-------------------Chapter Twenty-Four, As Told By Aiko Kaijitsu---------------------

A Holy Man in Hell

By Aiko Kaijitsu

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.

Justice the founder of my fabric mov'd:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.

Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here.

Such characters in color dim I mark'd
Over a portal's lofty arch inscrib'd:
Whereat I thus: Master, these words import.

--Dante

Dipaka found himself on a bridge that went on for several miles and was over a thousand feet wide. It spanned a vast boiling red river. At the end of the long bridge stood a set of massive dark gates that belonged to a truly massive dark tower. A sign above them bore the words: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. The chiseled face of a devil leered over the words. The symbol of a black mace with crossed lightning bolts was on a lone banner flapping in the high winds atop the giant spire. Lighting flashed and thunder pealed all around. The smells of sulphur and brimstone assailed Dipaka's nostrils. Strangely though, he felt no heat. He could see epic gouts of flame, miles in height, shooting skyward in the distance on the horizon.

A spirit poured out of the Jade Archer's body, and coalesced before Dipaka as a beautiful woman clad in a richly embroidered red dress. She wore a very elaborate headdress that had two smooth tentacles coming out from each side. They had openings on the ends that made low clicking noises. Dipaka hoped they were part of her headdress.

"Allow me to re-introduce myself, I am Amatatsu Maemi. I thank you. When you brought your so-called Jade Archer, this pitiful, spirit-folkian creature, back from the realm of the dead just when you did, you allowed me to escape the Miasma of Souls. I am in your debt."

"And this is where you wanted to go?" Dipaka asked.

Maemi did not laugh, for she had no sense of humor. "Let me get to the point. Raidan has need of you, Holy Man."

"What does he need of me?" Dipaka asked. "Now that you have me where you want me, will the Jade Archer be leaving here and returning home?"

"That depends upon the nature of your cooperation."

"I have already asked how I can be of service to you."

She turned and walked towards the gates. "Come," she said. The gates of the citadel opened for her automatically. She brought Dipaka before Raidan. He was as large as giant, and his black skin was mottled with gray. His hair was like flame, and his tongue was like lightning.

"Allow me to introduce to you Raidan, Duke of Thunder, the true Guardian of Avernus," Maemi said. "This is the Holy Man Dipaka Bhasa, my Lord." 

"Welcome Holy Man," Raidan thundered.

"Yes, I am a Holy Man."

"My wife has been stricken ill, and I would ask for your skill as a physician. In exchange, I will allow the Jade Archer to retain her soul," his electric voice rumbled.

"Ok," Dipaka said.

"Ok?" Raidan's eyebrow lifted.

"Where is she?"

"Come with me," Raidan said. Dipaka felt the plane somehow move itself around him so that he didn't so much as move a muscle, but he now stood somewhere else before a vast sea of treasure. Laying on the immense horde was Tiamat, the five-headed Mother of All Worms. All of her heads were draped limply over dunes of gold, and she appeared to lack the strength to lift any of them. There was a glowing arrow jutting from her breast. She lay on her side, and her great body rose and fell very slowly as she breathed.

Dipaka knew the Arrow had been created by Apollo. He surmised that it had been fired from the Bow of War, one of the great artifacts of the Greeks Mythos. The Arrow had bestowed several very powerful curses upon Tiamat, rendering her frail, weak, and wracked with pain. There were holy safeguards in place upon the Arrow; such that if anyone who bore evil intent tried to remove the Arrow, the curses would immediately intensify. It was clear that without help, she would endure the Arrow for the rest of all time.

It was the proverbial thorn in the paw of the lion, Dipaka recalled, a tale Apion had recorded in his Aegyptiacorum, a book describing the Wonders of Egypt. Androclus, a runaway slave of a former Roman consul, had taken shelter in a cave, which turned out to be the den of a wounded lion. Androclus had removed a large thorn from the animal's paw and bandaged it. Years later, to the amazement of the crowds, Androclus was spared being mauled in the Coliseum when the very same lion was sent in to eat him.

Raidan stood watching alongside five ancient dragons, one of each color type, immense worms who served as her Majesty's handmaidens. The Dragon Queen weakly lifted her black head and regarded Dipaka with ambivalence. Her eyes were swollen slits. "Get to it man," she whispered.

Dipaka's hands glowed blue as he removed each curse one at a time from the vast Queen. After stage one was complete, he pried her huge scales aside and slowly pulled the arrow out. The Queen let out a deep breath when the shaft was clear, and began to stir.

"Wait," Dipaka commanded her, for there was more to be done. Suddenly, he saw a vision appear before him. It was the god Apollo. "You must have your reasons for doing this," the vision said to him, nodding. "I will take this Arrow and return it to it's quiver--for now. It will not be twisted to evil ends." The glowing Arrow crumbled away to dust in Dipaka's hand. The vision faded.

Dipaka returned to his work, and his hands glowed blue again as he performed a restoration and two mighty healing prayers on the Dragon Queen. Completely healed and restored, Tiamat suddenly lurched upward and rose proudly to her full height. She towered over Dipaka, with all of her heads writhing on five immense necks. She laughed with five voices and looked down at him with her ten evil eyes. "You are a fool, Holy Man! But, I am not ungrateful. Take from us this special gift, these thirty pieces of silver," she said.

A bag of coins came floating towards Dipaka through mid-air.

"I cannot accept these coins," he said.

Tiamat heard him not, for she had already turned and was crawling into a huge alcove with her husband.

Amatatsu Maemi hastily snatched the coins and led Dipaka out of the Queen's chamber and into a waiting area. She laid her hand on Dipaka's arm.

"I have received an unusual request for an audience with you from a new applicant here. Her name is Arsharwa-Sen. She says she is your mother. Do you wish to see her?" Maemi asked.

"She's here?"

"Of course she's here, where else would an evil woman go after her death?"

"You know, in the Indian belief structure, Hell doesn't exist."

"You are entitled to your beliefs," Maemi said. She instantly shifted him to somewhere else in the lower planes. They appeared in a bare chamber with no exit whatsoever. The only items in the chamber were a mirror, a stool, and Arsharwa-Sen. She was naked, old, and haggard. In the mirror, she looked young, nubile, and beautiful. She turned and stared blankly at Dipaka. Her eyes were empty at first, but then a wicked smile crept across her face, and her eyes dilated as they zeroed in on him. She licked her dry, cracked lips with a reddened tongue.

