World Tour, Part Four: The Ancestral Home of the Lion
World Tour, Part Five: The Road to Sleeping Mountain
World Tour, Part Six: The Naga Stronghold
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World Tour Part Four: The Ancestral Home of the Lion
Sanzo punched me in the face.
"Ow!" I said, rubbing my jaw and glaring at him. "What did you go and do that for?"
"Where in Jigoku have you been, Garou?" Sanzo spat. "I've had to baby-sit Toku and that smelly stupid chicken for a month now! It sure took Turi long enough to find you!"
"Yeah, Garou," Toku said next to him. "We were worried that you were like dead or something."
"Why are you dressed like a Lion?" Turi asked curiously.
I glanced at the three Samurai and back at Yotsu Seou, who had brought them to me. "Do I know these guys?" I asked her.
"I think so," she said. "These are the ones that you were mumbling about in your sleep."
"You heard him mumbling in his sleep?" Sanzo asked lewdly.
"No, lech," Seou shot back. "The... um... the Lion's Pride did."
"Garou!" Sanzo said. His face brightened and he nodded to me respectfully. "Way to go, Tex."
"Wait a second," Matsu Turi arched an eyebrow suspiciously. "Garou dreams about me?"
"Gosh, I hope not," Seou cast a glance at me. "At least not that way. The Lion's Pride said you kept mumbling something about an unfinished quest."
"I think you're all insane," I said. "This has been a lot of fun, Seou, but I have to get back to Matsu Ketsui."
Toku blinked. "Is Garou sick?"
"Almost as bad," Seou said. "He has amnesia. I found him wandering around outside Akodo Castle. He thinks he's a Matsu now."
"Can't blame him," Turi remarked.
Toku blinked again. "What's amnesia? Is that where the Senpet come from?"
Sanzo sighed and rubbed his forehead. "No, you tool. He's lost his memory. Pretty convenient, too, eh Garou? You disappear out of our adventure for a whole month and come back with amnesia. Pretty contrived plot device if you ask me." He stepped over to Seou leaned close. "But anyway, since you're here, pleased to meet you. I'm Sanzo. It means 'the bandit.' You wanna know why?"
"Probably not," she said flatly. She peered closely at his face. "Are you wearing lipstick?" she asked.
Sanzo quickly wiped his mouth and looked away. He cleared his throat loudly.
"We ran out of cash," Toku explained. "We had to try to make some spare money on the side."
"So you became geisha?" I asked.
Sanzo coughed. "No, idiot!" he exclaimed. "I joined a kabuki troupe!"
"Same difference if you ask me," Turi said.
"Yeah, well nobody asked you Lion," Sanzo huffed, leaning back against his horse and glowering at everyone.
"Is he always like that?" I asked Toku.
"Well. Yeah. Pretty much," Toku replied. "So how long till your amnesia wears off?"
Seou ran a hand through her long hair and muttered something under her breath. "Listen, Garou. Your friends told me they last saw you in an exploding building. Maybe you jarred something a little loose?" she tapped her temple. "We're going to help you all we can to get your memory back, but you've got to help us out. Go through your story from the beginning, as far back as you can remember. Maybe that'll kick something in."
I frowned. "Why do I have to do what you people say?" I asked. "I'm a Lion; I don't take orders from ronin."
Turi leaned close and grabbed the collar of my kimono, lifting me a neat foot off the ground. "Well, I'm a Lion too, Garou," he said. "And I'm bigger."
So I told my story:
I woke up in a smoking crater in the Western Hub Village about a month ago. I couldn't remember a thing about who I was or where I came from. I guess in hindsight that's pretty weird, but as I didn't have any memories to compare it to it seemed perfectly normal to me. I stumbled around for awhile, asking people if they knew who I was or where I came from. I saw a group of soldiers bearing the mon of the Emperor (odd how I could remember that, but not my name), so I walked up to them to ask for help.
"Seven Thunders!" one of the men said spinning around with wide eyes. "It's you!"
"Er... hi," I said. "I'm a little confused. I can't remember my name or my clan. Where do I live?"
"Huh?" the samurai said.
Another guard to one side elbowed the first sharply. "He's got amnesia!" he said. "He can't remember a thing!"
The first samurai smiled broadly. "You've come to the right place," he said. "I know exactly who you are. My name's Makashi and you're Matsu Garou."
"Matsu Garou?" I asked. That didn't sound right, but I really couldn't argue.
"That's right," he said. "Matsu Garou, consort to Matsu Ketsui."
"Hmmm," I said, looking down at my scorched kimono. "Why am I wearing a blue kimono if I'm a Lion?"
Makashi glanced at the samurai next to him, who seemed for some reason to be trying desperately to fight back a chuckle. "I dunno," Makashi said at last. "It's the Blue Kimono Festival?"
"Ah," I said. "Why aren't you wearing blue kimonos?"
"We're on duty," Makashi's friend said, turning away quickly and giggling.
"Something wrong with your friend?" I asked.
"Hasame is simply overcome with joy that you've finally returned," Makashi smirked. "Lady Ketsui has been looking all over for you. Perhaps we could provide you with an Imperial Escort to her castle?"
"Hey, that'd be great!" I said. "You Imperial Guardsmen sure are polite."
"We live to serve," Hasame snickered. I wondered what was wrong with him. He sure smelled a little funny.
Anyway, I followed them to Matsu Castle. I noticed we were traveling fairly quickly, and Makashi and Hasame kept shooting me nervous glances and chuckling. It didn't really strike me as odd that they acted so strangely. For one thing, they were in Toturi's Army and for another, well, they were cops. In my experience, there is a such thing as a decent cop but when police get strange they get *really* strange, so I just figured that these guys fit into that second category.
"Well, here we are," Makashi said, gazing up at the battlements of Matsu Castle. The ground all around was blasted and burning, as if from a recent battle. It looked familiar, but it didn't seem like home. I somehow remembered it being darker last time I was here.
"What happened here?" I asked.
"Good luck!" Hasame shouted, ignoring the question. He ran up, rang the doorbell, and they both ran off down the road.
"Hm," I said, watching them go with what I thought was a suitably Disapproving Lion Frown.
"Hello," said a voice from behind me, "I am Ikoma Ryozo. May I help you?"
I turned around to see a tall samurai with a withered grey face, split along the top lip like a cat's. "Ugh," I said. "What happened to you?"
"YOU!" he growled. He reached out with one hand and seized my collar with an inhuman strength, dragging me into the castle.
I could hardly make out what he was saying as he dragged me down the hall, something about faulty moisturizers and taking me so Lord Okura could deal with me personally. I just kept thinking how nice it was that the Lions were so excited to have me home. I had to say they were overdoing it a bit, though. Ryozo accidentally bashed my head against a few doorways in his zealousness to bring me before Lord Okura. Perhaps if he hadn't been in such an emotional state he would have been more careful.
Suddenly, the journey stopped. I was pitched in a heap in a center of a small room. Before me stood a table covered with scrolls, behind which sat a slightly overweight little shugenja with blue makeup on his face. A jade tetsubo leaned against the wall behind him and he wore a flowing mantle of a matching color.
"Eek!" he said when he saw me. He huddled behind the desk.
"Um... Lord Okura?" Ryozo asked.
"Get that dreadful man away from me!" Okura whined. "He'll flash his bloodsword around and yell at me like last time and I just can't stand it when people yell."
Ryozo looked down at me curiously. I shrugged. "Sir," Ryozo said, peeking over the edge of the desk. "He's my prisoner. He won't yell at you unless I let him."
Okura peeked over the top of the desk, leaving only his eyes visible. "And are you going to let him?"
Ryozo rolled his eyes. "No, sir."
"Aha, then!" Okura shouted. He snatched up his tetsubo and leaped out from behind the desk, gazing down at me triumphantly. "The shoe is on the other foot now, Garou! Akuma! To me!"
That name sounded familiar. I must be home, I thought.
