If you've been paying attention, it's no secret by now that CLOUDED BY ENVY, a thrilling new contemporary fantasy from Candace Robinson drops TOMORROW!!!
But before you do, we wanted to offer readers a sneak peek at the first chapter in Robinson's new release!
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Brenik could not get the vision of the headless Sarillas’ bodies he had seen yesterday out of his head. Their necks looked to be perfectly snapped but when he had inched closer, he could see the outline of where the skin had been ripped, blood leaking onto their dark fur. The Jovkins had only eaten the heads, and the Sarillas’ torn bodies were left to rest in the damp grass, as if at peace.
Shaking the vision out of his thoughts, Brenik stood on a tree branch beside his sister, Brayora. He stared intensely at Junah, the creature in front of them, and listened intently to what she needed to say.
“You two must flee while you are still able—before there is nowhere for you to hide any longer,” Junah said with sweat beading against her temples.
The long black horns sprouting from her forehead appeared to penetrate into Brenik’s thoughts, while the shorter ones attached to her temples pointed in two different directions, as if confusing him in which way he should flee in.
Brayora lunged forward and flew down to wrap her arms around Junah’s thick ankle. “Junah, we do not want to run and hide away again. You have been like a mother to us this whole time, and what if something happens to Brenik? I… I would not be able to live with myself!” she cried as her tearstained face turned toward Brenik.
He wanted Bray to be free from harm, but more than anything, he wanted himself to remain safe. Turning her head back around, Bray buried her face flat against Junah’s leg. Brenik watched as Bray’s black braid fluttered against her obsidian wings—each thin vein seemed to pulse rapidly with the fright of having to leave their home. Bray gently lifted her head, released Junah’s ankle, and took several steps back.
Brenik dove off from the branch, beating his wings until his bare feet hit the cool grass beside his sister. Junah’s giant form knelt in front of them. She stared down at Brenik and Bray intently, her golden eyes beaming against her gray skin. Keeping silent, they waited for Junah to speak.
“I am going to let you two little ones know a secret I once attempted myself. It did not work for me, but it may for you. I did not want it to come down to this, but sometimes things do not work out the way we would like.” She paused for a moment before speaking again, and Brenik felt worry gather within his small body. “Away from here—about half a day’s journey to the south—you will stumble upon a rose-shaped stone. Once there, place your hand against the petals and wait for the Stone of Desire to rise, then you may ask for safe crossing. If worthy, you shall pass. If not, you will have to continue hiding. The Jovkins have started to hunt the Sarillas more and more, but bats are still their priority.”
Brenik knew Junah was right—the fact that they were bats made them vulnerable. Their race had been long hunted in Laith by the Jovkins—Junah’s kind. The Jovkins claimed the bats ate all their fruits, but Brenik’s race was so tiny in comparison to them that it should not have mattered. But what was theirs was theirs, the Jovkins seemed to think.
Reaching desperately for Bray’s dry hand, Brenik clenched it with his sweat-slicked one, irked because she was not as frightened as him.
Pulling him closer, Bray leaned her head as far back as she could to gaze up at Junah. “I will do whatever I can to protect my brother.” The tears that had streamed down Bray’s cheeks had already dried, but against her pale skin, her red lips still resembled the color of blood from her sobbing.
When Brenik and Brayora were born, their mother left them behind because there were two of them. Usually, only one bat was born at a time—but there were two who drew their first breath that day. Brenik was too insignificant for his mother to worry about, and because Bray had gotten most of the nourishment—she had been perfectly healthy. It was always her fault. Junah had found Bray and Brenik near a peach tree—instead of destroying their fragile bodies as she was meant to have done, she had taken care of them ever since.
Laying a large open hand against the luscious grass, Junah gave them both a tilt of the head. Brenik and Bray stepped forward onto her palm, and she brought them both up to her shoulder. Bray was the first to step from Junah’s large hand, and she lunged for the Jovkin’s neck in a long hug, arms unable to even wrap halfway around her. Brenik stood on the end of Junah’s shoulder and watched as she mumbled to Bray that she loved her. With one last kiss to the neck, Bray fluttered off, allowing Brenik to finally say his goodbye.
Rushing forward to the warmth of Junah’s gray neck, he wrapped his thin arms around her as much as they would go—which wasn’t far. “I will miss you, Junah,” he said as tiny tears dribbled down his cheeks.
