First Chapter Feature: Shift of Shadow and Soul

HilaryNew Release, Read for Review, YA Authors0 Comments

There are three kinds of magic in the world, and Corentine has the wrong one.

Long ago, the Restless King forced Corentine’s people into hiding as he scoured their blood for the SoulShifter. When Corentine learns she possesses some of the forbidden Shifter magic, she must hide her power or risk the same death her twin suffered.

Raised to trust no one, she rejects the General’s son Sy, until she realizes his family secrets might be the key to unlocking hers. When his brother turns against them, they are forced to fight family to save what’s left of their home, or accept banishment to find a new future.

If Coren and Sy can’t convince their people to accept the light of Shifter magic, the growing Shadow will ruin everyone’s chance of freedom.

Travel this richly imagined world with a diverse cast that readers have compared to fantasy favorites like Sarah J Maas and Leigh Bardugo.

Chapter 1

Corentine had never been caught before, and she wouldn’t be today, either. Not in the first hunt of her last summer.

There was a method to this.

The other girls bunched together on the white-sand beach, sharing whispered secrets about the boys: wondering who was the fastest, pointing out the most handsome, remembering the nicest.

But Coren cared nothing for the boys. She stepped back, as close to the dune grasses as she could get without drawing attention.

The other girls hugged their arms to their chests and waited, so close together that they would surely fall, giggling and tangling in each other’s arms as they pretended to run. For them, the hunts were truly the games they were meant to be, a measure of fun in addition to the reward of food for their family.

But the hunts were not games for Coren. Before her mother had died, she had warned again and again that it was better to join the hunts than starve, but it was best to be better than the hunters.

So she waited, legs bent loosely at the knees, ready to sprint for the freedom to keep her body to herself.

The horn sounded, and she was running before the notes had spread to the waters of the MagiSea and clashed with the delighted shrieks of the other girls and the shouts of the watchers. Her bare feet didn’t touch the shifting sand long enough to burn, and she sucked full lungs of salty air as she wove through the gaps in the orange-red rocks.

The cliffs of Weshen Isle had always offered her more protection than the women who lived there.

A few scant minutes of hard running and climbing put her far enough away to pause and catch her wind, but she folded her body behind a crush of bushes anyway, forever careful in case someone had managed to follow.

Coren’s fingertips felt the vibrations in the ground before she heard his steps. He was closer than any boy had ever come.

She glimpsed his legs through the branches of the scrubby goshen bushes. His bare, tanned ankles were braced with thin gold rings, stacked one atop another: he was important. Perhaps the pampered son of a Weshen City nobleman, come to play at hunting in the safety of the summer games.

But the ankles before her were pacing and making no noise – Coren saw how the rings were woven through with strips of frayed leather, muffling any metallic clinks. So perhaps this boy was more than a hunter of girls, accustomed to stalking MagiCreatures in the lands beyond the women’s island.

Whatever he was, he was much too close.

Coren held her breath and concentrated harder on the idea of blending into the rocks and sand. Her skin was nearly the same tan-gold as the ground, and her thick braid only a few shades darker, like the branches that twisted to conceal her. She knew she blended well. She counted on it. Even though he stood less than three feet away, she wasn’t worried.

And if he didn’t leave, she knew she’d fight to keep her freedom.

Sparks of adrenaline began to prick through her chest again as the ankles passed once more. She sucked in a shallow breath and gritted her teeth.

She slipped her hand down a few inches to grasp the handle of her whip, but just before she released the braid, the boy turned and left, heading back toward the beach and the men’s summer camp. Coren let her breath out slowly, relieved.

Her mother had also warned her to use the whip only for hunting the island’s small animals, and never to draw human blood.

