“Be dauntless, for the hopes of the People rest in you.”
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Dauntless, a Filipino-inspired young adult fantasy novel by Elisa A. Bonnin, out August 2nd from Swoon Reads.
Seri’s world is defined by very clear rules: The beasts prowl the forest paths and hunt the People. The valiant explore the unknown world, kill the beasts, and gain strength from the armor they make from them. As an assistant to Eshai Unbroken, a young valor commander with a near-mythical reputation, Seri has seen first-hand the struggle to keep the beasts at bay and ensure the safety of the spreading trees where the People make their homes. That was how it always had been, and how it always would be. Until the day Seri encounters Tsana.
Tsana is, impossibly, a stranger from the unknown world who can communicate with the beasts—a fact that makes Seri begin to doubt everything she’s ever been taught. As Seri and Tsana grow closer, their worlds begin to collide, with deadly consequences. Somehow, with the world on the brink of war, Seri will have to find a way to make peace.
Battle was messy, bloody work. Eshai sucked in a breath as the abensit’s jaws snapped shut on empty air, clamping down on the area where her chest had been a moment ago. She swung her spear around, the blade catching the beast just under its forearm. Summoning up all her strength, Eshai bent her legs, crouching down and turning her hips to the side. She thought she felt her armor creak with the motion and let out a loud battle cry as she flung the beast away from her, sending it crashing to the ground. Vesui and Beri, the two valiants she had come to aid, quickly moved forward for the kill. They didn’t even look at her, their attention on the beast. This gave Eshai a moment to catch her breath, to gulp down hot, humid air as her vision swam.
Two breaths, no more. Enough to chase away the stars appearing before her eyes. Eshai gave herself that long before she tightened her grip on her spear, turning in search of someone else to aid.
It was loud, her ears ringing with the sound. The valiants’ helms enhanced their senses, good when tracking a lone beast through the forest, but troublesome in the heat of battle. Learning to manage the influx of sensory information was one of the most important parts of the novice valiant’s training. Remembering what her teachers had taught her, Eshai searched for that still, cool place inside her. She went back, as she always did, to when she and Lavit had gone to Lanatha together.
Alone in that lake, the water embracing her and bearing her aloft, her eyes turned toward the sky. She let everything unnecessary fade away as she held herself in that image, her gaze settling on Zani and Arkil, both of them standing guard over a wounded Perai as a beast charged at them. Willing energy into her tired legs, Eshai crossed the distance toward them.
The valiants’ armored boots allowed them to run faster, to jump higher than any human could unaided, but they did nothing to stop them from getting tired. She could feel the strain in her legs, the burn in her muscles as she forced herself to cross the distance, but she didn’t falter. She leapt into the air as the beast bore down on Zani and Arkil, angling her spear point for the delicate vertebrae at the base of its neck.
The spear slid home with a satisfying thunk, sending a shot of impact up her arms. Her gloves gave her strength, allowing her to direct the power of the armored spear, but she could already feel the strain. She held fast, bearing the beast down to the ground. It thrashed as it went—it often took these creatures a while to realize they were dead—but eventually it fell, and Eshai was able to stand on its back, pulling her spear free.
She stumbled as she swung her legs over the side, a motion not lost on Zani. He looked at her, his eyes widening in concern from behind the bluish gray of his helm.
“I’m fine,” Eshai barked. “Get Perai out of here and split up. Vesui and Beri need a third. Zani, you go. Arkil, find somewhere else you’re needed.”
Zani looked as though he might argue, but the two of them touched their hearts in salute, running back to carry Perai away from the front lines. Eshai swept her spear out to the side, shaking off the gore that had accumulated on the edge, and turned her head to survey the rest of the battle.
Turi had the western front contained. Eshai didn’t think he needed her support, or her meddling. He was a survivor of Naumea as much as she was. He knew what they fought to avoid. The eastern front, though, was undermanned. And, Eshai realized with a jolt of alarm as she turned her head in that direction, he beasts had noticed. They were gathering, about to press against the eastern side of the spreading tree with renewed force.
Eshai let out a shrill whistle, causing the valiants in her vicinity to turn their heads toward her. She whirled, pointing her spear at the nearest three clusters, those whose battles were almost done.
“You, you, and you, with me!” she cried, running for the eastern front. They saw what she had seen and followed without hesitation. She heard Turi’s voice from behind her, barking out orders to fill the gaps those valiants had left.
Something was wrong. This wasn’t normal. It almost seemed as though the beasts hadn’t wanted her to notice their new charge, as though they had meant to keep the valiants’ attention fixed on the western side of the settlement, distracting them while they moved in from the east.
But that didn’t make any sense. That was tactics, strategy. Tactics and strategy were the domain of man, not beasts. She thought about it for only a moment before stopping her run, her valiants moving past her to plunge into the fray. Eshai fumbled at her hip for the horn she carried, raising it to her lips. Two long blasts, to signal the volunteers to their stations, three short to identify the eastern edge of the settlement. They would need all the help they could get.
She was summoning the breath to repeat the order when she saw the creature move out of the corner of her eye, one of the abensit, but larger and faster than the others. It was bearing down on her, too fast for her to react. Eshai gritted her teeth, bracing for impact.