Dipaka knew that she was stark staring mad.

"My son," she began. "Help me!"

"I'm sorry," Dipaka said, "I can't help you, not in the way that you want."

"No, I am your mother, you must help me!"

Maemi snorted. "Liar! A man this good could not have truly been born by one such as you!"

Arsharwa-Sen looked at Maemi. "It does not matter! He loves me like a mother, and he will do this for me! He will take my place here in Hell and allow me to return to the mortal realm, yes! He will do it!" she shrieked. "I raised him and I made him the man he is today!"

"Well, if you'd care to sign this contract, Dipaka, I could arrange that for her," Maemi said.

"No," Dipaka said, looking at Arsharwa-Sen. "The true way to salvation is through repentance. You are always trying to take the easy way out."

"There is no repentance here," Arsharwa-Sen spat. "If you truly are self-sacrificing, you will sacrifice yourself for me!"

"No," Dipaka said.

Arsharwa-Sen frowned and burst into tears. She backed away and shrank down into the corner, and covered her face and ears.
Dipaka turned to his escort.

"Hmmm, we have been summoned yet again," Maemi said, annoyed. "It seems that you are popular here. This one you know too, his rank is Duke, but he is simply known as the Khan. He used to be the Warlord Genghis Khan back on Earth. He wishes to speak to you."

"Fine," Dipaka said. They shifted to another plane, the one hundred and fiftieth layer of the Abyss. Dipaka saw a wondrous Mongolian Khan's palace spread out before them. Maemi led him inside, and they made their way through its labyrinthine halls until they came to its centermost chamber.

Dipaka was filled with loathing when he saw the wormlike Khan. He had become an immensely obese demon, bloated and obscene, a disgusting blob with a miniscule head. He had stubby fingers and limbs, and a cluster of sexy naked succubi danced around him and punctured his great oozing red boils with long needles and performed sexual tasks on him.

"You have something that belongs to me, mortal, and I mean to have it back," the Khan said.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Dipaka said, and he went up and reached forward and attempted to heal the Khan of his hideous boils.

At the same instant, the Khan lurched forward and attempted to possess Dipaka. His wide eyes and face were the picture of concentration as he tried to wrest control of Dipaka's mind. Dipaka's eyes wizened and he was forced to focus for a moment to shake off the Khan's possession.

The Khan's anger erupted, and he seemed to swell. All his pimples popped at once, coating Dipaka in demonic puss. Then the boils were gone as though they had never been, the demon's skin was as smooth as a baby's bottom.

"Fuck you!" the demon Khan spat.

"It was nice meeting with you, have a nice day," Dipaka said, without a trace of irritation in his voice. He turned to leave.

"Wait! Before you go, I want to make a bargain with you," the Khan said. "Allow me to use your form to return to Earth, and I will perform whatever task you wish me to effect while I am there. I swear it. You could force me to save a lot of lives. Think about it."

Dipaka stopped and turned back to the Khan. "That does sound very interesting, but I sincerely hope that you have a nice life from here on out. Remember, you too can repent."

The Demon Khan went into a rage, pulled out a black sword, flew like a shot, and hacked Dipaka horribly. Dipaka stood there and just took the blow. Blood sprayed everywhere.

"I will pray for your eternal soul," Dipaka said calmly as his linens turned crimson.

Nothing could have enraged the Khan more. "I asked for your help nicely fool! Now I will have your acquiescence!" he thundered, and he raised his black sword again.

"Goodbye Khan, this was not in our agreement," Maemi said, and she gripped Dipaka's shoulder, and plane shifted him back before the gates of Avernus.

He healed himself up. Maemi showed him to his accommodations and bade him a goodnight, which effectively confined him to his quarters. There was nowhere for Dipaka to go in Hell.

A week passed before Maemi returned to retrieve him. She brought him again before Raidan. 

"You have faced three tribulations since you have been here and we are quite satisfied," he said. "So, I have decided I am going to aid your human Empress friend's cause in re-claiming the throne of Japan. I have dispatched my most powerful Priest to see to it personally. His name is Raiko."

He paused for effect, but Dipaka was as impassive as granite.

"And true to my word, I have let the Jade Archer go free to assist in this affair. She goes to rescue your captured Empress even now."

"Thank you for allowing me to secure her freedom," Dipaka said.

There was a rumbling through the floor. "This foolish creature could prove very useful, my husband," Tiamat interrupted and emerged from a dark cave behind her spouse.

"Oh, I know," Raidan said. "Don't worry my love, I have a plan for him." He looked at Dipaka. "You will be the first doctor of Avernus." He pulled out a caduceus, and offered it to the cleric.

"That is very kind offer indeed, but I have a lot more healing to do on my home plane of Earth."

"You WILL be the doctor of Avernus. There is healing for you to do HERE, for we are always at war!" Raidan thundered. "Here you will remain, unless you decide to strike a TRUE bargain for your freedom!"

"I will strike no bargain at all; for I serve any that are in need," Dipaka said.

"Hmmm," Raidan said. "We shall see. Here, my friend, we have nothing but time."

 

Mounting a Defense

By Aiko Kaijitsu

Lo wanted to rescue the Empress right away, and as much as my heart agreed with him, I knew we would need Dipaka, for we'd be up against the Fab Four. I suspected that if I didn't use my old wild-mage-to-be knowledge of other dimensions to get us into Hell, we may never see him again. I needed a week of brushing up for that. Lo barely agreed.

Aki discarded all of his worldly possessions, and made a thoughtful gift of one of his magic items to each member of the party. He presented me with a dusty rose prism ioun stone, which would make me one second quicker. I tossed it up into the air and it took orbit around my brow. He also gave to me fifty thousand Jin to donate to a charity in the name of Dipaka. He gave to me for safekeeping in the bag of holding and general party fund all the rest of his magical items, making him only a man and his garment, just like Dipaka. His visit to Mt. Fuji had changed him, he explained. We all thanked him and marveled at our gifts.

