Island of Shadows: Twilight Refuge, Part 3

Island of Shadows: Twilight Refuge, Part 3

Island of Shadows:

Twilight Refuge

Part 3

Valkor hissed sharply as they rounded a corner. He pulled up and leaned against the firm corner of a three-story building, breathing deeply. Every inhale sent sharp, cold spikes of pain through his side. Hana took his left arm. He had not seen or heard her approach. That’s not good, he thought. Can’t let my guard drop like that. He smiled at her, though he knew that the pain came through on his face. “I’m all right,” he said unconvincingly. “I just need a minute.” She nodded, clearly unconvinced, and waved to the others.

Amari jogged back. “What can I do?” she asked without preamble or false good humor. They had known each other too long for that.

Valkor bit down on his pride and snapped it in half. “Here,” he said, hoisting the sack that contained the rest of his armor. “It’ll slow you down, but only enough to let me keep up, I think.”

The elf frowned, looking to where Hana had already lifted the dwarf’s tunic and begun pulling off the soiled bandage. “I really don’t like this, Valkor,” she muttered low enough that only he and Hana could hear. “You should be able to shrug off this kind of thing, even with the dark power I can smell on it.”

He nodded, licking his lips. “Yeah. It was getting better, even with the traveling, but something in this place made it flare up again.” He hissed as Hana spread a pungent mix of slime across the wound. “It wasn’t the fight. It was after.”

“You suspect a spell?” Hana asked as she stretched a bandage around his midriff.

“In this place?” Amari asked, her voice dripping with bitter sarcasm. “No offense,” she added with a quick glance at Hana.

Hana shrugged as she finished the dressing and stood. “None taken. The Moon Court is a strange place and many stories are told of its uncanny nature. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for you.”

“We should go,” Son Goku called in a bad stage whisper from down the block.

“We’re coming,” Valkor replied. He paused, thinking for a long second when Amari reached for his hammer with a questioning look. Finally, he shook his head, and though she frowned deeper, the elf jogged after him as they set off.

Two blocks further on, as the last of the sunlight faded from the streets and the intermittent lanterns glowed brightly, more figures stepped from the shadows around them. Valkor stopped in the middle of the street and swore colorfully. “Are you kidding?” he asked and leveled an accusing finger at the lead form swaggering out of the darkness. “Doesn’t anyone in this place just walk up to each other and say hello?”

The approaching figure hesitated a half-step, as if caught off guard by the question, but recovered quickly and moved into the glow of a lantern with an arrogant confidence. The warm light fell on stiff plates of armor lacquered in the blue of the deep sea. Bronze vanes crested the wide, sloping helmet like sharpened crests of choppy waves. The figure’s hands rested on the hilt of a long, curved sword. “My, my,” it said in a gruff, masculine voice. “Whatever are such uncouth ruffians doing running around the streets causing a ruckus at this time of night?”

“Mikizaki, you idiot,” Sun Goku said, exasperated. “It’s barely sundown. And we’ve already been in one fight tonight. We’re in no mood for another.” He swung his hand dismissively. “You and I have business, yes, and I’ll be more than happy to send you limping back home again, but not tonight. We’re busy. It’s vitally important that we get to the palace, so either help us along or step aside.”

Valkor guessed that Mikizaki had been none too calm when he first approached them, and he clearly got angrier the more Son Goku spoke. “Nothing you could possibly be doing,” the newcomer growled, “is more important than our business, you arrogant little pup.”

“You don’t have any idea what’s going on,” Son Goku replied with a sigh. “You never did.”

“Tactful, isn’t he?” Valkor muttered and then spoke up. “Forgive me, sir, but this time, the young man is correct. We must get to the palace as soon as possible. We—“

“Shut your mouth, servant!” Mikizaki roared. “I am Mikizaki, Chunin of the Ika Clan, I did not track down this villain just to bandy words with his hired help.”

Valkor blinked and looked down at the Yamazaru tunic he wore. Wait, these disguises actually fooled him? I mean we’re standing in bad light, but still. He looked from his own stocky, boxy frame to Amari’s willowy figure and inhuman grace. She shot him an incredulous look and shrugged. Oh boy, Valkor thought, his heart sinking. We’re dealing with an idiot. He glanced at the closing circle of blue-clad warriors who had accompanied Mikizaki. Several of them shared skeptical glances with each other and approached only reluctantly, but none of them seemed willing to challenge their leader.

