They call her broken doll,
soulless monster …
…all she wants is to be a real girl.
Chapter 1, Part 1
Riley ~ Current Day
“Key in the code and open the door.” I level the gun and look down the extended barrel, past the silencer, to the guard. A bead of sweat trickles down his temple and over his fat, red face. His beady, little eyes set too close together dart back and forth.
“Put the gun down like a good little girl, and I’ll give you a better gun for you to put your hands on.” The guard gives me a slimy smile, his eyes roaming over my body, taking in the little black dress ending mid-thigh, just above my stockings, my platinum blonde hair brushing my waist. My stomach nearly revolts at his suggestive leer.
Toeing off my six-inch heels, I step onto the cement. My knee-high, sheer black stockings gave me the sexy edge I needed to get in here, but do little to protect me from the cold floor. However, the shoes won’t fit after what I’m about to do. The magic inside me expands and builds, churning and changing, and I gain both height and bulk. I grow from a cute five-foot-two to a six-foot-five Amazonian princess, my chest filling out the stretchy dress which now barely covers my butt.
The tips of my hair darken, the color spreading up until it’s a midnight black. I didn’t really need the hair color change, but the blonde hair annoyed me. Dark hair just feels more … me. My golden tan pales, and my lips become a blood red. Small cosmetic changes that don’t require much effort but will put the fear of me into him.
The guard stumbles back, his face pale. “Oh shit. Oh shit. Who are you?”
“Your worst nightmare. Now. Open. The. Freaking. Door.” I shoot his foot, the silencer making a soft cough.
Collapsing to the ground, he clutches his foot and screams in pain. “Bitch. You’re insane.”
“Key it in or I’ll show you how much of a crazy bitch I really am.” I aim at his crotch.
“Key it in or I’ll show you how much of a crazy bitch I really am.” I aim at his crotch.
I can’t kill him if I want the door open. Running on magic, the hand scanner is not only designed to read the handprint but also to sense if the body attached to the hand is alive.
Hobbling to the keypad, he enters in the security code and presses his hand to the scanner. “You don’t want to do this. My boss will hunt you down. He’ll torture you and –”
“Yeah, whatever.” He’d have to find me first.
The metal door swings open, revealing a concrete hall lined with cages. The smell of urine and stale air greets me.
“You first.” I gesture with my gun, careful to keep a good distance between us. Guns are a distance weapon, and it’d be a rookie mistake to give him any chance to disarm me.
His short-sighted gaze darts around, looking for some way out of his predicament, before he lumbers through the door, his large frame filling the space. Poor, dumb brute. He never had a chance.
My pity is short lived as I follow him into the room. The cells are full of starving chimera. One five-year-old girl clutches the bars, her amber eyes staring up at me. Cat ears and tiger tail, she has an otherwise human face and body. Short ginger hair sticks up in all directions. And traces of blood and dirt smear her face. My heart flips in my chest. It’s for people like her — the children, the lost, the ones broken like I was — that I found the Resistance after I escaped and volunteered.
A satyress, her eyes full of grief, cradling a baby in a papoose with one arm, while holding her four-year-old boy against her side. A centaur so emaciated and weak he lies in his own feces, his hair ripped from his head, his pride stripped away. A teenage deer chimera, his thin arms folded across his humanoid torso, covered in short dense fur, his head shaped like a deer’s, his legs ending in hooves. His antlers have been sawed off. Probably a safety precaution, but I’m sure the demoralizing aspect of the mutilation wasn’t an accident.
Emotions roil in the pit of my stomach — guilt for not getting here sooner, horror at what was done to these people, fear that I won’t be able to save them all. Anger. I want to wrap my hands around the throat of the bastard who set up this hunting ground. Exotic prey for the highest bidders. Prey so weak they’ll be easy marks.
He fidgets. “Are you sure –?”
He unlocks the first cage, but rather than trying to escape, the kitsune, a fox shape-shifter with two tails, cowers in the corner in fox form.
“Come on, little one.” Making my voice soothing, I crouch down. “You’re going to be all right.”
The guard strikes at my head with his giant fists. His giant ancestry certainly gave him size and muscle mass, but fat and slow, he telegraphs every move. I roll under his swinging arm and come up behind him.
