Chapter 1, Part 2
They call her broken doll,
soulless monster …
…all she wants is to be a real girl.
Chapter 1, Part 2
~ Riley ~
“Brogg!” I shout into the cacophony, the ground vibrating under my feet.
I can’t even hear him over the herd rampaging toward us, but he gestures to the brush up ahead. What would that do? But I don’t have time to question.
“Move! To the brush!” I shout.
The deer man struggles back to his feet. The older satyr child, now wide awake, races after Brogg, his little legs pumping. Even the centaur has snapped out of his stupor, staggering forward.
Brogg strains against the tree, his greenish skin turning almost blue with the effort of shaping so much wood so fast. Gritting my teeth, I double my speed. I hope he can make it strong enough to withstand an entire stampede.
The noise is deafening. The satyr child and the Satyress, clutching her baby, make it in alongside the guard and Leeza. I breathe in relief.
The centaur stumbles, hurtling to the ground before rolling to a stop. The deer man crashes into him, sprawling once again. Neither of them moves as they stare at the approaching stampede, their faces blank as if they’re too tired to fathom this means certain death.
“Get up! Move! Keep fighting for your lives,” I scream, but they don’t even turn to look at me. If I stop to help them, there’s no way the child in my arms will avoid being trampled.
But I can’t sit here and do nothing.
Holding on tight to the little cat girl, I stand in front of the fallen chimeras. The herd is barely a dozen yards from us and closing fast.
A change to full chimera would require me to completely melt and reform, but if I alter only my face and voice box, it can be almost instantaneous. Reaching for my magical core, I partially shift into a lion-headed chimera, and then, tilting my head back, I let out a furious roar. The herd parts around us as I continue the distinctive thundering bellow.
Sharp tiny claws dig into my side as the girl scrambles to my back, and I see her puffed-up tail disappear over my shoulder. The prick of her claws in my back adds a bit more volume to my roar, but at least she’s still attached.
Peering over my shoulder, she hisses and snarls, and a bit of pride curls up inside me, unfurling with a grin across my face.
I continue to roar, standing over the centaur and the deer man, as the last of the creatures thunder past.
The dust settles. On the other side of the savanna where the herd had stood moments before, an African wild dog skulks through the brush, his painted patches making him almost invisible in the shadows. A metal collar covered in magical symbols circles his neck. Probably how the hunt master controls them. Slipping away, the canine disappears back into the bush like a ghost.
Leaping from my back, Alexis walks sideways, her back arched, in that way cats do to make themselves appear larger, more menacing, all the while hissing and spitting at the retreating stampede. I try not to laugh, but it’s too darn cute.
A single zebra ambles past, trying to catch up with her family, and Alexis jumps straight up in the air about three feet, tail puffed about twice its usual size. Faster than my eyes can track, she darts back to me and up my leg, all the way to my shoulder.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” I say, trying to pull her claws out of my back. “It’s over.”
But she doesn’t settle down. Reaching over my shoulder, I drag her off, claws digging into my back, and hold her up so I can look her in the face. “Hey there, cutie pie. It’s over.”
“Meow,” she complains.
I pet her neck, rub her belly, and cradle her like a baby, and she settles down. I take the quiet moment to assess my comrades.
Brogg and the others climb out of the scrub brush, which now looks more like an ironwood tent, surrounding them like a fortress. None of them are hurt.
Beside me, the deer man heaves himself up, groaning with each movement, his teeth gritted, pain lining his face.
“Why don’t you sit for a moment? Catch your breath. Is anything hurt?”
“Bruised. A little embarrassed.” Sinking back down, he shrugs and then winces. “It could’ve been worse.”
Eyes closed, the centaur breathes shallowly on the ground. One arm is mangled beneath him.
Brogg hurries over to examine him. Everyone else slumps to the ground, too exhausted to do much of anything. Leeza, in better shape than the rest, digs through Brogg’s pack and passes out water bottles and trail bars.
