Astral 1st Chapter!

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The preorder is up and it’s due to come out November 4th! I’m so excited for it to finally be out in the world, I decided to post a sneak preview 😁 Enjoy!

 

Chapter One

I panted heavily as I tore off my blanket and sat up heavily in the pungent hay. The barn loft where we were hiding was still dark, and my eyes searched it wildly, looking for something, anything, that could erase the horrible picture of Iliana, broken and bleeding, from my mind.

“Brynneth?”

I jumped, my heart lurching with fear until I realized it was Lilith. Her voice, whispered so that nobody else would wake up, had sounded just like Iliana’s from my dream.

I shook away the horror still shivering up and down my spine. “I’m fine. I just thought I heard someone.”

“You’ve been hearing someone every night since we left Revrendial.” Though her tone was kind and filled with worry, I could hear the undertone of exasperation, like she wanted to take me by the shoulders, shake me, and demand that I tell her what was really bothering me.

“I’m nervous, that’s all,” I said stubbornly. “You never know when we could be discovered.”

“Which is why we always have someone on watch,” she reminded me.

“It’s Andrey’s turn now. Forgive me if I don’t feel completely safe.” He had the annoying habit of falling asleep every time he was supposed to be standing guard, and if it wasn’t the true reason I had trouble sleeping, at least it was a good excuse.

Lilith let out an understanding chuckle. “Believe me, I don’t trust him, either. I haven’t slept a wink, just to be safe, so don’t worry. You can go back to sleep knowing that I’m standing watch, too.”

“That does make me feel better.” I tried to sound sincere, even though I wasn’t feeling better about anything. How could I when my dead best friend haunted me every night?

I laid back down and pretended to sleep, but I couldn’t shut my eyes. There were too many things behind my eyelids, waiting to appear as soon as I closed them.

Iliana, her voice sad and accusing. Your fault.

I tried to tell myself she was wrong, that I hadn’t been to blame for her death. But I couldn’t convince myself that I was right. I was the one who told her the truth, who made her question her faith in the celestials she worshipped and dedicated her life to. And then I’d left her alone. I’d thought she’d needed space to work things out, to come to terms with what I’d told her. Instead, that had been the last time I’d seen her.

How much would have changed if I hadn’t told her the truth? If I’d refused to leave her alone? Would she still be alive?

Those questions haunted me and I couldn’t argue with her. It was my fault. I’d let her down when she’d needed me the most and it was only right that her death haunt me. I hadn’t been there to see her die. I hadn’t even been able to see her body and say goodbye before they burned it, so it was only right that I replay it in my dreams every night. It felt like a just penance, but one I couldn’t just close my eyes and accept.

Besides Iliana, there was another woman haunting the darkness of my mind, though she didn’t cause me the same pain. Proud, regal, and a bit insane, in my mind she was helpless, trapped beneath my blade, her new crown of blood trailing down her face.

I didn’t regret what I’d done to the Everlord, but every time I remembered it, I felt a strange mixture of horror and fascination. She had been the larger-than-life threat during my time in Revrendial, the reason for my constant fear, and the one person who had wanted more than anything to see me dead. But she had failed. I was the one to strike the final blow. I was the one to come out on top.

Since we were on the run, we hadn’t heard any news from Revrendial. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to her after we left. She was marked as a false goddess and should, by celestial law, be put to death.

I had a feeling celestial law would be more lenient in her case. It wouldn’t have surprised me to know that nothing had changed, that she still ruled as ruthlessly and completely as before. She had a way of bending people to her will.

All I could do was hope I had weakened her power. If not, it had still been a satisfying revenge. A celestial’s worth was based on their image, and weakening hers, however little, was a victory. The final victory in our personal war.

Now that I had escaped Revrendial, I could finally be free. As soon as we reached the Neverlord’s fortress, I could start a new life with Rhion and Lilith. Only a two day journey left and we would be safe.

From the Everlord at least. But not from what was haunting my mind. For the first time, I felt close to understanding Rhion’s problem with the voices in his head. Unlike his, mine didn’t take control of my body, but they made it impossible to rest or relax. I was beginning to understand the despair that swamped him from time to time.

I shifted uneasily in the scratchy hay to face the place where I knew he was sleeping. He had always been there in Revrendial to talk to and help me through everything. Now more than ever, I wanted to reach out to him, explain what was happening to me and ask what was happening to him, but I couldn’t.

Ever since we’d rescued him from the dungeons, he’d withdrawn inside himself. When I tried to speak to him, he avoided me. Sometimes he wouldn’t even look at me. If he’d catch me watching him, he’d quickly turn away, as if he couldn’t bear to look me in the eyes.

I didn’t take it personally. I knew him well enough to know that he would only isolate himself from others when trying to protect them. And I suspected I knew what he was trying to protect me from.

