Island of Shadows: Shinamaki, Part 2
Island of Shadows:
They walked through the slowly darkening afternoon. The game trails and narrow paths wound through a forest that gradually grew less haunted but no less strange to Tarlith. Nothing compared to the Fallen Wood, of course, she thought. It’s almost like the Crystalian forests I’ve come to know, but it’s not one, and that only makes it all the more unnerving. Uzumaki and Benkei continued to argue in low voices, and the Heroes remained on edge. Hana seemed calm enough, but Tarlith watched her stride forward with firm, stiff resolve, as if driving her body forward in spite of its fatigue. Tarlith suspected that the young woman wanted nothing more than to curl into a ball and just shake for a while, but something kept her upright and moving with terrible purpose. The riftling started to worry about what that might be.
The sun had set and stained the clouds as they left the dense trees to find a hard dirt road running along a small, gentle river. The darkness set in quickly, and not long after the shadows had merged into a solid gloom, the many blazing lights of Shinamaki’s festival began to show ahead of them.
Benkei stopped and gathered everyone before they came in sight of the village proper. “Miss Hana,” he said, fixing the young woman with a firm but not unkind stare, “we have arrived. Now what?”
“Now, I can solve both of your problems,” she replied. She had eaten and drunk during the walk, and she sounded much stronger and firmer. “You rightly worried about anyone who would aid a creature such as the Jorogumo. Well, I can show you a man in this village that conspired with her.” Benkei and Uzumaki exchanged surprised glances. Hana smiled for the first time since they had rescued her. “My love, my light, comes from Shinamaki, and I have spent a great deal of time here. I know the people, and I know that the richest merchant has recently married a young, beautiful second wife who appeared seemingly from nowhere a year ago.” Tarlith found that suspicious, but the knowing looks on the faces of all the locals told her that they found it damning.
“I see,” Benkei said. “That is worth investigating, at the very least.”
“I will point him out to you,” Hana said, “but you must be prepared for him to run. He is a brazen man, but not a brave one, and I believe his nerve will fail him and betray his honor.”
Benkei nodded, resolved, and so did the men with him. They had walked with their faces uncovered, but now each replaced their smooth masks over grim expressions. “We will have to sneak in,” the monk mused aloud. “That will be difficult with all the lights.”
“And there will be people watching,” Uzumaki put in, his expression somber. “The forests have grown treacherous enough that many villages have taken to posting watchmen at night.”
Tarlith thought that Benkei looked shocked for a second, but his features smoothed quickly to a thoughtful frown. “That is problematic, obviously. Being discovered would betray our presence, but we are known here, and being recognized may alert our quarry before we are ready.”
“We can help with that,” Tarlith offered. “Amari and I, at least, can be pretty sneaky, and no one’s going to recognize us if we are seen. We can move around the edge of the village and douse just the right lanterns to let you approach.”
Benkei looked a little dubious, but Uzumaki nodded. “I will go with them, if you like,” the young man offered. “As surety.”
“I do not think they will creep away,” Benkei replied, still considering. “They do not strike me as such people. No, it is simply that I do not know their skills.”
“Then let us show them,” Ser Luther said quickly.
Benkei frowned deeper but finally nodded.
“Thank you,” Ser Luther smiled.” Lily, link them up. Amari, go wide through the trees to the far side. Standard signals.” The Glimmerdusk Ranger nodded as the Sanctioned Witch murmured her spell. “Tarlith, take to the trees. If the sentries are simply villagers looking for uncanny dangers instead of trained warriors,” he glanced at Uzumaki, whose nod confirmed the assessment, “then they’re likely to be only on the ground.” She grinned at him, for the idea appealed a great deal.
The Heroes stepped in close and leaned in to touch their foreheads. “We ask not for blessing,” Ser Luther said, his voice falling into a familiar cadence. Tarlith’s lips moved silently, echoing the ritual words as he recited them. “For we walk already in her light.” Memories of the great shrine of the Goddess in Crystalia Castle flooded back to her. She felt again the warmth and welcome that had washed over her the first time she had entered it and stood in the light there. She and Amari murmured along softly as he finished. “We ask only for good fortune and hope only that she see our deeds and remember our names.”
