We Shall Be Monsters

Read an Excerpt From Tara Sim’s We Shall Be Monsters


We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from We Shall Be Monsters by Tara Sim, a new young adult fantasy novel publishing with Nancy Paulsen Books on June 25th.

Kajal knows she is not a good person. If she were, she wouldn’t selfishly be risking her sister’s soul in a dangerous bid to bring her back to life. She would let Lasya rest in peace—but Kajal cannot stand the horror of living without her.

As Kajal prepares for the resurrection, the worst happens: Her sister’s soul warps into a bhuta—a murderous, wraith-like spirit—and Kajal gets sentenced to death for her sister’s rampage. There seems little hope of escape until two strangers offer to free her. The catch: She must resurrect the kingdom’s fallen crown prince to aid a growing rebellion against a tyrannical usurper. Desperate, Kajal rushes to complete her end of the deal… only to discover that the boy she’s resurrected, Tav, is not the crown prince.

Now Kajal—prickly, proud, admirer of the scientific method—must team up with Tav—stubborn, reticent, and fonder of swords than of books—to find the real crown prince. With only a scalpel and her undead dog, Kutaa, at her side, Kajal must work fast before her mistake is exposed or Lasya’s bhuta turns its murderous fury on the person truly responsible for her death: Kajal herself.


Chapter One

The worst day of Kajal’s life was the day she broke out of her own coffin.

It wasn’t even a nice coffin. It was one made to burn, to reduce unclean flesh to ash, to allow the soul to return to nature and be reborn. Traditions such as this reigned strong in Dharati, especially in the town of Siphar, isolated as it was against the crags of the eastern mountains.

Though tradition did not specify what to do when a girl’s fist broke through rotting wood, terrifying the humble crowd assembled to witness the burning.

Kajal shoved the coffin lid off and sat up with a gasp. Everything in her vision slanted and slid. Blinking rapidly, she could do little more than stare at the second coffin beside her, then at the people who gazed back at her in horror.

“Get away,” she rasped.

Half of them didn’t need telling twice, outright running to the squat, pale buildings sitting under a dusk-­flushed sky. The coffins had been placed far enough from the town that the smell of charring flesh wouldn’t carry.

The man who held the flaming branch meant to light the pyre stood with rigid limbs and a slack mouth.

“W-­Witch,” he breathed. “Dakini.”

Kajal ignored him and forced herself to move, teeth gritted as she gracelessly climbed over the side of the broken coffin and dropped onto the kindling. Her arms and legs were shaking and weak with disuse; how long had she been lying in there? Dust and dirt billowed around her, and she thought she saw a shape within it—­a moth or a butterfly. Mindlessly, she reached out, but it dissipated between her fingers.

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We Shall Be Monsters
We Shall Be Monsters

We Shall Be Monsters

Tara Sim

“How?” the man with the torch demanded. His voice was thick with the local country dialect Kajal had grown used to during the months she’d stayed here. “The medicine woman said you were dead!”

“The medicine woman was wrong,” Kajal croaked. Her long black hair hung limp and unwashed on either side of her face. Someone had dressed her scrawny body in a plain white kameez, another detail dictated by tradition. White was pure. White was the color of renewal, rebirth.

“You…” The man pointed the branch at her, the fire reflected in his wary eyes. “We found you both outside the cave-­in, surrounded by… by malevolent offerings. You were behind it, weren’t you?”

Her head was spinning, but she recalled a cave. A plan.

It should have worked. She had been so sure. But all she remembered now was a flash of unbearable light, a cacophonous breaking of stone.

Screams.

“They’re dead,” the man growled, his wariness turning to fury. “Six of our miners are dead because of you, and we can’t get to their bodies.” He pointed at the second coffin. “Not even she was spared from whatever wicked spells you cast. You killed her.”

The words slid off her like raindrops. She was sanded down, edgeless, without corners or niches to catch them.

She crawled over branches and roughly hewn firewood toward the second coffin, gathering stains on her white dress and splinters in her skin. Her chest constricted so painfully she could hardly breathe.

It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true.

She waited for a fist like hers to break through the wood, but all was still and silent. Kajal’s throat tightened as she pushed at the flimsy coffin lid.

“Don’t,” the man cautioned.

The lid fell to the ground. The girl within was swathed in the same white cotton as Kajal, but on her, it looked intentional, like she had chosen it from her clothes trunk that morning. Her glossy black hair had somehow maintained a hint of a curl at the ends. Her face was lovely even in death, lips pale against her brown skin.

Kajal’s breaths were coming in short bursts, her lungs on fire, her stomach writhing. She fumbled at the girl’s cold neck.

“See?” The man’s country dialect drawled around a sneer. “Now move aside. We can’t burn the miners ’cause of you, but at least we can burn her before rakshasas are drawn to the smell. There’s already an aga ghora prowling the outskirts of town.”

An eerie cry in the distance backed up his claim, followed by the shouts of what had to be hunters wielding crossbows with iron bolts.

Kajal barely had a thought to spare for them. The girl’s name was a bright, burning spot in her mind, lodged in her throat, waiting to be cried out—­but she couldn’t, she couldn’t, if she said her name it would make it true, and it couldn’t possibly be true that she was… 

Dead.

Kajal was alive, and she was dead.

It was an accident.

I’m sorry.

How am I alive and you aren’t?

