Like the Isle of Lenas upon which it sat, the town of Lodorest had been dying for decades.
The final blow, however, came all at once.
Outside of his father’s home, Manil shivered in the night air. He heard shouts and cries and screams, the roar of burning houses. Other sounds, too, drifting up the dirt streets, coming from the shadows as if the darkness itself was a monster feasting on the town: laughter; barking commands; angry bellows from deep-voiced men.
Manil stood with his mother and his uncle. Manil barely came up to Uncle Janeed’s hip. Small for his age—one of the smallest boys in town—Manil hated to show weakness, but the terror of the night had him clinging to his uncle’s leg.
Uncle held Mother tightly by her upper arm. In his other hand, he held his blue crystal sword. The translucent blade seemed to wiggle as it caught the light of the flickering flames.
Fire spread from house to house, making thatch roofs sizzle and spark. Flames jumped from roofs to trees, from trees to roofs. Mother wanted to hide in the church, just down the road, but Uncle wouldn’t let her go.
An animal screech pierced the night. Manil caught glimpses of monsters above, huge things moving fast, visible only when they flew over the light of a burning house or flaming tree.
“We need to run,” Mother said, leaning away from Uncle Janeed, who stood firm, not letting her go. “We need to find Mixos and run.”
Mixos, Manil’s father.
“Nowhere to run,” Uncle said. “Those are warhawks above us, which means the raiders are Sectels. Sectels surround a village, then set fires and wait in the darkness for people to run out. Easier to kill or capture them a few at a time that way.”
Uncle knew things. He had sailed above the Glowing Sea and traveled the world. He had been born in Lodorest, just like Mother and Father, but had spent far more time away from the Isle than on it.
He had come back only a few weeks ago. Uncle had spent some time with Manil, telling of the hundreds of beautiful and dangerous Isles in the archipelago, and also of a place so big it would fit a thousand isles, a place called the continent. Most of the time, though, Uncle had argued with Mother and Father, telling them they needed to leave, telling them that the blight would not stop, that the fish weren’t coming back, that the tremors that threw Manil out of bed at night were only going to grow more intense.
And, worst of all, that the trunk might crack, that the entire Isle of Lenas would fall into the Glowing Sea.
Mother had argued that Bapatesh would never allow such a thing to happen, that Bapatesh would always keep the Isle safe. Uncle had said that Bapatesh had abandoned the Isle, just as so many other gods had abandoned their lands.
With the townsfolk screaming, with houses burning, with monsters flying through the darkness above, Manil wondered if Uncle was right.
“We have to find Mixos,” Mother said again. “We can’t just stand here!”
Uncle gave her arm a single yank that rattled her body. She stared at him, shocked.
“My brother is dead,” Uncle said. “If he wasn’t, he would be here with us now. He’s gone.”
Mother’s face twisted. She shook her head. She didn’t believe Father was dead.
Manil didn’t believe it either.
Uncle had to be wrong. Father was the biggest, strongest man in the town. Everyone knew it. He was the militia leader.
When the first screeches had echoed through the night, Father threw on his wooden armor—the same armor Grandfather had worn—and rushed out into the darkness. Manil had been afraid, of course he had, but he’d known Father would lead the men against whatever threatened the town.
But Father hadn’t come back. Nor had any of the other men.
Mother leaned away from Uncle, pulled so hard her feet skidded, pushed up small mounds of dirt.
“If we don’t run we’ll die!”
Uncle yanked her arm so hard she almost fell.
Manil saw a new kind of fear on Mother’s face—fear of Uncle Janeed.
“We stay here,” Uncle said. “If it is the Sectels, there are worse things than death.”
The screech of a warhawk cut through the air, made Manil flinch. He looked up, searching for the monster. The massive bird flashed by overhead, the flames of burning houses lighting up its sky-blue belly and mottled underwings. Before it shot past into the darkness, Manil saw huge talons open, saw two round clay pots drop down, saw the pots smash against the church roof’s clay tiles. Red liquid splashed, then came a blinding flash.
Manil blinked madly, after-images leaving streaks in his vision. When they faded enough for him to see, he saw fresh orange flames rising from the church.
“There are people in there,” Mother said. “Janeed, we have to help them!”
Once again she tried to pull away; once again Uncle held her in place.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “They are as good as dead. We all are.” He looked down; his eyes locked with Manil’s. “Almost all.”
