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The First Daughter of Mara - Lust

One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Eight | Nine | Ten | Eleven | Twelve

The Race In The Dark

Okay so we're a group of seven sisters, seven samurai sisters if you will. Siblings from a noble house in medievel Japan. For generations the family has been heavy on the XX chromosomes and have secretly raised their daughters as sons for PR purposes. So these 7 children have been carrying on this tradition and all have been trained in the "gentlemanly arts". They have been mysteriously summoned to the family estate and re-unite on the road. As they make their way up the final road leading home, they horse race,split up, meet up with crotchety old aunties, encounter ghostly midgets in the gloom of the surrounding forest, and re-re-unite and split up again. Finally, late at night, they arrive home and are immediately told by their great-aunt, acting head of household that all of the men in the vicinity have disappeared. She correlates this with the appearance of a group of Buddhist monks which the family had given refuge in a nearby valley.

 The Ghost Boys

The six sisters gathered at the home of their ancestors and learned of the disappearance of the menfolk over the last month or so (yet no male animals of any kind were taken). Yoshiie was so horrified by the sound of these strange things, that she covered herself with charms and talismans of many kinds. The group resolved to keep a close eye on the male servants.

With this in mind, Yoratomo and Yoshiie nobly agreed to accompany the two servants to the village inn for a bit of late-night drinking, and the four of them set off on this expedition, while the more prudent of the sisters settled down for a good night's sleep. They were annoyed to remember that the village of their youth was one that went to bed upon sundown, the inn being no exception. The infamous "Old Woman" greeted them at the door and informed them that they would have to save their patronage for tomorrow morning. The two servants were especially annoyed, since they had counted upon being the only two "real" men in town.

Sadly, the little group started back towards home, but soon was alarmed to see a shadowy figure of a little boy standing near a bridge. Dressed in a strange white kimono, with unfamiliar features, dark hair and golden-tan skin, he was definitely a foreign figure standing there. Yoshiie was roused to action and lumbered toward the boy, attempting to grab him. They couldn't help but notice that all normal sounds….the sound of the wind, the sound of rushing water under the bridge….had stopped and there was an eerie quiet around them. Naturally, the boy disappeared, as though through a mist or fog. They could only hear the sound of retreating footsteps. Gradually, that disappeared and the normal night sounds returned. Only a sandal print was left in the dirt at the end of the bridge. Yoshiie, a very superstitious girl, was roused to terror…what if this was the ghost of some undead thing, creeping around the village? She resolved to buy even more charms and pendants to drape around her exceedingly ample form.

When the group arrived back at home, their great-aunt cackled with delight to hear that their inn-hopping expedition was thwarted, while Gate Granny ushered them all back inside. Determined to find something to drink, they headed to the kitchen for cold leftovers and lots of sake. Guarding the servants carefully, they herded them upstairs, and the four of them proceeded to eat and get pretty drunk. Soon, three of them were asleep and snoring amongst empty bottles of sake…not a pretty sight. Only Yoshiie stood guard at the window, making sure no one disappeared. He wandered over to close the window, and gaze out at the courtyard for a moment…but it was already too late. By the time he turned around, his sister and the two servants had disappeared. Another strange boy stood in the hallway, with the same coloring as the first. He raised his hand in some kind of message, and then disappeared as well.

Sobbing with despair, Yoshiie crashed loudly down the stairs, and sounded the mighty gong to raise the house. Soon, female relatives of all kinds rushed out of their rooms into the great hall, all in various items of sleeping attire. Tearing her hair and rending her clothes in despair, the sister told how she had carelessly let the servants and Yoratomo slip through her fingers. Gate Granny rapped her sharply and then commanded everyone to start looking!

They combed the house to see what could be found, but all that was discovered was the clothing of those who had vanished. Since it was almost dawn, their aunts hurried them to begin packing to leave this house of death and search for hope instead. A miraculous thing occurred, in that Yoratomo suddenly yawned, stretched, and appeared from the tumbled mass of sheets on the bed. While they demanded to know how she had escaped from the evil spirit-children, she informed them that she had, in fact, merely made a late-night run to the pits below. Yasumori, the responsible sister and the eldest, was very glad to see her younger sister alive and well, but she urged them to continue getting ready for the journey. A female runner had been dispatched to the gate house to inform Yoriie of the impending journey, but she had yet to arrive, being a late-riser and hard to rouse.

A great plot was formed….Yoratomo would dress as a girl!, posing as the fiancée of Yasumori. So, she was dressed with great care, befitting a noblewoman; a litter was prepared for her, as well, to be carried on the backs of four horses. However, she still carried a long sword concealed in the great sleeves of her kimono, since she was a warrior at heart. When the sun was high in the sky and they could wait for Yoriie no longer, the group set out, heading towards the far end of the canyon and upstream towards the far mountains. As they went, they noticed the many women working in the fields, repairing walls, and generally doing the hard labor; these women paused to look and laugh at the mighty warriors, going off to fight some mythical monster.

The brave band reached the next village and paused for refreshment, but only Yoratomo (who was now called Juna) received the really good service. She was plied with tea and cakes, while all of them were told that there was much work to be done, there had been few fights since the men left, and yet no strange apparitions of any kind had been seen there. After pausing for a while, they continued on their quest. Yoriie reached an inn in another place, for upon reaching home and learning that she had missed the expedition, she seized on this opportunity to have a little fun and relaxation away from her sisters; quickly, she headed back to the familiar village inn to carouse and generally have a good time.

The band of sisters had more important things on its mind, however, and it continued upon the steep, dark and cold canyon. By now, the sun had sunk in the sky, and the dark shadows filled the narrow valley. The sides were black and filled with patches of snow, away from the sun. Yoratomo begged to stop, and make a fire, but she was roundly ignored as they rigorously pressed on.

Finally, they came to a Shinto shrine deep in the heart of the valley, against the sides of a cliff. They were amazed to see a band of at least thirty horses tethered outside and hear the sounds of shouting and laughter inside the shrine. Yoshiie crept as quietly as her bulk would allow to the window of the temple to see who was there. Yoshisuni begged to be allowed to release all the horses…what fun!…but she was sternly suppressed by the wiser Yasumori. Yoshiie returned to tell of men, roasting meat inside and generally desecrating the temple….she, in turn, begged to wreak a bloody vengeance upon them, but Yasumori again begged for caution. Yoshisuni murmured to no one in particular that she was sure she had seen a snow snake, but they did not seem to hear her. Yoshiyuni, who was strangely silent up to now, did a bit of her own investigating and found that there were 15 ruffians in all, along with women of a certain reputation. A few men were standing watch, but most had been drinking.

That was all the band needed to hear…a plan was formed. They decided to kidnap one of the men and press him for information. Yoshiyuni crept off to see to this, and returned not long after, dragging the form of a large and very drunken mercenary. While the other sisters took up strategic positions on the other side of the road, Yoshisuni, Yoshiie and Yoshiyuni gathered around the snoring, fat man to question him. Unfortunately, he awoke and cried out in terror that Yoratomo (being the only female apparently) was the Queen of Heaven, and he had been sent to a terrible Chinese Hell to burn amongst all the upside-down peoples there. Yoshiie growled at him to be quiet, but the man bit her hand and moaned in fear. Yoshisuni begged someone to thump him on the head, and Yoshiie was happy to oblige, after being bitten.

But the damage was done…soon the man's comrades appeared at the door, calling for him…"Gatako". They hollered for the sentries to locate this man, fearing for his safety….with good reason. As they began to call for him, Yoshisuni quickly slit his throat and the snow was soon soaked with red blood. The fat man gasped and gurgled, as his throat filled with blood. He slumped over in the snow, his body halting the steps of his comrade who had rushed up to the group, a spear in his hand. He aimed it at the sisters, but Yoshisuni quickly pierced his heart, and he staggered to the ground, his arm half-sawn in half by the sword blow.


The Fight At The Temple of Natano

Yoshisuni (Terry) has killed one of the two brigands emerging through the front door of the temple and now faces the other. Of her sisters, Katherine and Yasumori (Annita) are perched on the slope opposite the front door of the temple. Yasumori (Annita) is ready to shoot arrows through available brigands. Kath is admiring the stars and rummaging in her gear. Yoshiie (Menachem) is struggling uphill along the trail to aid Yoshisuni (Terry). Yoratomo (Betsy ) and Yoshiyuni (Melissa )are up in the rocks on the temple side of this trail trying to reach the combat from the side or rear of the temple. The two little maids are watching the Samurai horses and huddling over the hibachi in the makeshift tent downtrail.

Yasumori (Annita ) hits and kills the brigand opposing Yoshisuni (Terry). Three more brigands-as many as can get out the door at one time-burst out of the temple to engage Yoshisuni (Terry). She gets one of them. At this point, Yoshiie (Menachem ) is half-way to the temple. Yasumori (Annita ) kills the two remaining brigands.

Three more brigand ronin emerge, brandishing their spears. Yoshisuni (Terry ) attacks one, cuts him in half. Meanwhile, 5 guys come from the back of the temple and are seen by Yoratomo (Betsy ) who is still at some distance from the fray. Back on the front porch, Yasumori (Annita ) shoots the two brigands now fighting Yoshisuni (Terry), but they don't fall over. They continue attacking Yoshisuni (Terry). From Guy 1, Yoshisuni (Terry ) receives a spear thrust which is turned by her armor. Guy 2 has the same lack of success. At this point, Kath's rummagings result in a humongous explosion. Guy 1, in mid-doorway, is blown away. Guy 2 is left gaping at the mess.

Yoratomo (Betsy ) and Yoshiyuni (Mel ) reach the temple and head for the back door, observing the five brigands sprinting for the front porch, and mindful that there are supposed to be 30 guys involved. Yoshiie (Menachem ) is on the porch and temporarily obscures the view for the archer. Two new brigands come out of the front door to join the wounded one. Yasumori (Annita ) wounds two of the group, but they do not fall. Yoshiie (Menachem ) engages one katana-weaponed brigand with his two-handed sword. Yoshisuni (Terry ) is simultaneously fighting a spearman and a katana-wielding swordsman. Two new, katana-wielding ronins slightly wound Yoshiie (Menachem). In the same skirmish Yoshisuni (Terry ) is also lightly wounded.

Yoshiyuni (Mel ) and Yoratomo (Betsy ) enter the small back door to find 5 female slaves whimpering in a corner. There are no brigands in the temple itself, so the two Samurai sprint through the temple toward the fighting on the front porch. Yoshiie (Menachem ) chops one assailant into freezer-sized packets. Another attacks, but misses him. Yoshisuni (Terry )is wounded by the spearman. The five new arrivals attack from behind with katanas, but miss her.

At this point there are 7 guys on the porch attacking a wounded Yoshisuni (Terry). Yasumori (Annita ) shoots two of the nearest, but they keep on. Kath lets go with her firestick again. Three lead guys are hit, but they do not stop. Yoratomo (Betsy ) and Yoshiiyuni (Mel ) attack from the rear. Yoratomo (Betsy ) chops down one. Yoshiyuni (Mel ) stabs the spearman that wounded Yoshisuni (Terry )and kills him-at last. In the course of trying to get one brigand off Yoshisuni's (Terry's ) back, Yoshiie (Menachem ) is wounded and does not succeed in his mission. Yasumori (Annita ) misses one shot clean, but kills Yoshiie's (Menachem's ) opponent with a second arrow.
Yoshisuni (Terry ) fights the innermost brigand and seriously disables him. Yoratomo (Betsy ) attacks and kills her opponents. Yoshiyuni (Mel), deciding things are well in hands, turns to checking out the temple and the female slaves. Yoshiie (Menachem ) kills two guys, a third brigand falls on his knees and begs for mercy. Yoshisuni (Terry) kicks him in the head, not fatally. Everyone is disgusted with this ronin's lack of warrior spirit-he should have at least thrown himself on his sword.

