Loss, Hope & Redemption: Recension
Hide tents made from an endless variety of animal skins filled my vision with every step into the Musk encampment. E verything from common deer to wildly exotic lion skins comprised the shelter of the army, which I supposed was a mark of status. Regardless, it was just another factor to note in my mind as I strode with the best calm I could manage, my hair unbound and covered in rabbit pe;lts..
I could have easily slipped past everyone using the Umi-sen-ken, but I'd promised to seal those techniques away and never use them again. I was starting to regret that promise.
The closer I got to my destination, the more common the curious looks became, a relatively unknown soldier striding to the center of the camp: But, I'd been overlooked so far. If anyone asked any questions, I knew I was going to be in for a fight.
Kami's sake, I couldn't even speak Chinese well enough to coherently lie. If I could even lie to them successfully in the first place. I know myself well enough to know I lie terribly even in Japanese.
I pushed aside the momentary distraction as I got within a couple hundred feet of the center tent. Nervously casting my gaze around, I ducked between two tents when I was unobserved, disappearing from the main "road" splitting the wide lane I'd been walking. I carefully began masking my chi, bringing it to miniscule levels.
Thus prepared, I began to sneak towards the main tent.
Guards patrolled every possible approach, but within two passes I noted the ways in which the patrols were lax and inefficient. Their demeanor screamed that they weren't expecting trouble. Herb thought he had the people in that mountain defeated. He didn't expect them to attack, and it showed in the layout of his camp. In short, they weren't ready for war anymore, not really. They expected to swarm the people they threatened through sheer numbers, crushing them beneath an unyielding boot.
It was like Kunou's innumerable openings. A succubus begging me to take advantage of the compromised situation in which I found her. It would be an act of criminal negligence not to exploit the weakness.
It was laughably easy to sneak right up to one of the walls of the large tent. I pilfered a dagger from a mearby tent, empty save for unguarded possessions, and used the tool to cut a slit in the wall of Herb's tent at the bottom, sliding underneath.
Inside, the enclosure was quiet. For once it appeared that Lady Luck was on my side: I'd come right up on the Chiisuiton and Kaisufuu. The pair of ancient artifacts rested on rough-hewn crates, as if waiting for my hand to take them. I glanced around, finally spotting a leather sack hung from a support beam disappearing into the shadows above me..
Kettle, ladle, and bucket all went right into the sack and I carefully lifted the slit I'd made at the bottom of the tent as I prepared to escape. I nearly flinched as another patrol walked by, but they didn't notice my footprints leading to the wall of the tent or the slit I'd made. As they walked away, I slipped back out of the tent, the sack on my shoulder.
Using nearby tents as cover, I snuck away from the tent. When I was a couple hundred feet away, I walked back onto one of the roads leading out from the center of the camp, the sack slung over my shoulder. I strode amongts the Musk as if I were one of them, nodding to a few raised heads and grinning in return to flashed smiles.
For that short time, I was one of them.
I was maybe two hundred feet from the edge of the camp when the alarm went up, sending the camp into a storm of activity. Musk soldiers grabbed their weapons and began to mill in a chaotic disarray, as if trying to read the bells to discern the intruder.
Not wanting to appear out of place, I grabbed a nearby spear and began to run for the edge of camp, roaring Chinese curses with the rest of them. I knew my luck couldn't last and wasn't disappointed.
"Hey, you!" As the statement was yelled, I knew I'd been spotted as the intruder. I abandoned caution andI hurled the spear in the direction of the soldier who'd spotted me. With one mighty leap I cleared the edge of the camp and was bouncing towards Phoenix Mountain, Herb's flying technique easing the straiin very considerably.
Behind me, patrols came hot on my heels. It was the work of mere minutes to outdistance them and lose them in the forests covering Mount Phoenix's initial slopes. As I continued up the mountain, I looked for any sign of Kiima or her people. Without their aid, I'd be hunted down sooner or later... I didn't know the area, couldn't hope to avoid the patrols...
It wasn't until that moment that I realized just how much I'd been depending on my travelling partner: Until those desperate moments where I scrambled up the foothills of Mount Phoenix, I hadn't really given any thought to how much trust I'd invested in my victim's surrogate mother. It wasn't until I was nearly surrounded, nearly dead, that I actually gave thought to how much I'd been depending on someone being there for me.
Kiima... Well, I didn't spot her, but she must have seen me running because moments after I entered the forest she dropped in beside me with practiced ease. My relief was matched only by the hopeful grin she wore at the sight of the sack slung over my left shoulder. I returned the grin, willing myself not to express too much relief.
"This way, Saotome." She led me up the slopes, and eventually into a cave. A heavy steel door was built right into the walls of the cave, and it stood ajar. We hurried inside and some wingless soldiers pulled the door shut behind us. "Do you have them?"
