-------------------Chapter Six, As Told By Wen Hung-Lo and Xiao Ping---------------------

Servant of the Heavens

Wen Hung-Lo, a Journal of a Servant of the Heavens

By Bahamut’s Bidding

The time before Lotus 10, 3966, the first date in my journal:

I was born in 3948, the Year of the Dog. It was the first day of the month of the blossoming peach that my mother sent me to begin my journey on Earth. My mother’s name is Ishi and she is the honored concubine of my paternal grandfather, Governor Wen Tian Xiang of Guangdong Province. My father has dishonored himself, our family and our ancestors. This will be his only reference.

I had a happy childhood. I was taught calligraphy, history, religion, diplomacy and carpentry. My favorite subject was riding the horse even though I was not very good. I did not do well on my civil service exams.

Nine years ago when I was nine I saw my destiny. General Nguyen Hai Dan and the Legendary Brotherhood came to Guangzhou. They put down the bandit Wu Tang and his Clan then spent the monsoon season in the city. Lieutenant Dan, as he was known back then, taught the boys the meaning of duty and honor as it relates to Heaven and Earth. He spoke of Bahamut the Celestial Dragon, and what it meant to be a Servant of the Heavens. 

From that day forward, I knew what I wanted to be.

Last year, 3965, war broke out. The Mongol Horde invaded our Empire again. My grandfather forbade me to go to war. 

This summer, my friend Chin Nook, son of Lord Chin Mak, informed me of the Jurchen gathering in the swamps north of the city. The more experienced men were off to war so it fell upon us to look into this affair. Besides Nook, who had the gift of spells, and myself, our companions were Prince Zhao Bing, a ranger; Zhang Ming, a Priest of the White Crane Temple; and Tan Tai Lyan, a spirit folk girl. We hired a guide, a western Korobokoru named Dorn Crownshield. 

I must report that I wanted to seek permission from our Sires before leaving the city. It caused me great distress that my friends threatened leave without me. Bing said I was none too brave. Lyan said I could share her traveling pants just to annoy Bing. Nook said I ate with my hands like an Indian. Still, I held firm until the Sword spoke.

Suishen is an old Japanese katana that has been in our family since before I was born. My great Grandfather bought it from a refugee fleeing some calamity that wanted to finance a new life in China. I often wondered if it was magical. As I grappled with my dilemma, the first crisis of conscience of my life; Suishen flamed to life and said:

“The Warding Box has been opened. Take me to my children.”  I felt strangely compelled to obey.

Lotus 10, 3966
The six of us left Guangzhou in high spirits. We sang songs and raced our horses until they lost their shoes. 

Lotus 12, 3966
We come to village number 9-644. We find a blacksmith and have our mounts reshod. We destroy some Ratlings that are stealing rice. Prince Bing holds court. I am not sure if he has the authority to give the Widows pensions even if he pays for them.

Lotus 14, 3966
We are ambushed by Jurchen. I drop seven snouts with Suishen. Then I drop.

Unknown date,
We regain consciousness. Dorn is missing. The Jurchens are carrying us into a big ugly stone fortress. 

We have been tortured for days. Nook and Bing argued about whose fault led to our capture. They argued about how many sub-species of Jurchen we’ve seen. They argued about when the snouts were going to kill us. They argued about arguing. The Jurchen mercifully knocked them out again.

Lotus 22, 3966
We are rescued!

Our rescuers are an exotic lot. I don’t think any of them are from China except the Princess. The journey home is a long blur. We ached all over from the beatings. We were covered in mosquito bites. If it were not for the healer from India we would not have been able to walk home.

I was saddened to hear of Dorn’s demise. Two of his kin had come looking for him. One of them was killed by the pig-men and the other lost a hand. Those folks don’t charge enough for their services.

These are my first impressions of the people that saved us. They are mostly young and at the cusp of a responsible age.

The most obvious one is a huge and hulking man with skin of gray who wields a huge katana. He does the heavy lifting. He seems an easy going sort of fellow but fierce when aroused. He calls himself Lo-Saki and his people are the Goliaths.

The Wu Jen woman is skinny and has long fingers. They call her Xiao Ping. She seems to lead the others with her gentle wisdom. I gathered she was from the wilds of the western provinces but they said she is a princess from the east. She certainly doesn’t carry herself like royalty. She did her business in the bush like everyone else.

There are two boys as well from the House of Polo. The short one is Marco. He is friendly and asks many questions. You can talk with him for hours. He comes from Venicio where everything they say ends with an ‘o’. The shorter one is Allegro, he throws mean rocks and meaner jibes. Both are very eager to volunteer for dangerous duty. Every outfit needs boys like them.

The bard was Wang Chung. He was dead and his body was burnt like a roasted pig. His sacrifice convinced me that these people were more worthy than me or my so-called friends. This simple peddler of songs and tales gave his life for people he did not know.

The zhuru girl’s name is Cairn and she had a simple look about her. She loves animals. I think she is a wolf and crocodile trainer. I would go to her tent at the festival. She seems lost in the midst of all the violence. I think she would be happier in her homeland, wherever it might be.

Also with them is a Jurchen half-breed. He carries a great bow and looks after Cairn. He gives everyone nicknames. He calls me Overbite. I’m not sure whether it is because of my teeth or because I've gotten in over my head. 

Aki is the silent one. He is a Monk, but not like the rice-begging ones of the Buddha. He is more like the Shoaling Monks with his kicks and exotic weapons. He does not speak but is the first one in battle. I think he must be Japanese. I really do think so.

Then there is the glowing healer from India. He is all peace and love and would have flowers in is hair if he had any hair. Men call him Dipaka. He does not think like us. I think he is one of the million gods that the Indians worship. I know he does not eat beef or use chopsticks.

Finally there is the Bayan zhuru Ochir. He is quick with his tiny bow. He is aggressive like his people. They must control all that they see. We are at war with his people. I think he is a spy or at best a scout for the Mongol Horde.

Orchid 9, 3966
We are back at Guangzhou. I do not wish to face my Grandfather, the Governor. He is very angry. He says I am a thief who stole the Sword. He says that one day soon our family might be forced to flee China and that the blade could buy us a comfortable life in exile. He threatens to have me made into a eunuch and sent to Kampuchea.

Then Suishen spoke for the second time.

“I must be taken back to Japan. I must reclaim the Jade Throne for my Scions.”

Orchid 11, 3966
I am summoned to a meeting with my grandfather and my rescuers. Xiao Ping has an older sister named Pang Mei. It is all arranged when I arrive. I am to take Xiao Ping as my wife. I’m to accompany her to Japan with Suishen and help them take back the throne. Our family and hers have forged an alliance through our betrothal. It is the way of the world. 

Orchid 22, 3966
I receive an invitation from Princess Pang Mei to a very important ceremony at the Crow’s Nest Inn. Present were the rescuers, including my gangly little Princess and Pang Mei’s team, who are also very impressive. Sandru is the caravan master. He bowed so low that the peacock feather on his turban brushed the floor. The Jade Archer is a spirit folk of the woods. Her eyes are always alert and she speaks very little so that she may listen a lot. Xiao Lu is an elderly fortuneteller. She speaks in riddles and smells of herbs. Maffeo is a merchant and swordsman. He is Marco’s uncle and Allegro’s cousin. Kelda Ox-Gutter is of the horned helmet people where even the women can be warriors.

I noted that four are women. I must eat properly and have clean clothes. I must be careful with my words so as not to hurt their feelings.

The first order of business is the resurrection of Wang Chung. Pang Mei requested that Lo-Saki bring forth an intricate box with three compartments made of polished wood. She explains that anything placed in the box is hidden from magical detection. Then she brings out a stone statue of a dragon. This she says is the Amatatsu Seal. It represents the Amatatsu family’s divine right to rule the empire of Japan. It can also bring back the dead if the deceased is a Scion of the Amatatsu. A presence comes forth from the Seal and goes directly to Wang Chung’s crispy and rotten corpse. For ten minutes it manifests and re-grows the ruined husk of the bard. Finally the bard opens his eyes and rubs his hands and feet and stands up feebly. He spoke then in a strange voice:

“I have become death, the devourer of all. Now I am Wang Chung the White. Love me and despair…”  He goes on like that for a while until everyone rolls their eyes then he says, “Thanks for bringing me back. What’s up?”

