Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 15

15-3 That night, Juntatsu wished them well and saw them off.

As they had the last time, Taiki, Kouryou, and Yari left through the back gate of the garden that led to the adjoining landscape park. Taiki and Yari followed the route they had before. This was all new to Kouryou. Yari took the lead, pausing at every turn to scout the way ahead. Depending on the outlook, she might clamber to the top of a tree or fence for a better look around, or at other times, to the ridgepole of a snow-covered roof to confirm their surroundings.

The whole adventure would come to naught if guards or soldiers spotted them. Kouryou and Yari faced great personal risk if they got found out.

By all rights, taking their personal safety into consideration, Taiki ought to have left them behind in Nightingale Villa, where they would be safe and secure. Arranging to have Yari and Kouryou accompany him was decidedly out of the norm for him.

They exited the landscape park with relative ease and entered the shrine Yari had mentioned. The altar had once enshrined a wooden statue but now was empty. Yari walked around the altar and pointed to a narrow stone staircase. Originally it would have been hidden behind a set of shelves or other items that had since been removed or moved out of the way.

They descended the cramped set of stairs. Yari took from her pocket a short, slender rod, the tip of which produced enough light to illuminate the gloomy ground beneath their feet.

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Before leaving Nightingale Villa, Kouryou mentioned that he had pine torches. “Don’t need them,” was Yari’s response. Because of whatever this was. A closer looked revealed it wasn’t a torch or candle. The tip of the rod alone produced the light, though it appeared to be nothing more than an ordinary wooden dowel just long enough to fit comfortably in her pocket.

Noticing the intrigued look on Kouryou’s face, Yari held it out to him. “Use this to show the way for yourself and the Taiho. I’ve got good night vision.”

“What is it exactly?”

“A product of the Yellow Sea.”

Such things can be found in the Yellow Sea? Kouryou held the rod upright like a torch.

Yari said, “Point the tip down towards your feet. Otherwise, it’ll stand out too much.”


The light didn’t come from a flame. Holding it upside down didn’t matter, which only puzzled Kouryou all the more.

“If I say to extinguish the light, stick it your pocket or wrap your hand around the end. It’s not that bright so that should be enough.”

Kouryou nodded. Awfully convenient things come from the Yellow Sea, he thought. Though at the same time, it wasn’t a good substitute for a torch. Even pointing the rod down and at the ground, it was barely bright enough to show the way forward, and hardly enough light to cut through the surrounding gloom.

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The stone staircase descended straight underground into the pitch dark. It was impossible even to make out how much further the stairs went on and where they ended. Following Yari down the stairs, Kouryou had to wonder if the light he was carrying would prove sufficient.

Having navigated two full flights of stairs, they reached a tunnel finished with old stones. The walls of the narrow tunnel were damp from rivulets of water trickling down the stone face. The low ceiling forced Kouryou to bend over as he walked along.

Coming to the end of tunnel, a ladder appeared. It was made out of cast iron chains and hung down a vertical shaft. Yari raised her hand, signaling them to wait while she nimbly scrambled up the ladder. Reaching the height of the tunnel ceiling, she evidently released the latch or lever to a door, for a downdraft of cool air soon followed.

Yari spent another minute surveying her surroundings. Then she climbed up the rest of the way and motioned it was safe for them to join her. Following her, Taiki and Kouryou found themselves in a narrow tunnel that appeared to be a water culvert. A shallow gutter ran down the center of the culvert channeling a thin stream of water.

The ladder rose to a cavity in the culvert adjacent the channel. The door Yari opened from below was a large rock, much too large for Yari to move by herself. In fact, though it looked like a real boulder, it was hollow inside.

They crawled along behind Yari on their hands and knees. Along the way, they passed two more hollowed out areas like the one they’d emerged from. These narrow culverts made it possible to move about the Imperial Palace without crossing paths with anybody else. The engineering involved alone was astounding.

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They hadn’t proceeded very far when the mouth of the culvert came into view. Yari once again signaled for them to stop. She crawled out and disappeared from sight. While keeping an eye on Taiki, Kouryou followed her. The culvert opened into a large square shaft. The walls were formed from hewn stone. The shaft continued further on down to a considerable depth.

Kouryou stuck his head out and glanced up. The square top of the shaft framed the night sky. Small stones jutted out from the wall forming a kind of staircase. A chain took the place of a railing. Looking down he could make out the square surface of the water. The footholds wound around the walls to the waterline.

This must be a well.

Not a well for everyday use but reserved for emergencies like fires. The mouths of water culverts like the one they had used punctuated the stone walls of the well. Above his head, a latticework of scaffolding arced over the opening of the well, supporting a beam to which a block and tackle was affixed.

The stone steps themselves were large enough that it was relatively easy to hold onto the chain and ascend this circular staircase sideways. When Yari gave the signal, they climbed the stairs. The stairs ended at a short iron ladder that brought them to the surface.

They were surrounded on three sides by unlit buildings. The courtyard opened onto a cobblestone path that wound around the buildings.

Kouryou didn’t recognize where they were. Yari spent a little time orienting herself and said in a small voice, “We’re in the southwest corner of the inner sanctum of the Seishin.”

Kouryou nodded in a matter-of-fact manner, but he was a bundle of nerves on the inside. He had never set foot so deep within the Rokushin.

