THE SHADOW WARRIOR
Bence Brechenhad is the sole survivor of the infamous Aeonian army. His fear of Deranian justice drives him to flee the country, abandoning his only companion, Queen Isabel, without so much as a good-bye. Bence leaves with Isabel’s ring and a black pearl with one goal in mind: to find a new home and a fresh start.
Throughout his adventures over rough seas and maze-like woods, the sins of his past lurk around every corner. When Bence reaches the country of Irelle, he rescues a baby Dunya, jeopardizing his chances of acceptance into their clan.
Meanwhile, Isabel tries to fulfill her new role as queen. She is fully invested in rebuilding her kingdom, and funds her people's short-lived peace until a man she thought was dead and a banished Healer appear on her steps.
Their arrival seems to prompt a string of murders cascading through Deran. Each victim is branded with the Aeonian mark, and Isabel’s kingdom is inevitably sucked back into a vortex of violence and turmoil.
The winds whisper to Bence, calling him back to Deran. Will he have the courage to confront his past and fight alongside Isabel once more?
Bence’s stomach sank as Lea Island faded into the horizon like an emerald slipping into the depths of the sea. His fingers curled around the side of the boat. The tropical island with cream white sand off the coast of Deran should’ve been his sanctuary after the Aeonian War. Uninhabited, it was the ideal place for him to live out the remainder of his days, tucked away from the wrath of the Deranian kingdom.
The sail flapped above Bence’s head. Waves sloshed around the boat’s hull, testing every nerve in his body. He was not used to traveling on water. Bence swallowed the bile that crept up his throat and fixed his eyes on the distant speck. The sun washed over the entire island. Isabel had to be awake by now.
Bence flinched as if slapped. Uncertainty weighed on his shoulders like a Dunya sitting on him.
I left her. I actually left her.
Racing thoughts had plagued him like a never-ending nightmare ever since he’d run into Princess Isabel last night. He would never say it out loud, but she looked like an angel beneath the glow of the two moons, Adin and Deva.
Wide orbs of hazel, her eyes had grown sheen with tears that cascaded down her face. He had dropped the branches he gathered, speechless as if his throat closed up. She stole his breath away. The moment he had laid eyes on her, joy and guilt wrestled through his veins. Even though he had turned against his brethren, pledged his allegiance to her, and defeated the Aeonians, he still remained an Aeonian. And as an Aeonian, he had done unspeakable things.
There had been no sudden movements. All she said was that she had traveled to Lea Island to seek peace. He eyed her magical armlet, but the four stones embedded in gold remained dormant. When he realized she wasn’t there to arrest him, he gestured to a tree stump. They sat together in silence beside a crackling fire. No questions asked.
She rested her head on his shoulder, and as she drifted to sleep, she said, “Thank you.”
Maybe she was simply shocked to find him alive. But today was a new day, and Princess Isabel would have to return to her kingdom. And she probably would’ve tried to convince him to accompany her. His insides twisted like restless hands. Each time Bence blinked, he saw the lives of people and creatures he had taken in the name of his parents. With a heart as heavy as steel, he had abandoned her sleeping beneath his cloak. It was the least he could do to leave her that simple warmth.
Combing his fingers through his blood-orange hair and down his face, he felt it. The Aeonian scar on his neck. His hand continued down to his satchel. Past the bundle of coconuts, mangoes, and bananas, he fingered a ring that couldn’t slide past his first knuckle. When he withdrew the metallic circle, Bence frowned. An engraving of a phoenix, the Deranian seal, adorned the oval face. Grains of sand wedged in the fine lines. Like the scoundrel he was, he had twisted it from Isabel’s hand before taking off. He stared intently. Cursing beneath his breath, Bence couldn’t shake the anxiety swelling in his chest like a balloon.
The woman he had been taught was the enemy had turned out to be his most trustworthy companion. A part of him screamed betrayal for abandoning her, but another part argued that there was no other way. Bence couldn’t task her with bringing him to Deran where he was sure to be executed─whether Princess Isabel wanted it or not. He had killed too much. Stolen. Tortured.