Then the door in the back of the room burst open in a shower of green tentacles and red eyes. Whatever it was, it was probably better off that I didn't remember it. "GAAA-ROOUUUU" hissed the oni. It's mass of tentacles flowed into the room, congealing behind Okura in the shape of a large man-like creature. "YOU WILL NOW DIE FOR-"
There was a knock at the door. Everybody got really quiet.
"Who is it?" Okura asked, his voice cracked.
"It's me, Ketsui," she said. "I have to talk to you about some battle strategies, Okura."
"Jeepers!" Okura said, his hands flying to his face. "She's not down with the whole 'Taint' thing." He made little quotation marks with his fingers when he said 'Taint.' "Akuma, get back in the closet! Garou, Ryozo, you didn't see nuffin!"
"Gotcha boss," Ryozo said. The oni also nodded and scampered back in the closet, slamming the door just as the opposite door opened.
Matsu Ketsui entered the room, a blank look on her face. She sure looked familiar. She had a trim, athletic body, bright red hair, and was dressed head to toe in tight leather. I thought she seemed like a very interesting person.
"Okura, what were you doing in here?" she asked suspiciously.
"Er, nothing," Okura said, leaping back into a chair and pretending to have been reading the newspaper. It was upside down.
"You don't have another oni in here, do you?" she asked.
"No, no," Okura said, quickly righting the newspaper. "Why do you ask?"
"Because it smells like the Taint in here," she said.
"I think that's me," Ryozo said, raising one hand sheepishly.
"Oh," Ketsui said. She leaned close to him and sniffed. "Why, yes it is. Why don't you go outside or something?"
"Er..." Ryozo shuffled a bit, embarrassed. "Okay." He quickly exited.
"And who's this?" she asked. She grabbed my hair and pulled my head back to look at my face. "You," she hissed.
I seemed to be getting a lot of that.
"You know him?" Okura asked.
"I hope you all know me!" I said at last, fed up with the whole thing. "I'm Matsu Garou! Lady Ketsui's consort!'
Ketsui coughed out loud. "My what?" she said.
"Why, Lady Ketsui," Okura snickered.
"Listen, I don't know what this guy is trying to pull," she snarled. "But last time he was here he seduced and humiliated the entire Lion's Pride! I shall see and end to his mischief at once!" She grabbed me by the arm and tried to pull me off the floor, tearing away my right sleeve.
"Wow!" I said, looking down. "I have a tattoo!" My arm suddenly got warm.
Ketsui looked down blankly at my arm for a moment, then back at Okura. "As I was saying," she said with a little smile. "I will see to him at once." She dragged me out of the room.
She gave me a lot of sake after that, so my memory of that night was foggy, but I woke up with a lot of bruises and at least two members of the Lion's Pride followed me everywhere after that. Ketsui was a nice girl, but she seemed rather violent and possessive. For example: I got up late one night just to take a walk around the castle grounds. I get about thirty feet away from the outside wall when all of a sudden I find myself laying flat on my face with the wind knocked out of me. Ketsui had seen me from her window and did a flying tackle from the third floor.
"Trying to escape, little mouse?" she purred. I passed out at that point, and woke up with more bruises.
Okura watched me like a hawk. I don't think he liked me very much. He always called me just "Garou" instead of "Matsu Garou" and tended to scowl and grab the hilt of his knife meaningfully whenever I was around. After about a week, it looked like he'd had about enough of me. I don't know what I ever did to get him so mad, but he brought his case before Ikoma Tsanuri herself, the Lion Champion. I was there in court when it happened, with about seven women from the Lion's Pride standing guard around me in a tight circle.
"My Lady Tsanuri," he said. "I plead upon your wisdom. A travesty mars the name of the noble Lion, a travesty within the house of Matsu."
"What travesty is this?" she asked, combing her dreadlocks. Odd look for a Lion, but to each his own, right?
"The travesty of Matsu Garou," Okura said, pointing at me and sneering. "A fool who claims to be what he is not, who seduces our Matsu daimyo with foul sorcery, and who violates the Emperor's own justice!'
"How does he violate the Emperor's justice?" Tsanuri asked.
"Well, he doesn't, really," Okura admitted. "But it sounds really cool when you say things in threes and I only had two things."
"Ah," Tsanuri said.
"He did the other stuff though," Okura said.
"Matsu Garou?" Tsanuri spat. She looked disturbed by the taste of the words. "That doesn't sound quite right. Who the hell is that?"
"That's me," I said, waving. "Hi."
"I've never heard of a Matsu Garou," she said.
"Well, he's Yasuki Garou actually," Okura said.
"I thought he was Kakita Garou," Ryozo said from the audience.
"No, no," replied a fat Phoenix ambassador. "I'm fairly certain he's Asako Garou."
"I heard there was an Asahina Garou a while back," said an effeminate Crane courtier.
"No," said a feminine voice. "You're all wrong."
Everyone turned to see a young woman in a blue-grey kimono stride into the chamber. She wore the mon of the wolf proudly on her back.
"Who are you?" Tsanuri asked.
"My name is Yotsu Seou," she said. "I've been sent by the Emperor." She looked over at me with rich, dark eyes. Several Lion's Pride members stepped in front of me.
"So he is a false Lion then," Tsanuri said. "Lady Ketsui, is this true?"
"Well," Ketsui looked down at the floor. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess it is." She looked up hopefully. "Can I keep him anyway?"
Tsanuri sighed and pushed the dreadlocks out of her eyes. "He's not a pet, Ketsui," she said. "He's a samurai."
"I know!" she whined. "I'll walk him and feed him and... stuff."
"This is getting really weird," Ryozo said.
"That isn't the point," Tsanuri said. "He has pretended at being a member of the proudest warrior clan in the Empire. An affront that cannot be tolerated. We have no choice but to execute him."
Though my memory was still blank, the idea of being moments from death for something that was none of my fault seemed nothing new to me.
"Aw, shoot," Ketsui said. She slumped in a chair and kicked her feet on the nearest table. "Every time we get a new toy, this always happens." The Lion's Pride all sat on the floor and pouted along with her.
"Hm," Seou said, glancing at the Lion's Pride and shaking her head. "Anyway, the Emperor has other duties for Fuzake Garou. He cannot be executed."
"Fuzake?" Okura said. "What's a Fuzake?"
"That's a Fuzake," Seou said, pointing at me. I waved.
"Hmm," Tsanuri said, scratching her chin as she thought. "Perhaps a compromise. I will release him if he passes a gempukku ceremony. Do you agree to this... um... Fukaze... Garou?"
"Fuzake," I said. I thought for a second. It was just a gempukku ceremony, the sort of thing kids went through every day. How hard could it be? "Sure thing," I said.
Then I looked around and saw Seou and the Lion's Pride all staring at me in horror. Okura and Ryozo were snickering to themselves.
"So let it be done," Tsanuri said. "Matsu Garou's gempukku will commence at daybreak tomorrow."
Then Seou was standing right next to me, arms folded across her chest, glaring.
"Hi!" I said. "What's with the Fuzake thing?"
"Shut up," she snarled. She grabbed my hand and led me off out of the building. "We've got work to do...."
"And so she dragged me out here," I said, looking at Toku, Sanzo, and Turi. "I guess she was hoping you guys could help me with my amnesia."
"We can," Sanzo said.
"How?" I asked.
Sanzo hit me in the head with a pipe he found somewhere. I crumpled to the ground and woke up hours later. Toku, Sanzo, Seou, and Turi were all looking down at me expectantly.
"SANZO!" I shouted, lunging at the scrawny ronin's throat.
"Woah, nelly," Turi said. He easily dislodged both my arms and set me back on the ground. "Don't get violent, I was just trying to help. How's your memory."
I paused for a second. "It's.... it's back," I said. "I remember everything."
"See?" Sanzo said proudly. "That always works on TV."
"What's a TV?" Toku asked.