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Yari motioned for them to move on, not along the cobblestone path but into the gap beneath the covered walk of the building furthest to the rear. They crouched down beneath the walkway and came out in a small dark garden. Their surroundings were devoid of life. Without the slightest hesitation, Yari stepped into the nearest building.

It turned out to be an anteroom for the junior retainers who made up the local security detail. The walls of the room sported a variety of weapons. Yari tossed Kouryou a podao, a long-handled broadsword, and took one for herself.

In response to Kouryou’s look, she said, “On the off chance we get into a brawl, we don’t want anybody tracing the weapons back to us.”

“Ah,” Kouryou said with a crooked smile. He picked out two small knives and handed one to Taiki.

“I—” Taiki balked.

“Just carry it for me, if you wouldn’t mind.” He handed Taiki the long-handled broadsword as well, picked out another that he handed to Yari, and then shouldered a lance.

Yari grinned. “This way they won’t know how many people were here. But a bit of a bother to carry around.”

“We can toss them into the next available pond or thicket.”

Yari nodded.

They left that building, crossed through two more courtyards, detoured around the next building, and passed through an unmanned gate. In the shadow of an ascending staircase, another set of stone steps descended underground.

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“This is?”

“Well, before was the easy part. Now things are going to get a lot trickier. Once we reach the corridor at the end of this tunnel, chances are good we’ll start running into people. Keep your eyes peeled.”

Kouryou agreed. He discarded the extra weapons he was carrying along the way, holding onto the long-handled broadsword and the knives. Yari kept a broadsword for herself. Kouryou and Yari had their own personal weapons as well, that they would only use if push came to shove.

They carefully descended into the dark. The stone steps took them deep underground. Coming to the landing brought them to a corridor that formed a kind of vestibule. The room had an ancient feel about it. The rough-hewn stones and quarried walls were weathered and worn and speckled with lichen and moss.

So as not to attract attention, Kouryou pointed the light down and behind him. They proceeded down the hallway, following the wall. The passageway zigged and zagged, taking them up and down several short flights of stairs. Finally their surroundings brightened to a dim gray glow. The source of the light was a bit further on and around another bend.

In other words, evidence that somebody else was there.

Muffling his steps, Kouryou crept down the corridor and peeked around the corner. A little way on, the corridor ended at a door. In front of the door, the hallway widened into a waiting area of sorts. A lantern illuminated three soldiers without obviously little to do.

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Kouryou held up three fingers. Yari reached out and straightened another. Looking more closely, a shadow cast on the floor suggested a figure standing further back and out of view. That being the case, Kouryou held up one more finger. This was probably a standard squad of five soldiers.

Yari nodded. Kouryou turned to Taiki, handed him the light stick, and motioned for him to retreat further down the hall. Confirming that he was a safe enough distance away, Yari leapt around the corner and then just as quickly jumped back again.

An eruption of confused voices immediately followed.

“Who was that?”

“Who was what?”

“Just now. Somebody was right there.”

“Somebody else down here besides us?” one of the guards asked with a carefree chuckle.

“I definitely saw a shadow.”

“Are you sure you’re not just imagining things?”

“Maybe it was a bat.”

“No. Looked human to me.”

The quarreling soldiers drew closer. They were going to see for themselves. From the sound of their voices and footsteps, three of them.

Their voices hushed as they cautiously approached the crook in the corridor. Estimating their distance, Kouryou nodded to Yari. Yari nodded in turn. They charged around the corner.

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And were confronted by three soldiers bearing lances. Yari took out the first two with astonishing speed. The remaining soldier barely had time to flee before Kouryou felled him with a throwing knife. Having cleared the way, Kouryou gestured to Taiki to follow them.

They rushed further into the waiting area, arousing more startled voices. The first of the remaining soldiers hastily leveled his spear, but not before Yari stabbed him in the chest. Kouryou gave chase to the second. One of his knives caught up to him after no more than a step or two.

A space the size of a small room had been set up in the hallway, furnished with a simple chair and table and a cot. The wall opposite was lined with shelves and pots. This was clearly a guard station intended for long-term use as a watch post.

There were only two ways to access this section of the corridor. A short distant further on, the hallway ended at a door. The other end of the room opened onto the corridor. Kouryou brought down the soldier who’d shouted and run toward the corridor with a dagger delivered precisely to the back of the head. But he’d made enough noise to prompt an inquiry further down the hallway.

“Hey! What’s going on?”

Retrieving his knife, Kouryou glanced around the corner into the corridor. He could hear people running down the stone steps.

Yari sprang toward the doorway. After checking the interior through the peephole in the transom over the door, she turned to Taiki, swinging her arm in a windmilling motion.

“Hurry up,” she said under her breath.

Taiki broke into a run. At the same time, Yari glanced at Kouryou, who indicated with a jerk of his head that people were running down the corridor toward them. I’ll hold my ground here, she said with a look.

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Kouryou nodded. The approaching footsteps and a common sense understanding of how the security perimeter worked in these situations told him a reserve squad of five soldiers would arrive any second. He added the slash of the broadsword to the bodies to hide the puncture wounds made by his throwing knives.

Taiki disappeared inside the door. Yari shut it behind him. Kouryou hid around the corner at the entrance to the room. Yari sunk down into a hollow next to the door just as the soldiers burst into the room.

“What the hell?” came the shouts of disbelief, as they took in the bodies of their colleagues sprawled across the floor.

Kouryou counted one, two, three soldiers rushing past him, then bolted from his hiding place.

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