Read an excerpt from Beasts of Prey, fall's biggest YA fantasy
This week, the hunt begins — and a new fantasy trilogy launches. In Ayana Gray's Beasts of Prey, the first in her highly-anticipated series, two Black teenagers venture into a mythical jungle to defend their home against a terrifying monster. The book blends Pan-African lore with elements of Gray's endless imagination — the author was inspired to create the trilogy after a visit to Ghana to explore her roots. Here, in an exclusive excerpt from chapter 7 of the first installment, we meet the Shetani, the monster at the center of the heart-pounding tale.
Rhythm and Flow
Koffi watched the fractured sky above her pale as night yielded to dawn.
For a few fragile seconds, she remained as detached as the clouds overhead, suspended in an intermediate space between nightmares and dreams, where reality couldn't reach. It didn't last long; memories of the previous night found her soon enough.
Then she remembered the eyes.
They were a fathomless black, fixed firmly in her mind. She remembered the sensation of falling after she'd leaped from the Night Zoo's wall, the impact as she'd landed feetfirst in the dirt and stumbled. When she'd risen, she'd come face-to-face with a monster—and not just any monster.
She'd known what it was instantly. Growing up, she'd heard tales of it, but nothing that had prepared her for the truth. The creature she'd laid eyes on had been a thing built from nightmares, a mass of raw pink skin stretched tight over tendons and bone. She envisioned the knifelike teeth and bottlebrush tail, the way each of its black claws had curled in the earth as it tensed. Perhaps it had been drawn to the commotion of the Night Zoo's fire; maybe it'd come for something else. She'd been sure it would kill her, and then—
The word had left her lips in a whisper. Yet again, she'd felt that strange tingle in her feet, a rush of something moving through her.
She wasn't sure why she'd repeated the command; it had just come to her. And then, against all reason . . . the Shetani had obeyed. She imagined its retreating figure as it disappeared into the night, and tried to recall other details. Someone had grabbed her momentarily—a boy she hadn't noticed before—but when he'd let her go a second later, she'd seized the opportunity and made a run for it. That same insistent pull she'd felt in the zoo had guided her through the lemongrass fields as the zoo's towering brick walls grew distant, and the city of Lkossa's outer slums rose to meet her. With each step, she'd fallen into a cadence, a steady drumming rhythm that began in her feet and worked its way up her ribs until her heartbeat attuned to it.
Thump-thump. Don't stop. Thump-thump. Don't stop.
The pull had led her through winding side streets rank with the stink of waste and rotting food until she'd found refuge in one particularly small alley filled with old crates she could hide behind. Now she sat there with her knees pulled up to her chin.
The throbbing ache near her clavicle when she shifted was a painful reminder of the rock that had hit her, but she bit into her lip until the threatening tears waned. She wouldn't cry, she determined, not here. To cry now would be to unleash something, a deluge she wasn't sure she'd be able to dam once released. Her stomach twisted as she stemmed two different kinds of pain, refusing to let either consume her. After a moment, the first subsided, but the second kind remained.
Mama was gone.
The revelation didn't come the way she'd expected it to—total and devastating. Rather, it rolled over her in waves, each one crueler than its predecessor, until it was numbing. She and Mama had come close, so close, to a different life entirely. She remembered the hope she'd seen in her mother's eyes as she'd shared the news that they'd be leaving.
We can go wherever we want, she'd said. You and I, we'll leave this place and start over somewhere else, and we'll never, ever look back. We'll never return.
In the end, that dream hadn't even made it over the Night Zoo's walls.
Koffi stared at her hands, still loosely wrapped in the bloodied strips of cloth Mama had torn from her own tunic to help her climb the vines. Koffi winced at the sight of them. Those two tattered rags were literal pieces of her mother, the only things she had left now. New truths took shape the longer she stared at them. Mama had understood that there was a chance they wouldn't both make it out of the Night Zoo, so she'd followed a maternal instinct and told Koffi to climb the wall first. That sacrifice had ultimately made all the difference, but it hadn't been the only one. Koffi suddenly remembered all the little moments too, the times Mama had shared her food when meals were sparse, or shared her blanket on colder nights. Even last night, before they'd run, Mama had been prepared to take a punishment that she hadn't deserved, to give up her own freedom so that Koffi didn't have to give up hers. That was all Mama had ever done, put others before herself. She'd never seen any of that goodwill returned; she never would now.
