By Seth Mason
Asako Hirariko was not entirely sure how things had gotten out of hand so quickly. Her journey with the Nezumi called Yoee'trr had only lasted two days, but the henshin was beginning to question her choice. The ratling had led her deeper into the Shadowlands, chattering endlessly the entire way. Hirariko had expressed concern about alerting the beasts of the dark realm to their presence, but Yoee'trr was supremely confident in their combined abilities.
"But that not as funny as when Hio fall-fall down on his own stick one time, Fire-lady. Yoee'trr spend long yesterday with humans, but still not know why poison themselves with the s'akee." The cheerful ratling had been spouting an endless yarn of his random experiences with a Crab bushi he called Hio, who was likely a Hida or Hiruma. Yoee'trr stumbled over his attempt to pronounce what sounded like "sake" and then continued. "Anyway, Hio poison-poison self good long time some yesterday ago…"
Hirariko's headache was only going to get worse. She was silent partially because she was trying to learn the Nezumi's way of speech - it was apparent that everything that had happened before the present moment simply fit into the Nezumi concept of "yesterday". So far she had heard the ratling speak of "some small yesterday", "a long yesterday", "yesterday before Yoee'trr even make first squeak", and even an impossible "yesterday before Sun look down on sky." The Phoenix had also remained quiet in hopes that Yoee'trr would eventually grow tired of talking for so long or even become annoyed at the sound of his own voice. After three hours, Hirariko's hopes slowly dwindled.
"And then Yoee'trr say to Hio, 'No-no! Hio, that not goblin! That gee-sha!" the ratling bushi made an almost unbearable high-pitched sound that she assumed was probably the Nezumi's way of laughing. Hirariko visibly winced and fought the urge to cover her ears. Yoee'trr suddenly stopped laughing and planted hind feet firmly on the ground, halting his walk and standing erect. "Ahh," he said, as if they had been quietly waiting for some sign that he just recognized. "We here."
"Where?" Hirariko asked, taking in the landscape around them. There was little question that they were still within the Shadowlands, much to Hirariko's dismay. She had little sense of direction, so she had abandoned trying to decipher her surroundings some time ago. The best she could hope for was to see an end to the warped landscape of the Shadowlands. She had also hoped that the ratling tribe Yoee'trr was leading her to, the Tattered Ear, would live in a hidden place of vegetation free of the Taint. Hirariko chided herself for her foolishness and realized that for all she knew, the Festering Pit of Fu Leng could be over the next rise.
"Tattered Ear trails," Yoee'trr said, his voice barely a whisper now.
Hirariko looked down at her last uncorrupted finger of jade with apprehension. "I thought you were unafraid of Shadowlands beasts, Yoee'trr," she whispered to her companion. The Phoenix expected the jade to glow brightly any second and a horde of oni to rise from the very ground.
"Of course not!" Yoee'trr said loudly, obviously surprised at Hirariko's words. "No dark-dark…" the ratling's voice dropped quickly again as his eyes darted around the landscape. "No dark-dark thing scare Yoee'trr. Just… wanting to surprise my pack," he finished and began to creep forward almost on all fours.
Though Hirariko didn't understand much about Nezumi behavior, Yoee'trr acted human enough that she knew he was being evasive about something. Though she was unsure how to proceed, her only two options left were wander alone lost in the Shadowlands or follow a Nezumi she had just met into the den of his tribe.
Cursing herself for a fool, she began to crouch low and follow soundlessly behind Yoee'trr. She was more than a little unsettled at how easily she remembered how to move with total silence, and twice the ratling looked back to make sure she was still there.
"Fire-lady full of tricks," Yoee'trr whispered.
Hirariko was about to say something when her eye caught a patch of fur barely exposed around the edge of a rock outcropping.
Yoee'trr had already seemed to notice it and stopped moving. The ratling put his snout to the air and made several loud sniffs. After a moment's pause, the Nezumi's features fell in a very human expression of sadness. Yoee'trr groaned and quickly darted forward.
Hirariko followed quickly and found herself with a full view of three Nezumi slumped dead against the far side of the rocks. The scene was grisly even compared to the backdrop of the Shadowlands - one of the ratlings had been impaled upon a rock spur through the face and another was missing the entire left side of his body. The third appeared to have been overcome by countless slashes all over his body.
"You could tell that they were dead? By scent?" Hirariko asked once she had regained her focus.
