The Phoenix Born goes on sale in ONE WEEK!!! Ahhh!!
Here's a little teaser to help hold you over! The ENTIRE first chapter is pasted below :) I'll be revealing chapter two tomorrow!
Don't forget, The Phoenix Born is available to pre-order now!
~ THE GATES ~
Jinji opened her eyes to a changed world.
The sky ahead was clear, empty, and it meant Rhen was truly gone. Vanished from her life, swept away on the back of the fire dragon he had just awoken. She knew where he was traveling—Rayfort. To his family. To his people. To save them from the rebels and the Ourthuri currently attacking his home. To save them with his fire. Jinji knew Rhen better than he knew himself. And she knew something else, something she was deathly afraid to admit—that nothing would ever be the same.
The next time she saw Rhen, it would be over.
The next time she saw Rhen, the lie would begin.
The next time she saw Rhen, they would no longer be on the same side.
And it was all because of the man in her arms.
Her brother. Her twin. Her family. But deep inside, ensnaring his soul, was the shadow. A murderer. A killer. And the one thing Jinji had vowed to defeat but no longer could because the two of them were one. Jinji couldn't destroy the shadow without destroying her brother, so her only option was to let them both live—something Rhen would never forgive her for. People would die because of her inaction. The shadow was going to call forth his phantom armies—it was inevitable. And when that happened, hundreds would perish. It was an unavoidable truth. Every moment the shadow lived was another moment that left the world shrouded in dire danger. And if Rhen were there, he would end it all right now. But that was something Jinji could never do. Not now. Not to her twin.
Janu shifted beneath her arms, pulling back, and Jinji broke her gaze with the bleak, empty horizon. She could never go back. The decision was made. The only direction to move was forward.
"I don't know where to begin," Janu whispered, voice raw with emotion.
Jinji cupped his cheek, marveling at the golden hue that she never thought she would see again, one that perfectly matched hers, as though they were one and not two people. Her gaze shifted to his eyes, warm and full of life, brown with golden flecks, darker than hers but almost the same. Her thumb stroked his skin just once, stretching the moment. Jinji wanted to hold on to this, to this one second where everything seemed right in the world. Her brother had come back to her, and nothing else mattered.
"Ka'shasten," she murmured. My family, my loved one, my brother.
"Ka'shasten," he said back, and it was perfect, a sound and a word Jinji had never dared hope to hear again.
"Come," she said, standing and tugging on his hand. Jinji didn't want to look at the sky any longer. It was too vast, too expansive. She led Janu from the balcony, back into the castle nestled into the peak of the Gates. Though the walls were white and mostly bare, they thrummed with life. The spirits lived within this rock, within these stones. Jinji brushed her fingertips along the wall, feeling the spirits move beneath her touch, attuned to her every thought. And for the first time in a long time, a place felt like home.
Back in the hall, Janu took the lead. How long had he been trapped here? How long had he been waiting for her to come save him? How long had he been alone? Yet not alone, Jinji realized, thinking of the voice in her head—the spirit. Janu had a voice of his own—the shadow. His only companion. And Jinji shivered thinking about the whispers the shadow had put in her twin's head, thoughts from which there was no escape.
They stopped beside two empty chairs. Janu fell back, weary and weak. Jinji couldn't help but scan his frame, much taller than hers but much thinner too. Unhealthy and so different from the man she used to picture in her dreams, from the image she used to weave in the clearing of the forest. In her mind, Janu was a hunter—strong and fierce. But in reality, he had been hunted. Caught and dying a slow, agonizing death.
Jinji shook her head.
Too dark. All her thoughts had recently been too dark. And today was a magical day. She had found her twin again. He had come back to life. No matter the circumstances, it was something to celebrate.
She smiled, peeking at him with her eyes wide in excitement. Janu scrunched his brows, gazing at her with apprehension, before giving into a grin of his own. Energy filled the space between them, electric, buzzing with joy that neither sibling wanted to contain. Just like old times. Though now, it was Jinji who was behind the surprise and not her brother.
"Watch this," she said and closed her eyes, envisioning the table by her knees. The spirits heeded her every whim, and now that Jinji had fully embraced her strength, using her powers felt as easy as breathing.
Jinji opened her eyes, taking in her brother's dropped jaw, heart singing as his eyes sparkled with joy, so similar to the boy in her memories.
