By Rusty Priske
Editing by Shawn Carman and Fred Wan
Note: This story is the result of an auction at the Feeding Hills Charity Tournament run by Eric Devlin. The auction was won by Chris Yau, who passed the reward to Mark Cimino. Mark requested a fiction focusing on Qolsa.
Mirumoto Taikishi traversed the mountainous cut with a grace belying his large frame and bulky armor. He stepped carefully amongst the smaller rocks across a barely seen path. Countless had walked this path over many years but there was hardly a sign of their passing. Only a trained tracker could find evidence that this mountainside was not untouched by human hand and foot.
He stopped, listening intently. The normal sounds of the mountain were present, but there was something else â€“ something foreign. It was not the footsteps of a visitor to the mountains. It was almost a dragging noise, though faint.
Taikishi chose discretion and stepped silently behind a large boulder, ensuring he would be concealed from any walking the path.
He did not have long to wait, as two Naga soon slid into view. Taikishi recognized one of them instantly as a Constrictor, the bloodline that served as the priests of the strange, serpent-like race. The creature was simply too large to be anything else, which was surprising to the young warrior, as his sensei had once told him the Constrictors were all but extinct. Taikishi had learned of the Naga in the studies that were common among his clan, but he had never seen one in person. They were larger than he expected, the Constrictor so much so that there was an involuntary flutter of panic in Taikishi’s chest that he squashed at once. The smaller Naga’s eyes and head shifted often, as it appeared unsure of its surroundings. The larger seemed much calmer, almost regal, in his bearing.
They both stopped in perfect unison before reaching Taikishi’s boulder. The smaller spoke with a sibilant hiss. “Please come out from your hiding place, hu-man. We mean you no harm.”
Taikishi was surprised, certain that he had done nothing to expose himself, but he stepped out just the same. He adopted a formal stance, with no wasted movements that the Naga might construe as aggression, though he remained wary and ready. Bowing, Taikishi said, “Welcome to the lands of the Dragon, friends of Rokugan. It is rare that we see Naga venturing out into the Empire these days.”
There was a pause before the Naga answered and Taikishi recalled that the creatures were able to communication with each other somehow without speaking aloud. He was certain there was a separate conversation occurring that he was not privy to.
It was once again the smaller Naga that spoke. “We leave the forest only when there is sufficient need.”
Taikishi nodded. “I must assume then that there is something important to bring you to our mountains. I am Mirumoto Taikishi and I would be privileged to aid you in as much as I am able.”
A momentary silence followed as the Naga seemed to discuss the issue between themselves. Finally, the smaller one said, “We are Qolsa,” he nodded slightly towards his companion, “and Zamalash.” It gestured to itself. “We need to speak to the Son of Mara.”
Taikishi thought for a moment. “I beg your pardon, noble ones, but you mean Mirumoto Mareshi, correct?”
Neither Naga answered even after the Dragon left time for their internal discussions.
Taikishi continued. “Mareshi is the son of Mirumoto Daini and…”
Zamalash nodded quickly. “Yes, the Son of Mara is the Son of The Daini also. Please take us to him.”
Taikishi bowed again and Zamalash mimicked the motion.
Zamalash and Qolsa waited in the courtyard of Shiro Mirumoto. Mirumoto Taikishi waited with them, after sending word on ahead to the new master of the castle. He had tried to engage them in small talk as he walked but the Naga were not conversationally inclined.
In time, both Mirumoto Mareshi and Mirumoto Kei emerged from the gates from the castle proper. Mareshi looked somewhat pensive while Kei frowned. They both bowed deeply and Zamalash reciprocated awkwardly. Qolsa made no motion other than locking his gaze on Mareshi.
Mareshi spoke in a very formal tone. “Welcome to Shiro Mirumoto. I am, as requested, Mirumoto Mareshi, the daimyo of our family. This is Mirumoto Kei, my betrothed.” He glanced pensively at Kei. “It is fortunate that you came here to seek us, my friends. Kei-san and I are only here briefly to deal with family matters before we return to the battlefield. We must hurry if we are to beat the coming winter snow.”
Zamalash introduced both Naga as he had done earlier on the trail. “We come with an important request, Son of Mara.”
“The Naga are ever friends of the Dragon. If there is something we can do for you, please let me know.”
“We need you to return to Shinomen Mori, with those that follow you.”
Mareshi’s gaze darted over to Kei and back to Zamalash. “This is not an easy request, my friend. May I ask why you ask us to go to Shinomen Forest? Is there something that threatens the Naga?”
For the first time, Qolsa spoke. Its voice was gravely and deep. It had an authoritative quality that normally came from men who were used to having their orders followed. “The sleepers must be guarded. You must do this.” There was no inflection. This was not a request.
Mirumoto Kei’s eyes flashed and she looked towards Mareshi as if she wanted to say something. She did not.
The young samurai chose to ignore the command for the time being. “Are the Naga not well guarded? I thought that arrangements had been made for their welfare when they returned to their slumber.”