"Just ignore him," Turi sighed.
"Wait just a second..." I said, rubbing my head. "I've got a gempukku ceremony tomorrow! I have to study!"
"Eh, don't worry about it," Turi said. "It's just a Matsu gempukku. They're easy."
"What do I have to do?" I asked.
Turi thought a moment. "Well, first you have to recite Akodo's Leadership from memory. Cake. Then you have to wield twenty weapons of war. Simple. Then you have to cut a pomegranate in four pieces before it hits the ground. Kid's stuff. Then they hit you four hundred times with a stick and you have to just sit there and stay awake. Easy. Then you have to fast three days in a room full of food. No prob. Oh, then they brand you."
"Nice knowing you, Garou," Sanzo clapped me on the shoulder.
"That's ridiculous!" I said. "What happens if I fail any of that?"
"You die," Turi said.
"Wait, that doesn't make sense," Toku said. "The Matsu are the largest samurai family in the Empire. How can they have such a difficult gempukku and still be so big?"
Turi shrugged. "We're just *that* good," he said.
"This sucks," I said. "I'm dead."
"Not so much," Seou said. "You have your memory back."
"Yeah?" I said. "So? I'm dead! I'm toast! I'm history!"
She slapped me across the face. "You're a shugenja. Not to mention a Yasuki. So cheat."
"Oh yeah," I said.
"I am pretending I did not hear that, by the way," Turi said.
So we planned. I went through my spells and tried to figure out what to do. Surprisingly, it wasn't so hard once we thought about it. I forgot I even had some of those spells. I resolved to clean out my scroll satchel more often, especially when I found a Hershey bar in there so old I couldn't remember ever having put it in there. It was a little weathered, so you could fold it completely in half without effort. I offered it to Sanzo, but even he didn't want it.
Soon it was the next morning. We gathered before Kyuden Matsu among the various members of the Lion Clan. I wasn't the only one to be receiving my gempukku ceremony that day. Matsu Bufu, Ketsui's little brother, was there too. He was a large, rather dim looking samurai. At the beginning of the ceremony he showed Okura a grin with about four teeth.
"I hope me pass," he rumbled.
"Er... good luck," Okura whimpered, shying back from the large man.
"Recite Akodo's Leadership," Okura said in a deep voice, and the crowd grew silent.
I whispered a spell under my breath, releasing a current of air spirits at Okura's mind. He was reciting the whole book in his head, ready to call me if I messed up. I just read it out of his mind.
"And you, Bufu," Okura said. "Recite Akodo's Leadership."
"Lions good!" the boy announced, and a thread of drool hung from his lip.
Okura glanced around uncomfortably. "Er, yes," he said. "Yes, that's right. Next test."
The twenty weapons of war was the easy part. Turi pointed out a quick loophole there for me. You had to wield twenty weapons, but you didn't have to wield them *well*. Luckily, growing up on the Kaiu wall I actually knew quite a few of the weapons. Bufu, on the other hand. Well... they let him count the weapons. He only managed to count four, but Okura said that was close enough and we moved on.
The trainer hurled the pomegranate into the air. I whispered a brief spell and an obliging air spirit appeared, invisibly holding the fruit long enough to cut it. Okura sneered and reluctantly nodded.
The trainer hurled another pomegranate. Bufu screamed and cut the trainer into four pieces. It wasn't the result they wanted, but it was pretty creative so they went with it.
The next part was pretty hard. I didn't have a spell that would last long enough to defend me from four hundred blows from a bamboo stick. Luckily, Sanzo had a bottle of sake. I drank it down as quick as my body would physically let me, and that seemed to do the trick. The trainer laid the bamboo into me and I stumbled off with a grin, sore all over but not feeling a thing.
The first time the trainer hit Bufu, he drew his sword and cut that guy into four pieces too. Again, they said that was close enough.
The last test was pretty easy. I couldn't move for about three days after the sake and the beating, and Bufu ate all the food in the chamber anyway. The trainer looked like he was about to say something, then he remembered his two predecessors and decided against it.
Ikoma Tsanuri approached the two of us when we were done, a wide smile on her face. "Congratulations," she said. She handed each of us a katana worked in gold and brown. "Matsu Garou. Matsu Bufu. You are now Lions."
"Wow," I said. The sword was the most beautiful weapon I'd ever seen.
"Okay, now give it back," she said, snatching it away from me. She stormed off towards Kyuden Matsu, the rest of the Lions following along behind.
"Well, that's that," Sanzo said. "You're free now, Garou."
"Not quite," I said. I turned to Seou. "You said the Emperor sent you. Why would the Emperor have sent someone to protect us?" "That's easy," she said. "I lied. I came to help you expose him."
"You know the Emperor's a fake?" Toku asked, amazed.
"Well," she said. "The skulls and bats were kind of a clue. Not to mention the fact that he runs away like a Crane whenever it's bedtime. Which reminds me. Garou, the Fuzake thing was true, by the way. Toturi really did announce a new family in your name. And he appointed you the Imperial Clock Keeper."
"Hm," I said. I didn't know quite what to make of it.
"Just goes to show you," Sanzo said. "He might be an impostor, a murderer, a ninja, and a dictator but through it all, Toturi's still got a sense of humor."
"Sanzo?" I said, peering closely at him. "Are you wearing earrings?"
"Shut up," Sanzo said, quickly snatching them off and putting them in his pocket. "Just shut up."
World Tour Part Five: The Road to Sleeping Mountain
I rode out of the gates of Matsu Castle for what I hoped would be the last time.
"You about ready to go, Garou?" Toku asked.
"I sure am," I said. "Let's get out of here."
"What took you so long, anyway, Fuzake?" Yotsu Seou asked, looking down from her horse in disapproval.
"I... um..." I trailed off mumbling.
"What was that?" she asked.
"My guess would be that he was finishing off his gempukku," Turi said.
"Finishing?" Seou repeated. "I thought you were already done with it."
"Well, yeah," Turi said. "Except for the branding. They do that in private."
Sanzo perked up. "They branded you, Garou?" he asked.
I just nodded and kept riding.
"Hey, can I see?" Sanzo asked.
"Just drop it, Sanzo," I said tersely.
"You seem to be sitting in your saddle a little funny, Garou," Sanzo pressed.
"Sanzo, shut up!" I yelled. "I'm not having a very good day."
"Noted," Sanzo said, holding up his hands in defense. He rode a few paces away and started snickering quietly.
"Hey, Garou! Wait up!" shouted someone from Matsu Castle. To my surprise, I saw it was Ikoma Ryozo, galloping to catch up with us.
"Ryozo," I said, looking around for a weapon.
"Hey, calm down!" he said, smiling as best he could with his tattered face. "I'm sorry about bashing your head into the walls and stuff before. I just wanted to compliment you on your gempukku. It looks like you're fit to be a Lion after all."
"Well, thank you," I said. "I take that as a compliment."
"And if you ever need help," Ryozo said, "You and your friends can count upon Ryozo, the Black Lion." He sat straight at attention and bowed deeply in his saddle.
"Wow," Sanzo said. "Like, maybe me and Toku can join the Lion Clan, too, right? I'll be the Green Lion and Toku can be the Red Lion and Garou you wear a lot of blue so I guess you're the Blue Lion and then Turi's the Yellow Lion since that's the default color anyway."
"Sanzo, what are you talking about?" Toku asked.
"Just that it'd be, like, really neat if the five of us could go on adventures together and fight all kinds of giant Shadowlands beasts. We can wield our blazing swords against evil. And Ryozo can be the head."
"I think your friend should stop visiting the opium dens immediately," Ryozo said gravely. He turned around and headed back for Kyuden Matsu.
"It was just an idea," Sanzo shrugged.
"Enough of this foolishness," Seou said sharply. "We have a lot of ground to cover. Come, let's hurry." She reared up on her horse and galloped off, her long hair flowing behind her in the breeze.