She counted to eight. Then sixty-four. Then she rose, a hair’s breadth at a time, her muscles screaming from the constriction. The boy was nowhere in sight, but she still raced as fast as she was able, following a convoluted route around the sharp edge of the crescent-shaped island.

~~~

The crowd of watchers on the beach had dispersed somewhat as the girls and boys began to form pairs. General Ashemon, finally satisfied that both of his sons were participating in the hunts as instructed, turned to Matron Behrenna. He noticed that she looked distinctly older than she had the previous summer, with new frown lines around her lips and a harder cast to her dark brown eyes.

“And so begins another successful hunt season. I trust your women have weathered the winter months well?” Ashemon said, watching idly as his younger son bent his head close to the curvy, brown-haired girl he’d just caught, whispering something that made her blush and smile.

Behrenna nodded in bored politeness. “We have been well. Weshen Isle provides all we need, of course, though we do look forward to your men’s visits and gifts,” she answered, turning to watch the General’s son as well. “And has there been any change in Weshen City or Riata?”

It was the same conversation they had each summer, and Ashemon wished he had something new to tell her, though he also feared the ripples of change such news could bring.

“The city is well, and the mountain barrier holds, but Riata still spreads its greedy fingers across more and more lands to the east and west. It’s a wonder there are still places left to conquer, and yet I believe the Restless King will never stop until he has added our lands to his.”

“And the MagiCreatures?” she asked, turning her eyes back to the sea.

He scanned the beach for any sign of his older son, who had not yet appeared with a girl. “The men have reported slightly increased numbers and aggressiveness. I’ve examined dozens of suspected talismans this last month alone, but although they still fetch a high price in EvenFall, none have contained even a spark of Weshen magic.” He tried to hide the disappointment in his voice, but he suspected she felt the same.

The Weshen people had been long without their ancestral magic – much longer than the elders were led to believe at the time of the Separation from Riatan society. Indeed, when the Mirror Magi had accepted the Sacrifice and transferred the people’s magic to form the protection of the NeverCross Mountains, many Weshen had believed it would return in their generation.

“May our numbers increase as the days grow long,” Behrenna murmured as the General gazed across the MagiSea toward the misty mountain barrier. For many Weshen, the summer hunt blessing had become as faded as the hopes of their people.

Ashemon nodded absently. On the beach, the new couples began to part again, anxious to bathe and dress for the night’s celebration. The women trailed in the direction of their village, where their houses were sprinkled along the western plains and southern beaches of Weshen Isle. The men, both young and old, began to retreat to their summer camp on the northeastern side.

The Separation from Riata would end one day, of course. Although nearly fifty years had passed, their gods had promised the magic’s return. Most believed the Magi were simply waiting for their city to recover, and so they created the games of the hunts, leaving men and women separate except for those specific activities which increased the Weshen numbers.

Even though the return of power would also mean the return of the Restless King’s ever-watchful army, Ashemon hoped he would still be alive to enjoy the satisfaction of watching his people rise again to the strength and power they had once enjoyed.

“I look forward to talking more with you at tonight’s feast,” he said to Behrenna. She nodded, taking the cue gracefully, and General Ashemon stalked away, still scanning the beach and the surrounding rocks for his First Son.

~~~

When Coren ducked beneath the summercloth into the center room of her home, the twins were waiting, their beautiful faces pinched and mirroring an expression too serious for their seven years.

Kosh nodded at her, pleased that she had beaten the games again, but his smile was reserved and haunted. Coren lay her payment slip on the stained table and returned his smile, feeling a small guilt at how she’d poisoned him against the hunts.

Regardless of their family’s views, Kosh would join the men on the mainland next summer. Like all Weshen boys in their eighth year, he would leave the island to train to become a warrior. A hunter of MagiCreatures – and someday, of girls.

Penna flung herself at her older sister, her bony fingers digging into Coren’s waist. “I knew you wouldn’t be caught!” She smiled, her light blue eyes shining. Coren combed the girl’s pale, red-blond hair from her face.

“But what took you so long?” Kosh asked. He knew something had been different.

“A boy followed me into the rocks. I didn’t see his face, but he had ankle rings.”

Kosh narrowed his eyes, and she saw her thoughts reflected in his young-old face – no boy had ever come close enough for her to notice his ankles.

“The General brought both of his sons again, and there are several new sons of Weshen joining this year,” Tellen called from her bed in the shade-darkened sleeping room.

