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TOMORROW

by Rusty Priske

Kan'ok'ticheck had never seen so many Nezumi in one place. In fact, nobody had ever seen so many Nezumi in one place, at least in modern times. His call had been heeded, and Nezumi from all over then land had flooded into the Shinomen Forest. Thousands of them crowded in and radiated around a single spot.

The Chief of Chiefs could not see them all due to the trees, but he was getting constant updates and he could feel them all around him. Any human would likely be terrified to see so many in one place. Mak'irtch approached him. "It is time, oh Great Chief."

Kan'ok'ticheck nodded, "Have they all come?"

"Not all, but most. The Chipped Tooth have chosen to stay away. K'mee has also chosen to stay with the humans. All told, no more than fifty nezumi have failed to answer your call."

The Chief nodded again. "If we are not enough, then fifty more would not change the outcome."

A deep resonating voice called out. "I wish to come." The two nezumi turned to see the leonine visage of Nintai, the last Kitsu. Mak'irtch shook his head. "I am afraid that this is not possible. The ritual we are using is for Nezumi alone."

Kan'ok'ticheck reached out and grasped Nintai's shoulder. "I appreciate your offer, but it cannot be. You can still be of great service to us, my friend."

"Anything you need, I will do. I owe the Nezumi more than I can ever measure."

"When we go to face Tomorrow, we will be vulnerable here. You could be our guardian and watch over us while we travel the dream paths. You could keep us safe so that those who are able to return can do so. Will you do this?"

Nintai nodded. "It would be my honor."

They grasped forearms, and the Nezumi walked towards a circle left amongst their kind, leaving the Kitsu behind to watch. The other Nezumi bowed their heads in respect as their leader passed and he reached out to some, patting them on their backs or grasping their paws. When he reached the center, they hushed. The silence covered all the thousands until the only sounds were the wind through the leaves.

Mak'irtch drew forth the Hourglass that the Broken Shinbone brought back from the tomb in the Shadowlands. He handed it to his Chief who raised it high over his head. He spoke and Mak'irtch's magic ensured that all nezumi heard his voice. "You have all been told what we need to do. The time is now. We are going to save our past and our future. Everything that the Nezumi are has built to this moment. When it happens, you will be faced with horrifying creatures, and you will be tempted to run like any intelligent creature. There will be nowhere to run, so that is not an option. We are there to fight. So stand and fight, and remember who we are." Kanok'ticheck paused and scanned his followers. "Now."

Nintai watched as each Nezumi fell into a deep slumber.

Aided by the magic of the Hourglass and the Nezumi shaman, the change was nearly instantaneous. One moment they were amongst the trees of the Shinomen, the next they were on the fields of dreams, leaving their sleeping bodies behind them. Kanok'ticheck had dreaded what he would see and how much damage had been done since he was gone, but it seemed that no time had passed. Te'tik'kir and the others still stood on the plains outside of the great city and the dragons, or what appeared to be dragons, still approached from a distance, destroying everything as they went. Te'tik'kir's face lit up as the army of nezumi appeared.

"You remembered! Thank the great den!" As the transcendent spoke, Kan'ok'ticheck's eyes never left the enemies. He silently despaired as the numbers that they faced expanded even further. Two more dragons followed the first three until five horrible creatures stood, displaying traits of the five elements. Two great humans, glowing with unearthly light, flanked them. The one on the left was brighter than anything on earth and swung a great tetsubo, dotted with stones of yellow. Through the glare, Kanok'ticheck could see that he wore heavy armor and a great helm. The one on the right glowed paler, and wielded two swords with deadly efficiency. She did not wear the great armor of the other, and her shaved head could be discerned through the glow.

As frightening as these two humans were, they were nothing next to the dragons. Each was larger than any hundred nezumi. Their teeth and jaws could slay ten warriors with a single attack. Their claws could rend just as easily. Plus, they spewed fire, or tornados, or water geysers. The threat seemed insurmountable. As before, wherever they stepped, the land vanished in a haze. They were literally unmaking the land with their presence. The Chief of Chiefs did not hesitate. "We must protect the Transcendents! Form on your tribal chiefs! We attack!

The Nezumi fought bravely, but they could barely reach the great creatures. The Fire Dragon sprayed the land with flame, killing indiscriminately. The Earth Dragon, clad in stone scales, flung its tail around, crushing nezumi on each swing. The Water Dragon enveloped its attackers, drowing them in thick, briny water. The Air Dragon attacked with the power of a storm, buffeting the nezumi in gales of force that left them unable to stand, let alone attack. The humans waded through the Nezumi swinging tetsubo and swords, leaving none alive in their paths. The Nezumi tried to keep the creatures from the city and the Transcendents, but they could not sway their course. The dragons crashed into the side of the city, sending buildings crashing into ash. Where they did not destroy physically, they let dissolve in their wake. All of Dream was dissolving behind them and the Nezumi could not stop them.

