Tick's wagon bounced over a pothole, throwing the young chimera on his side so that he struck his head on the splintery wooden floor. Picking himself up with a whimper, he pressed his back into the corner and wrapped his tail around his ankles.
The wagon looked like nothing so much as a rolling circus cage, the kind used to display lions and tigers for paying customers. The bars were made of solid iron and placed so closely together that even a child like him couldn't slip through. Who were these people, anyway? At first he'd thought they were Slayers, but that couldn't be true. The Slayers didn't take captives, they just left bodies.
Tick had been in this cage for… how long had it been? He'd lost count sometime after the first week. All he knew for sure was that it had happened three days after Porter had put him on Joseph's back and told them to run.
Joseph… Tick grabbed the tip of his tail with both hands and squeezed as hard as he could. The spineless satyr had bolted at the first sight of these men. Porter wouldn't have done that. He would have fought all of them, even if it still meant being captured afterward. He would never have just abandoned his friends.
"I'll find you, I promise. You just have to wait for me."
Tick trusted him. Porter would never break a promise like that. It was just… how could Tick even be sure he was still alive? The last time he'd seen him, Porter was about to ambush the entire Slayer army. For all he knew, Porter was…
No, he was alive. He was!
"Stop the cars!" someone shouted from outside.
Tick's wagon came to a halt, almost throwing him on his face again. Getting to his feet, he went to the bars and peered outside. Over the past few days they had made it clear that they were in a hurry to be somewhere, though Tick couldn't figure out where they could possibly be going. Even more wagons were lined up in front and behind his, and as far as Tick could tell they all held Mythics just like him. They were avoiding the roads, choosing to travel the long way through the woods instead.
"What's going on?" someone else shouted as Tick sat back down. "Why are we stopping?"
"The guards caught something. It was sneaking around, trying to steal food."
This caught Tick's attention, and he looked up again.
"Huh," one of the men mused. Their voices were getting closer to his cage. "A little scrawny, but it'll do. Throw it in there with the other mutt."
Mutt? Another chimera like him?
Two large men stepped into view, and Tick scrambled backwards so that his back was pressed against the wall. They didn't even glance at him. Instead, they opened the door and threw something in with him like a sack of potatoes.
"Got yourself a little friend," one of them sneered before walking away. "All right, let's get moving!"
As the wagons began to roll again, Tick suspiciously eyed the newcomer. He couldn't make out much about it except that it was dressed in rags and curled up in a ball. Minutes went by, but it never budged.
"H-hello?" he finally asked.
The newcomer replied with a frightened whimper. Its side rose and fell quickly, and Tick realized that it was crying.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Leave me alone!" it yelled without turning around to look at him.
It was a girl, Tick realized from hearing her voice. And just about his age, if he wasn't mistaken. Slowly, he got to his feet and tentatively crept around so he could look at her face. She was pale skinned, except for a spot of black that covered her left eye like an eyepatch. Her hair was black, and two furry, round ears poked out from the sides of her head like a panda's.
"My name's Tick," he said gently, trying not to upset her further. "Are you all right? Did they hurt you?"
The girl looked up at him, her eyes red and full of tears. "No," she said at last.
Tick nodded and sat down next to her. "Good. What's your name?"
"Manchi," she whispered.
Tick nodded slowly. "Do… you know who these people are?"
Manchi looked up at him in surprise. "How could you not know?"
Tick's face turned red. "I guess I'm a little behind," he replied as his tail curled around his leg the way it did when he got embarrassed.
"They're slave traders," Manchi whispered again, looking at the bars like she expected them to hit her just for saying it.
Tick froze as realization dawned on him. Capturing Mythics. A long train of wagon cages…
"It's the Caravan," he said. After everything Porter and Sarah had done for him, he'd ended up being caught by the Caravan anyway.
Manchi let out a whine, bringing his attention back to her, and she buried her face in her arms again. Hesitantly, Tick reached out and put a comforting hand on her back.
"Don't worry, we're going to be okay," he said.
"How can you say that?" she demanded without looking at him.
"I'll find you."
Tick looked up and out through the bars, into the distance. The sun was starting to rise over the hills. He took a deep breath and forced his voice to sound confident.
"Because a hero is coming to save us."
The brightness of the sun belied just how cold the forest was. A sharp chill blew through the trees, making Porter shiver. He was dressed only in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, hardly the best outfit for the weather. Sarah padded along behind him, her feathers ruffling when the wind blew on them.
"You know," he said over his shoulder. "you're pretty lucky to have all that nice, warm fur."
The sphinx gave him a smug grin. "I'd offer you some, but that would leave me naked."
