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

Decisions

Two nights later we gathered to have a dinner feast. We had warm spring rolls; various stir fries wrapped in lettuce leaves, delicious pot stickers, and steamed rice. I had pepper steak. Some of us had Saki. All of us drank green tea.

Wang Chung didn’t play that night (thankfully), he ate with us. Sandru the Caravan Master offered several wonderful toasts. His rings clinked on his glass whenever he raised it. That night his turban had a large sapphire on its front, and it glinted in the lamplight. Ranger Bing ate quietly the whole time.

After we had finished eating, Aki carefully unrolled the scroll he had found in the Chieftain’s Kama. His Vow of Silence prevented him from reading the message to us. He handed it to Ochir. Ochir cleared his throat and read:


"Dear Amieko my oldest Granddaughter,

I have kept from you a great secret; my curiosity may have killed me, I foolishly opened the Warding Box, and beheld the Seal of Amatatsu. We have hidden here in China for many years, since you and your little sister were very young. I fear I have done our family a great harm and the families of others a horrible disservice, I have gone to try to set things right. If you are reading this, I have been delayed or killed on my journey. You must look to my old friend Lord Sywan for what to do. I love you.

Rokoru Kaijitsu, June 15, 1267"

We were wondering what this message might mean when we were surprised by the sound of a dog barking. It was coming from outside. We looked to the front doors. They burst open and a tiny woman on a large gray dog came through. She was clearly distraught.

I rose and went over to help her. She was a Gnome of Nepalese descent. I noticed after nearing her that she had a protruding forehead, and she had somewhat malformed eyes that were red, wet, and unfocused. She was shaking with fear.

"They’re going to kill me!" she screamed in a bent childlike voice. I did my best to console her, and she went on describing how Jurchens had overrun her village, killed her parents and most of the other villagers, and how she had barely escaped.  She said the Jurchens were even slaughtering all the animals.  She was incredibly upset.

Dipaka carefully approached the woman and this calmed her down almost immediately, even though he had not yet said a word. There was something almost supernatural about it.

"What is your name, child?" he asked in a very peaceful voice.

She looked up at him. "My name is Cairn," she said.

We did our best to reassure her she would be safe at the inn with us. We led her dog outside and let it roam in the main pen with some pigs. Lo threw it a bone.

"We have to tell your Mistress Pang Mei about this," Ochir said.

I went to fetch Mistress Pang Mei from her office. She was busy at her desk signing papers with a large quill.

"Mistress, we have need of your attention," I said. She lifted her head from her work.

"What is it?"

"You’d better come out to the dining room," I said.

After we’d explained to Pang Mei the note from the Kama and described the plight of the Gnomish girl she said, "We must go to Lord Sywan at once, and see that he dispatches his soldiers to determine what has happened to Cairn’s village. I must also talk to him about this letter."

"Remember officer Fang and the forged documents he had? I wonder if your Lord Sywan is even alive anymore," Ochir said.

"He could be just fine," Pang Mei said.

"What if he’s not? It wouldn’t be safe," Sandru said.

Mistress Pang Mei decided that she herself and Sandru the Caravan Master would go together to visit the Tower. I invited myself to go with them. I wanted to see what would happen.

Later, the three of us began walking down the street towards the four story spire. The rest of the group waited in a copse of trees a few lots down the street.

As we neared the building, Pang Mei began to lag behind, began trembling, and then collapsed. Sandru hurriedly knelt beside her and checked to see if she was alive. "She’s breathing," he said, "but I don’t know what’s happened to her."

We were quite frightened for Pang Mei; she had turned a ghastly color. Sandru picked her up and carried her in front of him with one arm beneath her, and the other beneath her knees. He walked straight back to the clump of trees and lay her down before Dipaka. The Healer applied a wet cloth to her forehead and put her feet up on his lap for a while, and eventually her eyes fluttered open.

"What happened?" she asked weakly.

"We were going to seek an audience with Lord Sywan, and you passed out on us," Sandru said.

"Oh yes, I remember, I felt weaker the closer we got, but I thought it would pass."

"It’s some devilish spirit at work I say!" Sandru cried. "You’re not going back to the Tower. I forbid it!" He folded his arms across his chest and stuck his beard out.

