The Phoenix Born goes on sale in less than a week!!!
Yesterday, I teased the entire first chapter of The Phoenix Born! But since we all know the book is told from two different perspectives, I only thought it was fair to give Rhen a little bit of the spotlight too!
The second chapter is pasted below :)
Don't forget, The Phoenix Born is available to pre-order now!
~ THE GATES ~
Rhen had only one thought on his mind—finding Jinji.
Finding Jinji and the army of phantoms he had seen in the dragon's vision. Correction—the unstoppable army of phantoms he saw wipe out thousands of men in the blink of an eye in the dragon's vision. That army. And it was coming back. Soon.
"Come on," he whispered into the ebony scales blazing beneath his fingers. The wind whipped against his cheeks, hot from the flames encircling him and his dragon. It felt odd to think of them like that—as a rider and a dragon. To Rhen, they felt as one. One breath. One body. One soul. The wings pumping against air felt like Rhen's limbs. The snout always ready to breathe flames could be his own mouth. And they shared something else too—one mind. A mind forever changed.
Every time he closed his eyes, Rhen saw them. The people burning in his flames. Their pain was a part of him—it cut straight through his heart. Their cries still haunted his ears, and even now, he heard their howls in the wind. Rhen had made a promise to himself and to his dragon—never again. And he meant it. From now on, he was Rhen. Just a rider and nothing else. No allegiances to anyone aside from the beast below him, the woman he was trying to find, and the entire world he was trying to save. All people, not just some of them.
The peak of the Gates stood out against the clear-blue sky ahead. Pure ivory. He had no idea what waited for him there. Had Jinji found the shadow? Had she defeated it? Had she been defeated?
Rhen shook his head—he would know if she were dead. He would feel it in his gut. Yet still, he pushed harder, flew faster, unable to deny the doubt and fear building in the back of his mind.
He had left her.
Rhen had left her.
He had found his dragon, realized what it meant for Rayfort, and he had vanished almost without a second thought. Sure, Jinji had left him first, alone in that boat. Sure, she hadn't woken him to fight the shadow with her. But still, what if?
Rhen knew Jinji was strong, stronger than he was. He trusted her to be able to take care of herself. She didn’t need him, no matter how hard that was to admit. But he loved her. They hadn't said it, but he knew it deep within his soul. And the idea that she might have needed him, that he wasn't there for her, terrified him more than anything else could.
Rhen brought the dragon down in a giant swoop, landing hard against the white stone courtyard nestled into the mountains.
"Stay here," he murmured as he slipped from his dragon's back, stroking his side gently in parting. Unlike Ember, his unruly horse with a mind all her own, Rhen had no doubt his dragon would listen.
"Jin!" he yelled as soon as he was inside the castle walls.
"Jin!" he tried again as he raced up the steps, taking them two at a time. But the castle appeared deserted. No bodies. No blood. No weapons strewn across the floor. Not even a chair tipped over or a curtain hanging out of place. The entire space was frozen in time. If Jinji had fought the shadow, it wasn't here.
But still, Rhen continued exploring, weaving in and out of rooms just in case he had missed something. Some sign. There was a dining area, bedrooms, living quarters with a fireplace, what appeared to be training rooms with desks and books. The more he wandered, the more intrigued he became. What had this place been used for? It was half a palace and half a guardhouse. There was even a courtyard that grew plants. It was overgrown and wild, but it held berries and foods all the same.
He found his way to a balcony near the top tower, and he looked out, spotting his dragon resting in the courtyard below, stark ebony against so much white stone. As though sensing his eyes, the dragon looked up, lifting his long neck, turning a red pupil on his rider in question. Rhen didn't even have to speak, as soon as he thought, come, the dragon was already unfurling his wings and lifting into the sky. As he neared, Rhen perched on the balcony rail. And then he jumped, not a single doubt in his mind that the dragon would catch him. Their bodies were one, always sensing where the other half would be at any moment.