And it's all your fault.
Koffi flinched away from the accusation in her head, from the vitriol in it. The sense of emptiness was one thing, but the blame and guilt cut through her like a knife. None of last night would have happened if she'd remembered to check Diko's harness. The exploding candle, the fire, the aftermath, it all led back to one care- less mistake. She thought of the look she'd seen on Mama's face in the seconds after the candle had burst, what she'd said as they ran from the Hema side by side.
If Baaz realizes what you really did and what you really are, you will never leave this place.
Koffi focused on those words now, letting them echo in her head. Mama had known something about her, but what? Something significant had happened last night, a thread that inter- wove between her, the Shetani, and that strange feeling in her feet, but she couldn't understand the connection. A new stab of pain struck as she realized that it didn't matter. That strange feeling, whatever it had been and whatever had caused it, was gone now. That truth had likely died with Mama.
Every muscle in Koffi's body screamed in protest as she pulled herself to her feet, collecting what dwindling resolve she had left. Her feet were sore, her tunic was sticky, and she was sure the twists in her hair were unraveling, but she set her jaw with a new determination. She couldn't stay in this alley. Her mother's last gift to her had been a second chance at life, and that gift couldn't be wasted. Sitting here waiting for something or someone to happen upon her wasn't an option. She had to move.
Her eyes watered as she emerged from the alleys of the slum slowly, adjusting to the new morning light. Lkossa's streets, it seemed, were only just beginning to stir, filling with people leaving their homes and setting up wares for the day. Koffi found it all strange to see firsthand. This was, after all, where she was truly from—her family had once lived in the city before moving to the Night Zoo—but years had passed since she'd been here in person. It was a peculiar thing, to know a place was home without knowing it at all.
She idled through the roads quietly, trying to lay out a map in her mind. Each part of Lkossa, it seemed, had its own style and character. She passed through a street that smelled of linens and soaps, one full of strung-up meats and animal hides, and yet an- other filled with artisans and pottery work. With each discovery of something new or unexpected, she watched the city come to life. The red dirt beneath her feet seemed to hum, and the collec- tive smells around her formed a fragrance of their own. She was still tired, still on edge, but something about the city calmed her. It wasn't so unlike the Night Zoo, she realized; Lkossa had its own rhythm and f low. She closed her eyes and listened to it, the droves of people pounding through the streets, a chorus of vendors calling out prices to their customers, the sounds of marching feet—
Her eyes snapped open. That new sound, the marching, was distinct from the rest of the city's morning din. She searched the road, tensing, until she found where it was coming from. A trio of young men had just entered from the opposite end of the street, weaving through it in single file. They wore telltale blue kaftans and gold belts, and each had a hanjari dagger looped on his belt. A few of the vendors stepped out of their way as they walked, but most paid them little attention. From her spot, Koffi stiffened. Those were Sons of the Six in broad daylight, perhaps some of the very same ones who'd come into the zoo. They looked smug, superior, like the kind of men who were used to holding power. Not a single one of them even looked her way as they passed, but she still ducked behind a fruit cart until they were farther down the street. Newfound anger boiled her blood as she watched their retreating backs and remembered yet another piece of the night before. Two warriors had come after her and Mama, chased them down like animals. She gnawed on her bottom lip until she tasted blood, until she could no longer see the three warriors. The sight of them had prompted an unpleasant reminder.
She was a runaway.
In fleeing the Night Zoo, she'd broken her legal-indenture contract with Baaz, the one she and her parents had signed years ago, which meant she'd also broken the law. What she'd done was considered theft and desertion, and if she was caught, she'd be caned, jailed, or worse. Instinctively she looked over her shoulder, and a fresh stab of sadness nearly winded her. Mama wasn't here. No one was. From here on, she'd have to figure things out on her own. She pressed her fingers into her temples, trying to think. Think. Mama had said something else to her last night, something about thinking. Koffi tried to pull the words from memory.
Sometimes, though, you can't lead with your heart. You have to think with your head.
Koffi resolved then that that was what she would do. She would think with her head, and she'd come up with a plan. She and Mama had once dreamed of leaving Lkossa, so that was what she'd do.
