She grew up battling the monsters that live in the black seas, but it couldn’t prepare her to face the cunning cruelty of the ruling elite.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from South Asian-inspired YA fantasy Monsters Born and Made by Tanvi Berwah, publishing with Sourcebooks Fire on September 6th.
Sixteen-year-old Koral and her older brother Emrik risk their lives each day to capture the monstrous maristags that live in the black seas around their island. They have to, or else their family will starve.
In an oceanic world swarming with vicious beasts, the Landers—the ruling elite, have indentured Koral’s family to provide the maristags for the Glory Race, a deadly chariot tournament reserved for the upper class. The winning contender receives gold and glory. The others—if they’re lucky—survive.
When the last maristag of the year escapes and Koral has no new maristag to sell, her family’s financial situation takes a turn for the worse and they can’t afford medicine for her chronically ill little sister. Koral’s only choice is to do what no one in the world has ever dared: cheat her way into the Glory Race.
But every step of the way is unpredictable as Koral races against competitors—including her ex-boyfriend—who have trained for this their whole lives and who have no intention of letting a low-caste girl steal their glory. As a rebellion rises and rogues attack Koral to try and force her to drop out, she must choose—her life or her sister’s—before the whole island burns.
We hunt when the world sleeps. A risk that could kill us. A risk forced on us.
I try to awaken my brother, but he only murmurs sleepily, “Piss off.”
“It’s four already. Baba told us to be at the beach by now.”
Emrik clutches his mattress like a crab stubbornly clinging to a rock. When I yank off his blanket, he snarls, “Get out of my room.”
His shoe thuds against the door just as I shut it. I press my back against the stone wall, the chill grounding me.
Minutes later, Emrik appears. We’re dressed alike: black pants, a fitted white shirt with collars up to our chins, and boots molded to our feet. Beneath, we’re both wearing skaya-threaded watersuits. The Hunter siblings.
His fist tightens on the doorknob.
Being nervous before a hunt is good.
It means we’re alert, not stupid.
“Koral,” he says, voice hoarse. “Is anyone else up?” His hair is far past his shoulders, almost as long as mine. The single clip stuck through it shines in the anemic yellow glow of the light above the door. Before I say anything, Liria’s asthmatic coughs echo in the silence.
The thought of our little sister choking on air isn’t helpful as we climb the claustrophobic corkscrew staircase, leaving the safety of our underground house. But it’s a good reminder of why the hunt needs to go perfectly, why we cannot let a maristag escape us tonight.
Because that’s how we survive.
Capture maristags, breed them, train their offspring to tolerate land, and then sell them to the upper-caste Landers competing in the Glory Race. All at the risk of death.
Then, we dare to live. Until the next hunt.
The world outside is drenched in black ink, and the Ship of Fire constellation gleams red and yellow, taunting us. A sea wind blows in, carrying salt and storm, right as a bolt of lightning skewers the sky.
Emrik and I sprint toward the beach. It comprises the entire strip of gray sand on this side of the island. Despite the sea guzzling swathes of sand without warning, it’s often stuffed with scavengers scraping at the metallic chips of zargunine on the low limestone arches that jut out of sea and sand.
Squinting for any scavengers, I end up having to sidestep a puddle of—“Skaya? Who’s wasting skaya in high sun?” Do they not know how difficult extracting the jelly is and how much we need its protection against the hot sun? Though we’re surrounded by water, our island is parched, and we roast with it.
Emrik frowns at the skaya puddle. The scar on his right eye, dripping like an angry tear, contorts. “Fewer people to bother with.”
As we reach the U-shaped bend of the limestone cliff, thunder rumbles low. A monster waking up from sleep. The horizon, swallowed in darkness, doesn’t exist yet.
Down the serrated edge, rocks shoot out of the volatile water like blue-gray fangs. My face grows numb with the bite of the storm. Rawness chafes my lungs with each breath. The rocky ground beneath me is slick with dead crawlies and lichen and the water slapping against it. I must tread carefully.