This leaves 14 brigands dead, one captured. There is plenty of loot: 8 spears, 7 katanas of average quality, 20-30 silverpieces, 30 horses in varying states of health. Additionally there are personal effects, clothes and armor from the bodies which are stripped, then buried in the snow by the 5 slave girls. The slaves are all daughters from the same family and named One through Five (by their discouraged parents?). Although they are in condition to ride, Yoshiie (Menachem ) and Yoshisuni (Terry ) will not be fit for battle for some time, two weeks for Yoshisuni (Terry), 4 weeks Yoshiie ( Menachem)-all predictions depending on proper care and healing of their wounds.

Meanwhile, back in the home valley, Yoriie (Ellen ) is enjoying her leisure, sleeping to her 17 yr. old heart's content, shopping, boozing, eating. She has yet to report to the relatives in the big house, and as she begins to run out of ready cash, she acquires two, 12 yr. old girls, Yoshiko and Tokuku, in hopes of making money with them. Outside the valley of no men.
As dawn arrives in the high pass, Yoshiyuni (Mel ) decides to look for hidden things in and around the temple. She find s a loose flagstone behind the altar. After she cannot lift it, she sics the 5 complaining female slaves on it. Underneath there is a 7 or 8 ft. pit with a wooden platform visible in the gloom at the bottom. Yoshiyuni (Mel ) gets the slaves to lower her into the pit where she find three niches in the walls. Each is filled with a Shinto idol probably concealed there when the priest left. One statue is of Maratsu, the others of mountain spirits. Appropriate offerings and observances are made to these deities.

Considerable controversy erupts over what the party should do next. The twins are divided in opinion-Yoshiyuni (Mel )wants to return to the valley in search of better information, e.g. what is the composition of the white stuff taken from the woods in the south of their holdings? what legends exist in the valley that might help explain the two ghostly boys that appeared to the sisters? Yoratomo (Betsy )is very resistant to turning around, wants to cut loose the 30 horses they've acquired and ignore the wounds of Yoshisuni (Terry ) and Yoshiie (Menachem). She feels delay is insupportable.

Everyone is tired, and also tired of listening to the twins scream at each other. Yasumori (Annita ) is uneasy about pressing on with a large party of potential loot for highwaymen and only four able-bodied samurai to protect them, but when Yoshiie (Menachem ) says she cannot consult the gods for guidance without two days of propitiatory meditation and prayer, she decides to press on down into the valley on the north side of the pass where villages technically under the protection of, and loyal to, her family should exist. She directs Yoshiyuni (Mel ) and Kath to take the horses ahead, the rest to follow ASAP.

Episode The Fourth

Out of the mountains; A dire vision; Seven brides for seven sisters

It has fallen to me, Yoshiie, to update this chronicle of our adventures; despite my recent wounds at the hands of the marauding ronin, my brothers (as I shall refer to them through long and carefully cultivated force of habit) insist upon it. And in truth my injuries are not so great as they might have been. An extra layer or three of padding serves nicely to ward off both sword strokes and the mountainous chill through which we have recently passed. Would that I could so easily dismiss the doom-laden visions that haunt Yoshisuni as he lies upon his sickbed! But let me pick up the tale from where my brother left off….

Having disposed of the bodies of the ronin and cleansed the shrine, we made ready to depart. Yoshisune and Yoshitane rode on ahead with the captured horses, and (as they related to me later) several hours past nightfall, having at this point traversed two-thirds of the mountain range, came upon a bridge and guardhouse. Yoshisune crept forward to investigate (he takes a childish pride in skulking silently about, but I am of a mind that sneaking around is not appropriate behavior for a samurai of noble birth. However, I do encourage him to keep silent at every opportunity.). Finding the area deserted save for a lone goat, Yoshitane struggled to get the horses across the bridge while Yoshisune searched further afield. Noting a strange manure-like smell, Yoshisune investigated, but in the dark could not find its source. He returned to the hut where he shamefully disregarded his older brother’s instructions to feed the horses or make supper. These chores were eventually completed, by which time Yoshisune realized that the odd smell emanating from some unknown source outside was the same as that we encountered when menaced by the spirits who have ensorcelled the men of our valley!

Our main party, slowed by the five sisters we freed (who seem to answer to the names "One," "Two," "Three," "Four," and "Five") and our own wounded, arrived at the guardhouse a few hours later without mishap. The sisters have taken it upon themselves to guard our captive, a duty they appear to relish. Yoshisuni, whose injuries were the most grievous, seemed in poor health and, concerned, I inspected his wounds. In the poor light I saw nothing requiring immediate attention, and the two of us retired as the others set watches. The night passed uneventfully, or so it seemed.

When dawn arrived it became clear that Yoshisuni had taken a turn for the worse. Some foreign fragment had lodged itself in his wound, and it was apparent I would need to operate. I sent Yoritomo and Yoshisune in search of medicinal herbs (forgetting in my haste that I had packed some away for just such an emergency) and set to my task with some trepidation. Despite my outward bravado I was not my usual self (weakened, as I was, by wounds of my own), and my hands shook as I worked. At first the operation went well, and I managed to remove the offending piece of metal, but stanching Yoshisuni’s bleeding proved too much for me. Luckily Yasumori was on hand to close the wound. Yoshisuni lapsed into a fitful sleep.

Yoshitane and Yoshisune, in the meantime, had come upon the source of the perplexing odor we have come to associate with our quest. Investigating a small cavern, they disturbed a mass of bats, and realized that the smell in question is none other than bat guano! They then spent a goodly amount of time crawling around in the stuff. Later, the twins (Yoshisune and Yoritomo) enjoyed some success hunting, bringing in a couple of marmots.

Yoshisuni woke suddenly from his feverish sleep, to relate a terrible dream: she saw our missing brother, Yoriie, or rather his mangled corpse, strewn about the countryside as if torn asunder by some great beast! These words were greeted with shock and dismay, and in order to bolster the party’s spirits, I pointed out that Yoshisuni had a high fever, and that, coupled with the medication I prescribed, was doubtless the source of his dream. But my eyes revealed more than my voice, and all who saw them knew that I mouthed empty words. Some then counseled that we hasten home in hopes that Yoshisuni’s vision was prophetic, and may yet be thwarted, or at the very least, Yoriie might be avenged. Others – and I was among these – argued for pressing onward, as the fate of our entire valley rests on our shoulders. This argument eventually won out. As I write this, we still know nothing more of what has befallen our brother, and in fact may never know the truth. I suspect several differing accounts will compete for listeners in the taverns of our homeland….

Yoriie has always been somewhat wayward and mischievous, and those frequently on the receiving end of his japes will not hesitate to spread malicious tales concerning his final hours (if Yoshisuni’s fell dreams prove reality). They will claim that Yoriie, far from rushing to her brother’s side in their time of need, chose to tarry in the countryside and assault elderly aunties (an astonishing number of which make our valley their home) as they hobbled past. Purchasing two beggar girls to serve as his shills, Yoriie skulked by the roadside until nightfall, and (or so his detractors will allege), spying a frail old woman limping by, sent the girls forth to accost her with some piteous story or another. Of course, anyone who has dwelt in our happy valley knows that our aunties are a kindly lot, who’s first impulse is to invite strangers in distress home to dinner. This reaction so disarms Yoriie that (according to the spiteful accounts that will no doubt be bandied about), he is forced to abandon his plans of robbery and instead, leaving behind a valuable bottle of perfume in penance, flee into the underbrush.

Later that fog-bound night, as I expect the disparaging stories will relate, Yoriie and his small entourage make one more attempt to overwhelm an innocent wayfarer. Dozing in the roadside ditch, they are awoken by the sound of footsteps on the path. Peering out, Yoriie perceives an astonishingly tall figure lurching out of the mist, a bulky sack slung over its shoulder. "Stand and deliver!" Yoriie cries as he blocks the traveler’s path, only to have the stranger pull out an overlong spear and reply in an uncultured grunt, "You deliver!" Then the two close in combat! Yoriie immediately has the upper hand against the slow-witted giant, and scores a hit. The two assay several more passes as the girls cower by the roadside and blanch as the giants’ cloak is pulled back, to reveal blue, mottled skin and a pair of horns! Surely the creature can only be an oni out of legend, come down from the hills to ravage our valley in its most defenseless hour! Yoriie, nonplussed, lunges again at his foul smelling foe, only to be betrayed by his own weapon, which flies from his hand and skitters across the dirt! The creature laughs as it thrusts forward for the kill, but Yoriie gains a slight reprieve when one of the girls flings herself into the path of the spear. The girl’s sacrifice is for naught, as the oni’s weapon slashes downward a second time, impaling Yoriie on its cruel point. As consciousness fades, Yoriie watches as his monstrous foe pursues the second girl across the mist-shrouded fields, intent on a gruesome repast.

But I know my brother better than this! Surely the true story - if any of Yoshisuni’s vision proves true - is much different than that which will be spread by the mean-spirited tongues of lesser men. I have no doubt that Yoriie was hurrying to our side, when he chanced upon the two girls, orphaned by the disappearance of their father and brothers, and in need of help. Yoriie selflessly took the pair under his wing, a noble gesture befitting a samurai. And when the oni menaced his charges, Yoriie did not hesitate to throw himself into the spear’s path in hopes of buying the girls time to flee. Truly, Yoriie was the best of us! But I must not write his epitaph too soon, as Yoshisuni’s vision may well prove to be one of future events, which we still might hope to avoid.

Again we slept, and again we woke to the sound of Yoshisuni’s moaning and thrashing as another dire vision filled his slumber! On this occasion he saw dark and terrible mountains surrounding a lake, black as pitch. In the center of the lake stood an island, and upon it sat a building like some squat and pestilent abomination. A light shone at the top of the structure, and in it, a face: "You must find two," it said; and then Yoshisuni awoke with a cry! Surely the lake of his dream can be none other than the Black Lake toward which we ride. I must remember to purchase more charms and wards against evil should I ever return home!

On the next day we made our descent out of the mountains and into the Long Valley. We soon came upon the village of the girls we had freed, or what remained of it. The ronin’s cruel handiwork was evident in the bodies scattered about, and the gutted buildings. We helped the girls to bury their dead, and moved into a smithy near the edge of the town which had escaped harm. A bit of scrounging soon uncovered a wealth of hidden supplies the brigands overlooked. When questioned, the girls revealed that survivors would doubtless have fled to the "treehouse." The twins followed the girl called "Four" into the forest in search of this sanctuary. It proved to be inhabited, and Yoshisune, crashing through the doorway, discovered a pair of girls cowering behind an upturned table. "Six! Seven!" cried Four, for they were her missing sisters! The party returned to our main camp, where the maidens held a tearful reunion. Now as I watch them take innocent, girlish delight in tormenting our captive, I cannot help but think of how similar the seven of them are to my six brothers and I, and how, had not the fates decreed otherwise, we might lead such natural and carefree lives. But our lot is that of the warrior, and tomorrow we shall ride, unafraid, towards whatever awaits us in the brackish currents of the Black Lake.

Episode Five – The Dreadful Boy

(Notes by Terry Flores, transcribed by Thomas Harlan)

Following their arrival at the village of the Seven Sisters, our heroes took up residence in the blacksmith’s house, as it was still standing, unburnt. Yoshisune (Terry) was bundled off to bed by Two, Three and Four, as he was still quite feverish from his wound. Eldest Brother (Yasumori – Annita) was very tired and also went off to bed, leaving only the twins (Yoshiune and Yoritomo) and Yoshiie (Menachem) to bicker over what to do next. Considerable discussion ensued over whether to cut out the tongues of the Seven Sisters, to go back home, to go forward, to share or not share the remainder of the poppy-seed cake, to continue lugging the wounded Yoshisune around or to dump him by the side of the road.

