Malena had to wait all day for the shiny egg to float away from Hekopath the Destroyer. That morning, from her perch atop the granite shoulders, she’d watched the oval descend into the smoky bowl that rounded Hekopath’s peak, sun glinting in a hundred places from its facets. Fascinated, she’d hunkered down here, in one of the few places the Ants couldn’t reach, and waited for another glimpse of magic. It’d taken all day, but as the afternoon shadows stretched across the granite, she was rewarded with a plume of fire, and a thunder that shook the mountains. In a blaze of reflective color, the faceted structure shot away from Hekopath’s bowl, blowing clouds of soot down the forested slopes.
Malena watched it disappear into the sky, feeling her whole body tingle. She wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked in place, too filled with wonder to move an inch from this place. She was long overdue back at the Caves, and Father’s mind would be filled with worry, his mouth with expletives. He might even call on the Seeresses to perform a Shaming. But as she looked toward the west, across green slopes bisected by the silver trails of the Great Falls, she knew she had to see what the egg had brought. For there was no doubt it had left something.
She waited until nightfall to ensure the Ants were dormant, then climbed down the granite peaks and began hiking through the verdant jungles that hugged Hekopath’s sides. Pushing through giant ferns and stepping across streams in the dark, she struggled to keep from twisting an ankle, knowing death awaited anyone still on these lower slopes by dawn. That night, she slept beneath a giant Seiba tree just inside the tree line, then crept to Hekopath’s angry rim at morning’s first light. The biting morning air was thick with smoke, filling her lungs with hot ash, and bringing tears to her eyes. Rocky outcroppings dotted her path, sculptures of hardened lava that sat ominously on the treeless desert around Hekopath’s bowl.
As she crept toward the rim, she felt she was being watched. She whirled around, panicked that her assumptions about the Ants’ range had been wildly, fatally wrong. But other than floating ash, there was no movement in that lifeless plateau, nothing to hear other than the lonely sound of wind through the rocks. She’d just started to turn around again, when something caught her eye.
One of the lava sculptures had moved.
Malena blinked, focusing on the pile of black, faceted rocks through the drifting smoke.
Then it moved again. It was an irregular rock of reflective black squares, a multi-sided gemstone that looked no more capable of movement than the mountain itself. As Malena watched, the creature bent into a half-dome of a hundred black metallic rectangles, very much like the dappled egg that had brought it here. Its bottom curved away to reveal eight black legs, covered by the same reflective squares as the rest of its body. It had no eyes or ears, nothing that marked it as a living being save those faceted legs, sunk into a thick layer of ash. The front grid of rectangles pointed toward her, for she saw her reflection in them. Another group of rectangles pointed away, down slope.
Malena decided that this living rock didn’t frighten her. Its attention seemed innocent, a baby’s focus on its mother’s face.
In an instant, the creature scrambled toward her on impossibly fast legs, kicking up clouds of ash that sent her into a fit of coughing. When she opened her eyes again, it was within arm’s reach, every gleaming black rectangle pointed in her direction.
Fascinated, she watched her broken reflection in its metallic skin—short, black hair, stocky build wrapped with yellow cloth, her spear glinting in the sooty light.
“Are you the Makuru?” Malena whispered. When there was no response, she shook her head. “No matter. I’ll name you Almaya. For in our legends, Almaya was the son of Hekopath the destroyer . . .”
Almaya’s black facets shifted as she spoke, its ridges angling in a way that broke Malena’s reflection into dozens of multi-colored dots. Then the creature scuttled away, heading down slope.
Malena froze. “No! The Ants are awake now!”
But Almaya didn’t stop, and after the briefest hesitation, Malena raced after it, yelling at the top of her lungs.
She followed it through the jungles, batting away vines and broad-leafed plants as she crashed through the undergrowth, feeling the panic grow with every step down slope. The valley would be thick with Ants now; what she did was madness. Yet she couldn’t stop—Almaya halted occasionally to allow her to catch up, but as she got close, he darted away from her again, disappearing through the thick growth.
The Ants found her just as she’d decided to go no further. She heard the crunching of wood, saw the silver gleam of the Enemy from behind a flowering bush, and her insides grew cold. She dropped her spear and frantically grabbed a vine, yanking herself upward with violent, jerking motions. She climbed fast, and she climbed hard, and she didn’t look down until she’d reached the nearest thick branch of the Cedro tree. There, breathing heavily, she wrapped her legs around the branch and watched the Ants from above.