A strange noise came out of Porter's throat and he nearly tripped over his own feet. Once he'd regained his balance, he looked away so Sarah wouldn't see how red his face had turned.
"Do not do that to the poor boy," Droma chuckled, reaching down and mussing Sarah's hair.
Sarah shook her head to get the hair out of her eyes, smiling with sadistic playfulness. "But he's so cute when he's embarrassed!"
A moment later, a huge, white furred cat came crashing out of the forest. He ran on six legs, and the front two rose up off the ground when he stopped, making him look like some weird kind of centaur.
"We're still on the right track," Gwinn said, holding up a strand of his fur that was bobbing up and down in the direction they were going. He had come across the ragtag band of travelers three days ago, looking for his son, Tick. After talking it over with the others, they had all decided to accompany him. Gwinn's revelation had surprised them all at first, but now it was easy to see the similarities between him and his son. Tick's hair was the same color as Gwinn's fur, and their feline tails were identical in all but size. Tick was a chimera, which meant whatever Gwinn was only accounted for half his bloodline. The rest of him was human.
"How far off are we?" Porter asked as they began walking again.
Gwinn went down on all six of his legs again. Porter hadn't asked, but it seemed like it was easier for him to walk like that. "I don't know for sure. We're a couple days behind, at least."
They walked together in silence for a few minutes before Porter spoke up again. "So, Gwinn…"
"What are you?"
Sarah whacked him with her tail. "Seriously, Porter? How rude can you be?"
Gwinn chuckled, showing his thin, pointed teeth. "It's all right, I understand."
Porter scratched the back of his head. "Sorry, I just don't think I've ever seen another Mythic like you before."
Sarah hummed in her throat. "Now that I think about it, I don't think I know what you are either."
"Now who's being rude?" Porter looked down at her and smirked.
"Be quiet," she huffed, looking the other way. "He already said it was okay."
Gwinn nodded. "I'm a wampus cat. I'm a somewhat, ah, funny case."
"Most humans don't believe in the Mythics. Well, I'm a Mythic most Mythics don't even believe in."
Porter raised his eyebrows and looked at Sarah.
"How can that be?" she asked. "If you exist, then must be some kind of record of you, right?"
"That might be true," Gwinn agreed, "if not for the fact that I'm an unnatural Mythic."
Porter stopped short. "Unnatural? You mean like…"
"I mean," Gwinn answered, "that wampus cats aren't just born like this. Believe it or not, I used to be human just like you."
Porter looked Gwinn over from tail to nose. "Don't take this the wrong way, but that's a little hard to believe."
"It's true!" Gwinn insisted hotly.
"So, how did you get…" Porter gestured with his hand, "like that?"
Sarah sighed. "You and I need to have a long talk, mister."
"It was about seven years ago," Gwinn told them. "Back then I had a job, a house, a family, all that normal stuff. One day when I was on my way home from work, I suddenly blacked out and woke up in a cage surrounded by people wearing white coats. They said they worked for some kind of magical corporation, and they were trying to breed a new kind of Mythic they could use as a weapon."
This time, Sarah was the one who looked like she was caught off guard. "A magical corporation, huh? That sounds… a little familiar."
"Doesn't your dad own a company?" Porter asked.
"Yeah, but it's not anything magical," she answered. "He makes locks and home security systems, things he can sell in the human world."
"What did they do to you?" Porter asked, turning back to Gwinn.
"They kept me in the cage all night," he continued. "In the morning, they cast some sort of spell over my cell that melted my clothes and then threw a mountain lion pelt in with me. I still had no idea what was going on at that point. I didn't believe in magic, and had never even heard the term Mythics before. Later they told me there had been a mix up and promised to let me out and explain, but first they needed me to wrap the fur around myself. Not knowing what else to do, I did what they said. The next thing I knew, it felt like I was being electrocuted."
Gwinn sighed. "I passed out. When I woke up, I… looked like this. The scientists had heard a legend about a Native American woman who had disguised herself as a mountain lion to spy on her husband. The tribe's witch doctor didn't like that, so he bound her to the animal skin she was wearing, turning her into a six legged cat with a human's mind. The scientists figured that would be a perfect candidate for one of their hybrid warriors, and so they turned me into one."
"What happened then?"
"They wanted me to fight all their other subjects. The one that came out alive would be mass produced and sold to the highest bidder. Luckily, I managed to escape. I ran from them for weeks before I finally lost them. Then I… went home."
Gwinn fell silent, and when Porter looked he saw the cat's body rigid with tension.
