Chapter 1 1
ASTRAEA OFTEN THOUGHT THAT STEPPING into the Solar Stream must be like stepping onto the surface of the sun—but without the heat. The bright lights of pure energy blazed so brilliantly that she had to shield her eyes. The whooshing in her ears from the Solar Stream left her unable to hear much of anything else.
Astraea’s best friend was traveling at her side. Zephyr extended a large white wing and wrapped it around her. She only ever did that when she was nervous. Astraea was nervous too. In such a short time her life had changed completely. She had thought going to school would be the biggest change. But that was nothing compared to the discoveries they had made.
A race of shape-changing monsters they called the Mimics were secretly attacking Titus. To distract her grandfather Hyperion and his security teams, the Mimics were bringing humans from Earth and creatures from other worlds to Titus. With Titus security occupied rounding up the newcomers, the invaders were slowly abducting the Titan and Olympian leadership and replacing them with their own look-alike kind.
These stealth attacks would have gone unnoticed if a human boy hadn’t arrived from California. His appearance in the Arcadia nectar orchards changed everything.
With the help of their friend Tryn and a herd of centaurs, Astraea, Zephyr, and Jake had traveled to the dreadful prison Tartarus to free the abducted Titans and Olympians and then gone to Earth to hide them.
Now they were going to another new place—Zomos. The world that Nesso the snake came from. All Astraea knew about Zomos came from Jupiter, who said Zomos was a wild place.
The one thing she did notice was just how long it was taking to get there. Going to Tartarus had been very fast. Even going to Earth wasn’t that bad. But now it felt like they’d been in the Solar Stream for ages.
Astraea looked around her. She saw Jake and Tryn shadowed in the blazing light just in front of her, while beside her were three young centaurs, Cylus, Render, and Darek. If she was honest, she hadn’t wanted the centaurs to come along… especially Cylus, who was a big bully. But Jupiter had insisted. And since his word was final, they didn’t have a choice.
They discovered that moving within the confines of the Solar Stream was next to impossible. But Astraea had to manage only a single step in order to be pressed against Zephyr’s side.
“This is taking forever!” she shouted up to her friend’s ear.
Zephyr tilted her head back to Astraea. “What?”
“I said, it’s”—halfway through the statement, the journey ended, and they exited the Solar Stream into a dense jungle—“taking forever!”
Zephyr looked at her and winked a large brown eye. “There’s no need to shout, Astraea. I’m right here.” She tightened her wing to pull Astraea closer.
“Whoa,” Jake said, gazing around. “This place is awesome. I’ve never seen so many colors! Look, the leaves on the trees, they aren’t even green—there’s red and blue—and look over there; that one has purple leaves!”
Tryn was standing beside him. “It looks a lot like my home, Xanadu. But the colors are different and the leaves on Xanadu’s trees are much bigger.” He walked forward and bent down to study a strange-looking multilegged insect.
Jake joined him and reached for the bug, but Tryn caught hold of his hand. “No, don’t. Remember, Jake, this isn’t your world. Things here may be poisonous. My mother always said that’s the first rule of exploration. Don’t touch anything until you are certain it’s safe.”
Jake pulled back his hand. “But how are we supposed to know what’s safe? It’s not like we have any equipment or anything.”
“It isss sssafe,” Nesso said. The colorful snake was coiled around Jake’s neck. “Alssso deliccciousss. They are my favorite food.”
Jake reached up and invited the snake onto his hands. “So this is your home?”
“It wasss,” Nesso said. “Now my home isss with you. But it isss niccce to feel the warmth again.”
“Warmth?” Jake laughed. “You’re not kidding; this place is boiling! It’s much hotter than LA on a summer’s day.”
Cylus was standing with his centaur friends Render and Darek and nudged them. “Look how stupid humans are, complaining about the heat when we’re on an important mission.”
“Hey!” Astraea charged up to Cylus. “If you’re just going to start trouble, you and your herd can go right back to Earth. We have a lot to do here, and we don’t need you bullying Jake anymore.”
“I’m not bullying him,” Cylus said. “But can I help it if he says stupid things?”
“Oh, and you never say stupid things?” Zephyr asked.
“Never!” Cylus challenged. “Tell me one time I said something stupid.”
Zephyr stepped closer to the centaur and looked down on him. “How about every time you open your mouth?”
“Everyone, that’s enough,” Tryn said. “Jupiter and the others are counting on us. This constant fighting isn’t helping.”
When Cylus crossed his hands over his chest and opened his mouth to speak, Zephyr bent even closer. “Don’t say one word. He’s right.…” She looked over at Jake. “Would you tell Nesso to start asking her friends to join us?”
Jake looked at Tryn. “I know Zephyr was talking to me. What did she say?”
