Chapter 1 1
“ZEPHYR, I’M SCARED,” ASTRAEA SAID softly.
“Me too,” Zephyr agreed.
They were standing on the edge of the jungle just outside the Temple of Arious. It was their turn to keep watch for any new Mimic attacks. So far, their shift had been uneventful, but things could change in an instant.
The massive snake Belis was beside Astraea, his tongue dipping in and out of his mouth as he tasted the air for Mimics. Every few minutes, Astraea would look at him. The moment Belis became aware of the deadly Mimics, his scales would turn from colorful stripes to black.
Around them the trees were filled with cheerful birdcalls, but they found no joy in the songs. The beauty of Xanadu was missed as they stood watch.
Since arriving on Xanadu and clearing the temple of the shape-shifting Mimics, everyone was on edge. There had been several more attacks, but now that the Titans had security patrols carrying slingshots with rocks covered in snake venom that killed the invaders, the Mimics were quickly driven back. It was the Shadow Titans controlled by the Mimics that proved to be the most dangerous. Their arrival was always brutal and was happening more often. It was obvious—the deadly Mimics were fighting back.
“Do you think Jake is with my brothers?” Astraea asked as her keen eyes watched the jungle. “You don’t think the Mimics killed them?”
Fear for Jake and her missing brothers had been pressing down on Astraea like a lead weight. Despite her best hopes, her four brothers hadn’t been in the Titus prison, while Jake had been abducted from Earth by the Mimics and had vanished without a trace.
Not long ago, she, Zephyr, Tryn, and Pegasus had decided to go to the Mimic home world to try to rescue Jake and the others. But that was before the attacks had become bolder and more intense.
Zephyr snorted and shook her head. “Of course they’re not dead. If the Mimics wanted to kill them, they wouldn’t have bothered taking everyone. I think Jake was taken because he can talk to the snakes.”
“Why would they care? All Mimics want to do is kill the snakes. Look what they did to Belis.” Astraea looked along the snake’s body to all the scars from the Shadow Titans’ swords. “Every time they attack us, he seems to be their main target.”
The snake could now understand them completely and raised his head higher for Astraea to stroke. “But we won’t let them hurt you again,” she cooed.
“I still don’t get it with you two,” Zephyr said, and snorted in disgust. “But it seems that’s the only reason the Mimics would go for Jake. I mean he’s human. Why else would they care, if not for Nesso?”
Zephyr looked slyly at Astraea, then winked.
Astraea chuckled softly. Zephyr was still making a show of not liking Jake because he was human, but she was ready to go on the secret rescue mission to save him. “Maybe. But I’m just so worried about him.”
“I’m worried about all of us!” Zephyr said. “Seriously, I never imagined we’d ever be going through anything like this. Our lives have been turned upside down. Titus is overrun with Mimics, and they want Xanadu as well.”
“They want our worlds, but not us,” Astraea said.
Tryn appeared out of the temple and flew over to them on his skateboard. “How’s it going?”
“So far it’s been quiet,” Astraea said.
“Quiet?” Zephyr snorted. “I can barely hear myself think with all the jungle sounds around us.”
“I’m glad for the sounds,” Tryn said. “Haven’t you noticed how it goes quiet when the Mimics are here? It’s as though everything in the jungle is frightened of them.”
“Does it?” Zephyr said.
Astraea looked at her friend in shock. “Seriously, Zeph, you haven’t noticed?”
“Hey, I’m too busy trying to stay alive to notice stupid things like that.”
“Those stupid things could help save your life,” Tryn said.
Astraea was about to say more when Jupiter, a herd of centaurs, and several other Titans ran out of the temple. They were followed by multiple Shadow Titans being controlled by Tryn’s people that were racing behind them. Everyone vanished into the jungle behind the temple.
Triana ran out of the temple and up to her brother. “We all have to go back inside right now!”
“What’s happening?” Tryn asked.
“They’re back!” Triana cried.
Astraea looked all around and saw only the calm jungle. She looked at Belis, who was still striped. “Where are they?”
“They’re attacking the nectar orchards,” Triana cried. “Jupiter says they are going after our food.”
“That’s low!” Zephyr cried.
“That’s war,” Tryn said.
Triana caught hold of her brother’s arm. “Come on, Mom says we have to get inside. This is a big attack.”
It didn’t take more prompting to get them running. They entered the temple just as more fighters rushed out. Hercules and Mercury, the messenger of Olympus, were among them. Hercules paused long enough to call, “Get to Arious and seal yourselves in.”
“Maybe we should help them,” Astraea said.
Belis was still at her side and hissed loudly. When Astraea looked at him, the snake was jet black.
“Uh-oh,” Zephyr said. “That isn’t good.”
Moments later, a blaring siren sounded. It was Arious, the mainframe computer, warning of Mimics arriving within the temple.