"No," Yoee'trr said back quietly. "I could smell they not alive." He looked up at the Phoenix for a moment then shrugged. "Same thing, I guess." The ratling went back to examining the scene and then his featured hardened. "Smell this, too!" he growled, and his hand darted forth under one of the bodies. Yoee'trr produced a broken spear of obvious ratling make when he pulled his hand back. "Not Tattered Ear." He said, looking around suspiciously.
"Other rat… Nezumi did this?" Hirariko asked. She had never even considered the concept of fighting among the ratlings. It was not a comforting thought.
"Yes," Yoee'trr replied, standing slowly to his full two-legged
height and fixing his eyes on a point behind his companion.
"Another tribe?" she asked. Even as she asked, she realized Yoee'trr was staring at something behind her. The henshin turned around slowly, somehow knowing what she would see.
Neither of them had heard the small army of ratlings that had practically materialized from nowhere. They were much stockier than Yoee'trr, and their eyes and movements were far more feral. At least five of them had trained poor-quality bows on them and countless others held spears at the ready. Hirariko was sure the sheer number of the weapons would more than make up for any lacking in skill or quality.
"Maybe they tell us," Yoee'trr said quietly.
* * *
Hirariko watched from her uncomfortable seat as the other Nezumi argued with Yoee'trr. The ratling had quickly told her that the others were from a tribe called the Crippled Bone, which for all intents and purposes appeared be the Nezumi race's answer to Crab Clan. They were coarse and rude, seeming to find confidence in their physical strength. More than once, the Crippled Bone leader had struck Yoee'trr in the chest with the butt of his spear for a sarcastic remark the Tattered Ear ratling made.
They had been taken to a large underground chamber that Yoee'trr called a warren. Apparently the ratlings lived underground in these burrows, and Yoee'trr was obviously very proud of the fact that this particular warren was part of a large cave. Hirariko could only guess that such permanent structures like the cavern they were in now made ideal homes to the Nezumi.
The Crippled Bone warrior began to speak again as Yoee'trr sat upright from another beating. Hirariko found it impossible to understand the words that were being spoken, of course, but she was irritated at her inability to even read the emotions of any of the other Nezumi. While Yoee'trr mimicked human emotions and patterns almost perfectly, the Crippled Bone were far too alien for her to understand. It was clear they were angry about something and they seemed to blame Yoee'trr for whatever had happened here. The Phoenix sighed and leaned back against the rock wall in frustration.
"They think he led the attackers here," a woman's voice said just to Hirariko's right. The henshin bolted upright and turned to see a human woman standing beside her, leaning against the cave wall with her arms crossed. She wore well-worn clothes of gray and blue, though most of her facial features were concealed in the shadow from a straw jingasa on her head. Streaks of gray highlighted the long black tail of hair that fell down her back.
"Yoee'trr," the woman continued, looking lazily out at the proceedings, "does not have a very good reputation among the Nezumi." She turned and leveled her gaze at Hirariko, smirking. "You might compare him to how an honest bushi would be regarded in the Scorpion. Foolish and wasteful."
"I find it difficult to believe he would so such a thing," Hirariko said firmly. "I have seen firsthand evidence of his rather… heroic nature. Foolish, perhaps, but he is no traitor. Of course, I do not presume to be the expert that you obviously are." She paused to look for an identifying mark on the woman's jacket or hakama. After a moment, her eyes caught a faded mon. "Hiruma-sama," she finished.
The Crab woman raised a curious eyebrow at Hirariko and made an obvious show of examining every inch of her with her eyes. Finally, she smiled widely, exposing nearly all the teeth in her mouth. The gesture reminded Hirariko of the Nezumi. "No," the unnamed woman said finally and then let the unsettling smile leave her face. "No one knows the tribe that did this. Not even the Crippled Bone, and they fight with nearly every other tribe from time to time."
"Are you saying Nezumi fight with every other tribe they find?" Hirariko asked, scorn obvious in her voice.
"Are samurai so different?" the Crab snapped, turning her head to regard the Phoenix critically.
"Perhaps not," the henshin replied after a moment. "May I ask your name? Or is that concept beneath you as well?" Hirariko said, meeting the Crab's iron gaze.
The other woman's eyes twinkled brightly for just a moment, and her half-smile returned. "Tsuneko," the Crab replied dismissively.
