Island of Shadows: Escape

Island of Shadows: Escape

Island of Shadows:


Chapter 3

Luther blinked. The boy’s wide, ernest eyes blinked back. “You don’t look like spirits,” he said, “but I don’t recognize you. Still, I don’t want to leave you as to the mercies of Jorogumo.” He nearly spat the name.

“Well, we do appreciate that,” Ser Luther replied, trying to keep his voice even. “So maybe, if you could see your way clear to cutting us loose, we—”

“No,” the young man said, and glanced over his shoulder. “No, there isn’t time. I’ll distract the creature, draw her off, so that your friend can free you. But only on one condition.”

Ser Luther’s eyes blazed, and he set his mouth in a firm, hard line. “We are not, under any circumstances, leaving without the prisoner in the other clearing.”

The young man blinked again, his face incredulous. He glanced at Tarlith and Lily. The riftling shrugged. “Paladins,” she said, resigned. “What are you going to do?”

“I—” The young man paused. “Well, that was easier than I thought. Done. When you get free, run to the west.” He pointed left and a little behind them, deep into the woods. “You’ll find a trail there, not far from here, and the ground rises. You’ll know when it’s safe to stop. You’ll feel it.” He seemed to rise back into the tree as if reeled in by a line, and a second later, a shrill whistle came from the branches above Ser Luther. They all heard a crashing, thrashing sound from the forest to their right, and a few seconds later, the monster came pounding back past them.

Amari broke cover only a few seconds later and immediately attacked the bindings around Ser Luther’s right wrist. Her knife cut the webbing but didn’t break or cut it on the first three attempts. When she finally broke through the dried outer layer, the sticky inner strands caught at the knife and fouled its blade, but they did cut. The paladin’s hand came free after what seemed forever. Amari handed her knife off to Luther with a grimace, drew another, and dashed to Tarlith while the paladin went to work on his other restraints.

When he got his other hand free, Ser Luther sat up, pausing as the blood rushed to his head, and glanced over at the others. Lily had started to struggle, and though small glitters of magic danced around her web, she clearly wasn’t strong enough to free herself. “Amari,” the paladin called in a rough whisper. They all paused at a crashing, howling sound nearby, but it moved quickly away. “Amari,” Luther hissed again. “Get Lily free next. I’ll work on Valkor.” Amari nodded without looking back.

Valkor rolled a bit and made some muffled noises. “We’re coming,” Ser Luther hissed at him, and got a string of indistinct but clearly grumpy words in reply. “Tarlith,” the paladin went on, “when you can, get to the next clearing with Lily and start getting that other woman free.” The rifting rolled her eyes, and Lily finally managed to speak.

“What woman?” she asked, her words slurred.

“The other prisoner,” Tarlith said curtly. “Listen, we don’t have time to free everyone here. We can come back for them. We can’t help anyone if we’re dead or caught again, and we don’t know how long that...” she paused, groping for a word, “...that fox guy can keep the monster busy.”

“We’re not leaving without her,” Ser Luther said, his voice flat and even.

Tarlith looked like she wanted to hit him but only closed her eyes and took a few deep, calming breaths. “Fine, but Amari should do it.” Ser Luther finally freed one leg and looked a question at her. “All our weapons are gone,” Tarlith said, “and we’re going to need them if we’re sticking around here. Amari takes Lily, you free Valkor and join them when you can. I’ll slip into the cottage and get our gear.”

“Those shadows are still out there,” Amari said as she cut at Lily’s restraints. “I saw them as I hid.”

“I can handle them,” Tarlith said, her mouth twisting into grim smile. “I’m looking forward to that, actually.” She looked back at the paladin and raised her hand to cut off any objections. “I can do it—I’m good at this, remember?” Luther gritted his teeth but finally nodded. Tarlith pointed off into the forest the way that the fox-eared young man had indicated. “Get the woman free and head that way. I’ll meet you. I promise.”

Amari made a noise like she would object, but Ser Luther cut her off. “Go.” Tarlith grinned wider and bounded off into the trees. Ser Luther stared after her until she vanished from view. “Good luck,” he muttered, then he pulled his legs from the sticky web and tumbled clumsily to the ground.

“That riftling,” Amari said as she took Luther’s hand and hauled him to his feet, “is made of good luck.”