They gleamed like metal, though Malena had always heard they were soft to the touch. They looked very little like real ants, for they were covered by overlapping plates, had a head of a hundred small horns, and scrabbled across the earth on four plated legs. Their back was as high as a man is tall, and they could rest on their rear legs while ripping a man to shreds with their front. They had no purpose other than to kill human beings—they didn’t eat their prey, and killed no other forest creature.
Malena watched three Ants scour the area, knobbed heads pointing forward, always forward. No, it wasn’t the Ants appearance that earned them the name—it was their mindless, rote behavior. Ants never looked up, never surprised, never showed interest in anything but killing. And if they could climb like real ants, they’d have long ago destroyed the last few pitiful remnants of humanity on this earth.
A loud crashing sound came from the forest, and Malena watched, stunned, as Almaya shot out of the dense growth and scuttled around the Ants on its eight reflective legs. First it formed looping patterns between them, forcing the Ants to move sideways on their plated appendages while rotating their knobbed heads to keep the creature in sight. Then Almaya ran in circles, causing the Enemy to stop dead in its tracks. After several minutes of this, the Ants folded all four legs and sank to the jungle floor, arrayed perfectly around Almaya’s circular dance. Malena watched, open-mouthed, as Almaya continually looped around the same four trees, a display which lasted most of the day. And when the afternoon sun sent mottled shadows through the canopy above, the Ants collapsed completely, sinking into the bed of leaves and ferns.
Malena waited a long hour to make sure the Ants were truly comatose before dropping to the ground. She retrieved her spear, then kicked an Ant in the head.
It didn’t move.
Malena smiled savagely at Almaya. “Whatever you are, you’ve given us the best gift we could ever ask for.”
With that, she turned and began pushing her way down slope again, Almaya following close behind.
They encountered the Ants once more before reaching the Caves. This time, Malena swallowed her panic and began running in tight circles, crushing bushes and ferns beneath her. Icy terror flowed through her veins as she felt the creatures watching her, their knobby heads twisting with every loop. But they did not move to attack. And finally, when she was sure her heart would burst from the strain she saw them collapse, first on their front legs, then their whole bodies.
When the last Ant was motionless, Malena stopped and leaned against a tree, gasping for air. After a long minute pressing her forehead into bark, she turned a scowl on Almaya.
“What, no help this time?”
Almaya didn’t move, and she shook her head, pushing off the tree. Within moments, she heard the sound of crackling wood and crunching plants that meant the creature was following her.
They soon came to the huge granite cliffs of the Tumani, a massive stone edifice glinting dully under the setting sun. Lonely trees jutted from the barren rock, fighting for survival with no less tenacity than the frightened souls cowering in its dark recesses. The cliff’s flat top was covered with rows of vegetables and fruit trees, while its face was pockmarked with the Caves, dozens of dark holes that kept the Tumani free from the Ants’ claws. Home to the last people on earth, if you believed the Seeresses—clinging like rats to sinking river detritus.
Apparently Almaya could climb, for as Malena stepped on the narrow trail to the Caves, the creature navigated easily behind her, clinging to the rock like a spider.
Malena walked into the cavern, directly into a loud conversation between Father and his four chieftains. They immediately stopped talking to stare at her, and she watched her father’s face transform from relief, to worry, to pure rage.
“By the Goddess’s pointed teats, Malena, you’ll be my death!” King Wolf yelled, his barkskin boots striking hard against the granite floor as he stomped to Malena. He towered above her, forked beard trembling with anger. “Where have you been? What useless nonsense has seized your thoughts now?”
Malena bit her lip, waiting until her voice was steady. “Where have I been? Only discovering how to defeat the Ants, with help of a magical being who might be the Makuru.” She watched King Wolf’s cheek-tattoos shift with his grinding teeth. “Father, we’re no longer slaves to this place! We could travel to the mountains of the Great Falls, live outside in valleys that the Ants could never reach—”
“What in heaven’s cloudy chamberpot is that?” Father said, looking over her shoulder. Malena turned to see that Almaya had scrabbled into the cave, retracted his legs into his body, and turned into a giant lava sculpture. Father stared, stupefied, then walked slowly toward the creature, a crowd of people trailing behind. They circled Almaya, feeling his sharp facets, trying to push him over.