Pang Mei smiled a weary smile. She slowly began to look more like herself. We felt a sense of relief. It was clear she wasn’t quite out of the woods yet.

Sandru Vhiski started back to the Iron Ox carrying Mistress Pang Mei, and I saw the Jade Archer from the caravan coming to help him.

"How are we going to get into the Tower? If there’s some evil emanation coming from in there, put together with everything else we know, I think walking up there like nothing’s wrong could get us killed." Allegro said.

"Or captured. Or maybe tortured. Or captured, tortured, and then killed." Wang Chung said. He chuckled. He was funny like that.

"There are plenty of arrow slits in those walls, if they have an idea we’re coming we could get shot at on the way up the street," I said.

"They already know we’re coming. You guys approached out in the open and they cast some sort of spell on Mistress Pang Mei," Ranger Bing said.

Ochir brightened. "I know, I’ll lead the guards away and you guys go to work your way inside the front door. It’ll be easy."

"You might be able to lead them away, but they’ll eventually need to be dealt with. I don’t like it." I said.

"I’m telling you guys it will work!" Ochir said loudly.

The discussion became an argument. The argument became heated.

As most of us bickered, I noticed Dipaka was shaking his head sadly. He slowly turned and began to walk alone towards the Tower.

He had taken ten paces when we all stopped and looked at him.

Ochir yelled: "Screw this!", and he leapt onto his pony and rode straight past Dipaka, heading for the Tower. He got out his bow as he approached, standing up in his stirrups, gripping his mount with his legs. He galloped down the street at full tilt in front of the stable. He knocked an arrow and fired it at the clump of yellow uniformed men that were standing guard on the front steps of the Tower. One of them was struck and cried out. The other four guards shouted out obscenities and charged after the riding Gnome.

Ochir and his pony dashed around the far corner of the stable. I don’t know why, but Cairn followed close on his heels, riding her dog just as a man would ride a horse. Then we saw the four angry guards disappear around the corner as they ran after our friends.

The lone remaining guard on the steps saw Lo heading his way and started beating on the door and yelling to have it opened. "Open the door!" he cried. The door opened and a greasy man in a filthy kitchen apron appeared. The wounded guard bowled him over to get away from Lo. "Out of the way!" he commanded.

Lo, Allegro, Ranger Bing, Wang Chung, Aki, and Dipaka secured the stairs and then went inside the Tower.


The Tower

The greasy cook had run across a large open room to cower by a fireplace in the far wall. There was a ramp that wound its way around the inside outer wall of the Tower to the right, leading up to the second floor. In this room several torches and the fire from the fireplace cast an unsteady orange light. The rest of the floor was basically empty, with no visible place for a man to hide. It was clear the guard must have run up the slope and into the darkness to alert his Lord.

Lo began to move towards the ramp, along with Dipaka and Aki. Suddenly there was a loud hiss, and a huge yellow snake with white rings reared up in front of them from behind a short screen. It bared long fangs at them and lunged to attack. Dipaka leapt nimbly out of the way. Lo tried to chop the snake with a large sword, holding his shield in front of himself to avoid getting bitten.

Aki dropped back and pulled out the Chieftain’s Kama, and began whirling it over his head. Amazingly, a giant wasp appeared right out of thin air. It began attacking the snake. It was darting and hovering, dropping and stinging the snake again and again. There was venom dripping from its stinger. Lo chopped the snake and opened up a red gash. The wounded snake now only tried feebly to bite the wasp. The wasp stung the snake one last time and it wiggled and curled up dead. Aki put the Kama away. The wasp vanished.

"You there! Adventurers! Come here and help me!" There was a strange voice coming from somewhere under the ramp. Aki went over cautiously to investigate. "Yes, that’s right! Down here!" He saw a dagger shining dully in the dim torchlight. He picked it up and looked at it. "Oh, thank you kind Sir for picking me up! I’ve been in this bloody place for months! If you ask me I’d say the Master’s gone crazy. I used to be Thayer’s dagger you know. I guess the Swill Lord owns me now." Looking back I think it was ironic that Aki was holding a dagger that could speak, while he could not. He must have thought the same thing. He handed it to Allegro. Allegro looked at the dagger. "How about shutting up?" he asked. "Shutting up, Sir!" the dagger said. Allegro smirked and stuck it in his belt.

