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

Allegro and the Ninja

By Aiko Kaijitsu

Allegro was sitting in his favorite chair, enjoying his second pipe of the day, when his servant approached. She bowed and handed her master a sealed scroll and a tiny box wrapped in butcher’s paper. It was tied with fine twine.

Allegro broke the seal on the scroll and read:

“In exchange for what's left of your wife, we require the Shinobi Fuhansen. You are to deliver the coin, alone, to the Font of Dipaka in Sapporo at midnight on the night of the full moon. We are watching you. We are aware your wife is pregnant. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Allegro's hands trembled ever so slightly as he untied the twine, and opened the box. His mind recoiled in horror when he saw An Mei’s severed finger inside. Even the wondrous ruby ring Allegro had given An Mei when he had proposed to her was still sitting just above the topmost knuckle.

Allegro dropped back into his chair, stunned. He sat for a while, and then he began to fume. Finally, he made his mind up.

He went over to his massive writing desk, got out his quill, made out his last will and testament, and named his legal successor. He and An Mei had been doing very well financially, and they now owned a silk warehouse in Sapporo and several merchant vessels. They had numerous contacts back in Mongolia, and because shipping across the Sea of Japan was at a premium to everyone else due to the perceived presence of the Kamikaze, they were making a nice extra profit on these savings alone.

Allegro called upon his servant and informed her that he’d be leaving at once, and to have his mastiff readied. After packing his bag, he set out for Seinaru Heikiko. A week came and went as Allegro took the winding road south. He booked a ferry to get across the straight, and rode on after disembarking on Hokkaido. When he at last arrived at Seinaru Heikiko, he was greeted with honor by Hirabashi Jiro’s men.

“Please, take me to the Empress. Something terrible has happened,” he said.

The guards saw the grave look on the halfling’s face, and wasted no time leading him inside.

Jiro and Hatsue met him first.

“Hail and well met Lord Polo; we are pleased to have you at this fortress. We welcome all Scions of the Amatatsu,” Hirabashi said, and bowed deeply to Allegro.

Hatsue gave Allegro a warrior’s nod. She whispered something into Jiro’s ear, and went away.

“Oh, I’ve just remembered, there was something delivered here for you,” Jiro said.

Hatsue returned, and handed Allegro yet another sealed scroll accompanied by an ornate Japanese box.

Allegro groaned as he read the letter.

“How you act at this moment will determine what else she will lose.”

“What is it, Master Allegro?” Jiro asked.

Allegro opened the ornate box. He showed its contents to Hirabashi. “This is my wife’s ear. They have already sent me her finger. I am very displeased, and I need help.”

Hatsue sucked in a breath. “You are beset by ninjas,” she said.

"I will inform the Empress as soon as she returns from her hunt," Jiro said.

“If you don’t mind I’ll wait right here in the courtyard until she returns,” Allegro said.

“As you wish, Master Allegro,” Jiro said.

Allegro felt helpless while he waited. He imagined all sorts of horrors happening to An Mei.

A few hours later, Ameiko and Prince Batsai-Khar returned with their retinue. Ameiko leapt from her horse, and gracefully lighted on the ground. She came over and hugged Allegro.

"I see great concern in your eyes," Ameiko said.

"The ninjas have taken my wife. They have chopped off her finger. They have chopped off her ear. They have sent me a letter saying that I must return the Shinobi coin to them. My wife is with child. I must have her back. I do not wish to betray our work here by delivering a great evil to them. I seek guidance, and yet I also hope for vengeance."

"We will do everything we can to help you, of course," Ameiko said. “First, I will try to learn what I can.”

That turned out to be nothing at all.

“There are three ninja clans, and a rogue ninja clan. My spells cannot tell which one is responsible for this. I think we’re going to have to wait for the appointed time, prepare to proffer the coin, and see who shows up.”

"But if I give them the coin, a great evil will be unleashed again," Allegro said.

Sandru whispered something in Ameiko’s ear. She smiled at Allegro before she spoke.

“I do not think this a battle we can win, Master Allegro. Sometimes, a ransom simply must be paid. You are a Scion of our house. We shall pay the ransom if need be.”

Tsuto stepped forward. "I too am a Scion of the Amatatsu. I will help you recover your wife," he said.

“Thank you,” Allegro said.

"You give them the coin, and you will never see it again," the Jade Archer said flatly. Ameiko blinked at her. “My place is at my Empress’ side; otherwise I would go with you as well,” the Jade Archer said to Allegro, and then returned to her taciturn state.

“That’s ok, I understand,” Allegro said. “We'll get my wife back first, and then I'll devote my life to recovering the coin once again. I see that some here do not believe in halflings."

“We will assign Xia to help you,” Ameiko said.

Ameiko ordered the Warding Box brought forth. She opened it and called for a pair of tongs. She handed them to Allegro. “You must do the honor, for of all the races of the earth, the Hairfoots can stand best against such spiritual forces. This coin represents a true, unmitigated evil.”

Allegro carefully grasped the coin with the tongs and held it up. He felt his very soul thrum as he was assailed by the spirits of the Shinobi. He pressed his eyes shut and staved his will against them. Allegro was assailed with a painful vision of each of the coin owner’s victims at the time of their deaths. He became aware of a long line of noble ninja assassins. The Shinobi was the first coin ever paid to a Japanese blood assassin. All the powers of all the assassinated spirits since were trapped inside the coin. The frustrated spirits eventually had to retreat from Allegro’s stalwart resolve.

Ameiko took out a golden chain and carefully threaded it through the square hole in the coin. She made it into a necklace for Allegro, and then placed it around his neck.

“Godspeed, Master Allegro,” she said.

Xia arrived and teleported Allegro and Tsuto back to Sapporo. While they waited for the appointed time to arrive, they went to scope out the Font of Dipaka.

When they drew near, Tsuto turned invisible to make Allegro appear to be alone. “I’ll be right behind you, good buddy,” Tsuto promised.

Xia hung back a ways so as to appear separate from Allegro.

Allegro went inside the chapel. The front doors were always open, to anyone, at any time.

