Sun beat down on the grasses, but Lightning primals crackled a light all their own. In this unnatural herd, they were hard to look straight at, but Avani's adoptive pack — specifically the hunting party, but she was in fine trim and not pregnant, of course she was in the hunting party — had followed their noses here.

A surprisingly-strong scent of Lightning primals was here indeed, but that was rather the problem. The hunt leader, who Avani mentally called White-Ear, had called the hunt in anyways, only to find four medium trucks, crewed by humans and hybrids, were responsible for herding the primals together. A young male hybrid, hiding his dark green fur in the shade of a cab, started calling out orders. "Don't rile up the predators unless you have to. Use them as a backstop. Otherwise, like we practiced against the building." Her astral senses showed him clear as day, but his confidence was clear enough in his voice. His English held an accent Avani couldn't place.

She pretended to shy away, as if she were just another of "the predators" being used as one side of a corral. White-Ear had halted the charge, but his pride was enough to keep him from signalling the retreat. He didn't fear the bipeds enough.

Avani's disguise seemed to be holding, and it was in everyone's best interests that the truck crews didn't figure her out. Well, everyone except maybe the ones in the fourth truck, but she could make it in their best interests.

It seemed temporarily joining this pack was the break she'd been looking for. Her packmates were hybrids, but relegated to these tree-dotted grasslands, more like wolf-meets-tiger than like the humanoids people normally mean when they say "hybrid".

"Soft barriers to the sides, spin up the snapper…" Fences of glowing squares hissed into being, one on each flank, physical and astral alike. Long-Face yipped and jumped back, but Double-Fang held her ground. "Advance the left side!" A truck inched closer, tightening up the corral with Long-Face's absence.

This plan was a bad sign. Avani had hypotheses about who was poaching primals out here, her handlers had other hypotheses, but none accounted for a plan this batshit insane.

"Make ready the snapper…" A half-dozen bipeds leapt into action, and the machinery on the trucks shifted.

As Avani cowered with her packmates, she peered at the truck that apparently bore the "snapper". The trucks were nearly identical, two-axle flatbed affairs, but while the fence-bearing trucks had angular machinery on them, the "snapper" was a coil of articulated metal, starting to glow blue-white on the physical, a brighter glow of comfort visible on the astral. To the primals, it must've been hypnotically calming.

"Fire!" The rings struck like a coiled cobra, and the hunting party scattered. Avani's astral senses were blinded by the flash, but she could still see on the physical. Most of the primals were gone in an instant, and the remainder scattered with a crackle. Doubtless the calming spell was broken. Avani turned tail and ran, hiding in the shade of a tree, but she'd reacted visibly slower than her adoptive packmates… She had to hope the humans and hybrids didn't notice. "Draw back, and spin down the snapper."

This explained why the poachers were so hard to find. The natural congregations of primals were small, and normally poaching was done solo or in hunting parties of 2-3, taking a dozen at a time. Enough hunting parties to put this much of a dent in the wild primal populations would be cake to detect, due to sheer numbers alone. But bringing together this unnatural herd and capturing hundreds at a time, they were making a tiny fraction as many trips, and they were doubtless avoiding attention with the industrial hardware.

"Astral sight alight."

Avani's blood froze in her veins. She had taken the fourth truck to be a command center, and the hybrid giving orders merely a foreman. But now, a handful of humans and hybrids stood up on the back of the fourth truck, their eyes unfocusing. None of them were trained enough to go dual, they were seeing only the astral, but that'd be enough to see right through her disguise. She hunkered down behind the tree.

"I don't see any —" "What the…" "Looks clear to me…" "Sir!" The reports of the astral spotters culminated in one, a fat old human who could be their leader, pointing to Avani and hollering. "No parasitic figments in sight, but that's not a lesser hybrid!"

Avani shifted and stood, for the first time in weeks. Black stripes faded, her flame-and-gold fur turned back to dark grey, her body reshaped from quadruped to biped, her tail lengthened — her once-packmates were long-tailed, but genetics had been inordinately kind to Avani. She stood in the shade of the tree, hands at her sides, her glare full of doom.

For a long moment, the two sides simply looked at each other.

In that time, her astral senses cleared.

Damn White-Ear's pride.