"Of course. I'm the best, you know." I added, taking the rabbit skins off of myself. I sniffed, and shook my head. My mind still whriled at the audacity of invading the Musk camp, let alone stealing their treasured artifacts right from under their noses. Something more important caught my attention, however, and I winced at the look on Kiima's face. "Man, I need a nice hot bath."
"Well, thanks to your last visit you just might get it, Saotome." Kiima replied blandly. I didn't like the way she said might, nor did I like the way she was refusing to meet my gaze. "First, we've got to convince the council not to throw you back out to the Musk."
Then, I remembered. In the weeks that led up to this moment, my arrival here, I'd almost forgotten the damage I'd done last time. Put that right up there with all the other impossible acts I've performed, but I'd forgotten that I'd killed their lord and master. Thanks to me these people were in this position in the first place. The thought sobered me immensely and I just nodded to Kiima. She turned and led me up the many stairways of the mountain.
"When you're in there, you're going to need to constantly remind them that you've come to help. You're going to need to remind them that you've brought them the Chiisuiton and Kaisufuu, and that you've defeated Herb before." Kiima was now repeating herself for the third or fourth time. I guess she was nervous about my meeting with this council. With the way she was talking, I was starting to get nervous myself. "Point out that you don't have anything against us and that you bear us no ill will for anything that happened before."
Despite the fact I very could, perhaps should have still been pissed. Whatever. One problem at a time.
"Yeah, yeah. I get it, Kiima." I muttered, looking around at the fancy room the whiney little politician had stuffed us into. A large painting of Saffron as an adult adorned one wall, sitting on a perch of some kind and looking over people below with an expression I could only call serene. This painting stood above a large wooden liquor cabinet which was filled with filled crystal bottles adorned in gold. Even the seats we were sitting on were trimmed in precious metals and carpeting this thick was, I'd learned, a rare luxury for a people with razor-sharp talons on their feet.
I slouched further down into my low-backed chair, feeling more out of place as every moment passed.
It was hard to get comfortable in a seat designed for people with wings, and the chair itself felt fragile. Across from me perched lightly in another chair and sipping at some amber liquid, Kiima watched me.
The plan was that Kiima would go talk to the council first, and then they'd bring me in afterwards. I still couldn't believe they were thinking about refusing my help.
Of all the plans I'd considered on my way here, less than mutual co-operation hadn't even entered into my plans. Given the hundreds of other variables, maybe I could excuse myself for the lapse, this one time. Maybe.
"Lady Kiima?" A voice interupted my introspection and I glanced up at the door as Kiima's two cohorts poked their heads into the room. Masara and Koruma both reminded me of Hiroshi and Daisuke, kinda. They both shot me twin curious looks as they crossed to talk to Kiima. I'm pretty sure it was Masara who continued to speak, ignoring me. "We'd heard you've just gotten back! Are you alright? You shouldn't have left without us!"
Interesting that Kiima would come to ask me for help on her own. Maybe she wasn't supposed to have come to me? I began to pay attention, while still gazing up at Saffron's serene face in the painting. He could have been a stranger, for all the recognition I felt.
"Times are desperate, you two. We need every strong hand we can. Thanks to Saotome here, we now have a fighting chance." Kiima stood up and glared at them both. "I've heard you tried to follow me. I remember expressly forbidding you to do this. We'll talk about that later."
She glanced up as the stuffy politician returned, and simply nodded to him before he could even speak. "I want both of you to go back to your duties." Putting down the glass of liquor, she picked up the leather sack and handed it to them. "This contains two magical items known as the Chiisuiton and Kaisufuu. Ranma retrieved these items from the Musk. The kettle is the Kaisufuu, and it will restore those of our fighters who've been trapped in their human forms. I want you two to personally distribute this cure and make sure that these items are put safely into my chambers afterwards."
Without another word, she left. With a glance towards me somewhere between curiosity and respect, Masara swung the leather sack over his shoulders and quickly left the room, followed by Koruma.
Left alone, I got to my feet and began to pace. What could I say to these people to make 'em believe me? How could I prove I wasn't the bad guy and that I could help them? The sooner I could do that, the sooner I could get back to Nerima. Back to the Dojo and back to Akane. I could explain things to her. Tell her that it was my responsibility to set things I'd made wrong right.
In the back of my mind, I hoped she'd listen. A nagging voice told me that she wouldn't. Not with me gone three weeks already, and probably not getting back for another month and a half. Maybe it'd take me even longer to set things right here.
"The council will speak with you now." I turned, and at the door the stuffy politician waited impatiently. I blinked, trying to figure out how much time had passed, how long Kiima had been pleading my case to this council for. With a shrug, I realized it didn't matter.
I strode to the door and followed him.
There's not much to be said regarding this chapter, either. As you may or may not have noticed already, the scope of this is quickly ramping up to fly past the original length of LH&R to much greater length. In fact, given the course it's taken thus far, it would not surprise me in the least if the newly-revised work comes in at around double the original length.
Might even be longer than that. Though I admit, this is rather short... but it acts as a bridge for the next chapter, and ending things here just feels right.