Finally, Yoshiie declared that he could build a comfortable cart to carry the wounded forward and went off to do so. This decided, he went off with two of the maids (Five and Six) to work up a sweat. Yoshiune, not having to pretend he was some princess, went off to gather flowers in the fields around the town. Yoritomo (still disguised as Princess Juno) decided to take a bath and get her hair done. With luck, she thinks, this will take all afternoon.

While slinking amongst the outbuildings at the edge of town, Yoshiune comes upon a wood-shed with someone sleeping (snoring!) in it. A pair of bare feet are sticking out of the shed, so he sneaks up with a long piece of grass and begins tickling the feet. The stranger wakes and leaps up with a shout. A katana barely misses decapitating the reckless youngster, though all of the flowers in his hair are shorn off. Yoshiune scuttles back, drawing his own blade. A roughly dressed woman steps out of the shed. Clad only in a poor quality cotton kimono and a battered wicker hat, she frightens the boy.

Yoshiune yells for his brothers, but no one hears him. Finally, he sees that he has disturbed some wandering ronin and resheathes his blade and bows to the stranger. The stranger, mollified, resheathes her blade as well. Some rough words are exchanged.

A discussion ensues, during which time the stranger introduces herself as Midori Pittising, a cousin of the Ishikawa clan from the lands north of the mountains of Shinano. Yoshiune does not believe this and questions the stranger closely. Things degenerate quickly – Yoshiune insults Pittising for having a degenerate family ("to train a girl to fight!"). Pittising responds with a wild tale involving the infidelities of Yoshiune’s mother and an incestuous affair.

Yoshiune cannot stand for such slander and draws her wakisashi (rather slowly, being a poor student of the blade art). Pittising is a blur and steps inside the boy’s stroke, striking Yoshiune’s wrist, numbing the hand, causing the sword to spin away from nerveless fingers. A punch to the body throws the boy to the ground, stunned. Pittising steps up and offers the boy a hand up. Yoshiune tries to pull a jiu-jitsu throw on the stranger, but instead finds his reaching hand in a wristlock and then Pittising’s elbow explodes against Yoshiune’s forehead and there is only darkness.

Yoshisune, meanwhile, has tired of sleeping and has moved out onto the veranda of the blacksmith’s house. The maids serve her some tea, riceballs with poppy seeds and some soup. While he is taking his rest, Pittising strides into town with the limp body of Yoshiune over her shoulder. The stranger comes up to the veranda and askes Yoshisune if the boy is a relative. Yoshiune shrugs and says, "huh?" The maids, following Yoshisune’s lead, also deny knowing the unconscious boy. The situation is saved by the appearance of Princess Juno (Yoritomo) who declares that she does know this boy – it is the younger brother of her betrothed (Eldest Brother). Drawn by the commotion, Yoriie sticks his head out of the blacksmith’s shop as well.

Pittising tells her tale once more – this time Yoriie is suspicious, but Princess Juno is very gracious and offers the stranger a bath and the hospitality of the village. The unconscious Yoshiune mutters a great deal in his delirium, mostly bad things about the princess. Some maids rush off to prepare more hot water for the bathhouse, while some remain and haul Yoshiune off to the sick-ward. Pittising says that she has heard of the trouble that has befallen the Ishikawa, but Yoriie is very sure that such news would not go to such poor cousins, so he does not believe it.

Yoshiune, comes around enough to see lots and lots of maids and to throw up in a bucket. Seven holds his hair back while he’s vomiting. Then they dose him with ginger tea and hot packs on his battered head. He goes back to sleep. Yoriie goes back to the smithy, grumbling. Princess Juno returns inside for a nice massage. Yoshisune, meanwhile, has had enough of this sitting around and tries walking about a bit – he feels fine, so he goes back inside.

Sundown is approaching now, and a man arrives in the village from the south road. Humbly, he goes to the smithy, where Yoriie is still working on the cart and says hello. Yoriie is surprised to see another stranger, and more surprised to see a Taoist Chinese monk in this out-of-the-way part of Honshu. The fellow is short, but very stocky, and dressed only in a simple saffron robe with a begging bowl and a walking stick. Not even sandals. The monk, Tao'li (Dan Martin), asks what has happened to the village. Yoriie relates that bandits and brigands have been ravaging the valley. Five goes into the house and gets some food, which she offers to the holy man. At first he takes only a single rice-roll, but then succumbs to his great hunger and eats a whole plate of food.

While eating Tao'li asks many pointed questions about the village, the samurai, everything.

Inside, Princess Juno is told by Five that a monk has come, asking for almonds. The princess, eager to meet this stranger, rushes to the smithy with a bowl of fresh almonds. Tao'li is surprised and very honored to be served by a princess and bows many times, giving thanks to the Buddha and wishing happiness and grace upon the house of the beautiful princess. Using Yoriie as a social intermediary, Juno and Tao'li exchange greetings and Tao'li learns that the princess is a Buddhist also and on her way to the new monastery so that her fiancée might join her own faith. Tao'li is impressed and says that he is a member of this monastery. There is some discussion of Tao'li joining our merry band.

Juno questions the maids about the disappearance of men from their village - sure enough, by the time the bandits attacked their village all of the men had disappeared. Tao'li relates that he has been in the valley for three days (and has not disappeared). Yoriie begins wondering "here three days, not taken yet… hmmm…". The princess visits her brother and makes sure that he's sleeping soundly.

Yoriie declares that the cart will be done by supper-time and that the whole caravan is leaving the village in the morning. Tao'li wanders off to see what there is to see in the village. He finds a Shinto / Buddhist shrine and examines it. Something about it bothers him, but he cannot put a finger on the specific item. He sits and begins meditating. Yoriie follows for a bit and watches the stranger. Princess Juno shows up, however, and shoos him off, taking up a more respectable watch herself. Yoriie returns to his smithing.

Two, watching the princess in turn, runs to Yoshisune to tell him that the princess is in the shrine with the strange man unescorted! Yoshisune shrugs in his indifferent way and tells the maids to offer the monk a room for the night.

In the shrine, Tao'li suddenly realizes what is out of place, but keeps this information to himself. Juno offers him almonds. Yoriie comes back, glowering. Tao'li declines and leaves the shrine. Juno is disgusted that Yoriie keeps hanging around and spoiling her fun. Tao'li - seeking some respite from all these strange Japanese - goes down by the river. Juno starts to follow him, thinking of a bath, but then decides that the river will be too cold, so she goes back to the big house. Yoriie, however, follows. The monk and the samurai have a discussion of why they (as Men) have not been abducted yet.

Yoriie and Tao'li decide (and the others agree, mostly) that the caravan as a whole will press on to the valley of the Dark Lake and find the Chinese monks. Yoriie relates to the Chinese the tale of the disappearing men and the other odd events that have transpired. The monk becomes quite disturbed by all this. Tao'li returns to the big house and meditates in his room. Upon his return, Princess Juno badgers Yoriie about the time of the disappearances of the men from this valley and from the home valley. They determine that men would begin disappearing from isolated areas, then from the villages themselves, then, after the men were gone, the bandits would arrive.

The maids serve the fine dinner that Yoshitane (when not puttering with his odd-smelling chemicals) has made from supplies looted from the village. Big Brother (Yoriie) concocts an herbal draught for the still-weak Yoshisune, but this causes the injured brother to vomit profusely. Yoshisune declines any further medicinal aid from Big Brother.

The whole company turns in - even the bandit boy (after being forced by the maids to pee while they watch) and Midori takes a watch in the depths of the night.

The village sleeps, quiet and serene, and Midori paces slowly along the veranda that runs around the blacksmith's house. In the deep of night, well after midnight, she halts - a strange, foul, smell intrudes. She turns, her katana whispering out - a white figure disappears around the corner of the house. Midori trots to the corner of the veranda. Tao'li, whose room she passes, abandons his meditative trance, extending his chi throughout the simple chamber. It is empty, so he rises and steps through the sliding rice-paper door of his room.

The figure of a young boy in archaic Chinese burial robes stands in the hallway. His skin is like alabaster, pure and pale. His long hair is like the wing of a raven. His eyes, too, are black polished marbles. Tao'li shudders, feeling the soul-destroying corruption of the creature wash around him like a tide of fouled water. Midori, standing in the doorway at the end of the hall, is frozen by the strange tableau.

"It is your fault", croaks the child, in Omphar Chinese. Tao'li raises an eyebrow in surprise to hear the tongue of his home village.

"What can I do to make amends," asks the monk, humbly, bowing before the thing.

"There is nothing you can do," answers the dreadful boy, "millions will die for your sin."

"You should not be here," says Tao'li, bowing again.

"Your brothers are all dead," says in the child in its grave-voice. "They fed me and made my spirit strong. You will feed me, and I will be stronger."

Tao'li glides into a Stone Mountain stance, centering himself. The dreadful boy raises a hand and turns its palm towards the monk. Something blossoms at the center of his hand. A stunningly loud boom rocks the house, waking every soul within it. The monk is hurled by a blast of wind and thunder through three rice-paper walls and into one of the teak outer walls of the house. Stunned, the Chinese collapses to the floor.

In the princess' room, the maid scream in fear, but leap up around Juno, forming a ring of bodies to protect their mistress from assassins. In the other rooms, the brothers leap to their weapons and stand ready for battle. Yoshiune, rousing himself from a battered sleep, crouches by the door to the hallway, hearing light footsteps outside. Yoriie slowly slides the door of his room open, peering into the hallway. In the princess' room, the maids are frozen with fear as something touches the panel and begins to open the door.

Yoriie shouts, a ringing ki-ai, and leaps across the hallway, his wickedly long no-dachi slashing diagonally through the figure of the child. The figure halts and the upper half of the creature turns, leaving its feet facing forward. Yoriie, a superstitious type by nature, is stunned with horror.

"Begone," says the dreadful boy, and there is a second thunderclap. Yoriie is flung backward, crashing though the wall of his own room and through a bamboo frame onto the veranda. Tao'li, recovered, sees this and steps out the ruined window behind him onto the veranda as well.

"Flee the house!" shouts the monk, preparing himself for a hopeless effort. Midori has already bolted. Yoshiune, the youngest, and Yoshisune (the injured, 3rd oldest), do not flee. Instead they leap into the hallway, bristling with weapons. The child turns again, looking upon them.

"Too many," it says and folds in upon itself like an origami flower time upon time until it is gone. This takes only an instant.

A search of the house and the stables reveals that the bandit boy is gone. Tao'li urges everyone that they must make haste to reach his brothers. So, the following morning, early, the entire caravan departs for the north road and the Dark Lake.

A little after noon, Yoshiune (in the lead) reaches a crossroads on the north road. A new cairn of stones has been raised by the side of a fresh track that leads north into the towering wall of the mountains. This new road is marked by thousands of tracks - bare feet and shod. Some of the tracks seem to be only a few days old.

Pressing on, the caravan reaches the base of the mountains. A narrow, slot, canyon opens before them. The trail is meager with only room for a single-file advance. The stones of the mountain are dark and the canyon walls sheer. Too, the trail has been built up recently, stones placed in rough spots to make a road.

The monk is questioned about his travels - he says that he had left the Middle Kingdom with many of his brothers to found a new temple, here in the remote mountains of Shinano. Soon after their arrival in Nippon, however, he fell ill and the others went on without him. He was sick for weeks and has only now caught up with his brothers.

The party moves cautiously forward - single file - with Yoshiune in the lead. For hours they wind their way up the canyon. A swift stream rushes past in the bottom of the canyon and the trail runs close to it. At last, Yoshiune reaches a barrier. A wall of black stones, roughly cut and fitted together without mortar, has been raised across the canyon. The stream emerges from a water gate under the wall in a roil of black water. Atop the wall are fourteen bare skulls, without so much as a scrap of flesh. The trail ends at this frowning rampart. A stink fills the air - of rotting flesh.