Ser Luther touched the riftling’s shoulder lightly as they straightened up. “This isn’t hard,” he said quietly, “but it is important, for a lot of reasons.” Tarlith nodded, rolling her eyes. Amari grinned wryly and ran her hands over her gear in a last minute check. “So get going. You’ve got this.”
Tarlith reached up and lightly smacked the back of his armored neck. “We know.” She turned, a half step behind Amari, and vanished into the brush. A little way into the woods, she climbed nimbly to the lower branches of a broad tree. She settled in, letting her eyes adjust to the gloom, and waited only a few moments before the Amari’s distinctive bird calls whistled through the night. Tarlith looked ahead at the steady glow of the lamps from the village. She could make out the dark, shifting shapes of people moving in front of the lights.
Tarlith felt Lily’s familiar but still slightly unnerving presence in her mind as the Sanctioned Witch’s spell projected her thoughts to the riftling. “All right. Benkei’s people are moving and should be ready in a moment or two. Remember, we don’t want to hurt these people if we don’t have too.” Tarlith felt a hesitation, like a held breath before a jump, in her mind before Lily came back. “Luther says no killing.” Tarlith sighed and shook her head. “Though I think he’s saying that for the locals’ benefit.” Tarlith could hear the amusement in Lily’s thoughts.
“Hey,” she thought at the Witch. “I reckon that I need to take out three, maybe four lamps to give you all the room you’ll need to approach. Check with Amari to see if she agrees.”
She could feel Lily’s curiosity, but the Witch said nothing for a few seconds. “Amari agrees; four lamps should do it.”
Tarlith grinned. “All right then. Tell that elf that I said there’s no way she’ll get all her lanterns snuffed out before I do.” Lily’s amusement spiked suddenly. “Say it just like that.”
A couple of heartbeats later, Lily’s thoughts returned, and almost bubbled with giggles. “She says—well, she thought a number of things, the short and polite version is, you’re on. She’ll see you at the edge of the village and try to stay awake while waiting for you to finally show up.”
“Hah!” Tarlith said out loud, before recovering herself and thinking, “Fine. Just tell us when to start.”
Silence followed, but the riftling could feel Lily waiting. “Benkei’s in place and says they’re ready. Ladies, go.”
Tarlith smiled and, with barely a glance, leapt cleanly to the next tree. She bounded closer, barely rustling the leaves, and the village came into clearer view. A collection of tidy looking square homes—some small, others rambling with many additions—stood off the ground on squat, thick posts. They meandered around, roughly following the terrain, among clusters of spreading trees currently hung with colored lanterns. In Crystalia, they would have cleared the trees, she thought, and decided that she liked this method better. A bonfire burned in the distance, nearer the center of the village, she guessed, and Tarlith moved to put a few buildings between her and that bright flame.
The first lantern she needed to extinguish hung from a tree directly ahead. She paused, watching carefully, and saw a shadow move on the far side of the tree. A closer look revealed a bored-looking man with a short spear and a familiar fox mask tied to his belt. He’d rather be at the party, she thought and smiled ruefully. Me too. She studied the lamp too. A glass reservoir held pale oil that fed a wick that wound into a small metal pan. The bright flame filled a large paper lantern painted with a delicate pattern of leaves that she did not recognize.
Tarlith slipped down the trunk of her tree, crept through the brush to sheltered spot, and readied a knife. She waited for the man to shift his back to her and tossed the knife at the lantern with a flick of her wrist. The knife struck the reservoir and pan a glancing blow. Some oil splattered onto the paper, and the pan tipped over, pushing the wick into the beautiful covering. Tarlith felt a little pang of guilt as the paper caught fire. The man glanced around at the sound, showing a bit more lively interest than the riftling had expected. Things must be getting dangerous if he thinks that little noise is worth looking into, she mused, silently praying that he did not see the knife. He did not, and by the time he realized that the lamp above him had caught fire, most of it had burned away. He cursed quietly and snatched up his spear. He knocked the lamp down and awkwardly snuffed out the flames. With a continuing string of muttered curses, he took the damaged lamp and his equipment and trudged back toward the village.
