“Only the most powerful and honorable semidioses get chosen. I’m just a Jade. I’m not a real hero.”
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from young adult fantasy The Sunbearer Trials, the start of a new duology by Aiden Thomas, publishing September 6th with Feiwel & Friends.
As each new decade begins, the Sun’s power must be replenished so that Sol can keep traveling along the sky and keep the chaotic Obsidian gods at bay. Sol selects ten of the most worthy semidioses to compete in the Sunbearer Trials. The winner carries light and life to all the temples of Reino del Sol, but the loser has the greatest honor of all—they will be sacrificed to Sol, their body melted down to refuel the Sun Stones, protecting the world for another ten years.
Teo, a seventeen-year-old Jade semidiós and the trans son of the goddess of birds, isn’t worried about the Trials… at least, not for himself. His best friend, Niya is a Gold semidiós and a shoo-in for the Trials, and while he trusts her abilities, the odds of becoming the sacrifice is one-in-ten.
But then, for the first time in over a century, the impossible happens. Sol chooses not one, but two Jade competitors. Teo, and Xio, the thirteen-year-old child of the god of bad luck. Now they must compete in five trials against Gold opponents who are more powerful and better trained. Worst of all, Teo’s annoyingly handsome ex-best friend and famous semidiós Hero, Aurelio is favored to win. Teo is determined to get himself and his friends through the trials unscathed—for fame, glory, and their own survival.
Teo wiped the steam from the mirror and stared at his reflection. He shook out the water from his wings—they were impossible to reach with a towel—and stretched them out. He groaned. They were always so sore from being bound all day.
Teo turned side to side, trying to get a look at them in the mirror. A part of him hoped that they’d miraculously change one day, but no such luck. His feathers were still dull and brown. Feminine.
His wings were a part of him—his identity and his heritage—given to him by his mom, but they never felt right, as though they belonged to someone else or he’d been given the wrong ones. Teo had to work harder than a lot of guys to get the body he was meant to have, and most of the time that didn’t bother him. Testosterone was testosterone however it got into his body.
But his wings refused to get with the program. Why wouldn’t they be what they were supposed to be? Why couldn’t they just be his?
Frustrated, Teo took out a clean uniform and retrieved his backpack. Sitting on his bed, he fished out his small bottle of testosterone and a fresh syringe. The amber liquid moved like oil as he flicked the syringe to remove any air bubbles, tipped it upside down, and inserted the needle into his thigh. Giving himself his weekly dose of T was quick and easy after doing it for so many years.
When he was finished, Teo slapped on a Band-Aid and went to go find his friends. Niya had saved them a spot on some lounge chairs out on the deck. Teo listened while she and Xio sat together, flipping through the binder of trading cards with a look of intense concentration.
As a major Gold city, La Cumbre wasn’t far from the entrance to Sol City, but it was taking them forever to get there. He suspected the slow speeds were for show. As they coasted down the river, people stood along the banks, causeways, and bridges, waving and cheering like it was some kind of parade.
Teo would have thought that Auristela and Aurelio would’ve been eating up the attention, but instead they were lying out on the large, sunken couch, soaking up the sun. Auristela’s eyes were closed, her foot bouncing to whatever music she was listening to on her phone while Aurelio watched something on his.
It was actually Ocelo who raced back and forth along the railing, waving at their audience. Whenever they triumphantly raised their hands over their head, the cheering swelled.
Atzi, Xochi, and Dezi ran around the bow of the boat, trying to evade Marino as he sprayed them with jets of water he pulled from the river. Atzi used a fancy gold tray to protect her hair while Xochi danced out of Marino’s reach. They laughed, shouted, and chased each other, seemingly without a care in the world.
Were they all so confident about the trials that none of them were the least bit worried? The dread in his stomach kept getting heavier the farther they got from Sol Temple. It made him feel like he was walking through mud by the time they went to the upper deck for lunch. Everyone else was wide awake and hyper, talking animatedly and laughing.
The only other person who seemed rightfully worried was Xio. He plopped into the seat next to Teo and stared intently at his plate of food but didn’t touch a thing. Teo wanted to reassure him, but right now he couldn’t even reassure himself. Soon, they’d be competing in their first trial, and Teo was starting to worry whether he could make it through one, let alone all five.