"How?" He barely got the question out.
Jinji bit her lip and shrugged, holding back a giggle. "A lot has changed, Janu, but right now all that matters is I'm starving."
And then her gaze dropped to the table, and her chest swelled with a whole mix of emotions—nostalgia, longing, sadness, love. Resting on top of the table was a feast—an Arpapajo feast—something she never thought she would ever be able to enjoy again. Freshly roasted deer and rabbit. Steaming baked bread. Aromatic bean soup. Berries newly plucked from the bushes. Herbal tea, the one her mother used to make.
For a moment, Jinji was overwhelmed taking the spread in—the sights, the smells. If she closed her eyes, Jinji could picture the faces of her people around her. Her father at the head of the table, blessing the meal with her mother by his side. Leoa bouncing her legs, impatient for the festivities to begin. Maniuk across from her, watching protectively, knowing this would be his role in the future. The children playing with acorns in the dirt, unaware they were supposed to be listening. And the chair always empty on her mother's other side, in remembrance of her brother, the future leader of the tribe taken too soon. How odd that now they were all gone, and it was Janu who was the only one left by her side.
Jinji didn't realize a tear had spilled down her cheek until Janu reached out to wipe it away. His hand rested on her face for a moment longer than necessary, lingering while they shared a knowing look. The memories she had buried were crawling back out, fighting to be relived. And for the first time in a long time, with Janu by her side, Jinji felt strong enough to visit the past and pretend, at least for a little while.
She gripped his fingers, noticing the water gathering in his eyes, and smiled. Then she shook the sadness away and dug in, using her fingers to rip the meat from the bones of the rabbit, licking them after taking a bite, just like she used to when they were children. There were no words necessary—no words that said enough, not even in the old language—so they ate in silence.
At least, they started to. But not two bites in, Jinji fell to the ground, screaming as an agonizing vision ripped through her.
Screams. Pain. Chaos.
Jinji tried to make sense of it, but the raw heat of anger, of heartbreak, was too overpowering. So she let it come in an onslaught, wave after wave, until she realized what it was. The view was from above, of flames engulfing the city below. Fire swallowed Rayfort and its enemies with it. But they weren't her enemies. And they weren't her dragon's enemies. And soon, Rhen would realize they weren't his enemies either.
Slowly, the vision faded. Brilliant, bubbling orange gave way to somber gray, and a face filled her eyes instead. Janu watched over her in terror.
"Jinji!" He shook her shoulders. Her head was in his lap. How long had she been out?
"I'm all right," Jinji said, sitting up, gripping his hand fiercely to let him know she was okay. "But we must go."
"What was that?" he asked, fear not yet gone from his voice. Fear for her. Fear of being left alone again.
"My fire dragon," she murmured, still not quite able to believe it herself. The voice had said the dragons were part of her, were pure elemental spirit magic, but Jinji hadn't quite believed it until that moment. The beast was like another one of her limbs. Even now, she sensed it out there in the distance somewhere, crying out in pain to not be forced to kill the very humans it was created to protect. And it had called to her for help. Jinji sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. "Oh, Rhen."
The dragon was not the only one who would need her help.
"Who's Rhen?" Janu asked, an edge to his voice.
Jinji's heart skipped. There were too many possible answers to that question, so Jinji answered with the first one that came to mind, the truest and the simplest. "My friend."
Janu wasn't satisfied. A dark glint shone in his eye, but Jinji chose to ignore it. He opened his mouth, and she cringed inwardly, not wanting to explain further, to see the judgment in his eyes—a newworlder prince? No Arpapajo would ever understand, least not her brother. But none of them had been there. Like Janu, Jinji had been left alone, and she had coped with it the best she could. Instead, he just asked, "Where are we going?"
"Rayfort," Jinji answered without pause, grabbing one more piece of bread before blinking the meal from existence. Pain engulfed the city. She could hear cries on the air, as though the wind carried them to her ears. And with her newfound strength, Jinji could make all of it go away. "There are too many people there who need my help."
If Janu didn’t understand, he didn't say anything. And for the first time, Jinji wondered how much the shadow had told him. Of Jinji. Of the spirit. Of their shared destiny together.