She was going to find a way out of here.
The sun rose higher as the morning went on, drawing heat from every crevice of the city's roads and buildings. Eventually, Koffi found a public well where she could wash. She didn't have clothes to change into, so the best she'd been able to do was a few buckets of water poured over her body, but that had at least gotten rid of the grit and the lingering smell of smoke. Only so much could be done about her hair without shea butter and a good comb, but she at least tried to redo some of the unravelling twists. She was still wringing out her clothes when she reached the end of one street and stopped.
If Lkossa had been designed like a pie—a circle cut into thick, even slices—then this had to be its center. It was like nothing she'd ever seen before. Tents in every size, shape, and color were pushed together, so close it was hard to discern where one stopped and another started. She inhaled, and her lungs filled with a thousand scents all at once. She smelled egusi soup brewing—thick with onions, tomatoes, and fresh peppers—alongside jollof rice and banku. Women with kohl-rimmed eyes f locked around carts of multicolored pots, while bearded men in extravagant garb haggled over wax-dyed textiles that shimmered in the breeze. The sight of it managed to be both overwhelming and magnificent all at once.
Koffi was so taken by it that she didn't notice anything near her until she tripped.
"Oh, excuse me, I—"
She started. She hadn't seen the person sitting on a blanket near her feet. It was an old woman, sitting before an assortment of small glittering trinkets. There were beaded bracelets, hoop earrings, and several jeweled hair barrettes, but her eyes focused on the six wooden figurines displayed in a semicircle at the blanket's center—a heron, a crocodile, a jackal, a serpent, a dove, and a hippo—icons of the gods' familiars.
"Quite all right, little one." The woman offered a small smile. Her tunic was as plain as her blanket, and tufts of white hair peeked out from the edges of her cotton head wrap. A tarnished amulet hung around her neck. "I'm easy to miss." She followed Koffi's gaze and nodded to the figurines. "You are faithful?"
"I am." Koffi swallowed a hard lump in her throat. The figurines, clearly carved from good marula wood, were so much like the ones she and Mama had prayed to only yesterday. That memory now felt like part of a different life. "They're lovely," she whispered.
"Thank you, dear." The old woman's voice held a touch of pride, and Koffi relaxed as she recognized the fluid way she spoke Zamani. This woman was Gede, like her. Out of respect, she bowed her head.
"Good morning, Auntie," she said, deferring to the respectful greeting for an elder.
"Ah." The old woman's dark eyes danced. "And a good morning to you, little bird. The gods are kind today to bring us together." She studied Koffi more closely. "You're skinny." It wasn't a question, but it wasn't an accusation either. "Are you hungry?"
Before Koffi could answer, the old woman was digging in a bag at her side and withdrawing a wrapped loaf of bread. The smell alone made Koffi's mouth water. "I've got more than enough here, if you'd like to share?"
"Um . . ." Koffi paused. She was still feeling cautious, and more than a little wary of strangers, but . . . Mama had taught her the rule of kin. You never refused a meal offered by another Gede. Besides that, she was starving. As though she'd read her mind, the old woman split her bread in half without another word. Koffi took a seat beside her on the blanket as they ate. She barely resisted a moan. Food had never made her cry before, but this bread was so delicious that she almost wanted to. Every morsel seemed to give something small back to her, revitalizing her. When she looked up, she found the old woman was watching her.
"You seem a bit young to come to the market on your own," she noted.
Koffi sat up straighter. "I'm eighteen," she lied. "Perfectly capable."
One of the old woman's white brows rose. "Really? I'd have guessed sixteen, actually."
Koffi was grateful the darker hue of her skin couldn't betray her embarrassment. She pointed to the trinkets on the blanket, eager to change the subject.
"So, how much do these usually go for?" she asked.
"Oh." The old woman brushed crumbs from her lap and leaned against the building directly behind them. "I suppose it depends on the buyer. I accept payments in coin, of course, but sometimes I get offers for a barter."
"A . . . barter?" Koffi repeated the word. It sounded vaguely familiar, but she couldn't remember another time she'd heard it.
"It means a trade," the old woman explained. "One thing given in exchange for another thing of equal value."
