Island of Shadows: Dark Reflection, Part 1
Island of Shadows:
She stands in the silent room, still as a stone and listens to the silence. She is alone; the confidential instructors, the impeccably trustworthy teachers, the sparring partners sworn to her service and silence have all departed. She stayed, as she so often does, to practice for an hour or so more. She has run her forms again and again until the kata are as much a part of her muscle memory as dancing or walking or lifting her teacup. She is tired and too hot in her stained practice robes and too agitated. And so, she stands, and breaths, and listens. And she hears another.
The Princess is instantly alert. She finished with a few unarmed kata, so she has no weapon beyond her fists, her feet, and her mind. I need no other, she reminds herself, but does spare a longing glance at the rack of short blades to her left. Still, she does not move, not yet. She is not yet certain where the intruder is, or if the intruder is moving, or if the intruder means her any harm. The servants have the run of this wing after a certain hour, and many of them practice in this long room as well. But she hears no breath, no creak of floorboards, no rustle of fabric. After a long moment, she begins to question if the intruder is even there.
And then she feels it again, the almost imperceptible shift in the air that heralds the presence of another body in the space. Something else is sharing her shadows. Something unexpected, unlooked for, unwanted. The chill that settles over her shoulders tells the Princess that it is something wrong, something evil. Still, she does not move, not yet. She fights the urge to close her eyes, to shut out the dim light from the shuttered lanterns that give the practice room its ghostly illumination. The moon peeks between running clouds tonight, and its inconsistent brilliance will do little more than dazzle her, perhaps at a crucial second. But she continues to look, continues to listen, continues to feel for the intruder, the wrongness, the threat.
And there it is again, and again, as if moving around her. From shadow to shadow it moves, staining the darkness and cool, wondrous night into something suspicious and fearful. No, she decides. No, you will not take the night from me. I will not give you this. She grits her teeth, trying to focus, but her perception slips away with the greater effort. She takes another deep breath. Let it come on its own. Relax. This is your room, these are your shadows. They can take nothing from you that you do not give up. Within a breath or two, her clarity returns, and she finds the wrongness again, closer now.
Her feet shift to a ready stance. Her knees bend slightly, and her hands come up to near shoulder-height. “I am not afraid of you,” she says quietly to the darkness.
To her surprise, the darkness laughs very softly. “Yes you are,” it says, in a voice she cannot place but feels that she should know. “Yes you are, because you do not know what I am. You will learn, but only when it is too late.” The swirl of motion comes from behind, and the Princess whirls around to find nothing. The laughter comes again, a bit louder now. “Not tonight, Princess. The time isn’t right, and you are ready. You will not always be so, and until you know me, you will never know when to be ready.”
Two of the lanterns blow out, and the pressure in the room lifts. The intruder is gone. The Princess races to one of the remaining lamps and returns with it held high, searching the walls, corners, and ceiling. Nothing. She relights the lamps and finds, on the polished floor by the door, the full bloom of a brilliant red camellia, its three overlapping rings of petals still strong and vibrant. I don’t know you. Not yet, she thinks, lifting the flower. But I know you are coming, and that will have to be enough.
* * *
The day had turned warm in the afternoon, and Lily rode with her neck craned back to stare at the drifting clouds in the brilliant blue sky. In the four days since they had left Shinamaki Village, they had ridden gently through the gorgeous late-summer weather, and she had loved every minute of it. The smell of the flowers stirred her as they bloomed riotously, desperately, as if sensing the year starting to die. She fancied she could see the first veins of darkening color in the leaves of some of the trees, but she knew she imagined it. The long grass gently rotting on the banks of the streams they passed, and cuttings of early harvests in the isolated fields all had her in an excellent mood that night when Amari mentioned that they were being followed.
“I noticed it about noon, but I wasn’t sure until about an hour ago,” she said as everyone sat around the campfire, waiting for the food to heat. “There’s at least three of them. They’re good, too, though we haven’t exactly been careful.”
Ser Luther nodded, though Benkei seemed dubious. “You’re certain?” he asked.
Lily shared a knowing smile with Tarlith, though Amari merely inclined her head. “I am. And I’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive.”