But there was no time to dwell. As she raced through the castle, feet pounding on stone, her mind traveled back to her last moment with the shadow. To the sneer that twisted his lips and the fury that alighted his eyes as soon as Rhen had awoken the dragon, as soon as that first blast of fire shot into the sky. One, he had said, you have one but you won't get the others.
Jinji gasped, pushing her legs even faster, sprinting.
She had a water affinity. She must be the next rider. She would wake the water dragon. And the last time Jinji had seen her was in Rayfort. What if she was stuck in the middle of the battle? What if she had never escaped? What if the shadow had left Jinji and gone straight to the princess, to kill the next rider before Jinji even had the chance to save her? Had she lost another friend? How long would it take to find another person with a water affinity, with the potential to wake that dragon?
Jinji shook her head as they reached the front hallway of the castle. The princess's destiny wasn’t to perish at the shadow's hands. It was to ride on ice and water. Jinji would find her. She would save her. She would find all of the riders and would wake all of the dragons. It was their only defense against the shadow, the only way they might possibly defeat him—the only thing that might be able to save Janu's life.
Outside, the sky was still clear, but her eyes were focused forward, on the staircase. She ran down taking two steps at a time, and Janu followed, racing to keep up. Moments later, they were at the base of the Gates, on that little stone platform nestled deep in the mountain—the secret entrance the spirit had led her to hours ago. And the little wooden boat she and Rhen had used was right where she had left it, stuck in the river she had frozen solid around it. They boarded. Jinji released the ice, letting it melt away, and commanded the water to take her back through the Gates, back to the world of the living.
Janu stood next to her, shocked into silence, gaping with awe as the sea heeded her every order. The waves crashing against the rocky cliffs of the Gates paused, becoming as still as glass to let their boat glide over. The current shifted, flowing toward Rayfort. The tides rolled, carrying the boat faster and farther. The sails whipped sharply as the wind pushed against them, never once weakening. And in no time at all, it felt as though they flew across the White Stone Sea.
Jinji saw the smoke first, an angry black cloud drawing a sharp line through the crystal sky. The closer they got, the more devastating the image became. Ships were half sunk in the harbor. Wooden bits, blackened and burned, floated atop water that was once brilliant turquoise but was now clouded by soot. The white walls of the city were crumbling into the sea, slashed with ebony burns. And beyond, houses were broken and bent, falling in on themselves, no more than rubble—the sort of demolition caused by men and not by fire. Jinji could imagine the rest—the streets covered in crushed stone, the broken populace wandering aimlessly with nowhere to go now that their homes had been destroyed, the bodies of the dead still littering the ground.
Going through the city would take hours, far more time than Jinji had, considering Rhen and his dragon were nowhere to be seen. They had left, taking the fire and the soul of the city with them. But as much as she wished to follow, there were more important things she had to do here—saving the princess, finding any other riders. Rhen would find her. He always did.
Jinji pushed the water beneath the boat harder. Janu gripped her arm, worried as the wall of the city fast approached, but Jinji paid him no mind.
When she had left this city, Jinji was little more to these people than Rhen's traveling partner. An oldworlder. A foreigner. Someone with no respect and even less power. And the only way to change that now was to do something drastic, was to show these people she was not the same woman they remembered, to demand to be someone they could no longer afford to ignore. The Kingdom of Whylkin always answered to a king, and now that king would answer to her.
"Hold on," she yelled to Janu.
And then they flew.
Jinji pushed the water beneath the boat up in a giant spout, popping them forward and into the air. The wind billowed, catching the sails and pressing against the bottom of the vessel, almost solid with its force.
The castle of Rayfort loomed ahead, their destination. Below, Jinji heard the shouts of the people, fearful and confused. The word traveled. Bodies stopped in the street, heads flipped up, jaws dropped. And through it all, Jinji and Janu continued to sail across the sky, sinking to the open courtyard below. They landed with a gentle thud. The base of the boat skidded against the grass, coming to a complete stop mere steps from the grand entrance to the castle. An entrance now lined with red-clothed guards already defeated by the day. And yet, despite their weary muscles, their bedraggled appearance, each one stood ready to defend his king.
Jinji almost felt sorry for what she would do next.
"I must speak with King Whyllem."
The only response was a terrified silence. A few brave souls cocked arrows in their bows, watching her with apprehension. First dragons and now flying ships? It was no wonder they were afraid, but she wished they weren't. It would make everything so much easier.