Son Goku huffed. “We don’t have time for this. Okorhazu, clear the road.” The monstrous monkey chuckled and hefted his club. Valkor heard a curious whistling sound. Okorhazu took two steps, staggered, and slumped to his knees. Three darts stuck out of the brown fur around his neck. Son Goku gasped. “You bastard,” he cried. Even as he lifted his tetsubo, still more darts flew from the shadows and the Yamazaru warriors stumbled and fell. In an instant, Valkor, Amari, and Hana stood surrounded by their unconscious companions.

“You didn’t really think I’d let you goad me into making a mistake, did you?” Mikizaki asked, gloating, as he strode slowly toward Son Goku’s recumbent form. “Or that I would be unprepared for your friends?”

“I—“ Hana said hesitantly. “I don’t think he can hear you.” Mikizaki looked up at her sharply, and she shrank back behind Amari.

Valkor stepped forward, his hands up and empty. His hammer bumped against his shoulder and thighs as he walked, and he wondered how Mikizaki could possibly have not noticed it. “Good sir,” he said and pulled away the Yamazaru tunic, “as you can see, we are not simple servants. We are visitors, strangers in your land, and it is vital that we see your Princess as quickly as possible. Whatever business you have with our young companion here is your own, and important surely, but we—“

Mikizaki cut him off by stepping in close and backhanding the dwarf across his face. The blow had good force behind it, but it barely turned Valkor’s head. Mikizaki, though, hissed like he had struck a stone wall. He hid it quickly though. “I said silence.” He finally studied the three under the light, though, and Valkor could see the slow movement of thoughts behind the man’s dark eyes. “I see that you are not simple servants, that is true.” He raised his hand and crooked a finger to summon his men. “But if you are strangers, then you should certainly not be wandering around unescorted.”

Valkor fished Benkei’s medallion from under his shirt. “I have this token as proof of our word and the protection of your Princess.”

Mikizaki barely glanced at the medallion, his face screwing into an expression of incredulous disbelief. “You expect me to accept that obvious forgery?” A quick glance showed Valkor that several of Mikizaki's companions were not so quick to dismiss the symbol, but they still said nothing. “No, you will come with us. Even if what you say is true, you will be of more use to us as leverage. You may consider yourselves guests of the Ika Clan if you wish.” He turned. “Willing or no. Bind them.”

Amari’s hands drifted toward her knives, and Hana dipped into her robes where the sneezing powder lay, but Valkor emphatically shook his head. He unbuckled the strap holding his hammer in place and let it fall to the street. He decided to play a long shot. “Has it come to this? Has courtesy lost so much meaning that you will imprison strangers—guests of your Court? And for what? For the sake of some political leverage, or to score points of etiquette? Where’s the honor in that? When did placing personal advancement first become the rule instead of the exception? When did doing the right thing become the second choice?” He noticed a number of Mikizaki men glancing uncomfortably at each other, and a few grumbled. They still bound his hands, though, and escorted them down a side street.

They did not go far before Valkor smelled water. The sound of the river had come and gone as they had moved through the dark streets, but now they turned a corner and found a canal before them. The man-made tributary cut between buildings, completely replacing a street. He saw a tall, arching bridge crossing it a few blocks to his left and noted several more bridges connecting the upper stories or roofs of a number of buildings. A sleek boat clearly built for river travel floated just to their right, and the Ika pushed them in that direction. Watchful faces appeared over the sides and lowered a gangplank as they approached.

“Please,” Valkor said to Mikizaki as he stepped aboard. “Do the right thing. Help us.”

“You’ll see the Court,” Mikizaki said, sneering. “Eventually. Until then, keep your mouth shut. Take them below.”

The Ika settled the Heroes in a corner of the spacious hold separate from the Yamazaru, with manacles locked around their ankles and anchored to the hull. Valkor sighed and perfunctorily tested the strength of their bonds and chains. “We’re clearly not their first such guests,” he mused as Amari worked her hands free. She lacked Tarlith’s practiced ease as slipping restraints like this, but she had learned quite a bit over the years of adventuring with the riftling. Within moments she had them all untied, but she could find nothing to hand to try picking the locks on their manacles.