His jaw clenched. Her people would demand it.
As these thoughts whirled between his ears like a cyclone, Bence forgot his seasickness. Lea Island disappeared from view. Ocean stretched across the horizon. Panic pricked his skin from the soles of his feet to his scalp. Bence had no idea what sea travel was like, and whether or not he was going to survive this journey.
He had no other choice. He had to leave his shameful past in Deran behind and establish a new life as a regular citizen, and not a pawn in someone else’s fight. There were two possible destinations: Irelle and Waaken.
The homeland of his parents, Echidna and Damian, piqued his curiosity. Maybe there was some closure he could seek by visiting their place of birth or discover a relative. And more importantly, settle down in peace.
Bence scanned the skies. It was close to mid-day, making it difficult to decipher which direction he was headed, but he had to sail north. Irelle was much closer than Waaken. That was all he knew.
A rumble vibrated through the air. Gray clouds rolled in from his right, filling the space below it with a dark haze. Waves swelled. Drops of ice-cold sea water splattered on his face, stinging his sunburnt cheeks.
“I should’ve covered my face. Damn it,” he croaked as thirst came to the forefront to his mind. Even the passing breeze felt like sand rubbing against his skin.
Sweat and salt filled his nostrils as the wind picked up. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. There were no signs of land anywhere. Bence adjusted the sailboat’s rudder, and ducked as the boom swung over his head. His confidence on maneuvering a modest boat teetered at best, but he had to figure it out before the storm caught up. Once he directed the vessel away from the wall of darkness, he wrapped his arms around his satchel. All he could do was wait. Eyeing a succulent mango, he drew his dagger and peeled the skin off. The juice dripped down his fingertips as he tried to catch every single drop.
When thunder echoed louder, he forced his attention to the sweet meat of the fruit that melted in his mouth. Hunger dominated his concern of the inevitable storm as he gobbled down four bananas and one coconut. Once he was satisfied, Bence leaned back. Peeking at his satchel, Bence’s shoulders slumped. If it took that much to fill him, his supply wouldn’t sustain him for longer than twenty-four hours.
Sighing, Bence took inventory of exactly how much food he had. His fingers grazed over a lump in a side-pocket. Raising a brow, he pulled the lip of the pocket open and gasped. A black pearl the size of his thumbnail glistened. As he racked his brain, he realized this was the pearl he stole during his adventures at Kai’s Sanctuary. If Isabel had known he stole from them, she’d be furious. Not that it mattered anymore. He rolled the smooth orb in between his fingers and recalled the memory from that day.
Like a lodestone, the pearl drew his thoughts to the present. To Isabel, whom he left behind. To the tempest that was drawing closer. Bence grasped the pearl, squeezing hard. A part of him wished he could crush this little reminder of Isabel. When he lifted his fingers one by one, he growled at the pearl staring back at him. It glimmered in mockery. Bence wound his arm back. Every fiber in his bicep tensed in preparation to hurl the pearl into the ocean, but he froze.
Plopping back onto the floor, he shoved the pearl back into the pocket and kicked it away. Bence lowered his head, clasping his hands around his neck. His hair grazed his shoulders. It could’ve been the lack of light, but his once blood-orange hair seemed dull. He shook his head. I’m going stir crazy.
When he blinked into focus, Isabel’s phoenix ring rolled on the floor in between his feet. Scooping it up, he cursed beneath his breath, wishing he had never taken it from her. It was just another reminder.
Tossing it from one hand to another, he decided the pearl and the ring could prove useful. He could sell the pearl for provisions, and the crest could save him from any political peril. With a nod of his head, he knelt into the crawlspace in the bow of the boat. He dug past a fishing net, a tin cup, a worn, long-sleeved undershirt, and came upon some twine. Bence smiled as he strung the twine through the ring and cut off the end. The twine was long enough to tie around his neck and hide beneath his tunic. The cold metal grazed his collar bone, sending goose bumps down his body.