“Small bites, people,” I say. “Eat slowly. Take small swigs. You don’t want to get sick.”
I shift back into the previous Amazon princess; the lion’s head on this body is a little top heavy. As a magical creature, I don’t have to breathe, though it makes talking easier, and the blood and organs I form inside me are just to make me seem more human. I’m not even really male or female. But for some reason, I always feel more comfortable in a female body.
I study the landscape, watching for trouble. Miles yet to go, and the African wild dogs are still out there, somewhere. I’m not sure how we’re going to pull this off. When we took this job, we hadn’t counted on how malnourished these chimera would be.
In the distance, a cloud of dust marks a vehicle coming our way. The sun burns against the horizon, casting purple, red, and gold across the savanna. The plan was to be on the plane by now, driving down the runway, but we’re still miles from our only escape route.
I point to the dust trail. “Brogg, looks like they went around the canyon. Can the centaur move? We’ve got company on the way.”
“He’s only got a broken arm, but that’s not the problem. He’s not responding. It’s like talking to a corpse.” Growling in frustration, Brogg runs a hand down his green face.
“Did he hit his head?” I crouch and start running my hands through the centaur’s ragged hair. “I don’t feel any bumps.”
The deer man shudders a little, rolling his neck before forcing himself to stand. A clump of dirt still clings to his stub of an antler from his tumble. He walks over and scoffs down at the horse-man. “Pathetic. You’re just going to lie down and die. So much for the vaunted strength and honor of the centaurs. People are trying to help you, and you just sit there pouting like a spoiled child. We should have left you to wallow in your own filth.”
I gape at him. I don’t think he could possibly insult the centaur more thoroughly.
Cracking an eye open, the centaur glares at him, and his jaw muscles bulge from gritted teeth. “What do you know of honor, hind? Your kind only knows how to run and hide, your little white tails waving in surrender. They stripped me of my honor. Took my mane and broke my swords, there is nothing left for me. Now go away.”
“Did they geld you when they took your mane? Or were you always such a wuss?”
I stand corrected; it is possible to insult him more.
He staggers to his feet, rage turning his tan face purple. “I. Will. Kill. You.”
“You’ll have to catch me first.” The deer man throws a wink at me as he takes off at a moderate jog, the centaur in slow pursuit of him. The deer man is careful not to run so fast the centaur would lose hope of catching him. Then again, maybe that is as fast as he can go, considering the circumstances.
Brogg chuckles. “Sneaky bastard. I think I could like him.” He lumbers off after them, his long strides closing the distance.
I shake my head and round up the rest of the group. A series of chirping yips approach us from the direction of the camp. The African wild dogs. Eyes wide with fear, everyone gets moving.
A mile later, the dogs catch up to us, surrounding the group. They don’t swarm. Instead, they dart in and nip at individuals. One bites the deer man’s ankle but jumps back before the chimera can retaliate. Not much damage but blood trickles down his hoof.
“Keep moving.” Brogg scoops the older satyr child out of the deer man’s hands and deposits him on his own shoulder. Little arms wrap around the big green neck and hold on tight. With each one of Brogg’s lumbering steps, the satyr child rocks back and forth but doesn’t fall.
“We’re going to make it,” I call out to everyone. “It’s not much further.”
Another wild dog harasses the Satyress. I fire a round at it, but it dodges, a wolfy grin on its face. Two more nip at the centaur’s legs. They bleed us and then back off, again and again, trying to drive us off course, trying to run us ragged. When they finally attack in earnest, we’ll be too exhausted to defend ourselves. We need a plan. We need to fight back now before it’s too late.
I race ahead to the satyress. “Don’t satyrs have some ways of controlling wild creatures?”
“Yes,” she says between gasps of breaths, “but I would need pipes. Plus these are already under the influence of some kind of obedience magic.”
I know all about obedience magic, and I’m living proof nothing can truly dominate your spirit.