"Suns-Chosen-Daughter-Warrior!" the large Crippled Bone leader boomed out in a rough Rokugani. "We done here. Bring-bring Fire-lady to home warren. Follow us." He said. Without further words, he practically threw Yoee'trr into the hands of other Crippled Bone warriors with a one-handed shove and stalked off out of the warren. Yoee'trr was half-dragged along as the other Crippled Bone fell in behind their leader.
"Time to go see Old Stick," Tsuneko said, motioning for Hirariko to follow her.
"Old Stick?" the Phoenix asked, rising and reflexively patting the dust off the hem and backside of her kimono.
"Te'tik'kir," came the reply as Tsuneko turned and stalked off after the Nezumi procession. "An unbelievably old shaman of the tribe. Nir'um'tuk gets his habit of hitting people from Old Stick."
Hirariko noticed that Hiruma Tsuneko walked somewhat hunched and leaned forward. "Everyone seems to have a nickname here, Suns-Chosen-Daughter-Warrior," the Phoenix said with a small amount of mirth in her voice as she followed.
"Tsuneko, Phoenix." The Hiruma replied, glaring back at Hirariko. "My Nezumi name is not for the likes of you."
* * *
The journey had taken less than half a day, but Hirariko was exhausted. She had realized days ago that Yoee'trr could easily move far faster without her, but he did not out of courtesy. Nir'um'tuk and his tribe made no such gesture for the Phoenix woman and Hirariko had spent the day calling upon every ounce of supernatural aid she could muster to stay with the group. She was mildly surprised that Tsuneko had no difficulty keeping up. The tales of Hiruma scouts running for days on end were apparently true.
Though she could not be sure, Hirariko had the feeling they were moving closer to the edge of Crab lands on their trek. They were obviously still within the Shadowlands, unfortunately. Once they stopped, Hirariko could make out the obvious signs of a primitive culture's encampment. There were very few aboveground tents, but small smoldering fires were everywhere along with scattered pieces of junk and chewed vegetation. The very idea of chewing on a piece of Tainted plant repulsed Hirariko, and she instinctively reached inside her obi to touch the new fingers of jade Tsuneko had given her.
This trek had long since stopped feeling like a grand adventure. The depressing sights of the landscape were taking their toll on Hirariko's soul even if the Taint had not. Her legs were excruciatingly sore and she felt as if she was covered from head to foot in a thick layer of sweat and grime. The idea of taking a bath in the doubtlessly Tainted waters nearby only made Hirariko's grip on her jade tighten.
"They've already started," Tsuneko said with a slight tinge of surprise in her voice as she ran up to Hirariko's side. "That's odd."
"Started what?" Hirariko said as the group moved towards what she recognized now as a warren entrance. The Crippled Bone warriors began to file in quickly, and Yoee'trr was shoved along with them.
"Te'tik'kir has called a meeting," a deep voice boomed out, and Hirariko turned to see a swarthy and stocky warrior obviously of the Crab Clan standing behind them. She scowled at the notion of yet another someone creeping up behind her. Perhaps the Shadowlands was somehow dulling her normally acute senses.
"Hio," Tsuneko said, regarding the bushi with a curt nod. "When was it called?"
"Only an hour ago. They're probably all still trying to sit down or something. Who's the pink-skin?" the man replied.
"Hida Hio, I presume," Hirariko said, bowing to the Crab bushi and doing her best to ignore the fact a human had just called her a 'pink-skin'. "I am Asako Hirariko." She noticed that neither of the other two was making any move to enter the warren after the last ratling had gone in. "Are we not invited?"
Hio laughed, "Would the Seppun invite a Nezumi to Otosan Uchi? I think not." Hio took a seat and stretched out comfortably against a log. "At any rate, there are some things between the Nezumi I'd rather not be a part of."
"Agreed," Tsuneko grumbled, picking at her teeth with a dirty fingernail.
Hirariko moved her eyes between the two of them and then threw her hands up in a gesture of exasperation. Losing all pretense of grace, she slumped down on a rock and placed head in her hands. "Not that there's much to see in Otosan Uchi anyway," she said quietly in sarcastic tones.
Hio raised an eyebrow at the Phoenix, "I can understand that the lands of the Phoenix are a sight, but I hardly think that it could make the Imperial City seem dull by comparison."
The henshin was about to reply, but she suddenly realized that the two Crabs had probably very little contact with the Empire if they spent so much time in the company of ratlings. "I…" Hirariko began hesitantly. "There is something I think you should know."