As the days flew by and I grew nearly ready to try to plane shift, Guchuluk popped out of thin air, breathing heavily and looking very concerned. He handed me a copy of one of Chaka's official reports, and then grabbed Ochir and popped away with him. Ochir didn't even get the chance to utter so much as one word. I quickly scanned the report, and my heart sank when I read of what had befallen Wen and Chaka on their ill-fated sea voyage. Ochir had obviously been tapped to go assist Chaka, but Wen could still be out bobbing in the cold sea all alone. I got my mirror out as fast as I could and scried on him. I saw him riding along a dirt road atop a piebald nag. Wen had some bad cuts and bruises. I caught my breath. "I've got a lock on him guys! Let's go!"

Lo, Aki, and I teleported to him. By the time we got to the spot I envisioned, he had ridden on past us and was riding away. Lo stuck two fingers in his mouth and blew out the loudest whistle I'd ever heard. Wen immediately skidded to a stop and turned the nag around. "Lo! And my Pingy! Aki! Alright! It's you guys!" He leapt down from his saddle and ran toward us.

I ran up and hugged him. "Your horse looks a little undernourished, don't you think?" I asked, but a betraying tear rolled down my cheek, I was so glad to really touch him again after I'd read that he'd gone into the sea. I handed him my jar of Madame Wu's ointment for his wounds. I kissed him hard and stepped back.

"This is my third horse since the ship, actually. Well, the first one was really more of a walrus. This one's not really a bad ride, he's just a bit skinny. But wait! Haven't you heard? Ameiko has changed sides and given her blessing to the Jade Regent! I have heard that she is making public appearances with the Regent, singing songs of his support for the crowds! A lot of people are flocking to the Regent now because of the backing of the Empress! Tell me it isn't true! Say it isn't so."

"I'm sorry Wen, but we've practically failed here in Japan while you were at sea." I went on and explained how Ameiko was handily captured during our apparently foreseen assault, and how the Jade Archer had betrayed us and took Dipaka away from us and off into Hell. Perhaps it was the Jade Archer that had tipped them off somehow. She had to have been possessed by my old ancestor Amatatsu Maemi, I surmised. If she had escaped her fell prison, she would be a danger.

"I'm sorry about Sandru," I said to Wen. "I know you guys were good friends. Wen, Lo, Aki, we have to set the rest of this right."

"I know." Wen smacked his horse on the ass and it galloped away. "I suspect I'll have no need of a horse now," he said. "We'd better get going." I smiled at him. We all joined hands in a ring and bamphed back to our secret camp on the guarded slopes of Mount Fuji.

We spread out a big map of Japan on a flat board with round black stones holding down each corner, and we all stooped around it.

"Prince Batsai-Khar's troops landed here," Wen said, "and they will be making their way to Kyoto." He set up some little figures in a formation to represent ten thousand Mongols.

"Puny Mongols," Lo chuckled.

Hirabashi Jiro went next, and set up his own men and the Ainu. "My army and Ochir's Ainu are stationed here on the mountain, ready to march south when the time comes. The Jade Regent's forward attacking army has long ago gone around us here on Mt. Fuji, and has headed north and crossed the straight over to the northern island and is even now marching on Sapporo, our bastion in the north." He set up some more miniatures that represented the Jade Regent's attacking army, and pushed them up over the water near Sapporo. I was reminded of the game I played with Hatsue the day we'd met. I looked over at her, and she looked at me. Jiro put out a new set of figures between the onis and Sapporo.

"Who are those guys?" I asked.

"Those are the men that follow our old friends O-Sayumi and Hetzuru Sennaka. If you can get to them fast enough, perhaps you can still keep them from turning to the side of the Jade Regent."

I looked up at Lo. I was going to need to rely on him here. "We'll go at once," I said. "Let's go guys." We stood up and bamphed to a spot just south of Sapporo. We met Sennaka as he came marching out with a sizable Japanese army, complete with long range siege weapons and a two corps of Wu Jen.

"Princess," he said, bowing. "Are the rumors true? The Empress has issued us these terrible new orders? Will you confirm them?"

"What are your orders?" I asked.

"My orders are to present myself before the Empress and pledge my loyalty to the Jade Regent. He has been given permission to rule Japan in the Empress's name. I have of course been summoned."

I sighed. "Unfortunately, we made an ill-conceived attack on the palace, and their seer foresaw the entire affair, and captured Amieko, and now this imposter is going around the countryside issuing these new orders. We must fight and rail against this! You must help us!" I cried.

"Well, hot damn sister, why didn't you say so?" Sennaka shouted, flat-out elated the rebellion was back on. "So how many divisions do they have? How many horses? How many Samurai?  How many Onis?"

I introduced Wen and Lo to him once again. "But shouldn't we go to rescue Dipaka first?" I asked them. "We have to plane shift down there and grab him and come back."

"No," Lo said, "we must help Sennaka defend the city. And we have to hope and pray that by some miracle Dipaka comes back to us. I fear our friend Dipaka was lost forever when he was taken to Hell."

As acting Empress in a loyal province, I went into the city and gave a speech decrying the current Ameiko as an impostor. I explained to the people that we would defend them from the advancing army, and I used my authority to make Lo the Champion General of Japan, with absolute authority in all affairs of war. I declared Wen and Aki Japanese Generals as well. The people cheered. Sennaka seemed relieved.

I resolved to let the Generals do their jobs. Lo dug into planning the defense with zeal, as did Wen and Aki. They discussed all sorts of strategies with Sennaka, along with the finer points of battlefield communication, and many other tactical considerations besides.

I went to visit Yoshi and stay the night in our compound. I put his hand on my belly to feel for the baby's movements. It was really too early for the baby to kick, but I was as anxious as he was.

"Mommy, when will Midori be here?" he asked me in his wondering voice.

"Midori?" I asked.

"I had a dream about her, she's my sister," he laughed. "When is she coming?"

"In a few more months sweetheart," I said, stroking his hair.

Midori. I liked it.

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

"Build earthworks here and here," Lo ordered the men. "In front of each of our side artillery emplacements. On these forward hills. Aim the machines at that central bridge down there to start with." Lo pointed at a stone bridge in the distance.

I stuck by Lo like a shadow, and said as little as possible so I could absorb what he was doing.

Wen was set to command troops on the right hand side of the field, while Aki would command troops on the left.