"When did she suddenly get to be in charge?" Turi asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, no kidding," Toku said. "I'm the Monkey Clan Champion. If anyone's in charge it should be me."
Turi stared at Toku for nearly a full minute. "You're not serious, right?"
"Why shouldn't I be?" Toku whined. His face took on a slightly pouty expression. "I'm a minor clan daimyo now! Not to mention Captain of the Imperial Guard! I've got titles! I've got connections!"
"What connections?" Sanzo asked. "What friends do you have?"
"Um... you guys," Toku said.
"Toku," Turi said slowly. "Has anyone sworn fealty to the Monkey Clan yet?"
"Um..." Toku paused. "No."
"How many people are in the Monkey Clan, counting you, Toku?" Turi asked.
Toku paused for a moment, as if counting. "One."
"You don't have a clan, Toku," Turi said. "Toturi just gave you that title so you'd look like a fool."
"I'll take what I can get!" Toku retorted. "I don't see any of you guys leading minor clans! You guys just wait! One of these days, I'll have people swearing fealty to me and then you'll see! Then you'll all see!"
"Toku, I have a big headache, among other things," I said, rubbing my forehead. "Would you please do me a favor and be quiet?"
"I can't be quiet, Garou!" Toku shrieked. "Turi's dissing the Monkey Clan! I have to stand up for my clan's honor!"
"Toku," I said a bit more sharply. "If I swear fealty to your stupid Monkey Clan, will you shut up and give me some peace?"
Toku thought about that. "Yes," he said.
"Okay, fine," I said. "All hail the mighty Monkey Clan. May the blood of the First Toku ever prosper." I turned toward Toku and bowed quickly.
"Neat," Toku beamed. "You want me to make you a hat with a little monkey mon on it, Garou?"
"Toku," I said, a warning tone in my voice.
"We'll talk about that later," Toku said meekly, folding his arms and dropping to ride in the back of the group.
"Where are we going, anyway?" I asked. "Where is she taking us?"
"Well, we were fighting with the Naga up on Sleeping Mountain for a while," Sanzo said. "I figure we're probably going back now."
"What were you doing at Sleeping Mountain?" I asked.
"Well, last time you disappeared, you were captured by Hitomi," Sanzo answered. "I figured maybe she had you again. Then we heard you were at Kyuden Matsu."
"And where along the way did you end up in the kabuki troupe, again?" I asked.
"Hey, that's private," Sanzo said, offended. "I didn't ask you to tell me all the gory details about your nights with the Lion's Pride, did I?"
"No," I said. "No I guess not."
"Garou?" Sanzo said.
"Would you tell me all the gory details about your nights with the Lion's Pride?"
It took us several days to return to Dragon territories. Along the way, I watched Seou a lot, trying to figure out what her deal was. She'd just sort of shown up out of nowhere, and now she expected us all to follow her orders. Not that I minded; as a group we seemed to have a little more direction than usual and she had even less tolerance for Sanzo's silliness than Turi. Still, she seemed a rather mysterious sort so I tried to get a chance to talk to her alone, hoping she might reveal something. I tried catching up with her when she rode ahead, tried to fall back when she lagged behind, stayed up late to catch her on watch. Always, she was too busy to talk to me or she couldn't be found.
After about four days on the road, I gave up on it. When we camped for the evening, I broke off from the others to get a much needed bath in the river. I was waist deep in the river, rinsing out my socks in my new hat (yes it had a little monkey mon on it), when I heard a noise on the banks.
"Hello?" I called out nervously. My pouch of spells was on the bank, and I still didn't have any weapons since I'd given away my bloodsword and surrendered my tetsubo so long ago.
"Hello," Seou laughed, dropping out of a tree and sitting neatly on a stump at the edge of the water. She crossed her legs and smirked at me.
"Er... hi," I said. "I didn't know you were there."
"That's because I snuck up on you," she said. "How unlike a Crab to leave himself so unprepared."
"Well, I'm not a Crab now, I'm a Monkey," I said.
"You've also been following me," she said, arching an eyebrow. "Trying to trick me into revealing something. Well, you can ask me anything you want, Garou, but I'm afraid it'll be on my terms. For now, five questions. Ask away."
"Okay," I said, blushing furiously. "Can I have two minutes to put my pants on?"
"No," she said, brushing at her nails with a file from her pocket. "That's one question."
I sighed, annoyed and humiliated. "Why did you come after us?" I asked.
"Well, Toturi proclaimed you his official clock keeper, charged with keeping Rokugan free from bedtime," she said. "His behavior was adding up to being a little strange. I thought that someone he feared so much could help me expose him."
"You don't seem to need my help exposing people," I said, glancing down at the river. I was glad it was late and the water was pretty dark.
She laughed. "Two questions so far."
"Why are we going to Sleeping Mountain?" I asked.
"There was a big battle between the Naga and the Dragon," she said. "The final battle of their war. It's probably over now, but I hope to go and find out why they were fighting."
"Well I can tell you that," I said. "It's because my friend Agetoki beat up the son of the Qamar and left him in Kokujin's dumpster."
"No, there's more to it than that," she said, smiling enigmatically.
"Like what?" I asked.
"The Naga are the ancient enemies of the thing that has replaced Toturi," she said. "I think they're going to Sleeping Mountain to fight it."
"Well let 'em!" I said. "Got nothing to do with me! All I want to do is turn the real Toturi back into a human so he can settle this mess himself! Kakita Toshimoko said he knew a way last time I saw him, but then the whole building blew up on us. If I could just find him..." "I know where the Grey Crane is," she said.
"Yeah?" I asked. "Where?"
"He's with the army of the Brotherhood of Shinsei," she said. "On Sleeping Mountain."
"Wow, that's great," I said. Seou was still watching me, amusement in her dark eyes. She was very pretty, in a sinister way. I double checked to make sure that my hat was placed in a suitably modest position. Then it hit me. "Wait just a second, Seou," I said. "How do you know about all this stuff? How did you find out so much about the ninja?"
"Sorry," she said. "You got your five questions." She turned around into the bushes and vanished.
Seou wasn't any more open toward us the morning after that, she just looked very smug. I sat by the river in silence, angry at myself for letting her sneak up on me and angrier for letting her make me look so stupid.
"Whatcha thinking about, Garou?" Toku asked. He chewed on a rice cake as he sat down across from me.
"Women," I said.
"Heh," Toku said. "What are you gonna do? Can't live with 'em. Can't live without 'em. Take my girlfriend for example..."
"You have a girlfriend?" I asked, astounded.
"Yeah, of course!" Toku said. "I have the lineage of the Monkey Clan to think of now! It's important that I settle down."
"You're not talking about Osugi, are you?" I winced.
"Oh," Toku frowned. "No, I'm sorta over her. I'm still kinda mad at Toturi for chopping off her head, but I figured it was time to get over her." He brightened quickly. "No, this is a new girl! One with a head! I met her on Sleeping Mountain!"
"What's her name, Toku?" I asked.
"Mara!" he said. "You should see her, Garou. She's so pretty. Well, I think she is anyway. It's always been pretty dark when we went out together and she tends to wear a hood a lot. She's got a real pretty voice, though. I'll have to introduce you to her, Garou. She may be your daimyo's future wife!"
"That'll be great, Toku," I said. "Speaking of the Monkey Clan, I've been giving it a lot of thought. This could really work, Toku. I think the Monkey Clan could be really big."
Toku blinked. "You really mean that, Garou? You're not making fun of me?"
"No, I mean it," I said. "The Empire's in a lot of turmoil right now. Rokugan could use a few more honest people in charge. And people can say what they want about you, Toku, but nobody can say you're dishonest. Dim, maybe, but not dishonest."
"Oh, I don't have a problem with dim," Toku said. "Runs in my family. But you really think I'll do a good job? You're the best, Garou!"