I am totally amazed. I’m convinced that Heaven has sanctioned this Artifact and thus my bride’s family.

Pang Mei then solemnly says:
“Every time we use the Seal our enemies can sense it. They are the Tyrants of Japan. They are the Oni, the disobedient and traitorous spirits of Heaven. The Seal contains the spirit of a Kami, a benevolent spirit assigned by the gods to serve and guide my Family. Make no mistake, the Oni and their subjects will come after us. I now offer anyone present that has not done so the opportunity to pledge your loyalty and become an Amatatsu Scion. You will be adopted by the spirit of my ancestors and in fact become kin to me and my sister as well as to each other. And as you have just seen, you will receive the blessing of the Kami even over death.”

I accept before Suishen can speak. 

Orchid 25, 3966
We go to Lord Chin Mak’s citadel. I accompany my rescuers with the exception of Havarak and Marco. They expect a reward for saving Chin Nook. Lord Chin hides all his silver and vases. I say nothing. Chin Chook, the lord's younger brother is there as well. He leaves because he thinks Mak is being niggardly with the rescuers. I agree but say nothing. Then Jurchens appear on the balcony above and on both sides of us. How did they get into the city? Much less the citadel? I don’t know. They fire their bamboo bows at the Chins. I follow Aki up the stairs to the north balcony. Aki is awesome with his whirling chain-sickle, and up close he is all knees and elbows. He leaves for me and Suishen three snouts to drop, two archers and a raider. I prove myself in battle before the eyes of the Princess.

The Bayan zhuru keeps shooting Nook until he looks like my mother’s pin-cushion. Only the Llama’s healing aura keeps him from bleeding out.

Orchid 27, 3966
We go to Lord Zhang Shijie to return his son Zhang Ming. He rewards us with the use of a ship, the Sapporo Wind and its crew for a year.

Osmanthus 4, 3966
We leave Guangzhao by the coastal road heading northeast. Our destination is Hangzhou, where we are to deliver our goods to the Imperial army and General Dan. Our caravan order is this: 17 wagons, 50 draft horses, 100 warhorses, 55 men, 6 women, 6 dogs, 6 wolves(5 pups), 12 cats. The caravan carries 10 tons of rice and 5 tons of sundries. Everything is in order. Morale is high. Made in China baby!

Lo-Saki still wants Suishen. He asks for it again as soon as we leave sight of the city walls.  He says he is the best warrior and should have the best sword. He says he is the House Champion.  He may be a wrestler, but if he is the champ he thinks I’m a chump. I say I can’t give it to him.

He is very insistent. Xiao Ping says nothing.

Osmanthus 5-30, 3966
The road is uneven. Cracked stone turns into gravel at first, then dirt and mud. The region is untamed with hilly forest inland and the sea wind howls in our ears. There are occasional fishing villages but no towns or forts along the path. 

Chrysanthemum 1, 3966
Raiding Rooskies attack us.These primitive pale men with their hide armor and battle axes come at us as we cross a bridge. They have a Chieftain and a Witch. Dipaka gets in my way and spoils my mounted charge. He is very holy but he lacks understanding that there is no peace with evil men. We fight at the edge of the bridge when Lo-Saki turns around and attacks me. He hits me very hard, cracking my shield and making my arm go numb.  I know he wants the Sword but I didn’t think he would turn in battle.  He stops after the little Mongol kills the Rooskie Witch. I look at him very hard but see that his aura is not yet dark. He shows no remorse. We took the Chieftain prisoner.

Chrysanthemum 8, 3966
We come to a large country inn that can accommodate our caravan. It is nearly dawn when we are attacked. Ninjas attacking during the night are such a cliché. Thank Heaven the Princess had watches posted. Aki and Dipaka were up and they give us just enough time to grab our weapons and repel the attack. I find that Suishen makes the unseen Ninjas visible. I kill two of the poison users, but not before they get me. I’m not wearing my armor. Dipaka saves me with his healing gift.

It is like we are Immortals.

We take four prisoners. We put them in the stockade wagon with the Rooskie.

Chrysanthemum 9, 3966
The Mongol zhuru sells me his magical chain shirt-one size fits all. That’s how they do it. Soon the only sellers are the zhuru. This one though is no merchant. He is a killer.

The Goliath challenges me to a duel for Suishen. I tell him I’m no fool; he is three times my size. I say it is not up to me. Suishen chooses his wielder. In truth, I’m quite scared of him, not because of what he could have and has already has done to me, but that he might be more worthy of Suishen then I am. 

Lo-Saki vents his frustration on the Princess. I think she has promised him the blade but now she’s bound by the agreement of her sister. Lo-Saki declares that it is either him or me that will escort Xiao Ping. She tears her hair and runs away weeping. I don’t think I’ll be with them for long, one way or another.

Wen Hung-Lo, Servant of Heaven

Wen and the Red Feast

As told by Xiao Ping:

I don’t have much recollection of leaving the Governor’s mansion. I do remember my face warming up and my vision tunneling into the Governor’s wineglass. Dipaka led me away in shock.

Pang Mei told me as we walked away from the palace that she had argued for hours with the Governor.

“It was the only way that he was going to let the sword go with us at all. It was worth at least a hundred thousand Jin fifty years ago when our Father sold it. It’s worth far more than that now. We don’t have anything worth that. Not even if we sold the whole Caravan,” she said.

The only thing we had that was valuable enough apparently was me.

“Why doesn’t he just give us the sword?” I asked.

“It’s certainly his right to name his price for the sword,” Pang Mei said.

“Does it have to be my maidenhead?”  I cried. “And we don’t even get the sword?”

“Relax,” Pang Mei soothed, “I told the Governor that you couldn’t consummate a marriage until I am restored as the Empress, otherwise you would lose all of your magic powers. Besides, Wen Hung-Lo is a straight arrow, a real Paladin. He might even make you a good husband. We will need family ties back here when we make it to Japan by the way.”

Wen was a Paladin? It was true I wanted a husband someday. I could now by birthright marry a Noble’s son. Well, a Noble’s bastard son, anyway. 

Lo could not stop talking about the sword.

I wanted Lo to have the sword, especially since I had promised it to him back when we had been forced to forfeit his original blade to the Stone Giant. We should never have killed that bear Ling-Ling. I told Lo about the deal the Governor had offered. Lo was angry.

He dragged his foot in the earth and said, “I will talk to this Paladin.” He went away to find Wen.

I followed, sneaking some distance behind Lo. At first I hid behind corners and slipped into doorways as I tailed him. I had just finished research on my invisibility spell, so when I got closer I put it to the test. It would last about five minutes or so. I wanted to see Wen.

Lo found Wen sitting cross legged before a shrine dedicated to worship and contemplation. He waited for a few moments and then Wen got up. He brushed off his white embroidered Pien-fu. He looked up at Lo and greeted the Goliath.

Lo cleared his throat and said:

“It seems to me the politics of the day have obscured a most pressing issue. I understand that you have pride in your family, but I am the Bearer of the Amatatsu Seal, and there are going to be things we fight that require the use of that sword your father so judiciously argued for you. I have a feeling that you are going to want me to have that sword in the coming battles.”

Lo paused for a while and looked up at the stars. I wondered what he saw up there. He looked down and began again.

“I think we can work a way that you can still have your family pride and do the right thing. I will train you in the art of war in our travels. I will make sure you are the warrior your father wants you to be. When it comes time to restore Pang Mei to her proper throne, you will be instrumental in this restoration. This will be prestige for you and your family. I must have the sword for the protection of the people that go with us. This is not a game son; a fell Jurchen will slit your throat, then go drink and tell tales of the deed the very night he does it. Let me wield the blade.”

Wen had waited patiently until Lo had finished his speech.

“Allow me to tell you a little about who I am,” he began. “I, first and foremost, serve the Celestial Beaurocracy. I am a Servant of the Heavens. I am a bastard. I am a son of a favorite concubine of the Governor. My Mother unfortunately passed away from a wasting illness when I was but a small boy. After she died I was despondent. One day a great man came up from the South. He came with a mighty group of heroes that included the legendary Father Wong, the Great Priest of Shang-Ti, and the Ranger of An-Nam. Among their number was the mightiest of lizard men, Thrash, and the mythical man that never misses, The White Archer. General Dan, known as Lieutenant Dan back then, took me under his wing, and he trained me how to be a Holy Warrior and a Servant of the Heavens. I respectfully acknowledge your experience and your strength.”