With a well-aimed kick behind his knees, he falls on his face. I bark out a command, and my snake-shaped bracelets launch themselves at him, growing as they hurtle across the cage. Seconds later, they constrict his arms and legs, squeezing harder every time he squirms.
“Let me go,” he gasps.
“These vipers are unbreakable, invulnerable to blade, and can’t be unlocked without the right spell word. Even if you know the correct word, it only responds to my voice.” A slight lie. My partner Brogg can also deactivate it. “Please. Wiggle some more.”
I step back and watch the horror growing in his eyes. Filthy words and horrible promises of what he’ll do to me ooze from his mouth.
“Yeah, I’m not impressed.”
The kitsune girl watches him, the intelligence in her eyes sparking with anger. Too fast for me to see, she dashes forward to dig her teeth into the tender flesh behind his knee and rips a chunk of meat from his thigh. When he flails his leg to try to kick her, she dodges the blow before darting in again to tear his Achilles tendon.
“Good girl.” Smart girl. She went for the damage he’ll never recover from. “Now come on. We need to get everyone out of here before they discover we’re gone.”
Standing up on her hind legs, she shivers into the form of a young lady in low-rise jeans and a tank top. The outfit is probably an illusion for the sake of modesty as clothes don’t transform with them. Muttering, she stalks out of the cage, her two tails lashing in anger.
Grabbing the keys, I lock the guard into the cage and whisper the release word to call my snakes back. They slither to me and wrap around my wrists, once again dainty gold bracelets, clasping their own tails with their mouths, their ruby eyes glinting.
He lies there, panting, watching me as if I myself were the snakes about to attack him again, but he’s still too scared to move or even speak. I hope this experience will teach him a lesson, but I know it won’t. He’s the type to turn his fear into hate rather than learn from it.
I open the cells to let everyone out. “Now listen, we have a small airplane waiting for us, but it’s going to be a long hike. My partner is cutting their tires and destroying their communications, but there’s nothing we can do about the dogs. We have to be fast and move straight, cross country, through the canyon. Do you understand?”
The human faces on animal bodies and animal faces on human bodies all nod. There’s no mirth or joy in their solemn eyes. No celebrating. It’s all been beaten out of them. Helping each other, they stumble up and toward the exit.
But there’s still a spark of defiance in the eyes of some, and my heart leaps at the sight of it. I’ll be cursed if I don’t do everything in my power to give that defiance a chance to burn.
“Acorn,” I say into my ear piece, using Brogg’s call sign, “we’re ready to go.”
“Four more guards to take care of. Be there in a moment, Squirrel.”
Acorn is the perfect name for him, part ogre, part dryad – I can’t imagine how that came about; I’ve asked but he refuses to talk about his past – and like an oak tree, he took me in and gave me a home. So I’m Squirrel.
The guard’s threats turn to pleading. “Don’t leave me here. You don’t know what he’ll do to me.”
“Let me guess. You’ll be prey for tomorrow’s hunting party. What a pity.”
“They’ll kill me. You can’t leave me here.” His beady eyes plead as he lifts his head to look at me.
I give him my sadistic smile. “You forgot to tell me the part about why I should care.”
“Bitch. You bitch.”
“You keep using that same word. Do you actually know any other curses?”
“Fuck you, bitch.”
I open the door to peek out, watching for Brogg’s approach, and when I see him, I send the first chimera out to follow him. “Remember single file. Move silently. Head due north.”
One by one, they slip out the door and into the darkness. After the teenage deer leaves, I turn to the last one, the little cat girl. Doing the you-don’t-see-me brainwashing trick cats do that never works, she still cowers in the corner of her cage, her large eyes staring at me between the bars.
I crouch, making myself small, smiling meekly. “Hey. What’s your name?”
She shakes her head and scurries back from me until her back hits the back bars of the cage.
“It’s scary out there, isn’t it?” I say softly, offering her my hand. “Those who went out were hunted and they never came back, but I’m not going to let that happen to you. Come on. We’ll do it together.”
Eyes wide, she stares at me.
“I have something you might want.” I tug my pack off and fish through it until my fingers close over the protein bar. Unwrapping it, I take a bite to show it’s safe and then hold it out. “It’s good. Nuts and raisins. Sweet and nutritious.”
