Read The Twilight War Online

Authors: Simon Higgins

The Twilight War

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Copyright Act 1968
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Moonshadow 3: The Twilight War

ePub ISBN 9781742743141
Kindle ISBN 9781742743158

A Random House book
Published by Random House Australia Pty Ltd
Level 3, 100 Pacific Highway, North Sydney NSW 2060
www.randomhouse.com.au

First published by Random House Australia in 2011

Copyright © Simon Higgins 2011

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by
any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form
or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying (except
under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
),
recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without
the prior written permission of Random House Australia.

Addresses for companies within the Random House Group can be found at
www.randomhouse.com.au/offices
.

National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-Publication Entry

Author: Higgins, Simon, 1958–
Title: The twilight war / Simon Higgins
ISBN: 978 1 86471 977 2 (pbk.)
Series: Higgins, Simon 1958–. Moonshadow; 3
Target audience: For secondary school age
Subjects: Secret societies – Juvenile fiction
Dewey Number: A823.3

Cover and internal illustrations by Ari Gibson,
except stamp logo by Design Cherry
Cover design by Design Cherry

CONTENTS

 

 

To the heart of my own shinobi clan:
Annie, as loyal and tenacious as Heron;
Bronwyn, feisty and funny like Snowhawk; and
James, as brilliant as Badger but far more
charming.

 

 

 

As a wave of dark clouds veiled the moon, Snowhawk leapt onto the wall's tiled roof.

The garden surrounding the lonely mansion stretched before her. Small iron lanterns illuminated white gravel paths and feature rocks at the base of arching trees. The enclosed garden looked deserted, but Snowhawk's intuition whispered of unseen danger. She turned her head slowly, mouth open, straining to hear. After a few seconds she heard a soft, distant sigh. She nodded grimly. The first external guard. Where was he hiding?

Her right hand curled over the handle of her back-mounted sword. The nimble fingers of her left hand brushed sweat from around her large eyes and then darted to the knots securing her purple-black head-wrap. Snowhawk probed them gently one by one, checking each knot's tightness. Everything felt secure; she was ready now. Soon victory would be hers. She swallowed slowly. Victory and great reward, or a fast, brutal death.

Faint rhythmic sounds broke the silence. Sandals crunching grit, each step sounding louder than the last. Her eyes swept the garden until she found the guard approaching through distant shadows. He seemed alert but relaxed, following a set route.

Behind him, the great mansion loomed tall out of the night. Snowhawk marvelled; the Shogun's country estate was indeed an impressive retreat, its
location their ruler's best kept secret. She smiled menacingly.
Not any more
.

Blind to her watchful presence, the guard wove between manicured shrubs and trees then circled a pond ringed with rocks. He was tall, powerfully built and armed with a spear and a hip-mounted sword. A head-on duel with
this
samurai should be avoided!

Apparently reaching the outermost point of his circuit, the guard turned sharply on his heel and paced away. A wide strip of unlit garden lay in his path.

Snowhawk looked directly below her. A deep bank of plants, some kind of flowering groundcover, lay in shadow at the foot of the wall. Perfect! Snowhawk dropped. The plants crackled softly at her landing and a subtle mist of natural perfume rose from the crushed leaves beneath her sandals.

Snowhawk breathed in the scent, smiled appreciatively and then followed the guard with quick, cat-like steps. Drawing her blade soundlessly, she leapt a rock, dodged another, and before he could re-enter the glow of the nearest lantern, caught up to him. She raised the iron pommel of her shinobi sword, ready to club him with it.

Without warning, the guard flinched and snapped into a combat stance. Either instinct or a faint sound had alerted him.

Before he could turn, her sword's black pommel hit his skull with a blunt, sickening
thud
. He crumpled at once. With one hand gripping his topknot, Snowhawk controlled his descent all the way to a quiet landing. After sheathing her weapon, she hid his spear and dragged him back into the scented groundcover.

Snowhawk made her way around the pond. Now only a well-lit strip of path separated her from the mansion's double doors. She heard breathing, then footfall. Snowhawk froze.

A second spearman strode out of the gloom, right across her line of vision. He stopped, half-turned, then angled his head and sniffed the air.

Snowhawk's heart began to pound. He was good, very good. He could smell her. Simply rushing him was out of the question. The guard turned a circle on the spot, nostrils flaring. Snowhawk cursed inwardly. She had to drop him fast, before he confirmed his suspicions and raised the alarm.

She reached inside her jacket to a horse-leather holster that was secured under one arm and ran down the side of her ribs. From it she carefully slid a short, black, painted bamboo tube. Snowhawk raised the blowpipe in front of her lips, her eyes tracking the guard as he scanned the shadowy garden right beside her with a frown.

As she drew in a deep lungful of air, Snowhawk plucked a dart from a quiver stitched into the
back of the holster. She checked the projectile's bindings with the tips of her fingers. There were four distinct ridges, which meant that it was tipped with sleeping potion and not poison. Just what she'd been after.

