Two two Ratling fictions for this week week.
By Rusty Priske
Edited by Fred Wan
A young boy, no more than four, picked a small red flower from the edge of the trail. “What is it called?”
Morito Tomomi thought for a moment and said, “I have heard it called the Sorrow flower and the Victory flower, both for the same reason.”
The boy scrunched up his nose. “How can it have two names?”
Tomomi stretched her arms and smiled. “Some things have many names. Even people have more than one name in their lives. Take yourself… now you are Kiyoemon, but one day you will have your gempukku and you will take a different name. Still later, you may retire and take yet a third name.”
Kiyoemon discarded the flower and looked up at his aged attendant. “What is retire?”
“Well, when a samurai has seen many summers and feels it is time, he may leave the life he has known and become a monk. As he moves on to this new life, he will take a new name in order to mark the passage from one life to the next.”
Kiyoemon looked at Tomomi, puzzled. “Why would someone want to stop being a samurai?”
Tomomi thought and then said, “I don’t know, really. Retirement isn’t for me. Maybe we should ask a monk.”
“I don’t know. Retirement should seem like a good option right now.”
Tomomi spun around, with her hand ready to draw her katana at the sound of the newcomer. The voice belonged to a man in rough, dirty garb. He lifted his hands, trying to calm the old samurai-ko. “No need to draw, old mother. We don’t need this to end in violence. That would end badly for you and we don’t need that.”
Tomomi used her off hand to usher Kiyoemon behind her. “What do you want?”
“We,” he motioned with his hand and four more ruffians emerged from the trees all around the Ox woman and her charge. He continued, “Are here for the boy. Just step aside and let us have him and we won’t have to kill you. In fact, you can take the ransom demand back to his father and be of some actual use.”
“I would sooner die than turn him over to a group of bandits.” She spit the last word as she drew her katana.
The man shrugged. “We can take care of that as well.” All the bandits produced weapons of their own and moved towards her, cautiously. As the leader felt the heft of his own sword and readied himself to attack he was struck in the side of the head by a stone. He staggered to the right as blood started to trickle from his temple. “What in Jigoku!”
One of his companions pointed to the trees. “It came from there!”
The wounded man gestured to two of his men and said, “You are with me. You others… finish the woman!” He then dashed into the tree line, with the other two close on his heels.
Tomomi faced the two remaining ruffians. One wielded a katana, marked with wear and use. The other held a naginata and was the first to advance. Tomomi readied her own katana and braced for their attack. She managed to dodge the killing thrust of the first lunge, but the naginata found purchase in her shoulder, tearing it open and causing her to drop her weapon.
The bandit with the naginata went down suddenly, bowled over by a rush of fur and crushing stone. He did not rise. The second vagabond spun to face this new threat, only to see a muscular Nezumi, clan in a tattered tunic and holding a stone axe in each hand. Without uttering a word, the creature moved in, swatting the bandit’s sword away with one axe and crushing his skull with the other.
The Nezumi then chittered in his own language, calling into the forest. Tomomi tried to reclaim her katana, but instead, feeling the blood loss, collapsed to her knees as five more Nezumi emerged from the trees. They spoke amongst each other but Tomomi could understand none of it. Finally, the first one, seemingly their leader, said to her, “You are hurt. We must-must stop bleeding.”
The creatures snapped to readiness seconds before Tomomi heard the approaching horses. They formed a semi-circle around Tomomi and Kiyoemon as the riders galloped into view.
“Stand down creatures! In the name of Morito Kitaji, you will stand down!”
“They have your son, Kitaji-san!”
“Kill them all!”
The eight riders, all wearing the Ox mon, moved in to attack the Nezumi. Their horses seemed spooked and did not want to approach, but the riders goaded them on. The Nezumi did not back down at all, with weapons, claws and teeth bared.
“No! Stop!” Tomomi pulled herself to her feet and pushed past the creature who had saved her.
“Tomomi-san? What is this? Stand aside!”
“No, Kitaji-sama! I cannot!”