As they flew higher, aimless at the moment, Rhen looked down at the mountain peaks below. Four openings spotted the stone, so unnatural. One was empty, but the other three held slumbering bodies just waiting to be awakened. One a silvery blue, one a dirty evergreen, and one so close to the color of the white stone Rhen could hardly make the body out—the air dragon, he was sure.
Rhen knew where Jinji had to have gone.
She was searching for the riders. She realized he had left her, and she went searching for the riders without him. Maybe the shadow had never been here after all. Maybe that had been needless worry all in Rhen's head. Maybe she had been fine all along.
A nagging doubt in the back of his mind couldn't be ignored.
Something had happened. Rhen was sure of it.
And he intended to find out what.
"Do you know where she is?" he whispered to the dragon.
Rhen didn't need to explain further. They changed directions almost immediately, wings sweeping in a large arc, heading south. Rayfort, he realized. Of course, she was in Rayfort.
As they flew, Rhen let his fingers brush over the rocky scales beneath his skin. Almost like coal, ebony black and rough to the touch, burning bright at the edges, revealing the inferno always raging within his dragon's core. Even now, without trying, a trail of flames lit up the sky behind them. Rhen pulled the fire beneath his skin, bringing the blaze to his hands and yanking the heat in, letting it fill him up.
"You need a name," he said suddenly, releasing the flames. The wind carried them back and blew them out.
The dragon didn't pause his flight, but Rhen felt uncertainty stir to life in the back of his mind, a foreign thought and yet a familiar one.
"Yes, you need a name," he repeated, patting the side of the dragon's neck with his hand the same way he would Ember, soothing the beast, making a connection. He enjoyed talking to his animals as though they were people, and no animal had felt quite so human as the one beneath him now.
Leaning down, pressing his whole body against the dragon's neck as though in sleep, Rhen listened to the heart beating deep within the animal's chest. The sound echoed in his own heart. And while Rhen couldn't say for sure, the dragon felt male, felt just like an extension of Rhen himself.
"How about Blaze?" he whispered.
A disgusted growl purred from the dragon's snout releasing hot flames that smacked Rhen directly in the face. Maybe he's more like Ember than I thought, Rhen mused, sitting up to think.
"Coal?" Rhen questioned, noticing the rocky scales beneath his hand.
The dragon dropped suddenly at a sharp angle, making Rhen lose his seat for a moment, suspended in air. He grabbed on tight, raising a brow.
"A simple no would suffice," he muttered and adjusted in his seat. "Okay…okay. Let me think."
It has to be strong, Rhen thought.
Reading his mind, the dragon gave a subtle approval. Rhen tried to push the beast out of his head for a moment.
The dragon shot a little flame into the sky, flying faster with excitement. Rhen was on the right track. He thought back, mind unwittingly brought to Rayfort, to the damage Rhen had done on the back of this dragon, to the flames that had engulfed the enemies of his city, an unstoppable force. They had come from the sky, blazing down like a raging inferno, pouring flames across the battlements.
"Firestorm," Rhen said suddenly. "How's Firestorm?"
Rhen knew what the dragon would do a moment before he did it, so he held on tight, sinking low as the wings flattened against his dragon's side, sending them racing toward the sea below. Right before they slammed against the crystal water, the dragon changed directions, spreading his wings to flatten out and skim along the surface. And then they surged up as a thunderous roar erupted from his throat, sending a ring of flames in front of them, filling Rhen's vision. They flew directly through the fire, blue sky disappearing as angry orange and reds consumed his vision.
"Firestorm!" Rhen yelled, laughing, unable to contain the adrenaline pumping through his system.
When they broke through the bubbling cloud of fire, he saw Rayfort on the horizon. Immediately, his mood deteriorated. The city was a reminder of a memory he wanted to escape. No more than an hour or two had passed since Rhen had left Rayfort behind, and he had hoped it would be longer before he would return. But there was nothing to do but face it—face the damage he had forced Firestorm to do. The grass around the city walls was scorched black. The sea was littered with ships that had been burned apart, melted away to almost nothing. Bodies blackened and charred were everywhere, and Rhen's skin crawled knowing his actions had killed them all. He would spend the rest of his life trying to make up for that fact.