“You should stay out of the sea,” Emrik says.
My temper flares. Years of hunting together, and he still doesn’t trust me. “Why?”
“Look at the storm.”
As if you’d be any use alone. I bite my tongue. No point fighting before going into the sea. “More reason for you to have backup.”
“Stay out of the water, Koral. I’ll need your help to drag the maristag out.” His jaw is clenched, his face thinner—its contours razor-sharp. The black tattoo on the left side of his face twists, matching mine. He looks cruel in the dark. I suppose we both do.
Emrik is three years older, but we could pass for twins when we go hunting.
I don’t spot a single maristag in the black waters—not ideal on the last day of hunting season. “Can you see any movement?”
Our family, stretching back generations, has kept detailed records of the maristags. They have never been seen outside the annual upwelling of the waters. Before the sun rises today, they will disappear and won’t return for ten months.
Their biological clocks never fail.
Last hunt’s maristags fell sick and died. Emrik says it wasn’t his fault, that he had filtered the water like always, that the maristags brought the infection from the sea. Now we have only one female left. Without a male, we’ll have no fawns to sell for the remaining year.
The Landmaster will act like it’s not our fault, smile, and send us away with a subsidy payment lasting maybe a month. Meanwhile, a silent warning will circulate across the island: no loans to the Hunters, no jobs.
We’ll starve. Like the year I turned eight.
And this time, Liria is too sick for us to make it an entire year. “They’re hiding from the storm,” Emrik says, snapping me out of the horrible memories. “Two of us will cause a frenzy. Stay here.”
“Fine, go die in there.”
His glare is answer enough. He strips to his watersuit, arms himself with a zargunine quarterstaff, and, before I can take back my parting words, dives into the sea. Then he’s a shadow, swimming so fast he could be mistaken for a maristag.
So fast he vanishes.
The sky is getting light, a terrible dawn approaching. Emrik is nowhere. Has the sea swallowed him?
Don’t be dead, Emrik, I’ll murder you.
Winds pick up, hissing through the water. There’s nothing but the bruised curtain of sky, cut with the menacing red light of dawn, which stains the angry foam of the sea with the color of rotting flesh.
The world retreats, enveloped in an eerie silence.
Then—a fierce cry pierces the sea, and the rancid smell of sulfur saturates the air.
I remember the first time I saw a maristag.
We learned in school about the ten Islands of Ophir and the Panthalassan Ocean, which is the super ocean that engulfs everything else. Sea creatures that are terror made into flesh breathe beneath the black ocean. Fawkeses that release a strange tarry substance, which catches fire instantly when it touches air. Raptors with saw-like teeth that will carve the land to let the sea flow through so they can hunt you down. Aquabats, screeching from one end of the world to the other.
And maristags, living nightmares that move as fast on land as they do in water. The lithesome creatures are bipedal. Their front limbs are shorter. Stronger. Clawed. Made to grab prey and to tear muscles. Enormous antlers crown their heads. Their scales are luminescent and their blood green.
When maristags get angry, that’s when the true horror of creation unravels.
I was five again. Kept away from the stables. That day, I remember seeing something bobbing beneath the smooth sea, water frothing around it. I stared, glued to where I stood, and the bioluminescent spots gleamed like metal in the sun and lifted. A head emerged. Sharp frillfin shot open around it, launching venomous barbs like harpoons.
One almost reached me.
That maristag vanishes.
This maristag thrashes out of the water.
It’s a stunning dash of green amid the cold gray limestone. The blade-sharp frillfin along its neck have sprung open, shooting lethal barbs out. And clinging to its powerful body, bending its manefin, jerking away from the venomous blades, is Emrik—desperately digging his fingers into the scales of the maristag.
My hands are suddenly stone.
I expected to berate Emrik for stretching out the hunt until dawn.
Not Emrik wrestling with a damned maristag in the water.
The maristag is a glorious blur of bio-luminescent green, slamming in and out of the angry black water. Between the frillfin and the antlers, Emrik has no control over the creature. One wrong snap, one treacherous slip, and it’s all over for my brother.