"You must not fail, Great Chief" Kanok'ticheck spun around at this new voice. This was no Nezumi,though he spoke their language perfectly. "Ningen?' Shiba Ningen was there, but his form was hazy. His clothes changed color from moment to moment and sometimes Kan'ok'ticheck could see through him like he was made only of mist or water.

"I sensed what was happening and I have come to impress upon you the importance of this battle. What you are fighting is not what it seems. Those are not actually the great Elemental Dragons, Lord Sun, and Lady Moon. They are manifestations of Yume-do itself. The land of dreams is going mad and destroying itself in the process."

Kan'ok'ticheck furrowed his brow. "I do not understand."

Ningen nodded. "I am not surprised. The celestial heavens are in turmoil and waves of entropy are enveloping all of the realms. Yume-do, as it is made of dreams, is the least stable of the realms so it was the first affected. These images signify the collapse of the land, and they must be defeated or there will be nothing left. Then the turmoil will continue until all the realms are overcome and destroyed. No others can face this. You alone can be victorious."

The white rat looked thoughtful. "So these are not really dragons, but they kill like them all the same. Many the Nezumi fought bravely, but they could barely reach the great creatures. The Fire Dragon sprayed the land with flame, killing indiscriminately. The Earth Dragon, clad in heavy stone scales, flung its tail around, crushing

each swing. The enveloped its them in Nezumi have died and we have yet to defeat a single one of them. You say that everything depends on us? I fear for our success, but we will do our best." "As will we."

Kanok'ticheck turned to see Te'tik'kir and another Nezumi he did not recognize. "No, Te'tik'kir! You must not! We came here to protect the Transcendents, not lead them into battle!" The shaman nodded. "Yes, and we are grateful. However, what Ningen has told you changes much. We cannot stand by while all is destroyed and killed. We will fight, even if it means our end. Tomorrow is here and we will not flee from it. The land itself rebels against us but we will fight until our last breath." The other rat stepped forward. "My name is Tchick'chuk. I lead the Nezumi here. My army is at your command."

Kanok'ticheck grasped the other nezumi's paw. "It will be my privilege to fight at your side, Tchickchuk." The Transcendent grinned, flashing sharp teeth. "Then let's fight! It has been too long!"

The wave of Transcendents joining the living Nezumi gave new momentum against the dream creatures. Tchickchuk was a masterful general, and between him and Kanok'ticheck they kept the Nezumi fighting in an organized fashion that many samurai would have admired.

The first casualty inflicted came when a group of shaman and conjurers, led by Achirin, faced the Dragon of Air. The monstrous creature constantly shifted and flowed, its features not always distinct. Achirin led the others to call on the forces of the Dragon itself, and then created a dynamic whirlwind. At first, the Dragon scoffed at the idea that it could be defeated by its own element. It glared at the shaman and advanced upon them. As it continued to approach, however, the Nezumi could see increasing uncertainty in its eyes. Its swirling form started fraying around the edges as it struggled to maintain its cohesion. There was no retreat, as the land behind them no longer existed.

With a shrill scream that shook the breadth of Me-do, the Dragon was torn asunder and absorbed into the wind, leaving no trace behind. A great cheer went up from the Nezumi as the shaman fell, exhausted. Kan'ok'tichek and Tchickchuk looked at each other and they could see the truth in their eyes. They could win. Yoee'trr perched himself in a tree on a hilltop and lined up his target. At the base of the tree crouched Gran-otik looking up at the scout while also watching the approaching human. Yoee'trr called down, "Who first?"

Gran-otik smiled and said nothing. He notched and fired three arrows in quick succession, trying to pierce the heavy armor of Lord Sun. The first strike was swatted aside by the man's great tetsubo. The second struck him in his armored chest, but did not pierce. The third vanished in the right eye slit on his helm. The glow on the giant faltered a bit as he grasped at his helmet, trying to find the source of his pain.

Yoee'trr called down to Gran-otik. "Nice shot. Now I'll hit the other eye. Watch." Yoee'trr was as good as his word and Lord Sun fell to his knees. Before he landed, his body exploded in an incredibly bright light, temporarily blinding all on the field and leaving nothing behind but smoke and memory.

The Dragon of Earth swung its great stone tail and swept five Nezumi from his path. Ep'kee leapt from the path of the swinging tail and sank his small axe into the hard carapace. It gained only small purchase but it was enough for him to grab hold of one of the heavy scales. The dragon swung the tail, trying to dislodge the annoyance. Distracted, it did not notice the second nezumi moving in on its flank. Zorrtek vaulted himself up the creature's foreleg and thrust his spear between two great scales, and into its throat. In its pain, the Dragon threw Ep'kee clear into the side of the damaged city, killing him instantly. Z'orr'tek fared no better as the dragon crunched down with his great teeth as he started to dissipate. The body of the Nezumi hero fell alone, with the dragon gone completely.

A force of Tattered Ear warriors attacked the Dragon of Fire. It sent huge gouts of flame, incinerating the nezumi quickly. They never retreated, even as the smell of burnt fur and flesh filled their nostrils. Soon the sheer number of the Nezumi overwhelmed the Dragon. For every ten he killed, he had to watch ten more. Finally, as another group fell, Akatch threw a spear, piercing through the ear and into the brain of the creature.