"Let's land, boy," Rhen whispered, patting Firestorm's coarse side.
They came to a stop next to something Rhen never thought he would see, a small boat resting in the courtyard of the castle, far away from the water.
He knew there was no other explanation. She was here. She was the only person in the world who could carry a boat so far from the harbor. And that wasn't all. Rhen had spent almost two weeks on that very boat, aware that every gust of wind against the sail carried him farther from his family, from his people, leaving them to their doom as the Ourthuri surrounded the city. He would recognize that boat anywhere.
"Prince Whylrhen," a guard called.
"Lord of Fire," another shouted.
Rhen closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath. He could no longer be the savior his people believed he was. Soon enough, they would come to realize that too.
"Just Rhen," he said back, turning to the men as Firestorm dropped to his belly and laid his head on the soft grass. "He means you no harm," Rhen called, noticing how they stared at the dragon with fear in their eyes. "Just leave him be. He will cause no trouble. I've come to find Lady Jinji and to speak with my brother."
"They're in the throne room, sire. They have been for over an hour."
Rhen needed no other prompting. He ran through the halls, stopping outside the throne room just long enough to realize it no longer had a door. Strange. But then he took in the scene inside. Two women were collapsed against each other, a heap on the ground, and Rhen knew exactly who one of them was.
"Jin!" he shouted, racing forward, dropping to her side and placing a hand to her head. It was feverishly warm and, behind closed lids, her eyes shifted back and forth, ticking rapidly.
"She's been like this for quite some time," a familiar voice muttered with concern. Rhen glanced up, noticing Cal for the first time. The man was one of his dearest friends, yet he was hardly recognizable. Cal, who always followed the rules. Cal, who always looked proper and put together. That same Cal was now covered in grime, cheeks stained with long dried tears, and his eyes were filled only with concern. But not concern for Jinji, Rhen realized, following the line of Cal's arm to the fingers holding a womanly hand, preciously cradling her burned skin.
I did that. Rhen shuddered. His concern for Jinji had tunneled his vision, but now his eyes were wide open. The woman Jinji held in her arms was barely recognizable. All of her skin was bubbled red and raw, burned black in certain places, angry and scarred. And Rhen's fire had done it.
He wanted to throw up.
Then he noticed her olive skin and long onyx hair, the faint remains of tattoos on her burned arms.
"The princess?" he whispered.
"I found her floating in the water," Cal murmured, voice scratchy and sore.
Rhen glanced at his friend. What had happened in Rayfort while he was gone? Cal had never even met the princess, and now he was watching her like his life would go with hers if she died, like the fate of his heart depended on her large eyes opening once more. But watching his friend, Rhen knew it was not the time to ask.
"Lady Jinji said she could heal her," Cal continued, voice growing more hollow. "She held her and for a few minutes it looked like she was getting better, but then Lady Jinji collapsed, and the two of them have been like this for longer than I care to admit."
"Where did you disappear to, brother?" another voice called. Whyllem. Rhen watched as his older brother stood from his spot on the throne, a smile spreading over his cheeks. "I thought you of all people would want to stay to celebrate the victory. After all, you're the one who won us the war."
"This was no victory," Rhen said harshly, running his hand over the princess's burned arm. How many others looked like her? How many others were in pain, dying from his flames?
"Our enemies are dead. I would call that a victory," Whyllem said, peering at Rhen strangely, with concern.
Rhen just shook his head, brows pulling together. "They weren't our enemies, Whyllem, not really. You don't understand, not yet. But you will. You all will."