The creature struck her like a bolt of lightning. She felt the weight of its body crashing into her, knocking her off her feet and ripping the spear from her hand. The impact rippled through her vest, and she felt something crack as the beast’s bulk bore her down to the ground. She could smell its hot breath as its jaws snapped at her face.
Eshai raised her arm up to protect herself, but the creature’s jaws closed around her gloved forearm. Its fangs didn’t cut through the beastskin of her glove, but she felt the power behind the bite, a crushing force. She thrashed, trying to break free, but something dug painfully into her side, sapping her strength. Eshai tilted her head back and saw the valiants fighting in the distance, felt a surge of panic run through her. They hadn’t been watching her, they hadn’t seen—she didn’t have the breath to call for help. She struck at the beast with her other fist, trying to push it off her, but it was relentless. Her vision was darkening—she was going to die. Fates, she was going to die.
A ballista bolt came out of nowhere, slamming into the beast’s flank and knocking it off her. Eshai sat up sharply, breathing in gulps of sweet, sweet air. She placed a hand at her side and it came away bloody—her armor had cracked, piercing the skin beneath. She whipped her head around toward the beast to see it thrashing in pain, pinned to the ground by the bolt. She watched as it slumped to the ground and died.
Eshai looked over her shoulder with wide eyes, turning her gaze back to the spreading tree. It was impossible. There was no way a volunteer could be on the platforms yet. It was impossible, but…
Seri lifted her head from the ballista platform, looking back at her.
A precarious series of rope bridges and platforms encircled the spreading tree, referred to by settlers as the Belt. It was rarely used, because it was impractical for getting from one makeshift building to the other, since most of the buildings were clustered around the center of the tree. But it connected the twelve ballista platforms protecting the settlement, and it was easily accessible from headquarters.
Seri ran along the Belt, her quiver smacking into her back with each motion. She was alone. The valor hadn’t yet sounded the request for aid, so none of the other volunteers were out, and all the villagers had retreated into their shelters. Her heart pounded with each step, loud and jarring in her chest, and she wondered what she was doing out here. It was madness to be out in the open like this.
And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to turn back.
She paused on one platform to take stock of the battle, her eyes scanning the carnage from left to right. Most of the beasts were concentrated to her left, on the northwestern front of the village, but there were a handful of battles occurring to her right. Those looked mostly in hand. If she wanted to be the most use, she should turn and get to one of the northwestern ballistae. Except…
A sensation of wrongness, of uncertainty, made her lift her head again, looking over at the right side of the battle—the northeastern side. Her eyes caught a glimpse of something prowling in the forest. Many somethings, coming around to the side where the village was undefended.
From her vantage point, she could see everything that was happening, but the valiants on the ground below had no way of knowing. And she had no way of signaling them.
Seri groped at her belt and cursed—she hadn’t thought to grab one of the horns from the command hall on the way out. She took off at a run, the wooden platforms rattling beneath her feet as she made her way across them toward the northeastern ballistae. Everything else faded as she reached one, picking up a bolt that had been stacked nearby and slamming it home. She knelt to turn the crank, ignoring the burning in her shoulders as she moved as fast as she could, then bent down to grab the handles that turned the mechanism.
She could feel her heart racing as she scanned the battlefield below, looking for a target. Everything looked so small, so fast. This was nothing like practice.
Her mouth went dry, her heart pounding. What was she doing? Her shot was going to go wild, and she was going to draw a beast onto her. Worse, she was going to hit a valiant. She was going to kill someone again.
Her throat closed as she thought of Ithim. Her fingers slackened on the handlebars.
A figure in white darted across the open ground of the battlefield. The movement jolted Seri out of her trance. Eshai.
The commander was saying something, ordering groups of valiants over to the other side. Eshai had seen it, too. Seri watched as she slowed to a stop, as the valiants moved past her. And Seri saw the beast prowling in the shadows behind her, drawing close for the kill.
Seri’s mouth opened in a cry, but it was no use. From this distance, there was no way Eshai could hear her.
Her grip tightened on the handles in alarm, and before she knew what she was doing, she was swinging the ballista around to aim at the beast. Her heart was still pounding too fast. She told herself to breathe, slow and deep.
She felt her heart settle, her breathing slow. And then the beast leapt onto Eshai, pinning her to the ground, and Seri felt her heartbeat skyrocket again. There was no one around to help her. If Seri didn’t take the shot, Eshai would—
Eshai would die.
She swallowed hard, tightening her grip.
Seri pulled the trigger.
The machine beneath her reared, the impact moving through her like a battering ram. She gritted her teeth and held on, braced against the force. The bolt soared through the air, knocking the beast off Eshai and pinning it to the ground.
For a moment, all was silent. And then Eshai turned, her gaze moving from the dead beast to the ballistae. She was wearing her helm, so Seri knew even at this distance, Eshai could tell that it was her.
Eshai’s gaze locked onto Seri for a moment. And then she brought the horn back to her lips and blew. Seri reached for another bolt without hesitation, feeding it into place as the call for volunteers rang through the air.
Excerpted from Dauntless, copyright © 2022 by Elisa A. Bonnin.