Uncle Janeed’s eyes were the deep blue of the lake, before it had soured. The same eyes as Father. The same eyes as Manil.
The church doors burst open. People rushed out. Lukas Brandlebush and Henna Yithish, both older kids, sprinting together. Howland Kath and his wife Rennie—as old as Manil’s grandparents had been the last time he’d had seen them—walking slow, holding each other, both crying. And more people, all running so fast Manil recognized them and did not recognize them, faces here-then-gone in the flickering firelight that came from the church and so many other buildings.
One of those people stumbled; old Laonik, who sat around all day carving stone bowls. He staggered, fell face-first—Manil saw an arrow shaft sticking out of his back. The old man’s hands reached out, grasped at nothing.
“They’re close,” Uncle said.
“Please,” Mother said, “let me go. Stay and fight if you want, but let me take Manil and run! Please!”
Manil heard a girl’s shriek—she sounded older than him, but younger than Mother.
“Please, Janeed.” Mother was crying. That made Manil start to cry, an instant reaction he couldn’t stop.
Uncle Janeed again turned his deep blue eyes on Manil, and this time Uncle’s face wrinkled with an anger the boy had never seen before.
“Stay here,” Uncle said to him. “Do not move, do you understand?”
The voice of authority, just like Father’s.
“And stop crying,” Uncle said. “Or you won’t live to see the dawn.”
Uncle Janeed stepped back into the house, dragging Mother with him.
Manil stood alone.
He heard the girl shriek again, a shriek bracketed by sobbing. Layered on those sounds of pain and fear, he heard a man’s laugh.
Then, from inside the house where he had been born, Manil heard his mother say one word.
Manil shivered. He waited. He heard his town dying around him. He heard men talking loudly to each other. Excited men, angry men, men whose voices he did not recognize.
Uncle stepped out of the house, crystal sword in hand.
There was blood on the blade.
“You are too young for this, Manil, but that does not matter,” Uncle said. “You will listen to me now. You will hear me, or you will die. Do you understand?”
Manil looked down the street, toward the church. Laonik had stopped reaching. He wasn’t moving. The arrow shaft stuck out of his back, angling up toward the night sky.
It wasn’t the first time Manil had seen death. Old Laonik lay as still as rabbits after Manil hit them with a stone from his sling. As still as the many fish Manil had caught and cleaned with his friend Kanor Kapoor before the lake soured and the fish were no more.
Old Laonik was dead.
Manil did not want to die.
He looked up at his uncle, and nodded.
Shouts of men, drawing closer. Manil heard the girl again, her weak whimper somehow cutting through the roar of the fires.
“Your father is dead,” Uncle said. “So is your mother. She is with Bapatesh now.”
The blood on the blue sword . . .
All Manil had ever known was gone. His world had never been safe, because nothing on the Isle was safe. Not with the blight. Not with the army gone. Not with the constant threat of raiders. On the Isle, children died. Children went missing. He’d known he wasn’t safe, but with Mother and Father, Manil had always felt protected.
Mother couldn’t be gone. She couldn’t.
Manil stared up at his uncle, understanding what had just happened, yet not daring to believe it.
“Mother is dead?”
“I ended her torment before it began,” Uncle said. “Some things are worse than death. If you are very lucky, you will live long enough to see that for yourself.”
Uncle knelt, put a hand on Manil’s shoulder. He was older than Father by a good ten years. Maybe more.
“Listen carefully, Manil. You are not eight years old. You are seven. This is important. Do not forget. Do not contradict me. Do you understand?”
Manil understood nothing. Father, dead? Uncle had killed Mother? This wasn’t real. This was a nightmare.
Uncle Janeed grabbed Manil’s shoulder, gave it a hard shake. The boy winced from the pain.
“Do you understand?”
“You will have to fight,” Uncle said, his words tight and fast. “It will probably be someone you know. Maybe even a friend. You must strike first. You must kill that person. If you do not, that person will kill you. That is all there is to it. Do you understand?”
Manil stared at his uncle. This was a nightmare, yes, but there was no waking from it.
Uncle Janeed glanced down the street, toward the fire shadows that danced in all directions.
“Repeat it back to me,” Uncle said.
Manil said nothing.
Uncle shook his shoulder again, calloused fingers digging into soft flesh.
“I’m seven,” Manil said in a rush. “I must kill.”
From down the street, through the heat haze, Manil saw five men coming closer.
