Island of Shadows: Dark Reflection, Part 2
Island of Shadows:
They did not stop for long all day, even eating a cold meal as they walked their horses. Still, Lily could feel the subtle evil around them. Now that she knew what to look for, the signs of it tickled at the edges of her senses more and more. The land changed, becoming less hilly and more open. The forests became islands of woods among grazing or plowed fields. Copses and groves sprang up here and there or marked the edges of streams and byroads. Crops weeks or days from harvesting swayed gently beside them. They saw more peasants and even tradesmen, such as they had noticed around the few villages they had passed through but in still larger numbers. A true town, Ishikuzu, lay only a mile or so to the east, Benkei explained.
As dusk came on, the early moon kept the fields on the left side of the road lit and deepened the shadows under the eves of the long wood that flanked it on the right. They saw the lights of the inn from quite a distance, and as they approached, the building and its grounds became clearer. The Heroes could not help marveling at its size and splendor.
Benkei smiled. “We are less than a day’s travel from the Court, and though this is a lesser used way, many travelers use it. The family that keeps this inn are proud of it, and they insist on leaving their guests with the best possible impression before they arrive at the Moon Court.”
“If this dim view is any way to judge,” Valkor rumbled, “they’ve succeeded.” Lily frowned, thinking that he sounded strained, as if in pain. The injury he had taken in Shinamaki Village had been nastier than expected, and she knew it still gave him trouble. She had just started forward to ask him about it when they all turned at a shriek that came from over the fields.
They scanned the shadows and dim shapes of mounded earth. Tarlith’s sharp eyes spied the trouble first, of course. A group of distant peasants in the field were shouting and actively tearing at one of the long mounds. The riftling pointed, and as the other Heroes fixed their gazes on the group, one of the peasants cried out, thrashed as if being shaken, and vanished into the ground.
“Something grabbed him,” Tarlith said. “Like the earth just sucked him under.”
“Come on,” Ser Luther shouted, and he spurred his horse toward the group. Tarlith and Amari bounded after him. Before the others could follow, Benkei pulled up his horse in front of them.
“No, wait,” he cried. “Not everything here is as it seems. This could be a trap. I will go and help. You must get Hana safely to the inn.” Valkor hesitated only a second before nodding and turning his horse back to the road and urging it to speed.
Benkei started to turn, but Lily reached out and grabbed his bridle. “Wait,” she said. “They’ll need to see your medallion at the inn.” He paused, confused for an instant, and then frustrated as his brain understood what she meant. “I’ll go. My magic can find what is hidden if this is anything more than it seems.” He still hesitated, clearly torn, and then nodded once.
“Good luck,” he said. “Be careful.” Then he rode off to catch Valkor.
Lily took a deep breath. She could not believe that she had actually stopped him. A subtle stink had risen around her when the second peasant has screamed, and the dread it brought drove her to act. At least Valkor and Hana will be safe, she thought and turned her horse into the fields toward her friends. She arrived only a moment after her companions and just in time to see several of the peasants throw off their loose shirts. The tight purple jerkins and cloth wrappings that they wore underneath reminded Lily of the shadows who had harried them when they first arrived in Kagejima, thought of a distinctly different clan.
The starlight glinted on darkened blades, and the stink of dark magic wafted around her. She saw the glint of Tarlith’s sharp teeth as the riftling drew her weapons. Lily pulled up hard, dropped from her saddle, and raced behind one of the large mounds. She breathed deeply and began to summon a spell to her mind, one that would reveal all hidden enemies. The feel of the fell power nearby made her wary of further attackers. The sound of close combat came to her from beyond the mound as she tried to focus her mind.
Lily had no sooner spoken the words and released her gathered power than she heard a clatter and grunt. She turned quickly to see Tarlith stumbled into view around the side of the mound. A human shadow flickered toward her from behind. Lily started to move, tried to shout, raised her staff, but the attacker came on too quickly for any of that. In the last second, she saw Tarlith catch her balance and grin. The riftling stepped aside as if still stumbling, and straightened up as her attacker struck at now empty air. Two blades flashed in the moonlight, and the shadow collapsed to the dark soil without a sound.
Tarlith leaned against the mound of earth, breathing deeply, and smiled at the Witch. “Nothing in this world like a stand-up fight,” she said. Lily could have laughed—she wanted to, in the backwash of excitement—but settled for returning the smile and moving close to check for wounds. “I’m all right,” Tarlith said, still catching her breath. “They’re quite good, but we were half-expecting something like this. There’s only a few, anyway; everyone else ran.”
Lily clucked her tongue all the same as she did a quick examination but found only bruises and a few scrapes. Focused as she was, she did not notice the movement nearby until Tarlith came suddenly alert. The Sanctioned Witch stepped back, confused, and turned toward the figure that arrested her friend’s attention. An old woman, small, with a pinched face and an expression of surprised fright, crouched stumbled toward them. The moon and stars seemed to halo her in a fuzzy blue light that left sharp shadows outlining her form. She lost her footing but stopped her fall with a hand on the mound.
Tarlith rose, tucking her blades away, and approached quickly. “Oh, no, no, no, grandmother,” she said, her voice taking on a clipped and strange accent from stress and concern. “You should not be here.”
