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Shunned (A Krinar World Novelette) (Girls on the Run Book 3) by Francesca Baez (1)

I don’t know where to go.

I guess that’s what happens when you’ve spent the past decade of your life on a religious compound, cut off completely from the outside world. When you’re finally ready to run, you have no idea how to.

There aren’t many places to hide, out here in the desert. When I first saw that the gate was ajar, with the watchmen nowhere to be seen, I slipped out without thinking, and stuck to the road for a good mile or two before finally realizing how fast they’d find me that way. Now I’m crouched behind a particularly large boulder, trying to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do next.

I was eight years old when the gods made themselves known to us. The Krinar, they called themselves. Aliens, that’s the name the world used, although I haven’t heard the word said aloud in years. My parents, fresh out of jobs, savings, and hope in a spiraling economy, were desperate for something to believe in. Easy to convince. We were one of the first families to arrive out here, welcome with open arms into the relative safety of the Church of the Seven. I was young, and for a long time I accepted my new life without question. I had no reason to believe that my normal wasn’t normal for everyone. It was only as I got older that my normal started to feel just the tiniest bit warped, like a reflection in an old mirror. The leaders that spoke down to us viciously, the things we did for the gods, the perpetually locked gate with its watchmen, none of it sat well with me, although it was all I had ever known. The images around me kept feeling more and more distorted, but I didn’t realize I wanted out until today. Until, on my way to the kitchens with a big basket of fresh-picked strawberries, I saw that sliver of freedom past the open gate.

But now, sweaty and panting in the mid-afternoon sun, with nothing but desert ahead of me, and certain punishment behind me, the decision to flee on a whim begins to gnaw at my insides. I should have thought this through, made a plan, gathered supplies, set out with purpose. I can’t make it on my own out here, not like this.

I press the heels of my hands against my eyes and groan. Oh, I must be a fool, to find myself lost and alone in the desert. What am I even running from? Safety, community, a roof over my head and three daily meals on my table? I should’ve been grateful, sucked up my doubts and forged ahead. I could’ve found happiness sooner or later, as my parents have. Oh, my parents! Will they miss me? Will they be furious with me? What if I’ve jeopardized their position in the Church? What have I done?

“Are you lost?”

A deep voice above startles me from my spiraling panic. I pull my hands away from my face and blink up into the bright sky. Haloed by the high sun is a god I’ve never seen before, reaching a hand out toward me.

I take the hand, and it wraps easily around my small fingers, pulling me to my feet effortlessly. I’ve seen gods up close before. I’ve seen the Seven we worship. I’m accustomed to their height, their flawless beauty, the graceful dance of their simple movements. I shouldn’t be surprised by this new god, but I am. I am rendered speechless in his presence, dazed by the magnificence of his being. I can’t name exactly what it is that has left my mouth completely dry and my palms shaky. I don’t know if it’s his pitch-black eyes, the sharp line of his jaw, the powerful muscles I can see flexing even under his shirt. It’s not any one thing about him that is stirring something dark and frenzied deep in my core. It’s all of him put together, and while he’s only said three words to me, I am intoxicated by this creature.

“Are you lost?” he repeats, glancing back over my shoulder. It seems like he’s looking toward the Church, although it’s not visible from here. I wonder if he knows about it, about us. About me.

“Yes,” I say, finally finding my long lost tongue. “I mean, I guess I’m lost. I don’t really know where I’m going, exactly. But I should probably get out of the desert before too long, I think.”

“Probably,” the god says with a small smile. “I can help with that, if you’d like.”

“I would like,” I say, tucking my hair behind my ears nervously. “I’m Jubilee.”

“Zev,” he says, gesturing for me to follow him. “Here, let’s get you somewhere safe.”