“Yes. A record number of Weshen men have turned sixteen in time to join the hunts – more than any year since the Separation,” Penna said, reciting a school lesson.

“Thanks to the Mirror Magi for our people’s renewed growth,” Kosh added, his voice quiet with the automation of expected prayers.

Coren was glad she couldn’t see her cousin’s face when she answered. “Perhaps I’ll go and pretend to serve tonight at the celebration, to see if I can get more information. If the hunts are too dangerous this summer, we’ll do without. Besides, if I go, I can bring you some treats,” she said to Kosh and Penna, forcing a smile.

Penna smiled back easily, then challenged her brother to a stick-fighting contest in the common yard.

Listening to their muted shouts, Coren busied her hands and mind with preparing the midday meal. The hunting games had kept her from her real hunting today, so they would eat warmed-over meat in a vegetable broth and the rest of yesterday’s bread. Tellen should bake tonight, and perhaps tomorrow Coren would hunt for rockrabbit. The remains of the island’s winter stock had been pooled to create tonight’s celebratory meal, and their cupboards were bare.

But in the next few days, boats heavy with meat and produce would arrive, bringing the women’s island their symbolic reward for a successful first hunt.

Coren waited until well after dusk, when all the other young women had bathed and hurried, giggling, to join their hunters for the first night. Most of the older women had also gone to the feast, hoping to drink and eat well, and flirt with past lovers.

The women’s village draped the hillsides and cliffs of the island, dotting the evening with pale, stuccoed houses. Most were darkened and held only sleeping children and a handful of women like Tellen – those caught in last summer’s final hunts, whose bellies were now as heavy with reward as the coming boats.

As the first stars began to appear overhead, Coren bathed quickly in the clear freshwater pool centered between the women’s houses. Sandjasmine vines surrounded and enclosed the pool, scenting the cool springwater. Tiny pearlescent petals clung to her wet skin as she combed her thick hair back into a straight sheen, letting it hang loose well past her shoulder blades. She wrapped herself in the simple white fabric of a serving dress, securing it at her waist with a woven cord.

A golden glow had grown on the darkening horizon, signaling the beach fires at the men’s camp. Coren’s stomach flipped, shrinking from the thought of joining the feast.

Although the hunt was over for the day, there was every danger in entering the men’s camp alone.

A memory of her mother’s last words lingered in Coren’s mind as she slipped on her sandals: Sorenta had pulled her young daughter close, palms pinching the girl’s cheeks and hair together as she held her eyes with the intensity only a mother can muster. Sorenta’s own eyes had been bloodshot from lack of sleep and swollen from tears, marks of a grief that had taken her life soon after.

Corentine, never let them catch you. No boy must ever claim you before Weshen’s magic returns, or your family will lose everything.

Coren shook her head to loosen the memory’s hold and secured her whip beneath the slit skirt, spiraling the flat braid down her thigh and calf. The handle dented her skin, uncomfortable but for its familiarity, and the braid settled on her leg like a snake coiling into itself for rest.

“You look beautiful,” Tellen whispered as Coren slipped into the moonlit sleeping room. Coren sat on the edge of her cousin’s bed and smoothed the younger girl’s sand-colored hair. Tellen’s hands rested on her swollen belly. She would birth soon, and her eyes glinted between joy and worry. If it was a girl, she would stay with them on the island. If it was a boy, his father would claim him in eight short years, his mind would be spelled to forget the island, and he would return only after he was sixteen. To hunt.

Tellen reached for a sandjasmine sprig from her bed table and laced it into Coren’s hair. “Be careful, cousin,” she said. “Watch out for the old men, too.”

Coren nodded and re-tucked the light blanket around her, then another around Kosh and Penna, then left before she could change her mind.

She had to know who had come to the hunts this summer, so she could decide if her risk was worth taking.