Outside, Cairn and Ochir continued their circuit and then appeared around the far corner of the stable. I knew that the four guards would be slower on foot, but would still be around at any moment, so I got out my sleep ash and prepared to throw it in their faces when they showed up.

Ochir tried to enter the stable but found the stable door he chose locked. He turned his pony around and got his bow out and got an arrow ready to shoot at the guards as soon as they might appear.

Cairn’s dog pushed on the opposite stable door and it swung inward. As it did so, a huge black and hairy spider leapt out of the dark stable. It had two rows of horrible beady black eyes. It had long sharp pincers that clacked together and dripped ooze. It scuttled up to her and raised up to strike. Her dog reared back and Cairn fell off into the street. She watched in horror as the spider seized the dog and pulled it backward toward the darkness. The dog yipped and howled piteously. Ochir turned and fired an arrow at the spider and it dropped the dog and scuttled back into the gloom. 

At that moment, the guards ran around the corner of the stable. As they neared me, I threw the sleep ashes at them. As luck would have it, the wind caught the ashes and I only hit one of the guards. At least he did fall asleep.

Ochir fired an arrow and it struck the lead guard in the chest. He went down on his face. One of the two remaining guards charged Ochir, and managed to slice the Gnome’s arm. Blood began running down his bow and dripping off the bottom. The other went after Cairn. She dodged his first attack. He swung at her again, but she jumped aside. Ochir used his skill with his pony to keep the guard he was fighting at bay so he could keep shooting arrows at him. After another arrow, that guardsman collapsed. A last arrow in the back of the guard attacking Cairn ended the combat outside. Ochir had felled three guards by himself. He rode up and shot the sleeping guard, making it four.

Inside the Tower, Lo headed up the curving ramp to the second level. Five more yellow clad guardsmen came from the shadows and attacked him. At first they were all able to swat at the Goliath, but Lo retreated a little ways back down the ramp, effectively using his great height to restrict the number of attackers that could land blows on him.

Ochir, Cairn and I entered the Tower and closed the door behind us. We all took deep breaths, and Dipaka was there to calm us with his peaceful aura. He healed everyone that had been wounded thus far, and while he did so we could hear Lo’s battle with the guards raging above us on the ramp. Cairn dashed up the ramp to get behind Lo. I could not understand her strange bravery. I guess she had nothing left to lose.

Lo had been carefully fighting the Lord’s guards with his sword and shield. There were only two guards left, but Lo had not yet been seriously injured.

I moved up the ramp and in behind Lo, and I fired an icy ray from my finger at one of the men.

Lo had not quite yet advanced up onto the second floor. We heard the sound of a heavy door open from somewhere above us. A commanding Chinese voice cried, "They’re winning, you fools! Get down there and kill them!" The sound of many booted feet followed. My blood ran cold. I knew that voice. It was Fang.

Lo and the rest of us retreated back down the ramp. We expected the guards we had heard upstairs to come charging down right behind us, but for some reason they didn’t. We took a moment to regroup. Dipaka’s peaceful aura again helped to calm us. He tended the wounds of those that needed ministering.

We asked the cook who or what was upstairs. "Undead," he told us. He laughed and showed us rows of rotten teeth. Lo laughed too. "Undead indeed," he said, "That’s funny! Undead! Bah! There’s no such thing as undead my friend." I hoped Lo was right.

We got back in marching order and went up the ramp. Lo was in front. As we rounded the corner, there was a light coming from an open door, and the large shape of Fang filled the opening. There was a phalanx of uniformed men with spears between us and him. They were all motionless, silent, and waiting.

Lo began trying to move his way through the yellow clad guards. He pushed at them with his shield, and jabbed at them with his sword.

"Ah, so you’re the tall spotted freak that took my shield," accused Fang.

"If you want it, you can fight me for it."

"Let him through boys."

The men parted and allowed Lo to move through. They reformed behind him and looked at us. They lowered their spears.

As the battle between Fang and Lo got started, so did the battle between the guards and the rest of us.

They charged us as a group, and several of us were wounded. Dipaka’s aura of Peace had an effect, the warriors had to resist a strong supernatural urge to back off, and some of them withdrew from the combat. It was as if their minds had been seized with iron locks that would not allow them to attack.

