Smoke trailed across crimson skies. So much for an easy Shadow mission. I drew my staff from the leather holder affixed to my back and ran over the rickety dock. Water splashed onto the worn planks, dampening the fabric around my two-toed boots. The faint smell of smoke mingled with the fishy aroma of Leiko's ocean shore.
A little girl's shriek echoed from the town, sending a chill up my spine. Instincts and guilt quickened my pace. I abandoned my sister more than I liked—though not by choice. Like all Shadows, duty took me where my Phantom bid. Finae might be alone, but she was safe, under the protection of the Phantoms and Shadows. And that's all that mattered.
My penance was to protect those I could.
I wound between cottages that sat upon stilts, their damp wood eroding from the harsh weather. Despite the moisture in the air, smoke burned my eyes. I pulled the scarf up from around my neck and secured it over my mouth and nose.
The girl screamed again. She was close. I ducked under a low balcony, turning sideways down an alleyway to reach the street on the other side.
A tall, burly man had cornered a woman against a building. At her feet, a small girl balled her hands in the fabric of the woman's skirts. The girl was most likely her daughter. The woman brandished a broken piece of wood and swung at the man. He caught her arm, throwing her into the side of the building.
I held my staff against my side and charged, drawing the man's gaze. He grinned at me, confidence exuding from his walk. His smile widened as he unsheathed the sword from his belt. Without losing momentum, I thrust my staff toward the man. He stepped to the side, and I pivoted the staff in my hands, jabbing the end of the pole into his body. The man took the blow and lashed out at me. I jumped back, the sword tip catching the edge of my leather armor.
I kept my face masked from emotion. Any person who attacked another to feel powerful was neither honorable nor honest. I would need to watch out for his blackened ways. The woman and child were not close, but this man would use them against me if the opportunity arose.
A man without morals was a dangerous one.
I shifted my attention back to the man. He eyed the tear in my side. Behind him, the woman tried to pull her child to safety, but the girl would not move. Fear paralyzed her.
I shifted the staff in my hand as the man came at me, thrusting toward his knee. The direction of the man's sword changed, and I realized my error. I dipped my staff, blocking the sword from slicing into my stomach. The wood splintered, creating a large crack that ran along my staff. I pressed my lips into a thin line and kicked the man in the chest. His sword dislodged as he stumbled back. Before he could recover, I hit him with the heel of my staff and forced him to the ground, stomping on his sword hand.
The Shadow's Creed I was bound by required us to value all life, even someone as pitiful as this man. I took a breath and calmed the anger inside me. It wasn't my place to judge a man for a single deed. Though I doubted he had many redeeming qualities. Before I could contemplate further, I hit a pressure point in the man's neck to knock him unconscious.
I shifted the staff in my hand. The damage to it was severe, but the integrity of the wood still held. I would need to be wary of using it. I checked for danger before I returned to the mother and child. The little girl's eyes widened at my approach. She grasped onto her mother's skirts, pulling the fabric over her face.
They were shaken. Understandably so.
"T-thank you," the child's mother said, brushing a piece of golden hair behind her ear. I nodded and dropped to one knee, placing my staff on the ground. The little girl stared at me with eyes as blue as Leiko Gulf. I pulled the scarf from my face and set it around my neck.
Despite my intentions, I knew I looked no less threatening.
I smiled anyway. The girl reached out a cautious hand, touching the bond on my right forearm. Her mother reached to stop her, but I shook my head.
"Let her be," I said as the girl's tiny fingers traced the silver metal strands that wound around my arm. I had received my bond upon completing my Shadow training. Almost two decades now, I had served under the Phantoms. The bond was a symbol of pride among our homeland and across the lands of Kiriku. As a Shadow, I didn't want her to be afraid of me or who the Shadows were.
The girl finished tracing the metal encasing and withdrew her fingers. She raised her eyes to me. She didn't return my smile, but she seemed less afraid.
