Island of Shadows: Twilight Refuge, Part 2
Island of Shadows:
The road met up and followed a narrow, lively river about mid-morning, and the first signs of the Court began to peek through the landscape ahead in the late afternoon. Curls of thick smoke or the glimpse of tall towers with curling eves flashed between the trees as the land gradually rose. Not until early evening, though, did they see the rising buildings nestled on the hills and surrounded by a long, flowing wall. And not until dusk did they reach the small postern gate beside the water gate that barred entrance to the Court for all save the river.
Gaining entrance felt tense but proved less tricky than Valkor had feared. He could hear Tarlith straining to stay quiet and deferential—as Benkei and Son Goku had insisted she must—when the guards searched them. The tall, strong men in overlapping strips of lacquered armor and grotesque masks under ornate helms did a thorough enough job, but even the riftling could see that their eyes fixed on the servants’ clothing in Yamazaru colors and slid off without further interest. Benkei presented his medallion and a stiff, broad piece of paper for inspection. Whatever it said passed muster, and the guards waved them through the gate after only a few minutes.
Valkor noted with interest the fortifications inside the gate; not simply shelters to keep any guards out of the weather, but actual defenses and strong points, as if they feared an attack from within. These watch posts overlooked a wide, cobbled area, almost like a town square, around the gates. Two-story structures that, despite the strange architecture, Valkor immediately identified as storehouses, flanked the space. In the evening light, the bright colors of these buildings positively glowed and seemed to bath the sheltered space in a warm radiance.
Son Goku ushered them down from the wagon. “End of the ride,” he said quietly. “Wheeled and water traffic is quite restricted inside the Twilight Refuge, I’m afraid.” He smiled at the Heroes’ confusion. “That’s where we are now. Everything inside the walls is the Twilight Refuge. All the diplomats and bureaucrats, scribes and scholars, priests and whatnot that manage this land of ours live and work in the Refuge. These storehouses hold good brought from all over Kagejima for them directly or for the merchants who live here and sell to them. The actual palaces of the Moon Princess are in the center of the Refuge, set off by gardens and parks.” He looked a little flustered at sounding like a tour guide. “Or so I’ve been told, anyway.”
“Not unlike Crystalia Castle,” Ser Luther said thoughtfully. “This area is Castletown, and the palaces would be the Towers.” He looked at Benkei. “So we should go to the Court as soon as possible, I suppose.”
The monk nodded. “It will be more difficult at this time of day, but yes. Keep your disguises as long as you can, if only to help prevent an unnecessary confrontation. I don’t know who we might meet inside these walls, but judging by who we met outside them, I’m no longer confident of our safety. No sense drawing the wrong kind of attention from the authorities as well as our enemies.”
Valkor frowned and pulled his hammer from his sack. “Might as well be prepared, then,” he said, and Benkei reluctantly nodded. He felt a presence by his elbow and turned to find Hana had stepped next to him. She had a wary look, and her eyes darted to the shadows pulling away from the buildings around them. He almost said something to her but decided that, if she had already chosen to stick by him, then he had nothing left to say. “Let’s get on with it, then.”
“Famous last words,” Tarlith muttered, but she did it with a smile.
“Hey,” Amari said, nudging the riftling, “Ten says we get jumped in the first three blocks.”
“Twenty,” Valkor and Tarlith replied in unison. Amari grinned and nodded. Ser Luther cast them a disapproving glance, but he loosened his sword all the same.
As it turned out, they had followed Benkei down the curving street only two blocks, and could just see the shapes of large residences rising through the gloom, when Son Goku hissed and motioned everyone to stop. Seconds later, small missiles whirled out of the darkness, whipping past them like spinning daggers. Amari laughed aloud as she dodged, and Tarlith grumbled about the money. Valkor plucked one of the darts out of the wooden door frame beside his head where it had struck. It looked like a razor-sharp snowflake, with four triangular tines and a hole drilled through the middle to reduce weight. He held it between his forefinger and thumb and eyed up one of the dim shadows loping toward them.
