Skybright is plunged into the terrifying Underworld where demons are bred, while Stone, stripped of his immortal status, must find a way to close hell's breach before more mortals die. Meanwhile, Zhen Ni, Skybright's former mistress and friend, is now wed to the strange and brutish Master Bei, and she finds herself trapped inside an opulent but empty manor. When she discovers half-eaten corpses beneath the estate, Zhen Ni worries that Master Bei is not all he seems. As Skybright begins the dangerous work of freeing Zhen Ni with the aid of Kai Sen and Stone, nothing can prepare them for an encounter so dark that it threatens to overtake their very beings.
About the Author
Cindy Pon is a writer and a longtime student of Chinese brush painting. She is the author of Fury and the Phoenix, Serpentine, and Silver Phoenix, which was named one of Booklist’s Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth, and one of 2009's best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. She lives in Southern California.
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By Cindy Pon
Month9BooksCopyright © 2016 Cindy Pon
All rights reserved.
Daybreak unfurled across the gray horizon, tendrils of light illuminating magnificent jade peaks, their sloping and jagged points dissolving into mist. Skybright had seen these famous Xia mountains painted by artists on vertical scrolls — the masterpieces hung in the main hall of the Yuan manor. She remembered being mesmerized by the paintings in ink, touched with the subtlest hints of stone green or accents of red. But as evocative as the paintings were, they were nothing compared to the actuality — her mind couldn't have imagined this landscape if she had tried.
The sunlight was distant, and the chill from the night lingered on this mountain ledge. Warmth emanated from Stone, a constant, as was his rich, earthen scent that had become familiar to her. Dressed in full armor — silver and gold etched in crimson — the sole piece missing was his helmet. His black hair was pulled back in a topknot. Stone had brought her here through a portal with no explanation.
Skybright stepped toward the edge and peered down; it was impossibly high. A giant lake glinted like obsidian far below. Two fishing rafts drifted on the dark water, more minute than a child's toy, although even from this distance, she could sense the humans' presence. The fresh scent of pine needles drifted to her always, always reminding her of Kai Sen. Clenching her jaw, she willed the ache in her chest to disperse.
It had been nine days, she believed, since Stone had forced her to give up everything she had ever known and had ripped her from her mortal life so Zhen Ni and Kai Sen would live theirs. Skybright's sacrifice had been enough to satisfy an age-old covenant between the gods and mortals; it closed the breach from the underworld, putting a stop to demons escaping into the mortal realm. But when she was with Stone, time felt amorphous, stretching onward, languid and never-ending — the days melded together, difficult to track.
She hummed to herself, not realizing until Stone asked, "What is that tune?"
Abruptly, she stopped. "I don't know ... I think it was 'The Hermit's Climb,'" she replied after a pause.
"Your mother used to do that," Stone said. "Opal was always singing or humming a song under her breath."
"Tell me more about her," Skybright said. She had never given a second thought to her lineage before, not until she woke one night with a serpent's tail, and Nanny Bai told her she had found Skybright as a newborn, abandoned in the forest.
He turned and regarded her. "She was beautiful," he said, "and a powerful serpent demon."
She jerked her chin up, challenging him with a stare. "Was there nothing human about her at all? Or did she merely seduce and kill men for pleasure?" She craved to know more about her mother. There was no denying her serpent half; that she was Opal's daughter. But how alike were they?
"I always thought her pleasure in song was her most human trait," Stone said. "It softened her."
His perceptive observation surprised Skybright. Stone was often hopeless when it came to understanding mortals. Skybright had been a handmaid all her life and had learned to read people, to pick up on their moods and anticipate their needs. She had thought she was very good at it, until she met Stone. He simply didn't think or react the same way she expected a person to, but then again, he was immortal. "She must have had a beautiful voice," she said.
"A beautiful voice? No. It wasglorious. It was part of her natural charm. Men fell in love with her simply for her voice." He smiled, his chiseled jawline cut so perfectly, it mimicked the statues hewn of gods. Stone had always been cold and aloof with others but seemed to allow himself to open up in her presence, as if he'd known her even before their first meeting.
"Oh." Skybright tried hard to imagine her mother, her face lifted in song. What did she look like? "Thank you," she murmured.
"I have finally said the right thing?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied and almost smiled back. He sounded so proud, like a boy who had caught a fish in the river for the first time. But she could never confuse his seductive charisma and the scraps of information he divulged for kindness. She was Stone's captive, a prisoner of his will.
"I have never heard you sing," he said.
"I usually sing when I'm alone ... and feeling content." The barb was probably too subtle for him.
"Will you sing for me?" Stone asked.
Skybright colored, and a burst of annoyance shot through her. "Is that a command?"
"I do not command you."
"You force me away from the people I love forever in exchange for their lives. And you have the nerve to say that you don't command me?"