The dart loaded, she touched her lips to the end of the pipe. Immediately the spearman hunched, training his eyes hard on the very shrubs she lurked in.

He'd seen her!

The guard stood bolt upright and gulped in a breath, about to roar a warning. Desperately Snowhawk aimed and blew hard; a short, sharp, controlled jolt of air.

The samurai's hand flashed to the side of his neck as if swatting a mosquito. Then he gasped and bent forward at the waist, gripping his chest. Letting out a low croak, he swayed on the spot. She dropped the blowpipe and scrambled forward silently as he began to collapse, reaching him in time to catch his spear and support him as he sagged.

As she hid the spearman deep in the shrubs, Snowhawk heard distant, slightly muffled sounds. A man coughing painfully, somewhere off to the right and behind the main mansion building. Her eyes locked on the gloom in that direction. What was back there? A secret lodge, a house not recorded on her map? She heard another coughing
spell, long and wheezy, the way a man with ailing lungs might sound. Her skin prickled. The Shogun was known to suffer from a chest complaint caused by an old war wound.

Her eyes flashed back to the imposing mansion. So the guards she had just overcome were part of some ruse set up to draw attention to the
wrong
building!

Huddling low, Snowhawk crept to the corner of the garden wall. She turned and squinted down the wide, dark strip that ran between the mansion's right-hand side and the wall. Her eyes – sharp from years of training and a diet laced with circulation herbs – soon made out the silhouette of a small cottage. She edged closer, studying it.

Its thatched roof and drab, dark wood walls lay in the shadow of the far more splendid mansion, so it was most likely a caretaker's or groundskeeper's lodging.

She craned forward with excitement. That cottage was also her target's
real
hideout. Their cunning diversion had failed! Snowhawk's heart skipped a beat as she launched herself straight at the concealed house in a series of low shoulder-rolls. She halted in a crouch just below a small railed porch at the front of the cottage.

A soft yellow glow, from a single indoor lantern perhaps, lit the latticed paper screen of the building's only
shoji
sliding door.

Snowhawk loosened her face-wrap, then sniffed the air and listened. Two odours came from the little house: whale-oil burning in the lantern, and anxious human sweat.

Someone paced up and down inside, their cotton tabi boots
swish-swishing
over tatami, the woven and packed reed mats the wealthy used for flooring. Snowhawk broke into a knowing grin. Tatami! More proof that her target
was
here: a groundskeeper's cottage was usually a humble building with a packed dirt floor sealed with rugs or straw.

Swish-swish
. The man never stood still. He had to be the top bodyguard. Snowhawk stalked low across the porch, watching its scoured planks for signs of tetsubishi or traps. Where exactly in that room would he have placed his sick master?

On a generous pile of futons, inside a suspended mosquito net, of course. Which meant putting the sick bed directly under a ceiling beam. It would be well back from the door for safety reasons, yet close to a window for fresh air. Combined, those factors narrowed the choices to one of the room's two back corners.

Snowhawk waited at the foot of the screen door, listening to the
swish-swish
of tabi on tatami. A shadow fell across the paper squares. She caught her breath.

At last the bodyguard had stopped, foolishly
close to the door. Judging by his outline he was lean like her, with long thick hair tied in a high tail behind his head. That hairstyle was worn by shinobi, but it could also mean a ronin – a ‘wave man', a samurai no longer bound to one noble house. Whatever he was, she vowed grimly, soon he'd be just a corpse.

Her blade glided from its scabbard without a sound. She rose smoothly, spreading her feet for balance as she aligned her sword's tip with the chest of the silhouette hovering on the screen. The bodyguard muttered something irritably then flicked his ample hair. The shoulder of his silhouette began to turn. He was about to resume pacing.

…
Now!

She lunged hard and her blade tore through the paper screen to its mark, the impact jarring her wrists.

With a loud gasp the Shogun's bodyguard hunched over hard and as Snowhawk withdrew her sword and bounded back, he staggered towards her. Lurching off-balance, he burst through the paper screen, snapping its thin wooden latticework as he stumbled onto the porch. The bodyguard collapsed to his knees, gripping his chest, almost at her feet. She quickly looked him over. His hands held no weapons. He wore a plain black robe, an undrawn sword on his back, and no visible armour.

She quickly checked the room beyond him.
Empty.
Not even a bedroll.

Another decoy!

‘Where is your mast–' Before she could finish her question, Snowhawk's gaze met the face of the young bodyguard she had just mortally wounded. Her mouth fell open in shock, sword drooping in her hands. She knew that long face only too well. Her startled eyes tracked over the youth's high cheekbones, his straight nose, thin lips and pointy chin …

Moonshadow! Moonshadow of the Grey Light Order.

From below flickering lids, dark, cat-like eyes locked on her face. Moonshadow drew a laboured breath and scowled up at her.

‘Traitor!'

Hands over his chest, he collapsed.

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