They call her broken doll,
soulless monster …
…all she wants is to be a real girl.
~ Riley ~
“Home again, home again, jiggety, jig, jig,” Brogg says as the plane touches down and taxis to the hangar.
“Where do you even get these sayings?”
“Something my dad always said.” He shrugs. His green skin is rough and craggy, like tree bark, and his hands clutching the pilot’s yoke are long with extra joints like a dryad’s, but with an ogre’s thickness.
I try to picture an ogre saying something cute like that, and I come up blank. The same blankness I get whenever I try to figure out how a dryad and an ogre ever hooked up in the first place, let alone built a family.
“Ready to get back into the grind of bartending and waiting tables?” He glances at me. Brogg owns a bar in Alaska, a little hole-in-the-wall kind of place hidden down a back alley, where the paranormal underbelly of Anchorage gathers, drinks, and brawls the night away.
“You know what the bar needs?” I ask.
“I’m not putting flowers on the tables,” he grumbles.
“A karaoke night.”
“The drunks will love it. Imagine a night with singing and no fighting.”
“Sure. I’ll do it. But only if you are the first to sing.”
I scoff. “Not on your life.”
He looks at me.
“When are you going to start living, Riley? You hide behind the bar, behind your missions and the exciting danger, behind whatever new appearance you put on for the day, but you never face up to the danger when it really matters.”
You hide behind whatever face you wear for the day. When will you start living, Riley?
I press my lips together and look away. “You know why.”
“Don’t give me that bull. I’ve heard you singing, playing on your guitar, on the piano. You’re good, Riley. That’s what you need to share with the world.”
“People need me to save them from monsters who will hunt them for sport. No one needs a soulless musician.”
Shaking his head, he announces our arrival to the passengers and tromps out the cockpit door, his rage a palpable pulse in the air. His dryad side wants to fix me; his ogre side gets angry when it doesn’t work.
We’ve had this discussion before. I don’t know why he can’t understand. I’m a construct, magical clay that can change shape. Although I dabble, I cannot truly create artistic expression, like music. His dryad half should realize that the sounds I make with the instruments or with my voice aren’t true music, even if his ogre side can’t tell the difference.
I sigh and pull my tired, achy body out of the co-pilot’s chair. After expending so much magic to heal myself, I need to restore my reserves like any human would — food and sleep, something I never needed when my master controlled me.
As soon as I step out of the cockpit, Alley-Cat pounces me and meows something that sounds suspiciously like mmooommyyy. She clings to me with her little claws in my ruined and bloody dress as she caterwauls unhappily.
The satyress waits at the bottom of the stairs for us. Thus begins the long effort of extricating myself surreptitiously from the people. I don’t save them for glory or their undying gratitude. I do it because it needs to be done and I can’t stand to think I stood by while someone needed me.
“Thank you for saving us, satyress.” I place a hand on her shoulder. “Your music was beautiful.”
“Please, call me Chakra. My children and I will ever be in your debt. I wish my husband could have been there. He was first to be hunted. He sacrificed himself for us.” She clutches her baby and her son to her, tears of sorrow and relief pouring down her face.
“Chakra then. I am honored to have met you.” I offer my hand, and she shakes it.
“Journey, shake the nice woman’s hand.” Chakra pushes her son forward a step but doesn’t actually let go of him, as if she’s still trying to grasp the fact they survived.
Grinning, Journey pumps my hand up and down. His cute little legs are covered in shaggy gray fur, and his black curls hang down to his shoulders in typical satyr fashion. “I’m strong,” he says, his four-year-old face earnest. “I kicked one of the hunters in the shins and he fell over.” He demonstrates the kick, his hoof smacking the concrete. “Did you see me? Was I good?”
“You were awesome. Give me five!” I hold my hand up.
“Fingers, of course.”
His brow crinkles and, tucking his hands behind his back, he steps back. “But I want to keep my fingers.”
“Awesome. Give me five!”
He steps back. “But I want to keep my fingers.”
“Brogg,” I call to him from where he’s dragging our gear and weapons out of the luggage compartment.
“What?” he rushes over, worry on his face.
“Give me five.” I hold my hand up.
“You called me here for that.”
I wink at him. “Come on. Celebrate with me. Give me five.”
Shaking his head, he slaps my hand and then returns to his pack, grumbling all the way.