“Couldn’t you encourage them to shake off the control and rebel?”
“Possible, but what if it doesn’t work?”
“We do nothing, they’re going to kill us anyway.”
“I’ll try.” Still running for her life, she squares her shoulders and sets her jaw.
I smile. This is why I take the missions Rook assigns me. The world needs people like this woman, and someone needs to set them free, give them the chance to live, to be fierce and alive and brimming with that willpower I see in her eyes.
Speaking into the com. “Acorn, I need pipes.”
“How am I supposed to do that while running?” Brogg replies.
The sound of swearing fills the com, and I grin. I know he’ll find a way, and this will work.
Rumbling through the brush, a Humvee crests the rise behind us, an elephant gun mounted on top. A man wearing a cowboy hat stands up through the roof hatch, sadistic glee painted across his face. There’s a lust for the hunt, hunger for blood, in the way he leans forward, how he licks his lips. My blood runs cold, and I shudder.
I studied him before coming up on this mission: Rex Jones. Goes by Sidewinder McClintock. Makes his money by letting hunters kill children for fun in his African compounds. I wanted to take him out, remove him from the business, but Rook said that saving the chimera was our top priority.
Laughing, he points the big ass weapon at the satyress and pulls the trigger. Dirt flies in the air no more than an inch from her feet. She nearly stumbles, and he guffaws. He’s playing with us.
As if on cue the wild dogs surround us, striking from all directions. One attacks the deer man and tears a chunk from his leg; another latches onto his arm. Crying out, he lurches to his knees. More dogs come from the other side, pulling him out of our group and into the brush.
I raise my gun, watching for an opening, but if I shoot, I’ll risk hitting him. Better to hit him and he has a bullet wound than to be torn apart by dogs. I aim to give him the least amount of damage and squeeze the trigger. Hole to the back of the skull, one of the dogs slumps to the ground, but another leaps in to take his place.
The centaur roars and charges the dogs savaging the chimera. He kicks one through the air and, grabbing the second, throws it at the men in the Humvee. It hits hard enough to go through the windshield. Rex’s cowboy hat goes flying, revealing his bald head, and he stumbles as the truck swerves before coasting to a halt.
With a yelp of pain, the remaining dogs run off, but they’ll be back. It’s not just the control collars. African wild dogs are stubborn and single minded when it comes to hunting.
The centaur doesn’t stop after driving off the dogs. With a battle cry, he charges the Hummer at a full gallop.
Oh crap. “Where’re those pipes, Acorn?”
“Working on it.”
Rex levels the enormous gun on the Hummer at the charging centaur. The blast nearly cuts the centaur in half.
I scream and start running toward him, even though it’s too late.
The remaining dogs surge forward again, aiming this time for the little cat girl clinging to my back. I shoot one through the throat as it leaps, but five more are on us, dragging her from my back. I pull the child back to me and hunch over her, shielding her with my body.
Teeth dig into my skin, ripping flesh from my body, shredding my back into ribbons. Pain lances through me. It’s not real, I remind myself. I’m a construct, a magical thing that feels nothing. My skin isn’t real. I have no brain to receive signals from nerve endings that don’t exist.
It doesn’t stop the horror, the agony, of teeth tearing me apart, ripping my flesh from my bones, claws scraping on my ribs. I scream and suddenly I’m not here on the battlefield anymore. In my mind, in my memories, I’m strapped to a metal table, and a man stands over me, a gleaming scalpel in his hand.
He smiles kindly. “Shall we take you apart and see how you work?”
He smiles kindly, scalpel in his hand. “Shall we take you apart and see how you work?”
I try to shake my head. I try to scream, but his magic holds me perfectly still. He made me. He gets to do whatever he wants with me, and he loves feeding off the pain.
A catchy melody floats out over the battlefield, and I slam back into my body, reality crashing over me. Falling off my back, the dogs stagger, shaking their heads and pawing at their ears. I slump to the ground beside the girl as the magic inside me closes the wounds in my back.