The font was a simple wooden structure, filled with rows of rustic pews. There was a wide-open area towards the front. A small staff of acolytes was always in evidence to help the poor. The shrine had been built on the spot where Dipaka had performed Miyaro’s funeral.

There were several homeless men standing in a line, waiting for victuals. They had bowls in their hands. There was a bald acolyte with a bucket doling out soup. On the opposite side there was another acolyte sweeping the shrine. There was a lone woman praying.

Allegro was taking in the beauty of the simple temple when he felt someone grasp his shoulder.

“Just give me the coin, hobbit!" Allegro heard a gravelly voice near his ear.

“Give me my wife!” Allegro cried. He threw a glass vial he’d hidden in his hand at the floor. It burst and spattered sovereign glue all over.

Allegro saw an empty ninja’s split-toed shoe appear out of nowhere, stuck in the glue.

The ninja himself appeared as he snatched the Shinobi coin from Allegro’s neck, breaking the chain it hung on.

Xia brandished her maximize rod and blasted the now visible ninja with a quintet of fiery missiles. She moved over to the doorway to block his escape.

“What are you doing, throwing glue? I demand you wield me to defeat such evil!" Istanoval cried.

“Fine!” Allegro drew the noble dagger from his belt and brandished it.

“That’s better! Taste good steel, villain!” Istanoval shouted. Allegro thought of his wife and went into a frenzy. He steadily drove the ninja back with an artful string of dagger thrusts and swipes.

Xia’s missiles crashed into the ninja once again, knocking him back. Allegro seized upon the opening, and he slashed the ninja’s wrist. Blood sprayed out, and the ninja dropped the coin as he fell unconscious.

Allegro snatched up the coin from the floor, and stuffed it deep into his belt pouch.

Suddenly, a second ninja appeared from thin air and tried to stab Allegro in the back. Allegro turned sideways at the last instant and shunted most of the thrust.

“I am Kaibashinsho,” the masked ninja said. “Be it known you are to be one of my victims!”

“Take this, asshole!” Xia raised her rod and magic missiled Kaibashinsho full force.

“I demand my wife!" Allegro cried. He stabbed Kaibashinsho and the ninja leapt back and disappeared.

There was no ninja left to face Allegro.

“The coin for my wife! Who will trade me?" Allegro asked loudly, to the air. “I will destroy it! You hear me! If you had ears as big as your pussies, you’d hear me three blocks away! You ninjas have no honor! You ninjas have no balls! Is there no one here man enough to fight me? I am just a half-man by your calling! Obviously, I'm a man-and-a-half compared to you!”

Kaibashinsho snorted and reappeared. He was fuming. “I had nothing to do with your missing wife; that came from within your own ranks, I swear it.”

“Nice try. No discontent will you spread amongst my group," Allegro said.

“Really?” Kaibashinsho said. “That ninja on the floor isn’t one of mine. Take off his mask. Reveal his face. You will see. After that, only one of us will leave the Font of Dipaka!"

“Again, nice try,” Allegro said. “My meal is already ordered and waiting for me, your reservations are for a table in hell! That's where I send my foes to dine!”

Kaibashinsho pulled his dagger. “Never let it be said that I didn’t fight fair!”

The two charged each other and clashed in a knife fight of quadrilateral and epic scale. They leapt over and rolled underneath pews as they scurried all over the chapel jabbing and slicing at each other. They dodged and parried, crossed blades, and traded punches.

Xia waited, letting the men battle it out.

Finally, Allegro slashed Kaibashinsho again. “Ha! That's the second time you’ve gotten him!" Istanoval cried.

"And you shall taste his blood again, I assure you! I hope you are hungry!" Allegro shouted.

“Give me the coin!” Kaibashinsho demanded.

“Where's my wife?" Allegro asked again.

“I told you! My clan had nothing to do with taking your wife! It was your own people that did it!" Kaibashinsho turned invisible again, and so did Xia.

“Remove his mask,” Kaibashinsho’s disembodied voice said.

Allegro went over to the downed ninja and pulled his mask off.

It was Tsuto.

By the door, a cloud of golden particles billowed through the area and revealed Xia.

Kaibashinsho appeared too as he stabbed Xia in the back. Xia screamed in agony and dropped to the floor.

Allegro hurled Istanoval end over end into Kaibashinsho’s chest, ending his reign of terror.

“Ha!” Istanoval cried, as the ninja slumped to the glittery floor.

Allegro recovered his dagger and tied Kaibashinsho and Tsuto up. The acolytes helped Xia to her feet.

Tsuto woke up and struggled to explain. “I had nothing to do with your wife! It was the pull of the coin! It seized my mind!”

“Shut up!” Allegro cried. “You’re a damned traitor! Where is my wife?”

“I don’t know,” Tsuto said.

Allegro kicked Tsuto in the mouth.

“Can you scry upon An Mei?” Allegro asked Xia.

"No, I am not a Wu Jen, like my mistress,” Xia explained. “She has a whole book of spells. My spells come from my mind, so my selection is more limited.”

The head Acolyte came over to Allegro and said, “This is a horrible mess. Master Polo, you are a generous businessman, perhaps you will leave us now, and perhaps with a donation?”

“Yes, and I will tell Dipaka of the great works you have done here,” Allegro answered. “Do you happen to have two empty rice sacks?" he asked. The healer nodded and went to go get them. When he returned, Allegro thanked him and secured the sacks over Kaibashinsho and Tsuto’s heads.

Xia teleported herself and Allegro back to Seinaru Heikiko along with their two prisoners.

As soon as they arrived, Xia’s voice rang out with the tone of a commander, “I want six guards on these two now! They are master ninjas! Don’t let them fool you!" Xia gave the house guards orders now as though they were guards of her own. They rushed over and covered the two men with their spears.

Xia led Allegro confidently into Ameiko’s hall; however, the Empress wasn’t there. She had taken part in a reconnaissance mission to the Capital city, where the Jade Regent held court, Wang Chung reported. A note she had left with Wang Chung read:

"In the event of my absence here, go find my sister, Ping, and she will tell you what to do."