Wen paused and waited a bit. Lo frowned.

“I will follow your lead, but as for the sword Suishen, I am its Rightful Bearer and I will wield it to serve my wife to be.”

I liked the sound of this.

Lo had always been my most stalwart companion, and I had promised him the sword. I just wished it was mine to give. The truth was it wasn’t our family’s katana anymore.

Lo straightened his back and stood up his full height and crossed his massive arms in front of him. “Then we are at an impasse, for it is my destiny to wield that sword. I am the Bearer of the Seal.”

"And I am the Bearer of the Blade," Wen said, "let the two of us work together."

"I think you should perhaps talk to the Princess, she may have a different opinion about this," Lo said.

"I cannot call her Princess, for I have not yet won her sister’s throne. That glorious day will also be the day I make her my wife. Only when her sister is rightfully restored to rule may I take her. My father explained to me that when she is married she will lose her Wu Jen powers."

"Well, as I said, son, I think she may have a differing opinion on this particular subject, perhaps you should still talk to her," Lo said more testily.

"Well of course I'll talk to her!” Wen said.

“Do it soon.”

“Thanks for the advice, my large friend,” he said.

Wen laughed.

Lo did not.

I stole away before my spell wore off. Several old women in the street tottered and swore when I appeared out of thin air.

Wen didn’t seem like such a bad guy.

When I got back to the Crow’s Nest the din of the nightly crowd cascaded from the inn. Orange light radiated from the lower windows. I could see slivers of yellow light coming from the top floor penthouse shutters. Someone was in our room. I went inside. I saw Marco, Allegro, and Ochir sitting with some girls and drinking. They were all smiling and laughing. Wang Chung was singing songs and telling tall tales up on a low stage. Surprisingly, more than a handful of the local folk were watching his performance and clapping and laughing. I asked Allegro who was up in our suite.

“Ah, it’s that not-a-whole Jurchen, not-a-whole man scumbag Havarak and Cairn. They like hanging out together; they got her Wolf up there with Wingnut. I guess the Wolf is sick or something.”

I went upstairs regretting that there was to be no private bath for me tonight. I didn’t want to take off my clothes in front of Havarak.

When I opened the door I heard Havarak say to Cairn, “I claim the second best of the litter.”

“Yeah, ok!  How long will it be until the puppies are born?” Cairn asked excitedly.

“It will be a few weeks. We must remain here with her for now, in fact, we all should stay here together. I don’t like this city; there are too many people here.”

I recalled Havarak entering the gates of Guangzhuo when we had returned from Xul-Jarak. He had covered his head with a large hood, but had done little else to conceal his porcine features. He smelled horrible, but so did just about everyone. He went about without raising much attention.

I looked over and saw the keys to the room we had rented for the two Scions we hadn’t taken home to their parents yet hanging on a nail. 

I grabbed the keys and went down to talk to them.

"Do you have any interest in coming on an adventure with us and with the Governor’s grandson?”  I asked.

“No! We want to go home!  Why won’t you let us go home?”

I was asking myself the same question.

“I think we should decide what we are going to do with the kids.” I said the next morning at breakfast.

Ochir stood up, cleared his throat, and said, “If I may, I’m going to give you two different perspectives here. One way to look at this is, we don’t know what’s waiting for these kids at home. It could be dangerous taking them straight home. We got nicked right here in the city by those thugs dressed up like Ninjas at the market. Let’s keep them in hiding at the Crow’s Nest, and we’ll go talk to their parents to arrange a handover. Not necessarily at their home, because their home might be a target. That’s one way to look at it-- the other way is, these people owe us for all that we have done and sacrificed for rescuing their Scions and I want to make sure that when we go there and they decide to get stingy we don’t have the kids there. Let’s go and negotiate with the families first, to see how much we’re going to get.”

“I don’t know if that’s going to be taken very well. It would be unseemly,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter how they take it,” Ochir said, “we tell him the truth, the kids are being held at a location that is considered safe for their own protection.”

“The fathers are going to expect us to bring their sons with us. It would be insulting not to bring them. They may want to give us less in the end if we don’t. We are good people, after all.”

“We are not insulting anyone; we are keeping their kids safe,” Ochir said.

Keep them safe, captive, and ready to be used as leverage to get a bigger reward. I had harbored a similar thought myself. We needed money to buy Suishen back from the Governor and get me out of marrying Wen.

“I know, those are a couple of good viewpoints, but what we should do is just take them back home and see what they offer,“ I said.

“Wen, do you think the kids could be in danger if we take them directly home to their fathers?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, after he had finished chewing and washing down his rice. “It’s possible.”

We asked him to recount how they had been captured by the Jurchens to see if there was anything more to the story, or if there was possibly any connection between the Keeper of Keys and the Jurchen army. 

”Well, Zhou Bing, his girlfriend Lyan, and the other two guys and I were tired of hanging out in the city because we weren’t allowed to go fight Mongols in the war. So we went out into the forest to kick some Jurchen ass,” he said.

“So, how’d you wind up getting captured?” I asked.

He lowered his head. “They jumped us in the woods, killed our Dwarven scout, beat us into unconsciousness and captured us.” 

“What were they going to do with you?”

“They were going to sacrifice us in some ritual that would have turned Thrull’s relic hammer into a powerful Artifact. He would have become unstoppable. He would have had command over all the Jurchen tribes, or at least he thought so. His Shaman woman and her rat were always trying to persuade him that the blood imbued Hammer of Gruumsh would grant such power. Any Jurchen seeing him with the Hammer would have been bound to his will.”

“All of you were going to be sacrificed?”

“All of us.”

There was a long silence as we continued eating.

“Maybe Chin Mak has seen the writing on the wall and understands that the city of Guangzhou will be overrun by Mongols in due time. He might want to make some money and get out the hell out of here,” Ochir said.

“We really can’t corroborate any of these suspicions we have,” I said. 

“So, what about your other two friends, Wen?  What about Chin Nook?  Is his father in league with the Jurchens?”

“No, I can’t say that about him, but he is a Mongol sympathizer.”

“Does he pose any sort of danger to his son?”

“No, he doesn’t. He loves Nook. Nook’s uncle, Chin Chook, however, he might pose a threat.”

Chin Chook? Now we were getting somewhere.

“Go on,” I said.

“Chin Mak’s brother Chin Chook would stand to inherit the family fortune and Chin Mak’s title if something happened to Chin Nook. Chin Chook has been stuck in middle management for his whole life, he’s just a glorified exchequer in this town,” Wen said.

After breakfast I went to talk to Pang Mei to help decide what to do.

“Ochir wants to keep the kids at the Crow’s Nest and then visit the parents to see if there is any danger first. Really he wants to try to get as much reward as possible, I think, and I don’t entirely disagree with him. We need more money.”

“What you do with the children is your affair, Sister. Sandru and I are finishing up important negotiations regarding the Caravan, and still trying to decide our cargo and path,” Pang Mei said.

“How much longer will that take?” I asked.

“At least a week, I think.”

“Then back out on the road? What sort of deals are you talking about?”

“One nice option is to move rations and cargo up the Canal Road to Kengfu for the Empress Dowager.”

“The Empress Dowager?” I asked in surprise.

“Maybe, but we don’t have all of our options lined up just yet. Sandru really wants to take the Coastal road, and stay away from the War.” Pang Mei said.

“Now that we have Suishen, can’t we just get on a ship and sail for Japan now?”

“That is an option; however the Fortune Teller can talk about nothing other than ill Omens and grave portents against traveling by sea.”

I called a party meeting at the Crow’s Nest. We held it in the penthouse room with the shutters closed.

“We are here to decide what to do with the kids, and how we’ll handle their return to their parents,” I said.

Aki asked on his chalk slate: “Can’t we simply invite the Lords to come to the Crow’s Nest?”

“We can’t simply ask them to come to us because of the etiquette involved,” Ochir said.