He couldn’t even lift a weight without fucking up—how was he supposed to compete with elite Golds who had the advantage of training for the trials with professional Heroes?
Teo was pulled from his catastrophizing when an errant stream of water meant for Dezi hit Aurelio and Auristela. Aurelio flinched but Auristela gasped loudly and leapt to her feet.
Atzi, Xochi, Dezi, and Marino all froze, realizing their grave mistake. Auristela turned on them, her pristine ponytail now a sopping mess.
She bared her teeth and clenched her hands into fists. The water on her skin sizzled and evaporated into wisps of steam.
Dezi clamped his hands over his mouth, eyes wide with alarm. “Scatter!” Marino shouted and signed.
“She can’t kill all of us!” Xochi followed up before grabbing Atzi’s small hand and making a run for it.
“Watch me!” Auristela roared.
As the other four scrambled to get away, Aurelio shook the water out from the speakers of his phone. When it seemed to be working, he sat back and watched Auristela terrorize the others.
Aurelio had a pinched and unsure expression on his face. It was one Teo had seen many times when they were little kids and Aurelio wanted to play with the others but didn’t know how to start.
Back then, Teo would’ve just grabbed his arm and pulled him into whatever game it was. Watching him now, he wondered if Aurelio and Auristela’s tendency to keep to themselves was by design or if, despite his celebrity status, Aurelio hadn’t changed as much as he thought.
“What are you watching?” Teo asked him from across the deck, surprising both Niya and Xio.
Aurelio blinked. “Me?” “No, the guy behind you.” Aurelio turned.
“Baking videos,” Aurelio replied, wiping the screen dry on his shirt. Teo squinted at him, unable to tell if he was being sarcastic.
Aurelio responded with an arched eyebrow.
Teo huﬀed. “Fine, don’t tell me.” That was what he got for trying to make small talk.
Around them, the terrain grew hillier as the mountains in the distance gradually got closer.
“Are we there yet?” Xio asked Niya, who nodded enthusiastically, a wide smile brightening her face.
“We’ll be disembarking soon,” Luna said, appearing at the door.
Auristela stood with her fists on her hips, both Marino and Dezi pinned under her foot. Xochi and Atzi peeked out from behind a lounge chair where they had taken refuge.
Luna squinted at them but decided not to ask.
“Please head back to your rooms to make yourselves presentable,” she said.
Teo’s stomach clenched.
“Once we disembark, we are heading straight to the first trial.”
Tucked into the northwestern mountain range of Reino del Sol, La Cumbre was gorgeous and unlike any city Teo had ever seen. Its name referred to the large, dormant volcano the city was built against, at the top of which sat Tierra’s temple.
Teo had never seen mountains so big and up close. The buildings were tucked into the mountainside, carved into the stone, and there were a lot fewer trees than he’d imagined. The city shone, gold plating and silver trimmings glittering in the waning sunlight. Small paths zigzagged their way up the steep mountainside. The roads themselves weren’t paved but were made of soft, packed dirt.
The Golds chatted among themselves up ahead, placing their bets on what the first trial would be. Meanwhile, Niya and Teo hung back, Xio walking between them.
“I hope it’s a race,” said Xochi, readjusting the flowers that she’d taken from a bouquet in the kitchen and put in her hair.
“I bet it’s hand-to-hand combat” was Auristela’s enthusiastic guess.
“I want to fight a dios!” Ocelo announced, punching their fist into their palm.
“They’re not going to do that after what happened ninety years ago,” Aurelio said, voice edged with annoyance.
Teo shot Niya a concerned look over Xio’s head. “What happened ninety years ago?”
“Oh, competitors had to fight Diosa Culebra but she got a little overexcited,” Niya explained with a shrug, as if it were common knowledge. “Ended up constricting three competitors and breaking their spines”— she snapped her fingers—“right in half.”
“Dios,” Teo hissed under his breath. “I’ve never heard about that!” “Part of the curriculum at the Academy is learning about all the past trials,” Niya explained. “We use them as practice exercises!” Great. Just another Gold advantage.
“Bummer, though.” Niya sighed. “It’d be pretty cool to be able to say I fought a dios.”
Teo gave her a bewildered look. “You Golds are out of control.”
