Excerpt from Chapter 1: The Shadow Rider
Jade slipped soundlessly between the trees. She was careful, darting in and out of the shadows, aware of every sound. She knew this forest. Knew the difference between the groan of a branch bending under the weight of a bird compared to that of a bloodlind, knew the calls of the animals, knew where to place her next footfall to keep the leaf litter from crunching. Her hand rested on the hilt of her sword; out here there was no telling what could attack her. Of all the places to be in Sercosia, the Denbrook Forest was the most dangerous.
She moved for a while before drawing to a halt. Jade leaned against a tree trunk, reconsidering her decision. Was it worth the trouble to journey back to the Isen and search the endless sea of grasses? She might spend the rest of the day searching the dangerous plains and never find her bow. It would be better to craft a new one, which meant she would have to scour the forest until she found a sapling that was sturdy but flexible enough to handle the strain of the bowstring without snapping.
She sighed, frustrated that she had allowed her bow to be knocked out of her hand in the first place. What a stupid mistake, novice and costly. Her eyes traveled up to the mountain peaks of the Whitecaps visible between the leafy boughs of the canopy. The sunlight made the snow on Mt. Corán shine like a white beacon against the azure sky. When she was a child, Jade used to pretend that beyond those mountains laid a beautiful kingdom with a shining palace.
In reality, the capital city Ithilia, where the High King’s castle stood, lay in the opposite direction to the east somewhere far beyond the Denbrook. But to Jade, her world ended in the trees, and all that lay east was the dark heart of the deadly forest. Ithilia might as well have been a fairytale. Jade preferred to pretend that the real castle lay somewhere behind the majestic mountains that seemed to pierce the sky with their snowy caps.
She was older now and knew there was no castle or kingdom behind those mountains, but they still intrigued her. She knew what lay east; there were maps of places she had never been but knew existed. But the maps stopped at the mountains, so who knew what lay beyond? Adventure, no doubt, like in the stories of ancient heroes. Certainly something better than war-ravaged and divided Sercosia.
Jade’s eyes moved down again away from the distant mountains and back to the lower level of the forest. She smacked at an insect on her neck and started forward to resume her search, but paused again. She cocked her head and stood still, listening. Yes, there it was again. She frowned, trying to place the sound. It wasn’t like any creature she’d ever heard in the forest before.
Perplexed, Jade turned toward the sound. It could be one of a number of dangerous beasts, and yet it seemed more sad than threatening. Her curiosity told her to find the source, but logic second-guessed the desire. She didn't have her bow. What if it was an injured lunosi that would attack her as soon as she drew near?
Against her better judgment, Jade stepped cautiously in the direction of the noise. Her footsteps were muffled as her boots sank a little into the soft earth. A warm summer breeze stirred the leaves around her, and Jade stopped to listen for the sound that was guiding her.
There — slightly to the left. Jade paused and looked around. This part of the woods was unfamiliar. No scouting expedition had led her in this direction before. She looked ahead toward the alien trees and the unseen source of the cries, then looked back to the direction she had just come from. Unease built in the pit of her stomach. She was about to turn back when another strained whimper carried through the forest. Jade bit her lip and sighed as she succumbed to her inquisitive nature. Just a little farther, she promised herself, creeping forward again.
The farther away from familiar territory she traveled, the more her uncertainty climbed with her heartrate. She drew her longsword, eyes darting in the shadows.
I should turn back, she thought as she scrambled nimbly over a fallen tree. I'm going too far. The girl froze at the nearby whine of an animal. She was getting close, and her scouting instincts knew better than to wander blindly into an unknown situation ill-prepared. The Healer might have to stitch body parts back together this time if she reacted just a second too late. Then again, perhaps she could kill whatever beast it was and have meat on the table for dinner tonight. That would please her father, who was certainly stressed from the day’s discussions.
The scout gripped the hilt of her sword and slunk down. She was a skilled hunter, flitting as silent as a shadow toward her quarry. Jade reached the trunk of a colossal tree and paused as a large animal rustled on the other side.
The source of the sounds was just behind the tree. Before striking, the girl needed to see what type of animal she was facing and how badly it was injured. Another moan made Jade frown. Now that she was closer, that almost sounded . . . human.
Peering out from behind her hiding place, Jade stifled a gasp to find a gray and black horse standing protectively over a man lying on the ground. A pool of scarlet blood stained the leaves around him.
Jade sheathed her weapon and stood there gazing at him. She didn't recognize the man from Fyurion. She dug her fingernails under the bark and pulled while she mulled. Strangers didn't just appear in these parts. He needed aid, and yet distrust and uncertainty kept her feet planted. Was he the last of an ambushed party from Sirim? Then her heart skipped a beat as a wild thought struck her; what if he was from Riverton?
"I need your help," the stranger gasped, suddenly turning his head and staring at her with glazed, panicked eyes. Jade started, embarrassed that he’d caught her watching.
"Um, s-sorry, but I'm not very good at mending wounds," she apologized helplessly, finally stepping out from behind the tree. "Ah . . . I could take you to my village, though, and I'm sure our Healer would be able to help."
The fallen rider gave her a weak smile and a barely audible chuckle. "No, my wound is fatal. There is nothing anyone can do. You . . . are you Sercosian?”
