son named Yoshi,” I told him.

“Well, you don’t waste any time, girl,” he said. “You got a good one,” and he clapped Wen on the shoulder.

“I’m actually a Duke, now, sir, and I do Bahamut’s bidding,” Wen said.

“Sure you do,” An said. He bowed to Lo, Aki, Ochir, and Chaka too.

“My daughter married the Prince, your old school friend, and they are holed up in the Ministry of Maritime Trade. Meanwhile, the people are starving, and only the soldiers get to eat. I’ve always kept my own stores downstairs, but I can’t feed the entire populous. So I hide. Is that bad?” he asked Dipaka.

“No, there’s nothing you can do for so many. Do not blame yourself,” Dipaka said.

“They can solve this problem in three seconds,” Ochir said.

“Surrender,” we all said together.

Ochir was overjoyed. “Oh, so, you guys actually get it?”

“We have been paying attention, you know,” I said.

“Let’s go talk to Chabui,” Chaka suggested.

Tan Tai An looked puzzled. “Chabui? Wait a minute; she’s one of my northern customers! She’s married to the Mongol Khan. You know her?”

“Well, sort of,” I said. “It’s a long story. I don’t want to go see her though. Last time we did that, we were effectively detained. I’m still smarting from that.”

“Then our goal here is to successfully negotiate the surrender of the royal family,” Chaka said.

“You’re good at these sorts of things, right Chaka?” I asked, in a pointed fashion.

“Sure! If I pull this off, then I’ll have negotiated the surrender of Song China!” she cried. “I’ll be legendary!”

“Yep!” I cried.

“There’s just one thing though,” she said.

Chaka now had that tone; I knew this was going to be one of Chaka’s big reveals.

“What?” I asked.

“The Emperor has a scepter called the Sceptre of Five Rings, and it is the symbol of the authority of the rulership of Song China. It’s sort of like your Seal.”

“Shit,” I said. Suckered again.

“The Khan is expecting to receive it at time of surrender,” Chaka said.

“I want to go and convince him that that surrendering is the best thing for him to do for his starving people,” Dipaka said.

I thought about the Emperor as he was at our wedding. He seemed like a reasonable man.

We thanked Tan Tai An and went back out into the streets of Guangzhou. We walked toward the Ministry of Maritime Trade.

It was foggy and rainy. We saw the starving people as we went. They were naught more than skin and bones. They moaned horribly.

Dipaka was filled with grief. “Tomorrow I will create loaves and fishes for the masses. But there are so many,” he choked, “so very many.”

The entire city was starving. This was genocide. The Mongol invasion was inevitable. By refusing to surrender, the Emperor was effectively killing his own people.

We were talking about teleporting to An Nam to try to fill the bag of holding with rice, when we arrived at the Ministry of Maritime Trade.

It was just as I remembered it, a big imposing edifice that sat along the docks. It was roughly three hundred feet square, and was thirty feet high. There was a tall stone guard tower at each corner, with a red tiled roof. There were wide lift doors all along each side for loading and unloading cargo into and out of wagons. They were all closed up tight. We saw that Feng and Cheng from Madame Yu’s Estate in Blue Silk Village were the ones guarding the main gate.

There was a strange holy man there, about a half a block away, a tall one with long white hair. It looked like the man from the poster we had found under Dipaka’s at the Shrine. He was feeding the poor.

“Ah, Holy Man Dipaka! You have returned!” Captain Feng greeted our Healer.

“Yes, and the people are dying here Captain,” Dipaka said. “Why do you guard this door?”

The Captain looked perplexed. “Well sir, we’ve been ordered to, the Emperor is inside.”

“I wish an immediate audience with your Emperor, in that case,” Dipaka said.

“Fine, I’ll go tell the proper personage,” Captain Feng said.

He turned and knocked a special knock, and the door opened. We could see that a huge pile of rice filled the Ministry through the door. We could only see the foot of it, but there must have been a million tons of rice in there.

We were invited inside, and we all went in.

The Minister of Maritime Trade, Lord Zhang ShiJie, was there, and his son, Zhang Ming. Yellow guards stood vigil.

“Oh my goodness, you could be feeding the populace!” Dipaka cried, pointing at the pile of rice.

“Is this food poisoned Minister? What is the meaning of this?” I asked loudly.