Xio remained silent at his side, staring straight ahead and not blinking in a way that made Teo nervous he might pass out before they got to their destination. He needed not to let his own nerves get the better of him, for Xio’s sake. If he started panicking then Xio would too, and that wouldn’t do either of them any good walking into the first trial.
He’d have to keep his expressions in check and push his worries down deep, where they could later manifest as a stomach ulcer or something.
“Don’t be scared,” Teo said quietly so the Golds wouldn’t overhear. “I’m not.” But Xio’s voice was tight as he continued to stare ahead. Teo and Niya exchanged worried glances.
The streets of the city were full of spectators lined up to watch them arrive. Tierra’s glyph—three mountains with the sun rising behind them—adorned lampposts, and altars to the god of earth were set outside businesses. Niya was clearly the crowd favorite. She had a huge smile plastered across her face as she waved, practically bouncing with excitement. Larger-than-life posters of Niya hung in shop windows and massive murals were painted onto the sides of buildings.
Apparently Chisme worked faster than Teo had realized, because when they rounded a corner, he was horrified to find a line of all ten competitor portraits taped up in the large windows of a grocery store.
The Golds looked like professional athletes who modeled all the time—posed, smiling, and powerful. Even Xio looked great, if a bit uncomfortable. His chin was raised and he stared right into the camera with a fierce look of determination.
Meanwhile, Teo’s poster on the far left was downright painful to look at. The uniform seemed even tighter on him than in the mirror and his face was pinched into a weird grimace, his hands in tight fists at his sides. A humiliated blush burned Teo’s cheeks and he tried to duck behind Niya, hoping no one would recognize him.
“We are about to enter the arena,” Diosa Luna announced and signed as they walked up to a huge circular stadium. “Get into a single-file line and follow me inside. Your parents will be waiting for you—please join them and I’ll go over the rules before we get started,” she said with a smile.
Teo took one last shaky breath before following the others through the looming arches.
They entered a long tunnel. What felt like thousands of voices bounced against the stone walls. When they stepped out into the arena, cheers from the crowd exploded.
The space was as massive as it was ancient. Weathered stone stadium seating surrounded the outer edge of the arena. Scattered amid the La Cumbre residents waving posters of Niya were pockets of other priests and semidioses proudly representing their home cities, everyone grouped with colorful robes and banners.
White flags rippled throughout the stands, mostly displaying Tierra’s glyph, but Teo could see the other Gold competitors all had supporters as well. Among the sea of white, there wasn’t a single jade flag. Teo wasn’t surprised, but it still stung. The only spot of blue and purple was in the far upper corner, where Quetzal and Mala Suerte’s priests sat.
A huge screen dominated the stands displaying Chisme in a chair on the right, while Verdad was on the left. Chisme was decked out in a white cotton outfit with an excessive amount of gold jewelry, including large hoop earrings, but Verdad wore the same boring black-and-white suit. Verdad’s expression was serious while Chisme’s was overly animated, but Teo couldn’t hear what he was saying over the noise of the crowd.
The promotional images of the competitors swiped across the screen one at a time. Normally, having a thirty-foot-tall, painfully awkward image of himself on display in front of tens of thousands of people would’ve been enough to send him spiraling, but there was something even more dire.
Rising up from a body of water in the center of the stadium was a craggy mountain. Steeply pitched, it was covered in lush tropical plants and trees. Tiny cascades of water fell in intervals, cutting through switchbacks that led up the steep face of the mountain. At the very top, a boulder-sized slab of gold carved with Sol’s glyph sat gleaming in the sunlight.
The full stands and towering peak were dizzying. Teo did his best to keep walking forward as vertigo sent his legs wobbling. Xio followed Niya with determined steps.
Aurelio and Auristela had already turned on the charm as they walked out into the stadium. Auristela smiled and waved while her brother lifted one hand, his mouth arranged in a smile, his eyes sharp and focused. The crowd welcomed the competitors with cheers as Luna led them to a platform where the dioses waited.
Aurelio and Auristela took their places on either side of their mother, as if standing guard, while Dezi ran the last few steps to his mom. Amor, the beautiful and full-figured goddess of love and community, swept him into a hug. When they broke apart, they signed animatedly to each other with matching apple-cheeked smiles.
As everyone split oﬀ to join their parents, Teo focused on his breathing as he crossed over to his mom. He felt outside of his own body, like it was on autopilot and he was just along for the ride. He’d thought seeing her would calm him down, but she looked just as anxious as he felt.
