I'm so happy to present chapter three of my upcoming novel, The Shadow Soul!
I'm currently working on final editing rounds, so just a reminder that this is still an advanced uncorrected version!
If you missed chapter one -- click here!
If you missed chapter two -- click here!
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Without further ado... chapter three of The Shadow Soul!!
~ Northmore Forest ~Blue.
There are so many shades of blue.
The deep midnight of a heart in mourning.
The gray shadow behind closed eyes.
The hot white when they first open.
The oscillating flashes of blinks, until it's just one bright hue against the clouds.
Jinji saw them all, laying there, staring up through the trees because her body had forgotten how to move. Even if she had strength left in her muscles, there was none left anywhere else. Her spirit was spent, was broken.
So she kept watching the clouds drift, even as her eyes began to sting and tear and dry again, she kept looking up. Because the other option was to close them, and every time she did, all she saw were shadows—darting between flames, circling in blood, hiding behind big, brown eyes.
The shadow had taken everything, but it still hunted her. In her dreams, in her sleep, even in her waking eyes—it was always there.
Something nudged Jinji's foot, but she didn’t stir.
Then something wet and slightly scratchy brushed her hand.
Hot breath tickled the hairs on her arm.
Just let me be, Jinji thought, ignoring the sensations. She wanted to join her family in the spirit realm, to drift away unnoticed by the world.
And she had been so close.
And then Jinji really looked at the blue sky above her, noticing it as if for the first time. How was she outside? Why wasn't she still in her pallet, blanketed by the memory of her parents and of Janu?
And that little twinge of curiosity was enough to finally push her into movement, after days of indifference something had broken through the hurt.
Slowly, carefully cajoling her muscles back to life, Jinji lifted her head and looked into two bulbous black eyes.
She jerked back—her entire body shocked into movement.
A very large animal was looking at her, leaning over her, but Jinji wasn't afraid. If it had meant to hurt her, it would have. Instead, the creature leaned its head forward, slapping a soaked tongue against Jinji's cheek.
She rolled away, standing quickly. Blinded from the head rush, she wobbled on unsteady feet until she felt soft fur under her fingertips and held on for balance.
"Thank you," she whispered and opened her eyes.
Jinji ran her hands over the soft hairs and felt the animal sigh. At the sight of a large leather seat, Jinji remembered what it was called—a horse. The newworlder who came to give the children language lessons always rode one.
"Who traveled with you?" Jinji asked, continuing to pet its neck.
The horse stomped, dipping its head in the direction of the water. Following the line, Jinji looked along the ground. Sure enough, she saw footsteps into the stream and out the other side.
The footsteps of man.
Suddenly, Jinji's hands dipped to her legs, feeling for her animal skins.
She let out a breath—they were still there. Her eyes searched for any maltreatment, but there were no rips or tears in her clothes, no aches in her body where they shouldn’t be.
Her parents had warned her about males in the new world, especially about ones who could not control their urges. It was the reason she had never traveled to the great cities her father spoke of—she was not allowed to until she joined, and then Maniuk would…
No, Jinji thought as her chest clenched tight and her mouth dried, Maniuk would not be taking her anywhere. Nor would her father. Or her mother. Or…
Water. She needed water.
Jinji ran, falling next to the river, and dipped her hands deep into its cooling currents, splashing her face.
A moment later, Jinji realized the curtain of hair normally falling over her shoulders was not there. Goosebumps rose on her neck and she reached back, grasping the air.
She had chopped it off.
The memory slowly returned as she rubbed her fingers over the mess that remained, chopped and ripped, her own personal battlefield.
Hesitant, she leaned over the water. It had been so long since she had seen herself without long, flowing locks—the sight of her face free of the frame of black would be a shock, but she needed it.
They were gone.
Her prayer had failed and she had to face it.
As much as she wished to fade away, to leave this place, she had been kept alive for a reason. And right now, remembering her people, that reason was vengeance. She would find the shadow and she would destroy it.
Taking a deep breath, Jinji forced her eyes to the water to look into her braid-less, tribe-less, but not purposeless reflection.
The image of Janu stared back at her.
With a yelp, Jinji fell onto the grass. An electric shock pulsed through her body, setting all of her hairs on end. Disbelief.
Reservedly, she sat up and leaned over the water again.
The image was slightly distorted by the moving current, but it was unmistakable in her eyes. The slightly flatter, higher cheekbones of her brother. His slightly wider eyes and thinner mouth.
Almost the same as she, but yet completely different in Jinji's eyes.
The blue spirit strands flowing through the water appeared in her vision, almost as if they could read her mind. Searching through the spirits, she peered closer, and closer, until the white spaces, the mother spirit of jinjiajanu was there. She grasped it, and almost instantly felt the illusion woven across her facial features.
Using only her mind, she felt along the tightly knotted strands circling her face, and she remembered—remembered lying in that bed dressed in Janu's clothes, wishing beyond everything else that he was there instead of her.
In their own way, the spirits had listened to her prayer. They couldn't let her trade places with the dead, but they could for a time, let her pretend.
She felt her clothes again.
Her savior, whoever he was, must have thought her a boy.
