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Read an Excerpt of The Endless Skies by Shannon Price!

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Shannon Price’s The Endless Skies is a breakout standalone epic fantasy about shapeshifting warriors perfect for fans of Adrienne Young and Wonder Woman.

High above the sea, floats the pristine city of the Heliana. Home to winged-lion shapeshifters—the Leonodai—and protected from the world of humans by an elite group of warriors, the Heliana has only known peace.

After years of brutal training, seventeen-year-old Rowan is ready to prove her loyalty to the city and her people to become one of the Leonodai warriors. But before Rowan can take the oath, a deadly disease strikes the city’s children. Soon the warriors—including two of Rowan’s closest friends—are sent on a dangerous mission to find a fabled panacea deep within enemy lands.

Left behind, Rowan learns a devastating truth that could compromise the mission and the fate of the Heliana itself. She must make a decision: stay with the city and become a warrior like she always dreamed, or risk her future in an attempt to save everyone she loves. Whatever Rowan decides, she has to do it fast, because time is running out, and peace can only last so long…

The Endless Skies will be available on August 17th, 2021. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


1

ROWAN

 

Blood and feathers litter the arena. I flare my wings, digging my claws into the ground and taking a defensive position while I decide my next move. Across the pit, my opponent lets out  a snarl of annoyance. Blood drips from the jagged cut above her eye. My strike caught her as her helm had slipped sideways just enough for my claw to slice into the skin of her brow. She shakes her head, and droplets fly.

Still, she’s a warrior-elect like me, and she doesn’t let up. We may not be fighting to kill as we will when the king calls us to arms, but that doesn’t mean either of us are going to show much mercy.

We rush each other, teeth and claws bared and searching for any inch of exposed skin. My shoulder stings from a bite I should have dodged, but  the heat of the wound drives me forward like  a new flame. Leaping up, I use the wall of the arena to launch with my hind legs and try to hit her with my helm, but the other lioness reads my thoughts and dodges. As I twist to meet her again, she bats her wings hard, sending dust and debris into my nose and eyes. A moment later, she slams into my back legs, and I’m knocked off-balance, tumbling into the sandy ground.

Around us, the audience cheers, flowers gripped tightly in their hands. The blossoms, blue as the  uniform  of  warriors, will be thrown to the victor.

My opponent’s angry snarl rings loudly in my ear, spurring me to action. I jump to the side, flaring my wing, hitting her in the eyes as I do. Feathers snap and splinter in a shower of gold, and I brace myself against the ground. I shove my body weight into hers, the interlocking plates of our armor scraping shrilly against each other. She catches a bit of my wing in her jaws, and I yowl in pain—but she’s done exactly what I hoped she’d do.

Shifting my weight back onto my left side, I hook my right paw between her belly and her leg, knocking her off-balance.

The other combatant digs her teeth farther into my wing as she falls, batting her own wings so hard that we’re both lurched sideways with the force. I tighten my frame and twist quickly until my paw meets a vulnerable place at her throat.

I hold there, lifting my head to the sun, and let out a victorious roar.

A high trumpet sounds, followed by applause like rain. I back off my opponent. She shakes her head, blinking rapidly as blood continues dripping into her eye.

“Damn, I thought I had you,” the other warrior-elect says. “You fought well,” I return, brushing my wing against hers.

“I got lucky.” It’s not entirely true, but her expression brightens at my words. I’ve had more arena practice than she has, whereas she could best me in an archery tournament any day.

Across the arena, the royal pavilion is draped lavishly in gold cloth and weighty bundles of white blossoms, but neither the king nor queen are there. It had been empty all morning, so the previous fighters had told me. My heart sinks. I was hoping the king would make it in time. Instead, a warrior named Ezra—a swordsman in his early thirties who helped train the both of us—leads the formalities.

“Well done, warriors-elect,” says Ezra. “And congratulations to you, Rowan.”

