Island of Shadows: Dark Reflection, Part 3
Island of Shadows:
It took only a few minutes to reach the inn, but each moment stretched out endlessly in Lily’s mind. For all her distracted hurry, however, the building and its grounds deeply impressed her. Made of heavy timbers whose decorative ends curled out beyond the walls, it rose six stories above the plain and glowed with light. It seemed impossible to Lily—How could they build so high with just wood and no stone? She thought of the wide, ruined foundations scattered across the Glauerdoom Moor, and wondered what her ancestors had built. She looked again at the wings of the inn spreading wide like welcoming arms, at the meticulously cultivated gardens overflowing with vegetables, at trees dripping with fruit and she cursed the Dark Consul again. Then the scent of seasons of earth and flowing water came to her, and her spirit calmed. One blow at a time, she thought, slipping from her horse and trotting after Amari. We retake our world one blow at a time. And right now, that means finding Valkor and Hana.
The outer door opened on a fairly compact space with square, decorated openings to the left and right leading to larger rooms from which light and music and conversation and the smell of food wafted in equal measure. A shorter woman in riotously colorful and fabulously intricate robe stood at the base of a wide staircase directly ahead of them. A man, taller and broader than the woman and wearing a less colorful but equally elaborate set of robes, stood beside her. Both had the proprietary look of people with a vested interest in the inn, and they wore polite but serious expressions. Lily knew those expressions. She had lived with Crystalian variations of them ever since she had first touched the shadows and felt them respond.
Ser Luther was already inside when the others entered, and though the innkeeper—at least, Lily hoped he was the innkeeper—was being polite, it was clear that the paladin was making little headway in his inquiries. Tarlith had paused just inside the great door of the inn, and she put her hand out to stop the others from proceeding. “We all know how intimidating it gets when a group of armed, serious-looking people storm into a place and stomp up to someone,” she muttered. Lily felt a little chagrined that she had not considered that. She looked left and right and saw more serious faces taking an interest in them from the adjoining rooms.
“Remember what Benkei said about strangers in this strange land?” Amari said under her breath.
“Yeah,” Tarlith replied. “Let’s not give anybody an excuse, eh?”
After a few more seconds of polite but firm denials, an obviously frustrated Ser Luther returned and nodded them out the door. “They won’t say much of anything,” he said as they walked down the short stairs to the stone path through the gardens. “But I did learn two things. First, from all that I could tell, they’re not evil or even malicious, and they didn’t lie to me. That all bodes well, I think.”
“In the long run, sure,” Tarlith cut in, “but what good does it do us now?”
“Well, first it means that Benkei, for all that he is surprised by what’s wrong in his world, is right about this place being safe. Or, at least safe with him around. That’s good. Second, though, it means that the other thing I learned is true so far as they know.” The paladin sighed and scratched at his sweaty hair. Lily recognized the stoop in his shoulders and creasing on his brow. “Not only are Benkei, Valkor, and Hana not here, they were never here. Somewhere between the ambush and the inn, they vanished.”
Tarlith and Amari cursed colorfully. “All right, all right,” Lily said, trying to sound hopeful. “We know that they were heading for the inn. We know that they were riding, and we know that they weren’t likely to stop for anything. That means that they would have stuck to the road. So we know where to begin looking for them.”
“There was plenty of road between the ambush and here,” Tarlith pointed out, glum. “And all of it lined with reasonably dense trees. At this time of night, knowing that there are hostile people out there, I don’t like the idea of traipsing through the woods blind looking for anybody.” Everyone looked at Amari.
The Glimmerdusk Ranger shrugged. “I mean, I could try, I guess. But like she said, at this time of night…” She let the thought hang in the air. “How long do you want to wander in the woods?” Lily frowned, stepped off the path, and sat on the manicured grass. She took several deep breaths as the discussion continued. “You see the trees right there. That wood runs all along the road for miles, and almost right up to the wall around this place. Looking for trails isn’t enough; we’ve got to find signs. Otherwise, we’re just hiking in the dark to no good purpose.”
Lily cleared her mind and began to murmur to herself. The chant—older, some said, than the moors and downs of her home—helped to focus her thoughts and center her spirit. Her chant quickly fell into rhythm with her heartbeat, and she felt her breaths reaching past her lungs to push refreshing calm through her spine and into the corners of her awareness. Then the sensations came: the smell of years of rotting leaves raked into beds, the movement of worms just below the surface, the seeping of water past searching roots, the sound of the trickle pumped into the small pond that she had not noticed before off to her right. She refined her senses and looked for that which did not belong.
She found it almost immediately. Shadows hung around her like drapes across the world, obscuring without hiding. These were clean and soft and cool, and they carried the comforting familiarity that had always made her happiest in a dark room with a single candle. Further off, however, less than a dozen yards from the road, surrounded by ancient trees, lurked a stink, an oily presence that felt foul and malignant and self-satisfied. This last set her teeth on edge. Lily pulled her senses back, took two breaths to center her awareness in her body, and stood. She glanced at her still talking friends.