Her young family would struggle without the rewards of the games, but Coren had promised Sorenta. She would protect her family as told, even if she didn’t fully understand why.

~~~

“Hey, boy, where’s your catch?” Tagsha’s slurred words brought Syashin back into the night. The older man grinned through his thick beard like he had a secret, although what he knew about the night was not the same as what Sy knew.

“Didn’t see one I liked,” Sy said, shrugging as if this were a reasonable excuse.

Tag laughed, his belly shaking, and Sy glared into the fire.

“Hey, girl! Bring us some more!” Tag yelled to the girl serving drinks – a job saved for girls who were too old for the hunts, or those few who refused. All of the willing and desirable girls had been caught in the sand that afternoon and were now enjoying their new games.

Sy barely glanced up as she slammed an earthenware mug on the table. Tag handed her a coin and reached to pinch her thigh, but she sidestepped him smoothly. Reshra and his girl arrived just then, a tinkling laugh and stumbling footsteps showing he had again caught one just his type.

“Oh, look at Coren! Isn’t she precious with her serving tray?” Resh’s catch was obviously drunk, but it was her poorly-hidden jealousy that gained Sy’s interest, and he glanced up from the yellow-blue flames. The serving girl moved closer and clunked a mug before him, the wine sloshing wastefully onto the table.

A jolt rocketed through his muscles – here was the girl he didn’t catch. He quickly hid his interest behind a long draught from the mug. In the shifting firelight, she had a fierce sort of beauty, her tanned skin shining like the golden claws of the poisonous Vespa bird he’d hunted only a few weeks before.

He likely could have caught her, too. He had wanted to see how fast she was, how strong. He had wanted to see where she would hide. If he were forced to hunt a girl, he would prefer to have a worthy opponent.

“Be careful with Amden,” the girl said, her voice even and liquid, her eyes meeting Resh’s eyes without the expected deference. “She sometimes bites, and you wouldn’t want to lose something important.”

Tag’s guffaws echoed after the girl as she swished away before being dismissed, spilling more wine than she carried. Sy stared at her retreating form a few seconds too long, mesmerized by a dark tattoo snaking seductively up her leg.

Even Resh was uncharacteristically dumb with surprise at her daring, and his new girl was red with anger. Sy only hoped his little brother didn’t get the fool idea to chase this girl at the next hunt. This could be the first girl he’d seen who was more than Resh could handle.

That alone would have made her noticeable. But this morning, Sy had thought he remembered the girl, and now he was sure. There should have been no reason for any of the girls to fear being caught, yet she always ran as though her life depended on it.

It seemed neither of them wanted to hunt like they were expected to, and Sy wanted to know why.

Resh reappeared then from behind his drained mug, eyes narrowed in calculating anger. His new girl brushed her fingers lightly across his chest, hopeful, but he merely pushed her hand away.

“What is that girl’s name? I want her name!” Resh demanded.

“It’s just Corentine,” the girl giggled. “She’s simple. Don’t waste another thought on her.” Her fingers finally found a place that distracted him, and Sy stood, turning away from his younger brother and his latest conquest.

He carried his mug away from the noise and smoke to the water’s empty edge. The silvery moonlight spread over him, soothing his jumbled thoughts. He sat heavily in the loose sand, watching the shimmer of the sea’s rippling waves.

“Tagsha tells me you are again without a girl.”

Sy scrambled to rise, just as his father bent his knees to squat beside him. The General’s large hand pushed his older son back to the sand, and not gently.

“Syashin…” Ashemon began, then stopped.

“I’m sorry, Father. I did hunt, but the girl escaped me among the rocks.” Although he knew his failure would anger the General, Sy knew a refusal to complete the hunt would be worse.

“How could a simple young girl escape you? Your fighting skills are unparalleled among our young men. You can track a MagiCreature over any terrain and slay it with a mere longknife.” The General shifted his weight and his tactics. “Perhaps you do not wish for sons?”

His question startled Sy from his glower. He rarely wasted thoughts on the purpose for the hunts, generally thinking only of the ridiculous customs his people had been reduced to since the Separation and the Sacrifice.

“Reshra is a year younger than you, and he already has one son to claim later.”

“Resh isn’t concerned with sons!” Sy’s words were harsher than he had intended, but his father only chuckled.

“True, and that brings me to my other concern. Some of the young men hunt because they wish for the honor of sons and the improvement of our people. But many also hunt because they hunger for the girls. Yet, my eldest son does not hunt for either of these.” He paused to sift a handful of the glittering sand, pearl-white under the stars.

“What do you hunger for, Syashin?”

Sy took too long in answering, and his father rose, never a patient man.

“This is your last summer, Sy. You will hunt, as I have said. And you will sire a child. Or your First Son rights and title will pass to Reshra. You owe me that much.”

Ashemon was gone before the bitter words could filter through Sy’s ears and stab the beat from his heart. His vision narrowed to a single grain of sand, and he felt his chest turn to stone. His father had never been a kind man, but he had also never threatened Sy in this way before.

A pounding on the sand jarred his focus back to the moonlit beach, and he looked up just as the same girl flew past, fleeing as though she still ran for her life. Corentine.

Without volition, Sy’s muscles constricted and he was on his feet, tearing after her in the dark. If she sensed him, she ignored it as she entered the same rocks where he had nearly lost her this morning.

And he lost her tonight, the chokecherry wine and his father’s words slowing his movements to the crawl of despair. She vanished into a crevice and Sy sank to his knees amongst the sandy rocks, his breathing jagged.

The next hunt would be eight days from now. He knew he must protect his First Son rights from Resh’s destructive ways, even if it meant compromising what he’d always done.