“This is the Emperor’s rice,” the Minister said.

“How fat is the Emperor?” I asked.

“This is China’s rice, I mean,” the Minister said.

“I would love to talk to the Emperor, where is he? I want to ask why he won’t share this rice with his people,” Dipaka said.

Lo leaned over the Minister. “Perhaps you want to release some of this rice to the starving and unfortunate. Things could get to be very unpleasant for you.”

“That’s what I want to do, but only the Emperor can order the rice to be released. You get him to give the order, and I’ll personally arrange the whole thing,” the Minister said. “I’ll start carrying bags out myself.”

We heard a bell.

“Come, I’ll take you to the Emperor,” the Minister said.

He led us back into a storeroom, and inside were quite a few people. They appeared to be rich people and their fat children.

“This is most incredible; all of you are here and can help us carry the rice out to the people,” Dipaka said.

Wen’s grandfather was there, he hung his head. He could no longer call himself by his name; the Emperor had stripped him of his title and given it to Wen to make him a more fitting husband for me. I felt terrible.

Crown Prince Chao Bing and his wife Lyan were there.

Grand Empress Dowager Xie was there with Minister Ling, who looked nervous.

Zhang Tong, a man in a mask, known as the Mandarin, was the Grand Wu Jen of China.

Emperor Lizong was there, behind them all.

“Peace be with you,” Dipaka said. “I wish to speak with the Emporer,” Dipaka began. “My name is Dipaka Bhasa and I come to sue for peace.”

"I know this man, let him through," the Emperor said.

"Oh, thank you," Dipaka said, moving forward. Dipaka dropped to his knees. He clasped his hands together in front of himself.

The Emperor came forward and touched Dipaka with his scepter, and it had a monkey's hand on it. On each of the fingers, there was a ring.

"I have need of you, Holy Man! I have need of a healer, barbarians are at the gate!” the Emperor said.

"What a coincidence, I have need of you," Dipaka said. "You need to save your people. You need to feed your people. You need to surrender. "

“We shall take you away to live with us, in Japan, in exile," I said. “In a beautiful, wonderful place," I said.

“I am the Emperor of China, the greatest country the world has ever known! I will not lay down my scepter!" the Emperor cried.

"I don't wish to belittle what you rule, but it's getting smaller by the moment, from what I can see. It looks like a very big pile of rice right now," Dipaka said. "If not for yourself, for the people, I beg you."

"I have called upon true heroes, they will come!” the Emperor insisted.

"What heroes?" I asked.

"True patriots!” the Emperor spat. “Admiral Dan, Father Wong, and the White Archer, they will come to defend their Emperor! They are not like you! You talk of surrendering China!”

"Father Wong is outside feeding the people, even as we speak," Dipaka said. "He is doing what I'm trying to do, feed the people. He’s outside saving people's lives!” Dipaka got to his feet.

“No! It can’t be! I need him throwing earthquakes out there at the Mongol army!” the Emperor cried.

“That is only going to get more people killed," Dipaka said.

The Mandarin spoke to the Emperor. “This Dipaka is correct my Lord, lay down this heavy burden, and let me defend China.”

“That doesn't help the cause," Dipaka said. “It still means more people die, and there will be more war, and more death.”

“We have enough rice to feed our army for months,” the Mandarin said.

“What army? There are only these people here," Dipaka said. “All I see is the food here and the people starving in the street. The walls are going to fall soon.”

"I tell you what," the Emperor said, "I have a counter proposal for you, you go there, and use your honeyed words to get the Mongols to lift the siege, and no one will starve.”

“They will lift the siege when you surrender," Dipaka said. “They're willing to let you keep your life.”

“Tell the Khan to come! He will find that I am not so toothless!" The Emperor stood defiant.

I tried to pick him up off the floor with my telekinesis.

I didn’t need to speak any word of magic nor make any gesture. All I had to do was think about moving things. No one would be able to tell I was the one lifting him. He would see how toothless he really was.

I felt the Scepter of Five Rings block the attempt.

The Emperor felt it too, for he grew enraged. He looked around at each one of us. I didn’t move a muscle. 

“Mandarin! Do not let that happen again!” the Emperor said. 

The Mandarin nodded. “I will not,” he said.