“Are you okay?” she asked, hugging him tight.
“Yes,” Teo lied. When she released him, he stood close to her side, looking anywhere but at the overwhelming crowd. His throat was tight, the neck of his uniform suﬀocating.
To his left, Xio was with his dad. Mala Suerte’s expression was stony and unfriendly as he stood still as a statue, his hand on Xio’s shoulder.
“Welcome to the Tepetl!” Luna called in a magnified voice as she stepped forward. The roaring cheers dulled to a low hum. Dios Mariachi—smiling in his white suit with brass cornet in hand—stood to her right and a familiar figure stood to her left.
It was strange seeing Fantasma out in broad daylight. Usually she didn’t show up to events until nightfall, and then she spent most of the time as a wallflower, hanging out in the shadows. It was obvious to Teo that this wasn’t in her comfort zone, either. Her hands fidgeted as nervously as the butterflies around her.
But for Teo, seeing her was a relief—a friend in an otherwise unfriendly place, even if Fantasma was a morbid reminder of the trials’ stakes. Teo smiled at her and she wiggled her fingers in a tiny wave with the slightest quirk of her lips.
“She’s so creepy.”
Auristela stared at Fantasma, her mouth twisted in disgust. “Why does she never talk?”
Ocelo snorted. “I heard she doesn’t have a tongue.” “Probably eaten by maggots,” Auristela replied.
Aurelio glanced over at his sister. He frowned, a deep crease between his eyebrows, and for a second Teo thought he might actually grow a pair and say something—but no. Instead he looked away, his attention focused back on Luna as he tapped his armband again.
Angry heat flushed through Teo. He clenched his hands into fists, nostrils flared as he tried to focus on what Luna was saying instead of picking a fight.
“The object of this trial is to race to the top of the mountain,” Diosa Luna explained and signed, her voice amplified by a mic. “Along the way, there will be ten markers with your city’s glyph, including the final one at the top. You must activate them by touch, one at a time, as you race to the finish. Each competitor has a separate but identical path with obstacles along the way. If you don’t reach the top in time, or if you step into another competitor’s path, it will negatively aﬀect your ranking,” Luna warned.
“I smell a loophole,” Auristela murmured to Ocelo. Teo rolled his eyes.
“Competitors have ten minutes to reach the top of the mountain,” Luna explained as a Sol priestess handed each of them a black rubber watch. When Teo put his on his wrist, it buzzed and the face flashed his mother’s glyph. “There is a barrier at the finish point. When you cross it, you lock in your position and will not be able to leave until the trial is over.”
Ten minutes? The mountain looked about as tall as the Quetzlan Temple, which he easily climbed every day, but this was a mountain with obstacles, whatever the hell that meant.
Teo’s mind raced to come up with a strategy. The mountain looked like one of his favorite reality shows, Secrets of the Lost Temple. Competitors attempted to complete a series of obstacle courses of increasing diﬃculty up a fake mountain. Teo used to be obsessed with it when he was little.
When he thought about it like that, the trial was a little less scary. It was basically the same thing, except it was an actual mountain, and instead of foam and padded edges, it ended in steep cliﬀs and rugged terrain.
Teo swallowed hard. How diﬃcult could it be?
They crossed a bridge to the base of the mountain, where each competitor’s glyph was on the ground equidistant from one another. It was easy to make out the switchbacks of his own path up the side. The first glyph to activate sat at the entrance—a carved piece of jade about the size and shape of a headstone.
A little too on the nose, if you asked Teo.
He couldn’t see Niya but to his left, Ocelo separated him and Xio, and to his right, Atzi stood poised on the balls of her feet with Auristela on her other side.
So much for teaming up with his friends.
Teo tried to mirror Atzi’s starting position, as if that would give him some kind of edge, and shook out his arms. He just needed to stay on his path, activate all of his glyphs, and get to the top without getting disqualified.
“On your marks!” Luna’s amplified voice echoed.
Teo’s jade glyph pulsed with light, and his watch buzzed with the same beat.
Mariachi’s cornet trumpeted.
The Quetzal glyph flashed at the same time the watch made a long buzz.
Excerpted from The Sunbearer Trials, copyright © 2022 by Aiden Thomas.