“I think I’ve found them,” the Witch announced. The others looked at her surprised. “At the very least, I’ve found something evil. So we get to hit something, anyway.” She hefted her staff and strode toward the gate. “You coming?”
She led them down the road only a short way, stopping twice to concentrate and get her bearings. “What do you feel?” Ser Luther asked the second time, his eyes warily scanning the trees. “I feel a malign presence, but it’s vague.”
“Dark magic,” she said, her words clipped as she focused on her sensations. “Indistinct but evil, twisted in the strange ways of this world.” Her eyes snapped open, and she turned sharply into the wood. “Shadows that don’t belong.” She paused, just on the forest threshold, and took a deep breath to steel her nerves. “And, I think, Valkor.” And then she pushed on.
She did not go far. Almost as if the trees had masked the stench of evil, within a few feet under the eves, she felt the baleful presence like a splash of greasy water. Ser Luther stumbled like he had been slapped. Amari and Tarlith shared a look and immediately drifted into the trees, their weapons glittering in the sparse light. They went perhaps a dozen yards more before the ground dipped and the trees thinned and a tall stand of the round, hard leafy grass that they had seen all over this land blocked their way. She signaled for Ser Luther to keep quiet and motioned him to the right. She slunk off to the left around the thick growth.
Almost as soon as they lost sight of each other, Lily began to hear voices from the other side of the—what had Benkei called, it? Bamboo? That sounded right. The speakers did not sound either friendly or particularly concerned about stealth. She quietly recited an incantation to dampen her own power and remain hidden, drawing the natural shadows around her and crept forward to peek into the dell.
Six people in the near-featureless wrappings she had seen earlier stood around the bound and unconscious forms of her companions. She could see Hana moving as if trying to come out of whatever had knocked them out. Benkei and Valkor both lay quite still, and it worried her. The dwarf, in particular, did not look well. Three small, mostly shuttered lanterns lit the dell, and Lily distinctly saw the red skin and short horns of the leader’s face.
“Dead or alive, there’s value to us,” one of the other said, her voice muffled by the cloth stretched tightly across her nose and mouth. “Dead is safer, but alive is probably better.”
“Probably,” another woman allowed. She then kicked Valkor’s foot. The dwarf did not react at all. “This one, though, put up a grand old fight, even after two of the sleep darts. I just don’t trust him to stay out cold while we move them. I say kill him, just to be safe.”
“We can’t just kill the monk,” the leader said, rubbing his chin. “He’s important, and we can’t make that decision. But I don’t know if we have enough darts to keep them both asleep. Let’s wait for Iziki to get back. Maybe he’s seen some sign of the others.”
Lily had a panicked moment, wondering if they had been stalked. She felt distinctly on edge and nervous, and it took her a moment to realize why. It’s not here, she thought, scanning the dell as her friends’ captors continued to talk. The evil that I felt isn’t there. It’s nearby, and these are obviously the people we want, but I don’t see the thing that led me here. She licked her lips and tried to decide what to do next.
A sudden crashing in the brush to her left took the choices from her. She saw Tarlith scurry back from the approaching sound, and all of the enemy in the dell turned toward it. Whatever it was came on them so quickly, though, that they just had time to draw their weapons. A huge, monstrous monkey stepped into the clear, grinning from ear to ear. It wore yellow and brown robes over a white shirt and baggy trousers that came only just past its knees. Boiled hard plates of leather armor set with metal studs covered its chest and shoulders, and lacquered metal armored its thighs. Lily gasped as she felt the wave of evil wash over her again and saw that it focused on the creature. It had a huge maul in its right hand slung across its broad shoulders. At the end of its gangly left arm, it dragged an inert body in robes that matched the people in the dell. Iziki, I presume, Lily thought an instant before the dell exploded in violence.
She had a horrid moment of indecision. Watching the stealthy assassins transform into whirling bundles of weapons and flying limbs as they launched themselves at the monster paralyzed her. She glanced around, looking for some direction, and saw Ser Luther scurrying in from the far side of the dell straight for Hana. Lily could have kicked herself. She quietly muttered one of the curses she had heard Amari use and summoned the power to lift Valkor from afar. She suspected that they didn’t have enough time to save their friends before the monster was overwhelmed.
Then a loud, almost joyous cry, echoed through the trees. Lily nearly dropped her friend as she cast desperately around for the source. Four more attackers in the same yellow and red came leaping out of the night and fell on the black and purple clad assassins. One young man with spiked hair came whooping out of the trees with a studded club in his hands. Lily blinked and almost dropped Valkor again. The man swung the club with strange expertise and drove the captors back. That works for me, Lily decided and focused on her magic.