"We'll wait on this side of the river and be ready for them to come across the bridges," Lo ordered. "Then we'll engage them from a higher and better position. Our regular troops can swoop down on them from here, and here, and the artillery can fire while they are on the bridge or make it over to this side. Never ever try to cross a river, you're vulnerable when you do so. We'll wait for them to cross the river, and let them lose their troops in getting over to our side."

It was raining lightly, but it made for a muddy field, and muddy men. It smelled like wild testosterone out there. I was thrilled. I had never been in a battle this big before.

"They will arrive by morning sir!" a scout arrived and reported in with General Lo.

"Good," Lo said. He looked at me. "Don't worry, Princess, we will have rendered the oni on this island extinct by noon tomorrow."

 

The Battle of Namida No Kawa "The River of Tears"

By Aiko Kaijitsu

At the crack of dawn, Champion General Lo Ear-Splitter was making minute adjustments to his plan, and issuing even more detailed orders. "Let's be ready with a fallback position here, and also here," I heard him say to General Akira and Lord Sennaka. "And we want the Wu Jen corps to stay put and throw fireballs, not flitter around all over the battlefield."

Suddenly, unable to believe my own eyes or ears, I saw and heard Mongols on horseback. For some reason, they were on Hokkaido. Lo's brow furrowed as we watched three Mongolian cavalry corps ride up from the west. Their Captain broke loose and rode directly up to Lo.

"Lo Ear-Splitter?"asked the Captain, who remind me of a very tall version of Ochir.

"Yes," Lo said.

"We are a cavalry contingent of the Olgoi-Khorkhoi, and we have been ordered by Prince Batsai-Khar to come ashore west of here and ride with all due haste to join you in order to defend Sapporo."

Lo looked at me. I knew the look. It was Lo's "We don't need no stinking Mongols!" look.

I considered. "If they are going to follow your orders as the Champion General of Japan, we need them to help defend the city," I said. "You have five thousand with Sennaka's troops, let's make that six thousand, plus the Wu Jen."

Lo looked back at the Mongol Captain. "Are you going to follow my orders? Captain—?"

"I am Captain Matnaayar. I am here to help, so as long as your orders meet with my approval, I'm sure we can perform our duties to your satisfaction," he said. "For, such are my Khan's wishes."

"Fine, you'll go with General Wen and hold the right side of the field, Captain Matnaayar," Lo ordered. The Captain nodded to Lo and the Mongols set out to get into position.

I made sure Wen's armor was buckled tight and kissed him. "I'm going to stay with Lo because of the baby, and I'll be able to see what Aki's side is doing too," I whispered in his ear as I hugged him hard. "And I'll be able to see you from up here. Go be a hero."

"Don't worry, I will," Wen smiled. "I just wish."

"What do you wish?"

"I had a horse," he said sadly. "This is going to sound silly, but I liked the horse I had when you came to find me."

"That was just a nag! You can ride any of these nice Mongolian horses," I said to him. "I will order a Mongol to give up his horse for you at once."

"No," Wen said, "I can't expect a man to give up his horse. They are sure not to follow any orders if you do that."

"I'll get your horse then," I said. "You didn't marry a Wu Jen for nothing," I said, and twinkled my nose. Wen smiled. I used my mirror and scried on the old horse, bamphed to a stinky stable in the middle of nowhere, scared the piss out of a startled a farmhand as I threw a wad of Jin notes at his feet, reached over the stall door, grabbed the horse's ear, and popped right back to the battlefield. The skinny piebald horse neighed and went up and nuzzled Wen.

"Cheeto!" Wen cried. "Yeah buddy, I missed you too."

"Alright!" Lo shouted. "This is it folks! Listen up! The enemy has taken up positions on the other side of the river. It's time to make our stand here, ladies and gentleman!" Lo's voice carried out far and wide across the field. "Today we defeat the Jade Regent's northern army!"

Everyone cheered.

Wen saddled up and rode off down the hill to lead his men, while I stayed with Lo at the command center. From the higher elevation we were stationed at, Lo could look down and see the troops on either side, all the way to the far ends of the field. I marveled that we had four cannons on the hills that flanked the command area, and a set of two more cannons out in front of our position as well. They had huge iron-shod spoked wheels like wagons, and the barrels themselves were made of cast iron. I knew from my studies that the first successful use of the hand cannon was some years before, during the Battle of Ain Jalut, where the Mamluks had managed the rare feat of repelling the Mongols. It was the first time a Mongol advance had ever been permanently beaten back in direct combat on the battlefield. The cannons we had were clearly much larger, heavier, and more dangerous versions of those. They each had crews of four that tamped in black powder and loaded heavy iron cannon balls into the huge iron bores. Two more men manned long poles that swiveled the cannon's wheels. Another soldier kept hot cinders ready for lighting fuses.

"Here they come!" Lo shouted. I looked down and I saw mounted men bearing the banner of the Jade Regent riding over the bridge that spanned the river down in front of us. "Hold!" Lo ordered. "Let them come for now!" I looked over and saw more cavalry coming over the bridge on Wen's side too. I bit my lip. It struck me as a bizarre, perhaps fateful moment.

There was a poor village, Yoni-Mura, between us and the central bridge, and Lo had chosen to use it as a carrot. "Let the ones coming over the bridge keep coming until they near the village," he commanded. "Then we'll have them."

I saw the Mongolian cavalry on Wen's side suddenly shoot out across the field firing their bows at the Jade Regent's advancing forces. They skidded and stopped to turn back after loosing their volleys per their usual strategy, but somehow the Jade Regent's troops were suddenly upon them, and there was a bloody clash, and the enemy nearly slaughtered half of the Mongolian cavalry in an ill-fated exchange, routing the surviving Mongols back off to the west. General Wen and his troops rode to the surviving Mongol's rescue, Wen atop his piebald nag, galloping across the field with his soldiers behind and smashing into the enemy ranks. I watched as the Jade Regent's forward cavalry was crushed and sent reeling. Our troops rallied around Wen, and my heart swelled with pride.

On the opposite side, General Akira ordered his Samurai archers to fire, for he had spied enemy forces sneaking through the trees over where the river emerged from a subterranean channel. There was no need for foes to come over a bridge on Aki's side of the battlefield. We heard enemy cries in the woods as Aki's archer's arrows found their marks.