The paladin shook his head, half exasperated, half knowing, as he hurried to Valkor’s web. He rolled the dwarf onto his back, with only cursory complaints from the trussed fighter, and started sawing at the web cocoon that bound him.

He had made precious little progress before Amari and Lily approached. He had managed only to get the dwarf’s hands exposed and into a sitting position against a tree. The knife barely cut anymore, so thick had the sticky residue coated its blade, and his arms and wrists ached from trying to tear the strands as much as cut them. “Step back,” Lily said, and Ser Luther looked up, surprised, at the firmness in her voice. Her eyes smoldered, and he saw a determination and anger there that she had rarely shown outside of a fight. He stumbled to his feet. She spoke to Valkor. “Close your eyes and take a deep breath.” He started to object, but the power rose around her, glittering from her hands and crackling along the length of her staff. The webbing started to smolder, and Ser Luther could hear it cracking. An instant later, flames erupted all over the Tincan, enveloping him from head to foot. They burned with fearsome intensity for only a second and then vanished. The cocoon hung in tatters and dropped away as Valkor struggled to stand.

“You singed my beard,” he said, but he smiled. Lily smiled back, clearly still tired and a bit unsteady.

“It’ll grow out,” Ser Luther said, patting his friend on the shoulder lightly. “All right, you two,” he said to Valkor and Lily, “got get that woman free. Maybe don’t burn the forest down in the process, though.” He glanced at Amari and pointed off into the trees. “You head out into the woods. There’s supposed to be a path out there that leads to safer territory. We could wander through this undergrowth for days and never find it, so I need you to figure out how to get to it.” Amari looked nervous and embarrassed but nodded hesitantly. The paladin moved in, took hold of the elf’s arm, and drew her in close to the others. “Look, it’s all right. This hasn’t been our finest hour, but we’re all alive, we’re free, and we’ve got something resembling a plan. We all made mistakes here today. Fortunately, we’ve lived to correct them. All right? Right. Go do your job, and we’ll do ours. Meet back in the clearing where the other prisoner is, got it?”

The others nodded, but Lily jabbed a finger at Ser Luther as they moved off. “What about you?”

Luther shook his head. “I’m heading for the cottage. No matter what she says, Tarlith could use some help.” The witch nodded and trotted after Valkor, trying to hide a small smile. Ser Luther rolled his eyes and set off through the trees toward the faint curl of smoke. His legs and arms still tingled slightly from unimpeded circulation, and his head still felt clogged, but the cool forest air helped, and by the time he reached the edge of the large clearing that held the cottage, he nearly felt like himself again. A stream too wide to jump wound between him and the cottage. From this angle, he could see the poorly tended garden plots, racks of split fish over cold fire pits, and a refuse heap that stunk more than the poisoned smoke had. Ser Luther wrinkled his nose, glad for once of his somewhat blunted human senses. He crouched among some tall grass and scanned what he could see of the clearing. He could still distantly hear the sounds of the creature chasing the young man and wondered how long that could last.

He saw the shadows after a moment, lurking beneath the eaves of the cottage or among the piles of debris that clustered near its walls. As he watched, he could make out some details, and the more he studied them, the more human they appeared. Or human-like, at any rate. They seemed intent on something, though he couldn’t tell what until he heard a muffled crash from within the cottage. He frowned. Tarlith, it seemed, had forgone subtlety for speed.

As he watched, he saw the shadows moving quick and sure, like experienced warriors, toward the building’s door and windows. If they catch her by surprise, she’ll never get out of there, he thought. His hand went to his hip but only closed over the empty air where his sword should be. He cursed softly, and glanced around for something—for an idea. He found a few hefty stones, worn mostly smooth by the stream. He grabbed one, eyed the distance, and rose just enough to fling the rock at a small grouping of the shadows. The missile sailed past them and struck the side of the cottage with a muffled “thock” that nevertheless echoed off the trees. The shadows froze, and the sounds from within the cottage ceased. He hefted another stone, then strode out into plain view, and whipped the stone straight and true through one of the cottage’s back windows.

After a long heartbeat, the noise from the cottage resumed with far greater urgency. The shadows hesitated, caught between continuing to try and trap Tarlith in the cottage and attacking the suddenly visible and defiant paladin. Those few precious breaths of indecision cost them. They split their attention. Two moved low through debris and tall grass toward Ser Luther, and the rest turned back to the cottage. Luther knew he had them. He lifted a third stone, tossing it casually in his hand as he eyed the approaching enemies. A second later, Tarlith crashed through the window he had broken, rolled as she hit the ground, and sprang up in a dead sprint. She held a bundle in her hands—her cloak, he saw, wrapped around what must be their equipment. The shadows moved to intercept her at once, but the riftling moved with a speed that they could not match.