“Your wife was kidnapped in Sapporo, so she's probably still in Sapporo, so that's where we need to go," Xia said. “We don’t need Xiao Ping to do this. But I'll do whatever you want to do.”

“We don’t know exactly where she is being held. Xiao Ping may be able to tell us that,” Allegro said.

“Master Allegro. I want to talk to you, please, here me out,” Tsuto said. Wang Chung gasped when he saw Tsuto was tied up.

“I've already made my decision about you," Allegro said.

Tsuto said, “Unbind me and I'll try to find your wife while you go talk to my little sister. It’s going to take you a day or two. Take me to Sapporo first, and I’ll find her for you. I swear it.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“I don’t want you to tell Ameiko or Aiko what I did. I’ll get your wife back for you, if you promise not to tell my sisters,” Tsuto offered. “Come on, you know what bitches they can be. My life will be a living hell if they find out about this!” Tsuto sounded desperate.

“Fine,” Allegro cut Tsuto’s bonds. “Just get my wife back to me. And they're not bitches, by the way.”

Tsuto stood up and rubbed his wrists. “Thanks, and you know what---“ Allegro punched Tsuto square in the stomach. Tsuto grunted and doubled over.

“That was for my wife,” Allegro said.

Tsuto clutched his stomach. “I deserved that,” he choked.

“Let’s go, Xia,” Allegro said. "Tsuto here is going to tell you where to teleport us."

They bamphed to a ship Tsuto said was where An Mei was being held captive. When they arrived however, the original captors, a fat Westerner and a pudgy Chinaman were found slain, and An Mei was gone.

There was a handkerchief tied to the cell door that bore the mark of the Jade Regent.

“It’s time to involve the rest of the party,” Xia said.


Traitors

By Aiko Kaijitsu

As we tarried there we saw that it grew dark, for it had been a long day, and the gray clouds receded, revealing a starless sky. We decided to save our plan until the morning and return to the jewelry store and impose upon Tan Tai An for a place to stay for the night. Aki took his leave, and went to investigate a report he’d received from somewhere else in the city. He said that he would try to rejoin us by morning.

When we got to the store, we were overjoyed when we found Xia and Allegro waiting for us. Tan Tai An laughed. “I told you Xiao Ping would have to come back! I knew there was nothing they would be able to do to lift the siege!” he said.

“We just got here from Japan,” Xia explained. “Allegro’s had some trouble.”

I hugged Xia while Allegro recounted the story of his wife’s pregnancy and capture.

“We have to rescue An Mei, she needs help now,” Allegro said.

I bowed to him. “We’ll get her back, Allegro. We must first resolve the situation here in Guangzhou, but as soon as we’ve accomplished that, we’ll leave at once to rescue your wife,” I promised. I wished that we could have gone right then, but we had two-hundred thousand starving people on our hands. The others congratulated Allegro and tried to console him. It was a strange moment. You don’t often learn of a pregnancy and find out that the proud mother-to-be has been captured and maimed in the same dollop. It was a bit uncomfortable.

What was even more uncomfortable was the dynamic between Lo and Xia. Xia didn’t leap into Lo’s arms the way she always did, and there was a new coldness between them. I guessed that Xia somehow had some sense of what had happened between Lo and Malthus.

“Malthus has passed from this world,” Lo said to Xia, and bowed his head.

“I’m sorry, how did it happen?”

“She died fighting a giant.”

“Is there anything else?”

“You and I must return to live on the reservation someday. My father will grow too old to rule eventually.”

“Lo, I think we both have important decisions to make regarding the future,” Xia said. “I don’t think I will be coming to live on your reservation. I think you know that.”

Lo was crushed. He turned away from Xia and walked outside. The bell was the only sound as the door closed behind him.

Xia came up to me. “I want to read your journal,” she said, “the part about Lo and Malthus.”

“Um, it’s not done yet, there’s been no time,” I stammered. It had only been four or five days since we’d left Japan ourselves. It seemed so long ago.

“I thought you were supposed to tell the truth, Mistress,” Xia observed icily.

“Yes, I am,” I said, “and it is true.”

“Whatever,” Xia said.

Tan Tai An took us downstairs. He had a surprising living quarter under his shop, there was enough space for everyone, and he made us a nice dinner.

The next day, we all thanked him and said goodbye. Dipaka bade him long life and good health, and we headed back to the Ministry of Maritime Trade. On our way, we ducked down a side street in order to discuss our next move. Aki had yet to rejoin us, I wondered what could be keeping him.

Chaka created an illusion over the alley that made it appear to be empty. Instead of our voices, only the sound of the starving populace would be heard by passers-by. If any unsuspecting citizens of Guangzhou had actually turned down that alley that fateful day, they would have walked right into the middle of our party meeting.

Chaka climbed onto an upturned soap box and cleared her throat. “Well, I'm glad for one we're all here on this auspicious day," she said. “The day the war will end.”

“Indeed,” Ochir said.

Chaka looked at me. "Xiao Ping, we need your help."

"Help with what?" I asked, as if I didn’t know.

"Our mission is to arrest the Emperor and bring him back to the Mongolian camp with the Scepter of Five Rings, whether or not by his own free will. It's the only way this war will end."

"Will you see to it that the people are fed?" I asked. “Before we go in and force the Emperor?”

“Before?” Chaka looked to Dipaka for help. 

“I have no disagreement with the idea of feeding the people in the city first,” Dipaka said.

Chaka bit her lip in frustration, and looked back at me. “We can’t logistically do that. The city walls are still manned by the Yellow guard. If the Emperor doesn’t order surrender first, we can’t bring anything into the city.”

Ochir stepped forward. “Xiao Ping, we Mongols will rule the city far better than the Song ever did," he said.

It looked like no matter how much I hated it, I was going to have to trust Ochir and Chaka on this one.

I had given a lot of thought to what we would do next. I went back over it all again in my mind.

I didn’t want to give up on China. Or the Emperor. What the Emperor had said the day before rang true with me. Honest patriots would save China, or they would die trying.