"Cover your ears Princess," Lo said to me, putting his big, heavy, hand on my shoulder.

"Aim for the enemy advancing on the town! Fire at will!" he bellowed. I was unprepared for the sound the cannons made. My very being was literally shaken when they went off. I couldn't hear a thing right after the first volley. After the smoke cleared, I saw that several morbid diagonal paths of the Jade Regent's cavalry were dead where the cannon balls had torn through. Scattered cheers broke out on our side.

Cannons then rang out in response from the other side of the river, from within a dense copse of trees, and I saw straight rows of Wen's men die too. Wen rode with his Hanzo blade held high. "By Bahamut's Bidding!" he cried, as he hacked away at the enemy.

Cannon balls continued to sail down on and through the Jade Regent's forces, and instead of them moving in to occupy the village, they were forced to retreat back to the bridge. A cheer went up around the command center. Lo chuckled, nodded, and planted his knuckles on his hips.

A small corps of the Jade Regent's samurai with daiku came forth on our left side and began firing at Aki's troops, and many of our cavalry units there were wounded gravely or outright killed. Aki suspected more were waiting in the wings, and resisted the bait.

"That's right, Aki!" Lo yelled. "Keep holding the line, we don't want them to flank us!"

As soon as the Jade Regent's troops on that side realized their plan had failed, they mounted a charge. A vast horde of green toned Samurai stormed from the trees and engaged General Aki's troops in a massive all-out melee. Lo ordered the Wu Jen to begin throwing fireballs at the Jade Regent's troops as they fought. They died in droves, some running around on fire before they collapsed and died. Many still made it through, and were fighting like mad.

A General from the Jade Regent's side came forth from the central bridge with several corps of Samurai behind. He blew a horn blat and shouted for all to hear, "Stop! Let us decide this in another, more civilized way instead: whoever takes and holds the village for an hour wins!"

Lo refused and wagged his middle finger at him. The General did much the same back to us, but used his butt cheeks instead.

I grew nervous and prayed to Amataratsu and Dipaka too, just for good measure. Aki rallied his troops and ordered the Wu Jen corps moved back to a safer position. Suddenly there was a sucking sound, and two corps of flying onis decloaked above the men. They threw down cones of frigid ice on Aki's troops killing hundreds of them with sheer cold, their bodies frozen and broken. Aki and his troops fought back hard. They took out eight hundred enemy troops, but the Onis killed just as many of Aki's men with more icy blasting and axe-bashing.

I looked back over at Wen's side in time to see a another two brigades of flying onis materialize out of thin air as they charmed all of Wen's troops. They all had big horrible horns coming from the their foreheads. "By the power of the Jade Regent you will fight for us now!" they commanded. Wen was quickly surrounded by traitors wrought by the oni's magic. The onis hovered over the battlefield and laughed, and their hairy bellies shook. Wen stood his ground, but he was fighting as many as five at a time. I held my breath.

Lo began to grumble. "There are too many! They've been moving into positions in order to surprise us with these onis all morning! And Wen's men have been charmed and turned against him? I hate to say it, but the Jade Regent has suddenly gained the upper hand here, and I don't know if we can win this."

"Don't worry Lo, you can do it," I said, as I watched Wen fight. He was now fighting back to back with the Mongol Captain down there. The Jade Samurais and Wen's own men were dropping like flies.

Lo's face was grim, but he turned back to his work and slammed one fist into another with a grunt. He ordered the artillery to open fire on the bridge. The cannon balls fell, wreaking their havoc, and finally all but one stalwart unit of Samurai were killed or driven from the span. Many sections of the stone bridge were in rubble.

Lo commanded the Wu Jen units to continue to support Aki's units with fireballs, and they blasted the onis and the enemy on that side, eventually destroying many of the ogre-like mages. The men below fought valiantly as well, slaying Samurai and leaving one of the short fat generals on the Jade Regent's side without any soldiers left to command. He just stood there, intending to be defiant to the last. The archers fired at the onis too, and brought down enough of them that the few that remained, retreated.

Lo ordered some spearmen from our center over to assist Wen and they rushed in to slay the onis and distract the charmed fighters. The onis blasted their attackers with ice and cold killing many. After a long and hard fought skirmish, most of the onis were down, and another of Lo's divisions were able to go around and bring down the remaining oni from a flank, and the men that had been charmed by the oni were then freed from their spell, and turned back to fighting for Wen.

"We're sorry General," they said.

"Never fear!" Wen cried. "Bahamut's here!"

Lo playfully fired a cannon at the lone fat enemy general on Aki's side, but the man ran around in circles and jagged lines and somehow lived. More fireballs, cannon balls, and a concerted effort with flanking maneuvers spearheaded by Aki himself obliterated the remaining onis on that side.

The lone Samurai on the bridge at last threw down the Jade Regent's banner. "Fuck you, rebel scum! I'll see you in hell!" he cried, and retreated.

We chased them all down. After it was over, there were eight thousand dead and a like number of wounded. Lo personally executed all the onis with the flames of Suishen, as I pointed them out to him with my true sight. He never tired. They snarled at us and cursed us before they were beheaded and burned.

My thoughts naturally turned to Dipaka, who I knew would be filled only with sadness at the events of the day. If only he were free. I worried about him. I prayed for the wounded and the dead in his stead, and for my sister, and for her somehow safe return.

It was three in the afternoon when we marched into Sapporo, and officially declared victory over the Jade Regent's northern army. Champion General Lo, and Generals Wen and Aki, and of course, Lord Sennaka, Hirabashi Jiro, and Hatsue were presented with medals by the city council.

They bowed low and everyone cheered and revered them.

"Good work gentlemen." I said to my heroes. "Now let's go find Dipaka and rescue my sister."

 

The Princess and the Dragon

By Aiko Kaijitsu

The time had come for plane shifting to find Dipaka. I knew I could do it, but I didn't know exactly where we were going. "I never thought I would be asking this, but I need to know how to go to Hell," I said. "Does anyone have any ideas?"

"We should go see O-Sayumi,"  Aki suggested. "She is learned and wise. She might know of some lore that pertains to this."