Zephyr snorted in irritation but said nothing.
“She said it’s time to tell Nesso to ask her friends if they will join us.”
Jake nodded and pulled Nesso closer. “Did you hear that? Will you call your friends?”
“Yesss,” Nesso said. “Put me down on the ground.” When Jake bent to put the snake down, Nesso raised herself higher. “You won’t leave me, will you?”
“Never.” Jake looked at the others and explained what Nesso had said. Astraea came closer and lightly stroked the snake. “We’re friends, Nesso. We’d never leave you behind. We’ll stay right here waiting for you.”
Behind them, Cylus harrumphed, but with a warning whinny from Zephyr, he didn’t say more.
Jake put Nesso down on the ground, and they all watched the colorful snake slip into the undergrowth.
“Now what are we supposed to do?” Cylus said. “Just stand here waiting for the snakes to come to us?”
“I’d like to look around a bit,” Render said as his eyes took in the whole area. “I’d never been anywhere but Titus. Now I’ve been to Tartarus and Earth. I really like seeing new places.”
Tryn looked over to the centaur. “You sound like a true explorer.”
Cylus shoved his friend and snorted. “Render the explorer, yeah, that would work.”
“Why not?” Tryn said. “Why can’t he be an explorer?”
“Because he’s a centaur,” Cylus said. “We are fighters, not explorers. It’s you weaklings that should be the explorers.”
Jake frowned. “Says who? Why can’t he be what he wants?”
“Because that’s the way it’s always been,” Cylus answered. “You’re just a human that doesn’t understand.”
“But things can change, can’t they?” Jake said. “If Render wants to explore, he should be allowed.”
Cylus trotted over to Jake and poked him in the chest. “Now you’re telling us what we can do?”
“I—well, I mean…,” Jake stuttered.
“Enough!” Zephyr snorted. “Cylus shut up and leave him alone. Jake is the only one who can talk to the snakes. I won’t allow you to hurt him.”
Cylus huffed and walked away from the group. When he was gone, Render approached Jake. “Thanks for trying. But Cylus would never allow me to do what I want.”
“I don’t understand why you need his permission,” Jake said. “You’re free to make your own decisions, aren’t you?”
“Not really,” Render said.
Darek clopped forward. “Cylus is the leader of our herd. We have to do what he tells us.”
“Why?” Jake asked.
“Because,” Render said. “He is our leader.”
“Jake, you don’t understand,” Astraea said. “Centaurs live as a herd, and as a herd there must always be a leader. That’s Cylus. They aren’t like us—there’s an order to follow. If Cylus tells them to do something, they must.”
Jake shook his head. “This makes no sense. If Render wants to explore, why can’t he? What if Darek wanted to be an inventor or something? Are you telling me that he couldn’t because Cylus says no? That’s not freedom.”
Astraea looked from Jake back to the two centaurs. They were both looking down and appeared almost sad. As though they realized for the first time just how much control Cylus had over their lives. Thinking about it, Astraea realized how unfair it was for them.
Tryn cleared his throat. “We can argue the difference between herd life and the individual later. Right now we need to find something to hold all the snakes in to take back with us, or there won’t be any of us left to argue about anything.”
“I’ve got my backpack,” Jake offered. “That will hold a few.”
Tryn nodded. “That’s great, but we need more. When you consider that Nesso can give venom only twice a day and even then, it’s not a lot. There are a lot of Mimics.…”
“Meaning we need a lot of venom,” Astraea added.
“Which means a lot of snakes,” Jake finished. “My pack is definitely too small.”
Astraea started to look around. The trees were tall, but the small leaves meant they couldn’t use them to make any kind of container.
Zephyr approached a tree and reached for a vine, but when she pulled it, it broke easily. “There’s nothing here. Everything is either too small or too brittle to weave together.”
“We need something,” Darek said.
After a few minutes, Astraea had a thought. “Wait, I know what we can use.” She walked over to Jake and turned her back to him. “Jake, would you tear off the fabric covering my wings? We can make a sack from it.”
As Jake started to tear away the cape-like fabric, Zephyr came over. “But, Astraea, you hate showing you wings. We must find something else.”
Astraea looked up into Zephyr’s dark eyes. “Thanks, Zeph, but it’s all right. We need it.”
“All done.” Jake held up the large piece of blue silken cloth. He pulled the corners together to form a kind of sack. “This should work great if you hold it closed, or maybe we can find something to tie it. Next we have to ask the snakes if they would go in it.”
“Speaking of snakes,” Zephyr said, “Nesso has been gone some time. I wonder if the others said no.”
Tryn repeated Zephyr’s comment to Jake. “She’s right; it has been a fairly long time. I hope she’s all right.”