She had a distance on her pursuers, but she still needed to clear the stream. Ser Luther threw the stone toward the two shadows approaching him and ran to his left along the bank of the stream. Tarlith had her head down, concentrating just on running, and he shouted to get her attention. “Tarlith!” Her head came up and she turned toward him. “Jump!” He called and braced himself.

The rogue’s feet pounded to the soft edge of the stream and she sprang into the air. He judged her path as best he could, took two steps back, and caught her as she landed. They went over backward, rolling. Luther came up into a crouch with the rogue upright before him.

“Oh,” she said, grinning from the exhilaration. “We haven’t done that in a long time.” She dropped the bundle, unrolling it as she did, and he grabbed his sword as it spilled out. “Did you lose that?” she asked, still smiling, as she stood up with her paired daggers.

Ser Luther smiled back in spite of himself and turned back to the approaching shadows with the familiar, comforting weight of his sword in his hands. The first of them broke cover to wade into the stream, and the paladin finally got a good look at their antagonists. They have to be chimera, he thought, taking in the smooth, fox-like features, the cream-colored skin with red markings, the fur over large parts of their otherwise human bodies. Two more of them leaped across the water much as Tarlith had, landing lighting and leveling short spears at the Heroes. Ser Luther curled his lip. “Well, come on then,” he shouted. And they did.

The first drove in fast, and Ser Luther stepped closer, directing the thrusting spear aside with his blade and punching the creature in the side of its head. The grunt of pain he heard as it fell, made him pause, but he still managed to get his sword around to catch the next attacker on its point. He saw Tarlith parry two and then three attacks as more of the creatures cleared the stream. She gave ground, though, and forced him to step back as well or risk getting separated. They had run this game before, however. Just when she stepped completely behind him, and it seemed as though her opponents would envelop them, Ser Luther turned sharply to his left and struck. Caught unawares and off-balance, the creatures could not defend quickly enough. As Tarlith moved up quickly to attack the two chimera who had menaced the paladin, Ser Luther cut down one of the others, sent a second one sprawling with a snap kick to its chest, and forced the last to scramble away. The riftling’s sudden lunge dropped another opponent with a terrible wound in its leg, and the last fell back, waving its spear wildly.

The Heroes shifted again, scanning the battlefield and trying to keep their attackers in view. They could hear the monster still thrashing through the woods, but the sounds were drawing closer. “I think we’re out of time,” Ser Luther muttered, and lunged at one of the two remaining chimera. “Boo!” he shouted, and the creature scampered off. As soon as it ran, the last one withdrew into the shadows. Tarlith waited three deep breaths before she dropped and collected their companions’ gear, rolling it back into her cloak. Luther knelt to examine one of the dead chimera. Surprised, he touched the fur around its head gently and now clearly saw that it wore a mask. He lifted it off and saw a man beneath. Shorter than him or Tarlith, he vaguely resembled the strange young man who continued to distract the monster, though clearly more human. He wore a fur-lined jerkin and trousers of soft fabric over hard strips of laminated wood; some kind of flexible armor.

“Gotta go,” Tarlith said near his ear. “Less gawking, more running.” Ser Luther nodded. He grabbed the shadow’s mask as he stood and jogged off into the undergrowth.

Not more than a dozen yards into the trees they came to the small clearing where the webs lay. They found Valkor gently lifting down the strange woman’s limp form while Lily patted out the last traces of flame where she had burned away the binding. Amari stood at the far edge of the clearing, her bow ready.

“Is she alive?” Luther asked, panting. Lily nodded as she turned to them, and then her face lit up delightfully when Tarlith handed over her staff. The witch held the graceful, smooth wood with something like wonder, and Ser Luther saw again just how young she really was. Valkor only grinned as he took his axe and settled it on his back.

“She’s out cold,” the dwarf said, inspecting the woman. “She’s breathing smoothly and deeply, though, and I can see no wounds. I think she was overcome by some variation on whatever knocked us out.” Luther nodded and knelt to inspect the woman. She resembled the other people they had so far encountered, though with a paler cast to her skin. When he glanced at Valkor, the dwarf nodded. “I can carry her, sure enough, without noticing, really. But I don’t think I’ll be fast enough.”