Aki and Bing battled fiercely. Wang Chung stayed back again and played a tune that gave us heart. I wondered if he might actually be more help with a weapon, but something about his foolish singing in the midst of a combat was so absurd it made the rest of us seem more focused.

Ochir took up a defensive position at the edge of the ramp and fired arrows at them, and the men swore in pain when the arrows struck them. Allegro fought courageously with his fell skipping stones. He was struck in the shoulder with a spear once, but after that he still fought on with his chattering dagger. "Thrust and then Parry my Lord! Woo-Hoo!" it cried.

Dipaka tended to the wounded in our group, and he also tended to the fallen enemy men to prevent them from bleeding to death. I cast an air shield in front of myself and tried to jab at the guards with my spear. I was within Dipaka’s aura, and I felt spiritually compelled to hold my attacks and be at peace. Luckily, the guards attacking me all missed me with their spears.

Fang was chopping at Lo with his axe, and Lo was blocking. Lo circled and waited for an opening. No opening came. Fang got in a lucky shot and hit Lo in the leg. The Goliath began leaving large bloody footprints on the floor. Lo looked down at the prints, then screamed his battle cry and flew into a barbarous rage.

His sword swings were now wild and forceful. The din of steel on steel from his storm of blows was fearsome. He hacked at Fang for a time and finally overpowered him. He pushed Fang’s axe aside and stabbed him through the middle. Fang’s eyes widened as he realized what had happened. He dropped his axe, and then fell to his knees. Lo pulled the sword out. Blood trickled from the corner of Fang’s mouth, his eyes glazed over, and he fell over dead.

"You shall never escape!" a wicked voice boomed from above us.

We all looked up and saw Lord Sywan. He had appeared at the top of the ramp that led up to the third floor. The Lord was arrayed in deep red silk with large azure stripes on each side. He was resplendent in his robes, but he was clearly not himself. His eyes were jet black; they had no iris or pupil. He clutched a wand in his right hand and a tall black scepter in his left. His nails were long black talons. His black hair had been shaped into a hideous bulb. His skin was blue veined and milky white. He raised his thin arms slowly. He let out a peal of maniacal laughter that echoed through the chamber. "You will all be captured and brought to cower before the Ambassador of Pazuzu!"

He began to float down the ramp towards us.

The remaining guards dropped their spears and ran away. Lo moved cautiously towards Lord Sywan. The rest of us gathered our courage and our wits and tried to attack the Lord as best we could.

Lord Sywan waved his wand and spoke an ancient command word. I felt the power of a magic sleep spell wash over us, but we resisted it. I cast a new spell I learned from the Caravan Fortune Teller. I could feel the heat building in my eyes, getting hotter and hotter. My eyes began to glow a bluish color, as a fire ignited within my soul.

Ochir fired an arrow that struck the Lord. Allegro threw a rock at him. Aki tried to move in close to strike open-handed. Lo swung his sword and struck Lord Sywan, and his silk robe collapsed as the sword cut through and hit flesh and bone. Blood poured out. Lord Sywan merely laughed. His teeth were now red and slick with blood, and he was gritting them and curling back his lips in a hideous fashion. "You will pay for this!" he hissed.

Lo struck him again, and it was now as if he was chopping down a tree. More blood spilled out, but Lord Sywan still fought on. He tried to put us to sleep again. Again the magic failed.

There was now a spiritual coal burning inside each of my eyes. I focused my vision on Lord Sywan’s robes, and fiery beams shot forth and touched his raiment. Smoke rose and fire began to lick up his face. "Aaaaaagh!" he screamed. His hair burst into flames.

Lo hit him hard a third time and he folded and fell. His wand and scepter clattered to the floor. The smell of burning flesh, silk, and hair filled the room. Lo stomped him out.

We were about to rest for a moment, but there was to be no rest for us. We began to hear the beating of what sounded like large wings. We pushed our heads deep into the arrow slits and looked to see a large black man-bird flapping around the Tower. He had a chain weapon of some sort; he was twirling it around himself with practiced agility. He appeared to be laughing to himself.