The monk looked at her with disbelief. Ser Luther put up his hand. “She’s been doing this longer than I’ve been alive, if that makes you feel any better. Her people are strikingly long-lived.”
Benkei’s eyebrows rose. He had grown more demonstrative in their time together, Lily noted, and decided she approved. “I suppose I have much to learn about your land and its peoples. But what makes you so certain of pursuit? Could they not be the Kitsune Clan agents seeing us off?”
Amari shook her head, the escaping strands of her hair brushing across her sharp cheekbones. “No, they turned back at the end of the second day, shortly after we left their lands. This group has been tracking us since sometime on the third day.” She rolled over on her back, clearly tired. “I thought I had seen some signs, but I wasn’t sure until this evening. Like I said, they’re good.”
Benkei frowned. “Our land is, unfortunately, blessed with an excess of skilled and stealthy trackers.” He rubbed his chin. “I plotted a route to take us roundabout, away from most of the populated areas, making an eight-day journey much longer, all to avoid this sort of thing.”
“Well, perhaps they’re just locals making sure that we don’t break or steal anything,” Tarlith put in.
“Unlikely,” Benkei replied, still thoughtful. “Though possible. What shall we do about them?” he asked the group.
Ser Luther shrugged. “Set a watch, as we always do. If they only wish to follow us, let them. There’s little more we can do without a confrontation, and that will only take more time. Should we be worried for our safety?”
Benkei checked the rice. “I don’t think so. We may resemble brigands, but we aren’t acting like that, and anyone confronting us would only do so with greater numbers. I have credentials with me that will get us through such a meeting. I would like to know who they are, though. It’s odd for any clan to just shadow a group like this without confronting them.” He started scooping rice onto the group’s mismatched plates and bowls. “It speaks of a level of suspicion and self-interest that disturbs me.”
“Self-interest?” Lily asked without thinking. She had been staring beyond the fire at leafy, climbing vines very slowly strangling the life out of a grove of trees and only half following the conversation. She was curious but found herself looking away and trying to sink into the shadows when he turned his clear, strong gaze on her. “I— I mean, um, I don’t quite understand.”
“Strangers or suspicious people—which we clearly are—should be stopped and questioned at least to determine their intentions. The Kitsune watching us until we leave, that I understand. Unnecessary, but understandable. This, though? This seems as if they want to find out if we’re going to be a problem for them or a problem that they can pass on to their neighbors.”
“It seems like trouble for one would be trouble for all,” Ser Luther said, ladling stewed over the rice.
“It should be so,” Benkei said, his voice hard. “Yet here we are. Everyone scheming and looking out only for themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if whoever is watching is trying to figure out if we can be used against their enemies in some fashion.”
“Perhaps our people are not so different after all,” Tarlith said, and though her tone was light, her expression matched Benkei’s frown.
The presence of the watchers drove Benkei to change their route, extending their travel time still further. Lily quickly found that she did not care. Kagejima in the waning days of summer proved singularly beautiful, and she spent their days trying to look at everything at once. Creatures scurried through the fields and copses around them to collect food for the coming winter. Plants bloomed with bright colors and stretched their leaves wide to gather what strength they could before the dark of the year. Rain fell in bursts, mostly at night, and gave everything a clean smell.
After a few days, Amari mentioned that they had lost their stalkers but seemed to have picked up different ones. All through their journey, shadowed eyes followed their progress. They passed fields of rice and wheat and long rows of vegetables worked by peasants in layered robes, their billowy sleeves and trousers kept out of the way with brightly colored ribbons. They would pass through small villages for supplies, and Benkei would flash his stamped medallion, and always the local worthies would bow and say nice things. But every night after they left, Amari would still find traces of someone following them into the wilderness. This continued to frustrate and dismay Benkei. Lily wondered if the worries that seemed to plague the monk came, ultimately, from the growing darkness she could feel around them.
Just after dawn on the thirteenth day of their travel—an auspicious number, she thought—she walked out of sight of camp and knelt on the dew-dampened grass. Just as she had for the last week, Lily took four deep breaths, releasing each with an invocation to the powers—The Light, The Dark, The Fae, and The Spirit. Then she leaned forward and planted her palms on the wet earth. Her conscious mind relaxed, and she let her senses reach out through the dark soil to the roots and warrens and veins of stone that ran through the world. It still felt wrong, so very much like Crystalia and yet distinctly and disturbingly different. But she had grown to recognize its ways, the subtle differences in smell and taste and sound, and now she could detect the dissonance in the background.