We bamphed to the Kiniro Kyomai Teahouse.

"Welcome heroes," O-Sayumi said, after all the important pleasantries were exchanged. "Please, enjoy the sanctuary of my Teahouse."

"We are glad to find you well and accept your gracious hospitality, O-Sayumi. We do have an extremely urgent mission however, and you must forgive me if I must rush right to the point. We have a question for you. Tell me, how do we get into Hell?" I asked.

O-Sayumi sighed. "So many times this question."

"Are you serious?"

"Of course not, I lighten the mood," O-Sayumi smiled. "In order to go to Hell, you must first go to the Astral plane of existence," she said.

"What? Why?" I asked. "I want to go directly to Hell. The spell recipe says I can."

"Forgive me, but in the ways of planar travel you are naive. You cannot plane shift directly into Hell. You may only enter Hell through the front gate. If you attempt to teleport into Hell beyond its gates, you will never be seen or heard from again."

"Ok," I said. "But, how do we get to the gates?"

"One way of getting there is to travel first to the Vatican, and then book passage to a place called Sigil. Another is to go to the Astral plane yourself, and find the bridge you must cross into Avernus on your own. If you focus on the bridge while you are astral, in your mind's eye, your thoughts will take you to the span. The bridge crosses over the river Styx, and leads unto the famous gates. But I feel I must warn you not to go there, my friends. I do want to see you again."

"I'm terribly sorry but we must go at once," I said. "Thank you, O-Sayumi. We needed your expert advice. If we had tried what I wanted to try, we would have been killed. You have saved us. Do you mind if we leave from here?" I asked.

"It is irregular, but, I am not averse to it today. No one roams the deserted streets now to remark that those who enter my Teahouse are not seen leaving. We need your sister to return as Empress and deliver us. We need all of you." She bowed and we bowed back.

"Thank you," I said.

Everyone gathered around and clasped hands and we plane shifted to the Astral Plane. We were instantly surrounded with some sort of strange mesmer stuff that seemed to me like a trackless sea of static. We could see a great, endless silvery sky, both above us and below. We simply were on that plane. We were not standing in any way. There was no floor, nor any other structure. We pushed ourselves mentally forward through the bizarre substance. We all focused our thoughts and concentrated only on the bridge that spanned the river Styx. After a while, we somehow stood on the side of a great river. The fog in that area cleared, and there was a mile long bridge. We decided to head across. As soon as we set foot on the bridge, alarums flared. Hundreds of jabbering bearded devils instantly appeared on the bridge and charged us. Wen, Lo and Aki fought and hacked like fiends in a line before me as we walked, and the devils fell in droves. We pushed forward across the bridge slowly but surely.

We could see the Citadel, the Thunder Hall of Raidan. It's huge doors opened when we were halfway across the bridge, and the biggest dragon I'd ever seen came out. He was bigger than the Kamikaze or even the Chinese Imperial Dragon. He was truly terrible to behold. His scales were red, and he had round bumps across his hide that got much thicker along his spine. He had a squat body, thick set limbs, and three splayed digits on each foot that ended in sharp claws. He had enormous, wide-set, bat-like wings. Rows of rounded bumps arched over his beady eyes.

The dragon roared and I saw the shimmering waves of the heat of his breath coming off the bridge, and felt the rumble of his sheer power through the bridge's stone piers. "I am Ember Darkflame of the Dark Gate!" he thundered. He flew upward with two great flaps of his wings, and then he came down hard right in front of us. "Declare yourself!"

I stepped forward. "I am Aiko Kaijitsu, a royal descendant of the Amatatsu Maemi, and I am here to see my great grandmother. It would please me if you would let her know that I am here."

"Bah! You think I am your errand boy?" he rumbled, putting his colossal face down in mine. I could feel his hot breath against my chest.

"No, you will have someone else do it for you I am sure, for you are a great and powerful dragon."

The great beast's demeanor quickly changed, and he reared his head, looked down at me, and grinned. "Well said. In some ways you are a wise girl. But you are all fools to come here. Go back home, that's my advice to you. Can't you see the sign over the gates? Abandon all hope? Ye? Or can't you read?"

"We cannot abandon hope. We must come inside. We must find our friend," I explained.

"Well then, little woman, if you want to pass through my gate, what is your gift?" He rapped his fingertips together as he waited.

I produced the Great Red Ruby of Edo. I held it up before him. "How's this?" I asked. I saw the two vertical irises in his eyes contract and then lock into position as he beheld the glittering ruby. I could swear I saw a bit of drool appear at the corner of his mouth.

"Hmmm, suddenly my dear, you intrigue me much more thoroughly," he plucked the massive gem from my hands and held it up to his eye. "You may come inside. Follow me." He turned and walked back toward the doors on his hind legs as he ogled the forty pound ruby.

We went behind him. "Wait here," he said, after we were inside the great entry hall and the gates had closed. The dragon went over to two massive pit fiend devils and spoke in a guttural, foreign tongue. Both of the guards saluted and left. Ember went back to remaining inside the gates, and stood gazing at the ruby.

After an hour of waiting, Amatatsu Maemi came forth. She was bedecked in the finest embroideries, and her hair was again adorned with a most elaborate headdress. I tried not to look at her clicking tentacles.

As I looked at her features again more closely, I saw that she bore more than a passing resemblance to my sister. Her eyes seemed to be searching my face as well. She was followed by two naked erinyes with pole arms.

"We meet again great-gran," I said. "We are here to retrieve my friend Dipaka. As you had agreed, you offered to help our royal family gain the throne of Japan. In this way, a member of the Amatatsu family will once again grace the throne, per your own desire. We need Dipaka back, keeping him here takes him away from his task of helping us. He will never agree to whatever sinister plan it is that you have. I must insist you release him to us, for keeping him here will not serve your ends."

"He is my servant now, and you shall not have him so easily, I assure you."

"You know that he is not your servant. He is no one's servant. He's especially not our servant, he's our friend. That's why we are here, to rescue our friend! You will never break him."

"In order for you to take him home, you will need to strike a bargain. We have grandiose plans for you, Xiao Ping. If you would but seize the throne in Raidan's name, you will rule Japan. If you make such a vow and sign this contract in blood, I will let Dipaka go."