“He showed me how to defeat the Ants, Father,” Malena said. “I think he might be the Makuru.”
King Wolf looked up with a scowl. “He is no more the Makuru than my big toe is my ass. Instead of imagining fanciful tales, try staying in the Caves and bearing Rahul children. Or is it too much to ask you to contribute?”
Malena trembled, enraged at having this monumental discovery dismissed as a childish prank. “Try thinking about the future, instead of listening to those ancient, short-sighted crones! I’ve found a way to save all of us, and all you can think of is babies. Well, I don’t want to have babies with Rahul!”
There were gasps, and from her side vision, she saw Rahul whirl around and leave the chamber. Her heart collapsed, and she lifted a stricken face to Father, who turned his back to her. She closed her eyes, wanting only to crawl into a hole and die. In one breath, she’d devastated Rahul, demeaned her father, and insulted the Seeresses. Without another word, she pushed through the crowd toward her cavern, knowing she would be Shamed this night.
And knowing she deserved it.
Tonight was the once-per-moon recital of the Histories—an event often proceeded by a Shaming, so children could learn how not to behave, before they absorbed the fanciful lies of the Heroes they were to emulate. Malena was glad for it; she wouldn’t have long to wait for this travesty to be over. And as the sun sank below the distant mountains, a large crowd of adults and children gathered in the central cavern, their conversations somber. The four Seeresses stood before Malena, dyed dresses making a colorful display in these otherwise drab caves. Their expressions ranged from Head Seeress Ochoa’s spiteful disapproval, to the apologetic, worried expression of her friend Sabella.
Seeress Ochoa began the Shaming, wrinkled eyes narrow with disapproval.
“We are the last remnants of our people, they who need every soul brought into the world,” she rasped, gray hair falling about her cheeks. “The one before us gives us no spawn, travels far from the Caves, and falsely claims to see the savior Makuru. She eats our precious food, while bearing no children to advance our people . . .”
They took turns listing her sins, while the crowd watched silently. Malena hung her head, caring nothing for their words. Her immense sorrow was born of the wrong she’d done to Rahul, for today she’d dashed his pride on the cave’s rocky floor. It was the only reason she truly deserved this Shaming.
Malena nodded when it was Sabella’s turn, letting her friend know she understood. Beautiful Sabella. She was so stunning with that golden band around her head, the eagle tattoo on her forehead. Sabella read the harangue slowly, her tone filled with such reluctance and sorrow that Ochoa shot her a warning look.
And then it was over. With a last glare at Malena, Ochoa moved to the front of the cavern while the children gathered around her. Malena watched this sourly, debating whether to stay for the Histories.
She felt a light touch on her shoulder and turned to see Sabella gliding into the darkness, motioning her to follow. Malena looked around quickly, then left her place and followed Sabella into a little-used chamber, where they ducked back against the wall.
Sabella’s face was soft in the low light. “I’m sorry, Malena . . .”
“I know, radiance,” Malena whispered. “You do what you must, it changes nothing between us.”
Sabella looked down. “She dislikes you, but don’t let it make you spiteful. She is a good woman in many ways.”
Malena lifted Sabella’s chin with one finger, then brushed a lock of brown hair from those beautiful eyes. “Remember when we used to spend all our time in these hidden chambers . . .”
Sabella twisted away gently, one hand on her bulging belly. “Malena, I—I am with Iago now. I will always miss those days, but—”
“—are you happy, Sabella?”
“Not often,” Sabella whispered. “But my happiness is a papaya on the high branches—whether it exists or not makes no difference. This is the lot I was given.”
Malena nodded, feeling a hole where her heart once was. “You should return before the Histories start.”
Sabella nodded and fled from the chamber, while Malena tried to pretend she hadn’t seen the desperate discomfort on Sabella’s beautiful face. She stood for a long moment, biting her lip and willing her eyes to dry. After some time, she walked back to the main cavern, searching for Rahul with an emptiness that filled her bones. She spied him at the far side of the immense cave, pointedly avoiding her gaze as Ochoa’s raspy voice echoed from the cavern walls.