In Japan, I was Aiko Kaijitsu, but in China, I was Xiao Ping.

I thought about Wen and Lo. I knew they would fight the Mongols and die if I asked them to, but they believed that the Emperor’s failure to release the rice to the people amounted to genocide, and was a crime whose magnitude would overshadow even the most glorious career. The only real evidence I had that our Emperor was not fit to rule was this single, terrible sin.

I tried to remember that it was the Mongols laying siege the city. The Mongols were killing the people here, not the Emperor. It was nice that they would go ahead and blame the Emperor for the murders if he didn’t surrender. It was the equivalent of pointing a crossbow at someone in the street and then telling them they were responsible for their own death if they didn’t move out of the way. I liked to think of what the Mongols were doing as blaming the victim.

This time, the Mongols were pointing their proverbial crossbow at someone that felt moving aside was just as bad as death.

Time still remained for the Emperor to change his mind and feed his people, but I knew he would be defiant to the last. Even after Dipaka had given it his utmost effort, the proud Emperor had been unwilling to see reason. Asking a leopard to change its spots would have been easier.

Ultimately, Ochir was right. The fall of China, however it had come about, was inevitable. I had to trust Ochir, Chaka, and the Mongols to avoid bloodshed. 

The problem that remained was that Lo and Wen were both adamant that we were not going to actually turn over the Scepter of Five Rings.

“Ok, then,” I had argued, “if we’re not really planning to hand over the Scepter, how the hell are we still going to be on good terms with Ochir, Chaka, and the Mongols at the end of the day?”

They both shrugged and wore their “You’re the party leader-- you figure it out,” looks on their faces.

“In that case, I say we stand inside the forbiddance, and fight with the Emperor,” I said.  “We’ll wait for the Khan to show up.”

“Are you crazy?” Lo asked. “That’s suicide!”

“No, my wife,” Wen said. “We must not. The Emperor is unfit to rule, and he must be removed from power. We are prepared to surrender the Emperor to the Mongols, but not the Scepter.”

“You guys are impossible. You don’t want to stand up to the Mongols at the outset, when you know that we’re going to have to fight them anyway when we refuse to give them the Scepter later the same day?”

They nodded.

“I’m telling you guys now, if we go in there to capture our own Emperor and deliver him up to the Mongols, I am going to honor the rest of the agreement, and give them the Scepter too. Are you guys going to be able to live with that?”

“It is your decision,” Wen said, but he was clearly unhappy with the prospect.

“Maybe you could take the Scepter and go out of the city and act like you’re going to give it to the Mongols, and then teleport away with it,” Lo postulated.

Great, thanks Lo.

“No, either we fight at the outset, or we go along with the plan as laid out by Ochir and Chaka. I’m telling the both of you that I intend to give the Mongols the Scepter; however, I am going to give the Emperor one last chance. I’m going to ask him to release the rice, and if he does, we will stand with him and face the Mongols. Even if we die. I’ll officially warn him that if he refuses, we’ll take him into custody and surrender the city. Without a doubt, he’ll refuse again, but we’ll be very clear about our intentions from the outset.”

On top of all of that, I knew that choosing to stand against the Mongols would almost certainly ruin any chance my sister may have had of claiming the throne in Japan. I was a Scion, so I couldn’t order the other Scions to go against the family’s interests.

My mind was made up.

I looked at Ochir and Chaka. "Of course we’ll help,” I said.

Chaka smiled and looked next at Ochir.

“What are you looking at me for?” Ochir asked.

“What’s the plan, my husband?”

“Oh, you want me to come up with the plan now? You want me to do my actual job?”

“What’s the matter?” Chaka asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, how about when you overrode my authority and bamphed me away from Mokmurian! What was that all about?”

“That wasn’t a leadership quarrel, it was a tactical decision. If he’s the giant that I’ve heard about, he’s about a zillion years old and a powerful archmage. He might have wished your hands to shrivel up so you could never fire your bow again! He did that to a dwarf once. The fool couldn’t even pick his own nose for the rest of his damn life. Wizards know there are worse things than death. I love you, so I didn’t want to be around for his response to your arrows.”

“Fine,” Ochir sighed. “The biggest problem we are going to have inside the Ministry is the Mandarin. We need to hit him with everything we’ve got right away,” he said.

“I can break the forbiddance," Chaka said, pulling out a scroll and a white flag of parley. “We’ll get inside with this flag.”

“First, I will arrange a peaceful gathering, a civil disobedience outside the building,” Dipaka said. 

“Let’s go, folks,” I said, “and don’t forget, An Mei is waiting on us.”

“Yeah, come on, guys,” Allegro said.

We went down the street and stopped outside the Ministry. Dipaka got up on Lo’s shoulders.

“Here me good people!” Dipaka began. “There are tons of rice inside the Ministry! Enough rice to feed the entire city!”

People began moving toward Dipaka when they heard this.

“Now, this must be done in a peaceful fashion!” Dipaka shouted. “Peaceful I say!” Dipaka hoped that would sink in as more people arrived. “Now, we are not going to attack anyone, nor storm the building!” Dipaka cried. A few groaned at this, but the crowd that surrounded holy man Wong had begun to leave the Father and migrate over to Dipaka.

“We will stand outside peacefully, and sing hymns until the rice is released,” Dipaka said. “It could be a while before they open up, but it is a burden we will bear!”

He kept on going like that, and after fifteen more minutes, four thousand people or so were milling about. They were singing songs, and their voices together made for quite an uplifting scene, despite the circumstances.

The Emperor was clearly nervous, for a line of elite Yellow Guards came out of the Ministry and lined up to make sure protesters stayed away from the building.

"Now the gaurds are all out here, and won't be a problem inside," Ochir said.

We cast our prep spells, and Ochir climbed into Chaka’s bag of holding so he could sneak into the forbiddance.

Dipaka asked his throng to wait outside while he came in with us. “I will return with rice,” he said to them.

We went up to the Ministry doors with Chaka waving her flag. Captains Feng and Cheng were standing guard.

“Gentlemen, we’re here to save China,” I said.