He raised his shoulders in a gesture of indifference. "That was a necessity. The mortals you love will be dead before you even realize. Your life is endless, and theirs are guttering flames."
Stone knew exactly what to say to wound her, although she was never certain if it was his true intent. His manner was always direct, yet he remained an enigma. She hated that he was right, that he was always so removed and logical, uncomplicated by emotions like love and grief. "Tell me more about who you are, and I shall sing for you." She didn't have much to negotiate with in this game they played, and knowing more about the immortal would be to her advantage. "What exactly are you?"
His dark brows drew together for a moment, so brief she might have missed it if she were not observing him so intently. "I was mortal once, long ago. I do not remember anything from that time. But I was made immortal when I was eighteen."
"I caught the eye of a god and was chosen by chance. The gods in both the heavens and underworld work together to keep the mortal realm in careful balance, but there was very little interchange between the Immortals who ruled above and those who tended to punishment and reincarnation below. When I was granted my magical powers, I became the intermediary." Stone spoke in a soft voice as sound carried far on this tranquil peak.
"So they stole you from your mortal life to do this ... job?" she asked. "What of your family?"
"I severed my ties with them the day I was chosen." When he tilted his face to the sky, Skybright guessed this was something difficult for Stone to share. "There was no reason for them to learn the truth. I could never again be their son."
"But did the god give you a choice?" she asked. "Did you want to give up your mortal life?"
He met her eyes with his own, so dark it was impossible to distinguish his pupils. "There is no choice once an Immortal has selected you for her purpose, Skybright. I have fulfilled this role with diligence ever since the responsibility was bestowed upon me."
A chill breeze lifted the hair from Skybright's face, and she suppressed a shudder. Pine needles rustled, the softest whisper, and Skybright imagined she could hear the water lap against the lake's shore far beneath them. "So you would force upon me exactly what a god did to you?"
Surprise registered on his smooth face in the slight lift of his dark brows. "This is different. You are demonic. I am showing you what your mother would have wanted you to know."
"You don't remember it, the pain of being taken away, but deep down, deep down the loss and grief remains in you. I can feel it." Skybright touched her hand to her chest, then threw her shoulders back, drew a deep breath, and began to sing. She didn't know many songs — only the childhood ones Nanny Bai used to croon to her and the more popular ones sung during holidays and festivals. Closing her eyes, she let sorrow wash over her, let the feeling of loss swell in her voice.
She sang of the fragility of love and the brevity of life, her throat closing over the last lines:
Long have I stood here waiting
The pale moon distant
And yet you never return to me
She held the final note, and the word seemed to spiral upward, rising into the mist-filled sky. Foolishly, she had been thinking of Kai Sen as she sang, and Skybright lowered her head, smoothing her features, even as her heart continued to race. She blindly stared at her embroidered slippers until Stone broke the silence.
"Beautifully done, Skybright. You sing with such emotion."
She risked a glance upward, and Stone's face was as revealing as a blank wall. She had only ever sung for Zhen Ni when she requested it. And that one time, for Kai Sen, after they had made love. The act had felt uncomfortably intimate, as if she were exposing her soul, rendering herself even more vulnerable to Stone.
"It was worth the exchange," Stone said, scrutinizing her with a tilt of his head.
She flushed and brought a cool hand to her cheek. "Why have you brought me here?" Skybright glanced again over the ledge to the lake below, its placid surface mirrored the sweeping vista of mountains surrounding them.
He followed her gaze across the expansive scenery. Sunlight had broken through the dense fog, swathing the skyline in a deep fiery orange. "I visit this particular province for the beauty of these mountains and the serenity. It is also where I often enter the underworld."
Perplexed, Skybright turned around, expecting to glimpse the mouth of a cave or a crater in the earth, but only majestic pines towered behind them. "I don't understand."
Stone pulled her into his arms then. Surprised, she resisted, before submitting to his embrace. He had never overstepped boundaries since taking her captive, and she knew when he did touch her on rare occasion, it was for a reason. His armor made no noise when he moved, and when she pressed both hands to his chest, she felt a tunic beneath her fingers. Soft and worn.
The immortal was truly never as he appeared.
"You will see," Stone said as he tightened his arms around Skybright's waist, clasping her close like a lover.
It was unexpected, both thrilling and terrifying; his usual warmth felt uncomfortably hot against her skin.
Then Stone leaped off the cliff edge.
A strangled scream tore from Skybright's throat, but the sudden rush of air snatched it away in an instant, and she couldn't draw enough breath to even gasp as they plummeted toward the lake far below.
* * *
Skybright plunged at a stomach-wrenching speed through the air, her arms wound tightly around Stone's neck. The immortal couldn't die, but she probably would, smashed like a melon against the water's surface the same as if it were rock.
"Trust me," Stone's calm voice somehow said within her ear, and she would have bitten him hard on the shoulder if she hadn't been so frightened.