“Thank you, warrior Ezra,” I reply.

My forelegs tremble with excitement and strain as the wound in my shoulder throbs. The citizens toss their flowers, and the blooms start to pile up at my paws. Their excitement melts any momentary disappointment away. I keep my face proud and relaxed, but inside, I’m beaming.

This time tomorrow, the king will actually address me, but as a fully fledged warrior. After four years of brutal training, my very bones ache to take the oath and fulfill the dream I’ve been working toward since I was thirteen. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be so eager. Even though the human soldiers have not attempted an attack in months, once I am a warrior, I can be called at any moment to fight.

It is an honor, but am I ready?

As we exit the arena, I bat my wings idly, sending the flowers and loose petals into a flurry. The crowd responds with claps and cheers. A curtain sweeps closed behind us as the names of the next combatants are announced.

“Show-off,” my opponent mutters good-naturedly.

Ahead of me, she takes her human form. The magic forged into her armor and clothes transforms with her, melting as easily as winter frost against the sun. The armor re-forms to her human head and arms as if it had never been anything but. As she lifts her helm, a healer comes over to her with a cloth soaked in something to halt the bleeding above her eye.

I summon my own magic. It only takes a thought, bright    and brilliant as the sun. The rush of warmth flares at my chest, flowing outward like a cascade of warm winds, until I’m standing on two feet in my human form, my dark wavy hair flowing to my mid-back. Immediately, the throbbing of my shoulder intensifies. Even though I don’t have wings in this form, the soreness will persist. A healer comes over and directs me to a chair.

“Be sure to stretch after bathing tonight,” the healer says. She pushes the loose strands of sweaty hair off my forehead, then wipes my face with a damp cloth. “Your shoulder will be fine, but I’ll put a salve on it to keep it from scarring.”

“Thanks, Prena,” I reply. After years of spars and mock battles, one gets to know the healers well. Prena is around my mother’s age and just as sharp, making her one of my favorites. “Your new uniform won’t cover the cut,” she says, her tone kind. “I guess you won’t mind that, will you?” “Not as long as that uniform is blue.”

“You warriors-elect,” she replies. “I swear on the skies it was just yesterday you were coming to me for something to ease your cycle pains. And now here you are, about to become a warrior at last.”

“Prena!”

“They must be speeding up the bells so time goes faster, is   all I’m saying.”

The older woman gives me a smart nod as she discards one cloth and starts pressing ground herbs into a fresh one. Even though she was born without a right hand, Prena’s skills as a healer are unmatched. “The skies had to keep something back,” she told me once. “Otherwise, I would have been too good at my job and Leonodai would live forever, like the sea-folk.”

Prena rubs a minty-smelling salve onto my shoulder. When she’s done, I lean forward and swap out my armored boots for leather sandals that’ll be better suited for the day’s heat. The sounds of the next fight echo from the arena, while music plays from farther outside the palace grounds. I listen for the high-pitched bells that mark the hour, but I don’t hear them. I might not be too late.

“You’re all set,” says Prena, wiping her hand on her olive-green uniform. The gold thread of the Leonodai crest sewn into the front catches the light as she does.

I leap up. “Thanks, Prena.”

“Thank me by stretching that shoulder. Don’t let my good work go to waste.”

I smile and duck out of the room. In my chest, my heart flutters as if it’s trying to fly from within me. An echo of cheers from the eastern side of the palace confirms that I’m not too late to watch the Race of the Four Gates. If I hurry, I can still catch the finish.

I take my lioness form, gliding above the palace and the massive crescent-shaped ridge beneath it. Toward the middle of the ridge, windows reveal the endless tunnels built into the stone. They’re already illuminated with candlelight and lanterns made of colored glass. The same will be done to the other palace windows, from the lowest level to the Glass Tower at the very top, as per tradition. Only the hollow Keep deep inside the base of the ridge will remain dark, but no one ever goes in the Keep, anyway. From this height, I can see all four rivers that mark the cardinal points of our diamond-shaped city. The waters pour from a magical spring far beneath the palace, rushing straight outward and off the edge of the island and into the sea below. Not many know of the grotto where the spring is hidden, but Callen, my oldest friend, and I had found it years ago in a game of hide-and-seek. My mother chastised the two of us when she found out, making us promise not to go back.