A streak of lightning stretched across the sky. The storm finally caught up. The boom of thunder rattled the boat’s wood paneling as the skies opened up and released a downpour. He snatched the tin cup and held it out. When it filled to the brim, he gulped the fresh water. Even though the waves grew choppier, Bence could only focus on satisfying his thirst. Peaks of foam rose and crashed into his boat, knocking the cup from his hands.
“No!” He crawled around, groping for the cup. Lifting his arm skyward, he begged for another fill. Bence managed to swallow another gulp before a deafening BOOM ripped through his ears, and a wave launched him from his boat like a ragdoll.
Kicking with all his might, Bence struggled to stay afloat. Seawater stung his nostrils. Waves slammed into him from all directions, sending him tumbling beneath the surface. He had no idea if he was facing up or down. His lungs screamed for air, but fog encapsulated his brain.
A sharp tug strained his neck, choking him. He used his fingers to feel for the source and came across his newly made necklace. The phoenix ring caught on something.
When he tugged, his head broke the surface. Bence greedily sucked in air, ignoring the numbing, ice-cold temperature. The churning of sea water roared in his ears. Jerking the net to his chest, he realized it had no give. A glint of hope flickered when a streak of lighting illuminated the boat’s silhouette─and what the net was attached to. As he cried out in joy, waves shoved another mouthful of seawater down his throat. Bence hacked but focused on channeling his strength to his arms. Lightning bolts continued to dance across the sky. His instincts urged him to hurry as his strength dwindled. The simple act of keeping his head above water already drained his energy. If Bence couldn’t climb back into the boat before his muscles gave way, he would be doomed to a watery grave.
He pulled and pulled. Every second seemed like ages, but the net remained secure. His heart raced, unsure if he was going to make it. Each time he grabbed another handful of netting, a frothy wave assaulted him. He stretched an arm toward the starboard side. After securing his grip, Bence heaved himself aboard. His flesh stung as it made impact with the floor. Rolling onto all fours, he gagged and broke into a flurry of hiccups. Once he caught his breath, he turned and reeled the net back by cycling it around his arm. After securing it, he collapsed onto his knees. Everything ached and weighed like lead, but he was alive. Running his hand over his face, he muttered, “That was a close one.”
The storm continued to rage above him. Bence maneuvered the rudder the best he could, but he felt powerless. Powerless for the first time in his life. Facing portside, Bence noticed the water swelling before him. His heart and mind raced. His fingers and legs twitched, uncertain of what to do.
The wave towered over him, but before it broke, a voice rang in the air.
A flash of light erupted from the ring on his neck and everything around him slowed to a halt.
“Bence! Can you hear me?”
A whirring howl rolled over the sea as the winds changed direction. An invisible force rocketed Bence’s boat into the air, sending him into vertigo. He gaped as the gargantuan wave crashed below. Swallowing the bolus of fear, he secured an iron grip against the railing and locked his elbows.
“Who’s there?” Nothing but dark clouds and gray waters surrounded him.
When the boat gingerly lowered back down, the sea flattened. Waves fought the invisible force, but none were enough to rock the boat. Bence’s hair whipped about, clinging to his cheeks. Adrenaline filled his body, leaving his muscles so tense, he would snap in half if he made any sudden movements.
“What the hell,” he stuttered. He pushed his bangs from his eyes and stared down at the necklace. The ring wasn’t glowing. A sense of foreboding shrouded him like a cloak. “Who… What are you?”
Bence drew his dagger. Steadying his hand, he shouted, “Leave me be! I’m sailing to find a home. I’m seeking peace. Be gone!”
A breeze brushed past him like a sigh. “Bence,” it whispered. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” he said slowly. The source of the voice was nowhere to be found. The ring on his neck suddenly grew noticeably heavier, but it was otherwise inert. “I’m here.”
His lips tightened. Was it his mother’s spirit? No. Isabel? The ethereal voice was not recognizable.