Somewhere behind me, a sound caught my attention, and I froze. It sounded like wood straining. A bow? I snatched my staff up from the ground and sprang to my feet, looking for the blur of an arrow. I pushed the woman back against the building. She jumped, startled. The arrow pierced my skin between the metal threading of my bond. I grimaced and pulled the shaft free. The girl shrieked from her place on the ground, and I ran at the man. My enemy fumbled with an arrow in his hand; his eyes darted between his trembling fingers and my approach. Horse hooves pattered behind me, and I caught sight of green banners and mounted riders.
General Mirai's men.
I returned my full attention to the archer and ducked as an arrow scraped by my ear. Ignoring the momentary sting, I locked the staff behind the man's knee and swept him to the ground. The wind had been knocked out of him.
I scanned the men on horseback, and found General Mirai, his downturned eyes making him appear more approachable than status dictated. He wore light leather armor painted in various hues of green and gold. The rest of his men were not adorned with such fanciful coloring. In total, there were seven men on horseback. More would be in town.
Overhead, an arrow flew through the air.
I traced the curve of an arrow as General Mirai moved his horse closer. One of his men dismounted and attended to the man on the ground. "My men are sweeping the town. We can secure this part of the town and protect these two if you'd like to take care of the other archers."
I gave a sidelong glance at the mother and child. General Mirai would see to their safety. With his group, he would be able to ensure the townspeople were protected.
I nodded my agreement as another arrow flew overhead.
Fire burned on the arrowhead, but no smoke trailed behind. When it clattered against the stone pavement, I stooped to retrieve it, placing my finger on the arrowhead. The tip was cool, but there had been a fire in it before. How could that be? I discarded the arrow, focusing on the task before me—finding the archer. Speculations could wait. I wound between cottages, dodging a wave of people as they ran for cover. I paused and glanced up as another arrow shot through the air. This one, too, had fire on the head but was without a trail of smoke. Exhaustion did strange things to the body, but I was well within my limits. It was no illusion.
Something was not right.
At the edge of town, I crouched and inched forward. I kept my back bent, staying close to the ground, circling the archer's location. The area lacked vegetation. Some large rocks and dead flora spotted the field, but it did little to hide my advance. I sat back on the heels of my feet, behind an overgrown bush as something moved ahead. A cloaked archer raised an arm, the folds of the sleeve drooping to the elbow. Silver metal glinted around the archer's forearm.
Whoever this person was, they wore a bond. Hair rose on the back of my neck. Only the Shadows and the Phantoms wore bonds. Phantom Kural was in the town, and all the other Shadows were back home in Vaiyene, which was at least a three-day ride.
Who was this person?
I tensed, my hand shifting around my staff. A white mist rose from the person's bond, collecting in the archer's palm. A reddish hue permeated the smoke as it became more turbulent. The archer dipped the arrow into the flames. The arrowhead caught fire. When the archer picked up the bow, I stood, shaking the disbelief from my mind. The archer turned to me, relaxing the bowstring. They were shorter than I was, with slim shoulders. Their planted feet showed defiance at my approach.
The fire on the arrowhead still burned.
I contemplated my next move. If this person was using fake fire, her purpose was not to harm the townspeople. From this vantage point, aiming was impossible. Even a skilled archer would be firing at random targets. I kept my grip on my staff but did not raise it. I wanted answers, not to fight.
"Why do you wear a Shadow's bond?"
The person lowered their bow, the flame snuffing out as they exhaled. "You should be with your Phantom. There's no telling what he'll do this time."
A female voice.
She seemed exasperated at my presence.
Phantom Kural was one of the Shadow leaders. I had been under his command for almost a decade. He was in town picking up supplies as was our agreement with the town leader. I had not seen him since this morning before the raid started.
What was she implying?
Despite my unease, I kept the emotion from my face. There was no reason to give this woman leverage over me. From what I could see of her face, she had distinctive emerald-green eyes and high cheekbones. No one from the northern regions of Kiriku had green eyes. Few had the same pigment of skin as she did. They were characteristics of the Phia region, farther south than this town.