“That is sacred ground,” she said. “Only the royal family should ever visit that place, to remember the magic of their ancestors.”

Of course, immediately following our scolding, Callen and I made a pact to keep going there, but to keep it secret. As the years turned, we visited less and less. Now I can’t remember that last time we were there.

I turn toward the city’s center. Bundles of blue and white flowers, some from the hillsides beneath the palace and more from Vyrinterra across the sea, hang from windows let open wide to greet the summer air. More are strung through the soaring archways between homes and down the alleys toward the marketplace.

A dark blot of black in one of the garlands catches my eye. I swoop low to get a better look, but the sinking feeling in my stomach already tells me what it is.

The bird’s glossy eye stares out blankly. Judging by the lack of smell, it can’t have been dead for more than a few hours. Even though they don’t possess the Knowledge that gives Leonodai our speech and magic, our people feel a kinship with birds. After all, we share the skies.

Ox told me that the warriors were reporting the dead birds’ numbers to the sentinels. A day or two later, the sentinels asked warriors-elect to be on the lookout, too. I make a mental note to remember where I found this one so I can report it later.

Finding an open courtyard, I land and take my human form. I’m adjusting the sash at my waist when someone calls my name.

“Rowan!” a familiar voice calls.

I turn. Vera waves at me, shouldering her way through the crowd. Her pale blue skirt matches her shirt, which she’s twisted up to keep her cool—and to show off her toned stomach, which some lucky artist has painted with a swirling sun. With her long, pale blond hair and shapely figure, my friend and former roommate of four years has had no short supply of people chasing after her since the day we met. And since her archery tournament isn’t until later this afternoon, she can dress up all she wants for now. I hurry up to her, opening my arms for a hug.

“You look smug, so I take it you won,” she says. “I do not look smug,” I reply. “But yes, I did.” “Called it.”

I roll my eyes. “Did the Four Gates race start already? Who’s in the lead?”

The High Summer festival brings hours of competitions between warriors—while I was competing in the arena, other warriors and warriors-elect were running footraces and weaving through obstacle courses while citizens made good-natured bets. It is not only a way for warriors to unwind but for the whole city to bask in the strength of its protectors. High Summer is when the sun hits its peak for the year, and the Leonodai do, too.

The Four Gates race—though antiquated and no longer considered the be all, end all of who the best warriors are—was the original event that the festival had grown from, and thus  it is a city favorite. Elder Leonodai can still recount the winners from their youth. More than once, during late nights in the warriors’ dining hall, someone has gotten into too much wine during late nights at the dining hall and droned on and on about how many members of their family had ever won it.

Vera loops her arm in mine and begins leading us down the street. “Last we saw them, Sethran was ahead with a bunch right at his tail, including Ox. He might still catch up.”

I squeeze her arm back affectionately. “Where was Callen?” “I didn’t see him, actually.”

“Oh. That’s weird.” Callen and I have been practicing the route all week, racing until we were out of breath and covered in sweat. He is a faster flyer, which I hate, but I beat him once after biting him in the wing. It was cheating, but I swear he’d let me do it just so I’d stop pouting.

“Anyway, don’t worry. Your man’s still got time to win.”

I groan and look skyward as Ox’s face flashes in my mind. “Ox is not my . . . anything.” One look from the dark-haired, quick-witted warrior set my heart ablaze, but I was still getting to know him. I just couldn’t hide that I loved what I was discovering.

But I won’t gossip until I tell Callen. He’s been my best friend for nearly ten years, from even before I met Vera on our first day of warrior training. If Callen is going to hear about me and Ox from anyone, he’ll hear about it from me.