Three of them had shaved heads. They wore brown trousers, brown boots, ponchos with patterns of deep red and bright yellow. Red ribbons tied tightly on their muscular arms seemed to writhe with life in the cascading firelight. The men carried spears in their hands, had scabbards holding short knives at their waists.
One man wore similar trousers and boots, but no poncho—on his naked chest, a large tattoo of a great red bird. He, too, carried a spear. White knife handles jutted up from scabbards jammed into his thick black belt.
The last man was taller than the rest, covered head-to-toe in black. Only his face showed, blacker than the clothes he wore, so dark that his white eyes seemed to float in the night. He held a long, curved bow painted with angled stripes of black and gray.
A full quiver on the man’s back; the mottled amber feathers matched those on the shaft sticking out of Old Laonik’s back.
“Sectels,” Uncle said. “Barbarians. They must have sailed here on whales. The tattooed one is a warhawk rider. The bowman is a Naadic. If you survive the night, Nephew, seek out the Naadic. Make friends with him.”
Make friends? The bowman had killed old Laonik—Manil wanted to run away, not make friends.
“You must grow up,” Uncle said. “You must grow up now. You must survive. You are the last of us.”
Uncle stood, turned, put himself between Manil and the approaching men. Uncle did not raise his sword; he held it in front of him, angled toward the ground.
The archer drew back on the bowstring; Manil heard the weapon creak in anticipation.
The man with the red bird tattoo held up a hand.
“Wait,” he said to the bowman. Then, to Uncle Janeed: “That is a fine blade you have. Do you think you will use it to fight your way free?”
Uncle shook his head. “I know better.”
The man seemed to consider this for a moment. “Then lay down your weapon and we will kill you quickly.”
Uncle didn’t move.
The roar of flames seemed so loud, like hundreds of sticks and boards breaking instead of burning.
“I have traveled,” Uncle said. “I’ve met Sectels, heard of your traditions. The boy is strong for his age.”
The tattooed man looked at Manil. A new fear coursed through the boy, icy water cascading off his heart to settle in his churning belly—this man was death.
“How old is he?”
“Five,” Uncle said. “Six in three months.”
The tattooed man laughed. “If that boy is only five, he is a giant. You try to trick me into thinking he will be huge. He is six . . . possibly even seven.”
From down the street, a whoosh of billowing sparks as a flaming roof caved in. The Kapoors’ house. Were Kanor and Willem still inside? Had they fled the town only to be killed or captured by the Sectels, as Uncle had thought?
Manil silently prayed they’d escaped.
Willem was a year older than Manil, picked on Manil whenever grownups weren’t around, but Kanor . . . Manil and Kanor had hunted together hundreds of times. They had explored together. They had dared to go close to the blight. They had even hiked to the edge of the Isle and stared down at the Glowing Sea.
“Tell me how old the boy is,” the tattooed man said. “If you lie, we will cut off your hands, your feet and your eyelids. We will keep you alive while you watch what we do to him.”
Uncle Janeed looked down.
“Seven,” he said. “Just last week.”
Manil’s ninth birthday was only a month away.
A part of him—a strangely calm part hiding within the fear and confusion—realized what his uncle had done. Uncle Janeed had told a lie so big that it wasn’t believable. When the tattooed man called him on it, Uncle corrected to the number he’d wanted the tattooed man to believe in the first place.
“Perhaps you hope to trade him,” the tattooed man said. “You think if you offer me the boy, that you can walk away? Is that why you lied, to make me think he is a prize?”
“The boy is my blood,” Uncle said. “I want him to live. Better he sail with you than die where he stands.”
The tattooed man waited for Uncle to say more, but Uncle did not.
“Bring me the sword,” the man said. “Hilt first, and I will give the boy his chance. If you fight, he dies.”
The sounds of agony and fear filtered in from all around, townsfolk screaming. Begging. Dying.
Somewhere out of sight, the whoosh of another house collapsing. Fire danced and raged, driving smoke into the sky. Trees were torches, blazing bright with flaming leaves or shimmering orange and broken against the dark night.
Another bald, poncho-wearing spearman strode down the street, pushing a pair of boys before him. Roiling heat made all three people shimmer like the air above blight-black on a hot summer day.
Manil recognized the boys—Willem and Kanor. Willem, the older of the two, a head and a half taller than Manil. Kanor, the same height as Manil despite being a full year younger.
The boys looked terrified, their eyes wide, their cheeks streaked with tears.
