Manisha’s origin isn’t exactly the feel-good story of the season. And yet, we can’t stop devouring this YA retelling of the Medusa myth from author Sajni Patel.
Check out this excerpt from the opening of Rick Riordan Presents: A Drop of Venom and see for yourself. Warning: things get very intense very quickly!
All monsters and heroes have beginnings. This is mine.
Silt and cinder covered Manisha’s face, gray snowflakes burdening her lashes and sloughing from her feet as she scrambled up a tree. She wasn’t trying to flee or hide (nagin did not run); she searched for an opening to unleash a counterattack.
The roar of the Fire Wars was blistering and deafening. Chaos unfurled—meant to destroy, even when it couldn’t obliterate resilience. The realm sat on the brink of oblivion, crumbling at the hands of the men who had forged its beginnings. A world built in blood shall drown in blood. And so the Nightmare Realm flowed red, a waterway of slain bodies carving through its heart. But today was not the day Manisha and her family would be sent down the Blood River. Not if they could help it.
Her eldest sister, Eshani—the most levelheaded of the three—came crashing through the jungle ferns, half kneeling, half squatting on the back of her giant tiger, Lekha. Eshani plucked an arrow from her quiver and unleashed it into the thicket, earning screams from invading soldiers. Her arrows never missed, not when the winter-steel tips hungered for vengeance.
Lekha roared, flashing razor-edged teeth and a mighty jaw. The ground shuddered like thunderclaps threatening to smite all in their path, Lekha’s big paws pounding the ground like a battle drum.
Eshani backflipped off, landing on her haunches at the base of the tree her youngest sister climbed.
“Manisha!” Eshani called.
But Manisha was scampering higher, coughing as the sizzling air turned hotter by the minute and ignoring how every breath scorched her insides.
In the near distance, a row of the King’s army fought the remnants of the once-mighty naga. Manisha’s mother and aunts and second-eldest sister, Sithara, stood among the resistance. They were wild and wonderful, goddesses in their own right, wielding every weapon they could carry. Tridents and spears, swords and knives, arrows and axes.
The battle raged on, erupting with showers of arrows, clashing daggers, and a cacophony of wails. The blood of Manisha’s people splattered against the green and brown of the forest, dusted with ashes. Her eyes brimmed with tears. A scream trapped itself in her chest. They couldn’t die like this! They just wanted freedom. Why couldn’t the King leave them alone? Hadn’t he contributed enough bodies to the Blood River without adding theirs?
A soldier struck Mama. A vicious rage exploded through Manisha. She might’ve only been eleven, but she wasn’t a stranger to violence— or the need to defend her loved ones. Papa wasn’t here anymore to help protect Mama, so the sisters had to.
Manisha released an arrow. The one arrow split into three. Two hit the soldiers advancing on Mama. The third arrow careened into the main attacker’s forehead, slitting all the way through his skull. The squelching sound made her shudder. But better him than her mother.
Papa had said naga arrow tips were made from winter-steel, the strongest metal in the land. Razor sharp and dipped in the blood of their foremothers, said to be more poisonous than any cobra, the naga people’s namesake.
“What are you doing?” Eshani snapped, her hand suddenly on Manisha’s shoulder.
“I had to save her,” Manisha protested.
“She’d want you to save yourself first!” Eshani tugged her arm and, together, they darted across tree limbs.
A quake rocked the land. A shrill pierced the air, nearly knocking them from the canopy. A horde of giant, angry boars rushed through the battle, bigger than tigers, with skin too thick for even winter-steel to pierce. They bared sharp teeth and even sharper fangs. Their eyes bulged dark red like clotted blood.
The boars gored soldiers with their two-foot-long tusks. Screams filled the air, already stifled by chaotic ruin. They ran off into the smoky distance, writhing soldiers impaled on carmine-stained tusks.
Manisha shook at the sight, but she couldn’t pity those sent to kill her family.
“Let’s go!” Eshani screamed as the branch broke beneath them.
Falling was always a thrilling moment, one that seemed to pass in slow motion. Manisha caught glimpses of the floating mountains through the jungle canopy. She used to jump from higher and higher ledges, pretending to fly. Legends said the ancient ones could fly. Manisha wondered if they ever fell. If they ever twisted ankles and bruised knees and scraped cheeks. If they ever fell on their sisters and trapped them against jagged tree limbs and crooked roots.
She moaned, rolling off Eshani, her back screaming in pain. She bit her lip to keep from crying. Warriors didn’t cry over a few sprains, she reminded herself.
Eshani groaned louder with every movement. “You weigh a thousand suns,” she mumbled.
“Oh no!” Manisha knelt beside her, helping her to sit up beneath a trio of weeping willow trees.
“It’s okay, little one,” Eshani grunted, even though she was only two years older than Manisha. She clutched her side. “Hide. Into the ditches.”
Manisha eyed the shallow graves before scuttling down and wrapping her dupatta around her face.
“Make sure you cover your entire head. Don’t move until someone digs you out, do you understand?” Eshani said, her words rushed.
“Yes,” Manisha whimpered, fighting instincts to lie in a curled position on the loose timber platform in the center. The grave was meant for a boy who’d died from his wounds. Nothing about this felt okay.
Eshani dropped banana leaves on top of her sister, long enough to cover her entire body, and then dirt.
As darkness descended around Manisha, her breathing turned ragged, harsh inside the cloth. The earth was hard and smelled of dirt and grass. The pocket of air was both cold from the clutches of the ground and warm from her labored breathing.
She stilled, ignoring the cramping in her legs and back, and clenched her eyes tight. Heat seeped into the ground as the fires raged. She took slow breaths, harnessing the meditation rites of her people to be anywhere except here. Her body went slack. Her mind drifted to a different plane, a place where she sat with her foremothers as they regaled her with the legend of the naga.
Want to read more? Rick Riordan Presents: A Drop of Venom is on sale now!