* * *
Te'tik'kir gazed around warily while the others bounded down the tunnels into the large warren chamber. It was good that Nir'um'tuk had returned. This was taking too long, and the leader of the Crippled Bone had more important things to do than to wait for Tomorrow to catch up. Then the old shaman recognized another Nezumi being forced along into the chamber with the rest of the Crippled Bone pack and he let out a low grunt of disapproval. At least they had left the humans out of the warren this time. There were far too many humans around sometimes.
"Yoee'trr," Te'tik'kir called out in an irritated voice. "Why Crippled Bone bring Stupid-Fool-Adventurer into my warren?" At the sound of the elder ratling's voice, most of the others began to sit still and listened closely. Only Nir'um'tuk moved forward with a few of his pack mates, shoving Yoee'trr to stand before Te'tik'kir.
"Found him." Nir'um'tuk grunted, crossing his arms and sitting back on his haunches. "Scouted Tattered Ear trails after Tribe-With-No-Name. Found lots of dead Nezumi. Yoee'trr still alive. Too bad."
There was some low, chittering laughter from the other ratlings. Te'tik'kir gave the group a look that silenced them immediately. "Not too bad, maybe." The Shaman leaned low and almost touched his nose to Yoee'trr's. "Maybe foolish Nezumi know something."
"Yoee'trr know nothing!" The pack leader exclaimed, "Would have said-"
"Maybe," Te'tik'kir said, cutting Nir'um'tuk off, "Yoee'trr tell me something. Maybe I not hit Yoee'trr with something other than stick if he does." The older Nezumi's eyes narrowed dangerously at the Tattered Ear adventurer, and his lips curled back slightly. A human may have mistaken the look for a smile, a Nezumi warrior knew otherwise.
Not that Yoee'trr was scared, of course.
"Maybe you not call me foolish!" Yoee'trr squeaked imperiously, standing to his full height and putting his hands on his hips as if he were the Big Chieftain of the First Tribe. "Would fool have this?" he continued, and pulled a wrapped bundle from the folds of his ragged clothes.
Te'tik'kir snatched the thing from Yoee'trr's hand and quickly unwrapped it. There was a ripple of surprised and awed squeaks throughout the warren as a dim green light filled the chamber. Hirariko's gift, the jade goblet, stood in plain view of all the Nezumi gathered.
"You take this from humans?" Te'tik'kir said, his tone cautious. Though the treasure was greater than anything he had seen a Nezumi own, there were many tales of Nezumi ending up dead at the hands of a pink-skin looking for something he had lost.
"Stupid," Nir'um'tuk growled, striking the end of his spear on the back of Yoee'trr's skull. "Now all humans come look for this! This must be biggest treasure they have."
"Given," Yoee'trr said, rubbing the back of his head and glaring at the Crippled Bone pack leader. "Fire-Lady give to Yoee'trr for saving her from blue ogre. From walking dream!"
Te'tik'kir hissed at the mention of the walking dreams. They were powerful enemies with great strength and power. Their names were very powerful. "Fire-Lady must be very important chief among humans to have this." Te'tik'kir said, stroking his whiskers.
Yoee'trr clutched the goblet to his chest. "Maybe Yoee'trr very important with Nezumi now, since have this!" he said, looking at the shaman defiantly. "All Nezumi say Yoee'trr stupid, foolish, make self get killed one day. Yoee'trr alive! Look!" he pointed at himself with his free hand and shook himself around wildly. "And Yoee'trr have human friends, food, and now big shiny treasure. Maybe Yoee'trr not so stupid!"
Nir'um'tuk reached back to hit Yoee'trr again with his spear, but Te'tik'kir blocked the strike with his staff. The noise of the two sticks striking each other rang out through the chamber. Many of the Nezumi crouched low to the ground in some attempt to hide. Nir'um'tuk looked at his spear, then to the old shaman. Out of both fear and respect, the pack leader quickly dropped his spear and took a few steps back.
"Yoee'trr right," Te'tik'kir said in a tired voice. "Maybe things work for Yoee'trr. Maybe Yoee'trr lucky as human," the old ratling shrugged and laid his staff over his legs. "Maybe Yoee'trr half-human. Who knows? If Yoee'trr so smart, then he answer question."
The young ratling folded his arms against his chest, adopting the arrogant stance Nir'um'tuk held moments ago. "Yoee'trr very smart," he replied.
"Who killed Yoee'trr's pack?"