Farther away, there was an archery duel going on between a flying Harpy with a longbow and the Jade Archer. The Harpy beat her wings and clenched her clawed feet as she dodged and swooped, firing her deadly arrows at the Archer. The Caravan’s sharpshooter was biding her time, taking shots when the Harpy was the nearest. We could see that they both had several arrows each sticking out of them. It was only a matter of time before one of them would win and the other would be dead.

We could see Sandru was trying to protect Pang Mei’s prone form. It really didn’t look good out there.

We gathered ourselves together and charged up the ramp to the next level of the Tower.

When we got onto the second floor, we saw a dozen or so black feathered bird-men strutting around in a circle, chanting and performing some unspeakable ritual. Their arms ended in human-like clawed hands, not wings.

We saw a large cage near the center of the room, and inside we could see a human female being held captive. She was tied to the back bars of the cage, and wore only a thin shift. Sweat ran from her face and down between her breasts. She was moving slightly, but she was not awake. There were bowls of flaming oil around the cage. The stench was horrible; her bird captors had not given her a chamber pot. The smell of other foul things lurked right alongside the odor of human waste.

Nearby, on a raised platform, there was a very tall black feathered bird-man dressed in the trappings of a High Priest. He wore a dark red robe. He had rows of golden holy symbols hanging around his neck and arms. He held a very long dark sword in his left hand, and he raised his empty right hand towards us. He snapped it shut quickly, and a burst of grating sound sprang forth. A wave of sound shot over us, causing our teeth and everything else to vibrate violently. Several of us were stunned.

"You have desecrated the inner sanctum of Pazuzu!" he screamed, "I am High Priest Nevakali!" Somehow his long beak made recognizable words.

"Attack my soldiers! Strike these fools down!" he commanded.

The dire corbies that were dancing in a ring before us disbanded and charged.

I was out of spells, so I was going to have to fight with my spear. I reminded myself to wonder how I got into this mess later. I gripped my spear and took a deep breath. I tried to remember my basic training. I swatted, blocked, jumped, and attacked. I wound up hitting the bird-beasts several times, but the blows always seemed to glance off of their feathers, drawing blood, but doing little else. They kept trying to attack me in return, but at least with my long spear I could keep them away from me.

The others were battling their hearts out and were gradually killing off the dire corbies. There were black feathers and tufts of bird down floating around the room. The dirty stone floor was awash in feathers and blood.

"Yamabushi!" the High Priest Nevakali shouted through the arrow slits, "Get in here and deal with these Infidels!"

As I looked to see how the others were doing, the dire corby I was fighting stabbed me in the leg. I didn’t feel the pain at first, but I could feel blood start running down into my boot. I instinctively retreated. As I neared Dipaka, I felt his aura heal me a bit. I decided to go back on the offensive. I held the spear out in front of me and charged the dire corby. He leapt out of the way at the last instant and I careened into the wall. I was holding my spear so the butt of it caught me in the waist. I passed out from the pain, then awoke to find myself lying face-down on the floor.

It took me a moment to get back up and retrieve my spear. Dipaka’s nearby aura made me feel better. Lo and the others had taken care of most of the dire corbies. I saw the dire corby High Priest Nevakali lying dead on the ground.

Cairn had been on the ramp this whole time fighting the dire corbies. Suddenly, the winged Oni-Yamabushi Tengu we had seen outside was clawing and attacking Cairn from the rear. He had entered the Tower and made his way up here. He fired a ray at her. Cairn turned to face him. The Tengu screeched in her face. Cairn didn’t flinch and summoned a cold faerie fire that limned the winged beast. The flickering fire was reflected in her wet eyes. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with magical powers.

I jumped over and managed to stick my spear into the armored Tengu. He screamed. He whirled his spiked chain and it wrapped around Cairn. Arrows came from Ochir, and stones came from Allegro. The fearie fire almost drew the missiles to their marks. Aki charged and slammed the beast with his fists. Bing struck with his sword, and the Oni-Yamabushi Tengu fell backward, dropping his chain. He scuttled down the ramp. Lo went down after him.

Lo came back up the ramp a moment later dragging the unconscious Tengu behind him. His tongue was lolling out, and feathers were falling out of his wings.