Wake up!

She slapped the girl’s cheek. The remaining townspeople murmured at her disrespect, but when she bared her teeth they shrank back, unwilling to fight a feral, possibly undead creature.

Kajal shook the girl’s shoulder until her head lolled. “Please. Please, you can’t. La—­”

The first sob caught her off guard. She slumped against the coffin as the cry tore through her like removing an arrowhead from her body, all agony and bloody mess.

“No,” she moaned when the man with the torch approached her again.

“She needs to burn,” he said. “Stay there, for all I care. You can burn with her and spare us the rope for a hanging.”

For a moment, Kajal was resigned to let them have their way. She would sit here and let the flames consume her too. Have them finish what she had started.

Someone gasped, and another screamed. A high-­pitched call shivered through her, breaking the fragile mountain air.

The horse appeared with little warning, leaving a trail of scorched hoofprints in its wake. It stood with head bent and forelegs spread, snorting fire while smoke purled from its open mouth. The body was barely distinct under the roiling flame, its eyes unseeing orbs of brilliant light.

“The aga ghora broke through!” came a cry as the remaining townsfolk fled, followed by a warning to prepare weapons and water buckets.

Kajal moved without thinking. She scrambled to kneel before the coffin, arms spread. If the rakshasa wanted to eat the dead, it would have to eat Kajal first.

But it stood unmoving, unblinking. As if waiting for her to take charge.

A dark laugh rumbled in her throat.

They wanted fire.

She staggered to her feet, hauling the dead girl up by her armpits. The weight was more than she had anticipated, and nearly made Kajal topple to the ground. But she only had a few minutes before the townspeople would return with their crossbows to drive the demon away.

“If you’re not going to eat us, then make yourself useful,” Kajal snapped.

The flames engulfing the aga ghora ebbed. It fell to its knees, and Kajal hesitated despite the urgency coursing through her. But the rakshasa made no move to attack, so she pushed the girl’s body across its bare back and scrambled up behind, the stained kameez shifting around her hips. The horse’s flesh was hot, almost unbearably so, and threatened to burn the insides of her thighs.

Kajal fisted a hand in the demon’s mane.

“Run,” she commanded.


The body refused to grow colder with the horse’s heat, but it did begin to stiffen. Kept in this state, it would continue to decay until flesh sloughed from bones and organs were reduced to fetid liquids.

But Kajal knew how to prevent it.

Several miles from the town of Siphar, Kajal pulled the girl’s body off the rakshasa. The horse’s flames sprouted and danced again, flickering against those uncanny white eyes.

Horse and girl stared at each other for an uncomfortable moment. Kajal wondered if it expected some sort of debt now, or if it was only drawn to her because she was seemingly a dead thing resurrected.

If she had even died, that is. If she had implausibly returned through a veil of darkness and unbeing, she had no idea how—­or why the girl beside her hadn’t returned too.

“Thank you,” she said at last.
The rakshasa let out another cry and galloped across the plain, its embers singeing the ground.

She was at the edge of the mountains that bordered eastern Dharati, near a thick forest of looming evergreens. Beyond was swampland and a field tangled with scrub. Ghost lights bobbed between the weeds, pinpricks of pulsing blue.

Kajal slowly lifted the girl’s kameez to reveal what it had hidden: a large wound slanted across the girl’s abdomen, sewn shut to preserve her dignity. She winced and tugged the dress back down before dragging the body toward the base of a tree, far enough out to hopefully not run into roots.

Then she began to dig.

She had no tools other than her own two hands. Her kameez was a ruin and clung to her with sweat, and she had to pause every so often to vomit thin bile that made tears spring to her eyes. The moon had fully risen by the time she’d dug deep enough, her arms sore and wrecked, her insides scraped raw.

Kajal turned to the body. It looked so serene, so at peace, even while sprawled in the middle of nowhere with no heartbeat and no future.

For now, at least.

She pulled the girl into the grave. The arrangement was awkward, and Kajal had to readjust the arms and legs until they fit. When she lifted the girl’s wrist, she stared at the snug copper ring on her pinkie finger, the skin around it tinged green. She debated whether to take it. In the end, she decided to leave it be.

Kajal flexed her sore hands; it was hard to imagine the dirt under her nails was the same soil blessed long ago by the nature spirits of the yakshas. Soil that would protect a body from devourment and preserve it from decay.

Of the flesh, that is. A human soul, if trapped within its vessel and denied release through the gift of fire, would warp into a bhuta—­a wraithlike ghost. A specter that, once strong enough, could claim lives of its own.

This was why it was steadfast tradition in Dharati to feed their dead to flames.

Kajal sat straddling the body a moment longer, her breaths evening out. She had to make this right. She had to undo this before the spirit began to corrode.

More tears blurred her vision. Staring at the girl, Kajal finally forced herself to speak her name.

“Lasya,” she whispered.

As she’d feared, saying it out loud made it worse. Something real she could not take back. Something she had to accept, with her whole miserable heart.

Her chest faltered under a sob as she leaned down and pressed their foreheads together, one cool and one burning.

“I promise this isn’t the end. I’ll bring you back, Lasya. I swear it.”

The corners of her sister’s pale lips were curved slightly upward, as if even in death she knew better than to trust Kajal’s promises.

Excerpted from We Shall Be Monsters, copyright © 2024 by Tara Sim.



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