Koffi stared. "You can do that here, trade one thing for another without paying money?"
The old woman smiled. "Of course you can. Anything can be bartered for, if you know its true value."
Koffi sat back for a moment, considering. All her life, currency had worked one way. She and Mama had worked for a daily coin allowance, which they'd then used to pay down their debt. The idea of paying for things in other ways, through trade, felt entirely foreign to her. She was still thinking about it as her eyes roamed over the items on the blanket, stopping on one in particular. It was a silver ring, simple enough at a glance, but the jewel at its center was exquisite. It reminded her of an opal, but brighter, impossibly prettier. At once, she felt distinctly drawn to it. For a second time, the old woman followed her gaze.
"Ah yes, the duniastone," she said knowingly. "It's a modest thing, but it does catch the eye. I've had several offers for it in the last week, though none that were worthy."
Koffi paused. "Did you say . . . duniastone?"
"I did." There was a glint in the woman's eyes now. "You've heard of them?"
"Sure, in stories." Koffi thought about what her mother had told her about duniastones when she was a little girl. It was said they came from the very heart of the earth itself and could only be found in . . . "You've been to the Kusonga Plains," she said aloud.
The old woman nodded. "I have."
Now it was Koffi who sat back against the wall. She'd only just left the Night Zoo for the first time since she and her parents had become indentured there, so it felt impossible to imagine something as far away as the Kusonga Plains. She was fairly sure even Baaz had never been so far west. She stared at the old woman, distinctly impressed.
"What's it like there?"
"Oh, it's beautiful," said the old woman. "There are fields of lemongrass that stretch for miles, food that tastes like paradise." She closed her eyes, wistful. "I imagine it's what the godlands might someday be like, if I am so lucky as to get there. It's truly a place of wonder." She cracked an eye open to look at Koffi. "And a place of magic."
Koffi scoffed before she could stop herself, then tried to disguise it as a cough. The old woman's other eye opened, and she pursed her lips.
"You don't believe in magic?" she asked.
"Well . . . no," said Koffi. "Magic isn't real. It's just something from stories."
Now the old woman looked offended. "And who told you that nonsense?"
"My . . ." Koffi faltered. "My mother."
"Hmph!" The old woman crossed her arms and sniffed. "Well, your mother is quite incorrect."
Koffi's gaze dropped to her hands. When she spoke, her voice was barely a whisper. "My mother is dead."
Koffi looked up and found the old woman's expression had changed. Her face was drawn, and her eyes were full of sadness. For a moment, she seemed at a loss for words. "I'm . . . very sorry to hear that, little one," she murmured. "I know what it means to lose a loved one."
"It's—" Koffi stopped herself. She'd been about to say that it was all right because that seemed like the polite response, but it didn't feel right to say. Things weren't all right; she wasn't all right. She wasn't sure she ever would be. Another beat passed before the old woman spoke again.
"I'm sure your mother only told you what she knew to be true," she went on more gently. "But you should know that magic has not always been confined to the pages of stories. In another time, it was here, as real as the air we're breathing."
Koffi sat up. "It was?"
The old woman nodded. "In cities like Lkossa, it was once a part of everyday life. People used magic to heal the sick and injured, to protect our borders, and it was even part of some children's educa- tion. Yabas and Gedes alike could inherit it, and those who did were trained at the Temple of Lkossa by brothers of its order. They were called darajas."
Koffi frowned. Mama had certainly never told her any of this. She looked around and tried to envision what this city would have looked like when magic simmered just beneath its surface. Had magic sparkled, she wondered, or had it been invisible? Dangerous, or utterly ordinary? It was hard to even contemplate. "What hap- pened to it?" she asked.
The old woman looked up and into the bustling market, as though she was seeing past it. "The Rupture."
"The Rupture?" Koffi repeated. "What's an earthquake got to do with magic?"
The old woman gave her a shrewd look. "No doubt you've heard the stories," she said. "Tales of tears in the earth and sky, waves of heat scorching bodies whole. I am old enough to remember it, and I can tell you, it was a terrible thing to behold."
Koffi shuddered. She'd been told the story plenty of times and ways, but that made it no nicer to think about.