Ranger Bing went over to try to unlock the cage the woman was hanging in. He fumbled for a while with the iron lock, but then Wang Chang pushed him aside and snapped the lock with a short flat blade. "Now he uses his sword," the Ranger said. They untied the woman and carried her out between them. Dipaka gave her some water. She drank thirstily. Allegro gave her a cape to cover herself with.

We argued the idea of sticking around. Lo wanted to leave. Ochir wanted to take a sneak peek at the last floor of the tower. In the end, Ochir followed us all outside, where Pang Mei, Sandru Vhiski, and the Jade Archer had been fighting the Harpy.

Sandru Vhiski was lying out on the ground with his arms and feet spread apart, arrows sticking up out of his chest. His turban had rolled away. Mistress Pang Mei was still lying on her back, and she had a Harpy arrow sticking out of her as well. The Jade Archer was kneeling, trying to help her.

The Harpy lay dead. The Jade Archer’s arrows bristled from her body.

After Dipaka pulled the arrows out and assisted Sandru he got up and carefully pulled the arrow out of Pang Mei. She was alive, but in a state of delirium. Now it seemed like the farther away we were from the Tower, the worse she got.

"How could a spell affect her this way?" I wondered aloud.

We all went back to the Iron Ox. Pang Mei only grew worse.

We posted guards in short shifts and tried to sleep that night. When I did sleep all I saw were black birds in my dreams, and they were attacking Pang Mei. In the morning I prayed and I memorized my magic spells and made sure I had enough hemp and ashes.

The weather the next day was amazingly bright and fresh. I hoped it was an indicator of things to come. We hiked back through the empty streets and the orange-blue glow filled up our senses.

None too soon, we were back before the Tower.


The Seal

We went back in through the front door which was unfastened. No one had come down to lock the door. The place was quiet. We went back up the ramp, and we poked around the second floor and searched for any clues or other treasure we might have missed. We found nothing. We went up onto the next floor, and we saw the cage that the woman had been held prisoner in the day before. We had found out later her name had been Kelda Ox-Gutter. We heard the sound of crows outside. The dead dire corbies were still lying where we had left them. There was no sign of the Yamabushi Tengu. His body was gone. Lo swore.

We had one more floor left to go. As we made our way up the ramp, we saw the stones that made up the Tower walls at this level began to appear very pale in color, as though unnaturally bleached.

As we went up into the gloom, Lo went with his sword at the ready. I had a spell on the tip of my tongue. Wang Chung was singing "Brave, Brave, Sir Robin". Cairn had decided to come too. I guess she’d been swept up in all of this just like the rest of us.

We heard an eerie and sinister laugh. It was not birdlike. It was deathlike.

A jade green glowing smoke propelled itself in wisps across the floor, branching out into individual tendrils that moved along this way and that. It cast a faint light on the occupants of the room. There were two lines of skeletal warriors standing in tight formation. They wore the same yellow uniforms as they wore in life. Behind them there was a skeletal Captain. Behind him there was a Wight.

The Wight’s eyes were hollows and more green glowing smoke was coming out of them, drifting down to the floor. He wore rattan clad leather armor with a round metal breastplate woven into the front. His helm had a flap that stuck out on either side. He had a long sword in one bony hand. The other hand, empty, was to be more feared, it was said the touch of a Wight would devour spirit energy. If a Wight should kill you, you would become a Wight. His teeth were clenched and bare; he had no lips to cover them. He crept slowly from his position at the rear of the skeleton brigade around towards us. His teeth chattered silently, and we again heard his supernatural laugh ring out. He leapt to attack Lo.

Lo blocked the Wight’s sword and claw attacks as best he could with his shield.

We saw the skeletons begin to move, and dust began crumbling away from them. Their undead Captain raised his hand to point at us. The warriors raised their weapons. They slowly and woodenly began marching forward.

We formed a defensive line standing shoulder to shoulder.

Ochir had sneaked out behind the line, and went around the perimeter of the room to examine the door the Wight had been guarding. My heart sank when he pushed it open.