She takes a small step forward and then studies my reaction. When I make no sudden movements, she darts forward, snatches the treat from my hand, and scampers back to her corner.
Stuffing the whole thing in her mouth, she chews, her cheeks puffed up.
“Smaller bites are better.” I unwrap another bar. “I’ll give you another if you tell me your name.”
“Alexis,” she whispers.
I smile. “Hello, Alexis, the little alley cat. I’m Riley. Will you come with me? Let me take you far away from here? I’ll hold you and keep you safe.”
She nods and I scoop her up. Her little arms circle my neck, and a rumbling purr vibrates against my chest. I hug her back as I carry her to the door.
“Wait!” The guard’s voice is desperate. “I’ll tell you where there’s another compound. Take me with you, and I’ll show you where it is.”
My chest squeezes. “Another hunting ground like this one?”
“It’s not like this one. It’s for hunting predators. Big game. Bear, wolves, and such. I know all about the security.” A pause. “We even have a manticore.”
Curse it. They have no business holding an animal from the Wylds here. It’s dangerous and foolish, and if the wrong people find it, Earth will learn about the magical world parallel to this one.
“Hold on, sweetie.” Moving Alexis to my back, I unlock the cage door and grab his arm, pulling him to his feet. “One sound, and I’ll kill you. And don’t think I can’t do it just because I’m a woman.”
I shove him out the door, and he stumbles up the path behind the others, blood leaving a trail behind him. When we break through the undergrowth, he trips beside the dirt road. Pale, sweating, he clutches his stomach like he’s going to gag.
Glowering at my prisoner, Brogg appears beside me. “What’s he doing here?”
“He has intel. Rook will want to hear what he has to say.”
“It’d better be worth it. What’s wrong with him?”
“Torn Achilles,” I say. “And I shot his foot.”
Brogg grunts and reaches towards the scrub brush around the camp. Being part dryad, he can shape wood with a touch, not with the flourishes and detail a dryad could, but a rough crutch is easy enough. He tosses it at the guard.
“Little kit, what’s your name?” I ask the kitsune, my hand on her shoulder.
“Leeza, can you follow Gimpy here? If he falls behind, he’s all yours.”
A vicious smile lights up her face.
The satyr baby begins to wail, and her mom rocks and soothes her. “Hush now, Windsong.” she says in a lilting accent. “All is well.”
I can hear the dogs braying in the distance, and a shudder rolls through me. If we’re caught now, we’ll never make it.
“Keep the child quiet,” Brogg demands.
“Aye. She’s hungry, is all, but once we get moving, the rhythm of the movement will put her to sleep.” She hums a lullaby, and Windsong’s eyes drift closed. The magic in her melody saturates the air, and I fight a yawn.
“Good.” Brogg shakes his head as if he too is fighting off the sleepiness. “Let’s move.”
It’s a ten mile run over the African savannah, and we have to get to the airfield before sunrise. I settle into a steady lope at the end of the pack, the little cat girl in my arms. I don’t tire. I don’t need fuel to keep me going. My long legs can eat up the miles. I was designed to be the perfect soldier.
At the end of the pack, I keep my eyes on the people I’m protecting. The satyress coos and sings to her baby whenever she fusses. It’s a soft murmur of sound, and the magic in it reassures all is well, the world is safe, nothing bad is going to happen. The hope of it spurs my feet forward.
The other satyr child is being carried by the deer man, but he’s so starved, he can barely keep himself moving, let alone carry anyone. Brogg has enough strength to carry the child and the pack of gear on his back, but with a rifle in each hand, he focuses on the horizon as he watches for danger.
The skeletal centaur shuffles forward in a stupor, stumbling along on his withered legs. Flies buzz around his head.
Miles pass but not fast enough. When the red fire rises on the horizon, we are only halfway there. Herds of zebras and wildebeest, some sleeping, some grazing or standing guard, watch us pass by, unconcerned by how close we are.
The deer man stumbles to his knees, the child he carried now rolling on the ground, and Brogg helps him up. “Keep moving. Just a few more miles.”
I open my mouth to suggest we take a break, but a zebra lets out a yipping sound. Others join its cry and the combined herd thunders forward on their hooves, kicking up a thick cloud of dust.
And all of them heading straight for us.
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