“Not your anything,” Vera echoes. “And yet I recall hearing you sneak into your room pretty late last night.”

I blush. “It’s not what you think.”

“Uh-huh,” Vera says, her expression unconvinced, but she still has a playful glint in her eye. “Come on. Let’s find a place to watch the finish.”

I let her lead us to the pavilion draped in ivory cloth reserved for warriors-elect. A couple of our friends wave their greetings, but most keep their eyes trained on the skies, looking for the competitors. Vera, never one to not get what she sets her mind to, jostles our friend Bel, a broad-armed warrior-elect and adopted son of one of the city’s finest ironworkers, to the side until we have a front-row seat.

“Thanks, Bel!” she says.

He rolls his eyes, flicking back his long, chestnut brown hair. “Not going to stand in your way, V.”

“Such a gentleman.”

“Thank me with a dance later?” he asks. She grins. “You got it.”

Vera turns back around, and I nudge her shoulder. “Don’t break that one’s heart, okay?”

“What?” she says, faking a shocked look.

“I like Bel. He’s nice. So you be nice to him, okay?” Back in the early days of my training before I’d tamed my rebellious streak, the instructors made me do extra drills when I spoke out—which was often. More than once, Bel had gone out of his way to grab a plate for me before the dining hall closed up for the night so I’d have something to eat when I was done.

“Fine, fine,” she says. “Not going to make you spar twice in one day.”

True friendship.”

Vera  starts chatting with the person on her other side as      I lean forward. The white stone of the causeway pushes into my stomach, but I’m desperate for a glimpse of the racers. The Four Gates races takes competitors around each of the cardinal points of the city, as well as under. The Heliana floats high above the wide sapphire sea, an ever-present citadel sustained by the magic of old. Somewhere below us, a team of Leonodai hold colored pennants that they’ll toss into the air for the racers to catch. Each racer will need five pennants—one from below and four from around the city—before they can circle back to the starting line.

A slight breeze sweeps over my skin, and I wipe the residual sweat from my match. I wish I’d had time to clean up, but time waits for no warrior.

“They’re in the final turn,” Vera says excitedly. “There!”

Six pairs of gold wings soar up from behind the Glass Tower to the west, followed closely by a second group of Leonodai, some of whom might be waiting for the last minute to make their break.

At the finish line, a single gold flag waves in the wind. To win, the warrior must fall from the sky as a lion, take their human form and grab the flag, then take to the skies once more in their proud lion form. It’s not a difficult trick in and of itself, but to do so with the other competitors clawing at your heels takes skill and timing, unless you want to take a claw to the face.

Last year’s winner, a warrior named Io, waves to the crowd from the victor’s platform across from us. On a muscled arm, Io bears the sapphire-studded armlet that goes to the winner each year.

“Why aren’t the sentinels up there?” I ask.

Vera shrugs. “Maybe they changed things this year.” “Yeah, maybe.” I’ll have to ask Shirene what held them up. I

see less and less of my sister these days, but she’ll be at my oath ceremony tomorrow.

First the king not at my match, and now the sentinels aren’t  at the finish line. I couldn’t think of any matter of state that would keep them away on High Summer.

“Sethran’s making a break!” Vera shouts, and my gaze snaps forward.

The competitors go into the final stretch, sure enough. Feathers explode in the air as their wings collide, but neither slows . . .

Ox lets out a final roar, but with a flash of magic, warrior Sethran takes his human form early and falls faster. He grabs the flag, then transforms instantly and soars skyward once more. The others fall in a flurry of feathers and flashes of magic, then recover and fly off to the side. Triumphant horns sound, warm and rousing.

“Woo!” I shout as the city erupts into cheers. Seth wins, and Ox got second! It won’t win Ox the iconic cuff, but I’m glad it went to Seth. He and my sister have been together for over ten years, having fallen for each other during their second year of training. At this point, I consider him an older brother.