"Stop," he interrupted, sensing Jinji stir beneath his palm. A small sigh escaped her lips, and her hand clutched the princess's tighter, as though she was struggling to hold on. Rhen cupped her cheek, unable to stop himself. Her features relaxed as though sensing his presence. The wrinkles in her forehead smoothed, and her full lips unpursed. "Leave us," Rhen continued, speaking to Whyllem alone. "Bring the baby and the women back to their rooms, celebrate victory with the men if you must, and then go out and assure the city that their king is alive and well, that the family of Whyl has survived. It will give them hope to see your face—it will help the healing process begin."
Whyllem paused. Rhen felt his brother's eyes boring into the side of his head, and he could guess what he was thinking. That Whyllem and not Rhen was the king regent. That he was the one who was supposed to give the orders. That father and Tarin would be disappointed to see Rhen act this way. That the people of Rayfort would want to see their Lord of Fire too. But Whyllem didn't need to say a word. Rhen knew all of that already. And for the first time in his life, he didn't care. All of the concerns that normally would have filled his head were gone, burned away by the fire. He had far more to worry about now.
Instead of speaking, Whyllem left, and the rest of Rhen's family followed behind—his mother, the queen mother, his baby nephew. He watched them go, knowing that the divide perpetually separating him from his family had just grown that much wider.
And with his eyes near the door, Rhen finally noticed another person in the room. A person whose face Rhen never thought he would see again. Older. More bedraggled. But the same—Jin the boy, somewhat grown up.
Rhen jerked back, brows coming together in confusion.
If Jinji was in his arms, Jinji the woman, how could she also be standing over there, hidden behind her magic?
"Who are you?" he said darkly.
The man watched Rhen with an equal amount of distrust, and his eyes fell to the spot where Rhen still held Jinji's cheek. "I'm Janu."
Rhen's gaze narrowed further. "Who are you really? Janu is dead. The Lady Jinji told me the story of his death herself."
"She is not the Lady Jinji. She is Jinji of the Arpapajo people. And she was misinformed."
But before Rhen could answer, Jinji sat up, wide-eyed and gasping for breath. He brought his arms around her, pulling her close. And without truly realizing it was him, she sensed it, curling into his side, breath calming the longer he held her.
"I'm here," he whispered, "you're safe."
He kissed her forehead, still sensing the eyes of her alleged brother watching them in fury.
"Rhen," she said weakly. But then her eyes closed once more, and she fell over Leena's body.
"Jin." He shook her shoulder gently.
"Wait!" Cal exclaimed, hand clutching Rhen's arm to halt his actions. Rhen followed his friend's eyes, noticing for the first time that the princess's skin was transforming. The heat blisters were shrinking. The ripples of melted skin were smoothing out, returning to their normal tan olive color. The tattoos encircling her arms were being painted back on. Different this time, Rhen couldn't help but notice, as the image of a dragon with wide wings appeared on her bicep, followed by crashing ocean waves. Rhen's brows drew close together, and then he smiled as the realization hit. Leena was the next rider—she had to be. Why else would Jinji be drawing dragons across her skin, branding her as such? Their fates had always been mysteriously tied with this woman, and it made perfect sense that she would be the next one called forth to wake a dragon—the water dragon, judging by the tattoos Jinji spun. Within minutes, the princess was transformed back to the beautiful woman he remembered her to be.
Jinji sat up, wearily this time, completely exhausted, blinking with some confusion. In her lap, the princess opened her eyes and rolled to a seated position, far more energetic than the woman who had just healed her. Leena ran her fingers up the smooth skin of her arm, marveling, before looking at Jinji with awe.
"Thank you," the princess said, nearly breathless. Before Jinji could respond, Leena noticed the fourth person in their small circle. In a heartbeat, her arms flew around Cal's shoulders, hugging him tight. Without any hesitation, he reciprocated, pulling her close, eyelids crushed together with emotion.
Rhen glanced at Jinji, smirking. She shrugged, unable to contain a little smile of her own. And then it was her turn to fling herself into the arms of a man she loved, and Rhen responded whole-heartedly, bringing his arms fully around her thin frame, enveloping her completely. Her lips pressed gently to a soft spot on his neck, bringing a sigh to his lips, and he stood without letting go, so her whole body pressed tightly against him.