“See? It’s like that. You give me your five fingers and then take them back.”
He slaps my hand and then a slow grin spreads across his cute little face, eyes growing big with surprise and delight. Next thing, he’s running up to the deer man and giving him five. Oh to be a child again and find pleasure in simple things.
Rook and her crew wait for us inside the hangar, along with a team of doctors, guards, and technicians to take care of the Chimera. A few family members stand to the side, watching for lost relatives. Leeza the kitsune has her father to thank for her rescue. If he hadn’t contacted us, we might never have found out about Rex’s operation.
He along with several other refugees had come to earth to prepare a way for their families. Then they hired a smuggler to help their relatives escape Drakon, but the bastards took their money and sold their relatives to the highest bidder. Rook personally led her team to deal with the smugglers. She likes to discourage that type of behavior; she probably left one of them alive to spread the tale.
I watch as Leeza and her father are reunited. “They killed Mama,” she says to him.
He hurries forward to smother her in a hug. “I know, Leeza. I know.” He tells her in a voice raw with emotion.
Guilt twists in my heart. If only we’d gotten there sooner …
The centaur wouldn’t have been as malnourished, and he probably would have survived. The satyress would not have lost her husband. Leeza might not have lost her mother.
An elder of one of the cat tribes is talking to Rook, and I make my way over to them. “It’s time for me to say goodbye, Alley. These people are going to take good care of you.”
“No. I stay with you.”
“Enough nonsense.” The old cat, gray peppering his black fur around his whiskers, glares at me as if I’m the one causing all the trouble. He pulls Alley-Cat from me, and she begins to cry in the world-is-ending song only cats can do. “Now where did that youngling get off to?”
He turns in a circle and spots a ginger cat-girl, a short black tunic that stops barely below her hips, covering the essentials while still giving her tail room. A walking stick, not quite thick enough to be a quarterstaff, is strapped to her back. Inspecting the wheels of the airplane, she’s about to scamper up one.
Shouting, he storms off toward her, little Alley-Cat in tow. My heart breaks as her big eyes look at me as if begging me to save her again.
But it’s better this way. She’ll be with her people. She’ll be somewhere safe with the family who loves her and cherishes her. I turn away, my heart squeezing.
“I know you just got back,” Rook says behind me, and I turn to face her. Her hazel eyes study me, and I notice the weary lines around her eyes and mouth. “But there’s something that’s come up. I have some intel I need to act on immediately and you’re the only one that can infiltrate a dragon-controlled base.”
“Go on.” I’m immune to mind control or giving myself away with guilty thoughts as I have no real mind to be read or controlled. No one else can go up against dragons and come away unscathed. Doesn’t mean I actually enjoy such missions.
Behind me, I hear little feet scampering after me and turn toward the sound. A black and white blur leaps into my arms and mrows in a voice that could only be telling me off.
“Hey there,” I say to the little cat girl in my arms. “What’s wrong?”
Alley-Cat clings to me, her arms wrapped around my neck, her little face buried against the side of my head. Her purrs are so loud, my ears ring. “I want to stay with you.”
“Your family is here. They love you very much and want to take you home to be with your clan.” I try to pry her off, but her claws dig into my back, my dress tearing.
The ginger cat, too big to be a kitten, too small and awkward to be full grown, prowls up to me. Beyond her, I can see the elderly cat-man impatiently searching for the two cat-girls.
“Is it true what they say?” the ginger cat asks. “Did you really turn into a lion and make the stampede move around you?”
Oh no. Last thing I need is to become a legend. The sorcerer who made me would find me in no time. I open my mouth to protest, but she plows on.
“I’m going to join Rook’s crew when I’m old enough. I’ve been practicing. See?” She pulls out her walking stick and twirls it like a bowstaff, and then with a loud hiya, she stumbles through an attack blow to an unseen assailant. A little awkward for someone with cat-like reflexes, but I guess even cat-chimeras have that typical adolescent awkwardness.
Her loud battle cry drew the attention of the old man, and now he hurries toward us, his tail whipping back and forth in annoyance.
“Give us a few moments,” I say and duck behind the plane with Alley Cat. Peeling her off me, I look her in the eye. “Your family is here to get you. That’s your grandfather, the leader of your clan, and the little girl is your cousin. They hired me and Brogg to rescue you because they love you.”