My stupid brother.
I’ve seen corpses that suffered the wrath of a maristag.
I don’t want him to become one.
“EMRIK!” I scream and wave. “HOLD ON!”
I leap into the freezing water.
A thousand cold needles stab at me, wrestling for control over my body, to tear it apart. The waves are crushing and dark. But I know these waters; I’ve grown up in them. I cut through the current, fast and smooth, forcing the water to part. Any second now, I’ll reach him. I swim closer and closer, surfacing for one ragged breath.
The maristag jerks its neck. Venom, smelling like sulfuric acid, cuts the air again. Rear-curving fangs close around Emrik’s arm.
My brother howls.
Coils of blood spiral into the water.
The quarterstaff slips out of Emrik’s hold.
I gasp, saltwater smacking at the back of my throat. My jaw burns like it’s made of metal.
The maristag is frenzied. I whirl back to the limestone. Gingerroots. I need gingerroots. Maristags are allergic to the prickly skin on the plant. Skaya vines slither over stone like fluorescent snakes, providing illumination, entangled with thick, tall grass swaying like ghosts. I frantically grab a fistful of gingerroots but their grip is too strong. I need something to cut it with.
My lungs sting and I’m forced to resurface. Lightning crashes far out in the ocean as a wave rolls toward the stones.
I brace myself.
The water still hits me like a block of iron.
The moment the wave breaks, I press my foot against the stone and pull at the bush of gingerroots. It’s not enough, it’s not enough. My fingers turn red, my grip slipping. This isn’t going to work, Emrik will die. Blood on my hands. Cut, already!
The last thought escapes my mouth in a burst of air bubbles.
Pain lances my arms.
The bush snaps and I’m slammed back against the hammer-like crush of waves. I curl into myself, floating to the surface. With one deep breath, I dive back and swim into the bloodied water for my brother.
The maristag latches onto the gingerroots. It thrashes anxiously. A loose layer of tissue that forms a second skin over its iridescent scales gleams an ethereal green, blood snaking away.
I’m hands away from my brother.
“The tailfin!” Emrik’s cry slips into a gasp. “Don’t let go!”
The maristag closes its frills, preparing to shoot the barbs again. Right at my face.
I wheeze, water gushing into my mouth. “Let go of it, Emrik! You’re going to die!” I slam the gingerroots into the maristag’s neck, at the delicate place where its frills emerge, and it tosses its head in a frenzy. A painful screech cleaves the water. I wrench Emrik’s bleeding arm away from the maristag—hoping that pop sound I hear came from the animal and not from Emrik.
Behind us, the maristag shakes its second set of fins straight. The manefin fans off along its spine and vanishes midway. I’m frozen, waiting for an attack, but the maristag turns and stares across the sea.
There’s not a second to lose. The waves are strong and Emrik is still bleeding. I hold him against me and swim.
We crawl to the shore, gasping for breath. My arms tremble under my weight, fingers twitching like something alive is choking inside. “Are you—”
“Why would you do that?” Emrik cuts me off, his shout cracking midway. Sand crusts every inch of him, coloring his brown skin gray.
I’m panting, panic creeping in me as my conscience understands something before I do. “Do what? Save you?”
“I told you to grab the maristag’s tailfin! I was closer to the manefin!” Red lines his swollen eyes. “We could’ve got it!”
Our skaya must have washed off, but he’s in a far worse shape. Blood leaks from his arm, soaking his torn watersuit and darkening the sand. He looks—green. His chest rises and falls, and without warning, he vomits. I jump back. He clasps my wrist tight like a shackle.
“You were supposed to work with me! You made me lose my grip on the maristag! Koral—that was the last of them!”
“No, it wasn’t.” I turn to the sea. The maristag, a magnificent green, is circling farther and farther from the coast. Its antlers rise and ebb as it gallops through the water.
Today was the last day of the hunt.
The maristags are gone.
Monsters Born and Made by Tanvi Berwah is published 6th September in hardback by Sourcebooks.