"No Orpheus!" This was apparently the command to try to kill her, for most of the workers drew pistols, and someone in the snapper truck raised a rifle.

Avani leapt into motion with a whip of her tail, and invoked her magical enhancements in midair. Nobody reacted fast enough to shoot at her during her first leap, and by her second it was too late — shots went wild as she crossed the distance to the trucks in a single enhanced leap, and as she landed she ripped out the throat of one worker with her ceramet claws. He dropped his pistol to clutch silently at his throat, but she was in motion again, leaping for the astral spotters.

Two were clearly casting spells. One had a pistol out. One was taking cover behind the truck. The fat old human was just standing there, and that was who Avani targeted. An aura erupted from her at the last moment, a full ethereal that had been hiding in her aura.

Avani's claws skittered aphysically off an arm, but the ethereal was mostly mouths, full of Strands of either Hunger or Flavor or both. The ethereal wasn't manifest, and on the astral her augmented claws mattered less than her will vs its. She was generally pretty good at fighting ethereals, but this one's flesh was iron-hard. Hunger it was, then, and trickery was the answer.

Avani drew an aura, like summoning a bound ethereal from its trans-astral home, but this was an enchantment, ready to enchant an item. She leapt again, into the ethereal, leading with the enchantment, and sure enough the ethereal simply devoured it. Wielding such a thing as a weapon made little sense, but a Hunger ethereal would devour before considering such thoughts. Avani collided bodily with the ethereal, even though it had no body at the moment, and kicked off from it. She crossed to one of the side trucks, killing another worker as she landed, and leapt anew, hyperkinetic death dancing among them, chased too slow by shouts and lines of fire. Two workers took friendly fire, but she was untouched.

Two of the astral spotters had been casting spells, spells synchronized with Avani's aura. But the enchantment was thick with her aura, and sure enough the spells sought out the ethereal. Unprepared for this betrayal, it staggered and shredded, torn apart by the spells.

Avani returned, driving her feet through the spirit and finishing the job. As she landed, ceramet claws caught the old astral spotter in the chest — not the throat, but an upward swipe corrected that error. A spell shattered as the spotter's hands were suddenly busy with her life's blood.

The other two were casting again, and this time she leapt for cover. This was mostly a warning, but partly a distraction. She needed information. She landed on the far side of the snapper truck, punching through the glass of the passenger-side window and pulling the passenger out.

He didn't fear her. She could see it in his aura. His fur was a rich jade-green, his muzzle long and wolfish, his clothes the same pale tan as the others, streaked with blood drawn by broken glass. His blood also streaked the arm she was holding him up with, and her fur was worse for the wear in a few patches, but her fiber-woven skin remained unbroken. He had a satellite phone in his hand, but before she could memorize the half-complete number he followed her gaze and cancelled the call.

Avani drew another aura. The spell was banned by five treaties. The local government considered it "witch magic", and the sentence was death by long iron nails through the skull. But rather than interrogate him under fire, or try to capture him, she could use it to rip the information from his mind.

This he feared. She could see it in his aura. He was no magician, but he could see the shimmer of witch magic in the physical air. "No, wait, I can pay you, I can —" Someone took a shot, and then smallarms bullets pelted the truck. "Don't shoot the snapper, you idiots!"

She didn't intend to negotiate. She sank the spell into him.

A jumble of information exploded behind her eyes. Phone numbers, faces… designs for a perpetual motion machine sunk into astral space… visions of Fire and Sun and Lightning and similar primals studding the walls of such a device… but also thoughts, emotions, cold and putrid and nauseating.

She returned to reality just in time to see the copper tip of a .50 BMG bullet appear before her, with a greyish cross visible where the jacket had been cut through to make an improvised hollowpoint. Up being faster than down, she leapt.

His shot was needlessly loud, but a dozen others chased her through the air, a few catching her. Pistol rounds, nothing her fiber-woven skin couldn't handle, but she'd have some nasty internal bruising in the morning. She pushed herself to the side with her jump enhancements, and when she landed went for a long leap, covering ground. She had hunted these grasslands for weeks on all fours, she knew them well, and she could disappear into them.

Two times thunder sounded behind her, but it was the other side where the rains came, and by then she had lost them.