Previous Chapter: 1.2 – Acetate
Hyde and I left the next morning. I was feeling refreshed after finally being able to change clothes and start the day having eaten the most delicious breakfast, consisting of foods I didn’t recognize. We had packed as light as we could for such a long journey; I only needed a light coat and a few pairs of riding overalls. On top of my wardrobe, I managed to find two knives to arm myself with from the armory. Hyde had recommended only using one of them – he was probably right, but I wanted to try dual-wielding at least once in my life. It was still fairly warm out when we began our journey as it was still a few months away from the colder season; Hyde had mentioned the path should stay snow-free until we hit North Settlement. I dreaded the colder season, imagining that I’d have to trek through the snow with an oversized parka.
I hopped on the horse that was provided by the royal stable. I had never ridden one before, so I was a little unsteady for the first few hours. Eventually, I was able to keep pace without having to worry entirely about falling off. I may have even gotten a bit overconfident when I started to spin one of my knives absentmindedly.
“So what unlucky person, animal, or thing will I be able to use this beauty on?” I asked.
“You spin your knife around for 20 minutes and you already think you’re the finest knife wielder in all of Elodine, eh? Are you also a master rider by now?” Hyde asked.
“Maybe not quite the best, but I’m getting there,” I smiled. “We have a long way to go, might as well let our hair down and relax a bit.” I was beginning to trust Hyde.
“Fair enough. For the most part, we’ll want to watch out for any roaming police squads or hybrid children – I haven’t been this far out of the city in a while, so who knows what else might pop up. Just keep your eyes open, and if you’re going to let your hair down at least keep it out your face.” Hyde winked at me.
I chuckled, “why the police? Aren’t they on our side? You’re the King’s advisor after all.”
“That is true but these guys don’t ask many questions out here, especially in the wild. And even doubly so at night. We’d likely be fine if we could talk them down but the problem would be getting them to slow down enough to get a word in before we lost our heads.”
“Okay then,” I grimaced. “Why the hybrid children, though? Don’t they know the rebellion is on their side?”
“Well, yes and no,” Hyde said. “There are essentially two factions of hybrids or ‘Unnaturals’. One being friendly, like us, wanting to live their life as normal folk – going to work, changing in the comfort of their home at night. Then, there are the other hybrids like the ones responsible for the kidnapping of Anroma – they’re violent, and probably the second most dangerous thing in the world, behind the police.”
“Do the hybrids have a village?” I asked.
“They might, but no one knows for sure. Wherever it is, it has to be close to North Settlement. There have been reports that they’ve been raiding those poor people recently. We’re not sure if Anroma is with the Settlement or with a pack of hybrids.”
I realized I had stopped spinning my knife and was clutching it now with both hands – I attempted to relax and release the tension.
“So then, I suppose if I were to ask what to expect at this settlement… you wouldn’t happen to know, would you?” I asked.
“Probably wouldn’t be very accurate. Just stick with me and we should make it out in one piece,” Hyde said.
We traveled the rest of the day in near silence. It was becoming harder and harder to imagine walking away after this; life was awful as a slave, but at least I had the consistency of being provided with the basic necessities – these people had nothing. There was hardly even a police force to stop the raiders. I couldn’t imagine many merchants made it out that far either – we had to do something for this settlement.
Shortly before sunset, we stopped to set up camp – it was very minimalist so we could avoid detection. As we were settling in for the night, I realized I had never been so near to someone else in animal form. I avoided looking at Hyde to provide him with some semblance of privacy, instead opting to view the horizon through my avian eyes when I changed. I couldn’t remember the last time I looked farther than across my own bedroom with these eyes – it made the scenery all the more breathtaking as I scanned above the treetops. It took all my effort to pull myself away from the view: nocturnal birds swooping through the sky and the floral patterns of the forest floor moving in the breeze. There was even a lone gazelle prancing through the underbrush, looking as if it had lost something between the flowers. With a long day ahead of us tomorrow and our journey just begun, I willed my eyes to shut and fell asleep shortly after.