“This is huge!” Tryn cried. He pulled out his slingshot and opened his pouch of venom-covered rocks. Astraea and Triana did the same as they ran deeper into the temple.
“I wish I had hands,” Zephyr cried.
“You don’t need them,” Astraea called above the siren. “You can stomp the Mimics’ Shadow Titans into oblivion. That’s way better than hands.”
“Yes, but I can’t stomp Mimics.”
“We’ll take care of them; you just go after the Shadows.” Astraea entered the stairwell going down toward the entrance to Arious and looked back at Zephyr. “Be careful here.”
“How?” Zephyr complained as she followed behind. “Would you please tell me how I’m supposed to be careful on stairs? And why are there always so many of them? Here, back on Earth, Tartarus, even Titus—they’re everywhere. Don’t architects think about those of us with hooves? What’s wrong with ramps?”
“You can tell them when this is over,” Tryn offered.
“Don’t think I won’t,” Zephyr finished.
Tryn and Astraea linked arms while bracing against the stairwell walls to keep Zephyr from slipping down the long flight of stairs. When they reached the bottom, Zephyr neighed, “Thank you.”
The siren was still blaring as they moved deeper through the cavernous corridors of the temple. Belis was directly beside Astraea and still as black as night. She held her slingshot at the ready but knew that the snake would move on any Mimics long before she could fire it.
With each step, Astraea felt more and more on edge. Perhaps it was the blaring siren, or the confines of the temple. But the fear that she’d felt earlier was now turning into terror as she kept looking all around. It wasn’t a question of if there were Mimics in the temple—it was a question of where. It was not knowing that was making her terror worse.
When they approached a junction, Zephyr’s ears sprang forward and she stopped. “I hear something.”
Belis didn’t stop. The snake lunged forward, hissing loudly as he slithered down the corridor. Just then, a group of four Shadow Titans rounded a corner. The large warriors were bright green and looked like walking sea turtles. Standing side by side, they formed a large, impenetrable wall blocking the corridor.
When they saw Astraea and her team, they paused. But then a gray, blubberous Mimic appeared behind them. Seeing Belis, it raised a small silver cylinder to its mouth and gave the command “Kill that snake!”
Belis hissed again and slithered toward the Shadow Titans.
“Belis, no!” Astraea cried, but the snake wouldn’t stop.
“We have to have a serious talk with that snake!” Zephyr whinnied as she charged forward behind Belis. As the Shadow Titans whacked at the snake with their swords, Zephyr arrived, spun around, and started to buck. “It’s stomping time!”
“Zephyr, be careful!” Astraea shouted.
“Go for the Mimic!” Zephyr called. “Get the controller!”
As the Shadow Titans focused only on killing Belis, Zephyr managed to kick the first one to pieces.
Astraea, Tryn, and Triana took aim with their slingshots and started to fire on the Mimic controlling the Shadows. But the Mimic was blocked by the large fighters. It held up the controller and shouted, “Kill the snake and the winged horse!” Two of the Shadow Titans stopped hitting Belis and focused on Zephyr. They charged forward with their swords held high.
“Winged horse?” Zephyr spun again and reared high, kicking out with her front hooves. “I’ll show you a winged horse!” With her rage focused, she kicked at the attacking Shadow Titans and drove one to the ground. Zephyr slammed down on it, stomping it to pieces.
The second Shadow slashed at her, grazing across the chest and knocking her to the ground.
“Zephyr!” Astraea screamed.
“I’m all right,” Zephyr called. “Keep going for the Mimic; get his controller!”
The Shadow Titan advanced on Zephyr as she struggled to regain her feet on the slippery stone floor. Standing above her, it raised its weapon high.
“Leave her alone!” Tryn sprang forward and used his skateboard like a bat to knock the Shadow Titan’s descending sword away. Then he struck the massive Shadow in his armored head.
With only one Shadow Titan left trying to kill Belis, Astraea had a clear shot at the Mimic. She drew back her slingshot and fired. The small rock passed right through the Mimic’s gelatinous body, but the poison covering the rock worked. As the Mimic cast out its deadly tendrils, it started to melt.
There was just a puddle on the ground by the time Belis arrived from his fight with the Shadow Titan. But the snake didn’t stop; he charged forward and slid around the next corner.
Triana ran forward past the broken Shadow Titans and reached the melted Mimic. She kicked the controller out of the goo and cleaned it off with a piece of fabric torn from her top.
“Stop fighting!” she called into the controller.
The turtle stopped just as Tryn gave it a final whack.
“Belis!” Astraea cried as she watched the tip of his long tail vanishing around the corner into another corridor. Running after him, she made it to the junction and was met with four more Shadow Titans with drawn swords.
“There are more here!” Astraea shouted.
Belis was braver than she’d imagined, but the snake was being struck and cut by the relentless Shadow Titans. She feared by the time the others arrived, he would be dead.
