Island of Shadows: Shinamaki, Part 3
Island of Shadows:
“Shimibakaru Kygo, I name you,” Hana said. She slowed in the midst of the now silent crowd, but the people still fell back from her, almost as if afraid to touch her. She walked purposefully toward the stage. “You know me,” she continued, and then flung her words out over the assembled villagers. “You all know me. I am Funimuru Hana, daughter of Ryu of Onokonu Village, and I loved your son Shimibakaru Ichiro.”
Tarlith stopped and simply stared. She could not be sure from this distance, but she thought that Hana faltered for the first time when she said Ichiro’s name. If so, it passed quickly, and she stepped with firm purpose onto the short stairs up to the stage.
“But you did not love him,” she said. The only other sound was the crackling of the bonfire. Its heat painted the side of Tarlith’s face. She glance back and saw that her friends and companions, spread out on the edges of the crowd, had also stopped to watch. “Not so much as you loved your fortune.”
Tarlith tore her gaze from Hana and scanned the stage. A tall, thin man with greying hair stood rooted across from Hana. He leaned way, as if trying to recoil from her, but his legs would not move. The riftling guessed that his delicately patterned cream and brown robes were expensive and betrayed impressive status. A shorter, young woman stood just behind him, her attitude curiously unconcerned and almost distracted. The second wife, she thought. Tarlight frowned, trying to focus on the edges of the woman.Something’s wrong there. It’s not just her affect.
“You loved your wealth, your position, your own happiness too much. And you came to fear its loss so much that you would do anything to prevent it. Anything. And from what? From what?” Tarlith could hear the emotion choking Hana’s voice. “From the son who loved you and the woman who wanted to.” A murmur swept the crowd. “So you sought for something—anything—to protect your fortune, and you found it, out there.” She pointed the way they had come, out into the trees. “In a ramshackle cottage in the forest. And you brought it here.” Her finger shifted from the darkness beyond to the woman behind Kygo.
The merchant looked pale, Tarlith thought, even in the firelight. His skin glistened. He swallowed, licked his lips, and looked like he wanted to say something. Either the words did not come or his voice had gone, because he managed to make no sound to fill the silence. The young wife looked at Hana curiously but without any alarm or unease. That’s wrong, Tarlith thought, and painfully pulled her blades into her hands. She thought she might be the only one to notice, but she saw Valkor working his way through the stunned crowd to the near side of the stage close to Hana.
“And when your only son defied you,” Hana said, her voice low and almost shaking. “When he refused your injunction and swore to marry me, your fear overwhelmed you. And you turned to your protector. And you promised her my life, if she stole me away from my people. And at her demand, to save yourself, you surrendered your own son to the creature as well.” Everyone turned to Kygo, who looked like he wanted to object, to deny the words, until Hana spoke again. “So she bound us in her webs. And so your son died in those webs.”
Hana shifted her gaze to the Kygo’s wife, who still surveyed the scene with apparent disinterest. Hana’s chin rose as she pointed defiantly at the woman. “Jorogumo, I name you!” The crowd gasped.
Kygo licked his lips again. His breathing had grown short, almost strained. Tarlith glanced at the crowd. They want him to object, she realized. They don’t want to believe this. They’re almost convinced, but they don’t want to be, and they’ll accept almost any reasonable explanation he offers. All he has to do is deny it. She had a sinking feeling in her gut to go with the pain. She shifted to a fighting stance. Then Kygo did the last thing she expected. He screamed, turned, and leapt off of the stage. From the edge of the crowd, she watched as Benkei’s men moved to intercept the merchant’s flight.
Tarlith blinked, unsure for an instant what had just happened. In that second, her gaze settled on the young wife Hana had named Jorogumo; the same name Uzumaki had called the creature in the woods. She seemed not to notice Kygo’s reaction anymore than she had noticed anything else. She did not even turn as he passed her, keeping her focus on Hana. Between the blinks of her eyes, however, Tarlith saw the woman’s form blur and shudder. She understood then what she had seen, the unstable edges of someone holding a form not their own. She started running forward, but an instant later, the wife had transformed. In her place stood the giant spider monster.
A stunned second passed before the crowd erupted in panic. Tarlith tried to shove people out of her way without accidentally impaling them. She looked up to see the creature lunge almost too fast to see toward Hana. Someone launched between them, though, as squat, square shape that glittered in the firelight. Valkor shuddered as he took the impact from the monster’s talon on his armor. The force sent him flying back into Hana, and both of them tumbled off the stage. A second later, Tarlith got a clear path and leapt up. Her weapons flashed, and though the impacts sent spikes of pain through her hands and up her arms, her blades bit deeply into the monster.