“Maybe she was eaten by something,” Render added.
“No!” Jake said quickly. “Nesso!” he started to shout. “Nesso, where are you?”
Tryn slapped his hand over Jake’s mouth. “Haven’t you learned anything about traveling to alien worlds? You can’t go around shouting at the top of your lungs. You don’t know who or what is going to answer.”
Jake nodded, and Tryn pulled his hand away.
“Jake,” Astraea said. “You and Nesso have a connection. Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Tell me if you can feel her.”
Jake did as Astraea suggested. After a moment, his eyes flashed opened and he looked at her in shock. “You’re right. I can actually feel her!” He pointed into the dense jungle. “She’s that way.”
“Let’s go!” Zephyr said.
“Wait,” Astraea said. “I’ll go get Cylus.”
“Do you have to?” Zephyr called.
Astraea glanced back at her friend, but then jogged in the direction that Cylus had gone. She found him standing alone looking down into a stream. The water was bright yellow and there were little red and blue fish swimming around.
“Cylus, we’re going to go get Nesso.”
“So, do you want to stay here, or come with us?”
Cylus looked over to her but pawed the ground with a hoof. “Why should I? You and Zephyr will just yell at me again.”
“We yell because you’re always being mean—”
Cylus opened his mouth to speak, but Astraea held up a hand. “Don’t speak; listen. Just because you’re a centaur doesn’t mean you have to be cruel. I’ve met your mother. She isn’t cruel, and neither are the centaurs working with my parents. The only reason Render and Darek are mean is because you encourage them to be. Can’t you see that you would have more friends and a lot more respect if you’d stop being a bully and tried being nice?”
“But…,” Cylus started.
“But what? Do you actually like being mean?”
“No,” Cylus said, but he made it sound like a challenge.
“Well, then, why don’t you try being a little nicer? You can start by not being so awful to Jake. Can’t you understand what he’s going through? He’s never seen anyone like us before. All he’s known is Earth, with no idea we even existed. We at least knew humans existed. It’s all different for him. But every time he opens his mouth around you, you say something cruel to him or you threaten him. That’s why we yell at you. It’s bad enough how you treat Tryn—but he’s strong enough to take it. Jake is different.”
“Yeah, he’s weak!”
“See, that’s exactly what I mean!” Astraea insisted. “Yes, he’s human, yes, they are weaker than us, but that doesn’t mean we’re better than them. We’re just different.” Astraea took a step closer. “Look, instead of seeing our differences, why don’t you try seeing what we have in common?”
“What’s that?” Cylus snorted.
“The Mimics. They want to take Titus from us and then Earth. They are more powerful than us, so you being stronger than Jake means nothing if a Mimic can hurt all of us equally.”
Cylus looked at Astraea for a long moment. Then he nodded. “I’m coming with you.”
They made it back to the group and nothing further was said. Instead, Jake closed his eyes again and pointed into the dense jungle. “Nesso’s that way.”
Cylus finally spoke. “Darek, you take the left side. Render, you take the right. I’ll take up front.” He paused and looked over at Jake. “You come up front with me to lead us.”
“Um, sure,” Jake said as he cautiously took his place beside Cylus.
Zephyr was walking beside Astraea and looked at her in shock. “What did you say to Cylus?”
Astraea shrugged. “Nothing really. I just reminded him that the Mimics made us all equal.”
Zephyr nodded. “True. I just hope it works.”
Astraea nodded. “Me too.”
They started pushing through the jungle, but the going was slow. The trees grew densely together, and there were vines everywhere. Though the vines were easily broken, their number alone made movement difficult. Added to that was the high heat and humidity.
“I feel like I’m breathing underwater,” Astraea complained. “It’s so hot here.”
“And if one more tree catches my wings, I’m going to scream!” Zephyr added as she tried to push through a thick bush.
Tryn wiped his silver brow. “My mother always told me our home world, Rhean, was hot, but because our sun evaporated most of the water, it was dry heat and didn’t really feel too bad. But this is hot and humid and very uncomfortable.”
Cylus looked back at Astraea and she saw that he was about to make a comment, but then he stopped. He frowned and looked around. Finally, he turned to Render and Darek. “Do you feel that?”
The two other centaurs stopped and then nodded. “Something is coming this way,” Darek said.
“Something big,” Render added.
“I don’t hear anything,” Jake said.
“Not hear, feel,” Cylus said. “The ground is shaking.”
Zephyr’s ears went back, and she looked at Astraea. “He’s right. Something heavy is moving this way.”
“Follow me,” Cylus said. He caught hold of Jake’s arm and started to haul him along to the right.
“But Nesso is that way,” Jake insisted, pointing in the direction they had been heading.