A dread tickled at the back of Lily’s mind, raising the hairs on her neck. Warnings prickled at her mind and sent nervous ice shouting through her stomach. The glow around the wizened woman did not come from the dim lights of the wholesome night. Or rather, the shadows did not; the glow merely pointed out the darkness that did not belong in the honest night. “No!” she cried, remembering her spell, and reaching for Tarlith as she passed. Too late.
The old woman suddenly grinned wide—too wide—showing sharp teeth that seemed too long and numerous to fit in a human skull. She tittered softly as Tarlith realized her danger and checked her motion. Her hand brushed the mound, and she jerked to an abrupt halt. Hand and arms had sprung from the loose soil of the mound to grip the rogue with unliving strength. Lily knew that strength; she had felt it in her heart and touched it with her spirit. Tarlith struggled, grunting with the exertion, but more undead hands closed over her legs. Tarlith did not panic or scream or cease to struggle, and Lily envied her spirit in that instant. Nevertheless, the undead pulled her into the mound in only a few short seconds.
The old woman cackled then. She leaned on a short cane and eyed Lily speculatively, as if to say, “you’re next, deary.” Lily glared at the monster but wasted no time on her. Destruction, enervation, and dominion were all in her nature—the legacy of her connection to the Nether Realms and the source of her power—but they had no hold on her heart. Rather than attack her enemy, she turned to save her friend. Without hesitation, Lily stepped to the mound and sank both of her hands into the soft earth, palms first, down to the wrists. She closed her eyes and instantly felt the nature of the thing. She gasped and thought she heard the hag snicker. These were not tilled fields cut to accept crops and continue the seasonal round. These were fields of the dead. These were burial mounds, and they teemed with the unnatural servants of the void.
Lily grinned and could have laughed. Instead, she sent her will running through the mound. The undead inside paused, suddenly indecisive. The hag’s control over them wavered as the Sanctioned Witch exerted her own power. The creature tried to reinforce her dominion of the corpses, but Lily let her rage and frustration fuel her. She heard the monster gasp and fall back as all the creatures in the mound submitted to her will. Tarlith came flying out of the other side of the mound as the undead threw her back into the air; Lily heard her grunt as she struck something. The Witch sent each of the undead back to their torpor and stood up.
She saw the monster in crone’s clothes glaring and snarling at her. “I will not surrender,” she hissed at Lily. “I will not be denied the prey I was promised.” She took a step forward and struck her cane on the ground. The earth rumbled, shifted, and split under the Witch’s feet, attempting to swallow her much as it had the peasants to attract the Heroes’ attention.
Lily sneered and inclined her left-hand palm-up, her fingers curled as if clutching something, and raised her arm. She rose inches off of the ground as it dropped away below her. She pointed her staff at the monster and spoke a word that echoed around them. Dark light, edged in purple and streaked with blue, flashed between them, and Lily felt power race from the monster into her to power her spell. The creature cursed and ended the attack, ceasing to give the Witch power, and Lily drifted back to the cracked earth.
“You are strong,” the old woman hissed, “and clever. But you are only a conduit of power.” She stepped closer and closer to Lily as she spoke. “I am a source, and my magic has no limits.” Lily frowned, dubious; everything, especially dark magic, had limits in the Goddess’s world. “In an extended contest of magical will, you cannot defeat me.”
Lily hesitated and then nodded. “That’s probably true,” she conceded. She moved as fast as she could, bringing her thick staff up from her side to smack into the old woman’s chin. The creature’s head snapped back. “So I won’t try.” Lily brought the staff down with two hands, striking a terrific blow to the monster’s forehead. The hag stumbled back, stunned, and Lily used the opening to lay in with three more heavy hits.
With a groan, the thing collapsed and seemed to melt into the shadows beside the mound. All that remained was a pale, dirty mask. Lily tipped it up with the butt of her staff. It had a grotesque carving across the front—some nameless horror with curling horns and wild hair and curved tusks. It intrigued her. It smelled of magic and power and potential, and it almost dared her to pick it up. She started to reach for it before she realized that it seemed too enticing. Lily recoiled, grimaced, and used her staff to knock the mask into one of the cracks in the ground.
The sounds of fighting had nearly vanished by the time she rounded the mound. Only a few of the attackers still struggled, and Ser Luther had them subdued by the time the Witch got close enough to do anything. She turned instead to drawing the hurt and harm out of her friends’ injuries. Sadly, none of the ambushers had survived for questioning. Examining them showed that they all resembled each other in the way of extended family members. They all also had skin tinged to various shades of red, and this did not appear to be stains or makeup. Two had small horns near the hairlines of their broad faces.
“I don’t like this,” Ser Luther said, sitting back from his inspection.
“The attack, or the fact that these people look more like demons than humans?” Tarlith said. She looked paler than usual and a bit more haggard. Lily wondered how her near entombment had affected her. “Because neither seems good to me.”
“Both, honestly, but it’s the attack that most bothers me. I think this was a distraction.”
“From what? It seems like someone’s been trying to waylay us since we started out.”
“They’ve had plenty of chances before now,” Amari pointed out. “Why drag us off the road and out here a day out from the capital?”
Ser Luther was up and running for his horse before he answered. “Because it wasn’t us they were after.” The others all blinked but ran a second later. Luther spurred his horse back to the road instead of across the treacherous field and turned toward the distant inn at a full gallop.
To be continued...
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