The next morning, we continued on our journey to North Settlement, and over the next few weeks we encountered no issues. We were fortunate enough to stumble upon a merchant with whom we were able to replenish our foodstuffs. I even purchased a bow, having quickly grown bored with my knives. We continued along an uneventful path for about another week until we were getting closer to North Settlement; I began to feel a little more chatty.
“So what else do you know about this girl?” I asked.
“Not much, she was hardly in Ikalga before she was taken,” Hyde said. “We know she’s about seven and imagine that there’s a good chance that she might be a Whisperer, like her father. Although we don’t know much about how those abilities are passed along, those powers could potentially turn the tide of this kingdom’s development.”
“If what I’ve gathered is correct, when Rayon passes on there won’t be another Whisperer in these lands for a while? And, if we play our cards right, and Anroma willing, she might have the ability to produce yet another Whisperer?” I asked.
“Aye, lad” Hyde said.
“And that’s all we know about her?”
“What about North Settlement?” I asked
“What about it?” Hyde responded.
“Well, how similar is it to Ikalga? Does everyone there change too?” I asked.
“Most of the people can, though there are some hybrids. Whether they have good or bad intentions, no one is sure,” Hyde said. “Most of your focus should be on looking out for anyone from that violent faction, and on finding Anroma. The settlement is fairly similar overall, though. There is less of a police presence, as it’s still under construction but essentially imagine what Ikalga looked like about hundred and twenty-five years ago and that is North Settlement.”
“So what is it about the violent hybrids that I need to watch out for? How will I know who is from the bad faction and who isn’t?” I asked.
“If it attacks you, it’s violent,” Hyde replied bluntly.
We continued on our horses for a few more hours; sunset was quickly approaching. I broke the silence, “Hey Hyde, I could be wrong, but I feel like this gazelle behind us has been following us.”
Hyde took a look back, noticing the gazelle for the first time. It was about hundred feet behind us.
“Kid, how’d you even see that? Has it been there the whole time?” Hyde asked.
“For some time, yeah… I’m pretty sure it’s the same one,” I shrugged.
“Shit, it could just be following us because it’s smelt our food, but no use in guessing – let’s find out.” Hyde pulled on the reins and slowed his horse to a trot, peering over his shoulder. The gazelle looked up and froze briefly before resuming towards us.
Hyde whispered to me, “When I finish this sentence kick your horse into gear. Got it?”
“Got it!” I spurred my horse into a sprint, Hyde following closely by my side.
A few, short seconds later Hyde asked, “I lost it, can you see it?”
I looked back. “Yes – it’s off to the side now, but it’s keeping pace.”
“Damn, my gazelle knowledge is probably as solid as my Whisperer knowledge, but I don’t think that’s a gazelle. At least not a full-time gazelle–”
Hyde was interrupted by a rustling noise as a big cat shape jumped onto the path about 300 feet in front of us.
“Follow!” Hyde exclaimed.
Hyde pulled sharply on his reins, taking his horse sharply to the right and into the cover of the leaves. I followed as best as I could.
“Take a left at that log. We should be beyond that big-ass cat by then; we need to get back onto the path.” Our horses galloped along, though slowed by the low hanging branches and clutter of the forest. I took a left at the log and eventually we found our way back to the path. I didn’t see a trace of the large feline back on the path but Hyde kept us moving at a steady pace to be safe.
“Did we lose them?” I asked, shakily.
“Unlikely. We’re still a day out from the settlement, we’ve gotta beat them there. Come nightfall, we’ll have to ditch the horses,” Hyde said.
Before I could reply I heard the familiar trotting of the gazelle creeping behind us. I craned my neck around to see that the gazelle was back, along with the other large creature. I guessed it was a cheetah or jaguar by the way it gracefully skulked in pursuit. Hyde followed my glance, cursing under his breath. I saw him look for a place to retreat off of the path, but there were none. Our pursuers could outrun us there anyway.
“Wait!” I yelled. “This doesn’t make any sense; animals don’t act like this…” Especially not a cheetah and gazelle working together – it’s daytime!