“You won’t,” Ser Luther replied. He glanced over his shoulder at Tarlith, her weapons out and watching the trees. “I’ll carry her. Lily will have to float you, I’m afraid, if we’re going to make it.”

The dwarf’s eyes widened. “Oh, no you don’t. I can do just fine—” He caught his breath as he rose into the air. The Sanctioned Witch walked by with a wicked smile and climbed with practiced ease onto Tarlith’s back.

Ser Luther almost chuckled as he carefully lifted the strange woman over his shoulder to the sound of Valkor’s protests. Amari led the way, followed by Tarlith, Lily maintaining her spell from the riftling’s back and Valkor complaining bitterly in the air beside them. Ser Luther brought up the rear as carefully as he could. They set as fast a pace as they dared, and Amari led them to the path quickly enough. The sounds of the monster soon fell away behind them. Still, the oppressive feeling of the forest and the gloom-haunted shadows hung on them for what seemed a long time. Finally, though, the impression lifted. The air seemed crisp but no longer sharp, and the dim light of the sinking sun began to look pleasant and charming instead of ominous and harsh.

Soon after this, Amari drew them up at a bend in the trail where the open space widened and the sounds of a small brook burbled from off to their left. They stopped gratefully, exhausted, and Luther set about checking the strange woman again to see if their escape had done her any harm. She remained unconscious, though lightly, as if whatever had knocked her out was wearing off. Or perhaps, he thought, simply leaving that foul section of forest has begun to revive her. The sound of pounding feet on the earth behind them brought him up, sword half drawn. The others also came alert and only partly relaxed when they saw the strange fox-eared young man stumble into view. He staggered to a halt, gulping air, and sank to his knees when he saw the woman lying propped against a tree.

“Oh thank, Ameratsu,” he murmured when he had the breath to spare. “Is the well?”

“Well enough,” Ser Luther said. He hauled himself up to his feet. His legs felt like lead, but he tried not to show it as he walked over to the young man. “You did an excellent job drawing that thing off. Our thanks.” He extended his hand. “I am Ser Luther, Royal Paladin of Crystalia.”

The man hesitated, as if trying to understand exactly what was happening and how to respond, but he seemed to get it after a long few seconds. He rose, shakily, and bowed from his waist. “Greetings. I owe you a debt.” he said. “The villages in this region have suffered greatly over the last several months, and I’ve done what I can to help. Rescuing this woman and returning her to her people will go along way toward settling the strife. Thank you.”

“Our pleasure,” Ser Luther replied, and his manner turned stern as he dropped the mask next to Uzumaki’s feet. “But we should talk about something else. I took this off of one of the shadows that’s bedeviled us since we arrived in this forest.” He toed the stained and dirty thing, its pale cream and red stripes coming through despite all the wear it had suffered. “You’re wearing those colors, and you don’t seem to need the mask to get the ears and fur. So what is this, who are those shadows, and what’s going on here?”

Uzumaki licked his lips and sank back down to sit on his heels beside the mask. “Yes, I suppose I do owe you some explanation. And I have questions for you as well. But this,” he nudged the mask with his finger, “is a mystery to me too. I mean, I know what it is, but I don’t know why it—why they—are here.”

“I think I can help with that.”

They all turned, tensing, at the sound of the voice from the trees. Back the way they had run, they saw a man in brown robes step from the shadows, a long-hafted pole arm in his hand. Valkor swore. “What is it with people just appearing from shadows around here?” Amari muttered.

“Honestly, if you’re going to spend any time here,” Uzumaki replied under his breath, “you should probably get used to that.”

“Who are you, and what do you want?” Ser Luther called to the newcomer.

As he stepped into the fading light, the tight, wary smile spread over the newcomer’s face. He held his great weapon ready but did not look unfriendly. “My name is Benkei, an agent of the Court sent to look into the trouble that you,” he nodded to Uzumaki, “have so resourcefully investigated. I’ll be happy to discuss more of this, and answer your questions, provided that you answer all of mine. Please, join me at my camp, and we’ll sort this out.”

“I think we’re fine right where we are,” Ser Luther said but trailed off as several more warriors in laminated armor and large masks stepped from the growing darkness and stretched back tall, angled bows.

“No, no,” Benkei said, smiling wider. “I insist.”

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