Well, she was happy to keep it that way. And feeling the knots tied tight across her face, Jinji realized that this illusion was built to last—was permanent. Nothing would unravel until Jinji decided it was time to reveal her true face, to let the mask of her brother's features fall away.
Now was not that time.
Releasing her connection with the spirits, Jinji stood and looked over the water one more time. The sight of her brother gave her strength and made her feel less alone, even if it was just an illusion.
Masked by Janu's face, she felt ready to find this man—her unknown protector.
The Arpapajo were gone, but not forgotten. They lived through her, and venturing into the new world was the only way Jinji would ever be able to find the answers they all so desperately needed. So that was exactly what she planned to do.
And maybe, after all of the mysteries had been solved and the shadow was gone, maybe then the spirits would let her drift away—maybe then they would let her truly enter their world.
With a sigh, she turned and waved to the horse.
"Follow," she said and the horse stepped forward. Satisfied, Jinji turned towards the tracks.
The sun was starting to lower in the sky. They would have to move fast.
Wasting no time, Jinji splashed through the water and ventured further into the woods.
The more she walked, the more footprints she saw and the more signs of life. Bushes carelessly chopped. Branches thoughtlessly broken. Something had been in her woods.
After a long while, when the sky had already started turning pink, Jinji heard what she was searching for.
Deep, boastful, taunting laughter. The sound of someone who thought they had won without even realizing the fight had yet to be fought.
Behind her, the horse neighed and stomped its feet. Jinji reached for the leather straps hanging from its body, calming the poor animal down, before securing it to a low-hanging tree branch. The time had come for them to part ways, at least for a little while.
Using the growing darkness as a cover, Jinji moved closer to the noise. In these moments, her body felt as one with the forest. The dirt seemed to soften under her feet, muting any sound. The trees opened wide, letting her move swiftly between them. Even the animals quieted, as though they were in on the mission.
Normally, she hunted for game. But not tonight.
As the sun disappeared, a fire brightened into view, flickering through the woods like a beacon for her to follow.
Jinji crept as close as she dared before stopping behind a large tree trunk and peering around the edge to survey the scene.
There were five men—four smiling, and one distinctly more sullen.
Her rescuer, Jinji thought dryly, taking in the straps binding his ankles and the harsh angles of his arms, which must be bound behind his back. His skin was pale, reminding her of her joining dress, bleached by the sun rather than baked by it. His hair was light brown, fused with red, almost like a bird's feathers—a color Jinji had never seen on a man. Even sitting, he seemed rather large, stockier than the boys she had grown up with.
But more than anything, Jinji found herself drawn to his eyes. They were green, like the forest, filled with a deep despair that Jinji understood. Hopelessness. The feeling of failure.
Even though the two of them could not be more different, Jinji felt as though she looked into her own reflection. Her eyes, brown as they were, told the same story. And that sense of shared loss made her want to help.
Jinji shifted slightly, taking in the other four men. It was their laughter that rang through the trees.
They were not particularly large or threatening, more like foxes than bears, but still she was outnumbered. Jinji looked at the red tint to their cheeks, the jugs in their hands, the wide smiles plastered on their lips. Something was odd, like they had leaned too long over a fire and breathed in too many fumes. Their eyes were vacant, open but unaware.
Perhaps it would be easier than she realized.
Jinji reached for the knife at her waist, but grasped nothing. She looked down, wincing at her idiocy. Her brother's skins. She was in her brother's skins, not her own. Her knife was a long distance away, back home lying useless on the ground.
Using the fire light, she searched the ground, but a branch would not be nimble enough to wield against four foes. One maybe, she could knock out, but four? No.
Jinji turned back to the camp. They had to have weapons.
She crept in a circle, moving behind the trees and just out of sight. The men looked unarmed and relaxed. But surely they kept protection with them.
And then a bright light caught her eye.
She looked closer.
The hint of flickering fire gleamed from the dark.
A newworlder weapon. Jinji had only seen them a few times, like hardened water they shimmered. Metal, she thought. The newworlders fought with metal and not rock. But, she sighed, it would have to do.
It looked like her knife, slightly longer with a curved edge rather than a straight one, and a cuff circled the handle.
A few feet out of reach. She would have to make herself known before grabbing it. But then she would be exposed, and if one of them held a weapon she couldn't see, Jinji would be dead. And she would never avenge her people.
Oh what she wouldn't give for a spear—something she could throw from the shadows. Slamming a fist against her leg in frustration, she searched for another option. But there was none.
A drumming sound caught her ear, pounding closer and closer.
From her peripheral, Jinji saw her rescuer look up with a gleam of hope, the smallest hint of a smile.
A squeal sounded through the darkness.
All four captors looked up from the fire, brows furrowed.
The horse, Jinji realized. Her knot hadn’t been tight enough—thank the spirits.
The thunder got louder, quicker.
The men stood, turned towards the darkness, searching for the cause of the noise on swaying feet.
Before she had time to second guess, Jinji jumped from the trees and ran the short distance to the gleaming knife, gripping it's cool hilt.
She felt eyes on her.