Shit. What was I thinking?  Anyone would consider what I did an attack against the Emperor of China. I didn’t experience the forbiddance; I guessed I didn’t feel the punishment because inside I really wanted the Emperor to win.

Why shouldn’t great heroes save China? It was my country too. My true country. The Mongols had wanted that Scepter all along.

Dipaka raised his hands and looked back at us. I didn’t move. He didn’t know what I had done either.

“I'm just trying to save the people,” Dipaka said. His eyes were pleading. “A little help here?”

I felt so bad. Still, I didn’t move a muscle. Finally, Dipaka turned back to the Emperor. The Emperor was still standing there, waiting. Somehow, the house of cards hadn’t come crashing down.

“So, your plan is for me to go out there and tell this army that has besieged your city, to come back in here and kill everyone, so that you can keep your honor?” Dipaka asked. “Everyone dies here. We die, you die, and there will be no one left to tell the story," Dipaka said.

“Even if it is as you say, I will still have my Honor,” the Emperor said, through gritted teeth.

Chaka cleared her throat, stepped forward, and said, "We have a generous parting package we are prepared to offer you. Of course, you and your immediate family will be assured of safe passage, and you will furthermore receive a stipend to keep you in the lifestyle that you're accustomed to. I am actually a Mongolian ambassador sent by the Empress, to see personally to your safety,” Chaka said.

The Emperor raised an eyebrow at this. “A Mongol?”

Wen hastily stepped forward and presented himself. “Your Highness, I have pledged my honor to save China. China is its Imperial line, and I have come to save you. The Mongols will not always be in power. Save yourself, your Majesty.”

“And please think about the people, and let them not suffer anymore," Aki said.

The Mandarin came forward. "Yes, and of course you have to give them the Scepter of Five Rings, the Mongols will have nothing less! Without it, you would leave us defenseless!”

The Emperor shook. “I will not retreat, I will not surrender! Go tell your Khan that I dare him to come and take this city!”

The hint of a smile crossed the Mandarin's face.

“Anyone that wants to help the people, feel free to come with us as we leave now," Dipaka said.

"I forbid it!" The Emperor cried. “No one leaves!”

No one moved.

On our way out, Dipaka talked to Captains Feng and Cheng. “So do all the guards think this way?” Dipaka asked.

“They’re just guards, they do what they are told,” Feng said.

“Some guards have minds, and care about people dying in the street,” Dipaka said.

“We do care about that, sir, but we have superiors to obey,” they said. “If we don’t obey, we’ll be the ones dying in the street.”

We all walked away from the Ministry.

“They think the rice is their safehold. We could destroy it. That would take away his reason for staying,” Dipaka said, clearly frustrated. “What would he have to defend at that point?” he asked.

I didn’t like the idea of destroying the rice, there was enough there to feed the whole city for a month. It would logistically be very difficult to replace so much rice. Dipaka was right though, destroying the rice might get the Emperor out of his hole.

But there had to be another way.

“Let’s go talk to Father Wong,” Aki said.

We went over to the white haired old man. When we got closer, I saw that it was not really so much that he was old, but that his hair was unnaturally white.

“Ah, so, the mighty Master of the Shaolin temple has answered the Emperor’s call. Is that you, Po?”

“I do not go by that name, you might have me confused with someone else, good sir,” Aki said.

“I am Father Wong; I am a Priest of Shang-Ti. And you are?" Father Wong asked.

“My name is Aki, I am one of the Monks under the Great Mountain; I am here to make sure that the Emperor sees reason and saves his people."

“Which Emperor?" Father Wong asked.

“Your Emperor,” Aki said. “The Chinese Emperor."

“Well, really I wouldn't necessarily say he's my Emperor, I serve China, and Shang-Ti.”

“Then you are a much wiser man than most,” Aki said. “Let me introduce you to Dipaka Bhasa.”

Dipaka and Father Wong bowed deeply to one another.

Father Wong went first. “I serve everyone, I go where I am needed, but as far as adventuring goes, I'm done with that. They just keep on fighting. One friend I raised up three times in the same battle. They’ll never change,” he said.

“I know that feeling," Dipaka said.

“These days I am only here to heal the wounds of less wise men,” Father Wong said. “But if you screw around, I can still burn your ass brown,” he boasted.