"She was there when I arrived," he said at last in a soft whisper. "My wife, and my baby son too. I wanted more than anything to knock on the door, to hug and kiss her, but I didn't. What would I say? I could tell her who I was, but I don't look like myself. My voice doesn't even sound like my own. She would never have believed me."
He scowled at the forest floor, and Porter couldn't decide whether he should feel sympathetic or afraid.
"What about Tick?" Sarah chimed in. "He wasn't taken with you, was he?"
Gwinn shook his head. "No, whoever those people were, they never touched my son. Not directly, at least. I…" he hesitated. "I should have left them both alone."
"What happened?" Porter asked.
"I didn't leave. I stayed there, hiding in the woods where they couldn't see me, watching them. One day, my wife had Tick playing in the sandbox in our backyard. The phone rang, so she went in to answer it and left Tick alone. I saw it as my chance to touch him one last time. Tick was just a baby, barely a year old. I could show myself to him and he'd never remember it. So, I went up and reached out, and…"
His ears drooped, and Porter saw his tail drag across the ground behind him.
"His hand touched my finger, and he changed. I don't know exactly what caused it. Maybe the magic reacted to the blood we shared and passed itself to him. Suddenly, his hair turned as white as my fur and a tail sprouted from his back. He started to cry. I couldn't believe what I was looking at, so I just stood there staring at him. Then I heard his mother scream too."
Oh no, Porter thought.
"She had looked out the window to see what Tick was crying about, and she saw me. I turned around and ran as fast as I could. I must have been in the next state by the time I stopped. I never went back. I couldn't have faced either of them after what I did to my son, even if they knew it was me. Especially if they knew it was me."
He fell silent again, and this time Porter and Sarah didn't press him for more details.
I shouldn't have asked, Porter realized with a sinking feeling in his chest. It was none of my business, and I just made him relive the whole thing.
After walking with Gwinn in silence for a while, Porter fell back a little to let the others catch up. Sarah lagged behind as well.
"She must have hated him," she whispered.
Porter looked down at her. "What?"
"Tick's mom. She sold him to the circus, remember?"
Porter grimaced. Tick had always been such a spunky little kid that it was easy to forget how much he'd been through. "Let's not mention that part to Gwinn, okay?"
Sarah shook her head. "Wasn't planning to."
The others caught up a moment later, and Porter fell in beside Faska and Azkular. The djinn was hobbling on one leg, his arm wrapped around the elf's shoulders.
"Hey, how're you holding up?" Porter asked.
"He's the one holding me up," Azkular grunted, jerking his head toward Faska.
"I know, that was a—"
"I know what you meant," the djinn snapped. "I swear, I try to make a joke around here and everybody…" His voice trailed off into grouchy mutterings.
"I've got a question for you," Porter said once he had finished grumbling. "Tick's a chimera, right?"
"You're asking me? Why not ask his dad?"
Porter shook his head. "Those are painful memories. I don't want to make him remember them if I can help it."
Azkular jabbed a finger at Porter's face. "He's going after his son, Porter. If he doesn't want to face the past, then he needs to stay as far away from Tick as possible."
"Answer my question, Azkular."
The djinn grumbled again, but then said, "Yes, Tick's a chimera."
"But Gwinn said he wasn't born that way."
"There are two kinds of chimeras. One is the normal kind who are born the way they are. One parent is human, one parent is a Mythic. Heck, they could be two different kinds of Mythics, but chimeras are usually thought of as half-human creatures."
"If Tick wasn't—"
"Are you going to let me finish or not?"
"The other kind is a soul chimera," Faska said, cutting off the ill-tempered djinn. "They're somewhat less common."
Azkular snorted. "Saying they're somewhat less common is like saying a diamond is somewhat less common than a toenail."
"Gross," Porter said.
"Anyway," the djinn went on, "soul chimeras are made when two living creatures bind their souls together. That results in both of their bodies changing. They each become half of what the other creature is. It's not a something that happens naturally, both parties have to go into it willingly."
"Oh," Porter said, putting his hand to his chin. "I guess that means Tick isn't one of those?"
"Definitely not," Azkular agreed. "Not only did they not go through the proper rituals, Tick was the only one who changed."
"What does…" Porter stopped. "Oh, you mean Gwinn would have changed too, right?"
"Exactly." The djinn pushed himself away from Faska for a moment, rolling his shoulders and popping his neck. He still hopped on one foot with more skill than most people could walk on two. "If their souls had been bonded, Gwinn would have recovered some of his humanity. Tick probably would have done more than grow a tail, too."
Porter arched an eyebrow. "So, you're saying he's a born chimera after all?"