Manil wondered if he looked the same way to them.
The spearman yanked Willem and Kanor to a stop.
“Dolitch,” the spearman said, “our search is finished.”
“Just two?” The tattooed man frowned. “Is that all?”
Dolitch. A name or a title, Manil didn’t know.
“That is all that remained in town,” the spearman said. “Many of the houses were empty to begin with. All buildings have been checked or are burning.” He smiled. “Or they’re occupied with the spoils.”
Some of the spearmen laughed. A wrong sound, an evil sound.
Dolitch looked to Uncle Janeed.
“This town could hold many more people than we have seen. It is almost empty. Why?”
“Blight,” Uncle said. “And quakes. Hard for farmers to find enough blight-free land to till. The soil is blanched. The lakes as well. All the fish are long gone. The Isle has been dying for years. Many people left. You picked the wrong place to raid.”
Dolitch’s eyes narrowed. “You seem smarter than most. Educated. Why are you here?”
Janeed gestured to Manil.
“For the boy. His father was my brother. I tried to talk him and his wife into leaving. They refused.”
Dolitch glanced around at the burning houses, at the burning trees.
“We will still get something out of this, perhaps,” he said. He looked to the man standing behind Willem and Kanor. “Hold the small one. The big one is too old. We are not the only ones who deserve spoils.”
The spearman shoved Willem forward so hard the boy stumbled, fell to his hands and knees in the street’s dirt.
Dolitch put his fingers to his mouth, let loose a piercing whistle.
From the black sky, a deep screech answered.
The warhawk dropped like a rock, not there one moment, a mass of flapping red the next, hovering above Willem. Wings as wide as the street kicked up clouds of dust, blew back Manil’s hair, made the fires surge and writhe.
Willem trembled, struggled to his feet. The warhawk . . . so big . . . bigger than the biggest horse Manil had ever seen.
“Run,” Manil whispered, knowing there was no running away from something that flew.
Willem stared up at the flapping beast.
The warhawk dropped. Taloned feet smashed Willem into the ground. Manil heard bones snap.
Kanor screamed, tried to run to his brother. The spearman grabbed the back of the boy’s neck, squeezed until Kanor went rigid.
Beneath the warhawk’s feet, Willem made no sound at all.
The giant bird launched upward, each swoop of the wide wings churning the surrounding flames. Willem hung there, impaled on its talons. Blood dripped down in long rivulets.
The monster rose, vanishing into the night.
With one hand, Dolitch pointed his spear at Uncle Janeed.
“Come,” Dolitch said. “It is your time.”
Uncle turned to Manil, dropped to one knee. He pulled the boy in for a one-armed hug.
“Remember what I told you,” Uncle whispered. “Fight. Kill. Survive.”
His voice sounded hoarse, as if he might cry, but Uncle was like Father and had never cried.
“Remember one more thing,” Uncle whispered. “The first man that tries to bend you over, you kill him. Make no threat, give no warning—kill him. Do not hesitate.”
With that, Uncle Janeed stood and strode toward Dolitch.
For a moment, Manil thought Uncle would attack the men, that the blue blade would cut them all down.
Then Uncle flipped the sword; held it by the blade.
“Don’t,” Manil said, no louder than when he’d told Willem to run.
Dolitch’s three spearmen leveled their weapons at Uncle. Uncle paid them no attention—he had eyes only for their leader.
Manil couldn’t breathe. He watched, hoping he was wrong, knowing he was not.
Uncle Janeed knelt in front of Dolitch, offered up the crystal sword’s hilt.
Dolitch took it.
The invader raised the sword, admiring it. Firelight glistened through the blade, molten orange dancing within translucent blue.
“Beautiful,” Dolitch said. “Kaleeyan?”
Uncle Janeed nodded. “It is.”
Dolitch smiled. “Fix him.”
Three spear points thrust forward, plunged into Uncle’s stomach, his chest, his shoulder. He grunted, but did not cry out.
Manil shook his head, wishing it all away.
“Go to the great rebirth,” Dolitch said, “knowing that I am true to my word.”
With an effort that seemed casual, almost lazy, Dolitch flicked the blade from left to right.
Uncle Janeed’s head tumbled back, rolled twice. It came to a stop with his right cheek against the dirt.
Manil saw Uncle’s eyes blink twice.
Uncle was a gutted fish.
A dead rabbit.