“It’s me, Isabel.”
A giant hand squeezed his heart. His breath poured from his mouth, void of any words.
“I am using the power of the wind to carry my voice to you, wherever you are. And the ring you stole from me─”
The invisible hand squeezed harder. Bence cringed.
“─seemed to reflect my voice and powers. I do not know why you left me the day we won Deran back. You helped save my people. Despite how you must feel, your soul is genuine. I understand the guilt you must feel for taking lives of the innocent, then battling against your own blood. By no means have sins gone without consequence, but…”
Her voice trailed off and the ocean came to life again. The water lapped indifferently. A melodic cry from a whale echoed in the distance. Bence grasped the ring with trembling hands. He knew she couldn’t hear him, but he hoped if he tried hard enough, maybe his voice would carry back to her. “I miss you.”
An unusual feeling weakened his joints. His vision grew blurry with tears as he waited for a response.
The gentle breeze that had been dancing around him faded. Isabel’s voice weakened. “I pray for good wind on your journey. May we find a way to speak again someday…”
“Isabel!” he exclaimed. “Don’t leave!”
A splash shattered his cluttered mind. A whale’s fin disappeared beneath the surface. Its massive shadow veered toward him. Bence gulped. A creature that size could smash his vessel into smithereens. The whale’s shadow faded and reappeared on the other side. Releasing a breath, he waved at the whale.
Water sprayed from its blowhole and resurfaced a hundred feet portside. It sung its mournful cry, flipped its onyx-colored tail, and vanished into the deep.
His lips pulled into a forlorn smile. Only the grumbling in his stomach snapped him back into reality. Hungry again. Bence shot a look at his satchel, pinching his face at the thought of another mango. He whipped up the last coconut, cracked it open, and slurped the milk, letting it cool his throat. As he bit into the meat, he surveyed his supplies. When his eyes landed on the net, he shrugged. Why not?
Unraveling the mesh net, Bence examined it for damage. He had never fished before, but figured it couldn’t be that difficult. He discovered a thick rope and wrapped it around his wrist, then tossed the net into the water. It floated unceremoniously. Reeling the net back around his arm, Bence’s thoughts drifted. He tightened the thick rope around his wrist once more, and this time, swung his arm in a twirling motion. He held his breath as the opaque mesh sank. Within seconds, he lurched at a harsh tug. He jerked his arm back, pulling the rope like a drawstring.
Bence barked in laughter as he drew his prize closer. His mouth watered. I had to have caught a school of fish! A flash of turquoise thrashed wildly as he hoisted the net onto the vessel.
A falsetto voice yelped. “Don’t eat me!”
When Bence blinked the seawater from his eyes, he spotted a Kai fighting the mesh entangling his limbs. His rabbit-like ears bent backwards as he hissed. Sharp nails protruded from his webbed paws. The net stretched out each time the Kai jostled.
Extending his hand, Bence shouted, “Hold on. Stay still!”
One of the Kai’s nails ripped his sleeve. Bence bit his lip to suppress a scream. When the Kai rolled on his stomach, Bence drew his dagger and sliced through the net, creating an opening large enough to pull the creature from its entrapment.
A paw smashed into Bence’s jaw. He dropped the Kai and cursed. “Damn it! I was releasing you!”
“You were the one that threw the net!” he squeaked, shaking his light blue fur from head to toe.
Bence shielded himself from the droplets. “I was fishing. You are not a fish. And thanks to you, I have no net to catch my lunch. Or any future meal for that matter.” Heat rose in his cheeks. Balling his hands into fists, his temper transformed into an invisible, insatiable beast. But he reminded himself that that was the old Bence. A man he hated.
The Kai stared at the net, swishing his fin-like tail back and forth. “Where are you headed, traveler? You are far from land.”
Bence sighed and crossed his arms. He should’ve drowned in that storm. “I’m a dead man.”
“What’s your name?”
He narrowed his eyes at the little fur ball. “My name is not important to you. Now, let me starve in peace.”