I take a few breaths and look over the scene. The chimera huddle together, Brogg standing guard over them. Tongues lolling, the dogs lay at the satyress’ feet as she plays on the pipes.
The song calls to something deep and primal inside me, somewhere my soul would be if I had one, and stirs yearnings to dance and sing, to play and love, to feast and make merry. It sharpens my senses, and a delightful energy crackles over my skin.
Rex aims at the Satyress. I leap to my feet and jump in the way, blocking his view of her. The shot blows a hole in my chest. If I were a real person, I’d be dead, but I can regrow the organs and stitch myself back together.
Panicked, Alexis yowls and darts toward me. She presses her nose to my cheek as if trying to determine if I’m alright.
“I’m fine. I’m fine.” But my voice is weak.
Hissing at anything that comes near me, she plops down on my arm as if trying to tether me to her. Hot sticky blood pools around me. For a moment, the pain is so strong I can’t feel my magic, can’t begin to knit myself back together. Gritting my teeth, I reach deep and pull on a strand of magic, and slowly begin to close the wound.
Seeing me shot by that elephant gun sends Brogg into a fury. Hefting a makeshift spear, he charges Rex. Face white, Rex drops the cartridge while reloading, the glee in his eyes replaced with panic. The other hunters spill out of the truck and open fire, but with his thick-as-tree-bark skin, Brogg ignores small caliber ammunition.
The music changes, and a wild thrill – the joy of the hunt, the delicious pleasure of my opponent falling to my might, the rapture of winning against all odds – races through me. As one, the African wild dogs leave their mistress’s side and run alongside Brogg as they fan out to attack their former masters.
Rex works the bolt too quickly and fumbles the elephant gun. Brogg spears him through, pinning him to the side of the hummer, and I laugh, exultation welling up inside me. I can feel our might welling up inside me — mine and Brogg’s, the wild dogs and the chimera — we are strong and victorious.
The kitsune and the deer man double team one of the hunters, and another chimera strangles one of the men. Gimpy whacks his crutch over the head of another guard coming at the satyr boy, and then he throws down the crutch, scooting away from it as if it were a snake. The music even made a hero out of a villain, much to his horror.
The rest of the fight is brutal but short, and I enjoy it all from where I lay on the ground, my wounds knitting slowly back together. With the music filling my ears, I can feel their blood pouring from their wounds onto my hands, hear their heartbeats slowing, see the light in their eyes dying.
I am drunk on victory.
The hunters weren’t prepared to become the prey, and now that the dogs are targeting them, they are more afraid of the dogs than the chimera. They don’t live long enough to regret that decision.
The music fades as the last hunter dies, and I crash to reality, the bloody battlefield laying before me. A lot of men dead, but the chimera will live. I’ve saved these people.
Dragging his mangled leg behind him, the deer man crawls over to where the centaur lay dying. “You saved my life.”
“You … saved … my … honor.”
Tears well in the deer man’s great big anime eyes. “What is your name that I may carry it back to your people with tales of your bravery?”
“Torin.” He coughs, and thick red blood splatters the ground beside him. “Torin … kar … Zandar.” He coughs again unable to stop, each one a little weaker until he stills.
The deer man closes the centaur’s eyelids. “Torin, son of Zandar, you died like a stallion. May your soul find its herd in the Great Beyond.”
Brogg and Kee Nahn bury Torin, and the Satyress sings a warrior’s song over his grave.
My wounds smaller, I crawl to the deer man, Alexis still clinging to me, and place my bloody hand on his shoulder, and he clutches it like a lifeline. “He didn’t deserve this,” he says bitterly.
“No, none of you deserved this. What’s your name?”
“You are a good man, Kee Nahn.” Emotions war inside me — thankfulness that I saved so many, grief for Torin, anger that I came so late. If I had come a week earlier …