“Hold on,” they said, and knocked on the door. A whole minute passed before it opened. Next we heard a gong from within.

Mister Ling appeared, and he wore a fancy yellow tunic and a tasseled, three-tiered hat.

“Heroes of the land, your country and your Emperor have need of you! Come in, if you are truly faithful,” Minister Ling said.

We went in. Guchugar and Guchuluk grimaced and were repelled by the forbiddance when they tried to cross the threshold, so Feng and Cheng pushed them back with their spears. “Nothing personal,” they said. After the rest of us were inside, they closed the doors.

Minister Ling led us around the far side of the rice-pile, and we were faced by the Grand Empress Dowager Xie, and several rows of citizens.

“Welcome, my son sends his greetings, as does my grandson,” the Empress Dowager said, nodding to Wen.

“We have come to seek an audience with the Emperor,” I said.

“My son has given you an audience already, and has appointed to me the task of dealing with you,” she said. For some reason, she went on to describe how China had survived many trials in the past, and she intimated it would be no different this time. “We will survive,” she said.

Lo could stand it no longer. “No you won’t! This time it is different! That noble history of yours means nothing to the Mongols! They will take your lives as surely as the wind blows! You must convince your son to give up the Scepter! It is the only way to save yourselves!”

The Empress Dowager’s face was ashen. She was aghast at Lo.

I was glad that Ochir was in the bag of holding for what I meant to say next.

“Grand Empress Dowager, we are actually here to stand with the Emperor against the Mongols if he will only agree to release the rice and feed his people. He must do this to convince my good fighters that he is not evil, nor under the influence of any spirit. However, if he refuses, we are here to take the Emperor and the Scepter of the Five Rings into custody, and surrender the country to the Mongols.”

A long wail arose from within one of the adjacent rooms. It was the Emperor. His wail rose to a shriek, and suddenly we heard an ominous rumbling as the rice pile began to move.

Tons of rice shifted like sands in a vast hourglass, and a magnificent coiled gold dragon emerged from the top of the pile. It had two spiraling golden horns jutting from the top of its head, and golden tendrils that hung down from its chin. A lush mane of spun gold ringed it’s neck.

The Emperor came forth from his archway, livid. “How dare you come here again with your traitorous words!” He raised his Scepter and it glowed with power. “Behold! Fing, Fang, and Fume! It is Pan Lung, the Sovereign Dragon of China!”

“It’s too far away! I can’t tell if it’s evil or not!” Wen warned.

The dragon spoke, and his massive voice shook the Ministry. “Those of you who are loyal to your rightful Emperor, on your knees! Do not break your oath; for I am the very spirit of your land!”

Wen, Xia, and I got on our knees. I yelled at the dragon as loud as I could, “We are here on behalf of China, for we believe in China, and the Emperor! However, he has not released the rice to the people, and in order to prove his love of country he must do so! Then we can help him, otherwise, we must have a new leader!”

Chaka stepped forward and faced the dragon. “I have words from the Empress of the Mongol Empire that you need to hear,” she said. She got out a scroll and read it in an attempt to break the forbiddance. A blue light fizzled around the scroll’s edges as she botched the reading.

The dragon laughed at Chaka. “Pity,” he said.

I tried one last time. “Emperor! This is your last chance! If you truly love China, you’ll release this rice to the people and stop this now!”

Dipaka tried too. “Emperor! I implore you, please! Save your people! There is no need for any violence!”

Emperor looked at Dipaka and said, “Silence, prick!”

He raised his Scepter and blasted us with a cone of cold. Ice pounded us and frost formed on our faces. The Emperor dashed back into his refuge.

“I ask you to stop starving your own people, and I’m the prick?” a half-frozen Dipaka asked, incredulous. Perhaps Dipaka finally saw that some people were simply incurable assholes.

Chaka whipped open her bag of holding and Ochir flew out straight upward with his bow drawn, and when he didn’t see the Mandarin, he fired at the dragon. His tri-arrows buried themselves deep between the beast’s scales. “Take that!” he cried.

The dragon bellowed and coiled down the rice pile towards Ochir. Rice flew in every direction as he called upon his sovereign dragon armor, and thousands of protective golden plates magically formed and connected to cover the beast.

The Mandarin suddenly appeared, flying up in the rafters. There was an entire cadre of mirror images gathered around him.

He spoke to my husband. “So, Paladin, you’ve brought enemy Mongols into the sanctum of your Emperor? Who’s the traitor now?” he asked pointedly.

“What?” Wen asked.

“Behold! I’ll remove your Mongol influence!” he thundered, and tried to disintegrate Chaka. His glittering red ray struck and nearly killed Chaka outright, but Dipaka saved her life with his healing burst.

“You’ll pay for that Holy Man!” the Mandarin screamed, and then fired a second ray at Dipaka.

Dipaka staggered when the ray scorched him, but he stood fast. “Your petty death ray is of no consequence to me in the grand scheme of things, Mandarin.”

Meanwhile, the dragon skidded down the pile right past where Xia and I were kneeling and tried to eat Ochir, but the nimble archer rolled out from between the dragon’s jaws at the last instant.

“You dare to try to disintegrate my wife, Mandarin?” Ochir yelled. “You’re life is forfeit!”

“Wait, before you shoot me, announce yourself officially,” the Mandarin said. “It is a common courtesy.”

“I’m your bitter end!” Ochir cried, and fired. His aim was true, but his effort destroyed only one of the Mandarin’s mirror images.

The Mandarin laughed. “Ha, ha, ha! Now-- allow me to reveal my true identity!” The Mandarin reached up and removed his mask. He looked normal enough beneath his mask, but he had a blood red letter “T” branded into his forehead.

“No!” Wen gasped. “It can’t be!”

“Behold, I am Wen So-Hai!” his eyes glittered. “Your father!”

“No, you’re a traitor!” Wen cried.

Wen So-Hai smiled wickedly down at Wen. “Yes, I am a traitor! Behold my son, as I take China for myself!”

“No you won’t, father! Not if I can help it!”