“I suppose we could try breaking off bits of the wood,” the elf said, testing the solidity of one of the crates staked near them. “Use the splinters to pick the lock.”

“Would that work?” Valkor asked as he tested his chain for weak links.

“No,” Amari admitted, “but it would at least feel like we were doing something useful.”

“I’m sorry,” Hana muttered. Both of the Heroes paused and looked at her. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Her voice quavered, and her shoulders slumped, but Valkor thought that the shaking he saw there came more from anger than sorrow. “If I had known. If I had seen how twisted Shimibakaru Kygo was, I could have prevented all this. I could have done something.” She paused, and now he did hear sorrow in her voice. “I could have stopped this. You would be free. Ichiro would still be alive.” Tears fell into her lap. “I should have stopped this. I should have been stronger.”

Valkor leaned over and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “This isn’t about strength,” he said. “That’s foresight. You had no reason to think Kygo was evil. Unpleasant, from what you’ve said, and unscrupulous. You mentioned that he, um…” He trailed off, trying to recall conversations from the start of their journey, and prompting her to distracting thoughts.

“He shorted his shipments,” she said, softly. “He also sent old or poorly dried herbs to the Court. He knew better, and so did I. I should have said something.”

“Maybe,” Amari said softly, “but that doesn’t make you responsible for all this. You couldn’t have seen it coming.”

“Strength isn’t in being able to avoid tragedy or trouble,” Valkor said. “You can spend all your life running from trouble, and if it wants to find you, it will. No, strength lies in how you deal with it when it comes. And you’ve done better than most.”

Amari sounded wry when she spoke. “Take his word for that. He’s been dragging people’s butts out of fires for a long, long time.”

Hana actually chuckled, short and harsh. “Now there’s a sight.” She sniffed and raised her head, rubbing at her nose with a loose corner of her robe. “I just feel so helpless in all this, so useless.”

“You’re going to talk to this Princess,” Amari said quickly, “and show her how deep the corruption goes in this shadowed land of yours. That’s more than any of the rest of us can do.”

Hana sniffed again and wiped tears from her eyes. “I hope I can. I just feel like—“ She stopped, freezing, and they all heard the creak of wood and soft steps as someone entered the hold. Hana’s hand drifted into her robes. “I still have my sneezing powder,” she whispered.

Valkor put up his hand. “Wait. Let him see your hands first, so he doesn’t suspect anything.”

“But, how will I get it out if I need it?”

“Practice,” Amari muttered and sat up straight as the man approached.

The man who approached wore armor similar, though less intricate, to Mikizaki. He moved like an experienced sailor and stopped a few feet from them with his hands resting on the butt of his curved sword. A cloth of the same dark blue as his armor covered the lower part of his nose and mouth. After a long few seconds, he pulled it down and lifted off his helmet. He regarded them with clear, dark eyes and a serious expression. “Show me the medallion,” he said to Valkor.

The dwarf blinked and then, without breaking eye contact, pulled the disk from under his shirt. “What would you have done if our hands were still tied?” he asked as he held it up.

The man snorted, but it did not sound derisive. He leaned in, studying the symbol in the low light, still well out of reach of the prisoners. After what felt like a long, long time, he nodded and straightened up. “Very well, then.” He turned slightly and sent a piercing, three-note whistle over his shoulder into the darkness. “I am Yamanaku, and I’m getting you out of here.” The Heroes stared at him as he pulled a small ring of iron keys from inside his armor and tossed them to Valkor. “Not all of us are as short-sighted or selfish as our captain. But you must hurry and make no noise. Understand?”

Valkor held the keys but kept staring at the young man. “How can we trust you?”

“You can’t. But if you want to get to the palace tonight and unchained, what choice do you have?”

“We have to trust someone,” Amari muttered.

“True enough,” Valkor said, and unlocked the manacles. “What about our companions?”

“My friends are letting them go right now. They’re not coming with you, however.” At Valkor’s dark look, the young man shrugged. “They can’t. It’s too many people. We couldn’t make those arrangements fast enough. They will serve as a distraction and a decoy to send Mikizaki in the wrong direction.”

The dwarf sighed. “Good enough. Let’s go.”