"It is our intention to make my sister the Empress of Japan, therefore I certainly cannot now make an agreement as to what your status would be if or when she reaches the throne. Once either she or I has become Empress, then we can have an audience regarding your position and station in our family, and outline how you will be respected in the future. We wish to receive Dipaka in return for that understanding.  We have the same ends in mind, great gran, but no final agreement can be made until someone has taken the throne. We must work together to make that happen, just as we had agreed already."

"Very well, you still have my blessings to take over the throne."

I was clearly getting nowhere with this woman. "We need our friend to do that," I said, with an edge now growing in my voice.

"Ok, fine. But, according to the Laws of this realm, the price of a soul is a soul. Once you enter Hell, you cannot leave unless you pay this price."

"That's bullshit," Lo suddenly said, "Dipaka didn't enter this realm of his own accord, nor did he as a dead person. So in this case, that part is null and void, and not at all binding."

Maemi now appeared to be a bit flummoxed, for even the fighter in our party was shooting holes in her explanation.

"How about this? You give us Dipaka, and I'll give you a hundred evil souls when we return, I promise you that," Lo said.

"We can both agree to this," I said to her, taking a step forward, "This is easy to agree on."

She took a step back. "I do not have the authority to make this happen. I must seek an audience with my Lord, Raidan."

"Very well," I said.

"Wait here," she said, and went away again with her two handmaidens.

After she left, Ember came over and sniffed me. He was colossal, so I couldn't just ignore him. I knew he must be able to smell Aki's trove of magic item's he'd sacrificed and put into the bag of holding. How a dragon could smell something in extra-dimensional space was beyond me, but it gave me an idea. Aki whispered something into my ear.

"Um, Dragon Darkflame, your magnificence, where is my friend Dipaka?" I asked, as I pulled out Aki's old magic dragon-maw nunchakus from the bag and offered them to him.

He took them and smiled at me. "I like you more and more, woman. Come with me, and I will show you where your friend is held."

"Ok, let's go guys--"

"Whoa, not so fast," Ember said, raising a claw. "Only you can come. You, and you alone."

"Are you high?" Lo asked the dragon.

Suddenly the dragon shrank down and transformed himself into a man. A very attractive man. He was very handsome, I was utterly stunned. He had well groomed and trimmed black hair, and the most captivating brown eyes. His skin was smooth and without blemish, and his smile was white and very becoming. He was dressed in dashing purple attire, with frilled sleeves and a tight waist. I had to look down at first, he was so hot. I had to remind myself my husband was there with me.

Ember, the man-version of the dragon regarded Lo. "Well, I was going to let the lovely lady here peer into my magic mirror, and show her where to teleport, but I'm afraid only she can come to my lab. If you do not come my lady, I'm afraid you will have to find your friend on your own." He looked at his nails.

Ember smelled very nice, I noticed, and a hunch took seed in my gut. "It's ok, Lo," I said. "I'll be fine." I looked at Wen. It was one of those times the guys would have to let me go, despite their instinct and good sense. Aki nodded to me. He knew what I had to do. "I feel the deep desire to get Dipaka out of here as fast as we can. I don't want to wait for my grandmother. Let's go," I said, taking Ember's proffered hand. He bamphed me to his den.

"Dragons don't often take human females as partners," he said, turning his back to me as he went over to a sideboard, and prepared a drink. "This will be the first time in many years."

Ember was very forward and bold. I sort of liked it. But I knew how to stop his advances. As I looked at him, his clothing magically vanished. When he turned around, I caught my breath. He was physically very tempting, so I went over to him. We kissed. "Save that for later, my lord," I said, looking down. "Don't be so hasty. I must inform my lord that am with child."

This immediately changed Ember's mood. He let go and turned away from me. I breathed an inner sigh, and tried to make sure the relief wasn't visible on my face.

"Hmmmm, it seems even a great and powerful dragon can have piss poor timing. Come back in a year, woman, and you will bear me a son."

"Come," Ember showed me his mirror next. The surface swirled and in its center I saw an atoll on a sea of blood, and on it was a single spire. There was a line of wounded devils going into one side at its base, many missing limbs. On the other side, they were coming out whole. It had to be where Dipaka was. There was no doubt about  it. They had put him to work as their healer. The mirror went dark.

"It is not enough, woman. I want another kiss," Ember said, and he took me and held me against himself. I felt him get hard again against my stomach. I had never had a man seduce me before. It was intoxicating. We kissed again and he added his tongue to my mouth as he moved himself against me. I knew I should tear myself away, for Wen's sake, but I kept kissing him while he did it. After a while, he felt better. "You are a sweet girl," he said.

"Goodbye, my lord," I said. I left by the door I saw there. He did not follow. I bamphed back to the party.

"I know where Dipaka is now guys, let's go."

"Hey, you were gone a long time! What gives?" Wen asked.

I looked at him and took his hand. "It's ok," I said, as we completed our circle and I bamphed us to the wasted atoll. We went up to the door of the tower. There were two huge horned devils standing guard duty on either side of the door, but two relatively tiny erinyes were garbed in the pure white attire of what must be nurses in some strange other world. They had red crosses on their hats, so I knew they were supposed to be nurses.

Lo intimidated them, leaning forward. "Hey, bitches, get out of my way! We're coming inside."

"Very well, we welcome you here. Come inside," they intoned.

Lo straightened. "Ok, that was way too easy."

They pulled the doors open and let us in. We moved forward into a room occupied by rows of cots full of wounded devilry. There was another set of huge double doors on the opposite end. We walked straight down the central row. We went through the portal and into a darkened antechamber that had another set of doors across from us. The leaves boomed and opened, and orange light spilled out and we saw a very large winged bipedal beast hulking in the opening.

"I am the Rhinocity!" a huge pit fiend with a huge beaky nose shouted in a gravely voice. He was surrounded by a clutch of horned devils, (horns and horniness were apparently quite a theme down in Hell), and they all had spiked chains.

We saw Dipaka beyond, held fast by two erinyes, one on each side of him. There was a little imp between his legs with poised pinking shears. 

I threw up the haste spell, and Lo charged forward with Suishen locked tight in both hands. He leapt twenty feet and came crashing down on the Rhinosity. He chopped the fiend's left clavicle in half and blood flew everywhere. Lo kick-flipped backward, and landed upright on his feet.