Back at the main body, both Princess Juno and Yoriie have noticed that the waters of the stream are thick and dark, like they are suffused with soot or oil. Tao'li is becoming more and more concerned. Yoshiune returns in haste and tells his brothers of the wall across the canyon. He questions the monk, asking how many of his brothers are at the monastery.

"There were fifty of us," replies Tao'li.

Yoshiune, after a stiff swig of sake, returns to the wall with the Chinese in tow. With a little help, Yoshiune climbs partway up the wall of the canyon, enough so that he can look over the top of the wall. He is dismayed to see that behind the wall is a long lake of dark water, backed up behind what is - apparently - a dam.

Juno, Midori, Yoriie and Yoshitane (peering around the curve of the canyon) begin discussing a plan to blow up the dam. Yoshisune, meantime, creeps forward and touches the wall. Above him, unnoticed, one of the skulls collapses to power and a thing rises from the ash.

The ghoul leaps lightly down, landing with flexed legs. It faces Yoshisune, its hands moving into the Walking Crane stance.

"You shall die," it proclaims in a gravelly voice. Behind the samurai, Tao'li blanches in fear. Even gnawed by worms and stripped of flesh, he knows the body, the stance, the voice of his old teacher.


Brave though they were, the group could not help shuddering at the apparition before them. Its ghastly aspect was enough to terrify more hardened soldiers than they were…its bones half-stripped of flesh, its bare gums grinning at them, its eyes staring at them from exposed sockets. The vision was more fearsome than anything Yoshiyuni (Mel) had seen yet in her easy-going life…but she didn't hesitate to attack it (perhaps too inexperienced to fear danger yet). With more enthusiasm than expertise, she leapt at the monster, aiming a kick at its torso (at least where a full torso should be); but the ghoul easily parried the blow and she stumbled into the monk, who rolled under her flailing limbs.

Probably even more terrified than her sister, Yoshiie (Menachem) still knew her duty, even though her superstitions all but threatened to overwhelm her. Yet she found the courage to dismount, and grasp a strong staff in her shaking hands. It seemed as though she couldn't face the fearful thing, but she knew that she must make an effort, and forced herself to move across the path to a better vantage…. one that involved treading at least through the shallows of the foul waters. And then her mind would go no further. With blank terror, she refused to even touch the dark river and backed away, conveying her terror to her horse, which rolled its eyes and tried to shy against the cliff wall.

With a loud cry, Yasumori (Annita) loosed an arrow from her bow, which made a swift path towards the creature and buried itself in its back, ripping a hole in the moldering flesh and loosing a cloud of evil-smelling dust. Bellowing angrily, the monster lunged at the monk and managed to deliver a strong kick to his head. Staggering and shaking his head a little, the monk moved back in and was knocked half-unconscious by a mighty backhand. As she watched this with fury, Yoshiyuni let loose a scream and rushed forward with her sword drawn; she managed to rip a piece from its arm, and watched with satisfaction as it howled in fury and dust spewed out all over the ground.

As she noticed the screams and chaos caused by the terror of their servants and animals, Yoshiie moved backwards to help them, and the monk groaned in pain as she was forced to stumble over his inert form. Expertly, Yoshiie forced them to move backwards from the fight, and into a path of greater safety. Giggling with stupid glee, the monster watched their movements back down the path and gibbered to itself with insane satisfaction. But that proved to be its undoing, for the band was angered past all reason. Yasumori launched another arrow towards it, as Yoshiyuni swung widely with her sword and hacked at it. The monk folded his hands a moment, and darted straight at the cliff. He ran swiftly and surely up the side of it, then flipped over in a perfect tumble onto his feet and kicked savagely at it, crushing its side. Yoshiyuni stabbed its body over and over, until the evil ghoul tumbled into the water and mud at the stream's edge. Yoshiie forced herself to take all her courage and stalk over to the crumpled form, hacking and slicing at it until it was ripped apart…and pieces of its body flowed out into the murky waters and finally drifted lazily down the black stream.

Sobbing with relief, the group was glad to back carefully down the way they had come, away from the awful dam with its skulls, the unnatural dust released by the monster, and the black and hideous waters rushing down from the vile lake above. They were glad, as well, to make a camp at the mouth of the canyon and settle down to a much-needed rest. The girls were unusually quiet as they ate their dinner and reflected on the close call they had endured, and the evil to which they had been so close. Instinctively, they huddled together for protection. (Yasumori was glad of this, for in truth, she had carnal thoughts towards the humble monk and searched for a way to press close to him.) The group took turns meditating, and resting, and watching over their little camp; a variety of prayers, both Shinto and Buddhist, made their way to the skies.

Close to dawn, the two on watch (Yasumori and her cousin, Pitti-Sing) were disturbed by a splashing sound and went down to the river to investigate. There, huddled under a bush, groaning and muttering (strangely enough), was a large turtle…it appeared to be trying to dig its way into the sand, and cried out at the sight of them…."Light…. no light!" Recognizing that the animal was bothered by the light and scared at the sight of them, they tried to mask their torches and inquire into the source of its trouble. "Water! no light!" it cried and tried again to burrow into the sand. Yasumori called for one of the silly maids and pressed her into service to run and fetch a gourd of water; the maid brought it and only spilled some of it at the sight of the talking beast. Carefully, the cautious sister gave the gourd to the turtle, which poured the water over its head and into its mouth. "Water…" it continued to plead, and much effort was spent in bringing it as much water as the maid could carry. After quite some time had passed, it sighed with contentment and looked gratefully at the two who had restored much of its strength to it.

Unfortunately, the sounds had traveled up the banks of the stream, and others from the party made their way down to the water to see the strange sight. Yoshiyuni and Yoshiie laughed contemptuously at their efforts to save it and brutally recommended that it be left to die. But Yoshisuni, who had a great compassion for all living things, and the two who recognized its power and goodness, argued strongly for taking it with them…surely the gods had sent this animal to help them in their quest. They insisted on providing it with food and water, even giving it a bath of water in which to sleep. One protected gifts from the gods.

Morning finally came, and they were relieved to see the blessed sun again…could they ever have fully appreciated it, before looking upon the face of such evil? After a quiet breakfast, it was agreed that Yoshiyuni and Yoshitane would scout the land and search for another way to the black lake… one that was more easily crossed than that guarded by the dam. Perhaps, too, the turtle, if taken to this lake, could speak to the spirit that lived there and find a way to restore the waters and save them all. Armed with various instruments of climbing, the two set off for the high mountains.

At the same time, Yoshiie and Pitti-Sing set off on another journey to the village, to see if a craft suitable for crossing the lake could be found and brought back to the camp. With hopeful hearts, the two set out, leaving the rest to guard the camp and the magic turtle. The band passed the day uneventfully, with the maids tending to the extravagant needs of the princess, Juno, who continued to eye the lowly monk with a smoldering glance…. in this, she was challenged by Yasumori, who knew when she wanted something. Yasumori used her dark eyes to great advantage, and did not hesitate to brush against the monk whenever possible, which hugely annoyed her sister and vastly embarrassed the monk (who had forsworn all women). In such a way, communicating with much more than words, the group passed the day and waited for word from those who had gone out exploring.

When none had returned, they ate and took up watch again, praying that tonight would bring no disturbance to their peaceful sleep…. but it was not to be. When the darkness was quite advanced, Yoshiyuni and Yoshitane returned from their journey, wet and angry, cursing at the bad luck they had endured; they had found no passage, only the signs that even greater and more fearsome monsters inhabited the valley. With ill will, they flung themselves down and consumed their dinner, surly companions for the others. As the group watched and waited, a great cry went up. The three maids who guarded the monk, had passed out unconscious onto the ground around him, and he himself sat frozen as though in a great trance. As they turned as one, and looked to the edge of camp, there stood the horrible child who had visited them before at night…they felt their limbs go stiff and cold with fear at the sight of him. With a cry of fear, the magic turtle crashed from its resting-place and fled into the night.

They looked instinctively towards the monk, and prayed that his knowledge and magic could help them, but he did not move and remained where he sat, solemn and still with eyes closed. It seemed as though he was in the throes of some trance or vision, and appeared to be aware of something, which they were not. The evil boy watched the group gravely, before moving into camp.

It moved its hand in some fashion, and one of the maids disintegrated instantly, turned into a strange dust, which swirled around the monk in a cloud. As they saw the fate of their comrade, the other two maids clung desperately to the monk, hoping for some protection from him…. and this seemed to break his strange trance. He began to cry out, as the maids screamed in terror. The child moved his hand again and a stand of trees disappeared as easily. The remaining sisters clung to the priest as well, and prayed for a miracle. The monk asked, "What is your name, coward?" The boy replied, "Why should I tell you, who are evil? There are not enough…you will die now."

Frantically, the group tried to shoot the boy with arrows, a futile effort, which did nothing. Instead, two more of the maids were vaporized by him, as easily. The survivors cried in fear, and held each other desperately. They clung instinctively and hopelessly, as though it could somehow help them. The monk bodily picked up the princess and Yasumori, carrying them to safety, and trying to protect them. At last, the terrible child proclaimed, "Next time I will return and bring others." He folded himself in the same strange fashion as before and disappeared, leaving the group alone in anguish and fear.

They felt as though all their power and strength were leaving them, powerless and undefended against the danger that threatened them. They had nothing with which to fight or protect themselves…then they remembered the gift which the gods had sent…the mystical turtle, which had run away at the sight of the boy. Yoshiyuni was by now convinced of its power and hope for them, and she hurried to find it.

The strange creature proved itself to be a magic sprite after all, for the turtle had disappeared and a timid girl with green hair and scaly green skin, eyed them from the edge of camp. Yoshiyuni persuaded it not to run away to the spring or resign itself to die alone in the forest, but to cast its lot with them and hope that this evil could be adverted. Only good could come to all creatures, if the evil that threatened them could be defeated. Proving her goodness and strength, the fairy creature agreed to accompany them to the lake and see what good could be achieved by speaking with the lake spirit. There was much discussion of strange Buddhist relics and speculations on their number, as well as that of the maids. But nothing could be learned until morning, when warmth and light reappeared. Hopefully, tomorrow would bring the return of their other sisters, and a way to continue their mission. They crept together for warmth and comfort, and still the two sisters fought over who would sleep next to the monk. Their desire for him was increased by the display of his magic and strength…. time would show which of them was the more determined.

Above this scene, the gods observed and smiled, like mischievous puppet masters who watched their toys at play…or malevolent spiders that enjoyed the complex webs of intrigue and mystery that they spun. Surely, they were all helpless in the capricious hands of these gods….

The Letter

Unto Chi Lee, Grandmaster of the Eight Fold Way Temple

My Master, I have attempted to record some of the happenings on the journey to move the most holy relic of our temple to these lands of Nippon.

My Master I regret that these notes shall be incomplete, for written prose is not a source of strength for me.

Nor do I believe I shall live to see the end of this tale.

The newest day in my journey began with great beauty, the sun rising gloriously, and pushing aside the morning mists and the dark shadows of night. Strange that the world should continue on even when it seems it very fate lies in the balance.

As I set my self into the deepest meditative state to gather strength for the coming night, the camp began to waken around me. The brothers Squeaker (Yoshiune), Yoshisune, and Princess (Yoritomo) gathered together around the fire, their maids bringing fresh tea. As only sisters can do they began to argue over the next steps in our journey. They considered trying to find more women, the presence of which seems to have some affect upon the powers of the child fiend. After some hours they concluded that they must wait for the return of Big Brother (Yoshiie) and Cousin (Pittising), but the maids could be put to work fortifying the campsite. Squeaker then leaves the campsite to scout the path ahead looking for some way over the mountains and into the Valley of the Black Lake.