“It’s not too late for you, Hung-Lo! You have grown strong, and powerful,” the Mandarin said. "Join me, and we shall rule Asia together as father and son!”


The Fall

By Aiko Kaijitsu

Wen stared at his father in horror. “Never! I’ll never join you!”

The Mandarin sneered. “Coward! If you won’t do it for your own benefit,” he pointed at the gold dragon, “then do it for Bahamut!”

Wen looked back at me. He had a look on his face that spoke of great inner resolve. “I’ll take care of the Emperor, my wife, you take care of my father,” he said, and then he headed for Emperor Lizong.

There was a crowd of citizens standing in his way. “I am Duke Wen Tiang-Xiang! Stand aside! You must let me pass, in the name of Bahamut!” The civilians moved, so Wen dashed past the Grand Empress Dowager and then under the archway.

Lo tried to follow, but the Grand Empress Dowager stepped in front of him. “No! I will not let you hurt my son!” she cried.

“Please, my lady, you must move aside!” he said. “I’m only going to take the Scepter! I’m not going to hurt your son!”

“No!” she refused.

Meanwhile, the gold dragon tried to eat Ochir again, and its jaws snapped the air so hard one of its teeth shattered. The dragon howled in pain. Ochir laughed. “Ha, ha, can’t catch me!”

The Mandarin spat at Ochir. “You are an enemy of China!”

“No, you’re an enemy of China! I’m a savior! If you truly want to save the people, give up the Emperor and this whole thing is over!” Ochir yelled as he flew in an evasive pattern.

“Karma has spared you from the dragon’s maw twice now, gnome! Do not tempt fate again! Drop your bow!” the Mandarin threatened. Ochir only laughed.

Wen faced the Emperor. The Emperor raised his glowing Scepter and struck Wen with it, attempting to command his obedience. “You are Chinese! You must do as I command!”

“I’m a Fist of Bahamut; you cannot command me with your magic!” Wen cried.

“Damned Paladins!” the Emperor swore.

“You can’t command Paladins, but you can fry them with lightning!” the Mandarin observed, and swooped down and lightning bolted a line that included Wen, Lo, the Grand Empress Dowager, and the Emperor. All four were assailed with devastating crackling electricity.

“Oh, sorry, did I get your Majesty?” the Mandarin laughed.

“And my mother, Mandarin? You traitor!” the Emperor screamed as he clutched his Scepter and his hair and skin smoked. The Empress Dowager had crumpled to the floor.

“You’re not fit to hold the Scepter any longer!” Wen cried, and tried to knock it from the Emperor’s hand. Despite hitting the Scepter with the flat of his Hanzo blade several times, the Emperor would not let go. “No! Stop it! It’s mine!” he screamed.

Dipaka helped the Grand Empress Dowager to get to her feet. “For the good of the people, you must convince your son to lay down the Scepter!" he said, as he healed her burns.

"No, you must help my son defeat the Mongols," she pleaded.

"In your great wisdom, your grace, you must understand that you will lose this war. You will be dead. It's the same as going into exile, except you will enjoy nothing, nor have any chance to rebuild,” Dipaka said. 

Regardless, she stood firm. “Please, help my son. He may have lived a life of excess, but he doesn't deserve this.”

Xia tried to dispell the Mandarin’s mirror images so we could get to him, but failed. “Whelp!” the Mandarin taunted.

I threw magic missiles at him and shot down four of his mirror images.

Ochir shot down another mirror image while Chaka prepared to counterspell.

Allegro popped up and took out the Mandarin’s last image with a crossbow shot. He flipped the crossbow over and followed that up with a second bolt that buried itself in the Mandarin’s belly.

“Ouch! Damn you, you stinking hobbit!” the wizard snarled.

Lo had been waiting for just such an instant. The Mandarin was on the floor, and had no more images.

“You die now Mandarin!” he bellowed, and charged. Suishen left flames across the Ministry as Lo barreled toward the wizard. He arrived in an instant. Lo chopped the magician and blood flew up from the wound.

The Mandarin sucked in a breath as he realized his mistake. He’d allowed Lo to catch him in melee.

He tried to get away, but Lo chopped him again as he fled. We heard his contingency pop, and a blue flash of healing went off under his robes. He flew over and nailed the Emperor with a quickened magic missile as he went.

The Emperor collapsed, and the Scepter of Five RIngs clattered to the floor. The Mandarin swooped down and landed by it.

He was right next to Wen.

“You wouldn’t dare strike your own father,” he said, as he knelt down to pick up the Scepter.

"Oh yeah? By Bahamut’s bidding!" Wen cried, and struck the Mandarin with his Hanzo blade. The blade rang in his hands as it clanged off the Mandarin’s flesh. The Mandarin stood with the Scepter and laughed in Wen’s face.

He lifted the Scepter and brandished it in front of the dragon. “I have the Scepter now worm! Obey me!” the Mandarin screamed. “Kill them! Kill them now!”

The dragon flopped on Dipaka and the Grand Empress Dowager with its great body, pinning them both to the floor. It stuck its head and long neck into the room where the Mandarin stood over the Emperor and sniffed the Scepter’s new wielder.

The dragon was now blocking Ochir’s line of sight. "Somebody get that dragon out of the doorway!" Ochir cried. “I can’t get a bead on the Mandarin!”

“Not a problem!” Lo dropped his shield and grabbed the dragon by its tail with both hands. “Come here, dragon!” The dragon’s chin hit the floor as Lo jerked the enormous beast back away from the door. It wasn’t very far, but it was enough to free Dipaka and the Empress Dowager, and reveal the doorway beyond.

It was the gap Ochir needed. He dropped down to the arch’s level and fired a triple-shot. Three arrows thunked into the Mandarin, and he staggered backward.

“Unhand me Goliath, it is unseemly for us to be wrestling like this!" the dragon thundered at Lo.

“You are under the control of the Scepter!” Lo bellowed. “An evil mage has control of you, come to your senses, fool!"

Dipaka climbed to his feet and moved over to heal the Grand Empress Dowager again. He threw a ball of healing under the arch at the Emperor lying in the next room. The Emperor coughed and began to get up.

