Fate binds two Black teenagers together as they strike a dangerous alliance to hunt down the creature menacing their home…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Beasts of Prey, the first book in a new fantasy series from author Ayana Gray—publishing September 28th with G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.
There’s no such thing as magic in the broken city of Lkossa, especially for sixteen-year-old Koffi, who holds a power within her that could only be described as magic—a power that if discovered could cost her life. Indentured to the notorious Night Zoo, Koffi knows the fearsome creatures in her care and paying off her family’s debts to secure their eventual freedom can be her only focus. But the night those she loves are gravely threatened by the Zoo’s cruel master, Koffi finally unleashes the power she doesn’t fully understand, upending her life completely.
As the second son of a decorated hero, Ekon is all but destined to become a Son of the Six—an elite warrior—and uphold a family legacy. But on the night of his final rite of passage, Ekon encounters not only the Shetani—a vicious monster that has plagued the city for nearly a century and stalks his nightmares, but Koffi who seems to have the power to ward off the beast. Koffi’s power ultimately saves Ekon’s life, but his choice to let her flee dooms his hopes of becoming a warrior.
Desperate to redeem himself, Ekon vows to hunt the Shetani and end its reign of terror, but he can’t do it alone. Meanwhile, Koffi believes finding the Shetani could also be the key to solving her own problems. Koffi and Ekon form a tentative alliance and together enter the Greater Jungle, a world steeped in wild, frightening magic and untold dangers. The hunt begins. But it quickly becomes unclear whether they are the hunters or the hunted.
Into the Stars
Koffi winced as something burned across her skin.
There was a thunderous boom, so loud it shook the entire tent, and a flash of white-gold light. It took her a moment to process the sting of fresh pain, the warm trickle running down her forearm as beasts and beastkeepers alike yelped in surprise. Her vision swam for one long beat, and she blinked several times before it came back into focus. Slowly, she took in the scene before her.
A nearby end table had toppled over; its once-white linen cover was now soiled in the dirt, part of the table was scorched black, and near her feet, the ground was speckled with something red, too bright to be blood. She realized after a pause that it was wax, candle wax, and when she looked closer, she saw it had gotten everywhere, even on her arm. That explained the pain, but she didn’t understand what had happened. Seconds ago, that candle had been quietly flickering in its gilded candelabra; now only the tiny flames flickering on the ground remained. It was as if the candle had exploded. She looked around, confused. The candle had burst at the same moment she’d exhaled, but… surely that was a coincidence, it had to be. There was no other possible explanation, but she felt strange. Her skin— uncomfortably hot before—was now clammy, and the bottoms of her feet were tingling the way they did when she sat cross-legged too long. The longer she stared at the candle’s sizzling remnants, the harder it became to ignore the question forming in the back of her mind.
Did I do that?
No, of course not. It was a preposterous idea, illogical, and yet… she remembered the building pressure in her chest, followed by that brilliant sense of release. A warmth had coursed through her body, rushing up her limbs, then out through her hands. Something had happened, but she didn’t know what, and the longer she considered that, the more uneasy she became.
I did do that. I caused that.
Most of the other beastkeepers were still staring in bewilderment at the place where the candle had been; a few were looking around it trying to find what had caused it to combust. Koffi felt a single pair of eyes on her and looked up.
Her mother was the only person in the Hema not looking at the ruined candle, but at Koffi. There was sheer terror in her gaze.
Baaz, who still stood in the middle of the tent, shouted the command at the top of his lungs, then glared at the little fires as though he meant to douse them with admonishment. “One of these days, you idiots will learn to watch where you step and quit knocking things over. Everyone will remain calm and escort the animals outside in single file.” He turned to a burly beastkeeper beside him. “Dosu, run to the well and fetch some water. Gwala, take Rashida to the post. I’ll be out in a moment…”
Koffi’s gaze shot to Diko, then froze. Beside her, the jokomoto had suddenly gone unnervingly still as he eyed the growing fire. There was an unmistakable look in the lizard’s yellow gaze, a hunger. At once, Koffi dropped the lead to his harness.
“We need to get out.” She practically tripped over her own feet as she backed away from him. Somewhere in the Hema, she thought she heard a gasp. “We all need to get out, right now.”
In her periphery, Baaz’s scowl grew more menacing. “Shut up, girl,” he growled. “There’s no need to—”
“I’m telling you, we need to leave!” Koffi’s voice rose an octave, but she couldn’t help it. She tore her gaze from Baaz to stare back at Diko. The jokomoto had not yet moved, and there was a subtle red-gold glow just beneath his scales. “Please.” She looked over her shoulder. “Please, everyone needs to—”
Someone grabbed her roughly by the arm, and she found herself face-to-face with Baaz. His face was contorted with rage. He either hadn’t noticed Diko or didn’t care anymore. “I said, shut up,” he hissed through his teeth. “This is my zoo, not yours. I decide who leaves this tent and when, not you, you foul little—”
It happened without warning. There was an earsplitting shriek, so shrill several beastkeepers dropped to their knees at the sound of it. Koffi felt Baaz release her, and she fell to the ground as the entire Hema shook again and a blaze of light filled the space. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as she curled into a ball and covered her head. A long scream punctuated the air, then set off a chorus of others. Head still bowed, she listened to the sounds of pounding feet and panicked animals running around her until she dared to look up. When she did, her heart stopped.