"To this day, no one truly knows what caused the Rupture," the old woman continued. "But afterward, things changed in Lkossa. People stopped looking at darajas as resources and instead saw them as threats. Over the years, they became ostracized, hunted down like—"
"Like animals," Koffi finished. "So that's how magic was lost." "Not lost." The old woman's eyes twinkled. "Hidden."
Koffi frowned. "Hidden?"
The old woman started rocking side to side. "Many darajas fled Lkossa when they felt it was no longer safe, but I believe there is still magic in this city, and those with the ability to wield it, even if they do not know it themselves."
Koffi didn't answer. She thought of what had happened in the Hema, the way it'd made her feel. She remembered the sense of release as the candle burst, the clamminess, Mama's words.
If Baaz realizes what you really did and what you really are . . .
There'd been a time when magic had existed in this city, when people had been able to use it. The idea that she could be one of those people felt impossible, but . . . She didn't have another explanation for what she'd done. All her life, she'd been led to believe in certain truths, but there were things Mama had never told her, things Mama had even hidden from her. Why? How much had she known? She stared at her hands.
"Are you feeling well, dear?"
Koffi looked up. The old woman was watching her much more intently now. It almost made Koffi uncomfortable. Slowly, she got to her feet and brushed off.
"Thank you so much for the bread," she said. "It was really kind of you."
The old woman cocked her head. "Have I upset you, child?" "No." Koffi heard herself answer too quickly, but she didn't take
it back. In truth, she barely knew what she felt. She was tired, confused, even angry. Why hadn't Mama told her the truth? Why had she left her own daughter in the dark all this time? She cleared her throat when she realized the old woman was still staring at her. "It's just . . . I'm sure I've taken up enough of your time."
"Nonsense." The woman waved a dismissive hand. "I've quite enjoyed your company, and actually . . ." She gestured toward the trinkets. "I could use a young person like you as an assistant, if you were interested?"
Koffi paused, caught off guard. The offer was generous, and incredibly tempting, but . . . something still stopped her. All her life, she'd relied on others to make a way for her, to help her figure out her next steps. If she was going to learn how to survive in this world, she reasoned, she'd have to start finding a way on her own.
"Thank you." She bowed her head. "But . . . I should get going." "Very well, little one." The old woman nodded, and there was a touch of renewed sadness in her voice. "You should know that the offer stands, and I do hope the gods bring us together again someday. Take care."
Koffi looked over her shoulder a final time before heading down the market's winding roads.
If the city of Lkossa had been stirring when Koffi first ventured through its streets, it had fully risen in the time she'd taken to sit with the old woman. The roads, still packed with vendors, felt even more crowded than before, so compressed with people that it was impossible to walk without being jostled. Someone barreling through the throngs bumped her hard to the right, which caused someone else to yell at her to watch where she was going. It was no longer a beautiful rhythm and flow; the longer Koffi stayed in it, the more overwhelmed she felt. She thought back to the old woman sitting quietly with her blanket of trinkets, almost wistful. It was strange; only a few minutes had passed, but she was already finding it difficult to recall the details of the woman's face. Their encounter felt increasingly dreamlike, though Koffi knew absolutely that it had happened. She focused on the woman's words, on her job offer, and felt the bite of regret. That opportunity had been generous, but she'd said no without real consideration. Once again, she'd reacted instead of thinking things through.
Being an assistant would be good work, a voice in her head reasoned. You'd have a steady income, maybe even a way out of Lkossa.
The old woman had said she'd been to the Kusonga Plains before, maybe she planned to return to them; a plan began forming in Koffi's minds rapidly. Yes. She would go back and find the old woman, take her up on her offer. Perhaps she could learn a new trade and, just maybe, the old woman could tell her even more about magic. Someone bumped into her back as she abruptly stopped short in the middle of the road, but she didn't care. She had a plan, a way forward, hope. She turned on her heels to head back the way she'd come.
And then a hand clapped over her mouth.
Koffi started. A scream rose in her throat as her attacker's grip tightened, but it was muffled in the din of the crowds around her. Another large hand grabbed both her arms and pulled them behind her in a viselike grip, dragging her off the main roads. She winced as a low chuckle filled her ears, and when she took in the familiar smell of spicy cologne, her blood ran cold.
"Hello, Koffi," said Baaz Mtombé.
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