"Well, we've got a lot of work to do," I said. "We need more samurai. Do you know any more samurai without a clan, people we can depend on to make the Monkey Clan great?"
Sanzo strolled past us out of the bushes nearby, heading back to the camp.
"Nope," Toku said.
"Neither do I," I sighed. "Well, keep your eyes open, Toku."
Toku nodded. "Well, there's that weird guy in the brown mask that helped us fight the ninjas back in Morikage," he said. "He seemed pretty cool, but we haven't seen him since."
"Yeah," I said. "I think I caught a glimpse of him in Otosan Uchi, but I'm not sure. He seemed so familiar... Oh well. In the meantime, help me catch up. I've been trapped amnesiac in Matsu Castle for over a month. All I know is that we're headed for Sleeping Mountain and that Sanzo has a fetish for kabuki. What else has happened?"
"Well, after the Kolat house blew up we lost track of Dorai and Kage," Toku said. "I never found Kage again, but I ran into Dorai in a barn in Otosan Uchi."
"You did?" I asked. "How is he?"
"Not bad," Toku said. "Ginawa chopped him in half, but otherwise he was pretty much the same. Quieter, I guess, but the same."
"Dorai's dead?" I asked. That was a shocker. He was a Kolat and a shadowy conspirator but otherwise he seemed like a pretty nice guy. I felt bad for him.
"Yeah," Toku said. "He's a villain, though, so he'll probably come back eventually."
"Right," I said. I forgot about that part. Being a villain seemed so much easier than being a hero sometimes. "So how's Ginawa?"
"He said that Kage had slipped through his fingers," Toku said, "and that Hiroru had been stabbed repeatedly and kidnapped by his girlfriend. He was really shaken up."
"I guess he was worried about Hiroru?" I said.
"No, he was pretty happy to be rid of him, really," Toku said. "You know Hiroru."
I nodded in agreement. "Yes I do. What shook him up then?"
"He couldn't believe Toturi would give me my own clan. He said if I was a minor clan daimyo then he must be the Emperor of the Universe. I thought that was pretty neat, since he's usually pretty nice to us and it would be good to have the Emperor of the Universe on our side, right?"
"Ah," I said. "Anything else happen after that?"
"Well, there's the siege," Toku said. "Emperor Toturi dispatched his armies to support Hitomi in her war against the Naga. I showed up at right about the right time, and I got to command a whole platoon! It was neat. They gave me a spear. It wasn't as nice as the one I got from Naka Kuro but it was nice just the same. We kicked Naga butt.... um... if Nagas have butts, that is. Do they?"
"Toku," I said, stunned. "You realize you joined the army of the evil ninja doppleganger emperor to fight against the creatures that might be our only allies against him."
"Oh wow," Toku said, amazed. "What a coincidence. Life is so weird."
"Never mind, Toku," I said with a sigh. "What happened after that?" "Nuthin," Toku said. "Oh, well Turi found Sanzo and Alhundro Cornejo working in the kabuki troupe, and Seou showed up telling us she knew where you were. That was about it."
"It's bizarre," I said. "None of this adds up. None of it. Seou wants to help us save Toturi. Seou wants us to help Hitomi. Hitomi, though she's a sweet girl, is the leader of the freakiest cult of shaven-headed wackos in Rokugan. Toturi wants us all dead, but he gives you your own clan and he gives me an Imperial title and my own family name. Meanwhile, we've still got the real Toturi cursed in a birdcage, and little to no clue how to fix him."
"Good explication, Garou," Toku said.
"Thanks," I replied. "What worries me the most, though, is that it's so quiet. You'd think that if the ninjas wanted us dead so badly we'd be running into them around every corner."
"Yeah," Toku said.
We got up and rounded the corner. Goju Adorai was waiting for us with five ninjas.
"I stand corrected," I said.
"Boy, that Adorai guy looks a lot like you, Garou," Toku said.
"Shhh!" I hissed.
"I think it's the hat," Toku added. "You guys wear the same kind of hat."
"Shhhh!" I added.
"Greetings, Yasuki Garou," Adorai said with a malicious chuckle. He folded his arms across his chest. "You and your friends defeated me once, but now it is only the two of you. Now we will have your life, your name, and your emperor."
"I'm not Yasuki Garou," I said. "I'm Fuzake Garou. You have the wrong guy."
Adorai glanced at his ninjas in doubt. "Hey, wait just a second!" Adorai said. "That's the name Ninja Emperor gave you! You're trying to trick us!" He waved a finger at us scoldingly. I just shrugged. "Well, we shall have none of that. NINJA ATTACK!"
Adorai closed his fist toward us and the five ninjas leaped into the air and scuttled across the ground in our direction. Toku took out his Phoenix yari and began stabbing randomly at them as we retreated. I mumbled a few spells and hurled some globes of fire at them that didn't do much more than slow them down.
"There's too many, Garou!" Toku said. We were backed up almost to the river. Toku fell to his knees as a bo-staff hit him in the shin, and I felt a shuriken slice past my shoulder.
"Good shot, Ninja Pin-Monkey!" cackled one.
"Why thank you, Ninja Air-conditioner Repairman," the other replied.
Just then, Seou leaped from the bushes with a frenzied cry, throwing a handful of something into the advancing ninjas. Two of them screamed as their bodies tore apart and dissipated.
"Ninja Line Cook! Ninja Bus Driver! No!" Adorai shouted in anguish.
I saw one of Seou's missiles lodge in the ground near me, a perfect crystal shuriken. Sanzo and Turi charged to meet us as well. Sanzo was waving Ambition wildly and Turi was just waving around what appeared to be a small tree.
"Seou!" I shouted. She was in the midst of the remaining ninjas, and they began to pull her into their shadows with wicked claws.
"Run!" she shouted.
"You can't save her, Garou!" Sanzo screamed to me. "We have to go!"
"Why can't I save her?" I asked.
"This is a samurai story, Garou," Turi said. "The potential love interest always has to die."
Well, that was just dumb. I wasn't having any of it. I grabbed Toku's yari from him and charged into the middle of the ninjas, spearing two of them on the staff. The other one leaped backwards with a barking sound. Seou was laying limp on the ground, shivering. I threw her over one shoulder. Then I immediately collapsed. Turi always made that sort of thing look so easy.
"They are too powerful for us, master!" the last ninja cried.
"Nonsense, Ninja Cafeteria Orange Juice Delivery Man," Adorai replied. "As long as the Shadow exists, I can summon more of our kin! Ninjas! Come to your master, I Adorai, command- urk."
Adorai fell on the ground as a large rock bounced off his head and splashed in the river. The large masked samurai from Morikage stepped out onto the riverbank, hefting another rock in his other hand. He threw the rock swiftly, but Ninja Cafeteria Orange Juice Delivery Man was quicker, vanishing into the darkness, dragging Adorai's limp form with him.
"Who are you?" Sanzo asked the dark samurai. "Why do you keep following us?"
"I am no one of consequence," the man said, turning and darting away.
"Oh, no you don't," Turi said. "I'm sick of this melodramatic crap." He picked up the rock that had missed the second ninja and hurled it, pegging no-one-of-consequence right in the base of the skull. The samurai wobbled on his feet and fell down.
"Good shot, Turi," Seou said, blinking sleepily as she sat up and shook away the effects of the ninja's darkness. I helped her to her feet and she smiled gratefully. "Damn right," Turi nodded.
We ran over to the samurai's side. He was already waking up, peering around groggily. "Okay, again, who are you?" Sanzo asked.
"My name is Tzurui," the man said. "I heard of your exploits and have followed you for many months, hoping to learn more about you."
"Hmmm," I said. I pulled off his mask.
We all gasped.
"Agetoki!" Toku shouted. "You're alive!"
"Yeah, and I would've gotten away with it if it hadn't been for that meddling Garou," he sneered at me. He looked tired, weary, and a little pale from wearing a mask for months, but sure enough it was Agetoki.