What an odd question, Jade couldn’t help but think. “Yes,” she answered, beyond puzzled. What else would she be?
Even in pain, relief was evident in the man’s expression. “Thank Damian,” he whispered. “I-I am . . . a Shadow Rider," he said, drawing in his breath sharply as a spasm of pain overcame him. Jade gazed at the man with wide eyes. Her brain temporarily locked. She knew little of what went on in the High King’s castle but was well aware that Shadow Riders were Aédan’s most skilled warriors. They carried out important and dangerous missions in the name of the king. This man came from legendary Ithilia . . . but what was he doing way out here on the edge of Sercosia, so far away from the capital?
Jade studied him closely. The dark-haired man lying before her was pale and losing blood fast. The trained scout recognized immediately that the wound had been inflicted by a blade, not an arrow. But by whose hand? Kraix were too primitive to wield weapons. Would a human dare to assault one of the king's spies? Hatred for King Aédan himself was justified, but what had this man done to deserve death?
The Rider coughed weakly, prompting Jade to refocus on his whispers. "I bore . . . a very important message to . . . the k-king. A matter of . . . life and death. My . . . my message . . . was intercepted by . . . the F-Five."
Jade leaned closer. “The five what?”
“No . . . the Five.”
"What does that mean? Who are the Five?” The man closed his eyes and shook his head firmly back and forth, muttering intelligibly. Jade watched him for a moment, her scowl deepening. Finally, she seized his cloak gently but firmly to direct his attention on her again. "Who are the Five?" she repeated.
The Shadow Rider drew in a shuddering breath. "Terrible,” he gasped. “They . . . feel no pain. Know no mercy. Human once. Not anymore. Dead that . . . walk again. Wraiths.” Suddenly his hand, red and sticky with his own blood, jerked out and seized Jade's cloak. The Rider's gray eyes locked with hers. "Please! You're the last hope. If. . . if he . . . reads that m-message," he continued, "Sercosia will fall . . . .”
“If who reads your message? The Five?”
“No. No . . . not the Five. They’re . . . just the . . . servants. You . . . must retrieve my message before . . . it's too late."”
Although the Rider was becoming increasingly incoherent, his request had been clear enough. Jade stood quickly, yanking her cloak free of his hand and causing the horse to balk in surprise. "You ask too much of me," she snapped, her tone colder than she intended. “I’m sorry you failed whatever mission the king sent you on, but it’s your problem, not mine.”
The Shadow Rider argued, “But it is. It is your problem. The Five’s master . . . is . . . your enemy too. Humankind’s enemy. He . . . will destroy us. But I found the key. I . . . I found it. Aédan needs it.”
“Then tell me what your message said, and I’ll pass the word on.”
“Because . . . you won’t believe me. And . . . even if you do . . . nobody will believe you. Please . . . you must retrieve my message.”
Jade shook her head. “I can’t do it.”
"That message," the Rider whispered, entwining his fingers on the bottom of her cloak again, "contains information . . . that will win the war.”
“There is no war,” Jade insisted.
“There will be. From the Old World . . . evil returns . . . and . . . the key to . . . mankind's survival. The key . . . King Aédan . . . must know . . . or all is lost. Take . . . m’ bow. Sword. Cloak. Eclipse . . . is fast. Faithful."
Jade gazed into his eyes and saw the seriousness of his words. War? He had just placed the survival of her entire race on her shoulders. "But . . . n-no, I can't!" she stammered. "Even if what you’re saying is true, I'm just a scout. There's no way you can expect me to prevent a war. If you couldn’t do it, how am I supposed to be able to?"
"But you must . . .” he whispered.
Jade scowled. “You don’t understand. I can’t leave Fyurion.”
“No. You . . . don’t understand. Humankind’s . . . survival . . . depends . . . on you.” Jade felt the blood drain from her face. The man closed his eyes. His breathing was shallow and raspy; his grip on the fabric of her cloak slackened. "Not much . . . time . . . . I failed . . . .
Promise . . . please promise . . . you'll try to get the message . . . and . . . and deliver it . . . to the k-king. Promise . . . ." He coughed as blood gurgled in his throat and trickled from the corner of his mouth. His eyes flickered open again to look at the girl in front of him, his only hope left.
"No," Jade whispered sadly.
"Please," the Shadow Rider begged, the life fading from him even as he spoke.
Jade stood still, every breath painfully loud in her ears, every heartbeat pounding acutely in her ribcage. What he was asking was impossible, and yet . . . she couldn't let him die like this, beaten and hopeless with the belief that he had failed his country. She couldn’t save him. But the least she could do was let him die in peace.
Jade choked back a sob. "I . . . .” She swallowed. "I promise."
Those two words rang in the air with a certain finality, like a death sentence had just passed over her lips. The Rider exhaled, closing his eyes as his head rolled to the side. The ghost of a smile touched his lips as his hand released its hold on her cloak and fell to the ground.
Jade stared in disbelief at the dead man. "No! No, not yet! You haven’t told me everything! Please, what do I do now? Where can I find the Five? Who commands them? Tell me what to do!” Jade yelled in frustration, shaking his still body for answers that would not come.