“This is dumb, Astraea,” she muttered as she charged forward. She approached the tail of the snake and threw herself down on the floor. Loading her slingshot, she drew back the elastic vine and waited for a clear shot at the Mimic controlling the Shadow Titans.
“Astraea, what are you doing there?” Zephyr cried as she charged around the corner.
Astraea heard her friend but didn’t look back. The Shadow Titans were weaving back and forth as they attacked Belis. But with each movement, there was a moment when she had a clear shot.
Astraea fired. The rock struck a Shadow Titan and bounced harmlessly off its arm. Cursing silently, she pulled out a second rock and loaded it.
Tryn arrived, threw himself down on the ground beside her, and raised his slingshot.
“Astraea, Tryn, get away from there!” Zephyr whinnied. “Belis might crush you!”
“Just a moment more,” Astraea called. “Belis, move a bit!”
Belis finally moved, and for the briefest moment, Astraea and Tryn had a clear shot. “Please…,” she uttered as she took aim.
They both fired at the same time, and two rocks shot between the Shadow Titans and straight through the Mimic.
With a double dose of venom, the Mimic melted quicker. But that didn’t end their troubles. The Shadow Titans were still trying to kill Belis.
Astraea sprang to her feet and looked at the wall of fighters before her. There was no way through.
“Astraea, come here and get on my back!” Zephyr cried.
Astraea leaped onto Zephyr’s back. Without pausing, Zephyr turned and ran down the opposite corridor. Then she turned again and galloped toward the Shadow Titans. “Tryn, move!” she shouted.
When Tryn stepped back, Zephyr spread her wings wide in the confines of the corridor, leaped into the air, and flew awkwardly over the heads of the Shadow Titans.
Zephyr and Astraea touched down on the opposite side. Sliding off Zephyr’s back, Astraea peered into the puddle of dead Mimic and saw the silver controller. She knocked it out of the goo with her foot and cleaned it off. Pressing the button, she shouted, “Stop fighting!”
The four Shadow Titans stopped immediately. Two were midswing with their swords, but now stood stone-still as though they’d been turned by Medusa.
Astraea ran up to the snake. Belis raised his head and looked at her. His eyes were clear, but there was an angry wound running the length of his head.
“He’s a mess,” Tryn called as he approached. He reached out and patted the snake. “Belis, I know you can understand me. You must stop doing that. You’re the one they’re after.”
“Yeesh, I think I’m going to be sick,” Zephyr said as she looked at the snake’s wounds. “They really wanted to kill him.”
“You’re not much better,” Astraea said as she approached Zephyr and inspected the slice on her chest. “This is deep.”
“It looks worse than it is,” Zephyr said. “It will heal quickly. But Belis is hurt badly.”
“We have to get him to Arious. He needs treatment,” Tryn said.
Astraea nodded and lightly touched the snake’s snout. “Come on, Belis, let’s get you taken care of.” Belis closed his eyes briefly; then his body tensed and started to slowly turn around in the corridor.
When they were halfway to Arious, the grating siren stopped and the whole temple fell into overwhelming silence.
“Thank you!” Zephyr said. “That alarm was really getting on my nerves.”
“At least it means there are no more Mimics inside,” Triana said.
They heard footsteps in the corridor next to theirs. Soon a large group of armed night dwellers arrived. Several were wearing pieces of armor taken from destroyed Shadow Titans. They approached Belis.
“How is he?” a woman Astraea knew as Paye asked. Her long white hair was tied back, and she had a deep wound on her cheek.
“He’s alive,” Astraea said. “But the Shadow Titans hurt him. We’re taking him to Arious.”
“How bad was the attack?” Tryn asked.
“Bad,” another night dweller said. “Really bad.”
Paye sighed. “I fear they are attacking us here to keep us occupied while they go after the nectar orchards.”
“We were ordered to go to Arious,” Astraea said. “But I’d rather go to the orchards to help. We can fight from the sky.” She looked at Zephyr. “Are you well enough to do that?”
“It’s not a question of whether I’m well enough,” Zephyr said. “It’s if I want to.”
“Do you?” Astraea asked.
“Not really, but we’re going to go anyway, aren’t we?”
When Astraea nodded, Tryn stepped forward. “We’re coming too.”
“The trouble is Belis,” Astraea continued. “He needs help. We should get him to Arious first.”
An older night dweller came forward. He also had several wounds. “Go join the battle for the orchard. We’ll take care of Belis.”
Astraea nodded and patted Belis again. “I know you want to stay with me, but please go to Arious with Paye and the others. We’ll be back soon.”
Belis lifted his head weakly and leaned against Astraea.
“Please, Belis, do this for me,” Astraea coaxed.
Finally he started to turn around in the corridor and move toward Arious.
Astraea looked at her friends. “Come on, let’s go. They need our help.”