Ch'krit trod the ground in front of Lady Moon and yelled. "Face me! Horrible creature! Face me!" The human cocked her head at the sound and assessed the rolling in front of her. As if accepting the challenge, the moon-woman shrank quickly, until it stood in front of Ch'krit, looking at him eye to eye. Her twin swords flashed and a dark and cold voice leapt into his mind. "You cannot beat me by yourself, creature. I will not be undone."

Ch'krit nodded. "That is likely true."

A second Nezumi crashed into the side of Lady Moon, knocking her off balance. Both Ch'krit and Chee'trr's swords left her with dark smoke billowing from her body where there should have been blood. Soon the smoke wrapped her entire body before dissipating, leaving nothing behind.

"But I don't stand alone."

Chu-rochu and H-tach'ch stood side-by-side facing the Dragon of Water. "It is very large."

"Yes it is."

"There is no way we can defeat such a thing." "None whatsoever."

"You will take the right?"

"You have the left."

The result was never in doubt as the dragon followed his fellows into nothingness.

The Void Dragon was the only one that remained. The surviving Nezumi gathered around its Chiefs and faced the creature of swirling darkness, and they knew fear. Despite the defeat of the other beings, this dragon did not show any pause. It looked down on them with contempt and snarled. A voice that made no sound echoed in all of their heads. "Do you think you can defeat me? You have defeated my brothers, but they are bound by what they are. I have no such boundaries. I am all and nothing. I am your doom."

Kanok'ticheck signaled to the other chiefs, and the Nezumi moved forward as one. The shaman worked their great magic to support the warriors, and each warrior used his sword or spear or axe to support the warriors around them. Many Nezumi fell to the claws and teeth of the dragon, but each left its mark. Each wound bled darkness, and the dragon slowed under the attack. Slowed, but did not stop.

Mak'irtch pulled a single Nezumi scout aside from the battle. "What is your name?"

"Chi'kel."

"There is something we must try, Chi'kel. Take this." Mak'irtch removed the Hourglass from her robe. "It is our last chance."

Following Mak'irtch's instructions, Chi'kel moved through the ranks, getting closer and closer to the jaws of the Void Dragon. Finally he reached the point where many Nezumi had felled to the beast's great teeth. Emikek was the last to give his life as his blood spilled under the force of the Dragon's bite. As it opened its mouth to find the next victim, Chi'kel flung the Hourglass with all his strength and accuracy. The object vanished behind the teeth and into the thing's gaping gullet. The dragon shuddered. Its black skin wavered and faded, turning to grey. Its eyes glassed over and its shoulders stooped. Its teeth and claws cracked, as if under great pressure. It appeared wrapped in age as it fell forward onto its chin. It struggled to regain its footing as Kanok'ticheck stepped forward and drove his sword into its head.

As the last dragon fell it exploded in a wave of darkness. The entire realm of dreams ceased to exist for a moment. When it reappeared, all of the nezumi fell to the ground, clutching their stomachs until the wave of nausea passed. When they were able to look around they saw that the city was returned to its full glory, complete with gleaming spires of silver and gold. The land was restored, all of its destroyed sections intact, as if the Dragons had never come. The fallen Nezumi and Transcendents were gone, leaving no sign of their passing. Unlike the city, they did not return. Tchick'chuk stood and offered his paw to Kanok'ticheck to do the same. "It is done. Many tribes worth of nezumi have died, but the realm is safe. We have won."

Kanok'ticheck looked puzzled. "Something happened. When the last dragon fell, something was done to us." "You are correct." Shiba Ningen once again stood in front of the two Chiefs. I was fortunate I was unable to maintain my connection to this realm, or it would have happened to me as well. I was able to take one Nezumi with me ... but only one."

"What is it? What happened?"

Ningen's eyes were downcast as he said. "In its death throes, the dream of void removed Yume-do from existence for just a moment. In defeat it could not complete the destruction, but in that moment, the link you nezumi had to the waking world was severed. You will be unable to awake and return to your lives." The Chief of Chiefs mouth hung agape for a moment. "So we won, but we still lost."

Tchick'chuk clasped his new friend on the shoulder. "I am sorry. You deserve better."

Ningen smiled sadly. "The nezumi have done what no one else could, and they have saved the world. I think you have all earned your rest. This is your home now." Tchickchuk also smiled. "Come, Kanok'ticheck. Let us introduce your friends to mine. Let us show the Nezumi the city of legend."

Nintai walked among the Nezumi where they lay. He had felt something happen. They had shuddered, as if as one. The Kitsu went from one to another, checking them for any signs of life. He found none. He did not rest, even when it was clear that there was no hope. He checked each one, not sleeping for nearly three full days, until he confirmed that not a single Nezumi who went into Dream still breathed. He finally sat among them, with his face buried in his great paws, and wept.


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!