Hyde looked at me and responded, but I couldn’t hear a word he said over the increasing sound of the creatures stampeding towards us – our pursuers were quickly catching up. With only 50 feet between us at this point, my thoughts began to race. I couldn’t come up with any possible solution that would get us out of here; I could only think who were these animals? over and over again. Closing in at 25 feet, I considered taking out my bow but knew I would never be able to land a shot while riding backward and moving. 10 feet – What about the knives? A better chance but still not great…
I then heard a crow’s caw in front of me and had just managed to turn and duck under a small darting figure rushing over my head. I looked up to see a black crow flying straight towards the cheetah. The cheetah did not flinch, at least not until the crow changed mid-air. A naked human appeared where the crow had once been, crashing into the cheetah. I heard at least a bone or two snap as the two tumbled in a heap of mammalian limbs. The gazelle continued at half speed, alternating its gaze between us and it’s downed partner. Eventually, it stopped and turned, trotting towards the cheetah and the mysterious human. Once it neared the pileup, it too transformed into a human. Can everyone transform during the day now?
Where the crow-human was small and rail thin, the previous-gazelle human stood at least six feet tall with bulging muscles, slowly approaching his fallen partner and crow. Suddenly, a thundering stomp rang out through the forest and a rhinoceros appeared, charging out of the forest as the muscled man reached for its partner. The gray mass of at least two tons spearheaded the man into an adjacent tree. Immediately a dozen men, similar in build to the shorter crow individual, jumped out of the forest and tied the humanoid brute to the tree. My horse began to slow as I continued to watch the spectacle unfolding behind me. Hyde brought me back to attention with a high-pitched whistle; we continued on.
“What the heck was that?” I asked
“I have no idea, but let’s keep going,” Hyde responded.
“Am I on some high-quality Lilypad or did I just see at least two animals change into humans… during the day?“
“Unless the merchant snuck some into my rice, that was real,” Hyde said. “Hybrids. I also believe the gazelle and cheetah were police. Although, I’ve never heard of police taking the form of a gazelle before…”
“Maybe, they’ve integrated spy animals?” I suggested.
Hyde shrugged back. There wasn’t much to say after our incident. We continued onward, keeping the horses at a steady pace, being sure to stay ahead of any more animals that slipped out of the forest.
I let my thoughts simmer. What was that bird? Better yet, who was that bird? And why did they save us?
“I thought only the police could force-change? Those kids definitely weren’t police… So, that means there’s at least one group of hybrids here… Is that why the king wanted to try to kill the hybrids? Because he knew they could force-change?”
“That’s a good point, beyond that reason, I’ve never really heard a decent explanation for why he wanted them dead,” Hyde said.
Changing the subject, he added, “Now that we’re not being chased, I think we can afford to stop right outside the village when we arrive. I wouldn’t want to walk into the village in animal form. With the current tensions, we shouldn’t risk being unable to talk for our first introductions.”
By this point in the journey, we were pretty good at the “sleeping in the outdoors” thing. We soon set up camp and fell asleep…
…until I heard a rustling. I woke with no idea how close it was to sunrise – it was still pitch black. I twisted my head around as quickly as my avian neck could, scanning for the culprit of the sound. I saw Hyde still fast asleep with something moving around behind him through the leaves. I yelled, forgetting I had left my human lungs on the other side of the sunset. Unfortunately, he didn’t wake at my first attempt at a bungled yell-squawk, so I tried again. This time I got his attention. He woke up, finally noticing the noise rustling behind him. Whatever it was, it wasn’t very big but after yesterday, I wasn’t taking any chances. All of a sudden, something fell from the sky, crunching through the branches and hitting the floor next to the noise in the bushes which was now emerging and beginning to take shape. A large bird head appeared out of the broken branches and Hyde seemed to relax – he must know them.
Once Hyde gave me the all clear with some boar winks, we fell back asleep for the few hours left until morning. When I awoke, I saw two boys around my age sleeping in the leaves near our camp. Both had apparently borrowed clothes from Hyde; none of them fit. After a few minutes of wiping the sleep from our eyes, the first boy handed Hyde a note.
“The royal seal?” Hyde looked up, making eye contact with me.