“Come on,” Vera says, leaning close so I can hear her over the din, “let’s go walk around! We can find Ox after they wrap up the winner’s ceremony.”

The sound of Ox’s name makes my stomach flip. I nod. “Yeah, let’s go.”

Vera and I leave the pavilion and head toward the marketplace. Around us, children huddle in groups, playing with the new toys they received this morning, per High Summer tradition. Dancers in dresses the color of sunsets walk in twos and threes, giggling and flirting with the warriors. Colorful tents of vendors sell hand-carved goods, sparkling jewelry, and every manner of beautiful new garments.

“The silversmith’s got a long line, as usual,” Vera says, frowning at a growing crowd ahead of us. “I was hoping to see if he’s got a simple ring or something. I’ve always liked those earrings you’ve got.” She pauses. “Well, earring.”

I tuck my hair back behind my ear so the earring in question can show—a simple oval stud with a stone the color of a pale blue sky, and wrapped in silver. The set was my mother’s, but I admired them so much as a little girl that one day I took them. I gave the other one to Callen, and like me, he never goes a day without it. I keep a simple pearl in the other ear, but Callen just wears the one.

Vera and I peer at the wares. Silver rings with blue stones are laid out neatly in front of the silversmith in rows as he barters with customer after customer. As Vera tries on rings, I look around at the festival, now in full swing. Swaying lines of pennants and bells stretch between rooftops. In the distance, I spot a stage that has been built for dancers and singers. A troupe of children dance in unison—or at least try to. A small girl toward the end gets stage fright and tries to leave the platform, her face in her hands.

Next to the stage is a collection of food stalls, each with meals more decadent than the last. Fruit from Vyrinterra is expertly cut into flowers and skewered onto wooden sticks in colorful patterns. Fish sizzles nearby, blackened with savory seasonings. Children dart about in pairs, collecting discarded plates that are color-coded for each vendor. It’s a task I did myself when I was younger. They’ll be rewarded with a special thank-you note signed by the queen, but more importantly,  it’s an early lesson on what it means to treat the city and your fellow Leonodai with respect. Here in the skies, we rely on one another.

A group of shadows passes overhead, and I look up. Ox and his friends swoop low and take their human forms off the side of the next street. Vera pays for her ring—a thin, silver band with a tiny triangle of blue—and catches my eye knowingly.

“Come on,” she says.

Be calm, I tell myself, but my limbs are already light with excitement and nervousness. I’ve trained for battle. I can handle talking to a warrior.

Just a dark-eyed, handsome, intelligent warrior.

Ox’s friend and one of Vera’s archery mentors, Luca, nods his greeting when he sees us. “Happy almost ceremony day, warriors-elect,” he says good-naturedly. “You feeling ready?”

“Ready to move out of the Underbelly,” Vera says, referring to the lowest level of the Warriors’ Hall. After tomorrow, we’ll move rooms up a level to make space for the next cohort. Despite all of the Warriors’ Hall being warm and well-lit, the nickname for the ground floor has stuck around for generations.

“Ah, I remember that feeling,” Luca replies. “It’s worth it, I promise.”

“It’d better be,” Vera quips. “I didn’t spend all those hours firing arrows at your crazy targets for nothing.”

Inventive,” he says. “Inventive targets. Everyone loves that one I built that sends your targets at you.”

Vera groans, and as our friends keep talking, I give Ox a small, awkward wave. “Congrats on the race.”

He shrugs. “Could have done better.” “You were second.”

“Which, technically, means I could have done better,” he replies.

“Skies, you’re difficult. Fine. Next time, do better.”

He laughs. “Will do, kind lady. It would have been nice to get a prize, though.”

“How about a dance later tonight?” I ask.

“I’d love nothing more.” He smiles, and a  dimple  on  his right cheek makes my heart flip so wildly that I almost don’t hear him ask, “So, Rowan An’Talla, are you going back to the Hall?”