For me the day passed quickly. My Chi now strongly anchored, I returned to the second meditate state, and found that night was near. Slowly I began to perceive changes in the campsite. The maids would have made a Chin general proud; the camp was now a tiny fortress. The Princess was now dressed and armored as a Samurai. How these sisters have keep their secret for so long baffles me. Neither Squeaker, Big Sister nor Cousin have returned.

I rise now to the first meditative state, in time for Squeaker to return gleefully displaying the severed head of some red-faced monster. Soon bits of the monster’s hair and teeth adorned the sisters. Cousin also arrives bringing word of the return of the party sent to find a boat. Before the sisters can finish arguing wither to move the camp to the boat or the boat to the camp, Big Sister rushes into the camp, bring warning that strange men are in the shadows about them.

I steady myself, I can sense that the child is nearby.

Suddenly I am in motion, without conscious thought I have struck at the Child, who as appeared at the edge of firelight. Never have I moved so quickly, never have I been so focused that mind and body have acted purely together, free of the hesitation of thought. My ‘Lighting of Mountain Storm’ kick carries me into the Child and like thunder my heel lands a blow at the base of his throat that would have killed any living thing I have ever known.

Yet it is I who falls.

My blow, as I fear all my efforts, has meant nothing. The Child is unmoved and I lay broken, my Chi gone, at his feet. The feeling of doom takes an icy grip on my heart.

"Give your self to me and I shall burn away your sins priest." The boy thing taunts me.

The sounds of combat are around me, but I can not take my gaze from the child fiend.

"Do you wish to see the world you have created Priest?" The child gloats as I gain my feet.

I can see several old men, with skin as white as snow, forming a ring around the light of the campfire. They are the fourth circle monks of our Temple, the bookkeepers and scribes.

"See how the world shall be remade" the child whispers to me and his hands fold open showing me a vision.

In the morning the sisters told me that I had collapsed and the child had vanished again. They begged me to tell them of the vision, but I cannot. For I fear the truth would only fill their hearts with despair. In my heart, my master, I am certain we will be destroyed when we reach the temple.

Only Buddha can save us now.

The Mushroom People (kufu-sen)

As the sun arose, the party prepared to set forth on their journey to the Black Lake…with much bickering as to whether or not the boat should be carried along or left. Those in favor of leaving the boat prevailed, and these stalwart souls decided to go on foot or horse along the alternate canyon to their destination, where hopefully the Green Girl could talk to the lake spirit on their behalf. Those not in favor of leaving the boat conceded to this scheme, with some muttering and scowling, which was ignored by the others.

They started for the lake, even after discovering that Squeaker was missing. After all, she was known to wander and generally do her own thing, reckless though it may be. They shrugged…teenagers will be teenagers…. and headed off for danger and glory. Their sister would catch up.

She, of course, was determined to head back to the Oni house to see if she could add more Oni parts to her scalp belt. So, she pushed along through the forest brush and arrived back at the large hut to see what more could be gleaned. The inside was rather nasty…. with bugs, and smelly soup, and sausages made of Ameratsu-knows-what. The floors were dirt, the shelves were bare. In other words, there was not much to discover. Squeaker looked at the first bed, but it was TOO big…. well, everything was really too big. This had been one strapping big Oni. The only other things of interest were the postholes he had been digging for some kind of stockade to hold animals. Alas, there was nothing else to see. She raced to rejoin the others.

Her sisters were having trouble of a different kind. They had traveled up the second canyon and discovered a fresh stream, unfouled and teeming with fish (presumably), clear and cold. The Green Girl took one look and hurled herself into it, sinking down to eye-level, and refusing all enticements to come out. When they pressed the issue, she sank to the bottom of the stream and nothing more could rouse her. They were forced to leave her behind, submerged underwater. However, by now, Squeaker rejoined them, so they exchanged one travelling companion for another.

By now, the canyon was 50-60 feet across, cold, damp and mossy, lined with ferns. On the left, was a side ravine with plunging waterfalls. Squeaker, on scouting patrol, explored further upstream and scurried back to report that she had found that the stream was dammed up, with sturdy and well-constructed rock walls. Moreover, there was also a stone house (large and possibly housing undesirables) as well as a mill and water wheel. She demanded to explore it further, and the two feckless twins crept back to see what more could be discovered, Squeaker urging the Princess to stay in front (in spite of her enthusiasm, she was a little wary of what lay in the house). The two of them sneaked up to the windows and tried to look over the sill to see the interior, when they heard a door slam and loud voices. Open-mouthed, they whirled to watch a band of creatures march around the corner, and Squeaker (it has to be confessed) moved back a bit behind her sister.

They saw a group of seven or eight short, pale moon-faced dwarves in gray robes, carrying spears. Following them were two large Oni, one red, one blue, both carrying large staffs with menacing curved hooks on the end. Fortunately, the group didn't see them, but headed off instead down the stream, straight towards the rest of the party. Horrified, Squeaker let out her famous "Hoot Owl" warning (and the Princess considered following up with the cry of the red hawk) to warn the others. It was to no avail…. while Yoshisuni (Nature Girl) recognized that this was no actual birdcall, it didn't register with any of them that it might be a warning from the twins, although Yoshitane (Silent) did pull out her gun as a precaution.

If they did not regard the warning, they soon saw its reason…. the fearsome creatures saw them and let out bellows of rage. Without warning, the two Onis charged the party, brushing off the arrows of Eldest Brother as if they were flies. One of them savagely speared Big Sister's horse, and she was forced to clamber off and draw her sword, holding it tightly with both hands and glaring fiercely at the ugly beast in front of her. Eldest Brother also lost her mount, as the other Oni stabbed it as well, and she jumped lightly to safety, her bow and arrows also at the ready.

Swallowing her dislike of Onis and things supernatural in general, Number One Cousin pulled out her katana, its long blade slicing through the air with a hiss. She lifted it high in the air, and brought it down swiftly in a strong blow, that injured and enraged it, but did not kill it. The silent sister braced her gun on her sister's shoulder and fired at the blue Oni, again injuring it but not killing it. Eldest Brother took a moment to change to her katana, and Cousin (nobly, so nobly) moved in and defended her in that unguarded moment, hacking and injuring the Oni further.

Big Sister raised her huge sword with both meaty hands and swung at the blue Oni, but missed it entirely. The ugly beast used that moment of weakness to deal her a hacking and vicious blow. Silent raised her pistol and shot it in the stomach, but it would not die! But the red Oni dropped to the earth in a mighty heap when Nature Girl hit it with a well-placed arrow. The sisters turned their attention to the remaining one, taking their various turns at hacking and slicing. Finally, Big Sister gave a loud cry and sliced through its body; the Oni grunted in futile rage and staggered down, its stinking blood drenching the earth below.

Meanwhile, Squeaker and the Princess had rushed back to the clearing and attacked the group of pasty dwarves, giving and receiving blows from the group. The Princess killed one of them with her two-handed sword; but Squeaker was injured, instead, by several of the dwarves, but managed to stagger away from the battle, leaving the Princess to deal with five dwarves. The Monk made several brave efforts to fight, but basically missed everything at which he swung… at least his efforts distracted the pale dwarves.

At this crucial point, two more Onis appeared from nowhere, it seemed, and threatened the group with fresh danger. Squeaker, shooting in near darkness across the mill-pond, made a brave arrow shot and struck the third Oni squarely in the eye, blinding it and crippling its attack, as it screamed in pain and blood trickled down its face. The sisters surveyed the two Onis with grim determination, and while Big Sister bound up her wounds, her cousin turned to the new fight. At the same time, the twins and the monk continued their desperate battle against the small white creatures, with the monk actually knocking one unconscious; Eldest Brother and Nature Girl joined them in this fight. The monk delivered another blow (weak), but nonetheless dove into the fray with (what would be described around campfires for years to come) flying fists of righteous harmony. The Princess, belying her dainty name, sliced through another dwarf, killing it easily. Cousin also skewered a dwarf and watched with fascination as its eye spurted out of its skull and rolled across the ground.

There was much fighting and swinging and mashing, as the groups exchanged various blows. Silent raised her gun with grim determination and pulverized the brains of the uninjured Oni, which rushed forward and then was thrown back in a startled heap. Big Sister succeeded in killing another dwarf, which fought desperately with the Princess and the Monk. Finally, Cousin, after receiving a wound from the final Oni, brought her sword up and killed it; it crashed to the earth, and the long and bloody battle was finally over.

The heroes surveyed the remaining dwarves (seven, wounded and unwounded) with grim purpose. To their surprise, the small creatures flung themselves prostrate on the ground and begged for mercy. "The Oni forced us to fight and work for them! We are no friends of theirs! We are your friends!" They seemed pitiful and sincere, and the sisters believed them in spite of the battle they had just fought. Obviously, the Oni could easily overpower these small, white dwarves, and now that the fighting was over, they seemed humble and gentle enough. Apparently, they were the ones who built and ran the mill, before the Onis arrived and forced them into slavery.

The sisters were persuaded to accompany the dwarves to the mill house and accept their hospitality. (Squeaker paused for a moment, first, to yank another Oni tooth from its mouth and add to the other tooth she had… these would make a fine pair of earrings.) After all, they themselves had suffered some wounds and could use this chance to rest and be refreshed. The Maids were sent to collect the horses, which they did with their usual Greek Chorus of wailing and complaints (to sum it up, the lot of a maid was not a happy one).

All day we work, they sang, and labor in the fields
From the cold dawn when we rise in darkness
To a cold night, when we crawl to bed, exhausted
We work and toil and strive
Never seeking praise, never seeking honor
Our lot is poor and filled with weariness
All day we work, and labor in the kitchen
Poor is the lot of a maid, given to ceaseless demands
Never a kind word, or a gentle hand to help us
All day we work, and in the darkness, too
Pots to scrub, pans to clean, sheets to mend
The lot of a maid is a weary thing, filled with anguish
All day we work, our backs bend with age.

At the mill house, the sisters rested and learned more about their hosts…. they were the Kufu or Mushroom People. Upon closer inspection, they had very flat white faces with huge solid-black eyes, and strangely, no ears. In their place were little clustering stalks instead. Even more strangely, they had mushroom-like growths on their arms, once the sleeves of their robes fell back and revealed this. Offering more information than anyone wanted to know, the Kufu pointed out that they had no sex. Instead they "budded" and produced their offspring. In proof, they brought out a dish, which appeared to have small buds growing on it. Humans, the Kufu said, had been known to eat their children (which only proves the old adage that one should be careful when picking mushrooms).

The Mushroom People bustled around and attempted to bind the wounds of Squeaker (who had received many blows and was pretty well injured), but the maids, who regarded them with revulsion, rebuffed them in these efforts. Not so repulsed, Big Sister was completely willing to accept a bowl of strong mushroom soup from the Kufu, but her sisters decided to eat their own rations, instead.

The Oni (whined the Kufu) had forced them to make armor, and they had pounded out 24 sets of huge armor so far. The Oni were no friends of theirs… they too had suffered from the evil black water and poisoned earth and air. They would be glad to see an end to all of these horrible things. Overcome with the goodness of these simple people, the sisters tried to discuss a future trade agreement, which could benefit the Kufu immensely. But they proved themselves suspicious and retiring, asking only to be left alone in peace, as a reward for their hospitality. This, the group was glad to have, for it was dark and cold (and darkness brought terrible things, up here in the mountains). They collected blankets and made themselves cozy for the night, after securing all the windows and doors against such things as they could. Everyone settled down for a good night's rest and prepared for the next day's dangers. They all prayed to the gods (often, quite a reasonable group) and thanked them for bringing them safely through another day.