She shakes her little head, large green eyes earnest. “My family is gone. My mommy and daddy are gone. I want you to be my mommy now.”
My heart breaks. I would make a terrible mother. How can I truly love or care for another? And my lifestyle – always on the run or on a mission – is no place to raise a child, and I wasn’t made to have the capacity to love and care for someone else.
Plus I live among the humans, and she’d have a hard time fitting in there. Even with a glamour, she’d never be like the human children at school. A cat needs space for prowling and time for sunny naps.
Sighing, I sit down on the floor and cradle Alley-Cat like a baby. “Little Alley Girl, you can’t stay with me. My house isn’t designed for little cats like you. I work all night at a bar, and then I’m gone all weekend when I’m out on missions.”
“I can come with you.”
“Then you’ll need me to protect you.” Her big eyes are serious and sincere.
“You need to go with your family, but I promise I’ll come visit you.”
Her chin quivers. “No, I’m staying with you.”
“I’ll bring you treats and toys every time I visit.”
She tilts her head to study me. “Every day?”
“Once a month?”
“Pinky promise.” I offer her my pinky.
She grabs my pinky, brings it to her mouth, and chomps down with her sharp teeth. “That’s what I’ll do if you break your promise. I’ll find you and bite you.”
“I won’t break my promise. You will see me again in a few weeks.”
As the old man comes to take her, she hugs me again and whispers in my ear. “When I grow up, I wanna be just like you.”
I watch her go. My chest aches where this hollow feeling grows as if it’ll swallow me up.
“You okay?” Rook asks from behind me.
I don’t turn to face her as I watch Alley being dragged away. “I’m fine.”
“The mission can wait. Take a week. Relax.”
“No. Tell me about my target.” I don’t want time to relax, to think. If I wait, who will I be too late to save this time? Like Leeza’s mother.
She leads me into one of the hangar’s offices along the far wall. It’s not her office, I’m sure, as she doesn’t settle anywhere or make any kind of routine that could be observed and used against her. This woman is more paranoid than a conspiracy nut in a tin-foil hat.
Once the door is closed, she sets a device on the table and whispers something under her breath. Glyphs on the device light up. “We have three minutes. This is Elite General Dare.” She hands me a photograph of a man in profile, short brown hair, a strong jaw, a hint of a smile. He looks familiar, and I wish he could turn to look at me. If I could just see his eyes …
“My intel,” Rook continues, “says he will be traveling to South Dakota to visit a base where they are building some kind of doom device.”
“A doom device?”
“We don’t know for sure what it does –” She hands me another photograph of an arch made of black metal carved with runes, the top half nothing more than the skeletal frame. “– but they’ve been trying to build it for years. However, the magic and the tech haven’t been getting along, and the structure has been destroyed a few times. This is the farthest they’ve come. If they finish this device, I’m expecting imminent disaster.”
“I’ve seen these runes before.” I suppress a shudder, but the memories still stick in my throat, choking me with fear.
“Yes, Kage is involved, but he’s currently in Drakon working on something else. He won’t be anywhere near the site while General Dare is there, my sources tell me they avoid each other as much as possible.”
“My mission is to get close to him? Then destroy the base?”
“No, I want you to replace him. Kill him after you get a DNA sample. Destroying the base and the structure is good, but it’s even more important that you destroy their research and records. We don’t want them to be able to rebuild.”
I lift my chin. “I won’t sleep with him to get the DNA sample.”
“I don’t tell you how to do your job, Riley.”
“Isn’t on this mission,” she says. “He can’t infiltrate a dragon base, even here on Earth, and you know what will happen to him if he gets captured. I will assign him as part of the backup team on the outside.”
I turn my back on her for a moment and stare out the window overlooking the hangar. Leeza’s arms wrap around her father as he leads her out toward a small car. Several guards usher Chakra and her brood into a van headed to home base. The Resistance would help them recover and then reintegrate into society. On the other side of the hangar, Kee Nahn chats with the recruitment agent. With no family left, he’ll find something meaningful to do with his life.
Pouting, Alley drags her feet behind her grandfather. Guilt worms inside me, but I know she will be all right once she adjusts to her new family.
I can’t be part of their world with their families, their hopes and dreams, their potential, but I will never envy them for the love and family they have. It is my place to keep them safe. If that means walking into the dragon’s den, I won’t hesitate.
“All right, Rook. When do I go?”
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