Azkular shrugged and went to lean on Faska again. "What Gwinn said sounds the most likely. He was made into what he is because of magic. Shape shifting magic like that is tricky. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it really did jump from him to Tick just because they shared blood."
"That would make him a born chimera, just not... born that way," Faska concluded, and then frowned. "That made more sense before I said it."
"Anyway," Azkular butted in, "how it happened isn't important. What's important is that we find the kid before anything happens to him. Now shut up and save your breath for breathing."
As Porter made his way to join Sarah, his curiosity sated, Faska looked at the black-eyed djinn leaning on his arm. A fierce scowl covered his face.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing," Azkular snapped in response. "I'm just making a cross country journey with one leg. Everything is just dandy!"
Faska shook his head. "I know you, Commander. If what you're doing is important enough, you would consider your leg an insignificant detail."
After a moment's hesitation, he sighed. "Everything is bothering me."
"What do you mean?"
"Look around, elf!" the djinn exclaimed, waving his arm dramatically. "Another Sanctuary has been destroyed, the Slayers are using Mythics as weapons, and if that wasn't enough, Arch-Mythic Rayalga is building an army to wage war on humanity itself!"
Faska nodded solemnly. "But we're not without hope, are we?" He nodded towards Porter and Sarah, walking side by side in front of them. "What do you make of those two?"
"There is something about them," Azkular admitted. "I don't know what it is, but it's there. But they're just two kids. How much can they do?"
"Sometimes, one person can do more than an army of ten thousand," Faska said.
Azkular snorted. "Is that supposed to sound wise?"
Faska grimaced. "Actually, that's something Lowatai used to say. I just figured the same thing would be true of two people."
Azkular's mouth clamped shut, his eyes growing hard. The news of Lowatai's death had been hard for him. Even harder was the idea that her death had been of her own doing. And for what? To share some vague clue with Porter to set him on the right path.
"After what Lowatai did for me," he admitted at last. "I would do anything to repay her. I know that following those two is what she would want me to do, but… It's just so hard to believe."
"Is it?" Faska challenged him. "Look at them. They're in love. More in love than any other couple I've ever seen."
"So what? You can't end a war with hugs and kisses."
"Think about it!" Faska insisted. "One of them is a human, the other is a sphinx. What could possibly bridge the gap between our kind and the humans better than that?"
Azkular huffed in annoyance, but didn't argue. Porter and Sarah's love was pure and innocent. It was a love meant for more peaceful times. Quite frankly, it amazed him that such feelings could bloom under the circumstances they had. The fact that they were two entirely different species only added to his amazement.
"Have you ever been in love, djinn?" Faska asked.
"I've led a very busy life," Azkular spat. "I haven't had time to fall in love with anyone."
"Then you wouldn't understand."
The djinn shot him a glare. "Understand what, exactly?"
"Just how powerful love is. It's not all hugs and kisses, as you put it. When it needs to be, love can be more dangerous than anger. If you were to come between Porter and Sarah, you can be sure that they would do whatever they had to do to get back together." He shot a meaningful look at the djinn. "I would never want to face the wrath of a man in love."
"I understand more than you think," Azkular said softly after a moment's hesitation. "I may not be in love, but I know what it means to love something. My people. The Mythics that I have dedicated my life to protecting. I love them more than anything else I know." He gestured towards the stump of his missing leg. "A wound like that is nothing to me. I'd gladly give both my arms and my legs if it meant that they would be left in peace."
"And what would you do to know that they could live their entire lives, now and forever more, in harmony with the humans? No more hiding from the Slayers? No more living inside mountains, never seeing the sun or the sky? To finally learn what it means to live, instead of just survive? What would you do for that, Azkular?"
As Faska looked at the djinn, he saw a sad look cover his face. Though he had no tears inside him to shed, the look in Azkular's eyes spoke to him more than tears ever could.
"I would," he said, slowly, "follow a boy and a sphinx into battle."
NEXT TIME: Tick's in the hands of the caravan, but Porter and Sarah are on their way! Will they make it in time? And what's going to happen after that? War is looming on the horizon, and if they can't find a way to stop it, one of their races is going to be wiped out. Will it be the humans, or the Mythics?
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Hey guys, hope you enjoyed the first chapter of the new book! I just wanted to let you know that I'm doing things a little bit different this time. The chapters are still going to go up one per week, but if you don't want to wait for next week's update, head on over to my personal website, BolanderBooks. I'll be uploading a bonus chapter there each week, which means you'll get the next week's chapter a whole seven days early!
ajbo83 (-dot-) wix (-dot-) com (front slash) bolander-books
(Wow, they make you go to a lot of effort to put a link in here, don't they?)