Before Rhen could place the kiss he so eagerly desired against her lips, a cough broke her attention. Jinji shoved herself away, turning with wide eyes.
Both men spoke at the same time. She cringed, shoulders bending just slightly inward, but enough for Rhen to notice.
"Rhen, my brother Janu. Janu, the friend I told you about, Rhen." Neither man offered a hand, but instead eyed each other warily. The use of the word friend hung in the air, unsatisfactory.
"So it's true. He's really your brother?" Rhen asked. Jinji bit her lip and nodded but didn't say more. "How?" he prompted.
Almost immediately, he saw the wheels in her head begin to spin, and it put Rhen on edge. He remembered that calculating stare, the one she used to use as Jin the boy, full of mysteries. But since finding out she was really a woman, he hadn't ever seen Jinji so careful with an answer. They never lied to each other, not anymore. But maybe they did now. And only one thing had changed—Janu.
"I'll explain later," was all she said. And then she hurried to Leena, pulling her away from Cal and ushering her from the room. Over her shoulder, she yelled, "Follow me."
The three men had no choice but to listen or be left behind. They listened—Cal first, then Rhen, then Janu trailing behind. In silence, they traversed the castle, not stopping until they were back through the front door, a few feet from the dragon slumbering on the grass. Rhen stepped forward, placing a hand to Firestorm's snout. Immediately, his red eyes opened with curiosity.
"What do you need us to do?" Rhen asked, already suspicious.
Jinji ignored him, turning instead to the princess. "Leena, this might sound crazy, but I think deep down you've always known you were meant for something more. And this is it. Rhen can explain when you get there, but a war is coming, and you will be on the first line of defense. We need you to become a rider, we need you to wake your dragon, we need you to help save the world."
Through the entire speech, the princess never lost her serene expression, her royal composure. Instead, her eyes darkened with excitement. "I dreamed of this," she spoke softly. "I thought I was dying. I thought it was the end. But then I had a vision of a molten dragon made of crystal ice and flowing ocean waves, and I knew somehow I would be saved. You saved me. I'm ready for what comes next."
Jinji wasted no time. She nodded, pleased with the response, and turned to an open spot beside Firestorm. Holding up her palms, the air before them all wavered, rippling with unseen currents, and a moment later, a large birdcage appeared, made of solid stone, something that couldn't be burned by fire.
Rhen watched with surprise. They had barely been apart for a day, but it seemed like Jinji had aged far more than that—her powers were much stronger than he remembered, and her confidence at wielding them was complete. Who was this woman standing before him? What was she hiding?
"Rhen," she said, spinning, golden flecks sparkling in her irises.
"I'll take her," he answered, not needing Jinji to actually ask the question.
She stepped closer, bringing her hands to his biceps, holding on tight while her beautiful brown eyes stared up at him, wide and trusting. "Take her to the water dragon, tell her what to do, and then come back to me. There is so much I need to tell you, so much that needs to be done."
"I have much to tell you too," he responded, mind thinking back to the vision his dragon had shared, to the army of phantoms that would rage across the land. Did Jinji know what the future held? He knew without asking that she did. He could sense the fear in the back of her mind, the urgency associated with the dragons. For now, he would listen without complaint, would help, but when he returned he needed some answers.
Jinji held his eyes a moment longer before glancing toward her brother. She looked back at Rhen. Back at her brother. Wavering, biting her lip. And then she acted before Rhen could even respond, jumping up to press a quick kiss to his lips, over before he knew it had begun.
But even after Rhen had climbed onto Firestorm's back, after the princess had nestled into a comfortable spot in the cage, after he lifted her into the air to make for the Gates, he couldn't rid his thoughts of Jinji's short kiss. He couldn't fight the nagging sense that her goodbye held something deeper, something more permanent. The warmth of her touch stayed on his skin, haunting him with an unspoken farewell.
The Phoenix Born goes on sale November 17th!! Woohoo!