I kept my eyes trained on her. She did not hesitate with her approach. Her eyes narrowed at me. The bow in her hand posed no immediate threat. With my staff's reach, I would be able to disable her before she could reach me.
She stopped a few feet from me and reached out, touching the end of my staff. A thread of silver melted from her bond, snaking over her hand and fingers and into the splintered wood. I stood, dumbfounded. This woman created fire that was not fire, and she could also move silver from her bond and command it to move to another surface. It was...incredible.
I had never seen anything like it.
When she pulled back, the splinter remained silver. I raised the staff to my eyes. The metal had filled the cracks. I brushed my fingertips over the surface, and a white mist puffed out at my touch. She had disarmed my usual quick battle wit by her unexpected kindness.
"Who are you?" I asked.
And why was she helping me?
She ignored me and walked back to the spot where her arrows lay on the ground. "Now that I've stopped my attack, the others will begin the final assault. Find your Phantom. He'll be in the forest, where the villagers won't go."
A group of cloaked riders burst from the edge of the town, their cloaks splayed in the wind, metal bonds prominent on their arms. I grew cold watching them—a chill of uncertainty. If they wore bonds, they would be mistaken for Shadows. The people—the little girl—they would think we were the ones attacking the village. My throat went dry as I took a step back, away from the cloaked woman. I slid my right foot back, assuming a battle-ready stance. I did not sense ill-will from the woman, but the approach of her comrades demanded caution.
A Shadow was always ready.
One of the riders strode past me, the horse's ears pinned back. The stallion's tail swished in agitation as the others began encircling me. I drew in a breath and prepared myself for a fight—but they kept their swords sheathed. I held my stance, and the riders stopped. A black horse trotted through the circle, parting the others as it headed to the woman.
"We're done here," she said.
I stepped after her, cautious of the surrounding riders. "Wait. Tell me who you are."
She clicked her heels against the horse's side, saying, "Go to the forest." The irritation in her voice still there.
I gritted my teeth as her people fell into formation around her, heading south at a rapid pace. She knew something about Phantom Kural and why the raiders were here in Leiko. I wanted to pursue them, but my Shadow duty lay with my Phantom and the people. The townspeople's safety came first; finding Phantom Kural came second.
I put my fingers to my lips and whistled—long, then short. From across the field on the edge of the forest line, my white mare, Whitestar, trotted toward me. I reached my hand up and traced the hidden star in her fur. In the moonlight, a faint silver star became visible in her white hair. She nuzzled my neck as I fixed the staff into its holder on my back.
Little smoke rose from the town, and from this distance, it seemed only a single house had caught fire. I frowned, mulling over the situation. If the woman's intention had not been to burn down the town, what then had it been? What had she gained? I saw little motivation. In fact, based on her casual indifference to my arrival and her direct words about my Phantom, it almost seemed like she had expected me. Had that been her purpose? To warn me about Phantom Kural? Or had it been to spread lies about the Shadows, by assuming the bonds we wore? I bristled. We had worked too hard to let others ruin our alliances and blacken our good name.
Whoever these people were, they needed to be stopped.
I nudged Whitestar to the right, heading instead toward the smoke left in town. General Mirai's men gathered around a tall building near the docks. Flames engulfed the building. The fire billowed and wavered in the wind, overwhelming the remaining wood on the upper level. It wouldn't be long before the structure collapsed. Nothing could be done to save it.
General Mirai and his men held the line and kept the villagers back from the flames. Everything seemed under control. I would help out later with any casualties, but before doing so, I needed to confirm or refute the woman's words.
I guided Whitestar along the edge of the gulf near the Kinsaan Forest. Whispers told of how the people feared walking in the forest and refused to go there. Back in Vaiyene, we shared stories of a boy who had found himself lost in the caves leading into our village. He had never escaped, and his cries echoed to this day. The story kept children from exploring the caves and getting lost. It scared most, though it did encourage others, like me, to search the caverns for the truth. I never found any truth in Vaiyene's story, but the possibility something had happened to frighten the townspeople remained a possibility.