Junah’s neck creaked as she turned to face him, and he backed away to the edge of her shoulder. She appeared tired, and her age was beginning to show—in the deep lines across her forehead and the wrinkles that sketched beside her eyes. “Brenik, there is a darkness and jealousy in you which has to stop now. I know you love your sister, but the envy needs to cease, or it will destroy everything that is a part of you. I have seen your kindness, Brenik. You both mean everything to me, so protect each other because I love you.”
With a sharp inhale, he leaped from Junah’s shoulder. Brenik thought about the words the Jovkin had spoken and although he cared about her deeply, he could not mutter those words back.
A loud howl traveled through the forest, followed by a scream of agony. Brenik flinched midair because he always recognized the sound of a Jovkin tearing its victim to pieces.
“Go!” Junah hissed.
Not turning back once to look at Junah, he flapped his dark wings fiercely, until he found Bray at the edge of the forest, standing on a small branch with black leaves.
“We have to hurry, little brother. It will be all right,” she murmured, as if she were in charge and the only one who was okay. Well, he was okay, too.
Choosing not to answer his sister, Brenik zoomed right past her. How dare she always call me little brother? he thought. It was only because she was born before him by barely any wind beats. All he heard was a trickle of laughter behind him as they soared through the air, like he was playing a game with her. A smile crossed his face at her sounds because maybe he was.
Brenik’s wings pumped quicker and quicker as he flew past more inky leaves. The foliage changed colors as he flew farther—to sapphire, followed by a deep pink. Hearing her inch closer, he tried to flap even faster, but she was too swift. Bray gave him a small wink when she caught up, then whipped her head forward and zipped by.
There was no sign of sweat on her face, while Brenik was soaked in perspiration. Wet beads pressed to the back of his shirt, making the material of his tunic cling heavily against his skin and slow him down.
Sighing heavily, Brenik wanted to give up. There was nothing he was better at than her. Always second best. Always nothing. He loved her… He hated her… But he needed her because he would miss her more than anything.
“Wait, Bray!” he yelled, not wanting to be left behind by himself.
Spinning around, she gave him a playful grin until she saw his face. “What is wrong, Brenik?”
“Just… Just... Don’t leave me behind. Please,” he stuttered, hating himself even more for the weakness of needing her.
They both came to a halt for a moment on a large crooked branch.
“I would never leave you behind,” Bray said. “I love you, and I am always here to protect you. Always have been—always will be.” She wrapped her arms tightly around his back, and tugged Brenik into a solid hug.
Pausing for a moment with his hands at his sides, Brenik finally brought them up to hold her just as tight. She was his only family now. When they were first born, right before they could fly, Bray attempted with all her might to carry him because he was not strong enough to move his wings. She helped him get through it, yet it was also her fault that he was the way he was—even though it was not.
Brenik pushed the conflicting thoughts away. “I am here for you, too,” he said. They had only been alive on Laith for ten years, but after all they had been through, it felt much longer than that.
Slowly releasing him, Bray dove from the tree. Before he followed, Brenik scanned the ground below and his eyes widened with fright. There were bones thrown and scattered across the lush greensward. The Jovkins must have torn the bodies apart, ate what they wanted, and disposed of the bones like they were nothing.
Brenik didn’t want to worry Bray, so he leaped off the gnarled branch and followed her to search for the Stone of Desire. He kept his thoughts away from Junah and what lay ahead, because it would have to be better than the death that awaited them if they remained in Laith.
Together they flew and they flew, through the blend of trees that were all a blur except the leaves’ embodiment of color that warped Brenik’s vision. Time had no meaning until the sound of water flowing awoke him from his trance. Slowly, Brenik let his wings lessen their movement right as Brayora did the same.
A large white boulder slid into view. “Brayora, look! I think that is it,” he called.
His sister’s head twisted back to him, then whipped around to where he was frantically pointing. “You are right, little brother. That has to be it.”
Higher and higher Brenik flew, until he could tell the structure on top of the stone was the shape of a rose. The rock was bright white, and dark shadows seemed to dance all around it under the twin suns’ flakes of bright light. Already, they were in the process of setting to make room for the twin moons to rise.