Marco says, “Why don’t Ochir and I go over to these houses and let the parents know we have their kids and we’d like to know just how much they’d  be willing to pay to have them back?”

“Because that’s called kidnapping,” Allegro said.

“I don’t think we can possibly appear without the kids as it may be taken as tantamount to kidnapping,” I said.

“In the case that there’s no real safety angle, that’s true, but moving across the city could be dangerous if the Scions are targets,” said Ochir.

“I don’t think there’s going to be much danger moving through the city in broad daylight in these areas where they control the guards and so forth,” I said.

“How short is your memory?” Ochir asked. “We all got attacked by thugs in the marketplace in broad daylight!”

“Plus, don’t you remember that the one we captured and interrogated admitted that he was one of Chin Mak’s men!” Wang Chung said.

“Let’s send a letter and ask to meet at the Governor’s residence,” Ochir said.

“We don’t have permission to receive Commander of the City Watch and the Minister of Maritime Trade at the Governor’s palace,” I said.

“What about Wen? He lives there, he might be able to get permission.”

I asked Wen if he thought there was a room available at the Governor’s compound to stage a meeting. He checked and said no.

“I keep seeing pretty flowers in the street,” Cairn said. 

“Yes, there is a block party,” Dipaka said.

“What's the most expensive restaurant in this city?  I’ll put in a thousand Jin to throw a huge welcoming party.”  Ochir said, “but I’d better get a good return on my investment."

“Madame Wu’s Emporium. You’ll get top notch aristocratic treatment there,” Wen said with a smile.

I wrote a letter inviting Chin Mak to Madame Wu’s, indicating we had good news. We sent it by messenger.

The response that came back said: “We have already learned from the Governor that you have rescued our Son. We have of course planned a feast in your honor. Come this evening for dinner and receive your proper reward.”

“There’s no way around it now,” I said. “We’re going to the Commander of the City Watch's house.”

After his resurrection, Wang Chung had been down in the dumps. Ochir had him write a very, very sad song about his horrible death at the end of Raxor’s halberd. It was a strange song.

“I don’t want to see a dry eye anywhere in the house,” Ochir had said to him. “I want those nobles ready to cough up their life savings.”

Pang Mei noticed Wang Chung was depressed and hugged him and talked to him for a while. He perked up, but now he was following her around everywhere. Men were so stupid sometimes.

Despite all of Ochir’s protests I decided with Aki’s help to bring Chin Nook along with us to the feast so as not to appear unseemly. We left Havarak back at the Crow's nest to guard the Son of the Chief of Maritime Trade. 

We went dressed in our finest outfits. We bought Nook some fine new clothes; the Jurchens had torn apart his old clothes long ago.

We walked to the Lord Commander Chin Mak’s compound without being attacked.

We all went inside and the big doors were closed behind us. We came before Chin Mak and some of the other members of his noble family, the most notable of whom was his brother Chin Chook. They were all seated in a half moon arc of chairs behind a long table. There was a gigantic banquet laid out for us, and there was food of every sort there. The smells were of things delicious. They had sake and Venetian wines, and several teas.

“Welcome to my humble house, I wish we were better staffed here, but these are trying times,” Chin Mak said.

We noticed that the guards had unremarkable weapons and armor. The staff had dirty uniforms, and shuffled sadly as they conducted their duties.

“You are heroes indeed my friends, and I thank you for returning my son to me. He was sorely missed. I realize the great bravery you have shown and the trials you must have faced--”

Ochir interrupted Chin Mak when he jumped up onto the table. 

“My Lord, forgive me, but no one could describe our trials and tribulations as well as our minstrel here,” he said, “--take it away Wang Chung!”

Chin Mak appeared to be a bit annoyed, and he leveled his gaze at the gnome standing on his table. Finally he relaxed and waved his hand at Wang Chung.

“Well, let’s hear it!” he cried, and smiled broadly.

Wang Chung stood up and performed his epic song about our adventure all the way through, and Lo, Ochir, Marco and I drank sake and started to feel better. Wang Chung’s song highlighted the brave heroics of everyone in the group, and then detailed how Allegro was killed by the horrid Wyvern in Xul-Jarak. Then the Bard recounted his own journey beyond Death’s door. It was filled with doom and gloom.

When Wang Chung had finished his song night had fallen and crickets could be heard from outside the window.

“Sorry,” Wang Chung said and sat down and lowered his head.

Chin Mak cleared his throat.

“The time has come for your reward. My family conducts trade with the Mongols when we are in their territory. I will provide you with credentials that will declare you as part of our trade company so that you may move freely through their lands and trade as you see fit. It’s the best we can do, in these trying times.”

“We can already move freely through Mongol controlled lands,” Ochir said.

“I’m sure you can,” he said, “but what about your friends?”

“Your offer is indeed generous, but there are those among us that would appreciate a more monetary reward. Or, maybe you could send some of your guards along with us to fight," I said.

“Oh,” Chin Mak said, ”I barely have enough men to keep order in the city. I hear there are ruffians and thugs running about in the streets of Ghuangzhou, I cannot spare any men. I cannot give you any gold, the Empire takes all of our funds to pay for the War.”

We heard the sound of a chair being pushed abruptly back. Chin Chook’s face contorted in rage.

“You are a niggardly Lord!” he yelled, “These people have saved your son! If I had a son I would have given anything to get him back safe!”  He turned and strode to the front doors and ordered them opened. The guards opened the doors and he stormed out.

As soon as the guards had closed the doors behind him, we heard the unmistakable scuffling of thick Jurchen boots. Rows of Jurchen archers appeared as if by magic on the balconies above us on either side of the great hall.  At first I could not believe my eyes. Jurchens in the city?

Daazlog, the huge black Deep Jurchen we had fought at Xul-Jarak appeared on the stairs above us and began shouting orders. He pulled back his mighty arm and threw his axe end over end right into Dipaka's back.

The sound it made when it sunk into Di’s spine was sickening. He leaned forward and gritted his teeth. Blood dripped out and spattered his plate.

All Hell broke loose.

Ochir immediately fired an arrow at Nook. The Gnome was apparently bent on quickly getting revenge for this apparent double cross. The arrow sunk deep into Nook’s lung. He screamed and ran behind a large pillar. Ochir’s face wore the angry expression of about a thousand “I told you so’s”.

Lo bellowed and upturned his table in front of him. He was drunk. He tried to pull out his katana and the whole scabbard came off his belt along with it. He ignored the humorous nature of the situation as he yanked the blade out and headed towards Chin Mak. 

The Fight

Aki dashed from the end of the table over to the staircase that led up to the balcony on the north side of the room. He raced up the stairs and headed toward the row of Jurchen archers firing from there. He slammed the first archer in the snout and it squealed and went down in a heap.

Wang Chung dashed to the corner of the room and grabbed his sitar.

Cairn ducked under the table and started casting a summoning spell.

Wen leapt up and followed Aki. He drew Suishen in a fluid motion as he went. Flames erupted from the very steel of the blade, and they flickered and danced along its length. Bright light illuminated Wen and the area all around him. He looked like a hero from the old legends. He went up the steps two at a time.

I stood up and realized Lo wasn’t the only one that was drunk. My head was swimming. I cast a spell of haste on the members of the group. I picked five of the warriors and sped up their metabolisms with magic. They could now run faster and attack more quickly, making them even more dangerous.

Daazlog drank a potion and then bellowed orders to all the Jurchen archers to attack Chin Mak. Arrows sank repeatedly into the Commander’s body until he fell to the floor. Several Jurchen Raiders rushed down the stairs and began hovering over Chin Mak’s body. I couldn't tell for sure, but it might have been they were looking for something.

Two of the foolish Jurchens on the North balcony decided to charge Aki. He met their charge with expertly timed attacks. One Jurchen flew over the railing; the other flew back into the next Jurchen in line.

Dipaka was somehow able to reach over his shoulder and pull Daazlog’s axe out of his back. He used his Holy powers to heal himself, and then he headed up the south stairs directly towards Daazlog. He expected that his aura of Peace would suppress the Chieftains’ violent behavior, perhaps ending the fight early.

Daazlog’s features changed when the aura enveloped him, but instead of appearing to be calmed by the Holy power, he smiled an evil smile.

“Fool!” he said, “Your holy powers cannot sway me! I am a Deep Jurchen from beneath the Earth! My power comes from the Deep!”