"Agetoki, why aren't you dead?" Sanzo asked, his jaw hanging open. "I thought Kamoko killed you!"
"Disappointed? She just stabbed me in the lung," Agetoki shrugged. "I got another one."
"Spoken like a true Lion, cousin," Turi smiled proudly.
"Why are you pretending to be a ronin?" Seou asked.
"So I can avoid that psycho Battle Maiden!" Agetoki exclaimed. "She skewered me last time, Amaterasu knows what she'd do if she caught up with me again! Kamoko is obsessed with a capital Otaku!"
"So what are you going to do know, cousin?" Turi asked.
"Eh, I dunno," Agetoki looked at the ground sadly. "I got no family. No other friends. If I started hanging out with you guys, I know she'd just catch on again and then it'd be all over."
"Maybe you could file a restraining order or something?" Toku asked.
"No way," Sanzo said. "Her family are all cops. It'd never work."
Agetoki nodded. "No other solution for it. I'm just Tzurui now. And Tzurui's nothing. I don't even have my cavalry trait anymore." He fought back tears.
Toku suddenly brightened. "Hey!" he said. "You want to be in the Monkey Clan?"
Sanzo grimaced. "No, Toku. Agetoki never liked you. He doesn't want to be in your dumb little-"
"Hey!" Agetoki interrupted. "I think that's a decision for me to make, Sanzo. I can't afford to be too picky right now and anyway, Toku's the only one of you feebs that bothered to leave anything on my tombstone. Boy, you sure find out who your friends are when you die. Sure, Toku. I'll be in your Monkey Clan."
"Yay!" Toku shouted, doing the invisible pump-lever gesture.
"Well, I better get going, then," Agetoki said, standing and replacing on his mask. "I'll go get to work building the Monkey Clan castle or something. You guys take it easy."
"Yeah, Agetoki," I said. "You too." "Tzurui!" Agetoki replied. "It's Tzurui now." I nodded. Agetoki walked off without another word, leaving us all in stunned silence for several moments.
Then it got noisy again, as dozen Naga rose up out of the river and pointed bows at us.
"Look, huu-mans," snarled the leader. "The day isss not a total lossss, my brothersss. These five ssshall make exssssellent target practissse."
World Tour Part Six: The Naga Stronghold
"Look, huu-mans," snarled the leader of the Naga. "The day isss not a total lossss, my brothersss. These five ssshall make exssssellent target practissse."
I glanced around at the naga archers. "I don't suppose we can discuss this?" I said.
"We do not wissssh to dissscussss anything with the likesssss of you humanssss," the naga said, chewing the words out with some difficulty.
"Dude," Sanzo said, "What's wrong with your mouth?"
The leader of the naga turned, aiming his bow directly at Sanzo. "Excusssse me?" he hissed. "Did you ssssay ssssomething?"
"Gah!" Sanzo covered his face defensively. "Stop talking like that! Yer spitting all over me!"
The naga hissed in anger. "I ssssshall kill thisss human for his impudencssssse."
One of the other naga cleared his throat. "Well, he does have something of a point, Balash, old chap," he said. "You do have quite the speech impediment."
The naga leader looked at his comrade suspiciously. "What are you ssssugesssssting Ssssshagara?" he said. "That there'sssss sssssomething wrong with my sssssspeech?"
"You just sound a little sssssilly," said one of the other naga with a snicker.
"Eh?" Balash looked up. "Who sssssaid that? Who ssssaid that? Sssstep forward right now and exssssssplain yourself!"
The naga were dead silent, though many of them judiciously avoided eye contact with Balash.
"I'm sssssserious!" Balash snapped. "You kidssssss thessssse dayssssss don't have an ouncssssse of ressssssssssssssssssspect!"
"Balash, maybe you ought to calm down," I said, trying to calm the naga down. "My older brother had a stutter and when ever he lost his temper it just got worse."
"I don't have a sssssssstupid sssssssssssssspeech impediment!" Balash shouted, pointing his bow at me. "Now the nexsssssssssst one of you idiotsssssssssssss who laughsssssssssssssss at me issss going to be pulling my arrowsssssssssssssss out of their eye sssssssssocketsssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss!" That particular hiss had been a pretty bad one, and Shagara had to slap Balash on the back to stop it.
"I'm not kidding," Balash said, carefully avoiding all 's' sounds. "Don't any of you even think about laughing at me."
"Yesssssssir," said Sanzo and the nagas all burst out laughing.
"Okay, that'ssssssssssssssssssssssss it! The human DIESSSSSSSSS!"
Sanzo gulped, realizing he'd gone too far. Matsu Turi and Toku fell into defensive stances, ready to fight. Yotsu Seou had disappeared somewhere. I wracked my brain for some nonviolent way out of this. Then I hit upon it.
"Hey, Balash," I said.
"What issssssssss it, human?" the naga said fiercely. He pointed his bow at me and slithered toward me. "Do you want to be the firssssssssssssssst to die inssssssstead? Sssssssay a sssssssingle mocking ssssssentencssssssssssse and it will be ssssssssssssssssso."
"No, I just had a suggestion?" I said. I held up my hands, trying to appear as harmless as possible.
"A ssssssssssssuggesssssssssssssstion?" Balash asked. "What is your ss--" he paused, as if unwilling to tackle that word again. "What would you reccomend?"
"Well, if you ask me, I don't think you have a speech impediment at all," I said. "You just have to stop eating those crackers."
Everyone looked at the jumbo sized box of saltines Balash clutched under his left arm.
"Wow," Toku said. "I hadn't even noticed those before. Good eyes, Garou!"
Balash looked down at the crackers, then looked up at me, still chewing on a mouthful. "Do you really think that will ssssssssssstop it?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. "Just swallow the stupid things and get yourself a glass of water or something. You'll be fine."
Balash looked suddenly hopeful. He turned to the naga. "Sssssssshagara, Malekissssssh, Radakassssssss-- er, Radakassssssssssss- ahem," he braced himself to try the name one more time, "Radakassssssssssssssssssssss - screw it - Qakar, you heard him. Go get me ssssssssssssome water, sssssssstat!"
The three naga quickly complied, shuffling off into the woods. They returned moments later with a large glass of clear water they'd apparently found somewhere. Balash drunk deeply and swallowed, looking upward speculatively.
"She sells seashells by the seashore," he mumbled. "By the Seven Fortunes, I'm cured!" He shouted. He quickly threw the box of saltines to the ground and slithered over to me, grabbing my arm and shaking my hand. "Huuuuu-man, I'm in your debt!" he said. "You saved me from a life of mindless lisping!"
"No problem," I said. "Sorry I couldn't help you with those u's."
"What do you mean, huuuuu-man?" he asked curiously.
"Never mind," I said. "I'm just glad I could help. I'm Fuzake Garou."
Balash nodded. "I am the Balash, as you may have heard," he said. "These are my brothers, the Malekish, the Qakar, the Ashamana, the Shagara, the Radakast, and the Sysh."
I bowed to each of the naga. "And these are my friends, Matsu Turi, Toku, and Sanzo."
"I'd like to be called 'the' Sanzo from now on," Sanzo interjected.
I looked back at Sanzo. "I'm not going to call you that."
"Hey, if the snakes can do it I should be allowed to do it!" he whined. "Besides, it just sounds so dang cool."
"'The Radakast' sounds cool," Turi corrected. "'The Sanzo' sounds like something I found on the bottom of my shoe."
"Hey, I'm just trying to broaden my horizons here," Sanzo said, hurt. "What's wrong with adding an article to your name? That Daini guy did it, remember?"
Balash groaned. "You're friends of 'the Daini,' huh?" he said tentatively.
"Not really," I said. "We just met him one time, why?"
"Hoo boy," Balash said, relieved. "That guy. Such a naga wanna-be. He makes me sick."
"Clear case of snake envy," Radakast said, nodding in agreement.