The White Death

Into the Mushroom Realm / Conversations with a Kappa / A Haunting Farewell

Of all my brothers it was I, Big Sister, who paid closest attention when the storytellers of our valley spoke of the supernatural. Oh, my brothers’ shrieks of terror were loud, I’ll admit, but mine were louder, and to my shame lacking in the others’ skeptical good humor. For days afterward, I would sleep fitfully, nightmarish visions haunting me despite the protective wards I commanded placed about my bedchamber. Eventually my mother forbade me listen to such tales, but already my head was full of ghouls and evil spirits of all sorts. One such tale seems of particular significance to me now, and perhaps even then I had some inkling of its dread portent. It described how, after a particularly abrupt and violent death, one’s disbelieving spirit may be doomed to walk the earth in gruesome and unholy parody of life. Now, as I look down upon the wrecked shell that was my body, I bear a terrible witness: the story was true! And it is I who am doomed to eternal half-life, here in this dark and vast cavern, untold leagues beneath the earth’s sunlit surface, in this cavern that has become my tomb.

Acceptance comes slowly; oh, how I resist it! I am but twenty years of age, and have so much yet to wring from life. And how can I leave my brothers to continue our quest alone, when the fate of not just our family, but of the entire world, rests with such weight on our shoulders? But if I am to avoid the fate of the wretches in the old tales, I must come to terms with my situation. Perhaps recounting the events of the past day will help me to gracefully embrace my fate….

Following dinner, our hosts showed us to a spot near the mill’s smoldering foundry and bade us good night. Squeaker’s wounds were poorly tended to on the battlefield, so before we retired I redressed them and proscribed a potent brew of herbs (mixed secretly with one or two of the mushrooms I had slipped from the bowl of soup our hosts provided). My ministrations were rewarded, and almost immediately he appeared to gain strength. We kept our usual watches during the night, lest the mushroom peoples’ demeanor, outwardly so harmless and benign, mask a poisonous intent. But morning arrived without mishap.

I awoke to find Squeaker’s spot by the fire empty. Hoping that he had simply hobbled off to the outhouse, I began to explore our surroundings. I had meant to ask the mushroom people for a new set of armor (for the Oni were quick to reveal the weaknesses of my current gear), but had no chance the night before, and now the mill’s owners were nowhere in sight. Returning to the dining chamber I noticed a small door in the far wall. My knocks brought no answer, so I gave the door a good tug, only to hear the locking mechanism (along with my faith in the mushrooms’ metallurgic aptitude) give way with a snap. The door swung ajar, and I looked out upon a tunnel leading into the hillside, its sides lined by small mushrooms (presumably of the ordinary sort) and glowing green lichen that provided a dim luminescence. The heavy air bore the scent of lush and ancient plant life. I made to shut the door and walk away before I was discovered, but Princess and Cousin had already come up behind me, and so against my better judgement we entered the tunnel.

After a short distance the tunnel widened, and we spied a mushroom person with some sort of gardening implement, tending to the weeds and fungal growths lining the cavern. We approached and addressed it, informing it that we were of the party that had driven the Oni off, and would like to speak to the mushroom in charge. It seemed startled to see us, and claimed to know nothing of our story; we spoke among ourselves, and when we looked up, it had fled. Being the eldest present, I decided that we would return to the mill and wait for the mushrooms to contact us. I turned back up the path, Princess dutifully following behind, but Cousin, being somewhat ill-bred and impetuous, chose to disobey. She disappeared into a side tunnel, and in a foul mood I dismissed her. She would almost certainly get into trouble, and I wanted no part in it. Thus without a backward glance I returned to the mill and sealed my fate.

As I later learned, Cousin stumbled into one of the mushroom folks’ nursery chambers, where she unwittingly wreaked much havoc among the young and helpless mushroom buds. Those in charge quickly converged on the scene, rakes and hoes at the ready to protect their charges. "You have slain five of our children," they cried, and when Cousin tried to apologize (there was no malice aforethought, she maintained) they would hear none of it. Fearing to take further steps, she sat, only to hear a brief, high-pitched scream, cut terribly short, from beneath her. The mature mushrooms gasped in horror as Ellen extinguished the life from another handful of their precious offspring! "Summon the Wise Pod," one of them cried, and Cousin was led off, still protesting, into the depths of the earth.

Princess and I returned to find Eldest Brother and the others taking breakfast. When they learned that I had turned Cousin loose upon the hapless mushrooms, they insisted I return to the tunnels and fetch her back; and so, with poor graces, I again passed through the small door into the mysterious mushroom realm, Princess at my heels. This time our path was blocked by a cohort of mushroom soldiers, who brandished spears and demanded harshly that we turn back. How quickly had Cousin worked her mischief! I explained that one of our company was lost in the their maze-like complex, and as soon as I found her we would depart. "You are the leader?" one of the soldiers asked, and not willing to go through the effort of explaining that Eldest Brother was in fact in charge of our expedition, I responded that I was (how readily such deceit comes to my lips, after a lifetime of deception!). "Then you must come with us to see the Wise Pod," it said, and I readily agreed, happy that we were finally getting somewhere. The mushroom troop escorted us deeper into the tunnels.

After a great deal of walking through a bewildering array of passageways and chambers, where we glimpsed many wondrous and baffling sights, we came to a cavern which dwarfed any we had yet seen. We were led to the room’s center, where a bridge traversed a small pond to an island upon which a great multitude of mushroom folk had gathered, muttering and casting evil glances our way. The crowd parted, and we saw Cousin at its center. But it was to her companion that our vision was drawn; the largest mushroom we had yet come across, its mottled coloration and white beard indicating its great age, and the dome of its head crowned with tiny mushroom buds that inspected us in a clearly hostile manner. We were in the presence of the Wise Pod.

"The one you call Cousin has committed the most grievous of crimes against our people," the aged mushroom said. "Without provocation she has murdered 67 of our young! The penalty for her vile act can only be death!"

"67? I slew but five!" Cousin responded, showing little remorse and still less awareness of the trouble she was in. I threw myself in supplication at the Wise Pod’s lower appendages, to be followed by Princess and Cousin (though I suspect the latter was pushed). "Oh most sapient of ‘shrooms, we sought only to help your people," I argued. "We have journeyed a great distance to slay the Oni which oppressed your folk. Four are now dead, but five times that number remain. Cousin, despite her many obvious faults, stands ready to battle them on your behalf, if only in your wisdom you will transmute her sentence."

"We are grateful for your help," the Wise Pod acknowledged, "but this in no way rights the scales for the monstrous acts of your companion. The penalty stands."

At this point one of the soldiers who had led me to this spot approached and whispered to the Wise Pod, nodding in my direction. "You are the leader of this band?" the ancient pod asked. I grudgingly acknowledged that I was (why involve Eldest Brother in this catastrophe?).

"Then," the Wise Pod pronounced (each of its words landing with the weight of a blow on my back) "it is your life that is forfeit for the crimes of your underling!"

"Most sagacious of fungi," I quailed, "none may dispute such logic. My life is in your hands. I only regret that it must be summarily snuffed out, when my strong sword arm could serve as a weapon against your enemies and, perhaps, allow me to make some small amends for my monstrous crimes."

The ancient toadstool considered a moment, and then spoke again: "Your words, though desperate, have merit. The evil in the Black Water has brought with it a rash of malevolent creatures to plague us. One such monster dwells in what was once our greatest nursery, rising time and again from the water that has filled the chamber to devour our people with great gusto. You will destroy this thing and thus expiate your wrongdoing." He signaled to his minions, "Take them!" and turned away. Our audience with the Wise Pod was at an end.

The mushroom we had spoken with at dinner the previous night approached, and indicated that we were to follow him. "What of my brothers in the mill?" I asked. "Will you send a messenger to them so they might join us in our fight?" He shook his head. "The Wise Pod said nothing of this. Come." We had no choice but to obey.

Again we descended through numerous twisting tunnels into the earth. I briefly considered overwhelming the fifteen or so mushroom troopers who served as our guide, but realized that, without them, we would never find our way to the surface. Besides, I had given my word to the Wise Pod, and must now face the consequences. Occasionally I tried again to convince the mushroom chief that he should fetch our comrades, with unsatisfactory results. After several hours the tunnel we traversed opened out into what we sensed was an immense cavern, its far walls unseen in the inky blackness, its floor lying beneath imperceptibly rising water (a product, perhaps, of the dam we had visited some days back). A boat awaited us at the shore. I asked a final time that a message be sent to our brothers on the surface, and was gratified that my words had effect: One of the mushroom soldiers was dispatched up the tunnel, though his purpose in going was unclear. The mushroom chief pointed to the boat, indicating that we should proceed.

Thinking to stall for time, I informed our host that we could not rush willy-nilly off to battle, but instead must perform certain rituals and ceremonies to ensure the favor of the gods. With his grudging assent, we began our religious observances, drawing them out as much as possible under the watchful eyes of the mushrooms. It soon became apparent, however, that we had not paid quite enough attention to our religious instructors, and would run out of material long before our brothers could reach us! And so (may the gods forgive our impertinence!) we commenced to invent elaborate rituals, hoping that the mushrooms, so long apart from mankind, would not call our bluff. We chanted gibberish, swaying violently and sounding not unlike the troupe of Mongolian throat singers who have on occasion entertained our valley. We abased ourselves before makeshift shrines built largely of mud. We made mystic gestures and drew obscure sigils in the dirt. All the while our vegetable escort stared solemnly at our antics, now and again exchanging glances as if to say, "We are right to dwell deep within the earth, far away from lunatics such as these!"

Cousin abruptly began a jaunty, high-kicking dance peculiar to her folk, chin thrust out and arms flailing jerkily in every direction, prompting the mushroom men to draw back several paces in alarm. Several hours must have passed with such mummery, though it was difficult to tell so far below the earth’s crust, and our exertions made us quite light-headed. Finally I assayed a series of complex pirouettes and twirls, loudly invoking the half-remembered names of every nature-spirit Master Nakamura crammed my head with as a child. Afterward, looking up from where I lay sprawled in the muck, I was overjoyed to see that the rest of my brothers had at last arrived, and had in fact been watching our display, mouths agape, for several minutes.

Drawing on some hidden reserve of dignity, I greeted my brothers, and explained as best I could how we had come to be in this benighted place, and what was expected of us now. Our company was reduced to eight, the maids having remained on the surface to tend the horses, but this was still too many for the small boat provided us. Several mushroom men were dispatched to fetch another vessel, and again we waited in the gloom. Attempts to question the chief mushroom further as to the nature of the creature awaiting us proved unsatisfactory; all that had seen it were now dead. But one of the mushroom folk had lived long enough to give a vague description of its humongous white bulk rising suddenly from the depths to ravenously devour hundreds of screaming mushrooms as they frolicked in the shallows or picnicked on the shore. Apparently the mushroom people are quite savory… I was about to suggest that now would be a good time for lunch, when a second, somewhat smaller but still adequate, boat was brought up. We half-heartedly clambered aboard, four to a boat, and poled off into the unknown. The light at the shore quickly receded, flickered, and then was no more.

For the first part of our journey we sat in alert silence, thinking at any moment to see the waters churn and give birth to some nightmarish monstrosity, which, lacking any clear description of the creature, we each conjured up from the depths of our own personal fears. But as the time passed, and nothing appeared to disturb the dark tranquility of the lake, we relaxed, and the newcomers related what had transpired on the surface after Cousin, Princess and I entered the mushroom realm.

Just as I feared, Squeaker had wandered off at first light, the medicines I had given him clouding his judgement even as they stanched his pain. Luckily a number of the woeful maids were on hand to watch over him as he poked unsteadily about the mill, and then ventured outside to the scene of yesterday’s battle. There he was perplexed to find the bodies of the fallen Oni and their fungal underlings nowhere in sight. Investigating further, he noticed a wide swath of flattened plants leading to the pond; clearly something (something large!) had dragged the bodies into the water. Drawing closer, Squeaker thought to hear a splash, and made out a pair of eyes watching from the pool’s undergrowth. Another Kappa! Squeaker called to it, but it shyly dove under the surface. Deciding to lure it to shore with a freshly killed squirrel, Squeaker prepared to go hunting, but the maidens’ good sense prevailed, and Squeaker agreed to rest by the pond. As the morning passed, all four dozed off in the warm sun, lulled by the quiet music of the stream chuckling over the rocks of the little dam.