The inhuman howls that had haunted her through the woods echoed again as Tarlith fell back to a defensive stance. The creature reared and jabbed its talons at her but struck well wide. The human part of the beast shrieked and winced, and Tarlith saw a knife sticking from the side of its great body. “How you liking the fair fight?” the riftling asked, smiling despite her pain.
The monster roared, turned, and bounded from the stage. The crowd had mostly run, but the few people still nearby managed to get out of the way, while others stood transfixed, as if caught in a trance. Ser Luther, Uzumaki, and Benkei blocked its path, weapons ready, but the creature just bowled into them. They went tumbling away as it bolted past them toward the forest. Tarlith and Amari gave chase. The creature raced ahead, crushing portions of buildings as it leapt upon them. It moved incredibly fast.
Tarlith summoned what strength she still had to simply run and caught up just as the monster reached the edge of the village. It had just battered its way through Benkei’s men who had been holding Kygo. It reached out a hand for him, a cruel smile upon its fanged mouth. Tarlith gritted her teeth. “No you don’t,” she shouted and sprang up. Her leap carried her only to the great creature’s back, but her weapons hit home.
Almost simultaneously, Tarlith heard the whistle of an arrow from Amari’s bow streak pass to strike in the small of the creature’s back.
The monster reared, screeching, as Tarlith rolled clear. She rose to see Kygo floating up and away from the beast, surrounded by a shimmering nimbus of magic. Well done Lily, she thought to herself. The creature hissed, frustrated, and its talons pounded the ground. Kygo shrieked. The monster turned toward Tarlith but hesitated. Now that she listened, the riftling could hear the sounds of running feet behind her. Amari and Lily were clearly nearby, and the others likely close behind.
“Come on then,” she called to the creature.
With another howl, Jorogumo turned and fled into the dark forest. Almost immediately, Kygo dropped to the ground in front of Tarlith. Still shouting, and starting to sob as his situation dawned on him, the man flailed for a second before she managed to step on his back. The touch of her blade on his shoulder stilled him instantly. Lily ran past them toward the two men the beast had injured, white motes of power already gathering around her staff. Amari bounded into view a second later, but she paused just past the first rank of trees. Tarlith turned as Ser Luther and Benkei arrived.
“Maybe,” Ser Luther offered between deep breaths. “And don’t take this the wrong way, but maybe we wait to go after her until the morning.”
“Yes,” Benkei said, similarly winded. “After all, we know where she’s going. No sense running off in the dark and getting lost.”
“Yes,” Luther replied. “Lost. Wouldn’t want that.”
“No,” Benkei agreed. “That would be bad.” He walked with studied casualness to where Lily was treating his men.
“Well done,” Ser Luther said to Tarlith in a low voice. “You were onto her, weren’t you? I saw you watching.” Tarlith nodded. Everything hurt from her shoulders to her ankles. “What tipped you off?”
“She’s not a chimera, not like the ones we know, anyway. Maybe a demon or Duskweaver of some sort,” Tarlith said. “But you see enough people in the wrong shape, you start to know what to look for.” She chuckled a bit in the backwash of excitement and shot him a small grin. “You told Lily to hang back, didn’t you? No, you sent her back. About the time Hana reached the stage, right?” He shrugged, but she knew that meant yes. Tarlith shook her head. “Clever boy.”
“Well, you see enough cowards get called out, you start to know what they’re likely to do.” He unwrapped a small length of cord from his belt, set Kygo’s hands together behind his back, and spoke a few soft words. The cord wound around the man’s wrists and hardened to the consistency of iron. “On your feet,” Luther growled as Benkei returned to them. “I imagine you’ve got a number of things to explain.”
“He does,” Benkei said, taking hold of the man’s shoulder, “especially if Hana’s story about Ichiro bears out. Which I think it will.” The monk looked genuinely shaken beneath his customary calm. “But you don’t,” he went on. “You’ve proven not only your skills but your character in this. And your aid,” he said, nodding to Lily as she joined them, “was indispensable. I’m only sorry about your short friend.”
“What?” Lily looked at him and then Ser Luther in alarm. “Does he mean Valkor?”
Luther nodded. “Yes. He took the full force of the creature’s strike that was meant for Hana. He’s back at the center of town.” He nodded over his shoulder, and Lily took off running. “He’s tougher than he looks,” Luther said, though he sounded concerned, “and he’s taken far worse hits. But he’s not as young as he used to be.” He shook his head. “In any case, we’re glad to have helped.”
“And I’ll be glad to help you,” Benkei said. In a day or so, we can leave here, and I’ll be happy to personally take you to the Moon Court. If anyone can sort out what happened, or what to do about it, it’s the Princess.” He bowed to both Ser Luther and Tarlith. “On behalf of the Moon Princess and all the clans, welcome to Kagejima.”
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