I wondered if it was that or the potion he had downed beforehand.

Daazlog stumped down two steps and shoved his spear right through Dipaka. Dipaka only winced. I did not know how he could withstand such pain. He steadied himself by leaning against the wall.

Nook fired a single magic missile from behind the pillar at one of the Jurchens hovering over his father. It struck the Jurchen in the rump, so it whirled about to find the offender. It grunted at Nook, so he tried to squeeze deeper between the pillar and the wall. There was a row of Jurchen archers directly above him on the north balcony; he was trying to stay beneath it so that they couldn’t easily shoot him.

Allegro tumbled deftly backward from his seat at the table. He moved in towards the Raiders at the head table and popped the Jurchens with deadly accurate skipping stones.

I saw Marco turn invisible. He had been drinking sake with us and he reached out and grabbed another bottle just before he vanished.

Lo engaged the Jurchens searching Chin Mak but swung wide several times, apparently unable to judge his distances as his head swam. He pressed his eyes closed and opened them up again a few times, trying to focus.

Aki’s combat with the Jurchens on the north balcony continued, but the Monk managed to lunge a bit late a few times and it looked like the Jurchens may not all go down so quickly.

Wang Chung cast a mirror image spell and copies of him began floating about.

Cairn remained safe under the table; she continued to cast summoning spells.

Wen in his heavy armor continued to move up the staircase to the Jurchen line, and he engaged them with great zeal. He swung the flaming brand to and fro. The eyes of the Jurchens were filled with fear as he chopped them with it.

I turned myself invisible, and I ran to the bottom of the staircase behind Wen.

Ochir moved to within thirty feet of Nook, and he leveled his bow at him. He shot him again.

The Jurchen archers on the south balcony all fired at Lo. The hail of arrows bounced from his armor and did him no harm.

Some of the Jurchens on the north balcony leaned way out over the rail and shot down at Nook. Nook was pierced yet again, and he staggered, near to collapse. He leaned against the wall. He began digging for something in his belt pouch.

A barbarian Raider Jurchen turned from the Commander’s motionless body and attacked Lo. Blood flew from Lo’s bare arm, and his face turned a deeper shade of crimson as his rage blossomed to a new level. He roared in the faces of the Jurchen Raiders and they were taken aback.

Allegro moved into a position under the head table and pulled Istanoval from his belt. He crept forward under the table and stabbed a Raider Jurchen in the thigh.

"I am Istanoval, face me and tremble!" his dagger cried. Blood now coated the blade. Allegro grinned.

The invisible Marco appeared out of thin air with his rapier stuck through the back of one of the Raider Jurchens. Invisibility spirits called upon to conceal mostly do not allow attacking and remaining unseen; they deem it unfair.

The pierced Raider howled and jabbed Marco hard in return. Marco yelped and fell back a few paces. He covered himself and readied the next thrust. He maneuvered around behind the other Raider.

Dipaka retreated back down the stairs in the face of Daazlog. He was bleeding profusely, and he had to call upon his most powerful of healing prayers to staunch the blood.

Chin Nook pulled a potion from his pouch and drank it. He went from near death to looking fairly healthy.

“Violence is not the answer here!” Cairn cried.

“At last, someone agrees,” Dipaka said, as he finished stuffing a salve inside of himself.

Marco jabbed the second Raider in the back with a timed rapier thrust. It spit blood and went down dead.

Lo swung a few more times and missed some more. He was missing wildly.

Aki continued his assault on the north balcony with a flurry of blows. The Jurchens backed up.

Wang Chung cast a daze monster spell at Daazlog, and it had no effect.

Cairn moved to a corner and cast a barkskin spell on herself.

Wen sliced and missed with one attack, but he attacked again with blinding speed before the Jurchen could recover and hacked it down with the flaming sword.

Aki and Wen then stood shoulder to shoulder.

“It is an honor to fight beside you,” Wen said.

Aki bowed low.

I got to the top of the stairs and used the wand of enlargement on Aki. He grew until he was a giant.

“This is Mongol plains justice,” Ochir said. He shot Nook again. Nook fell to his knees.

“Why are you doing this?” Nook asked Ochir.

Ochir’s eyes were wide with madness.

“Because we spent lives, blood, money, and time to rescue you, and this is the payment we get? Now if you can cough something up, then I’ll save you!” the Gnome seethed.

“Yeah, cough something up, like your liver!” Allegro cackled.

“No, no, no!” Lo yelled.  “What are you doing?”

“I did not risk my life to not get compensated for it or be thanked by being slaughtered while under the roof of a guest!” Ochir was getting really angry.

“No, no, please no, don’t shoot me,” Nook sobbed.

“Don’t do it,” Lo warned.

Ochir fired an arrow again into Nook. Nook’s eyes stuck open in disbelief, and he slid down the wall to the floor. His eyes closed and he stopped moving.

“Don’t kill him!” Lo cried, getting very angry now. “It’s wrong!”

Ochir loaded up yet another arrow and aimed it at Nook’s motionless form.

Ochir held the bowstring back against his cheek for a time, but then his expression softened and he gradually released the tension and lowered his bow. He stepped forward and grabbed a wand off of Nook’s belt.

Three Jurchens on the north balcony moved in unison against Aki the now giant Monk, but his limbs were now very long and he could easily reach them before they arrived. He clobbered one with a swift kick. He sent another staggering backward and gasping for breath. He swept the third one’s feet from underneath of him, and the Jurchen crashed to the floor.

Lo grunted as several arrows thudded into his torso, he was now catching fire from both sides.

Daazlog screamed a splitting battle cry and charged down the stairs directly at Dipaka. He held his spear high over his head. His momentum grew as he skipped steps on the way down; he was nearly falling with all of his weight behind his spear.

Dipaka raised his face, stood tall, and waited for the inevitable.

When Daazlog collided with Dipaka, the spear shattered. The force of the collision threw Daazlog back. He stared at his empty hands in disbelief.

“No!” he screamed, “the potion was to have protected me!  That stupid shaman wench!””

"Thank you for breaking your weapon on me, I will go and save some lives now," Dipaka said, and he moved over to help the others.

Allegro threw a rock and it ricocheted from one Jurchen to another, injuring and enraging both.

Marco ducked under the table and drank a potion of healing.

Lo lined up and charged headlong into Daazlog.  He rammed the giant sized katana right through the Jurchen so soundly I thought Lo’s fist would push through his chest too. He pulled it out slowly and twisted it.

Daazlog looked into Lo’s face.

“I wanted them to poison you, not give you sake breath!” Daazlog snarled. 

Aki backhanded another Jurchen with his giant hand and it flipped over the balcony. It crashed to the floor below near Chin Nook’s unconscious body.

Cairn’s two Crocodiles appeared on either side of Daazlog. They roared and snapped their jaws at the Deep Jurchen, but they were not able to get near enough to attack him. The simple warding spell that protected him happened to provide very powerful warding against summoned creatures.  As they were not made of material, they could not cross his magical barrier. Cairn instead sent them up the stairs to attack the Jurchens firing on the south balcony.

Aki and Wen were nearly finished dispatching the Jurchens across the way.

“In the name of Bahamut!” Wen yelled as he hacked down the last Jurchen.

“Even with the protection of your potion, I have still shattered your spear!” Dipaka said to Daazlog defiantly. “There is that in the world that can prevail over violence!”

“Aaagghh! I’ll just have to kill you with something else!” Daazlog screamed.

Ochir put his foot on Nook’s bleeding body and unlatched the Sorcerer’s scroll satchel and took it too. I wondered if the Gnome would ever be satisfied.

The Jurchen archers on the south balcony saw the crocodiles coming and tried frantically to stop them with arrows as they slithered up the stairs. They looked at Cairn and shot at her with arrows too. She dodged the arrows and stuck her tongue out at the Jurchen archers. When the crocodiles got to them, they began screaming.

Daazlog and Lo squared off against each other, each with a thick brow. The deep Jurchen swung his axe at Lo and missed.

Dipaka dashed over and healed Nook. He moaned and moved his arms and legs a bit but was not quite conscious yet.