The Kai’s voice grated Bence’s ears. “I can’t let you die. It is in bad spirit for us Kai to leave anyone helpless─”
“I’m not helpless!” He tightened his grip on his forearms in resolve.
“Let me help you. Your hunger will slowly drive you insane, if it hasn’t already,” the Kai quipped. His charcoal eyes widened. “I’m on my way back to the Pekering Islands. There, you can eat and drink your fill. However, it’s Kai territory and our new leader won’t allow anymore immigrants, so you must be on your way shortly after that.”
“That’s fine. I’m on my way to Irelle.”
The Kai’s scratched his ear with a hind leg. “Ah, well. You are a long ways from there. You certainly won’t make it all in one trip. I strongly recommend you travel to Camilla first. Camilla is just a half day’s journey from our home. Surely you will find someone to assist you there.”
Without another word, the Kai scooped up the net in his paws. After looping the rope portion around a hook to the boat, he wrapped the mesh around his torso and hopped into the water.
“What’s your name?” Bence asked.
“Maris. And we are lucky, the wind blows in our favor.”
Bence staggered backward as Maris powered through the waves. He blinked in amazement. The small creature, no taller than his thigh, was pulling his boat at twice the speed he had been traveling. Thoughts of fresh water, fish, even dried jerky blossomed in his mind and kept him occupied for hours.
* * *
Lumps of brown and green jutted out of the ocean like knuckles. Bence’s fantasy of eating his fill dissipated as Maris pointed out the various islands.
“That’s Ito. Over there with the three peaks is Beeta. There are hundreds of islands that make up the Pekering territory. I think I’ll take you to Beeta. I have many friends there.”
“Where’s your leader?” Bence’s stomach soured. During the Aeonian War, some Kai from Deran left for their homeland. If anyone were to recognize him, Bence could find himself in hot water.
“He resides on his own island to the most eastern border. We are in the southwest corridor right now.”
Bence sighed with relief and eyed the island towering over him. Three gargantuan mountains wrapped in a lush jungle stretched toward the sky. Silky sand lined the shore, with the occasional palm tree adding to its perfection. The tropical feel reminded him of a mountainous version of Lea Island. A floral scent wafted through the air, making its way over the crystal blue waters and into Bence’s nostrils.
“Do you know our leader, Calder?” Maris asked.
The two syllables crushed his shoulders oppressively. Calder, if he remembered correctly, was one of the elders of the Kai in Deran. Calder had wanted Bence dead, and he would’ve been without Isabel. “No,” he replied, trying to steady his voice.
Maris tilted his head, and one eye stared back at Bence, but he remained silent. Slowing to a paddle, Maris whooped. Blue ears perked straight up from bushes and tops of trees. Some Kai rolled onto their paws from shallow pools in sandbars. Others sprung out from wooden huts and hopped down the stone-paved walkways. Bence cringed as they chattered; their voices were higher pitched than those in Deran.
“Get this man something to drink. Food too!” Maris barked as he unwound himself from the net. Turning to Bence, he said, “Hop off and head to shore. My people will assist you.”
When he removed his boots and made contact with sand, Bence indulged the softness between his toes. Waves of relaxation traveled up from legs and pooled in his chest. He grabbed his satchel and slung it over his shoulder. Land. He glanced at Maris and smiled, who in turn cleared his throat.
“Well, what?” asked Bence. Tapping a finger to his cracked lips, he shrugged. If Maris was expecting payment, he was sorely mistaken.
Maris paddled ahead, swishing his fin-like tale rhythmically. He muttered under his breath, “Ingrate.”
“Wait!” Bence waded behind him. “Th-thank you.” The words fell from his tongue like sludge. They weren’t words he was used to. When they reached shore, he grabbed Maris’ shoulder and looked him square in the eye. “I mean it. I owe you my life.”
A faint smile twitched at the edge of the furry blue creature’s lips. His coral earrings clacked as his ears perked up.