He was now in the middle of the tent, illuminated as though he were standing over some invisible white light. Fire erupted from his mouth in horrible yellow-gold waves, scorching everything in reach. He would burn the entire tent down.
Koffi looked to her right. Jabir was standing on the other side of the tent, looking around, as his dogs surrounded him and whined. His eyes were searching as he grew frantic. Koffi had opened her mouth to call his name when one of the gorillas barreled toward her and forced her to roll out of its path. When she sat up again, she couldn’t see Jabir anymore.
There was a stab in her ribs as someone tripped over her, toppling to the ground with another scream. She doubled over. The Hema’s air was growing thicker and darker by the second, harder to breathe and more difficult to see through. To her right, the guiamala—now abandoned—trotted in nervous circles until it knocked down the tent’s central pole and the whole structure gave an ominous shudder. A metallic tinkling intermingled with new screams as hundreds of the pitching stakes outside uprooted, unable to bear the tent’s new strain. Koffi stared up at it in horror.
Someone yanked her to the floor as pieces of the crimson tent began folding in on themselves, catching flame with alarming speed. A body covered hers, shielding her from the worst of the falling debris. When Koffi turned her head, her face was inches from another’s. Mama. She’d somehow gotten to her.
“Stay behind me,” Mama said. “Crawl!”
She gestured for Koffi to follow her across the rugs on hands and knees as the animals and beastkeepers trapped inside the burning tent continued screaming. The tent’s exit had already collapsed, and more pieces of it were still caving in. Several feet away, on the other side of the tent, there was a gap where the edge of the Hema had slightly lifted from the dirt. It was a small opening, but if they could slip under it…
Beneath her, bits of broken glass cut into Koffi’s palms and knees; plumes of smoke filled her lungs with every ragged breath she took. The fire worsened, hotter still, but she didn’t stop. To her dismay, the gap in the tent seemed to be getting farther, not closer. Fresh embers danced around her face, and she waved a bloodied hand to bat them away.
Gods, she prayed, please don’t let my hair catch.
A terrible ringing filled her ears as she opened her mouth to call out to Mama and took in a mouthful of acrid heat instead. Her mother’s silhouette—still crawling just ahead of her—was growing fainter, harder to discern amid the smoke and bits of tent falling in around them. Koffi tried to take another breath, but it was only a dry wheeze. It burned. She winced again as someone stepped on the back of her feet. Any minute now, she knew her body would reach its limits. She wouldn’t be able to go on.
“Kof!” Mama shouted her name from somewhere in the darkness. “Hold on to me!”
But it was already too late. Koffi couldn’t see or feel anything but smoke and blood. Her head was growing fuzzy now, and the world tilted as she fell forward. She waited for the pain, the inevitable collision with the ground, but it never came. There was a loud crash as a new section of the tent imploded, another long, agonized scream. Strong arms caught her, half pulling, half dragging her out into cooler night air.
The world was still dark and blurred, but Koffi felt someone gently slapping her cheek and trying to force her upright. She blinked hard and found Mama staring down at her. “Get up! We can’t stay here!”
Koffi inhaled clean air, and the world righted itself. They were outside now, mere feet from the burning Hema. No sooner had she stood than Mama grabbed her arm and broke into a sprint.
“The animals,” Mama said between strides. “Help me with them!”
Koffi looked behind them. The Hema was now completely ablaze, a great fiery heap spreading fast to other parts of the Night Zoo’s grounds. She heard the bleats, snarls, and shrieks of caged beasts as its searing heat reached them, and her stomach heaved.
“Quickly!” Mama pointed Koffi toward the aviary while she raced toward a pen of panicked kudus. Koffi didn’t stop to think as she yanked the domed cage’s door open and let the birds soar up and into the night in a rainbow of feathers. A pair of beastkeepers watched in confusion before they understood what she was doing and darted away to help other animals. Koffi freed the chimpanzees, a baby warhyppo, and then a zebra. She was so lost in the pandemonium that, at first, she didn’t hear the whooping. When she did, her blood ran cold.
Of course, no doubt they’d seen the smoke and flames from down in the city and come to investigate. She shuddered. Lkossa’s warriors, the Sons of the Six, weren’t known for their compassion. Suddenly, Mama was at her side again.
“We must leave.” Mama’s voice was tight, eyes wide. “Now!”
Koffi jolted. “What about our debts?”
Mama grabbed her by the shoulders, her grip almost painful. “We cannot stay here,” she pressed. “What just happened in the tent, if Baaz realizes what you really did and what you really are, you will never leave this place.”