As long as he doesn’t make a fuss, Tarlith thought, we’re good. One down. She retrieved her knife after a few seconds of searching the dark ground and crept forward.
She almost ran into the next sentry. He had been sitting on tree stump, and she only spotted him when he stood up, barely five feet from her. She froze. She had not tried terribly hard to stay silent, but the twig snap that attracted the man’s attention came from her left. That saved her, because the guard turned away from the break in the undergrowth where she crouched, bathed in dim light from the village. The man took a hesitant step forward, and she crept with held breath away from him and into a shadow. As she leaned against a tree, letting her heart slow, Lily’s wry thoughts rippled through her mind. “Uzumaki apologizes to everyone.” Tarlith managed not to laugh.
“Tell him it worked out for me,” she thought at the Witch. She wondered idly how Amari had fared. She slunk around the tree and saw the second lantern two trees away. She took three deep breaths and used the time to watch carefully for more sentries. She saw nothing, scampered up the trunk next to her, and leapt forward. The lantern bounced and swung slightly when she landed in its tree, and she held her breath to see if anyone noticed. Another shadow moved ahead of her, meandering to her left, and calling in the hushed voice people instinctively use amidst silence to a friend in the darkness. She took long, deep breaths and counted to six.
When Tarlith felt certain that he had passed far enough away, she hooked her legs around a branch and lowered her body down to reach the lantern. She reached for her knife to cut the lines tying the paper to the tree, reconsidered, and started to tease at the knots with her fingers. The lantern shook and bounced a bit, despite her best efforts, but she finally got it loose enough to pull the cord free. It almost slipped from her fingers, but she managed to hold on. She leaned further out, every muscle in her core aching, and dropped the lamp onto a cluster of exposed rocks and tree roots. The satisfying crack of glass echoed up to her as she curled upright and leaned gratefully against the tree trunk. That’s two, she thought as a pair of men came trotting over to investigate the noise.
“Clever,” Lily said into Tarlith’s head, “if not subtle.”
Tarlith almost laughed. “Everyone’s a critic,” she thought as loudly as she could.
“Well, Amari just got her third.” Lily responded.
“Crap,” Tarlith thought before she could stop herself and groaned silently at Lily’s amusement. The riftling shifted upright, got to a good position, and leapt to the next tree. She rubbed at her abdomen as she clambered through branches to the best jumping off spot for the next lantern. I’m going to feel that in the morning. She jumped and landed awkwardly, scraping up her hands. She barely managed to stay silent. Her grip slipped, however, and the branch slid away from her desperate fingers. A brief vision of the iron-hard roots and pointed rocks below flashed through her mind. She reached wildly for any purchase but caught nothing.
Then her legs banged into a large branch, and she instinctively bent her knees. Her momentum sent her swinging around and back upright. Too many years of practice in the woodlands of two worlds brought her head up and let her pick out a branch that would hold her weight. She grabbed it, hissing at the pain in her hands, and swung around again, bringing her legs up to hook on the new perch. She scrambled awkwardly up and plastered her back to the tree trunk, trying to control her heaving breaths. She could still half-hear all the noise she had made, and she watched the shadows for anyone who had noticed. No one approached for several heartbeats, however, and she slowly started to breathe again.
After a long moment, she realized that not only had no one apparently heard her, she could not see anyone anywhere below. Nothing that looked like a sentry stood between her and the village. She frowned but decided not to question the good fortune. She flexed her fingers and winced. A glance at her hands showed scrapes and shallow cuts across her palms. A thin smear of blood stained the skin above her wrists. She cursed. Nothing for it, though, she decided and managed to clamber around onto the branch that held the lantern. She shimmied out, feeling the bruises starting to form on her legs and abdomen, and managed to pull the lamp up. She blew out the flame, and it felt vaguely disappointing.