The fact was, Iliana’s death had hurt him, too. He didn’t speak about it, but there was a part of him–a very melancholy, morbidly depressed part–that had loved her.

Mhyrdain, god of shadows and grace, mystery and madness, was once hardly more than a voice in his head, but after Iliana’s death, he was growing stronger. More and more, he was taking control, forcing Rhion aside.

I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, but I thought I had also seen glimpses of another side in Rhion. This one was violent and cruel and empty of everything I loved about him.

It was like Rhion, my Rhion, was being consumed by these other sides. I could see him resisting them, but every day, it seemed like there was less and less of him.

I wanted to reach out to him and hold him, hug him so hard so that the broken pieces inside of him would fuse back together. I knew it didn’t work like that. Every time I tried to speak to him and he shut down on me, I felt swamped by helplessness. But I wouldn’t abandon him. Not like I’d done to Iliana. No matter how hard he tried to shut me out, I would stand by him every second of every day if I needed to.

I couldn’t sleep again, so while Lilith kept watch for enemies, I kept watch over Rhion. The hours passed and the depths of night quietly turned into the expectancy of predawn, like I could feel the coming day tugging at my chest before even the palest light touched the sky.

Soon, Lilith rose and began shaking everyone awake. I pretended to sleep until I felt her hand on my shoulder. If she knew I’d been awake the entire time, she would worry.

As everybody sat up, they were just shadowy shapes in the darkness, but I could pick out who was who well enough. Lilith, tall and gangly, already up and moving about with a restless energy. Rhion, sitting so still he was almost impossible to make out in the shadows, like the darkness inside him had made him one with the darkness around him.

Awena, Rhion’s high priestess from the time he had been a god, was a small, straight-backed woman. I could see in my mind, clear as day, her stern, tight-lipped expression as she rummaged through the packs, pulling out hunks of bread to pass around for a hasty breakfast.

She was our guide to the Neverlord. Besides her, Rhion’s former devotee, Idris, was the only one who had been there. He was the youngest of our company, only fifteen, and his blurry shape moved with slow, deliberate motions as he rolled up his blanket. He was always silent, except with Rhion, who he never failed to look at with admiration.

As I chewed on my hunk of bread and rolled up my blanket, I watched them huddle together, whispering to each other. I felt a pang of jealousy. Before Idris and Awena had shown up to help us rescue Rhion from the Everlord’s dungeon’s, Rhion would have spoken to me like that.

Whatever he was protecting me from, he obviously didn’t think was dangerous to Idris. Or maybe I was wrong. Maybe he wasn’t protecting me. Now that he had Awena and Idris, maybe he didn’t want me anymore.

I wallowed in self-pity for a bit before I rolled my eyes and shook it off. We were running for our lives. I had more important thinks to worry about than feeling neglected.

We had to be out of the barn before anybody in the nearby farmhouse woke up, so we moved quickly. While Lilith climbed down the loft to get Andrey, we packed up the last of our things and fluffed up the hay where we’d been laying to erase the impressions of our bodies.

Just as we were lining up to head down the loft ladder, Lilith popped her head back up.

“We have a problem,” she said, her voice taut.

We hurried down after her and followed her through the darkened barn towards the door. She moved easily, stepping over everything in her way, but the rest of us stumbled clumsily into buckets and over tools. I heard more than one muttered curse and I had to bite back a couple myself as I rubbed my sore shin after hitting it against what felt like a wheelbarrow.

It was better once we got outside. The moon and a handful of stars were still out and dawn was beginning to pale the sky.

“What’s the matter?” Awena hissed sharply.

“You’ll see,” Lilith hissed rudely back.

The high priestess had taken the role of leader in our little party, since she was the oldest and knew the way to the Neverlord, but in the few short days we’d been travelling, Lilith had begun to resent her.

It was obvious that the older woman thought the younger flippant and unaware of the seriousness of our situation. She didn’t understand that no one was more disciplined and dedicated than Lilith, but that she always did whatever needed to be done with a grin and a joke that made it seem like she wasn’t taking things seriously.

Once Awena began speaking sharply to her, Lilith had started fighting back with sarcasm and exaggeration and snide comments. She could be amazingly passive aggressive like that. Even when she was stabbing people, she did it with a cheery smile that belied her anger.

It was light enough that I could see her smiling fiercely at Awena and fondling the pommel of the sword that never left her side.

I touched her lightly on the arm. “We need to leave,” I reminded her in an undertone.

“Right.” Her hand drifted reluctantly away from her sword. “Look at that.”

She pointed to a dark space behind a stack of barrels. As I peered closer, I made out a form slumped against them with a head of golden curls gleaming in the shadows.

“Andrey?” Rhion rushed to his side and shook him, at first gently and then harder, but the celestial didn’t move. Rhion looked up at us, his eyes round with horror. “I think he’s dead.”

 

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