What you really did and what you really are. The words sounded odd, somehow wrong, but Koffi didn’t have time to dwell on them as Mama tore off across the Night Zoo’s lawns, pulling her in tow. Her legs screamed in protest with every stride, but she pushed to stay on Mama’s heels. Around her, brief images flashed by in vivid color. It seemed the rest of the Night Zoo’s creatures had been freed, stampeding around the lawns, looking for escape too. Several more fires had broken out over the grounds, and the air was punctuated with the sounds of not only animals, but beastkeepers too. Koffi shuddered, her gaze sweeping the grounds’ perimeter. She flinched as her feet began to tingle again, and this time she felt an internal tug just beneath her navel as something shot through her once more. She turned her head in its direction, and a wave of relief flooded through her. A giant brick wall surrounded the Night Zoo, but there was a section of the wall where creeping vines hung down in thick ropes.
“Mama!” Koffi pointed toward the vines. Following her gaze, her mother nodded and changed course. They stopped together at the base of the towering wall.
“Climb!” Mama glanced over her shoulder. They were alone there, but probably for mere seconds.
Koffi didn’t hesitate. The vines formed in a curtain of deep green as she twisted one of the stalks around her bare foot and used it to hoist herself up. She reached as high as she could, but stinging pain lanced through her palms. When she pulled her hands away, the vine was stained dark with blood. Her hands were scratched from crawling over debris in the Hema.
“Hurry!” said Mama.
“My hands are cut up!”
Mama ripped two strips from the hem of her tunic. “Wrap these around them!”
Koffi obeyed and tried again. This time when she grabbed the vine, the pain was manageable. The pull below her navel was still there, urging her on as she hauled herself up the wall inch by inch. It seemed to take a century, but gradually the top came into view. The stars above twinkled through the rising smoke, and Koffi used them as her guide. Reach, she told herself. Just keep reaching.
“Don’t stop!” Mama called from below. Another surge of profound relief overtook Koffi as her bandaged hands finally found purchase on the ledge, a flat stone surface just wide enough for her to heave onto and perch like a bird. She looked down, expecting to see Mama right behind her, and triumph turned to terror.
Mama was still several feet down, frantically climbing the vines and looking over her shoulder with a panicked expression. Koffi followed her gaze, trying to understand. Her throat tightened as her eyes finally found what Mama’s already had.
Two young men in plain brown kaftans were running across the lawns and toward them with purpose, their silhouettes blurred against the blood-orange glow of the roaring fire at their back.
Sons of the Six, come to stop them.
“Come on!” Koffi leaned over the wall’s ledge as far as she dared, fingers outstretched. “Take my hand!”
But if Mama had seen or heard her, she gave no sign of it. Her eyes were darting back and forth now like a hare caught in a trap, looking from the vines to the approaching warriors to the vines again with visible panic. She made a desperate sort of half leap, and it cost her as she slipped farther down the vines.
“Mama, please!” Koffi reached, aware that if she extended much more, she’d fall forward; as it was, her body was already teetering. Finally, Mama seemed to understand. She looked up and reached for Koffi’s hand, oblivious to the small black stone hurtling her way. With a horrific crack, it connected with the back of her skull. A soft sound escaped her lips as her eyes rolled back to expose their whites, and Koffi knew what was about to happen.
Their fingertips grazed, then came apart. It seemed to take a thousand years for Mama to fall to the ground in a crumpled heap. Koffi waited, heart pounding, but her mother didn’t move.
Someone shouted the words from far away, but Koffi didn’t look up to find the speaker. Too-dark blood was pooling in the grass under Mama’s head like a crown. It seeped into her head wrap, soaking the black twists sticking out from it. In that moment, Koffi understood. It was the terrible sense of comprehension she’d felt when Baba’s eyes had closed on that cot so many years ago, when she’d realized he hadn’t gone to sleep but to someplace much farther away. A slow dread clawed its way up her insides, seizing at her throat with long, vicious fingers.
No. She stared at her mother’s body, trying to process it. No, no, no, no—
A stone collided with her shoulder, sending fresh pain ricocheting through her body and jolting her back to the present. Yet again, something tugged in her core, compelling her to turn away from the Night Zoo and toward the open fields beyond. She felt a distinct kind of tearing within her, two things at war and pulling her in different directions. The foreign feeling in her core was demanding she leave; Mama’s body begged her to stay.
Mind over heart. Heart over mind.
She faced the lemongrass fields before her.
Koffi started and looked over her shoulder. One of the warriors was closer now, his dark eyes fixed on her with a hunter’s focus. He was hunting, hunting her. She swayed on her perch, willing herself not to fall forward.
It was a single word in her mind, but it was sure, repeating itself like ripples on a pond’s smooth surface.
She made the decision then, mind over heart. Her stomach lurched as she leaped from the ledge and into the stars, praying they’d catch her as she fell.
Excerpted from Beasts of Prey, copyright © 2021 by Ayana Gray.