“We’re coming up behind you,” Lily reported to Tarlith’s mind. “Benkei’s people are taking care of the sentries. There are only a few left, but not in front of you.”
“I noticed,” she thought. That simplifies things. Tarlith took a few seconds to inspect the woods ahead. She could see the village quite clearly now, and the noise of the festival was providing increasingly good cover for her movements. Dozens of people milled about among the trees and houses, mostly moving toward the center of the community. She guessed that they were building up to some sort of official announcement. Everybody loves speeches, I guess, she mused. Her hands had begun to sting, and she climbed gingerly down the tree trunk. No more climbing for me for a while, she decided, and started slinking forward.
The undergrowth thinned considerably this close to the village, and Tarlith found the going tricky, between navigating the uneven ground and twisting roots while trying to stay in shadows. Lily proved correct, however, and no sentries appeared before the final lantern. This one hung on the near side of the tree, serving more to extend the light from the village than to banish shadows under the trees. The riftling could see no easy way to extinguish this light, though. It hung too high to reach without climbing, and she had nothing with which to reach up and pull the lamp down. She sighed and drew a knife with aching fingers. She flicked it up, cut the cord, and caught the lamp as it fell. She hesitated, listening for the fall of the knife, but heard nothing. She looked up, and in the dim light, saw the knife stuck lightly in the branch. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she muttered and blew out the lamp.
Tarlith set the lamp down and peeked around the tree at the village. “Lily,” she thought, “I’m here. Last light’s out. I’m not seeing any sentries.”
“We’re almost there,” Lily thought.
Tarlith nodded twice before remembering that no one could see her. She sighed and tried not to rub at her injuries. A twig snapped just to her right, and she spun, crouching. Amari stepped into the dim spill of light from the village, her hands up. She grinned as she joined the riftling. “I see you finally made it,” the elf whispered.
“You shut your pointy-eared mouth,” Tarlith hissed back, without any real venom. The Ranger smacked Tarlith’s shoulder, and she winced. Amari immediately turned worried and started inspecting her friend for injuries. She inhaled sharply when she saw Tarlith’s hands. “Yeah, that slowed me down.” They both glanced up at the soft sounds of people approaching from behind and made out the vague forms of Benkei and the others.
“It would,” Amari replied, turning back to the cuts and reaching for a pouch on her belt. “Let me get something on that.” She barely had the small bag of numbing herbs open when they froze at the muffled exclamations from the trees. They both turned and saw Hana stride forth from the undergrowth. Without hesitation or a sideways glance, she walked straight into the village as bold as brass.
“What in the Black Wood is she doing?” Amari muttered.
“No idea,” Tarlith replied, pushing the first aid supplies away, “but we better not let her do it alone.” She glanced over her shoulder to see her friends, Benkei, and Uzumaki jogging after the young woman. She joined them a step ahead of Amari. “Spread out,” she hissed at the group. “I don’t know what she’s doing, but I don’t think we can stop her from doing it. We just need to protect her while she does it.”
“I don’t think—” Benkei began but stopped when the first villages saw Hana and gasped. “Well, she’s done it now.”
The Heroes broke into the light and started moving through the village, but as startled as people were by them, Tarlith swore they were more surprised by Hana. The young woman’s focus and resolve never wavered, and it seemed as if the knots of villagers simply parted to let her pass. People stopped whatever they were doing, stopped walking, even stopped speaking to stare at her. Tarlith shook her head ruefully as she confirmed that Hana was heading straight for the center of the village. As she got past the outer cluster of buildings, the riftling saw the bonfire ahead and a large stage near it with a small cluster of important looking people on it. The crowd had grown thick here. Clearly most of the village had already arrived.
“If we can get to her before too many people realize what’s happening,” Uzumaki said, “maybe we can calm things down.” As Hana reached the edge of the crowd, they could all hear the gasps and exclamations ripple through the people like fire through oiled rags. “Too late,” he muttered. “As long as she doesn’t—”
“Shimibakaru Kygo!” Hana cried out.
“Do something like that,” Uzumaki finished with a sigh.
To be continued ...
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