There was a terrible howling of wind and the air pressure in the room dropped. The Wight even stopped and turned away from attacking Lo. The green glowing smoke was sucked up in an instant through the door along the floor between Ochir’s legs. Ochir’s face had turned ashen, and his eyes were wide shut. A green specter hovered towards him through the door, and he stumbled backward. The ghost’s form was nothing more than mist, but it appeared solid enough to make out the features of the man he once had been. He had a sharp goatee and a round face with high cheekbones. His head was bald, and his eyes were dark. He wore dull green armor.

Something about him looked familiar to me. It was the strangest feeling.

His mouth opened and thousands of motes poured out. They were tiny green points of light, and they swarmed around him.

We were all occupied with fighting skeletons so I stood on my tip toes and cleared my throat and yelled as loud as I could: "We have been sent by Mistress Pang Mei! She is very sick and needs help! Are you Rokoru from the warning note?"

Suddenly the motes stopped moving. The man’s gaze fell on me, and there was a short pause. He raised his hand and the skeletons and the Wight stopped fighting us and withdrew.

After they had arrayed themselves back in lines the Wraith clapped his hands and the skeletons turned to dust and their uniforms fell to the floor. The Wight vanished with an audible pop. A red wisp floated away and dissipated where it once had been.

The frightening ghost floated across the room towards me, and I felt a chill go up my spine.

"You are Pang Mei!" he accused, pointing at me. It had often been said that Pang Mei and I looked alike. I had never seen it. "No Lord", I said, "I am Xiao Ping. Pang Mei is ill because something in this Tower is killing her."

"Ah, Xiao Ping, yes... now I know you, you are Pang Mei’s little sister."

I was stunned. "What?"

"Yes, you and Pang Mei are both my Granddaughters. Do you think I do not know you? You both have been hidden from danger here since you were young. To save Pang Mei you must open the Warding Box. It lays within my death chamber, Child." He moved aside and gestured towards the open door. "Your destiny lies within. Your magic will be strong one day, don’t fear. It will be others that must fear. You must protect and take your sister and the Amatatsu Seal to Japan, my Child. She will inherit the Empire, for she is the One. I love you; tell your sister I love her too."

He faded away in wisps of green smoke. The motes swirled and faded and went out. Then there was only silence.

Ochir looked at us and shrugged.

"So that’s what they mean when they say you look like you’ve seen a ghost," Allegro said.

I think that’s when I froze. I was dumbfounded. Everyone else entered the crypt while I reeled. They discovered the Warding Box and the Amatatsu Seal, just like my Grandfather’s ghost had promised. They said when they opened the box that something else had escaped it, an invisible force or magical pressure of some sort.

When we got back to the Iron Ox, Pang Mei was waiting outside. She was quite recovered. I don’t think I was. Lo looked at both of us and said,"I guess you two have a lot to talk about."

I didn’t think so; I walked right past Pang Mei and into the Inn. I knocked on my father’s door. He didn’t answer. I pushed the door open and he sat up in his bed.

"Father! Am I adopted? Is Pang Mei really my sister?" I yelled.

When his head bowed I knew.

I had been in my room for a week when Pang Mei came in. "I didn’t know either," she said. She didn’t say anything else after that, she just hugged me and we cried.

When I came out of hiding Dipaka was building a new hospital with his share of the treasure. He was dispensing poultices and other medical supplies to the residents. I saw him lance a boil and deliver a baby both on the same day. "Peace be with you!" Dipaka would say to everyone he met.

I bought a Ring of Feather Falling at a magic shop to make myself feel better. I tried jumping off a low cliff to see if it would work. It did. I went to get Pang Mei. We spent the rest of that day together cliff jumping, taking turns with the Ring. We were both soon tired of climbing back up the cliffs. "Now we finally know what Rings of Levitation are made for!" Pang Mei said. We laughed and laughed.

Final preparations were being made for Sandru’s Caravan to leave Silk’s End. It would continue its long road trip to far away Guangzhou. Ochir argued with Sandru Vhiski over the best way to get there. He also suggested a different final destination entirely. Sandru Vhiski smiled and laughed and explained all of his reasons for choosing the Caravan’s route. I was really glad to see he had recovered from our adventure.

I saw Cairn out in the field one day. It was storming. She was wrapped in a gray blanket. I thought about her dead parents and her ruined village. When I went to sleep that night I dreamed of dire animals coursing at night in packs, and I saw Cairn running with them.



 
 
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