A gust of wind blew, dislodging a colorful array of leaves from the gnarled branches in the forest. Lack of sunlight caused trees to twist their reach, but these trees bathed in sunlight. It was unusual, but not enough to deter me from entering.
I dismounted and held onto Whitestar's reins, leading us inside the forest's edge. Pushing aside my cloak, I withdrew my light canteen. A tube sat inside, fixed to the center with sinew, containing oil to create a portable lantern. With a quick flick of a flintstone, the light brightened and surrounded us with a warm glow. The air smelled thin and dank. It wasn't the usual smell of decay, but a darker, fouler scent mingled with the forest's natural aroma. I stepped over a tree root, squinting against the meager light from my canteen, trying to navigate the maze of roots as they became twisted and overgrown. It had become too difficult to continue with Whitestar. I patted her side and commanded her to stay. Nothing seemed to be lurking, and she could take care of herself.
Birds no longer called in the trees. No animals or insects roamed underfoot. I remained patient, relying on my skill. I walked on the side of my foot, rolling from toe to heel to disturb the undergrowth as little as possible. Voices carried on the wind—at least two of them—the sound echoing off the twisted trees and forest canopy. I dimmed my light and tied it to my side, crouching and inching across the rotting leaves. The damp foliage softened my advance. Someone, or something, shuffled in front of me. I froze. My breath quickened as I reached my hand back to grasp my staff.
"The villagers are still cautious of us; we need to find some way to gain their complete trust," a male voice said. His tone was hushed but firm. "We've made steps to better your position, but we need more information."
"I've given you all the information I have."
The second voice I recognized. Phantom Kural. I shifted my weight and slipped behind a gnarled tree, trying to adjust and gain a better position. Who was he talking with?
"There will be consequences in Vaiyene should you refuse," the unknown man said.
My body tensed, and I suppressed the urge to intervene. I needed to know all the details. Phantom Kural had agreed to something, but what? And why was Vaiyene now under threat? The encounter did not feel right to me. Phantoms did not keep secrets from their Shadows. The mission was to set up a trade for fish oil to help get us through the winter. Or had that been a lie?
Metal scraped against metal in a flurry of movements, but I hesitated as I caught a glimpse of two metal bonds. One belonged to Phantom Kural, but who did the other belong to? In the dark, all I could see were the outlines of two silver bonds flashing in the darkness as they caught the scant sunlight. I pressed my back against the trunk of the tree, my distrust growing.
A white mist rose from one of the silver bonds. It snaked around the forearm of the bonded stranger as the man brought his sword up high over his head. Phantom Kural swung his axe, overpowering the man. The sword went flying, and Phantom Kural followed through with his movement, circling it above his head and lopping the man's head off. The body crumpled to the ground, and I slid behind the gnarled trunk.
My trust in Phantom Kural tore as clean as the man's severed neck. No matter the reasoning, I could not serve a man who chose not to obey the Shadow's Creed.
A Shadow does not take life,
killing only when no other option can be found.
Phantom Kural's life had not been in danger.
We could have questioned the man.
Unease choked my breath. Was it possible Phantom Kural had killed him so no one could ask questions? I tried to push the thought from my mind. It was not my place to question my Phantom, but this was not the Phantom Kural I knew. The man I served under would never...
I pressed my hand against my temple. First the woman and now Phantom Kural. What was the connection?
What was Phantom Kural's real purpose here in Leiko?
I needed more information before I confronted the others with what I had seen. If Phantom Kural had defected to the people masquerading as Shadows, it would be my word against his. I was a Shadow; he was my superior. None would believe my account.
I pushed myself onto my feet and stepped over a gnarled root, peering through the overgrown forest. Phantom Kural stood in a pool of blood, with his axe plunged into the ground. The severed head lay a few paces away.
Lifeless eyes stared back at me.
I began picking my way back toward town, keeping my movements slow and deliberate. Whatever had happened, I would find the truth.