Something was, wrong, with the world. She had no other word for it. And it disturbed her that she had taken days to recognize it. My power comes from the shadows between the Realms, from the darkness that mirrors Crystalia, she thought again. I should have felt this before, or I should have recognized it. She contented herself with the notion that she had missed the signs because of the strangeness of everything else, but that did not satisfy her.
This is more subtle, more deeply hidden, and distinctly different than the darkness I know from home. And yet, undeniably, she felt it there, lurking behind the beauty and magic of this place. She could taste it like a bitter flavor in a sweet dish, just a fleeting trace that nevertheless diminished all the rest. This does not feel like the Nether Realms, but I recognize it. It also doesn’t feel like the Dark Consul, but how could it not be? She frowned and pushed harder into the earth.
As her senses reached further, she felt a chill creep up her spine and spread through her chest. A vile stink caught in her nose, and she tasted bile. Corruption—not natural, useful decay, but an unnatural putrescence—poisoned all the shadows she felt. Everywhere she touched, she found the venom seeping almost imperceptibly into the world through the darkness, like an assassin in the night. She found larger, stronger veins of it here than she had anywhere else they had traveled. Then it reached for her.
She felt the evil twining into the cool, comforting shadows of her power, twining about them like strangling vines. She smelled it reaching through her, wrapping around her arms like shackles. Surprised, she almost pulled back instinctively. She fought that urge, however, and gritted her teeth. Finally, something she understood. All her life she had touched the shadows. All her life, they had spoken to her. And all her life, evil in those shadows had sought to warp her heart and corrupt her soul. This fight was familiar, and she knew how to win. She breathed deeply and found clean darkness hidden around her. She drew power from that, sapping the vitality of the evil that tried to envelop her, and driving it back. She turned its weapons against it and felt the pressure lessen and retreat almost at once. Then it vanished back to the periphery of her senses.
Lily sat up straight, breathing deeply, sweat covering her face, back, and shoulders. That was too easy, she thought after finishing her closing invocations. Either it’s baiting me, or it’s never encountered someone who knows how to fight it. She chewed her lip thoughtfully for a moment before her stomach growled. A little chagrined, she returned to camp and, over breakfast, told Ser Luther what had happened.
The paladin frowned. “I’ve noticed nothing specific, but you’re a good deal more sensitive than I am.”
“It’s more that I notice different things,” she said quickly. “Your special connection to the Goddess gives you advantages I don’t have. Plus you’ve been doing this a lot longer.” She cringed when she saw his wry smile.
“Don’t remind me,” he said, half laughing. “But I trust your insight.” He considered for a few moments as he finished the last of his food. “You say you feel like this corruption is poisoning the world it touches, but slowly and subtly.” She nodded. “Well, that might go a long way toward explaining the behavior that has Benkei so upset; and why it keeps surprising him.” He rose and took her plate. “If we get a chance today, see if you can do another sounding. I’ve got a strange suspicion.”
They started off soon after then, and when they had walked the horses over narrow trails for almost an hour, they struck a hard, clear road. Benkei mounted and pointed ahead, just slightly to the left of the dusty track. “We will take this road, though it twists too much to make our best speed. Ahead there is our destination. We won’t get there today, but if we push hard, we can make an inn that I know, and that knows me.” He grinned at the dirty and worn Heroes. “A night’s sleep in a bed would do us all good.” That got a round of chuckles and smiles from everyone except Lily. She grabbed Ser Luther’s arm before he could mount and nodded in the direction Benkei had indicated.
“What?” the paladin asked, concerned.
“That way,” she stopped and tried to swallow the dryness in her throat. “The thick vein of corruption I told you about? Well, that’s the way it runs. We’re heading toward it.”
“You’re certain?” he asked, and she nodded, chilled. Ser Luther considered for a second, then he set his jaw and mounted his horse. “Good,” he said firmly. “Then we’re heading in the right direction.”
To be continued...
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