Zamalash nodded. “They were. After we granted the Uni-corn the great pearl of Akasha herself they agreed to guard our place of rest. I was given the task of watching with our guardians to keep my people safe.”
The Naga’s head dropped suddenly in shame as if it was being admonished. Its voice was quieter when it continued, “I failed in my task. I felt the Akasha was enough to maintain the human’s watch over our sleep. She is not. When I asked her to have the Uni-corn send more guardians, she turned away. She claims that these hu-mans can spare no more to guard the Naga.”
Mareshi and Kei shared a concerned glance. Taikishi knew that Kei had faced the Unicorn in battle some years previously during the War of the Rich Frog. From her expression, she was concerned over the notion of having to do so again.
Zamalash continued. “The creatures you call ratlings dwell within the forest as well. It was the Nezumi that protect those precious few that still sleep within the ruined city of Kalpa. They would all have died had not the Nezumi protected us. I awoke some time ago, and have attempted to maintain contact between our two races. They have been our tentative allies, but they have come into conflict with the Uni-corns. There are those among the Naga who fear that our alliance with the Uni-corns will destroy what peace has been forged with the Nezumi.”
Qolsa spoke for a second time. “They cannot be trusted. More than once they have left Kalpa undefended to roam north and attack Uni-corn patrols. I awoke to rectify our failure.” The glance at Zamalash as it said ‘our’ changed the meaning of that word significantly. “We must do our duty. When one falls, the rest must compensate.”
Mareshi frowned. “You wish the Dragon to become the protectors of the Shinomen Forest?”
“We wish nothing.” Qolsa replied. “Desire does not matter. It is what we must do. It is what you must do. You are the Son of Mara. You must, like Akasha, guide hu-mans to protect our people.”
Mareshi looked troubled. Kei looked angry.
Zamalash bowed towards them again and said, “Please, Son of Mara. The Dragon owe the Naga for what they have taken from us. First the Kazaq was taken, and then you, the son of Mara.”
Mareshi returned the bow. “My friends, I am honored that you would come to me in your time of need, but it is impossible for me to accompany you to the Shinomen. I have duties here among my clan. Togashi Satsu has recently requested that I take my place as Mirumoto daimyo. I am to be married to Kei.”
Kei could hold her peace no longer. “The Dragon are at war. Sending any of us to guard the Naga, let alone one of our most gifted commanders, would be abandoning our duty as samurai and Dragon. Surely you can appreciate the enormity of such a thing.”
Mareshi nodded. “What Kei says is true. Even the need to have both of us here at Shiro Mirumoto to formalize our marriage is a drain on our army that I disdain. I appreciate and respect my ties to the Naga, but my first responsibility, now and always, is to the Dragon. I must respectfully decline your request, my friends.”
Zamalash’s head drooped again but Qolsa’s eyes never wavered. “To use duty to deny your heritage is a disappointing thing, Mar-eshi.”
“Duty makes me who I am, friend Qolsa. It makes me samurai. Will you stay and enjoy our hospitality, friends? There would be a certain symmetry in having Naga present at my wedding.”
There was no response for a moment as the Naga discussed something between them. Then Zamalash said, “We must leave, Mar-eshi. The needs of our people do not wait for the ceremonies of yours.”
Mareshi nodded. “I am sorry for that. Mirumoto Taikishi will act as your guide a while longer, then. The paths in these mountains are not always easily followed.” He paused for a moment. “I hope that you understand my duty to the Dragon is the only thing that could ever prevent me from giving all I can to my mother’s people.”
Qolsa regarded him impassively. “I understand very little of hu-mans.”
Taikishi made no attempt to converse with the Naga on the trip back. He had heard what had passed between them and his daimyo and while it was ridiculous to think that Mareshi would accede to their request, it was also likely that the Naga would not be very happy as they travelled.
Zamalash and Qolsa were silent, at least to outside observers. In the shared language of the Akasha, they were anything but silent.
I knew he would not agree, said Zamalash.
He is much like the Akasha child. He is too human, Qolsa responded. He is not truly a Naga.
Yes. We cannot trust humans to help us. They are too selfish.
That is why you were tasked to ensure that Akasha remained true to our cause.
She is true to our cause, Zamalash insisted. She cannot command the Uni-corns. She is not their Qamar, and yet she has convinced the Chagatai to give us much in the way of protection.
Much of which he has called away of late, Qolsa observed.
Akasha believes that the situation is temporary. She believes they will return, and in the meantime, the Tattered Ear have offered us much assistance.
The rat-creatures are not intelligent enough to complete the task. Their minds wander. They cannot maintain the vigil.
Zamalash snorted, causing Taikishi to look over, but the Naga continued to ignore the human. They are scared of something â€“ what it is, I do not know â€“ but how can we expect them to help when you awaken and kill three of them? One of them was Ashi, my friend!
An unfortunate oversight. Instincts are… difficult to overcome.
They were protecting us.
They failed, and the humans fail as well. It seems that we will need to protect ourselves, no matter what it takes.
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