“Get down!” the Mandarin cried, and gave the Emperor a smack with the Scepter. The Emperor fell back to the floor and lay still.

“Chaka, we just saw it! It's over! When an Emperor gets knocked to the floor by his own wizard, it's definitely over," Ochir said. “The fat lady’s gettin’ ready to sing!”

The Mandarin looked at Wen with hate in his eyes. He raised the Scepter and blasted his son with a mixture of cold, fire, lighting, and sonic magic all at the same time. Wen fell to the floor and writhed in pain as the Mandarin sustained the onslaught. Wen’s screams were as terrible as the energies that tore at him. When the Mandarin smiled and stopped the attack, Wen’s clothes were smoking.

“Now you understand the power of the Scepter of Five Rings, my son!” 

He snapped his fingers and cast another mirror image spell; he now had six more images. “Uh oh, it looks like you’ll have to take my images out all over again!” he taunted us. He scowled at the gold dragon and pointed to Lo, and commanded, “Kill the Goliath, worm!”

The dragon obeyed. He clawed, gored, and tried to chew on Lo, but Lo’s stoneskin kept him from coming to any serious harm.

“Dragon, I find your damage lacking!” Lo taunted the beast. “I’m surprised at you! You have to be under the influence of some mind-affecting spell! Are you telling me a gold dragon follows the orders of this evil shit?” he asked, pointing at the Mandarin.

The dragon hesitated before he said, “He may be China’s best chance, Goliath.”

Lo snorted. “Evil might be China’s best chance? I can’t believe you just said that! You’re a good dragon, if the stories be true!”

The dragon seemed to hesitate at this.

Xia flew down to the archway, fired her magic missiles at the Mandarin, and took out three of his new mirror images.

Wen got to his feet. “You give me no choice father,” Wen said, and then he hacked down all three of his father’s remaining images. “It’s all clear! Get him!” Wen cried.

“I’ve got him!” Ochir moved and aimed at the Mandarin for the kill shot, but his bowstring snapped and tore his finger open. Ochir was instantly livid. “Damnit! I hate these damn chinks! I hate ‘em, I hate ’em, I hate ‘em!” Ochir raged, as he fished out another bowstring. “Get this bastard, Allegro!”

“Not a problem,” Allegro said, and dashed in under the arch.

The Mandarin laughed when he saw the halfling coming.

Quick as a wink, Allegro leapt into the air and slashed the Mandarin with a wide swipe.

Blood ran down from a gash in the Mandarin’s neck. His jaw fell open, and his eyes glazed over.

“Finish him!” Istanoval cried.

Allegro leapt up again and stabbed the Mandarin square in the heart.

The wide-eyed Mandarin sagged to the floor, his mouth still stuck open. The Scepter slipped from his fingers.

“You’ve done it!” Istanoval cried. “He’s dead!”

“Secure the Scepter!” Ochir ordered.

I lifted the distant Scepter with my telekinesis and pulled it towards myself, but I was too far away to take it. Xia was the closest one to the Scepter, so I floated it to her.

Suddenly, the Ministry doors burst open, and the starving people of Guangzhou flooded in. Father Wong was with them. “I am Doctor Father Wong Fae Hong!” he cried. “The Grand Magistrate of China, and Rebuker of Zombies! Let all know here, I do hereby resume my duties as the Grand Magistrate of China! This rice belongs to the people! Let no one hamper that, or face the justice of Shang-Ti!”

The people swarmed the rice pile.

As Allegro knelt over the inert Mandarin, a small imp shot out of the wizard’s sleeve and grabbed the wizard’s Staff of the Magi. The tiny beast leapt onto its Master’s chest, plopped onto its rear, and promptly plane shifted away with the Mandarin’s body.

“Shit!” Allegro cried.

The dragon put a huge claw around Xia and said to her, “Fing, Fang, and Fume! I am bound to serve you now, for you are now the Grand Wu Jen of China.”

Xia looked up at the dragon in wonder, and then the beast picked her up in his great claw.

“Let’s go,” she said. “We can’t teleport away while in this forbiddance, take me outside.” The dragon flew toward the Ministry’s front doors.

“Xia! What are you doing?” I yelled. “You need to drop the Scepter right now!”

Xia totally ignored me.

“You mean the Scepter needs to drop Xia!” Dipaka cried. “I think she’s possessed!”

Father Wong stood in the doorway to block their escape. “You shall not pass!” he cried.

Xia pled with Father Wong. “Please Father! I am a daughter of China! We still have the Scepter! We must form a resistance!”

“No!” Father Wong said, and stood fast.

I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly, I felt the forbiddance focused on the Ministry vanish.

Three Mongolian army Gnomes instantly teleported into the Ministry, and they all magic missiled the dragon. The worm screeched and breathed fire on them.

Princess Aishwarya-Sen appeared behind them, saying, “All hail General Munkh-Ochir Baatarbayan of the Khan’s Southern Army, and Master of the Order of the Bow, Gangnam-Style!”

Ochir’s father appeared out of nowhere, with a fedora pulled down over his eyes. He was dressed in rich clothing, and he was covered with gems and jewelry from India. He bore a great horned bow, and he raised his head and began firing at the dragon. “Eat adamantine, dragon!”

The dragon screamed and writhed as his arrows found their marks.

“Father! It is I! Your son!” Ochir cried, and fired at the dragon along with his father, but he was so nervous he missed the first three times.

“Your proximity to the Japs has dulled your senses, son!” the older Ochir laughed.

“You ain’t seen anything yet!” Ochir cried, adjusting his bow. “Come on, Chaka, let’s have some percussion!”

Chaka began drumming up a storm.

Lo ran towards Xia and the dragon with Suishen blazing, but she raised her hand to stop him.

“Don’t attack the dragon Lo! He’s on my side. Now is your chance, come with me! We’ll be a clan of two!” Xia offered.

Lo sheathed Suishen and reached up to Xia, and took her hand and held it tight.

In a last ditch effort, I tried to pull the rod away from Xia with my telekinesis, but its mighty resistance prevented me from getting a grip on it.