All noise faded. The colors of the world dulled.
Everything Manil knew had been ripped away.
Uncle Janeed had done this for him. For him.
“Push the boy forward,” Dolitch said.
Manil expected invisible hands to shove him; none did.
Kanor stumbled forward, fell to his knees only a few steps from Uncle’s head. The boy stared at the severed head, shivering, as if it might come alive and bite him.
“There are two of you,” Dolitch said. “Only one lives to see tomorrow. Decide which one.”
Dolitch yanked a sheathed knife free from his belt, tossed it into the street. It landed between Manil and Kanor.
Manil was distantly aware of the men calling out to each other. Wagers—some picking Manil, some picking Kanor.
Kanor’s gaze shifted from Uncle’s head to the knife, then to Dolitch. Agony in those eyes. Agony, heartbreak . . . and confusion.
Kanor didn’t understand what was happening.
He understood because Uncle Janeed had told him what to do.
That is all there is to it.
Manil walked toward the knife.
Kanor glanced at him, as bewildered by Manil as he was by Dolitch, by the slaughter of the town, by the loss of his brother.
Manil picked up the scabbard. He gripped the bone handle, felt the carved hardness against his palm and fingers. It wasn’t hot. It wasn’t cold. It just was.
He drew the blade. Bone from hilt to tip. Sharpened to a vicious point.
Manil shuffled toward Kanor.
They’d grown up together. They’d played together. They had taunted each other to get closer and closer to the blight. Together, they had slept under the stars. Together, they had stared down at the Glowing Sea.
Kanor’s eyes locked in on the bone blade.
Those eyes widened.
Now he understood, but it was too late.
Kill your friend.
“Manil,” Kanor said, “don’t—”
Manil drove the point into his friend’s neck.
Kanor’s mouth opened. Perhaps he wanted to say something. No words came out.
Manil pulled the blade free. Blood sprayed against his face. He blinked it away, thrust again. The blade went deeper the second time, hit something hard. It stuck there. Manil tried to pull it free, but all he did was yank Kanor forward.
Manil’s friend fell to the ground.
His blood splattered the dirt.
A few drops landed on Uncle Janeed’s forehead.
Manil stepped back, suddenly aware of what he had done, of the pending finality of it. He felt a stinging in his eyes, not from the blood on his face, but from tears. He fought those tears down, letting the coldness inside his chest swell up and envelop all that he was.
Father had never cried.
Neither had Uncle.
Nor would Manil.
Shaking, Kanor rose to his hands and knees, fell to his side. He looked up at Manil, eyes wide with pain, with shock.
His lids half closed.
He rolled to his back.
A new sound; men, cheering.
“Twice in the neck!”
“He’s a natural!”
“I want him first.”
None of those voices were Dolitch’s, Manil knew. When Dolitch spoke again, all voices fell silent.
“Boy,” Dolitch said, “what is your name?”
Manil looked at the man who had killed Uncle.
An uncle that had realized what was happening when no one else had, who had foreseen the destruction of everything, who had known there was one chance to keep just one person alive.
“My name,” Manil said, “is Janeed.”
Dolitch nodded. “Have you ever been off this Isle, Janeed? Have you ever sailed the Glowing Sea?”
Manil shook his head.
“Tonight, you will,” Dolitch said. “This isle is diseased. You will come to realize that this day was the day of your deliverance. You have paid for your passage in blood. You will see the sun rise at least one more time. Now, give me back my knife.”
Manil wondered if he should cry over the deaths of his mother, his father, his uncle, his friend. He wondered if he should scream and swear at Dolitch.
But to do those things, Manil would need to feel pain.
He would need to feel rage.
He felt neither.
He felt . . . nothing.
Manil reached down, grabbed the handle of the bone knife sticking out of Kanor’s neck. Manil pulled; it did not come loose.
Kanor let out a little hiss. Blood burbled on his lips; he was not quite dead.
Manil put his foot on Kanor’s forehead, pulled harder.
The bone blade popped free.
Kanor made a noise that might have been a word. Manil didn’t know if it was, realized he didn’t care.
He picked up the scabbard. He wiped the blade against his shirt, cleaning away the blood of his friend, then slid the blade into the scabbard.
Manil walked to Dolitch.
Like his uncle had before him, the boy offered the weapon hilt-first.
Dolitch took it, slid the scabbard back into his belt.
“Well done, Janeed,” he said. “Now you sail with us.”