“What say I win some of that gold back,” he called, flipping the odd weapon to Amari. “Think you can hit one of them?”
She frowned. “Sure, but only for five gold.”
Valkor grinned wide and hefted his hammer as the shadows raced forward. “Ten or no bet.”
“Ten,” the elf replied and sent the weapon spinning into the night. They all heard the distinct clink of metal deflecting metal and saw the glittering arc of the small snowflake as it flew up and away from its target. Amari cursed. “No fair.”
“Hah,” the dwarf replied, laughing. “Now I only owe you ten.” Then he stepped in as their attackers rushed from the darkness, blackened blades drawn. He smashed the first away by stepping suddenly closer, but the other two angling toward him adjusted their momentum and spread out to attack from both sides. He moved back almost as soon as he sent the first ninja flying, swinging the hammer in a wide circle to keep the others away, and tried to find an opening. He kept moving, shifting his stance to face one and the other to deny them a clear attack, but he saw no holes in their defense. Then the one on his right sneezed.
Without hesitation, Valkor pivoted left and rushed at the other ninja. The man recovered from the surprise of his friend’s laps and his victim’s sudden aggression but not well enough to avoid the hammer. The dwarf knocked his attacker clear and followed up with two swift blows that ended the threat. His wound ached as he hefted his hammer again. He turned and saw the other ninja closing on Hana. The young woman backed slowly away, staring at the man, bits of fine dust drifting away from her hands.
Valkor charged in. The ninja saw him coming and leapt to attack, blades bared in each hand. The dwarf pivoted at the last moment, holding his hammer out and blocking with its great bulk instead of trying to attack. The ninja’s blows barely marked the weapon. He had just an instant of surprise before Valkor’s kick broke his knee. With a howl, the man fell back, rolling head-over-heals away from Valkor and dropping one of his weapons. He settled into a painful crouch and drew a smaller blade from his back. Almost instantly, Valkor smelled the sour tang of poison. I can’t get to him fast enough, Valkor realized. Without thinking, he stepped in front of Hana.
The ninja stiffened and collapsed, a thin dagger protruding from his back. Tarlith swiftly knelt and retrieved her weapon. She and Valkor shared a nod before the riftling turned back to the fight. “Are you hurt?” the dwarf asked Hana, glancing back at her. She shook her head and wiped her hands on her robes repeatedly. “Sneezing powder?” he asked with an incredulous smile.
Hana shrugged. “It’s surprisingly useful.”
Valkor grinned and looked around. The fight had largely ended, and he saw Ser Luther cut down one more before the last ninja broke and dashed back into the shadows. Valkor relaxed a little, leaning on his weapon to take the pressure off his wound.
“Quick, after him,” Benkei called. “If he escapes, he’ll tell his masters.” Instantly, Luther, Tarlith, and Lily took off running. Amari hesitated, glancing at Hana.
“We need to get to the palace,” Valkor called to Benkei. He nodded to Hana. “We need to get her to the palace.” He felt his voice rising, but the monk was already nodding.
“You’re right,” he said, pulling his medallion off. “You two, and you,” he said, pointing at Son Goku. “Get her to the Moon Palace. Take this.” He passed the stamped metal disk to Valkor. “I am known here, and I can clear up any trouble, but you are not. Present this and insist on being taken to see the Princess. Any true servant of the Court will take you. They may not like it, but they’ll do it. Understand?”
Valkor nodded. “How will we know a true servant of the Court?”
Benkei shook his head. “In these days? I’m not sure. So look for a woman. She wears robes like a geisha, but her hair is richly pink, and she carries paired pistols. Her name is Mochizuki, and while she is rightfully distrustful of strangers, she is loyal and will take you to the Princess. Ask for her.” And then he dashed away.
“What’s a geisha?” Amari asked as they stared after him.
“You have pistols here?” Valkor wondered, looking at Son Goku. “Does that mean that you have gnomes?”
“All good questions,” Son Goku replied, his face lighting up, “but we’ll answer them as we go. Come on.” He led them into the shadows and toward the sound of flowing water.
To be continued...
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