"Hmm," Yoee'trr began, his posture drooping. "Not sure, but was other Nezumi. Other tribe. Not smell like tribe Yoee'trr know." The Nezumi sat back and stared at the glow of the jade goblet. "Had to be big tribe. No small tribe with funny name could kill all of Tattered Ear pack, not even small pack like Yoee'trr's." He withdrew something from his tattered clothing. "Took this from dead Nezumi," he said, offering the broken spear piece to Te'tik'kir to inspect. "Funny mark on spear. Tribe mark, maybe."
Te'tik'kir turned the wood over in his hands. There was a red paw mark on one side that wouldn't scratch off. Marks like that could only be made with the blood of powerful dark-dark things. The shaman hissed and spat, throwing the piece of wood down as soon as he grasped it. "Dark magic," he growled, looking at it on the ground.
"No," Yoee'trr said, confused. "Just spear. Yoee'trr take out of pouch, see?" the younger Nezumi opened his pouch for Te'tik'kir to inspect.
"Idiot," Te'tik'kir said, pointing at the broken weapon. "That weapon made with human magic. Dark human magic, not smart Nezumi name magic."
"You mean tribe used evil human tricks to kill tribe?"
"Must have," Te'tik'kir said, thinking. "You say no small tribe could kill Tattered Ear pack, but if was big tribe, we would know names of tribe. What if small tribe had friends? Maybe some tribe decide like Hida tribe did once long yesterday ago and think it smart to make friends with dark-dark things and White-Face Man."
"Then they big enough to kill Tattered Ear pack," Yoee'trr said, twitching his ears. "Still stupid to do. White-Face Man trying to kill Tomorrow. All follow White-Face Man be killed when Tomorrow get angry." He shook his head up and down as he had seen humans do when they were saying something smart.
"Stop moving head like human and think like Nezumi!" Te'tik'kir squeaked loudly. "You not mad that stupid tribe make friends with all Nezumi enemies? Sometimes humans okay to deal with, but dark-dark things never good! Want to make slaves of all Nezumi. Sometimes Nezumi fight Nezumi, and sometimes that good… but not this. This much different."
"Yes," Yoee'trr agreed. "Much different. Maybe these Nezumi not Nezumi anymore? Maybe they walk and eat like us, but … maybe we just forget they Nezumi."
Te'tik'kir and Nir'um'tuk stared at Yoee'trr for a moment. "What you mean?" Nir'um'tuk growled.
"They not act like Nezumi, so they not Nezumi. They dark-dark things now. And what do all Nezumi do to dark-dark things?"
The gathered Nezumi squeaked and chattered madly as they talked quietly to one another. Te'tik'kir leaned back on his rock as Yoee'trr's meaning sunk in. "Maybe these Not-Nezumi enemy of all Nezumi, then. Maybe…"
"No maybe!" Nir'um'tuk shouted, shaking his spear. "We do! Do kill! No talk to them, no talk about them. Yoee'trr right! Look at his treasure! He smart!"
Yoee'trr stood up proudly, holding the jade goblet a little more exposed for everyone to see.
"Good," Te'tik'kir said finally, standing and leaning on his stick. "Yoee'trr tell other tribes. Watch for Not-Nezumi. Kill them. Crippled Bone find where they make warrens, and tell others." He pointed his staff to the exit. "Go," he said.
Yoee'trr didn't need to hear it a second time. In a matter of seconds, the Nezumi adventurer had scurried off out of sight.
"Maybe," Te'tik'kir continued, "All tribes listen to Crippled Bone now. We fight Not-Nezumi, lead real Nezumi to kill them all together. Maybe we finally make One Tribe again."
"Shaman," Nir'um'tuk said quietly, "But Nezumi must hide in Dark Lands. If we all fight, enemies all know where all Nezumi are."
"Better that way!" the old Nezumi snapped. "Nezumi not One Tribe for long, long yesterday. Maybe time Nezumi learn to fight together. Tomorrow swallow us all up one by one slowly now, but together we stronger than Tomorrow. If Nezumi no learn to make One Tribe again, we all lose to Tomorrow anyway. May as well stop wasting time."
Nir'um'tuk watched the old shaman walk away, deeper into the warrens. The pack leader was not the smartest Nezumi alive, but he knew that Te'tik'kir had just begun a fight that could leave the Nezumi race exterminated. Or worse, under the yoke of the Shadowlands, like the trolls.
Nir'um'tuk's tail twitched, and he began shouting orders to start scouting parties. Soon, they would all meet Tomorrow and be taken into it or beat it forever.