Allegro performed a dive roll attack against a Raider Jurchen with his dagger. He went between the Jurchens legs and popped up behind hit. With one sideways slice, he cut straight across both of the Jurchens hamstrings. The Jurchen screamed, grabbed the back of his legs and fell forward.

Lo danced and whirled his katana about himself and he attacked Daazlog.  He made two swift chopping cuts across the front of Daazlog’s lacquered armor.  The plates were split and they revealed a shiny fine mesh of Mithril beneath. Blood was seeping through the deep Jurchens shirt and he fell to his knees.

Daazlog collapsed to the floor. A tiny purple hat rolled off his head.

The Jurchens fighting the crocodiles up on the balcony finally stopped screaming. The screams were replaced with the snapping and splitting of Jurchen bones.

They were all dead. We were all alive. We had withstood their attack.

We gathered up the items from the fallen Jurchens and put them into a large bag. 

Aki took me by the hand over into a corner. His face was worried. He showed me his slate.

“You really need to take leadership! Ochir’s attack on Nook was evil.”

My head was still swimming from the drink, but I had to agree.

I saw Allegro stealing the silverware. I rubbed my eyes.

Five minutes later the city watch burst through the palace doors accompanied by a very distraught Chin Chook.

Ochir looked up angrily at Chin Chook and asked, “You were nearly too late! Why did it take you so long to get back here?”

“I went straight to get the guards!” Chin Chook said. He was sweating.

“It sure took you long enough,” I said. He looked at me and his eyes narrowed. He noticed Dipaka tending to Chin Mak’s wounds. He leapt to intervene.

“Step aside Holy Man! I’m placing my brother under arrest for colluding with Jurchens!”

I didn’t know which brother was colluding with Jurchens but found that I really didn’t care anymore. I had the feeling the guards that had come in with Chin Chook might even be the Ninjas that had attacked us in the marketplace, but were now wearing “official” guard uniforms.

They ushered us all summarily out of their house.

Drunk and bloody, we walked back to the Crow’s Nest. We sang a loud drunken song together, all except Aki, right there in the sweltering streets. Someone yelled for us to shut up.

We gave the magic items to the Fortune Teller the next day and she told us what she could about them and how best to use them. Her gnarled hands caressed the objects.

We gave the Mithril hauberk that was underneath Daazlog’s shell armor to Ochir. It shrank magically down to fit him. It was a somewhat valuable find. He finally seemed a bit happier.

Ochir entered the wand and the scrolls he’d taken from Nook as party treasure. It was a wand of magic missiles, so we gave it to Marco. I took the scrolls.

We sold the adamantine axe that had struck Dipaka. We split up all the proceeds evenly.

The Ministry of Maritime Trade

Our last piece of business in Guangzhou was going to be returning the last Scion to his home. I hoped this exchange would go better than the last one.

Before we took him back, we decided to try to do some investigating of the actual premises in question. Ochir, Allegro, Marco and I went out at midnight unbeknownst to the others dressed in dark clothing and with wall climbing gear. We had some sake that night too.

The Ministry of Maritime Trade was a big imposing edifice that sat along the docks. It was roughly three hundred feet square, and was thirty feet high. There was a tall guard tower at each corner. There were wide lift doors all along each side for loading and unloading cargo into and out of wagons. There was a main gate; two huge bronze doors that had a guard on either side marked it. There was a smaller door next to it, and during the day, there had been a long line of people waiting there to get permits. At night, the windows were dark.

It was a nice clear night with a cool ocean breeze. For the first time this season, a cold front pushed the humidity from Guangzhou. I was so relieved. I could see hundreds of boats and ships spread out across the shimmering harbor. It was beautiful. The Moon was full.

“It’s locked up tight, let’s go,” Allegro said. We chuckled.

"Come on, Allegro. It's a big, empty warehouse," Ochir said.

I told Ochir to hold still and I cast my invisibility spell on him. He popped out of view.

Allegro snuck along a row of low shacks to the base of the wall. I saw a rope fall uncoiling from the roof, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. Allegro climbed up.

Marco and I watched and waited. We looked up and down the street. We were officially breaking and entering. I shivered, but the new low temperatures were welcome. Fifteen minutes or so had gone by and I had started to worry when they came back.

"Well, there are no Jurchens in there," Ochir said.

Allegro shook his head.

The next day we returned to the Ministry as a group. We argued for a bit about leaving the Minister's son at the Crow's nest, but in the end we decided to take him along with us.

“Let’s go with the kid and just see what we get, there's no need to be so greedy,” Wang Chung said.

Ochir scowled.

We sent a messenger ahead of us to the Ministry so we had an appointment. When we got there, we waited for an hour before we were shown in to see the Minister.

“We hope you are happy to see you son in one piece, we discovered him while rescuing other kidnapped victims,” I said.

The Minister of Maritime Trade looked askance at his own son.

“You disobedient son, how dare you leave the city without permission! Confine yourself to your quarters!”

The Minister looked at me and his eyes narrowed.

“You have made quite an impression in Guangzhou since you have been here. I would have your name,” he said.

“My name is Xiao Ping, and these are my friends.” I said.

“Please describe who they are and what they do.”

“This is Ochir, he is a Gnomish Archer,” I began.

“Hmm, looks like a Mongol,” the Minister said.

“He is a mercenary sort, and this is Aki, our pious Monk. This is Lo, our main warrior. This is Dipaka, he is our Holy Man, and his powers of Holiness are indeed formidable. This is Allegro, he is our Trader, and he trades in all sorts of things. This is Wang Chung, he is our Minstrel, and this is Wen Hung-Lo--”

“Yes, I know Wen Hung-Lo, hmmm, you should have had a better influence on my son,” he said to Wen.

“And I’m Marco!” Marco cried.

“And this is of course the dashing Marco Polo,” I said.

"Yes, I think we saw him skulking around outside here last night."

The Minister looked next at Cairn.

“This is Cairn, the strong silent grace of our party,” Ochir said.

“She is indeed a champion of the wilderness,” I said.

“So, how may I reward you for rescuing my son?” the Minister asked.

“I think I’ll turn the answer to that question over to my comrade, Ochir,” I said.

“That magnanimous greeting you gave us at your door is enough,” Ochir said, and he bowed and went back out. There had been an edge in his voice.

“He’s being funny,” Cairn said.

“Ah, then you can also have my thanks,” the Minister said.

“We think ten thousand Jin would be a good reward, he meant to say,” I said.

“Ten thousand Jin?” the Minister laughed. He laughed long and loud.

“You have done your civic duty, and you have earned the right to bear dangerous weapons. We cannot pay a reward of ten thousand Jin.”

“We are planning to leave town, and we could use an escort of skilled warriors to take us north,” I said.

The Minister thought for a moment. He rubbed his chin. A gleam appeared in his eye.

“I do have a ship available, the Sapporo Wind,” he said.

“If you are offering to give us a ship, we’ll take it,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound too eager.

“Ah, not give, but I can grant you the use of the ship and its crew for the length of one year, and you don’t have to use it now.”

“Can you send this ship north to Huangzhou to rendezvous there when we arrive?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” the Minister said. The gleam in his eye got brighter.

Eventually we took our leave, and rejoined Ochir outside. We told him about the ship and he perked up a bit. 

We walked back to the Crow’s Nest.

The following day I went to tell Pang Mei about the Sapporo Wind. I wanted to board the ship right away and sail for Japan.

So did Pang Mei. 

"Let's go talk to them," she said.

"What about the others? What about Sandru? What about the Jade archer?" I asked.

"Sandru will want to go by land, but the Jade Archer will support me in all my decisions.”

We joined the rest of the group.

"I prefer to go by land,” Allegro said.

“I’ll do whatever the sisters decide,” Aki said on his slate.

Wang Chung was singing a high-pitched ballad called “Nothing Really Matters.” A harpist had joined him and was plucking out a beautiful melody.

Sandru was very angry. 

“I thought we had all this settled!” he bellowed. “The Fortune Teller has foretold certain doom if we so much as put an oar into the Sea!”

“Justify yourself! Why should we listen to this Fortune Teller? We would never try to drive the Caravan all the way to Japan by land old man,” Ochir said. “We can go north and make money with the Caravan, and then shorten the sea journey by taking the boat from Huangzhou instead of here.”