When Squeaker awoke not long after, all seemed as before: the tranquil pond, the picturesque mill in the distance, Squeaker’s horse grazing quietly by the shore…. There was, of course, no horse to be seen, only a fresh skid mark leading down the bank. The pond’s tranquility was disturbed, moreover, by the slap of something large sliding back under the water. Squaker was outraged and leapt up, but then halted, staring in surprise at the pair of slowly blinking turtle eyes - eyes no less than four feet apart - that were barely visible in the pond.

Squeaker stood as close as he dared get to the edge of the water and screamed imprecations at the turtle spirit until his throat grew hoarse, which only caused the creature to submerge further into the muck. Changing tact, Squeaker tried reasoning with the Kappa, explaining that we had come to help it by restoring the lake, but this happy news too was greeted by silence. By this time the mushroom emissary had arrived to fetch my brothers to the subterranean lake, and Nature Girl emerged from the mill to round up Squeaker and the maidens. Having some affinity for animals, Nature Girl sent the others back to the mill and spoke with the Kappa. The turtle proved as stupid and cowardly as it was overgrown, and Nature Girl, after a long and pointless conversation that I shall omit here, eventually gave up. Leaving the maidens behind, Squeaker, Eldest Brother, Nature Girl, Silent and the monk ventured into the caverns, and so we were reunited.

After what must have been three hours of poling (the water proved quite shallow), we came upon a stretch of dry ground, though our feeble light could not reveal its exact nature. An island, or the other side of the cavern, it mattered little. We began to navigate along the shore, examining the rocky outcroppings and looming stalactites for any sign of the creature we sought, or at least a spot where we could debark. Then a cry from sharp-eyed Squeaker, followed closely by the splash of something large hitting the water, had swords pulled quickly from sheathes and fingers fumbling to nock arrows or prime pistols! But still nothing appeared, and after Squeaker described the great, 15 foot translucent crab he had seen slip into the lake, I believe none of us were unhappy that our battle was put off a little longer. Still, we had sworn to destroy the creature, and so we would.

We approached the ledge upon which the crustacean had rested, and determined that here we would make our stand! I waded to shore, as did Princess and Cousin, while the others remained in the boats and tried to lure our prey to us. For some odd reason Eldest Brother was carrying a bloody horse’s hoof (all that remained of Squeaker's horse), which we attached to a rope and dangled enticingly in the water, but such a poor meal was beneath the monster’s notice. Eventually Squeaker produced an arrhythmic splashing in the water with an oar, as of some tasty morsel that had fallen in and now struggled to climb out.

"I see it!" he cried, pointing into the blackness and grabbing for his bow. The rest of us squinted in vain at the darkness so indicated, as Squeaker let fly several arrows in the same direction. "It is noth…" I began, when the lake erupted in front of the boat on which Squeaker stood, and a gigantic, many-toothed maw yawned wide, to abruptly snap shut, smashing the prow of the vessel to splinters! Squeaker and the monk were tossed overboard as the monster continued its forward motion, scrambling through the wreckage onto the ledge where I stood! Princess and Cousin, being somewhat more fleet of foot than I, flung themselves to the side, but I stood square in its path, and as it closed the distance between us I realized that our foe was not some overgrown crab at all. Instead, I faced an enormous crocodile, all of 30 feet long, its white scales indicative of a lifetime spent far below the sun’s light, its eager, toothy grin indicative of an ill temper brought on by its recent bland diet of mushrooms. Then, it was upon me! It’s jaws closed about me, a hundred teeth tearing through my inadequate armor as if it were eggshell, and a pain the likes of which I had never imagined wracked my frame!

I have always been skilled at disregarding pain, at divorcing my mind from the discomforts of my body as is taught in the dojo. So when a calm came over me, and the pain which had a moment ago seemed insurmountable receded and then disappeared entirely, I congratulated myself for so completely mastering this difficult pain-blocking technique. In fact, I may have blocked the pain a little too well, for I felt somewhat numb, as if my frayed nerve-endings had ceased all communications with my brain. But this was no time to puzzle over it! I twisted, and easily slipped from the croc’s toothy grasp to the ledge below. My companions, meanwhile, rained blows on the great lizard from all sides, though only one in three seemed to have any effect; the creature’s thick hide warded all save the strongest of attacks. It turned its attention from me to Princess, who quickly took my place in its jaws. I cast wildly about for my sword, but it must have fallen into the lake, so, steeling myself, I rushed forward again! With some vague plan to pry the crocodiles jaws apart until a sickening crack was heard, I tried to grab hold of it, but my unfeeling hands could gain no purchase on its spittle- and gore-flecked snout. Nonplussed, and remembering my knife, I leapt on the thing’s back, bringing my weapon down again and again between its unseeing eyes (for a lifetime spent in dismal caverns such as this had left it quite blind). My blows had no effect whatsoever, and soon my knife skittered off to join my sword in the black waters.

It was not only the front of the lizard that threatened us; its lashing tail did great damage as well, smashing first our precious remaining craft, and then glancing off of Squeaker’s head, sending her, unconscious, slipping below the surface of the lake! Seeing a chance to be of use, I dove after her, but again my numb hands betrayed me, and I could not pull her up. The others gamely fought on! Nature Girl dove into the waters below our foe to stab at its unprotected belly, Silent worked furiously to the side on some sort of alchemical explosive, and the rest laid to with gusto and a wide assortment of swords, knives, and, in the case of the monk, very sore hands and feet. It is fitting that Cousin gained some small measure of atonement for her part in all this by delivering the deathblow, her blade finding purchase, at last, in one of its great lidded eyes. The great lizard thrashed, twitched, and finally lay still. Nature Girl was almost crushed under its great sinking body, but managed to extricate herself. My cries for help with Squeaker at first fell on frustratingly deaf ears, but eventually Cousin swam out to haul our waterlogged brother in.

With some difficulty Squeaker was revived, though my attention was held instead by a first glimpse of my own sad and mangled corpse. Now my unfeeling hands, my unheeding brothers made a kind of horrible sense! For I knew then, though I could not accept it, though I railed mightily and bitterly against it, that I had perished under the crocodile’s initial onslaught. The Wise Pod had spoken, my sentence was death, and neither honeyed words nor honed swords could stay its dread finality.

Now, as my brothers gather solemnly about my body and discuss in muted tones their next course of action, I find the mortal world growing dim, opaque, a dream scarce remembered. The surety of my death is with me now, and with acceptance, I can know peace. I wish my brothers well on their quest, but their fight is no longer mine. The cavern’s vast, eternal darkness beckons me, and I rush eagerly to embrace it.

Lonely Mushroom on a far shore…

Oh you troublesome children, you know this story better than I do by this point. It happened so long ago I cannot remember it all clearly and you have heard it so often. You have your house chores to do, (you, little one, straighten your obi!) and I, I have a great kingdom to run. I cannot be bothered with your demands… Oh, very well , but this is the last time, and do not interrupt!

This is a tale of great bravery, perhaps one of the greatest of all time, when a group of young warriors struggled against great odds and suffered great loss to save their family, their homeland and the very Earth itself.

They had come a long way already when we find our heroes, stranded on a rocky island on a lake in the heart of a mountain. They mourn the death of their brave Yoshiie, who had fallen prey to the monstrous cave crocodile. But their grief is temporarily set aside, for they realize that they are still in terrible danger, and must remain strong to continue their crusade.

As their boats have been destroyed, They quickly resolve to reconstruct a boat using the materials at hand, the huge reptilian carcass. Clever Yoshisuni attends to this task, as the eldest and wisest Yasumori treats the wounds of the gravely injured Yoshisune, the reckless and spirited junior member of the crew. The rest of the band mills around standing watch and gathering the scattered equipment. The immense cavern looming with darkness and the lapping of the water wrecks havoc on the nerves of the vigilant party. Sounds coming over the water soon make it clear however that there is still something, or many things, still out there, just out of the range of the feeble mushroom lantern. With the boat once again sea-worthy and the dead and the injured tucked safely inside its recesses, Yoshisuni calls out over the lake with the gift of animal sense to attempt to contact any being who might be approaching, the others stand ready.

Yoshisuni senses something on the other side of the island and goes to explore, encountering a new creature with many eyes shining out of the gloom… In the darkness away from the band, Yoshisuni quickly becomes entangled. As a large, many-legged being approaches, it is obvious that the cavern is also infested with giant spiders. She warns the others from over the hill and begins to sweet-talk the giant spider.

Meanwhile, as Yoshisuni disappears over the crest of the rock, splashing alerts the remaining fighters as four pairs of eyes break the surface of the water, standing on stalks like opium-laden poppy heads. The party prepares for the next struggle and Yoshitane lights a flare and casts it out to provide a little more light for the eminent encounter. Suddenly,
from overhead, a projectile screams through the damp air and strikes the flare plunging it deep into the murky water where it quickly fades into the blackness. Startled, the small band looks upward - each terrified of what the lofty darkness might yield, forgetting for the moment about the danger approaching from the water. Yoshisuni, trapped on the other side, but coached by those standing terrified on the shore, once again calls out with
the gift of animal speech and encounters a second giant spider, as it descends it is of such a size as nothing we, uhh, they had yet encountered.

This spider is not so easily distracted and angered at the presence of the troop and, particularly of their light. Thinking quickly, Yoshisuni talks the giant arachnid out of devouring the party immediately, enticing it with the crocodilian entrails scattered on the nearby shore. Pittising, the strong but impulsive kinsman, momentarily panics, careening to the far side of the island becoming ensnared in the web with Yoshisuni. Finally, the spider descends, to feed, it is widely hoped, on the soft organs laying about.

A hush falls upon the human group as they try to calculate the next course of action. A low roar begins out on the water, growing louder and louder, then accompanied by a glow growing stronger and stronger until it explodes out of the water and the entire cavern is engulfed in an explosive burst of light and heat. The forgotten flare, thought destroyed by the spider with a spit of silk, had, in the depths, ignited the spider’s thread
and like a fuse had followed it back to the source. The spider and its fantastic network of webbing are instantaneously vaporized. Leaving the heroes, confused and exhausted, once again standing on the rock waiting for what ever the capricious gods next have in store for them. (Bah! The gods are not capricious, only busy.) Their wait is not a long one.

In the aftershock of silence, they slowly begin to prepare to return to the land of the mushroom people, for whom they had undertaken this mission. There they would regroup and rest. First they free their comrades trapped in spider webbing on the far side of the rock. Then they begin to carve up the crocodile carcass into steaks, there is nothing quite like the taste of fresh crocodile meat you know.

Wise Yasumori, ever thrifty, begins to gather whatever spider silk there is left for later use but in the process gets hopelessly tied up in it and is forced to wait for help. Feeling distraught over the grave condition of his twin Yoshisune, the brave and noble Toritomo extracts crocodile teeth and looks for spider fangs for the ailing hero’s ever-growing collection. Completing this task, Toritomo disentangles Yasumori from the sticky skein. As Yoshisuni cuts the crocodile meat, a small and non-threatening translucent crab, cautiously approaches the shore. Tempting it with the crocodile steak Yoshisuni is completely taken by surprise as another enormous white crab, erupts out of the water behind the cute one , and tramples over it toward the unsuspecting group on the beach. Before Yoshisuni can call out a warning, the crab has scrambled onto the island and is stalking Pittising.