The Histories always began with the account they all knew, before they devolved into some apocryphal tale of the Heroes—tales that Malena suspected had been crafted from head to toe, like one of her mother’s woven dresses. But they always started with Truth.
“In the time of Mankind’s pride, came creatures of death from the stars, the Advasar,” Ochoa whispered. Shadows from the wall-mounted braziers shifted across her wrinkled face. “Our great cities became empty shells, our flying boxes naught but fallen branches, for the Advasar laid them all low.”
Malena listened with half an ear, trying to work up the nerve to approach Rahul. She started toward him, then hung back, unwilling to see her rejection in his eyes.
“. . . Soon came the Salbedores, sky-creatures who fought the Advasar in shiny bubbles and beams of light. But although the Advasar finally won, and left their servants the Ants to clear the earth of our kind, the Salbedores played one last trick upon them. For in a land the ancients called Kast-rehca, the Salbedores formed the Caves, to shelter mankind from the Ants until their great warrior Makuru could return to restore us to our final glory. And in this time of destruction and chaos rose a Hero named Alhander, who could see in the dark . . .”
Malena found her gaze drifting to Rahul. Finally, she pushed off the wall, weaving through the crowd in his direction.
He rose as she sat next to him, and Malena put a hand on his arm.
“Please. Please stay.”
Rahul hovered a moment, then finally sat down. He turned to her, darkly handsome face a sea of wounded pride.
“I thought you wanted nothing to do with me.”
“Oh Rahul, I am sorry,” Malena said, tears streaming down her face. “Please forgive me.”
Rahul’s mouth was tight. “You’re sorry for hurting me, but your words were true.”
Malena wiped her eyes. “Why do you want me, Rahul? I am not nearly so beautiful as Wenita, or Hosefa, or many of the others. I don’t stitch, and I don’t know if I would be a good mother to your children.”
“It is simple,” Rahul whispered, barely audible over Ochoa’s hypnotic intonation. “Together we laugh. I talk with you as I do with no other; what more do you need?”
Malena put a hand on his arm. “Handsome, kind Rahul, if I had babies with anyone it would be you. But I’m not ready, and may never be.”
His tight expression melted into sorrow. “So then, what are you ready for, Malena? Ready to face the Enemy, I hear. And what is that odd creature you have unearthed?”
She nodded fiercely. “That one showed me how to defeat the Ants. It is a matter of circles, for they cannot understand them.” She waved a hand at Ochoa, droning about some Hero who became invisible. “Our Old Ones say we must cower here in these caves, while every year we have less space up top to grow vegetables, more mouths to feed. One breaking of the cliffs here will destroy the last Tumani on earth. Yet, we are not to leave, not to consider battling the Ants. At the Great Falls lie endless high valleys where we could thrive, but they will not consider it, even if the Makuru itself shows them the way.”
Rahul leaned back. “That creature can’t be Makuru. Makuru is said to have giant red and yellow wings . . .”
“They’ve been wrong before!” Malena hissed. “Rahul, come with me, I will show you. Bring cloth sacks and a knife, and a strong stomach.” She rose, heartened to see Rahul’s somber expression give way to a devilish grin. And with that, Malena knew he was still with her.
The next dawn found them in the branch of a giant Cedro tree, listening for sounds of crackling wood that indicated the Ants had awakened. Rahul hefted the hemp sacks, staring nervously into the forest.
“You don’t need to do this, Malena. I believe you—”
“—There!” Malena shouted, seeing the metallic glimmer of Ants through the trees. “Watch this!”
Malena dropped to the forest floor, waving her arms. “Ho, Ants! I’m here for you!”
She began running in circles before the first Ant crashed through the woods, as Rahul shouted in terror from above. And like before, the Ants stopped in place when they saw her circular path, their knobbed heads twisting in small loops. She ran for hours, cursing herself for not planning better—she should have started at dusk. But just when she felt she could go no further, Rahul dropped from the tree with a loud thud. The Ants perked up, but sagged again as he too began running in circles.
“Rest your legs, I’ll run around you!” Rahul yelled, and Malena dropped to one knee, gasping for air while Rahul ran around her. In another hour, the Ants began collapsing to the forest floor one by one, first bending their front legs, then their back. When the last was down, Rahul ran another circle and stopped, breathing hard. Malena rose, and they both stared at the immobile Ants for a long moment.