She gently levitated the dwarf as quickly as she could to her, and Tarlith appeared from the trees beside them. “Get Benkei,” the riftling said. She nodded to Amari as the elf came jogging through the trees. “We’ll get the dwarf here. I don’t know who these idiots are, but we probably don’t have long.” Lily nodded and turned her magic on the monk. It seemed to take longer for her spell to find purchase on the strange man, but after an uncertain moment, she managed to lift and pull his comatose form clear of the fight. As quickly as she could, she moved them both back along the poor trail and out onto the road. She settled the monk on the gravel and began chanting a spell to end sleep.
She stopped, the words caught in her throat when the giant monkey bounded out of the woods with a crash. It stood firmly astride the road to the inn, its club set top-down in the dirt. Lily saw a disturbing, glistening sheen on the weapon. The monkey grinned at her. She swallowed hard and clutched her staff.
“We’re just trying to get to the inn,” Ser Luther said from over her shoulder. She could hear him getting cautiously closer. “We don’t want any trouble with you.” Lily felt Tarlith and Amari on her left, spreading out and ready to fight.
“Whoa, whoa,” came a young, enthusiastic voice from behind them. The Heroes whirled around to see the young man with the club stumbling from the trees. He slung it across his back and waved his free hand in a friendly if exhausted way. “No, no, no. We don’t want any trouble either. Especially not from you.”
“Why especially us?” Amari asked warily.
“Because,” the young man replied with a near-manic grin. “You’re strangers here. Do you know how long I’ve wanted to meet strangers to Kagejima? Fight you? That’s the last thing I want.” He laughed, but his recent fight had clearly winded him, and he wheezed more than he chuckled.
Lily glanced from the young man to the brown-and-yellow robed people emerging from the trees to the giant monkey monster and then back to the young man. He seemed sincere, if nothing else, and his companions were putting their weapons away. She turned to the monkey. It winked at her. Her stomach churned nervously, and she distinctly felt the presence of evil, but she also did not feel in danger. “You,” she said and stopped when she realized she had spoken. No, no, she had to ask. She turned to the young man. “You have a monster with you. How can we trust you?”
The man seemed to catch his breath and straightened up. He looked at her, confused, and then past her to the giant monkey. “Who, Okorhazu? He’s not a monster.” The man paused, considered, and changed his mind. “No, that’s not strictly true. He is a monster, but not all monsters are monstrous if you catch my meaning.”
Lily frowned, considering, and then realized that she felt a huge, looming presence over her shoulder. She spun around to see the great monkey—Okorhazu—above her, smiling. “And sometimes,” it said in a rough but kind voice, “a monster is exactly what you need.”
“Sorry, sorry,” the young man said, “I started off badly.” He held up his empty hands. “My name is Son Goku, of the Yamazaru Clan. My companions and I,” he gestured to the others, who pulled down the cloths cover their faces and smiled, “were on our way to the Moon Court to compete in the Moonlight Tournament.”
“The what?” Tarlith asked.
“Oh, of course. You wouldn’t know.” Son Goku chuckled again. “It’s a competition held by the Moon Princess to determine who among the clans will be an ambassador to the lands beyond Kagejima.” His eyes turned distant and almost misty. “All my life I’ve wanted to see foreign lands and talk to their peoples and learn their ways. So I definitely wanted to win.” He blinked, coming back to the present. “But here you are already.”
“Yes,” Luther said, putting his sword away. “I am Ser Luther, knight of Crystalia, and I’m glad to meet you. But how did you know we were here or in trouble?”
“Oh, well, as for that,” Son Goku said, unable to hide his wide grin. “Let’s just say that a little fox told me. And a good thing, too, as those Ijin ninja were up to no good with your friends.”
“I don’t even know if those are words,” Tarlith muttered. “What are Ijin ninja?”
“Right. Um, so, Ijin are another major clan, like the Kitsune—who apparently know you—and the Yamazaru. Their lands are pretty far from here, most of them, and they have a lot of strange dealings with the more savage of the oni.” He nodded to Okorhazu. “Like him, only much nastier.”
“And smellier,” Okorhazu said with a refined contempt.
Son Goku rolled his eyes. “Anyway, we were on our way here in any case, and truthfully, I owed the Ijin a beating.” His other companions all nodded seriously. “So now that you’re free and all, where are you going, and how can we help?” Ser Luther started to object, but Son Goku put up his hand. “You may not know our politics very well—and I’ll admit that I don’t know them especially well either,” he said, directing the last part to one of his companions. “But I do know that anyone willing to ambush travelers this close to the capital is probably desperate it enough to try again, and very soon.”
“Well, in that case, we should at least try and stay at the inn tonight,” Ser Luther said, only slightly reluctant. He nodded to Benkei. “He has a medallion of some sort that identifies him as someone important. I imagine that if we show them that, and him in this state, they’ll be a lot more accommodating than they were an hour ago.”
“Maybe,” Son Goku allowed. He nodded to his companions, who moved to pick up Benkei. Okorhazu slung Valkor over his shoulder as if the heavily armored dwarf weighed nothing. “But I think you’ll find Kagejima a less welcoming place than it once was.” He frowned as he ushered them forward toward the warm lights of the inn, "and it was never very welcoming to start."
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