“The Fortune teller has never been wrong before. That’s why we call her the Fortune Teller! We have to travel over the Crown of the World to get to Japan by land. You cannot claim the Throne anytime soon Mei, it’s too early! You are still just a little girl!” Sandru cried.

It was clear that he feared for Pang Mei’s life if we were to go by Sea.

Pang Mei’s features betrayed an inner conflict.

Maffeo spoke up, “I have arranged a deal with the Song Empire. We have to move too many horses north to go by Sea,“ he said. “We’ve added ten more wains of cargo filled with sacks of rice. The horses are to be laden with goods and supplies as well.”

He paused for a moment and then continued.

“There are two roads we can take; one is the inland route which is wider and well guarded. The problem is, we don't know how far south the Mongols have advanced. If we are going to meet Mongols, we will find them along this road. If the Mongols find us, we're as good as dead."

"There's also a road that goes along the coast. It goes through wild territory and is poorly kept. Chances are good we won’t meet any Mongols along this route but we don't know what else we might run up against."

Ochir said, “We need to take the fastest road. We should take the inland road.”

“I agree,” I said.

Sandru said, “We are going to be shipping supplies to General Dan for the Song army. Any contact with the Mongols will mean the end of our Caravan. We are taking the coastal road, and that’s it.”

Aki scribbled and turned his slate to us and it said, “I agree with Sandru.”

We set out the next day.

We had gotten just beyond sight of the city walls, perhaps five miles away or so, when Lo called the Caravan to a halt. He walked back to where I was and called me down from the wagon.

“Wen!” he yelled.

I knew the time had come. Wen rode up and got down off his horse.

“What is it?” he asked.

I said to Wen, “I think it would be very nice if you would allow Lo to wield the House Sword as he is the House Champion, until such a day you have earned the title of House Champion.”

There was a moment of silence.

“I have thought about this at great length, and I do not want to cause you any distress,” Wen said.

“Good, I’m glad there will be no distress, Lo needs the sword,” I said.

“I have talked to Pang Mei about this, and she offered to make me a house Scion,” Wen said. “Who is best to wield the sword but your husband?”

“We’re not married yet, and you are not the House Champion, so you should let Lo use the katana.”

“The problem is my family bought the sword from your family and you haven’t bought it back from us yet,” Wen said.

Ochir jumped in and said, “Was it sold willingly, or out of desperation? It is the Amatatsu house sword, right? If we are talking honor here, someone sold something out of absolute desperation, and then the rightful heir comes back, you would at least sell it back to him or her.”

“The price was one hundred thousand Jin fifty years ago. Let’s say it’s four hundred thousand Jin today,” Wen said.

I swallowed.

“This is a matter of honor, and they have chosen to return the sword to us in their own way,” I said, surely sounding irritated by now.

“Do not worry, I will follow your commands, Lo,” Wen said.

“Family and Honor stuff aside, would you not agree that the most powerful warrior should wield the sword?” Lo asked Wen, trying a new tactic.

“No, I think that the Rightful Hand should wield the weapon. I tell you this, it is not my decision, the blade has a will of its own, and it chose me. I did not choose it.”

“How do you know it would not choose me?” Lo asked.

“Because it can speak, it can say for itself,” Wen said.

“We will do it this way, you can wield the sword, and I challenge you to non-lethal combat. The first person to yield to the other will wield the sword.”

“Of course I do not accept, I told you, the sword is not mine to barter with in a duel with a man four times my size! I am not a fool!” Wen cried.

I thought he was a fool. He had just made his fiancé very unhappy.

“Why don’t you let me hold the sword, and we’ll let the blade decide?” Lo asked.

Wen was silent.

“If the sword says that it would rather have you wield the sword as you say, then I will honor it,” Lo said.

“Are you scared of what Suishen will say little man?” Lo asked.

“You do not understand the code of the Bushido! Once the sword is drawn, it must be used.”

“Yes, it’s true, if the weapon is drawn, the wielder must cut himself and draw blood if it is not used against an enemy,” Dipaka said.

“Do not hide behind the politics of your code!” Lo yelled. He was starting to get angry.

Wen chose a different tack. “I am confident you will do the right thing, since you are the Champion of our House,” he said, and crossed his arms.

“The right thing would be to bop you over the head and take the sword, for it’s the best way to protect your wife,” Lo said.

“Luckily for you, I will not do this,” Lo looked down at Wen. “But know this, I am certainly not pleased.”

“I’ll wield this sword well!” Wen said, looking at me.

“You’d better, because I am not pleased either,” I said. “You had best protect me and stay by me at all times, not run off to fight monsters and be heroic, I need to be protected so I can cast my spells from safety. If you really want the job, this will be your role in this group.”

Ochir said, “I know I don’t have a dog in this fight, but it would be honorable if the sword were returned to the Champion, especially if you know that the sword was sold in a time of great need long ago. You know it would be the right thing to do.”

Wen was only silent, but he did not seem ashamed.

We all turned away from him and went off with the Caravan again.

We saw a raven up in the sky that day; it had been following our Caravan since we left the city.

“Was Lyan secretly your girlfriend Wen?” I asked him.

There was a pause.

“No, no, not at all. Why do you ask?”

“There’s a raven up there watching us,” I answered.

“No, that’s not Lyan’s bird. It’s way too big,” he said.

Aki showed us all a surprise. He had personally added a prison wagon to our line of wains. “This is for detaining those that we vanquish in combat,” he had scribbled on his slate. He wore the key around his neck. Dipaka beamed.

“I think we should follow the Code of Hammurabi. An eye for an eye, tooth for tooth. You try to kill us; we’ll kill you. That simple.” Ochir said. “If someone wants to kill us, we should not let them surrender when defeated and live to come back and fight us again. Some of the villains we fight are truly evil. Some might even be cunning enough that they might use our honor against us.”

I didn’t like where he was going with this, mostly because I agreed with him on this one. I knew his thoughts on this matter would not be shared by any of the others accept Allegro.

“If we are attacked by a foe and then they try to surrender or lay down their weapons they will not be shown any mercy. We don’t want to leave alive those that can harm us,” Ochir said.

There was a chorus of dissent from Lo and Dipaka.

“We’ll have to take this on a case by case basis of course, but I fundamentally agree,” I said.

We argued more about this for over an hour. By the end, everyone was mad at everyone else.

One day as we traveled, I asked Wen to teach me to ride a horse. I had noticed he was very good at riding.

“Why don’t you ride with me on my horse?” he asked.

“Because I want to ride on my own horse,” I said.

He began my riding lessons the next day. He was a good teacher, and he was very patient.

The Russians

Several days later, we were riding ahead of the column and came upon a very long bridge. It spanned a two hundred foot wide river. Each shore consisted of a twenty-foot swath of beach.

There was a very long line of very pale Russians waiting for us on the other side of the bridge. They had thick brown hair and wore many furry skins. They had steel weapons and wooden shields. There was a very tall and pale man at the center of their line, and he had a voluptuous woman next to him. He lifted a horn to his lips and blew out a long note. There was an answer from somewhere behind us. We could hear that the back of the Caravan had fallen under attack. The tall Russian smiled beneath his huge mustache and waved for us to come forward.

We called the wagons to a halt. 

Ochir immediately rode up and fired three shots at the leader. One of his arrows struck the man in the collar.

The Russian gritted his teeth and yanked the arrow out. He let out a war cry.

Allegro fired a sling at the Russians, but it bounced short.

Wang Chung yelled, “How’s come your father wear shoes, while you wear boots? Because your country was only ankle deep in shit back then!”

Lo pulled out his sword and whirled it about in a blindingly fast series of moves.

“Oh, nice moves Goliath,” their leader said, “he’s a Giant alright men, I’ll give you that, but he can’t kill more than a few of us before we take him down. There are just too many of us.”

His men banged their shields with their weapons, then hollered and began moving forward.

Lo swatted one of the Russians as he ran in with his long reach; he sheared the top of the poor man’s head off. He blocked a flurry of axe blows from the others with his shield. He could not stop them all though, several axes struck him. Blood flowed freely from his wounds.

The Russian leader was still a huge distance away from Lo, but he threw an axe anyway and it missed. He threw a second one and it nailed Lo. Blood sprayed up from Lo’s shoulder.