“And that’s how our people will make the four day journey to the upper valleys of the Great Falls,” Malena panted. She took Rahul’s knife from his scabbard and drove it into the Ant’s neck.
“No!” Rahul shouted, stepping back. But the Ant remained motionless, and Malena shot him a satisfied grin. “They may as well be dead until dawn.”
They arrived back at the main cave carrying two filled hemp bags, passing a still-immobile Almaya. Malena looked at her little brother Edmando, playing a game of marbles with his friends.
“Go find Father and his Chieftains. This is very important.”
Several minutes later, King Wolf and his chieftains arrived at the main cavern, pushing through a growing crowd to stand before her. Father’s face looked pained.
“Malena, not again—”
Both Malena and Rahul opened the hemp sacks, dumping eight severed Ant heads on the granite floor. The crowd recoiled—all except King Wolf, whose fiery eyes followed a knobby head as it rolled to his feet and stopped.
“Father, we can defeat the Ants,” Malena said. “Lead us to the valleys of the Great Falls, where we can thrive again.”
Father turned a stricken gaze toward her, then his face turned pure white as he stared over her shoulder.
Malena twisted around to see that some of Almaya’s black squares had fallen away, to reveal a sea of red and yellow feathers underneath.
Makuru! . . . The cry came from everywhere within the crowd, and one-by-one, they began dropping to their knees, watching Almaya’s black squares fall to the ground with sounds of clinking metal. And for the first time in a long time, Father favored her with a wide, radiant grin.
“Malena, it is you who will lead us.”
For the next eighteen days, Malena and Rahul trained the people. They split the men into groups, with each group running around the women and children in the center for one hour before switching places. The women crafted fearsome puppets from the severed Ant heads, which Malena and Rahul waved before the running men to steel their nerves.
On the day their journey began, Almaya shed his last metal squares, becoming a monstrous creature of red and golden wings. With a terrible cry, he lifted off from the Caves, flying into the rising sun amid the shouts of the assembled people. Together they watched Makuru sail into the pink dawn sky, his shadow fluttering and shifting across the green canopy. Malena turned to consider Ochoa as the people broke out into song, seeing no longer the proud seeress, but a weary old woman. Curiously, Malena held no spite, feeling only the odd desire to comfort her. But there was no time to look back on that first, glorious day of freedom.
That first day, the people made it only four hundred feet from the Caves before the entire procession had to stop to run circles. The Ants attacked two men who panicked and fled in straight lines, and Malena felt her stomach rise at the sick sounds of crunching flesh.
But the others held in place, and by late afternoon, the Ants collapsed. With sounds of awe, the Tumani threaded through the immobile Ants, poking at their strange, oval bodies. It was Rahul’s idea to light the torches, and soon, a hundred fires lit the evening, as Ants everywhere were set ablaze. The people watched in silence as the Enemy’s shiny flesh turned black and separated into strange, elastic bands.
They travelled like this for four days—dancing circles by day, torching the Ants by evening, travelling most of the night except for a few hours sleep. And on the morning of the fifth day, all six hundred of the world’s last Tumani reached the summit at the top of the world, gaping at the verdant, Ant-free valleys below. Forested cliffs of jagged rock rose on all sides, sheltering valleys of brilliant green meadows and narrow lakes. Behind them, the roar of the Great Falls was loud in their ears, the spray bathing their necks.
Father’s eyes were wet as he gazed into the Tumani’s new home, his chest shaking with emotion. Far above, eagles soared between those craggy mountains, creating tiny shadows over the meadows below.
King Wolf turned to Malena, but his smile fell away at the melancholy storm on his daughter’s face. Just ahead of them, Rahul laughed easily with Marya, shoulders touching as they watched fish jump out of the river. To their left, Malena’s gaze followed Sabella and Iago as they held hands and wove through giant trees, Sabella’s belly large with child.
King Wolf grabbed Malena by the shoulders and turned her to face him. “A leader’s path is often lonely,” he said, kissing her forehead. “But some day you’ll find what you want, my child.”
Malena fell forward, hugging her father tightly. They stood like that a long moment, with the breeze on their necks, and the sound of the Great Falls loud in their ears. Finally, Malena stepped back, a small smile on her face.
“Well, that was part of what I wanted.”
King Wolf laughed, and together they descended into the valley.