“I believe if the Emperor makes the right decision, he can save his people," Aki said.

“He won’t,” Father Wong said.

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Chaka flew invisibly and left the city, and went to the Mongol camp. She approached a nondescript tent inside the vast, temporary city, and went inside. She went through a magic circle and came up in a tent elsewhere in the camp. It was a much larger tent with all sorts of diplomatic people bustling here and there. She opened her bag and Ochir got out.

In the main office, the Empress herself, wearing her reading glasses, was shuffling through a stack of reports.

Ochir and Chaka were announced, and they bowed. They were served tea, and debriefed.

The Empress came forth. “Ochir, Chaka, you have returned.”

Chaka gave her report. Chabui listened intently to first the situation in Guangzhou, and then the events at the Reservation.

“Lord Ochir, how are things in Japan?” Chabui asked.

“I'd say they're progressing quite well, the northern island of Hokkaido is completely taken, the northern part of Honshu looks like it's been taken, and the leaders are trying to consolidate power.”

“I'm an old woman, before my time is passed on this world, I'd like to see the whole of Asia at peace. We're close, were so close.”

“We could easily have peace if the Emperor of the Song were a reasonable man,” Ochir said. “I don't think that's going to happen. He’ll never surrender."

“I gave him a chance did I not? Can anyone say I did not give him a chance? My husband is waiting for the omen that would indicate that he will have good luck in battle.”

“I'd say they're very afraid. All the aristocracy is holed up in the Ministry of Maritime trade, all in one building," Ochir said.

“Really, at the end of the war, only one thing matters, the Scepter of Five Rings. Do not kill the Emperor, but be sure to take the scepter.”

“The Emperor told Dipaka to tell the Khan to come into the city and kill him before he would give himself up,” Ochir reported. “He spat in your face."

“Come; let me give you the blessing of the Buddha, you will be able to bypass the forbiddance, Chaka,” she said, as she cast stalwart pacts on both Chaka and Ochir. “You will not,” she said to Ochir, “there’s nothing I can do for you.”

When it was time to put Ochir back into the bag, Chabui insisted that three of her own guards go in with him.

“The more the merrier,” Ochir said.

Chabui’s face was grim.

“You two have one chance to stop this, Munkh-Ochir Batbayar. If you do not, the city will be destroyed, and I will sift the Scepter from the ashes.”

-------------------------------------------------------------

We all had a discussion when they returned.

“We're going to have to take care of the Emperor, take the Scepter, and end this war,” Chaka said.

“Whoa, what do you mean, take care of the Emperor?" Dipaka asked.

"I mean to knock him out, I don't mean to kill him," Chaka explained.

“The people are extremely grateful for the food I make them. I have not told the people about the huge pile of rice inside the Ministry of Maritime Trade yet, for I don’t want a riot. Nevertheless, in a matter of weeks, people are going to start dying.”

“So we got a plan, huh?” Wen said.

“We can't go against our Emperor,” I said. “Come on, Wen.”

“He is not my Emperor. Your sister is my Empress, and I'm half-Japanese. We have to break the Emperor’s power; because he’s allowing his own people to starve. However, I am not at all for giving the scepter of China to the Mongols."

“Don't throw this whole thing over a stupid artifact! It's a symbol! That's all it is!” I cried.

“I think the scepter should be entrusted with a good person, someone who cares about China, like Xia,” Wen said.

I couldn’t argue with that.

“While you guys are getting the scepter, I'll be getting the rice," Dipaka said.

We went with Dipaka to talk to Father Wong.

He explained to Father Wong that there was rice in the Ministry of Maritime Trade, and that he wanted to lead a bunch of people in a peaceful way against the building.

“I want you to help me. I think you have the same way of thinking and mentality that I have. Let’s go in there, get the rice, and feed the people. As a peaceful, organized group, they may let us take the rice out without bloodshed.”

Father Wong nodded. “There might be another hope. Soon, Admiral Dan will attempt to break through the Mongolian blockade, get into the city, and break the siege. We should coordinate. You lead your peasant revolt, and I will make sure the Brotherhood and the Fists of Bahamut will come and save China. I am not too keen on the Mongols.”

“I don't care about these political things, I care about the people. I want to save the people.”

“You save the people; I will save China.”

 

 

 

 
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