The leader of the riders pulled his horse up and dismounted. “What is this? We had reports of these creatures in the forest and now we find my son under attack and two dead men and you wounded, yet you tell us not to attack? I ask again, what is this?”
“It was these men who attacked us, not the creatures. There were five bandits who wanted to take your son for ransom! These creatures saved us.”
Kitaji looked at Tomomi with a stern expression. He then turned to the Nezumi. “Is this true?”
“Men threaten matron and her cub. We kill-kill all bad men.”
Kitaji’s eyes darted between the Nezumi, Tomomi and Kiyoemon. He motioned towards his son, who scrambled from where he was to stand behind his father. “In that case,” he bowed deeply to the creature, “I am in your debt. You saved Morito Kiyoemon… my son. I am Morito Kitaji of the Ox clan. It is Ox lands that you are traveling through.”
The Nezumi bowed awkwardly in imitation of Kitaji. “I am Ep’kee of the Green-Green-White tribe. We do not wish to intrude. We have been summoned and we go.”
“After what you have done for us here, you are more than welcome to safe passage through these lands. Where is it that you heading?”
“The forest you call-call Shinomen.”
“You have quite a journey ahead of you. Please, join us in a meal before you continue on your way.”
One of Kitaki’s men was dispatched to take Tomomi to be tended to, but the rest, including Kiyoemon, stayed to have a meal with the Nezumi.
Kitaji’s brow furrowed. “So, all of you Nezumi are going to face…what you call Tomorrow.”
“And this will likely mean your deaths.”
“It is our end.”
“Then we will join you. You risked your own lives to save my family. I could do no less.” There was a general note of agreement from the men in Kitaji’s unit.
Ep’kee bowed his head. “I thank-thank, Ki-taji. But is not possible. Only Nezumi can face Tomorrow. Is Nezumi destiny, not Ki-taji. Is nice to have human friends. Not like other horse riders.”
Kitaji cocked his head. “What do you mean? What other riders?”
“The horse-men. The purple ones. They have killed many Nezumi. Nezumi fight back and kill many purple horse men, but now we must face Tomorrow and revenge must-must end.”
“That is the Unicorn. You are not the only ones that they have come against of late. Still, you are our friends and your battles are our battles. If we cannot help you face Tomorrow, we can at least defend you as you leave. I give you my word as a samurai, that my squad will fight the Unicorn wherever we can find them, in the name of the Empire and the Green-Green-White tribe.”
Ep’kee bowed. “You do us great-great service, Ki-taji. You are friend.”
One Last Task
By Rusty Priske
Edited by Fred Wan
Kr’chan sniffed the air as his eyes darted back and forth. He carefully touched a tree, twisted and withered, and then examined the putrid fungus that hung off it. He nodded in satisfaction and then dashed back over the ridge and called down, in hushed tones, to the other Nezumi who were following. “We are close. This way.”
Achirin nodded and motioned to the other Nezumi to continue. There were six others with him, all of whom were laden with large sacks. They were carrying them with some difficulty. They made their way up the hillside, staying alert and watching for any other motion around them.
As they reached the top of the ridge, another scout, Nem’tek, approached from their flank. “Achirin, there is a group of goblins approaching. I don’t think they have seen us, but they are coming this way.”
Achirin smiled grimly. “Good. Once we are inside, wait for twenty breaths before letting them see you.”
Nem’tek nodded and dashed off.
Kr’chan motioned towards Achirin and said, “Just over here.”
The group followed him around a copse of gnarled trees until the saw their destination. The stone had collapsed over the entrance at some point, but enough had been cleared for a man to pass through. It gave more than enough room for the Nezumi. Kr’chan pointed. “It is empty. It was once a tomb for a bad man but he is gone. It is a perfect place for us.”
One by one, with Kr’chan leading, the Nezumi filed through the opening and into the tomb. Once inside, Achirin started barking orders. “Leave the bags over there! We need the nets ready before Nem’tek gets here! Move!”
The Nezumi all scrambled to get into position.