"Well forget the Daini, then," Sanzo said to the Nagas. "What about me? Do you think 'the Sanzo' sounds cool or not?"
Malekish considered this for a moment, scratching his chin in thought. "Well, you understand that we naga do not have names as you humans do. We recognize each other on sight through our connection to the Akasha, so names are unnecessary. The words we use to refer to each other are what you might call titles, describing our particular function in the Akasha."
"Ghesundtheit," Toku said politely.
Malekish shot Toku an annoyed look. "Anyway, considering the direct translation of the word 'Sanzo' into our own language, I think that it would be more than acceptable for us to refer to you as 'the Sanzo.'"
"There!" Sanzo said, turning to us and folding our arms triumphantly. "Even the naga think I look like a Sanzo."
The naga all burst out laughing behind Sanzo.
Sanzo whirled around. "What are you guys laughing at?" he asked. "What does 'Sanzo' mean in your language."
"Er... we'd better get moving," Balash said, looking up at the sun as he stifled a giggle. "The... uh... sun is going down or something. We'll be wanting to, like get back to the camp before it gets dark. Teehee." He quickly darted back into the forest. The other naga followed, giggling like schoolgirls.
"Hey! I'm not finished with you guys yet!" Sanzo said, charging off after them. "What the heck is a Sanzo?!?"
"Should we follow?" Turi asked, turning to me.
"I guess it should be all right," I said. "The naga don't seem to want to kill us anymore and it's as good a place to spend the night as any. Heck, they might even know where we can find Toshimoko."
"Hey!" Toku said jubilantly. "You think any of those Nagas will want to join the Monkey Clan?"
I quickly walked off into the woods, leaving Turi to answer Toku's question.
Some time later, we arrived at the naga camp. A great number of naga were all about, chatting with each other or snacking on roots and berries. Balash and the others waved to me when I arrived. They were still giggling among themselves. Sanzo was sitting several yards away from them, sulking. I stopped dead in my tracks, surprised to see Yotsu Seou in the midst of the naga camp.
"What in Jigoku is she doing here?" Turi asked me.
"I have no clue," I said. "I think there's a lot of things we don't know about that girl."
"That's the problem with women," Toku said sagely. "They're always hiding something. Except for my Mara, that is. She's one hundred percent honest in our relationship."
"Hi, Toku!" said a voice from nearby. It was a strikingly beautiful naga girl, dressed in a short green tunic.
"Wow," Toku said with a forced laugh. "If I didn't know better, I'd say that naga sounds just like Mara."
"HI, Toku!" she repeated, stepping right in front of the little samurai and waving in his face.
"M-m-mara?" Toku stuttered.
"Last I checked, yes," she said.
"You're a naga?!?" he exclaimed. "And you never told me?!?"
She looked confused. "You never asked," she said. "I wasn't aware that it mattered."
"Didn't matter???" Toku asked. "You're part reptile and you didn't think it would matter?"
"Come on, now, Toku," Turi said. "I think you're being slightly racist."
"Specist, actually," Mara corrected.
"Or maybe just slightly herpephobic?" I offered.
Everyone looked at me.
"Oh, come on people!" I said. "It means 'fear of reptiles!' Don't any of you know Latin?"
"Garou stop that," Turi said. "You're talking like Sanzo again."
I sighed and stormed off, leaving them to their argument. I sat down next to the naga's fire. Soon I noticed someone sitting next to me.
"Hi, Seou," I said, not looking up.
"Garou," she said, surprised. "How did you know it was me?"
"You're the only person I know who amuses herself by sneaking up on me," I said. "Well, except for ninjas and I figured a ninja wouldn't care if I called them Seou."
"This is true," Seou said. "So what have you discovered?"
I looked up. "What do you mean? I haven't discovered anything except that Balash likes crackers and Toku has some snake-charming issues."
"Garou, Garou, Garou," Seou said, shaking her head with a smile. "You just don't know how to utilize your time. I've discovered all sorts of things since I got here. I've even made arrangements for us to speak with their greatest warrior, the Dashmar."
"Well that makes sense," I said. "You did have a head start, after all. We had to deal with the naga and you just disappeared."
"Not my fault if you didn't see them coming," she shrugged. "I figured you boys could handle them. You handled Morikage without my help, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but we had Agetoki, Shosuro, and bedtime on our side," I replied.
"Whatever," she said dismissively. "A true hero always has options, they just have to find them. You happened to find some crackers and I found a convenient bush to hide in. It's in the past. Now would you like to meet the Dashmar or not? As far as I know, he was the last naga to see Toshimoko."
"Fine," I said. "Take me to see him."
Seou smiled triumphantly and hopped to her feet. She took me by the hand and led me off through the camp. After her rather insensitive treatment of us I didn't really want to follow her, but I really didn't want to let go of her hand, either. It's like my Uncle Taka always said: "Money will make a man do stupid things, but a woman will make a man do a thousand stupid things." About at that point, my mom would counter with one of her favorite phrases: "Uncle Taka is an idiot and he'll never be married." Uncle Taka usually didn't have an argument for that, at least not until after mom had served dinner.
On the other side of the naga camp, a small tent stood among the trees. A tall naga stood directly in front of the door. His thick arms were folded and his face held the calm, sure, bored expression of an elite honor guard. I waved right in his face to see if he'd react. His facial expression didn't change, but I suddenly found myself lifted into the air from behind by the guard's twenty foot long tail.
"What do you two huuuu-mans want?" the guard hissed.
"We just want to see the Dashmar," Seou said, still standing firmly on the ground. "We have an appointment."
"I will check and see," the guard said. "You huuuuu-mans wait here." He turned and entered the tent, still holding me where I was by his tail.
"I wonder if they know there's only one 'u' in 'humans'," I said. "Maybe that's why they pronounce it like that?"
"I heard that!" said the guard. Seou chuckled at me.
A few moments later, the guard returned. "You may go to see the Dashmar now," he said.
"Um, could you let me down?" I asked.
I knew I shouldn't have phrased it like that. Believe me, I knew I shouldn't have phrased it like that. It's just sometimes I say stupid things for no reason. It's almost as if I was comic relief for someone else's story. The thought traveled with me all the way to the ground, where I landed with a thud.
"You okay?" Seou said, offering me a hand to help me to my feet.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," I said, taking her hand and crawling to my feet. "Dang sarcastic naga." I stormed past the naga into the tent. I think the guard giggled after I couldn't see him, but I wasn't sure.
The inside of the tent was cramped and small. A few pieces of tiny furniture covered the floor. A small pot sat in one corner, and beside it sat an elderly little naga wearing a red vest. He sat upon a small stump, stirring at the pot and filling the tent with the smell of some sort of soup. His face was withered and ancient, and he watched us with quick, sharp eyes.
"Sit, sit," he said, indicating the pillows. His voice was high and chirping, and he laughed gently under his breath.
I sat down and looked around curiously. Seou sat down right beside me, looking similarly perplexed. She glanced at me with her dark eyes.
"Confused you are," the old naga laughed. "Help you I can."
"Er... we were looking for the Dashmar," I said. "We heard he was a great warrior."
"Wars not make one great," the naga chuckled.
"Are you the Dashmar or not?" I snapped.
The little naga sighed and his eyes became distant. "Impatient is he. Much anger in him, like his father."
"My father?" I said, confused. "My father was a fish merchant."
"He is too old!" the naga said with authority. "Yes, too old to begin the training!"
"What training?" Seou asked.
"He's crazy," I said. "That's all there is too it. The old naga's popped his cork. We'd better tell the guard outside." I stood up and headed for the door of the tent.
"Beware the dark side!" the naga called out.
"Oh shut up, you loon," I shot back. I ducked through the flap and tapped the guard on the shoulder.
"Don't touch me, huuu-man," he snarled, lifting me in the air by his tail again.
"Urk," I gasped as the air was squeezed out of me.