They slipped under the frigid lake moments later, as seamless as an arrow. The change from rushing air to the oppressive weight of the dark waters was shocking, and Skybright threw her head back, seeing the glimmer from the lake's surface grow faint. Water filled her nose and her ears. Instinctively, she opened her lips to scream, and it whorled into her mouth, pressing against her throat. She closed it too late; she would die like this.
Skybright squeezed her eyes shut in panic.
Then she felt Stone's mouth on hers, gently parting her lips with his own. With an intake of his breath, the water rushed from her; then he breathed out, and sweet air filled her mouth, easing the tightness of her throat, the ache in her lungs. She opened her eyes. His shoulders were edged in a faint silver light, making his form the one thing she could see in the darkness they were now floating in. Stone always glowed.
She pressed closer to him, hysteria threatening to rise. She had never learned to swim and had an irrational fear of drowning she had shared with no one but Zhen Ni. Her throat hitched, and she moaned inside, a sob suppressed by Stone's mouth. His eyes flickered open at the small noise. She was certain he could taste her horror.
Then his lips began moving against hers, warm and insistent. She gasped, breathing in the precious air he gave, even as she felt his tongue against hers. He was kissing her, and there was nothing she could do but cling to him desperately because to let go was to die. Even in the frigid water, his flesh was hot, and she began to feel lightheaded, like the first time he had kissed her in the forest.
If kissing Kai Sen was like grounding Skybright in her own body, heightening all of her senses until her soul was drawn taut, kissing Stone was like falling away from herself, as if he was literally pulling her spirit out by a thin thread into oblivion. She could no longer feel her own flesh, the wet, or the cold but instead drifted in a sea of starlight, not knowing at all which way she was reeling.
* * *
Skybright jarred against something, the motion flinging her neck back, and her head lolled. She didn't want to open her eyes, feeling as if she'd drunk too much rice wine; her temples throbbed, and her lips tingled. Someone set her on her feet, and her knees shook, causing the arms that had clasped her waist to tighten again.
"Hmm," Stone said to himself.
Hearing his voice snapped Skybright back into consciousness, and she pushed herself away from him with both hands, so hard she almost fell backward. She looked down and saw that her tunic and trousers were sopping wet, clinging to her body, revealing curves she'd always kept hidden within their loose folds. Furious, her vision blackened for a moment. She lifted her eyes to see Stone standing before her, as dry as a sheet that had been hung on a line in the sunshine for a day, immaculate.
She slapped him hard across the face. He didn't even blink. "I could have drowned!" she shouted, her voice quivering. She fisted her hand, ignoring the sting of her palm. It had been like hitting a statue. She had left no mark on his cheek.
"Of course not," he replied. "I would not have let that happen. You are safe in my care, Skybright."
His care. She bit down on her lip. She didn't want to be in his care. "And ... and you kissed me! Without asking!" Her shoulders jerked, as if she were going to hit him again, and he had the sense to lower his head. Not from fear, she knew. She hadn't hurt him. She couldn't hurt him. He was too powerful.
"I know you do not like to be kissed," he said.
She almost laughed aloud; he was so far from the mark, missing her point entirely. She felt hysteria rising again, the weight of the endless waters pressing against her, trying to invade every pore of her being, and shivered violently.
"The kiss was the only way I could think of to help you forget where you were." He raised his hand, and a dress with pink and lavender silk panels shimmered into existence. "The journey with you in the lake took longer than when I travel through it on my own. You are frozen and wet. I apologize, Skybright."
She snatched the dress from him, even as her teeth clacked together, and swept the wet strands of hair from her face. The kiss had made her forget where she was — drawn her soul away from herself. But what did he feel when they kissed? It is how I learn more about you, he had told her once. Likely, he felt nothing. Stone raised his other hand, and a thick, white towel manifested, which he handed to her. Snuffling, Skybright glared at Stone for good measure. She refused to thank him, so they simply stared at each other for a long moment.
"Turn around," she demanded.
Stone opened his mouth, then clamped it shut without speaking before turning his back to her. He folded his arms, his shining armor making no noise, and stilled, as immoveable as his name.
Skybright rubbed her hair furiously with the plush towel before peeling the clothes from her body. Her gaze never left Stone's broad back. It wasn't as if he hadn't seen her naked before — in both serpent form and as a girl — but it was the last transgression she could endure after that terrible descent into the dark waters. She then took in her surroundings as she dried herself. They were in a magnificent foyer. The long chamber was built of rectangular white brick, but the crevices between them glowed a deep orange-red. The light from behind those walls pulsed, like a living entity, casting the entire room in its angry hue. The high ceiling was pitched into a triangular peak, and the one exit in the chamber was a gaping square hole flanked by two demon statues.
Excerpted from Sacrifice by Cindy Pon. Copyright © 2016 Cindy Pon. Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
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