Nem’tek looked up at the sky, trying to see where the sun was to see if it was time to act. The haze that settled over the area made it impossible to get a good read but he decided that he had waited long enough, and that…
He was interrupted by a goblin coming out of the underbrush, less than ten feet away from him. The creature let out a high-pitched scream to alert the others in his band. Nem’tek set off like a shot. He wanted to get the goblins attention, but not when they were so close! He leapt over a fallen log with the squad of goblins – a dozen of them based on his earlier scouting – close on his heels. He managed to stay ahead of them, but he was running over unfamiliar terrain. Any misstep would allow the goblins to catch up to him and then he would have to fight. Even if you could defeat the entire squad, it would spoil Achirin’s plans. That would not do because Achirin’s plans were essential to the Nezumi.
Nem’tek was faster than the goblins, but that advantage was negated as he dodged around trees and boulders. Finally, he reached the tomb and sprinted inside; making sure that the goblins could see where he went. He dashed down the passage and dropped into a forward roll once the passage opened into the main tomb. The allowed him to scoot under the falling net and the pouncing Nezumi. A couple of the goblins were not so captured, but the Nezumi quickly killed them before they could overcome their surprise.
Skirk had led his squad of goblins for a long time, nearly three weeks. Their duties were not complicated, which was good because Skirk was not overly bright, even by goblin standards. They were to wander the area around Iuchiban’s former Tomb and report back if anyone were to disturb it. Easy enough.
Then this damned Ratling had shown up. There was only one, and Skirk had stumbled on it when he was following a tasty looking roach. Skirk was not the smartest goblin, but he also wasn’t the dumbest so he called for the rest of his squad. A squad of goblins could easily beat one Ratling. Then they could have something even better than roaches for dinner.
Then the Ratling ran right into the Tomb! The next thing Skirk knew, he was under a net and being hit on the head with some heavy club.
When he woke, he was tied to a stake and surrounded by more Ratlings. Why they hadn’t just killed him confused Skirk. Then one of the Ratlings started talking to him in the human tongue.
“We not-not hurt you. This make you better. You see.”
If Skirk was confused before, he was more so now. The Ratling was making noises with its teeth and shaking a stick and looking sick. This lasted for some time. Skirk was not sure how long, but it was long enough that he started feeling bored and not paying attention.
Then Skirk started feeling funny. He felt like something was entering him, though he couldn’t see anything. He felt almost like he had a big meal. Like they had killed an animal and eaten their fill, but throughout his whole body and not just his gut.
He felt… complete.
As he tried to shake the cobwebs out of his head, the Ratling asked him, “How do you feel?”
“Odd.” It wasn’t until he answered that he realized the Ratling had spoken in their odd language, yet he had understood.
“What is your name?”
“Sk’rk.” He had been Skirk, but now… he was Sk’rk. This wasn’t a thought in his head. It was the truth and it filled his existence. More than that, he had always been Sk’rk, even though he was just Skirk.
It hurt Sk’rk’s brain to try and understand. He just knew that the Ratling, Achirin was his name, had given him a greater gift than he could ever imagine. Before he had only a name. Now… he had a Name.
Tch’wik unpacked one of the bags, and pulled out the bundles of sticks from inside. Achirin looked over the piles that were being created and smiled. “Now the Nezumi will go on forever. These sticks chronicle all of our history â€“ as much as we know. If we pass from this world, there will still some mark to show that we have been here. This is our legacy.”
Soon the sticks were all unpacked, and the strings were cut. The Nezumi laid the sticks out, one by one, until the entire floor of the room was covered. Then, without a word, they turned and left the history of their race behind.
As the Nezumi left the tomb, they were met by the squad of goblins waiting for them outside. Sk’rk bowed to Achirin, much in the manner of the humans. Achirin grasped the goblins paw in friendship and said, “You understand?”
Sk’rk nodded. “We will protect the Tomb. Nobody will get the memory sticks unless they are Nezumi. Your history will be safe.”
Achirin nodded gratefully. Then the Nezumi started their trek back to the Shinomen Forest in order to join with the rest of their kind to face Tomorrow.
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