Journey far enough into the unknown and you will eventually encounter yourself.
—Sayings of the Ancients
I AM LEO, the rightful Kahn of Singara, and I am about to die.
Time of death: any minute now.
Cause of death: Maguar attack.
At the moment, I’m picking my way through a twisting tunnel with my quadron-mates: Anjali, Stick, and Zoya. This secret tunnel goes under the Great Wall to enemy territory. Torch light sparkles on the damp walls. Only a few meters of trail are visible before fading into darkness.
For the last hour, the tunnel has slanted downward.
Unexpectedly, the path gently rises.
“The trail is sloping up,” I announce to my companions.
“That means we’ve gone under the Great Wall,” Anjali concludes. “Welcome to Maguar territory.”
That might be funny if death was not waiting on the other end. The Maguar are not known for friendly welcomes. They are known for ripping our kind to shreds without a second thought.
We’ve seen the enemy only once, back at the Royal Academy of War Science. Wajid had been a prisoner at the Academy since the Great War twenty-five years ago. He was huge and monstrous. If all Maguars are like him, we’re done for.
A blood-chilling roar blasts through this cramped passageway.
We freeze in our tracks.
“What was that?” Stick is in the lead position, carrying the torch. He’d be the first to face whatever beast is lurking up ahead. “Don’t tell me that was a Maguar!”
“Unlikely,” Anjali says. “Whatever made that noise is way bigger. Keep moving.”
“Keep moving toward the big scary noise?” Stick protests.
“It’s coming from aboveground,” she argues, “not in the cave,” as if that resolves the issue.
Anjali is our captain and leader. At sixteen, she’s the oldest and the most experienced in the Science of War. She’s smart, fearless, and fierce. Except for Kaydan, a general of the Singa Royal Army, there’s no one else I’d want at my side.
Why are we leaving the safety of our homeland to enter enemy territory?
I need to get away from my older cousin Tamir, who made himself supreme military commander last night. The same night my grandfather, the Singa-Kahn and our true leader, died.
Grief claws at my heart. Losing him is like losing the sun and the moon.
What’s more, Grandfather’s death means I should be the Singa-Kahn. That’s exactly why Tamir and his many followers want me dead. The land of our enemies is the best place to hide. Not even Tamir would dare search for me there.
“This place is darker than snake guts at midnight,” Stick says, squinting deeper into the black throat of the cave. “And it’s getting darker by the second.”
“That’s because your torch is dying, brick brain,” Zoya retorts.
Zoya is Stick’s sister. She’s the largest of our group and also the quietest. But when she has something to say, it’s usually worth hearing.
Then there’s me.
I’m like most any other Singa, only shorter.
To look at me, you wouldn’t know I conjure creatures from another world without trying, without even wanting it to happen.
I’ve kept this power hidden for most of my life . . . with good reason. Those who speak fiction are known as Spinners and are severely punished if caught. In my case, it’s much worse. When fiction strikes, strange visions follow and powerful beings get stuck in our world.
Then I met Shanti, an old shepherd. He taught me that I’m not afflicted but gifted. He says I’m a door between two worlds. Such a gift, he said, is very rare. Even among Spinners.
“I see light up ahead,” Stick reports.
It’s true. And just in time. Our torch is little more than a glowing ember.
Ahead, a distant pinprick of light winks at us like the first star in the night sky. Our pace quickens, and the glimmer becomes a long golden finger pointing to the way out.
The roar returns. Louder this time. And stronger.
Stick stops, forcing us to bunch up behind him. “This is a suicide mission,” he groans.
“We can’t go back to Singara,” I say. “At least I can’t.”
“None of us can,” Anjali states. “We all know too much, beginning with this secret cave. If we go back, Tamir will do whatever he can to extract information from us about Leo and his whereabouts. Trust me. You’re better off dead.”
“And the Maguar will treat us better?” Stick complains.
“They didn’t kill my mother,” I say. “She’s lived there ever since I was born.”
Stick isn’t convinced, but he won’t get two steps past Anjali if he decides to turn tail.
He shrugs. “Okay, let’s do this.”
We trudge up the final stretch of cave and huddle under an opening. It’s no bigger than the seat of a chair, but it beams like the sun itself in this dark underworld. When my eyes adjust, I see leaves dancing before a pale blue sky.
“Lift me up, Zoya,” I say. “I’m going to look around.”
Zoya hunches over and I climb onto her shoulders. She stands and my head pokes through the opening. I scan the landscape with eyes and ears, expecting to find the source of the terrifying roar, or maybe a horde of bloodthirsty Maguars closing in. But there are only chirping birds and the scents of pine, earth, and pollen riding on the breeze.
“All clear,” I say, and hoist myself up.
In a few moments, we’re all standing in a small field surrounded by trees, warming our fur in the sun.
The hole to the cave is hidden by tall grass and low-lying shrubs,...