Jinji looked up, right into the crystal green irises of her former rescuer. They were wide, shocked, and then satisfied.
A deep yell interrupted her focus, and Jinji stood swiftly, swinging the knife into the throat of the man reaching for the weapons at her feet. Blooded spurted out, raining on her like a wave as he crashed to the ground.
Before it was too late, Jinji gripped another knife from the pile, this one smaller and more like the ones she was used to.
Another man turned from the darkness, looking straight at her, and she acted out of reflex.
The blade landed with a thud against his forehead, sinking until only the hilt remained. All life left his face before he fell knees first to the ground.
The last two men spun, taking Jinji in with surprise. She was small, she knew, but that didn’t mean she wasn't threatening. And two of their companions were already down.
They stepped apart, circling her, coming closer at two different angles, and her heart sank.
These men were trained—intelligence reflected in their eyes, their movement. She had never been in a real fight before, not one against people. Animals were different, they tried to run. But these men had turned in challenge.
She brought the curved knife up in front of her face, flicking her gaze from side to side, never taking either man out of sight.
They were creeping in.
The man who had saved her before was wriggling his body, trying to get free of his bindings, was yelling out to her, but she couldn't hear his words.
Jinji's own breath filled her ears, loud and ragged. Her heart hammered with the decision to move left or right. Which man would she face and which would she turn her back on? She had to choose soon before they were both on her, unchallenged.
She flicked to the smaller man, coming in from the right.
Her attention shifted to the larger man on the left, his eyes more unfocused and his footing a little more unsure.
Jinji jumped, and feigned right before moving all of her weight to the left. The man was slow, but his bicep rose just in time to block her blow with his forearm. The knife dug deep into the leather strapped to his skin, and though blood seeped through, it was not enough.
She pulled, but the curved side of the knife had dug too deep and Jinji could not get it free.
The man reached with his uninjured arm, wrapping long fingers around her throat. He was too big. She kicked as his grip tightened. Her breath wouldn't come. His fingers squeezed, lifting her onto her toes as she tried to fight.
Did I survive just to die like this? She thought. Could life really get more cruel—to give a glimmer of hope and then take it so swiftly?
Over her shoulder, the other man grabbed a weapon and raised it high over his head.
She tugged at the hand trapping her, but it did not budge.
The other man readied his aim, preparing to lunge the metal straight through her back.
Jinji closed her eyes, prepping for the blow, her family's faces flashing in the darkness. A new sense of failure and loss penetrated her heart.
But the pain never game.
Instead, pounding hooves broke into the clearing and the crunch of shattering bones sounded in Jinji's ears.
The grip on her throat tightened.
She opened her eyes, looking over her shoulder at the broken body under the horse's feet. The man's skull had caved in—his insides oozed out onto the grass.
She looked forward, into the fearful eyes of her captor, and knew what to do.
His muscles held her, so Jinji jumped, using his arm as an anchor, a kicked both of her feet against his chest.
A second later, she landed on the ground, banging her already sore head against the dirt.
The man stumbled back, and the body of a horse soared into Jinji's view, ramming into his chest.
The man fell, coughing up blood.
Jinji reached for the knife the other captor had dropped and stood.
He was already dying, she could see. The strength had left his limbs, the knowledge of his own mortality seeped into his features.
She arched back, bringing the knife deep into his chest, and twisted until the body stilled.
Jinji dropped the weapon and stumbled back, shuffling her feet closer to the stools by the fire until her body fell heavily on top of one.
Her hands were red, wet.
She wiped them on the ground, trying to fight the sudden awareness shocking her senses.
She had killed people. Killed them like they were food. No, like less than food. Animals at least served a purpose, they were not wasted. Their bodies fed the tribe, their skins clothed the tribe, their bones made weapons, and whatever remained was given back to the earth, to other animals that might use it.
But these men, these four bodies were like a weight on the world. Useless and heavy.
And why had she killed them?
Jinji's eyes moved across the dirt, over the fire, and into the wary expression of the only other living person around.
For a guide.
The horse had moved closer, nudging its head against the man's thick shoulder. He whispered something into the animal's ear and it stood, backing a foot away as though standing guard.
He turned, looking through the flames and right at Jinji.
When their eyes met, the spirits jumped into Jinji's vision, reaching out to her in way they rarely did, making their presence known even in the darkness. And she winced at the brightness.
All she saw were strands of fire, swirling and circling his body, spirits alive and constantly weaving new forms around his torso.
It was dizzying.
The bright red threads muted all of the other spirits, almost like he himself was a walking flame. She had never seen the spirits cling to a living being like this—they lived in the earth, in the soil and the leaves and the air and the streams, not in people.
Jinji blinked and the spirits disappeared.
The clearing was just a clearing, the fire just a fire, the trees just the trees. But the man was not just a man, not anymore.
The spirits were guiding Jinji's path now—they had enshrouded her in the image of her brother, they had brought her to this man, they had circled him in fire. They were the only things left in the world that Jinji trusted, and they were telling her to trust him.
But still Jinji stood and grabbed the knife, cutting his bindings free.
Chapter four will be revealed in December!