“Maris! You’re back!”
Bence and Maris turned their attention to a Kai hopping toward them. Mauve petals adorned her head like a crown. Light glistened from her pearl necklace. Bence’s mind went straight to the black pearl he had. He squeezed his satchel tightly.
“Pasha, I would like you to meet my new friend, er─”
Bence surveyed his surroundings. Scores of Kai gathered around them, blinking in curiosity. No weapons. No expressions of malice. More importantly, no signs of recognition. “Bence.” He wrung his hands behind his back.
“What a funny name,” she piped, eyeing him up and down, stopping at the scar just below his jawline. After she plucked a flower from her hairpiece, she said, “Please, kneel.”
“Kneel?” Bence’s face contorted.
“So, I can reach you and give you this…” Pasha’s voice diminished to a whisper. Her brows furrowed in confusion.
The surrounding Kai broke into chatter once more as Bence clasped his hand behind his neck in unfamiliar shame. His outbursts came without warning. His reactions were like a knee-jerk reflex.
Without another word, he knelt on both knees and bowed his head. “Please do not take my words as disrespect. I came from a rough background, and I am on a journey to redeem myself.”
Pasha’s paw graced his hair, coarse from seawater. The flower she placed behind his ear exuded the sweet scent he noticed earlier. “I forgive you.”
The words resonated in every bone of his body. A visceral response caused him to collapse onto the sand as he fought a foreign emotion crashing into his chest. Biting his lip, he muffled the sounds of his heavy breathing, but the words continued to echo in his mind.
‘I forgive you.’
Forgiveness wasn’t a word in his vocabulary. And certainly not in the hearts of the Deranians. And even Isabel, despite her kind words…
Silence pervaded the air. The chatter evaporated, and Pasha’s shadow disappeared in front of him. A splash indicated someone or something leapt from the ocean. It landed with a thud. From the corner of his eye, he noticed the Kai community backing away, their attention fixed on the coast.
“Get up.” Maris nudged him. The way his voice wavered made Bence uneasy.
When he rotated on the spot, Bence spotted a Kai that stood as tall as his chest. Pearl earrings lined his ears, and bangles made from sea shells hugged both wrists. A permanent scowl was etched across the Kai’s face as he scanned the community. When he locked eyes with Bence, he arched his back.
“It can’t be!” he roared, swinging his massive paws about until one pointed right at Bence’s scar. “Aeonian!”
Bence blanched. He had only traveled for a day, and his past had already caught up to him.
The rest of the Kai glanced at one another in confusion. “Aeonian? What’s Aeonian? Calder, what’s going on?”
“Never you mind. This is between him and I.” Calder cut everyone off with a snarl.
Pasha and Maris backed away, Maris holding an arm in front of her.
“Now, wait a second,” Bence said. He raised both hands. “There must be some sort of mix up here.”
Calder squared his shoulders and reached for his belt. He pulled out a baton and marched forward.
“Slow down, buddy. I’m warning you.” Bence’s hand traveled to his side, but his dagger was not in its holster. Alarm lanced through him.
“Murderer!” Calder yelled.
Bence rolled to the right as Calder slammed the stone weapon into the ground. Sand sprayed everywhere.
“Have you come to slaughter us too? Answer for your sins!”
Bence stumbled over the smaller Kai, who squealed and scattered. A pot filled with bo staffs outside a wooden hut caught his eye. He broke into a sprint as Calder chased him, fighting the quaking in his legs. His hours at sea made him unfit to run so suddenly. But he couldn’t stop; he could feel Calder’s breath at the nape of his neck.
A clatter jarred his eardrums as Bence crashed into the pot. Porcelain flew into the air. He blindly reached for a staff with both hands, wrapping his fingers around the wood and met Calder’s baton with incredible force. His muscles burned. The baton was inches from his face, pressing against the staff. Bence pushed, but Calder only shoved back.
Bence’s blood curdled at the sound of wood splintering. Eyes darting around for a solution, Bence readied himself.
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