Yoshitane, quick of thought if not of deed, tosses an explosive toward the crab, it misses its mark dropping instead into the boat with beloved Yoshiie’s corpse, the injured Yoshisune and the twin Toritomo looking after them. The crab snatches up Pittising, and prepares to feed upon the warrior when noble Toritomo, quick of deed if not of thought, throws the sparking
explosive into the crab’s jaws. As it explodes, the crab is pulverized and unfortunately, Pittising suffers great injury as well. The band is relieved that the crab is dead, noble Toritomo is crushed that this act of great bravery and skill has also hurt a companion. The band once again prepares to disembark, making final preparation to the crocodile-skin boat
confident that they have subdued the monsters of the cavern, taking turns at watch and completing the vessel. At long last they set sail for the distant land of the mushrooms, Yasumori singing a dissonant victory dirge as the approach the port.

The Mushroom people hearing the fearsome sound and seeing the reptilian form approaching assume that their dreaded foe has returned and the band has failed and stand ready for war, before they recognize their saviors and with great celebration welcome the worthy warriors into their home once again.

There now, you youngsters. The sun is already high in the sky. The earth is safe, let us all get back to work and enjoy the freedom that these great warriors have ensured.

Temple Games

Wooh! It's happening again. My life is passing before my eyes. At least the recent part.

Annoying Baby Sister, white-faced at the millhouse, but in good hands with four of our maids. And those creepy polyp people.

Another polyp-our guide-"Shitake," Nature Girl called him. I don't care if he longs to bud. I wish I were back on the coast with real men. And on horseback! Walking is for the masses. And boats are for fishermen.

Kufu everywhere under the mountain, like termites in wood. Doing all their daily chores. There's even artwork commemorating their dull little lives. And a sunken sacred city. Green lights illuminating it. How'd they do that?

More tunnels and sculpture. Then the end of their diggings. Real caves leading off right and left. Their guards at the border looking worried. It's been too quiet of late. Rough travel to the left for us with only a little rest, and that interrupted by Nature Girl's sighting of a Water Man. PolypGuide knows nothing of it.

Hours squashedon the bottom of a raft getting my nose scraped on the ceiling. Passionate hope we don't have to retreat this way in a hurry. Hope there's nothing that eats flesh in the water as we paddle by hand when the pole can't be used.

The outside world! Steady drizzle. Night. Can't see a thing except the Black Lake licking at the cave exit. Mushroom Head claims the "others" like us are over there in the shadow, milling about or just standing looking toward the unseen temple. Darned if I can tell whether he's lying. At least he's happy. He doesn't have to hide from the sun yet.

Rowing like crazy for a temple we can't see. Then we spot a blue flame ol' Shitake says is on the highest part of the temple. I want a plan for this assault. The boat hits something. Twin Sister pokes around with her oar. We all wish she hadn't. It's got rotted goo and hair on it. Now we see them. Lots of them. Rotting bodies floating just under the surface. All guys. Our guys-all castes, all ages. Now we know where they've gone, can't we just go home?

Oh shit. A golden point of light in front of the boat in the mist. It spins. We glimpse a thousand arms, then the head, body of a young boy. He stands on a whirling disk of light. A forest of dead arms rise out of the water to make a pathway for us to him. Silent comes up with some Buddhist nonsense, "It's the Bodhisattva!" We hesitate, then press on.

The apparition disappears and we're aground on a black sand beach. Ahead is a low wall and behind it, the temple building. Our monk is mobbed with questions. He thinks the holiest of the holies from his order is inside the stupa. Maybe. He thinks the world will end because of something he did/does. I think he thinks too much of himself . He rattles on about how 7 Dreadful Children will walk the earth because of him. It doesn't look to me like he will be their biological parent. Who would have him? Though, maybe a little sex would be good for his personality. Give him perspective, at least. Having seven dreadful children certainly would change him.

We're over the wall. Passing by unsightly heaps of building materials. We discard the idea of getting on the roof. It's two stories up. We form a wedge with the Monk and Shitake inside and me at point. Then we go right , around a corner

Uh-oh. I see two guards, monkish types in white at the gate we approach. We retreat and try the entrance to the left. Four white-clad monks. Maybe we can waltz in. Maybe they won't fight if we don't attack. We step up on the pathway and pause. I sing a Haiku of greeting. The four close ranks and fall into martial stance. At Cousin's insistence I fling a sprinkle of fresh water in their direction. They respond by advancing a step.

Our Monkboy starts chattering away in Chinese. Stupid-sounding language. But he seems to have the attention of one guard, so we egg him on. An ominous blue light pops up on the roof of the passage beyond the gate. Then Cuz and Silent say they can feel something in the passageway there. Monkboy has run out of chants. His guard's head flies off and we all see something huge with four arms before it becomes invisible again.

The three remaining guards come at us. We three in front are struck in the assault. Silent and Twin respond well, but clearly these are more tough demons. Silent's musket cuts loose and we see the invisible monster by the blood running from his wound. I am content with that. I don't want to see the rest of him just now. I can't seem to hit a thing with my katana. More gunshots, and we can see drooling pistol wounds in the Unseen's body.

The guards' assault resumes. Cousin is knocked unconscious. Shitake-fortunately for him-misses me and hits a Monk-at this rate, maybe the Great Pod will let him bud after all. Silent's pistols score another hit in the same spot on the monster. I'm not watching, I've finally clobbered one of the guards. At my elbow Nature Girl is also grunting with satisfaction. We are shamed by Twin as she actually kills one of them. More gunfire, but to no avail. I hear Silent cursing. If only her technology were as good as she says it is.

The Eight-Fold Path

As our story opens this time, all the sisters try to think, Where the seven children come from, what's the tie-in, what's the link?

Oh, the monk must be the father, of these hell-bound children, hence,
Maybe we are all his lovers, wait, this theory makes no sense.

Squeaker's yelling at the servants, "Toss that boy and let him drown,"
"Wait, I've changed my mind this instant….get him back here safe and sound."

While the maids all hold their skirts up, one retrieves the missing guy,
Who's so glad to be recovered, that he bites her on the thigh.


At the temple, there is fighting, but the monk is still aghast,
And their cousin's still unconscious, as the zombies move in fast.

Eldest Brother hacks the leg off, of an ugly four-armed beast,
Silent blows the head of one monk, into forty chunks, at least.

Mushroom trips as he is fighting, and in anguish, sprains a spore,
Nature Girl is filled with fury, killing monsters by the score.

Princess fights like one empowered, by a cold and deadly rage,
But the monk is chanting softly, as their enemies engage.

As the ghoulies drop like insects, through the temple gates they veer,
And the monk is stunned to notice, that at last his head is clear.

In the courtyard stands a temple, that's surrounded by eight spokes,
At the top there glows a blue flame, this an eerie mood invokes.

All the prayers are circling backwards, surely that's a solemn sign,
That there is impending danger, of a very evil kind.

Oh, the monk, he grabs a prayer wheel, and its cycle seeks to break,
While the prayer wheel only falters, what a warning sound it makes.

Many monsters heed the warning, to the temple yard they rush,
All the sisters spy the doorway, through its portals try to crush.

Only innocents may enter, and it seems that three is all,
Nature Girl, the monk and Mushroom, in its sacred depths they fall.

For the others are just soldiers, and their duty is to fight,
So they turn to face the zombies, with their weapons and their might.

Silent and the Eldest Brother, shoot the monks and watch them pop,
Princess can't crash through the doorway, Cousin's snoring like a top.


On the walls there is some writing, Chinese poetry it seems,
And they think the poems are backwards, full of darkness and of screams.

So they try to say them forwards, put obscenities to rest,
And it seems that when they do this, that the aura is the best.

Through another door they cluster, eye some pictures on the wall,
Charcoal drawings of the buddha, rough and sketchy, that is all.


Princess fights another monster, gets a kick that sends her low,
Eldest Brother is a butcher, carving monks up like a pro.

Silent's guns explode like cannons, off blow limbs and ears and eyes,
Then a monster's arm is shattered, and in dread and shock it dies.

Then a four-armed ugly creature, grabs for her, to run her through,
But it misses, scores the body, of the luckless Number Two.

Silent shoots another creature, leaps aside and turns to run,
But it has a nasty brother, and it crushes Number One.


In the temple maze are levels, and they circle one by one,
Yet they all are partly finished, not a single one is done.

To the center room he wanders, and the monk is forced to stop,
When he sees the mighty pillar, blue light shining from the top.

On the top there is a bronze box, but it's guarded by a spell,
Angles strange, and things in writing, nasty grinning skulls as well.

He is vaulted to the pillar, by the brawny Nature Girl,
Then he hears a sudden humming, and the room begins to whirl.

From the top the monk is hurtled, but he grabs the box with ease,
Then the blue flame glows with fury, things invisible he sees.


All the zombies they see clearly, moving forward from the lake,
And the air is filled with keening, wails too terrible to take.

Princess scrambles for the doorway, which she gains this time with ease,
And she slowly tumbles forward, in the darkness, to her knees.

Silent can't get to the temple, and is seized by dreadful things,
All the others know the horror, which their certain, dark fate brings.


On the ground, the monk is scrambling, to retain his vaunted prize,
Then the top, it flies off suddenly, and the skulls begin to rise.

From the box, the objects tumble, they are human bones and old,
Into shock, his mind is spinning, while his humors, they run cold.

Flames surround his body, glowing, golden light soon fills the room,
In his hands, the bones he clutches, to avoid a dreadful doom.

In the doorway stands a child, pale and dreadful, gravely still,
Then its features fill with fear, death surrounds it, dark and chill.

Down the corridor it stumbles, running from the noble light,
Straight into the vengeful Princess, who engages it to fight.

As they wrestle, down the hallway, glowing, flaming, comes the fire,
And the child struggles fiercely, for it sees its funeral pyre.

With one hand the monk still handles, bones that will the evil wreck,
With the other, grabs the child, in an instant, breaks its neck.

From the wound, the evil gushes, thick and black, and oily dark,
Then the monk falls down in weakness, but at last he's made his mark.

While the light fades into twilight, through the courtyard ring the peals,
Of a massive bell enormous, twelve in all, the strokes it deals.

All around, the monsters vanish, as if by some hand erased,
And the evil monks diminish, by their good souls are replaced.

To the victors, spring their conquered, to embrace them, give their thanks,
Where the zombies lined the courtyard, noble men now swell their ranks.

Now the temple glows with beauty, all is righted, poems and art,
Shine with color, form and balance, goodness, pureness, play their part.


Squeaker hears a knock and answers, at the door she spots the eye,
Of the slender green-skinned maiden, who is blushing , meek and shy.

To the pond, she points a finger, and adjures the girl to go,
Jump into the murky waters, and address the thing below.

When she hears there is a turtle, big and buff and male and strong,
To the pond the female rushes, to the waters to belong.

Squeaker waits for the arrival, of her sisters tough and brave,
In the meantime she is getting, all the pampering she can crave.


In the casket go the fragments, of the bones, now plain and white,
To the monks they hand this offering, so the world can be right.

Once before they built this temple, prayers and helping were their creed,
To contain the evil noticed, to combat the certain need.

Soon the wheels are spinning rightly, prayers ascend to skies above,
Monks are back to aiding others, and their hearts are steeped in love.

But they warn the noble sisters, something evil has escaped,
Stole the souls of seven children, bent on conquest, death and rape.

All the paintings tell the story, of a man and of his life,
Seven women, seven children, torn apart by wicked strife.

One is vanquished, evil conquered, but his brothers roam the land,
And their threat can be aborted, only by this noble band.

Once again, their fate accepting, all the sisters pledge to end,
Evil caused by these six children, wearily, their prayers they send.

To the gods to be forgiving, merciful, and kind and wise,
But they doubt that pure protection, will reflect the gods' replies.

For they know the gods are watching, and like puppets, bend the knee,
Up above their masters chuckle, all capricious as can be.


The End of the First Daughter