Jinji gave them one more second to respond, hoping someone might recognize her as Rhen's companion, might take her willingly to the king. But listening to their strangled silence, she had no choice but to act. With the flick of her fingers, a gust of wind blew in from either side, knocking the men over, flinging them away from the entrance. Jinji tried not to wince as she stepped forward, keeping the wind strong, so even as they fought to reach her, they could not break through the wall the air created. Janu followed a step behind.
Jinji pushed the doors to the side, taking her time, knocking anyone aside who dared try to stop her. With little effort, she reached the throne room. Putting her hand to the towering wooden door, Jinji burned it to ash beneath her fingers, watching as it crumbled to dust before her eyes and fell like a gentle rain to the ground.
The trick worked. She would not be ignored.
King Whyllem sat in his throne, eyes narrowed. But they widened when they landed on her. Surprise and recognition flooded his gaze. Before he had time to utter a word, a dozen arrows flew toward her, released by the guards on either side of the royal family. The men acted on instinct before their king could say no.
It didn’t matter.
Jinji lifted her hand.
All twelve arrows stopped, hanging in the air as though frozen in time, and then one by one they fell to the floor, each click deafening in the silence of the room.
"Lady Jinji," King Whyllem said, voice stronger than she thought he might feel.
Behind her, boots thudded down the hall. The guards she had left in her wake were struggling to catch up. Without turning, Jinji wove the spirits, picturing that the door she had burned away was rebuilt and that an iron bar was latched across it. They wouldn't bother her now.
"You might not believe it at this moment, King Whyllem, but I come in peace, and I come to help. I could not wait for an audience with you, so I had to take your time in the only way I know how. Call your guards off, because I assure you I can do more harm to them than they can do to me."
She hardly recognized her own voice. It was hard and commanding, far more confident than she felt. But this was what Jinji had to become because she knew what came next. After finding Leena, after awakening the water dragon, she would be healing these people—not just those loyal to Whylkin but the Ourthuri and the traitors on the other side of the wall too. In the fight against the shadow, the world of kings did not matter. Jinji couldn't erase the voice's vision from her mind—the black cloud of ghosts that would swallow the world whole. An army of phantoms from the shadow world, an army she had to find a way to defeat without killing her brother, a task that would take the help of every living soul available. Before that war began, King Whyllem would come to understand that she would be obeyed whether he liked it or not, the fate of the entire world depended on it.
The redheaded king of Whylkin glanced to either side, looking so much like Rhen that it made her heart hurt, and called off his men. They stood down, lowering their weapons, but not relaxing entirely.
"What can I help you with, Lady Jinji?"
She swallowed. "Princess Leena, is she here? Or did you send her away?"
"That question is harder to explain than you might believe," he said.
"Harder to explain than a woman who can fly a ship through the air and catch arrows midflight?" Jinji asked.
Whyllem nodded and raised his brows, as though to say, good point. "The princess was here not even half an hour ago, but she ran. My guards, I cannot explain it myself, they turned on her. One by one, each man tried to hurt her. They followed her. They were beyond command, beyond reason. And though they each remember it, not a single one can say who or what or how it happened. They say something else, someone else, commanded their actions."
Jinji couldn't help it, her gaze slid to the man by her side who shared nearly the same profile as her. Sensing her eyes, Janu looked at her. She broke her gaze but not quickly enough, not before she saw the flash of disappointment in his eyes. The shadow had been here—not Janu—but deep down, Jinji couldn't help but lay some of the blame on him. And on herself too. If she had just been strong enough to do what she must, to kill the shadow, none of this might have happened.
Jinji reached out, gripping Janu's fingers. Holding hands, her brother felt solid, felt real. She couldn't hurt him.
"Where is the princess now?"
Whyllem shook his head. "If she survived, your guess is as good as my own."
Jinji glanced behind Whyllem to the expansive window taking up the entire wall behind the throne. The city below was in shambles. Smoke still rose into the sky. Bodies were buried beneath buildings, strewn across the streets, probably burned beyond recognition in the flames. And Leena could be anywhere. Alive or dead, it would be nearly impossible to find her.