"Well, he can't help but touch you now," Seou said, stepping out of the tent. "You've got your tail wrapped around him. Technically you're touching him."
"Ick, you have a point," the naga said and dropped me again.
I hopped back to my feet and dusted myself off. "You have a problem in there," I said. "It looks like your Dashmar has gone crazy."
The naga looked back at the tent. "Egad," he said. "I knew he was spending too much time with those monks, especially Yodin. Is he talking all off kilter again?"
"Yessir," I said. "Is there maybe somebody else I can talk to?"
"Hang on just a sec," the naga said. He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. "YO!" he shouted, "ASHAMANA! FRONT AND CENTER!"
A few moments later the young naga from Balash's group slithered up and saluted. "Hidey-ho, Shahadet," he said. "What can I do for you?"
Shahadet rolled his eyes morosely and pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the tent.
"Oh, dear, he's at it again?" Ashamana asked.
"Oh, well I'll see to that," Ashamana said with a grin. He glanced about the ground, stooping to pick up a large stick. He then nodded to Seou and me and strolled into the tent with the stick over his shoulder. We heard several muffled thwaps and grunts and a moment later Ashamana strolled back out of the tent, wearing Dashmar's little red vest.
"Something you two wanted to talk to me about?" he asked. "I'm the Dashmar now, so you can talk to me. It's all good."
Seou and I both looked at Shahadet. "What?" he asked. "You have a problem with how we naga do things?"
"No, no, actually," I said. "I was just thinking what a damn good idea it is. Would have saved us a hell of a lot of trouble with this whole black chicken thing. Heck if we did things that way, Agetoki would be Emperor now."
"Egad, that would be a good thing?" Seou asked.
I shrugged. "We could do worse," I said. "Besides, as Emperor he would've had to settle down and get married and he would've stopped obsessing over Kamoko and vice versa. Anyway, that's not what we came to talk to you about, Mister Dashmar. My name's Fuzake Garou and this is my friend, Yotsu Seou."
"Ah, yes," Dashmar said, nodding toward Seou. "The girl from the Imperial Army. Boy, you sure did kick our keisters."
I glanced at Seou. "I thought you said that you were fighting alongside the naga at Sleeping Mountain," I said.
"No, Garou," she replied. "I said we were fighting *with* the naga at Sleeping Mountain. You just misunderstood. Did you think Toku would fight against Toturi's Army? All his friends are in Toturi's Army!"
My jaw dropped open. "You guys fought alongside the forces of that whacko Hitomi and her freak ise zumi? And then you walked us right into the camp of the people you were killing? Are you crazy?"
"Garou, you're overreacting," she said, folding her arms. "This doesn't bother the Dashmar or Shahadet, I don't see why it should bother you.
"Yeah, Garou, chill out," Shahadet said. I, for one, am impressed by Toturi's Army. Normally I'm not all that impressed when somebody kicks the living tar out of my people but those guys did, like, a really good job."
"Yeah!" Dashmar added. "We didn't stand a prayer!"
"Well you guys sure are forgiving," I said.
"That's the way of our people," Dashmar said with an enlightened smile. "I mean, it's not as if you tattooed the first-born of the Qamar or something."
"Yeah, no kidding," Shahadet added. "If I ever get my hands on those guys..."
"Maybe it was Oni no Snipe!" I said, irritated.
"Hey, we're really sorry about that," Dashmar said. "We feel really bad about getting Hida Yakamo killed and all. It was just a harmless little snipe hunt."
"Boy, Yakamo looked pretty good compared to what Toturi's Army did to *us* though, huh, Dashmar?" Shahadet asked.
"Word, brother!" Dashmar said. "We were like the sandwich and they were like Ikoma Ujiaki!"
"Boy, that guy was fat," Shahadet said in agreement.
"Hey!" I said, snapping them back to attention. "What are you guys talking about? Yakamo's DEAD???" Maybe I wasn't a Crab now, but I was born a Crab. My family were all Crabs. Yakamo was kind of a jerk, but he was our jerk and I felt bad to hear that he'd been killed.
"Um, yeah, sorry about that," Dashmar said. "Don't worry, though, the Shashakar is going to bring him back from the dead. Scary thing is, his body was just in awful shape when we got him. We hardly recognized him. Apparently Moto Tsume worked him over purty good."
"Not as good as we got worked over, though!" Shahadet said gleefully.
"Tell the truth!" Dashmar laughed. "Hey, Shahadet, remember that time Toku killed you?"
"Oof!" Shahadet said, slapping his own face. "Don't remind me."
"Hey, hey, hey!" I said, waving my hands to get their attention back. "You said you're going to bring Yakamo back from the dead? You can do that?"
"Hey, we're naga, we can do anything," Dashmar said with a huff.
"Except beat Toturi's Army!" Shahadet said.
"Oh, MAN they stomped us!" Dashmar giggled.
"Hey!" I interrupted a final time. "Just point me in the direction of your stupid Shashakar and you guys can go on bragging all you like about how great Toturi's Army is! Deal?"
"Sounds good to me," Dashmar said. He pointed. "He's in a big green tent over that way."
"Thanks," I said. "Seou, are you coming?"
"No, that's all right," she said with a little smile. "I think I'll stay here for awhile and listen to how great I am."
"Okay," I said. I walked off toward the tent, eager to see Yakamo return from the dead. Maybe he'd be glad to see me. Maybe, just maybe, he'd make me a Crab again. No, that was too much to hope. I had a new clan now anyway. It would just be good to see an old friend again, even if that old friend was a notorious jerk who amused himself by clubbing people in the head with blunt objects. I peeked through the door of the tent. A large, cobra-headed naga sat coiled before the ruined, charred corpse of a man. A pile of heavy samurai armor and a jade-studded tetsubo sat heaped in the corner.
"Oh, hello," the naga said in a friendly voice. "Are you the Ashamana that's going to be the new Shashakar?"
"Um, no," I said. "My name's Fuzake Garou and I'm a friend of Yakamo's. I just came to see-"
"Good, good, that's good," the naga said with a smile. "Always good to meet a feisty youth ready to take up the reins of the next generation. When I'm gone, you'll need these," he said, handing me a small pouch. He lifted a very large black pearl in his other hand. I noticed it was the source of light for the whole chamber. It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.
"What's that?" I asked.
"The pearl of the Pale Eye," he replied. "One of our most powerful relics. When it is gone, so too shall I die, but the greatest hero the Crab have ever known shall walk the earth once more."
"Cool!" I said. "Get to it!"
The naga nodded, falling into his trance. Magic began to swirl around him, gently covering him with mist that flowed down onto the body. I noticed it looked a little small for Yakamo, but it was pretty badly burned too so that was no surprise. The body began to quiver, and the Shashakar began to chant loudly. Yakamo rose a bloody, skinned hand to the sky.
A left hand.
I remembered, at that point, that Yakamo did not have a left hand, having misplaced it during an abortive duel at Beiden Pass. I tapped the Shashakar on the shoulder.
"Um, I'm kind of busy here," the Shashakar said. "What is it?"
"That's not Yakamo," I said.
The Shashakar's jaw dropped open. He blinked, shrugged, and died. The Black Pearl vanished. The corpse suddenly set up, covered by a fresh new layer of skin and muscle. It was a little man with a thin white moustache.
"Hello?" he said, looking around. "Am I at the court?"
"No," I said. "You're not at the court."
"Well, this is a confusing state of affairs," the little man said. "Last I knew I was in the court, composing a poem to the beauty of the lady Shizue when of a sudden Emperor Hantei walked in and said he had a funny thing to show me and I said okay and then he pulled out a filleting knife and here I am!"
"Who are you?" I asked.
"I'm Kakita Shijin," he said. "Bard and poet to the Crane Clan." He smiled feebly.
"Wrong," I said. "Wrong?" he said.
"Yes," I said, handing him the tetsubo. "Now you're Hida Yakamo."
All artwork above created by Rich Wulf