I exhale a laugh. Ox has an annoyingly endearing habit of calling me by my full name. “Not yet,” I say. “I want to go, you know, do festival things.”

“Well, would you like an escort?” he says, gently pulling me away from our friends.

“Don’t you want to go with Luca?”

Ox lets out an exaggerated sigh. “Actually, it’s all been a charade, and I don’t really like Luca. Archers, am I right?”

“First off, you’re both archers. And he’s your friend. Of course you like him.”

“Not like I like you,” he replies.

“Well, I . . . good.” Heat sears my cheeks, but  I mentally dig in my heels. I can’t let him best me so easily. “But really, go with him. We already spend so much time together. If I recall, we were up until nearly second bell talking in your room.”

He leans in closely so only I can hear. “And you could have been there all night, if you’d wanted.”

My blush rises. I can fight with all manner of weapons, but Ox is relentless with words. The question about me staying the night—and all that it entailed—had come up, but something held me back. Ox didn’t pressure me, but his eyes had ached for more.

“Come on,” he says, taking my hand and bringing me back to the present. “Let’s go do festival things.”

Despite what he said, Ox of course invites Vera and Luca to join us. Music carries from one end of the marketplace to the next, mixed with the laughter between warriors and citizens alike as wine is poured from cask to cup. Wares of silver and bronze gleam in the sunlight.

I glance at the increasingly familiar lines of Ox’s arms and chest beneath his cobalt-blue robes, the same robes that the sentinels will place in my hands tomorrow. For now, I’m stuck with the warrior-elect’s uniform: a long ivory tunic with cobalt hems, banded at the waist with a matching blue sash. The tunic has slits on either side, and underneath, tight-fitting linen pants go down to my ankles. A set of throwing knives—my preferred weapon, at least when first engaging an opponent—is belted over my sash with the sheath resting at my hip.

For a dance or formal ceremony, I might wear a dress, but I’ve worn this so often, it’s practically a second skin. Still, after seeing Vera all dressed up, I wish I were wearing something else. Something prettier.

“Congratulations, Warrior-Elect,” a passerby says to me, placing her hand gently on my shoulder.

“Thank you,” I reply cheerfully. “May the skies keep you.” “It’s happening,” Ox says, squeezing my hand as we move deeper into the crowd.

“One more day,” I reply. “It doesn’t feel real.”

Victory in the arena or competing in a race: neither matters as much as the fact that in less than a day, I will be a true warrior. Every cut scarred over, every weapon mastered. Every sleepless night as our superiors pushed us to the limits so we’d be ready to face any enemy. It will all be worth it when I take the warrior’s oath and accept my uniform.

I pause a moment to watch as a healer flies overhead, headed for the Glass Tower. Her shadow crosses over the two of us, and for a moment, I wonder why a healer would be flying straight to the king, during a festival of all days. I couldn’t think of anything so urgent as to call him there.

“Oh, hey,” I say. “I found a dead bird earlier, like the sentinels said to look out for.”

“Sentinel Renna said to report any of them to her,” Ox replies.

“I know,” I say. “Even we lowly warriors-elect got the same orders.” I resume walking. “I’ll write up a report tonight. No need to do it now, right?”

A selfish fear rises in my stomach. I am so close. So close to becoming a warrior. Whatever is going on must be serious, but  it won’t change anything.

I’ve dreamed of taking the warrior oath for years: the king speaking the words, and a sentinel handing me robes the color  of bravery and loyalty. I’ll put them on immediately, and when there is a break in the celebrations, I’ll go to my father’s grave and tell him I did it, I became a warrior just like we’d always talked about.

Nothing under the skies can take that dream from me.

Nothing.

Pre-order your copy of The Endless Skies—available on August 17, 2021!

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Read Shannon Price’s debut novel, A Thousand Fires—available now in paperback!

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