~~~

Resh watched his father return from the beach, where he knew Sy had gone to drink alone. He narrowed his eyes, ignoring the girl draped across his lap.

It was no surprise to any of the men that Sy had no girl tonight. His brother hunted neither girls nor boys, only MagiCreatures and talismans.

So what could have the General looking so exceptionally fierce?

“Is it time to go back to your tent?” the girl murmured, nuzzling against his neck. Resh finished his drink and stood abruptly, nearly dumping her in the sand.

“Lead the way,” he laughed, mostly forgetting his father, and fixing her in a hungry stare. “I’m sure you’ve been to the men’s camp before.”

She glared, but pulled herself tall, pushing out her lips and her breasts. “Just so you know, I always lead.”

He showed his teeth and pushed ahead of her on the path, knowing she would follow and suddenly not caring if she did. The summer months were a deserved respite from hunting creatures and the creeping fear that hung over Weshen City and most of Riata, but tonight Resh felt dulled and bored with the narrowness of their lives.

His ancestors had died under the hand of the Restless King, yes, but they had also possessed things worth dying for.

This, this holding. This waiting. It simmered in his blood stronger than any liquor or lust ever had.

~~~

Coren was nearly home before she realized she hadn’t brought any treats for the twins. They would understand, of course, but that knowledge only forced her frustration higher.

They were too young to have to understand. She was all they had now, but they deserved so much more. If only Sorenta had left them all with more – more explanation for her cryptic orders surrounding the hunts, more information on their tarnished family history, or more instruction for her few stolen Sulit spells.

Coren paused outside the small house a few moments, breathing deeply of the still night air, pushing each worry into the darkness where she hoped they would stay. Inside, she slid into bed and closed her eyes, pausing to count the soft breathing of three people. Tellen moaned in her sleep, likely sweaty and uncomfortable.

Thoughts swirled through Coren’s head, rising and falling in a tide of images. She had learned nothing of value tonight, and nearly got caught doing it. Tellen’s warning had served as a harbinger.

Right after arriving, she was cornered by a man too old to hunt, but not too old for sport. Coren had pushed away the panic and endured his greasy fingers and grating laugh long enough to hear there were two sons of the General and more than a dozen new sons of Weshen at the hunts this year, and several of them were from families important enough to merit ankle rings.

Exactly what Tellen had already known. No real gain.

As her thoughts finally slowed and drifted with fatigue, she remembered the solitary boy on the beach, chasing her drunkenly. Had he worn ankle rings?

The blurred image found its way into her dreams, keeping her from a satisfying sleep.

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