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Chapter 1

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Yenni made her decision as her cousins slithered through the grass like log snakes, hemming the creature in from all sides.

They would hate her for this.

She pulled energy through her focus rune—a band of white painted across her eyes—and felt its warm tingle on her skin as it sharpened her vision. Ahead the n'ne shimmered in the sunlight, the black hair of its haunches flashing blue, then green, then gold. It grazed, its graceful neck bent forward and its tall horns curved and gleaming like blackwood. Four long legs, suited to loping sprints, disappeared into the tall grass. Such a gorgeous animal. Small wonder her cousins wanted to skin it, put its head on display, and make a cape of its pelt.

But n'ne were highly intelligent. It was rare to see more than one or two at a time, and the scholars theorized that they sacri- ficed themselves to draw predators away from the main herd. In fact, Yenni was certain it knew they were there. At any moment it would draw on ach'e, the divine energy that ran through all things, and put on a magical burst of speed to dart away. She planned to help it escape.

Yenni heard a bird trill, high and sweet, and recognized it as the signal that one of her cousins, or perhaps her younger brother, was in place. Another bird call, and another. They would not attack with fire—that would singe the creature's hide. No, they would chase the poor thing this way and that until they could catch it, and then someone would snap its neck with their bare hands. If she let them.

Yenni moved through the grass clumsily, causing it to shake and shiver around her. The formation was still incomplete.

Run, she thought desperately.

As if it had heard her, the creature took off, its legs glowing with ach'e as it galloped through the tall grass. Yenni flared the speed runes on her thighs and calves, relishing the familiar warmth of energy coursing through her, and shot after it. Two of her cousins jumped up out of the grass. "Weh! Weh!" they shouted, waving their arms. The n'ne zipped right, where her younger brother, Jumi, kept pace, his runes blazing blue-white on his dark legs. He dove, arms wide to tackle the n'ne, but it slipped free and left him tumbling. Yenni grinned, until she realized the creature now ran right at her. If she scared it, it would turn tail and head straight for her cousin Ade-Ige. He would no doubt catch it and then . . .

Yenni sprang out of the path of the runaway n'ne, flattening herself to the grass. The ground vibrated as it thundered past and she heard her cousin let out a frustrated curse.

"Mothers and Fathers! It's escaped into the forest, we'll never find it now!"

Standing, Yenni brushed herself off while mentally tensing against the tirade to come. She did feel a small stab of guilt for ruining the hunt, but it was her last trip for a long while to come, and she refused to taint the memory—the pale grass of the plain against the soft blue of the sky—with the tang of the beautiful animal's red blood.

When Yenni looked up, the others—all eight of them—stood across from her with their eyes glittering in accusation under their white focus runes.

"Why didn't you chase it toward us?" Ade-Ige demanded. Yenni stood straighter, raising her chin to meet his gaze, saying nothing. But her cousin was too far gone in his irritation to afford her proper respect.

"You let it escape on purpose, didn't you? Probably due to some foolish notion of it being too pretty to kill." He threw up his hands. "This is why I dislike hunting with women!" He kicked at the grass like a petulant child.

"Ah! It wasn't me who let it escape!" cried Ade-Ige's younger sister. She looked like a feminine version of him, right down to the fire in her eyes. "Don't lump us together!" A second later she sent Yenni a frightened glance before fixing her gaze on the ground.

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