“Leave Madame Wu Jen, I will take care of the riff raff in here!” the gold dragon boomed.

With a trite pop, Xia teleported away, taking her husband and the Scepter of Five Rings along with her.

“Well, now she’s public enemy number one,” Ochir said.

Dipaka healed Wen as he leaned on the archway, then went to heal the Emperor.

Ochir's father ordered his gnomes to secure the Emperor. They advanced on Wen. He was still standing in the archway. It didn’t look like he was planning on moving.

“Chaka, you know that Chabui promised that the royal family’s lives would be spared,” Wen reminded her loud enough for everyone to hear.

“It is true,” Chaka said. “Relax, Wen.”

“Come on, Wen,” I said, taking his hand in mine. We stepped aside and let them go in.

I saw Allegro pocket two of the Emperor’s rings before he stepped back. I shot him a knowing smirk.

“Archery contest!” General Baatarbayan cried.

Ochir and the General fired at the dragon repeatedly. The dragon breathed fire on them, and Baatarbayan leapt in front of Princess Aishwarya-Sen at one point to shield her. Then he danced a jig around the dragon as he fired his deadly shots. “Do it Gangnam-style!” he shouted.

After a slew of arrows, the dragon finally roared and collapsed in a giant heap. They fired more arrows into the dragon’s body to make sure it was dead.

I wanted to cry as they killed the majestic creature. Wen hugged me and I hid my face in his chest.

When they were done, Ochir flew outside and affixed the banner of the Mongol Empire on top the building.

“I claim Guangzhou in the name of Kublai Khan!” he announced to the world.

Apparently, while we had been inside the Ministry, Mongol gnomes had somehow sneaked into the city, transformed themselves into giants, and taken over the gates. After that, the Mongols had poured into the city. The surrendering guards and people were not executed, but fed. The Mongol troops had given of their own rations to the starving people.

The Song was no more. The war was over.

Of course, Dipaka healed everyone.

Ochir formally introduced his father to Chaka. “She’s rough around the edges, dad, because she's from Vienna,” Ochir explained.

General Baatarbayan came up and grabbed Chaka’s rear, and said, "What a fine little slut you've picked up, sonny!”

“She fires a mean trebuchet too!" Ochir boasted.

Chaka frowned, but let the boys have their day.

Allegro, Wen and I helped ourselves to some of the treasure items stored in the Ministry’s bays.

“I see your friends are stealing the silverware,” Baatarbayan quipped to Ochir.

“Ah, she needs money for stoneskins,” Ochir said.

Ochir ordered that the Ministry be used as a central, public feeding place. The people continued to take the rice out of the building and distribute it to the population. Dipaka and Father Wong oversaw the process.

After a few hours, the populace began lining up, for Kublai Khan was about to enter the city. Chaka invited us to stand on the steps of the Ministry as they received the Khan.

After another hour, he came into view. Kublai Khan rode alone at the head of a long column of mounted Mongol warriors. There was an ornate red palanquin being born by many men between them.

When they grew near, the Khan ordered the line to a halt. He dismounted and walked to the side of the palanquin. He ordered it to be lowered, and he pulled aside the cloth door.

“May I present you with your city, my lady," the Khan said, as Chabui stepped out.

The Mongols troops beat their swords upon their shields.

Chabui smiled at the Khan, and then they walked up to us.

“Allow me to introduce our heroes, my husband,” Chabui said.

Chabui introduced Ochir’s father to the Khan first, whom the Khan already knew. Kublai Khan granted the General the new rank of Khan, right there on the spot. Ochir’s father bowed.

Chabui next introduced Ochir, and the Khan made him a General. Because of Baatarbayan’s elevation to Khan, Chaka was now a Princess. Chabui introduced her along with Ochir. They both bowed.

Chabui introduced Dipaka. “Dipaka is the one inspiring the holy shrines popping up throughout Mongolia, my husband. He is the most peaceful man I know.”

Dipaka thanked the Khan for allowing a peaceful surrender.

“Yes, I have granted mercy upon the people,” the Khan said. “And I grant you the title of the Minister of Peace, Holy Man,” the Khan said. “You've earned it.”

“Oh, this is most unexpected!” Dipaka beamed. “I'm glad you recognize the virtues of peace!”

I was next. “This is Aiko Kaijitsu, Princess of Japan, the one that helped us in the desert dam affair,” Chabui said.

I wasn’t sure if I should say anything to the Khan, but I threw caution to the wind and said, “I am looking forward to being related to your Majesty through marriage, for my sister, Princess Ameiko, is surely soon to wed your nephew, Prince Batsai-Khar.” 

The Khan said nothing to this. He eyed me keenly and looked away.

He smiled when he saw Allegro. “Ah, Allegro Polo, my dear friend, my wife tells me you have something to ask,” the Khan said.

“Yes, I would ask a boon,” Allegro said.

“Only name it and it will be done,” the Khan promised.

“I need help rescuing my wife,” Allegro said.

Chabui said, “I have already sent Prince Batsai-Khar to undertake this dangerous mission, but I am also sure Princess Aiko and her friends will return to Japan to help you as well.”

“Thank you, your majesty,” Allegro said.

Chabui introduced Wen last. “This is Prince Wen Tiang-Xiang, husband to Princess Aiko.”

The Khan raised a brow at Wen.

“Congratulations, Your Highness, on bringing this war to an end,” Wen said.

“Yes,” the Khan said, and then he looked back at Ochir.

“Well, what say you General?”

Ochir stood proud. “There are some fanatical elements still outstanding, my lord, so you should leave a garrison here. We can count on the Fists of Bahamut hiding in An Nam trying to wage a guerilla war against us.”

“Indeed, the Fists of Bahamut have set sail,” the Khan said. “I will prepare for them. I will also bend my will to the recovery of the Scepter. Where the Scepter goes, my servants will follow.”

The Khan looked right at me.

“Go with this Japanese Princess, General. Seek the Scepter in Japan, and I will seek it in Mongolia.”

 

 

 
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