The woman on their side sauntered up towards Lo and waggled her hips. “You will be my friend,” she said, waving her long thin hand. I saw Lo stop moving for a split second. I knew he was under her spell.

“I have him men! Deal with the rest of them!” she yelled.

Wen rushed forward on his horse and attacked the Russians with his lance. He pierced one right through and the man struggled with the lance through his chest and waggled his feet before he died.

“Please, you must all put down your weapons; this is no way to live!” Dipaka yelled above the din.

“No offense Holy Man, but I think these Rooskies have banditry in their hearts!” Wen replied, dumping the dead Russian off the end of his lance.

I pulled out the scroll of dispell magic I’d been holding in reserve for so long. I cast it on Lo to remove the Witches charm spell. I could not tell if it worked or not. 

Aki whirled the magic Kama over his head and summoned the Wasp at the extent of its range. The Wasp attacked the Russians. It stung them repeatedly. They cried out in terror as the huge insect buzzed around them.

Ochir fired another volley of arrows at the Russian leader. Two of them found their marks.

The Russian’s white complexion reddened.

Allegro jumped over side of the bridge and was gone.

Wang Chung dashed across the bridge.

Lo went over to where Wen was on his horse a chopped him with a mighty blow. Blood sprayed everywhere.

Lo was going to kill Wen. I thought I would cry right then, but I didn’t.

Wen cried out, “Lo! Come to your senses! Do not go the way of the Ronin!”

The Witch waggled her hips again in triumph and looked at me. “It looks like your dispell was far too feeble to stop my charm power! The Giant’s on our side boys! Kill them, kill them now!”

Several of the men attacked the Wasp. They jabbed at it ineffectively with their short spears. It bobbled and weaved amongst them, darting in and stinging them.

The rest of them charged us. A general melee ensued.

Dipaka rushed over to heal Wen. He was angling his horse to get away from the attacking Lo. The horse was squealing under the pressure. Wen drew Suishen and it flared up. He hacked down one of the Russians. He refrained from attacking Lo.

I ran over to where I could line up the leader and his curvy shaman woman and fired the wand of lighting straight through them. I felt sheer power emanate from the wand. A blue bolt of hot electricity shot out. They both screamed in pain and were crackling and sparking. Their hair was melting and steam was rising from their heads.

The Witch stared at me. The look on her face said it all. It was on.

Aki ran over to attack the Witch. He tried to punch her but there was some sort of magical barrier surrounding her.

Ochir shot the leader again. The big Russian stumbled. Ochir fired his next shot at the Witch, and his arrow got her in the torso. She doubled over and fell to the ground. She clawed at the stones as she wavered on the edge of consciousness.

The leader’s eyes widened when he saw his wife collapse. Ochir fired at him again and he went down. I saw it happen in slow motion.

Aki sent the Wasp flying down in front of the Russian line. Each warrior took swats at the insect, but none could hit it. Aki was tiring them out.

Allegro moved over to the dying Witch to stab her with his dagger.

“You might want to think about this one, it wouldn’t be right to stab this helpless woman,” Istanoval said to him.

Allegro brought the dagger down on the Witch anyway. There was a flash of blue light and the dagger flew out of Allegro’s grip. Allegro shook and then sucked his hand.

“Let me go free, and Baba Yaga will release her hold upon him,” the Witch said in a strange voice.

“Giant, put your sword down,” she said and then she bowed and meekly surrendered.

Lo lowered his sword and then stood there drooling.

“Release him from the charm spell Witch!” I cried.

The woman said nothing.

Ochir moved like a whippet, his bow was up and an arrow was in the Witches throat. She gurgled and fell over. Ochir fired one more time and wicked witch was dead.

Lo shook his head and asked, “What happened?”

The rest of the Russians ran off. A ways down the river, we saw a Russian longboat. It was marked “Fotemken”.

We heard a loud horn blat, and the boat rowed away.

We put the prisoners into the prison wagon and Dipaka talked to them every day. One of them was the Russian leader.

“Why did that Gnome shit kill my wife? Untie me give me a weapon and show me where the turd of a gnome sleeps, and then I will join your religion Holy Man,” he said.

“We’ll use the prisoner method until it fails,” Ochir later said. We all knew he wanted to kill the Russian.

We traveled on for three weeks. We saw the raven again flying high above us. We stopped one night at an inn large enough to accommodate our Caravan. It was called Lin’s Kitchen.

Lo and Ochir were arguing when we got there. Lo was yelling at Ochir and me about goodness and honor when the wagons trundled up to Lin’s Stables.

“If you don’t want to lead or can’t lead then step aside and let someone else do it, but don’t let the gnome run roughshod over everybody. I’m not evil. I will not allow evil, nor will I become evil.”

“I’m not evil,” Ochir said. “I simply use proven military tactics.”

“Military tactics my ass! You were shooting a helpless person!”

“Ah! She had you charmed and refused to release you!”

“That’s not what I’m talking about! I’m talking about Nook! A nineteen-year-old kid! What was that about? You just kept shooting him.”

“Ok, Lo, at least I don’t stand around drooling forever and never make a decision! Sometimes it may be the wrong decision, but at least I’ve made one and acted right away. If I make a wrong decision sometimes I’m sorry.”

“Gnomes, smelly short things that hide in hills,” Lo harrumphed.

“Giants,” Ochir said.

“Both of you have room for improvement. Lo, you kicked that sleeping person off a ledge,” Dipaka said.

“That was a Jurchen! Again, these creatures are not people; that’s what you fail to realize!”

“He was just a helpless creature all the same,” Dipaka said.

“Were at a public inn, folks, come on, let’s shut up and think about getting some rest,” I said.

Aki decided we should keep normal watches that night just as though we were camping outside on the road. 

Dipaka and Aki were up on the third watch that night when the Frozen Shadows came. 

“Everybody wake up, we have Ninjas! Ninjas everywhere!” Dipaka yelled. He went on loudly to the Ninjas, “I suggest you give up these violent ways, I suggest you sit down and discuss this with me in a civilized manner!”

This is what I heard outside my door. I stayed inside my room and cast mage armor and a shield spell on myself. I didn’t know what I was going to see when I unlocked and opened the door.

When I finally opened the door, I saw Wen fighting in his underwear. He was bleeding terribly; his skin was discolored from the effect of some poison. Dipaka was trying desperately to heal him.

I saw three black feathered Tengu with blowguns firing deadly poisoned darts.

I fired a magic missile at one of them, and black feathers flew. I saw Ninjas start appearing and disappearing in the hallway.

They were Frozen Shadows.

Aki, Wen, and Lo eventually got the upper hand on them and they retreated. Several of them were dead. Dipaka nursed a few back to health to be prisoners.

We discovered later that the main thrust of their attack had been at Pang Mei’s group. They had been summarily repelled. The Fortune Teller used a dropped empty map case to create a copy of the map that had been inside. It showed the way to what we hoped would be the base of operations of the Frozen Shadows. It was a ways off the road and high up in the mountains. It was about a week away.

We put the prisoners in the paddy wagon. They said they served some Monk named Omawani.

Wen said we should hang them all, and I thought so too, but we all respected Dipaka’s wishes.

We gathered up and examined their Ninja poison bottles. Dipaka said it was evil to use poison, no matter what the circumstance. He said Aki’s Wasp was evil. Aki’s scribbled out a fresh vow on his slate that promised he would never summon the Wasp again.

We went on for a several more days. I noticed that Lo kept getting more and more grumpy. At last, he could contain himself no longer. One night while we traveled late by torchlight, Lo came to me and pulled me over to the side of the rutted road. The wagons kept creaking as they passed us by one by one.

Lo cleared his throat.

“I’ve had it. I’m the House Champion and I should be using the House Sword! If you aren’t going to order him to give it to me, I will not travel with you anymore! I’ll go with Pang Mei! Either that or you must send Wen to go with her! It’s either him or me! You have to decide! I demand it!”

Lo towered over me, and he was very angry. I was angry too, but I started to cry.

“Lo! You have to do something more to earn the sword!” I screamed as tears ran down my face. “You haven’t done a hundred thousand Jin worth of battle in your life! I asked him to let you use the sword! I don’t know why he won’t let you use it!”

I noticed Wen was watching us.

I turned and ran away into the night.

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