A commotion outside the door caught her attention. Someone was shouting. Screaming. And somehow, deep in her gut, Jinji knew. Twice before, Princess Leena had been brought to her by fate. First in Da'astiku, where the princess had mistaken Jinji for her deceased love. Second in Rayfort, when the princess had miraculously saved Jinji from the sea. And now this.
It was more than a coincidence.
It had to be.
Jinji spun, waving her hand, and the door to the throne room disappeared. Everyone in the hall stopped, shocked. It gave Jinji just enough time to take in a man she recognized carrying a body she did not.
"Cal?" Jinji asked, surprised. Rhen spoke of his childhood best friend so much that Jinji had no doubt it was he. And if that hadn't been enough, she had met him in Rayfort weeks ago, before the king had sent her and Rhen away.
But Cal was beyond answering. His bronze eyes were wide, his sandy brown hair was matted to his head with sweat, and a frantic aura surrounded him. Without pausing, he ran into the room, dropping to his knees, laying the body at Jinji's feet, speaking so fast she could hardly make out the words.
"You must help. You must save her. I found her in the water. I heard the men say a guard had followed her. I knew where she was running. I knew the only place she could possibly go, but I was too late to save her. She's dying, and I was too late to save her."
Jinji glanced down, realizing exactly who it was. The tattoos along her arms were barely recognizable beneath the burned flesh of her body. But the long black hair singed at the tips, the olive tone of her skin, the large eyes now closed in sleep—it was Leena. It was the princess.
"I saw you," Cal said, still mumbling nearly incoherently. "I saw you, Jinji. I saw your ship, and I knew. You can help her. You must help her."
Jinji lowered, sitting beside them both. "Let me hold her, Cal. Let me save her."
He nodded, transferring most of the princess's body into Jinji's arms, but not all of it. Jinji couldn't help but notice that he held on to Leena's hand, cupping it gently in his and not letting it go. She said nothing.
Leena's head rested on her lap, and Jinji stroked her burned cheek before leaning down to whisper in her ear. "I'm here. First, you saved Rhen. Then, you saved me. And now it is my turn to save you."
With that promise spoken, Jinji closed her eyes, embracing the spirits in the air around her and focusing everything she could on Leena's broken body.
It was all Jinji thought.
As the spirits wove tighter, Jinji sank deeper into the process. Every scrape, every break, every bruise she felt and mended, starting from the inside out. But it wasn't long before Jinji got a surprise.
Not very large, barely anything at all, but Jinji sensed life in Leena's womb, perhaps young enough that not even Leena realized it was there. An innocent little soul, a flame so weak one puff of air would blow it out. A little girl, clinging to life just like her mother, a fighter just like her mother. And like her mother, Jinji would try to heal her too.
The outside world disappeared as Jinji continued to work. She forgot the king, forgot Cal, forgot the throne room. The burns were extensive. The damage was deep. But Jinji forgot all of that too.
Before she could heal Leena's body, she had to win the fight for her soul. Part of the shadow was still alive on the other side of the ether, the space between the shadow realm and the spirit world. And that part of him was tugging on the other side of Leena's soul, trying with all of his strength to yank the princess into the world of the dead, to tear her from the living. But Jinji refused to let that happen.
For the second time in her life, Jinji found herself transported into the ether, back into the body of the spirit dragon, fighting the shadow. The sensation was all too familiar—she remembered it and she didn't. Back when the Whylkin lords had rebelled against their king, back when she watched as Rhen's own mother stabbed him in the gut, back before she knew the shadow was Janu, back when she had first touched the shadow in the dining hall of the castle, Jinji had been brought here, to a fight that had been going on for centuries.
The last time she was in the ether, she had won. Jinji remembered now, the memory flooded back. It was how the spirit had been released into the world, how she had awoken with a voice inside of her head. And if she had done it once, she could do it again.
Jinji whipped her tail, slashed at the ebony dragon with her claws, going for blood. The body of the beast felt as natural as her own, just as familiar and just as deadly. Her jaws snapped around the shadow dragon's neck, and her wings pumped, carrying them higher, closer to the spirit world, the living world.
In that world, Jinji couldn't fight the shadow, couldn't fight her own brother—not yet. But here, in this space between, she would do everything she could for one win, for one way to let the shadow know he hadn't won.
The Phoenix Born goes on sale November 17th!! Woohoo!