They moved quietly out of the hold and across the deck. The dark, shadowed shapes of other crewmen moved about them, but they only ever saw Yamanaku’s face. He led them to a small boat lashed to the side of the larger vessel and ushered them down a rope ladder. Valkor, struggling against the movement of the watercraft and the tugging pain in his side, dropped unceremoniously into the boat to find all their gear already laid down its spine. Yamanaku followed them in and waved up as the mooring ropes came free and dropped around them. Indistinct shapes waved back and then vanished.

“You’re coming along?” Amari asked as she took up station next to one of the oars. Valkor eyed the young man cautiously as he did the same.

“Yes,” Yamanaku replied, setting in at the rudder. “I know the river and canals, I know the way to the palace, and after what Mikizaki did, I won’t stay on his ship any longer.” He motioned them to begin and guided the boat gently out toward the current. “Honor has to mean something, even in these nights,” he muttered.

With every dig of the oar, Valkor felt his wound throb, but he put his back into the work all the same. He could feel Hana staring at him, and he caught Amari’s occasional worried glances, but he just gritted his teeth and pulled. Yamanaku proved a skillful pilot and seaman, directing them clearly and calmly as he steered around the huge variety of craft along the river. Once they had reached the open channel, he relaxed a bit and had them ease up. “Go too fast and we’ll attract attention,” he said.

“Well, as long as we’re out for a pleasant evening on the water,” Valkor said, “let’s answer a few questions. First, how do you plan to get us into the palace?”

Yamanaku shrugged. “I don’t. That’s your job. The water gates are closed at sundown, and they won’t open them just because you ask nicely. You’ll have to present that fancy neckless of yours. There’s a short canal just shy of the gates that are sheltered. We can tie up there and go the rest of the way on foot.”

“You’re coming along?”

The Ika grinned. “You couldn’t stop me now. I need to see how this plays out. My turn. How were you planning to get to see the Princess? Just knocking on the gates is a good way to get you into a dungeon.”

“We had an escort,” Amari said, frowning, “but he’s otherwise engaged.”

“A monk, called Benkei,” Valkor added, but Yamanaku shook his head. “Well, he told us to find another, a woman called Mochizuki.” He paused as Yamanaku sat up a little straighter. “You know her?”

“Only by reputation. She’s one of the Princess’s personal bodyguards and prized retainers, part of a special order of kunoichi founded specifically to serve the Moon Throne.”

“There’s that word again,” Amari mumbled.

“Mochizuki should be with the Princess, or near her,” Yamanaku said, frowning in thought. “Why would this Benkei character think she’d be someone you might run into, or should look for?”

“Perhaps he thought we should ask for her when we’re stopped,” Hana offered.

“Maybe,” he allowed, “but that’s a long shot. Her distrust of strangers is legendary, even among our people. You see, we’ve been an island alone—isolated and proud of it—for as long as the histories tell. Everyone who has ever dealt with us has always had some sort of ulterior motive. The worst is the Sun Empire. They’re always looking for some way to control us. They’ve tried to invade two or three times, and their agents are everywhere, looking to subvert our people and gain influence.”

“Still more places we’d never heard of,” Amari said quietly.

“Anyway, Mochizuki’s suspicion may be well founded,” Yamanaku went on. “I’ve heard tell that she and several others at the Court suspect that one or more of the clans has begun secretly working with the Sun Empire to undermine the Moon Court and replace the Princess. The other clans are simply exploiting the chaos that causes to advance their own interests.” He spit on the deck. “If it’s true, Mochizuki’s not the only one angry about it.” He pointed to Valkor. “Knowing that, you’re going to have a job of work convincing her of your good intentions, though that coin may go a long way toward helping.”

“What coin?”

“That medallion of yours. It’s what we call a Princess Coin, I’m sure of it. I’ve only ever seen one other, and it wasn’t done up as a necklace, but it was the same size and stamped with the same images. They’re mystical, after a fashion. Some say that they can heal great, even lethal, wounds and restore a hero’s vigor and drive.” He shrugged. “I don’t know about that, but I know that they’re only made in the Moon Court and only handed out to those the Princess most trusts. That’s why I believed you.”

Valkor fingered the coin under his shirt. Heal great wounds, huh? he wondered a little bitterly. I wish.

“Let’s pick up some speed,” Yamanaku said, sitting up and taking the tiller again. “It’s going to get crowded, and we’ll want the momentum to maneuver.”

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