Closer. He needed to draw closer. Swishing his wings back and forth, slower and slower, he let his body descend toward the top of the rock’s creases before landing in between two folds. Shortly after, Brayora dwindled down beside him.
Kneeling on the rough stone, Brenik lifted his hand to press it to the grain at the same time as Bray whispered, “Put your hand against it like Junah said.”
“I know,” he shot back, his face contorted in rage. She did not need to remind him how to do everything. Her expression told him she was sorry, yet she still monitored his movements closely.
Brenik smacked his hand against the boulder while his sister gently pressed down on it. Shifting his focus from the rock to Bray’s face, Brenik found no answer of what was to come. Her gaze penetrated the rock as if she was trying to command it to move—but everything was not commanded by her like she thought it was.
At that precise moment, a hard quake knocked Brenik backward. He struck the right side of his wing against the rough edge of the rock fold. Maybe she does command everything, he thought. Quickly, he rubbed the tip of his wing where it radiated with pain, and then hopped off the Stone, followed by Bray.
His hands were by his sides, fingers fluttering with intense movements of nervousness, when another vibration from the Stone shook the ground, causing it to inch side to side. Dirt surrounding the white rose rock slithered away in broken fragments.
Bray appeared to be the epitome of calm, while Brenik wanted to fly back to Junah to let her know what happened. His heart pounded and ached at having to leave Junah. But no matter what, he could not go back. The Jovkins could already be making their way to where Junah was.
The large rock ascended from the ground as a consistent convulsion shook the surrounding trees. Birds rapidly chirped above them and then stormed away, causing a few crunchy brown leaves to rain down upon Brenik.
Bray and Brenik floated softly to the ground. The jolting noises stopped after the rock had grown into something new, almost oval-like. It stayed perfectly still, unmoving. Then it happened. It awakened, unfolding from different areas: thin, long legs emerged from the bottom—alabaster stone arms emerged from the sides. A head poked out like a turtle coming out of its shell, and the rose structure seemed to glide downward to cover its back.
The sight of the Stone’s head caused Brenik to take two steps back. Shaking, Brenik gritted his teeth and then bit the side of his tongue to make it bleed, so he could focus on something else. The two eyelids of the Stone leisurely opened to reveal eyes the color of raven wings. No nose. No mouth. But somehow it spoke in a voice that was low and deep.
“What do you desire?” The voice didn’t come from outside, it came directly inside Brenik’s head.
Bray appeared startled, too. Neither one of them said anything to each other, both only focused on the creature in front of them.
“What do you desire?” the voice boomed inside Brenik’s skull once again. His head felt like it was on fire. He lifted his hands and placed them against his temples to try and make the stinging sensation stop.
Bray, ever the brave one, spoke up for the both of them. “A Jovkin named Junah sent us here and said you may be able to send us away—somewhere safe.”
Tilting its head to the sky and then gingerly angling it down, the Stone crawled toward them. “So, you want me to save you. Why should I do this?”
“Please, I want you to help my brother. Harbor us, but most of all protect him.” Bray fell to her knees in pleading.
“And you?” The Stone’s head shifted lower until it was just a hairsbreadth from Brenik’s face.
“Yes, please save me. I—I won’t be able to survive if you leave me here.”
“What about your sister?”
“Yes,” he rushed the words out. “Her, too.” He did not want to be separated from his sister on the journey, and he would not leave without her.
Suddenly, the Stone shuffled backward. Brenik thought the Stone would leave them both there, but then it spoke. “I will grant access, but only because of her—how badly she wants to save you. She is pure and will be granted a gift to survive where I will be sending the both of you. If you agree, you may pass.”
Brenik did not understand why Bray was to be granted a gift and not him. His shoulders slumped, and his heart sank because this was how it always was and always would be. Again, he was only second best. But for their escape, he would agree to anything. “We agree,” he murmured.
The Stone of Desire nodded its head and slid a hand across the dirt, flipping its palm upward for them. Brenik stepped onto the stone with his bare feet pressed against the roughness, while Bray flew down toward the middle, grabbing his hand.
Casually, the arm coasted backward, and Brenik grew afraid that they were going to be eaten, but since the creature had no mouth he was not sure how that would be possible. They were pulled under and farther back into the depths of shadows, until there was a sudden flash of white light, and then another bout of darkness.