"My turn!" the Rhinocity rumbled. He took a few steps backward, and then barreled full force into Lo's chest with his horn. There was a terrible cracking noise when he struck. Then the fiend reared, and raked Lo twice, once with each razor sharp set of claws, and curled ribbons of flesh flew along with streamers of red blood. Then his wicked wings curved inward, and the scimitar like wingtips slashed Lo too. The devil spun and tailed slapped Lo across the face. Lo staggered, and he might normally have been felled by all this, but the stoneskin helped to stave it off. To add insult to injury, the brute somehow fireballed us. Aki and I dodged most of the fireball, but Lo and Wen took the brunt of it.

Aki did a new Withering Palm Five Fingers of Death attack on a horned devil, but the red creature managed to shrug it off and survive. He tripped another horned devil, who landed on his chin, and Aki pummeled him into oblivion while he was down.

Wen charged in to help Aki with the horned devils. "By Bahamut's bidding! I will free my friend Dipaka!"  He chopped the arm of one of them.

Suddenly, a horned devil hit me in the forehead with the weighted end of a whistling chain and stars and stripes flew everywhere. I was utterly stunned. I dropped to my knees and gripped my bleeding head; it hurt so bad I couldn't do anything else. I felt the hot blood running down my face and into my mouth.

The two erinyes holding Dipaka both kissed his cheeks and vanished. Dipaka immediately sprang into action, threw a swift close wounds on Lo, and did a mass healing burst on us. Dipaka did not allow his healing to work on the Rhinosity. Lo power attacked the Rhinosity again with Suishen, and drew a line of blood across his chest.

The Rhino looked down at Dipaka. "Doctor Bhasa, you have broken the prime directive! You have allowed a Lord of this plane to be assaulted without aid!"

"Well, you have broken the second directive, asshole, you forgot your breath mints," Lo chided.

The pit fiend fireballed us again. I was still immobile, so this time I got burned good and my hair melted away again. It smelled horrible.

The Rhino head butted Lo again, and Lo staggered backward.

Aki attacked and neutralized the horned devil that had struck me with the chain and knocked him out cold. He fell to the ground and his chain slithered to a halt on the floor.

Wen rolled away from a horned devil in order to slice the Rhinosity's thigh open. "Hah!" he cried.

Dipaka headed for Lo. The Rhinosity was in such disbelief when he saw Dipaka walking by, he forgot to seize his opportunity to attack the holy man. "I am glad that you do not strike me down, that is very kind of you," Dipaka said, as he nonchalantly waltzed out of reach of the Rhinosity. The monster growled, and then he too late took a wide and wasted swing at Dipaka. "Now I appreciate you missing me!" Dipaka chuckled. He was the same old Dipaka. He cast a full heal on Lo.

Lo, renewed, performed a leap attack, bringing Suishen to bear once again on the Rhinosity. The Rhino tried to block with his weapon, and at the last instant, lost a finger. The finger and the ring he wore fell and scudded across the floor, leaving a trail of blood.

Aki and Wen continued their flurry of attacks on the last two horned devils. They now had them both down, taking care of them for the moment.

The Rhinosity threw a fireball at us again. I was burned for a third time, and was near to falling unconscious. I could barely breath.

Lo scowled at the Rhino. "I'm going to chop you in half with my next chop, Rhinosity!"

"I think not, Goliath, we pit fiends are not so stupid!" the Rhinosity shouted, and disappeared with a pop.

"Coward!" Wen cried, but the fiend was not there to answer my husband. Then he came over and took me in his arms and healed me. I slumped against him and pressed my eyes shut, and passed out.

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

"Wake up," Dipaka was patting my face. I was laying with my head in Wen's lap. I felt much better, so I stood up.

"I've healed your burns," Dipaka said. "Your hair will have to grow back again on its own."

"We're done here, let's go now," I teleported us back to the Citadel's entrance hall and walked back to the gate.

Ember, in man form, sure enough, was there waiting. He walked right up to me. He was still devilishly handsome.

"Hmmm, wherever do you think you're going? I'm still the Guardian of this Gate, and it seems to me you want to leave through it," he said, smiling.

After Aki whispered into my ear again, I pulled out Aki's old magic dragon fangs. Ember's eyes lit up now brighter than ever as he carefully took them. "Oh my! How very nice! You are a special girl indeed! You can call me anytime," he winked. Then he opened the front gate and let us out. "Get out of here."

Once we were out on the bridge we dashed over to the other side.

"Wait!" the imp cried. "Take me with you! I will be your faithful servant," the imp pined, jumping up and down on the shore.

"Imp! How did you get back here with us from the atoll?" I demanded.

"I jumped on Lo's backpack."

"Is he evil, Wen?"

"I can't detect evil in Hell, my dear. Everything's evil down here."

"What do you think?" I asked.

"He deserves the Hanzo steel."

"You guys forgot something," the imp said. He held up the pit fiend's finger and the ring he was wearing. "That's worth something right? I'm an honest imp!"

"We'll take him," I said, looking at Dipaka. I popped him into the bag of holding, after we took the ring away from him and burned away the pit fiend's finger. I knew the imp would be non-detectable inside the extra-dimensional space.

Lo, Wen, Aki, Dipaka, and I held hands and got ready to plane shift out of there. I swallowed. "I have to forewarn you guys, I'm going to skip the astral plane this time, I can only land us somewhere within five hundred miles of Mount Fuji, and the direction we land in will be random. I'm sorry, but we are most likely to wind up in the sea or ocean, hundreds of miles from land. If that happens, keeping holding hands in the water at all costs, and then I'll teleport us to Mt. Fuji."

I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers, and spoke the words required to take us home.

Luckily, we turned up in the Forest of Spirits. My heart was filled with joy, for the boughs of the trees rustled and the crickets sang.

Fukujin the Kami emerged from the trees before us in his earthy robe, and his glittery eyes looked up at us, set deep in his wrinkled skin. His broccoli Ward walked next to him and bowed to us.

"Konbanwah,"  Fukujin said, with a little chuckle. "Welcome back my friends."

 

 
 

 

 

 
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