“Yes, and that’s the same direction the big thing is moving,” Cylus finished.
The group tried to hurry through the jungle, but the undergrowth made speed impossible. The struggle was exhausting, and soon everyone was panting and sweating.
“Hurry,” Cylus insisted. “It’s changing directions.”
“Are you saying it’s following us?” Tryn asked.
Darek nodded. “It is.”
They kept moving but gained little distance. Then a roar sounded—a roar so loud it vibrated right through them.
“What was that?” Jake called. “A giant?”
“Giants don’t roar,” Astraea answered. “Whatever it is, I don’t want to know.”
Moments later a second roar sounded. This time it was from right in front of them. There were also the sounds of branches breaking and heavy movement.
“There are two of them,” Cylus cried. “And we’re standing right between them!”
Tryn stopped and turned in a circle. “In all this growth, we can’t outrun them.”
“So we stand our ground!” Cylus pulled his bow off his shoulder. “Darek, Render, ready your bows. Everyone else, duck down!”
“Duck down, he says,” Zephyr muttered to Astraea. “Has he seen me? How am I supposed to duck down? I’m going to be the first eaten!”
Darek and Render loaded their bows and stood facing the direction of the nearest roar. “No one is being eaten today!” Darek called.
“No, it can’t be,” Jake cried. He was pointing up to the small patch of sky that could be seen between the trees. “It’s—it’s impossible! It can’t be here. It just can’t!”
“What are you blabbering about?” Cylus demanded.
Jake was still looking up. “That looks like a T. rex, but it can’t be. They’re from Earth and went extinct millions of years ago.”
Astraea looked up and saw a massive multicolored lizard-like creature. Its head was lifted, and it appeared to be sniffing the air. “What is it?”
“It’s a kind of dinosaur,” Jake cried. “We are so toast!”
“Look at those teeth!” Tryn called. “It must be a carnivore.”
“What’s a carnivore?” Render called.
“It means it’s a meat eater,” Jake said. “And it looks like we’re on the menu!”
The immense dinosaur’s head tilted to the side and the one huge eye spotted them in the undergrowth. It roared again and started to lunge.
“Shoot for its eyes!” Cylus called as he loosed an arrow.
The centaurs fired arrows at the dinosaur. Most bounced off the scaled head, but one struck the corner of the creature’s eye. It roared in pain and raised its head, staggering backward.
As they watched the first dinosaur, the foot of the second dinosaur crashed down on the ground right beside them, missing Tryn and Astraea by a breath.
Astraea couldn’t hold back a scream at the size of the scaled foot beside her. Brutus the giant was big, but somehow his size didn’t scare her. This foot was terrifying. Then again, it could have been the huge, sharp claws at the end of the reptilian toes.
No sooner had the foot come down than it was moving again as the creature charged at the wounded dinosaur.
The thunderous sound of the two dinosaurs crashing together was hideous. What made it even worse was how their tails swept across the ground, shearing down trees and brushing everything away as they fought.
“We have to get out of here!” Tryn shouted.
“How?” Jake cried. “Those two are destroying the whole area. Wherever we run, they’ll get us.” The words were just out of his mouth when a thick, long tail swept over their heads. “Whoa, that was too close!”
“We have to fly!” Zephyr shouted. She looked over to Astraea. “Get on my back, now!”
“What about the others?” Astraea called as she climbed up onto Zephyr’s back.
Tryn reached for his skateboard. “Jake, use your board!”
“What about us?” Render cried. “You’re not going to leave us here, are you?”
“Of course not!” Tryn ran up to the centaur and looked at him, as though sizing him up. “Vulcan never builds anything weak. If you are strong enough to hold on, my skateboard should be able to carry you. Darek can hold on to Jake’s board.” He looked at Zephyr. “Are you strong enough to carry Cylus?”
“I don’t know!”
A massive foot slammed down on the ground near them again as the dinosaurs moved closer. The roaring intensified as the fight grew more violent. Suddenly the two wrestling monsters fell to the ground and started to roll around.
“Zephyr, please,” Cylus called. “Please try. I don’t want to die here!”
“Fly, Zephyr!” Astraea cried above the sounds of crashing trees and furious, fighting monsters. “Hurry!”
In the tight confines of the jungle, Zephyr opened her white wings. “Cylus, when I take off, catch hold of my back legs. Don’t let go!”
Astraea looked over and saw Tryn and Jake were already on their skateboards. She could no longer hear them over the roaring, but as she watched, the two skateboards’ wings appeared and started to fly, lifting Render and Darek with them.
“Go, Zephyr, go!” Astraea cried as a dark wall of rolling dinosaurs bored down on them. This was it, the one chance to get away. If Zephyr couldn’t fly, they were doomed.