It had only been two days, but Tick already felt as if he were healing.
For the past forty eight hours, he’d had his chest, and the burn that marred it, pressed firmly against his father’s back. The wampus cat’s fur constantly rubbing against it should have irritated the wound, but to Tick’s surprise it had the opposite effect. The white hairs felt as soft as silk, and actually soothed his burned skin. When Gwinn finally stopped for the night and placed Tick back on the ground, the chimera inspected his wound and was not entirely surprised to find that it was already fading.
“It won’t heal completely,” Gwinn said, startling him out of his thoughts. “You’ll always have a scar where the spell hit you.”
“Cool,” Tick said, imagining himself with a battle scar. “Will it be big?”
“A scar isn’t something to be proud of, son,” Gwinn reprimanded him. “They’re nothing but reminders of mistakes you’ve made. They’re there to remind of you what you did wrong so you can avoid doing it again.”
“Oh,” Tick said, his head lowering a bit in embarrassment.
“And what I hope you learned from that scar,” Gwinn continued, “is that you should never run into a battlefield unprotected, no matter who you’re following.”
“It wasn’t Porter’s fault!” the boy shot back, his face turning red.
“It was his fault,” Gwinn insisted, but then waved his hand, “but we’re not having that argument now. Right now, I’m going to teach you how to defend yourself.”
Gwinn took a step back and drew his massive sword from behind his back. The steel glinted in the blood red light of the setting sun, and Tick recoiled in fright.
“You’re already scared?” the wampus cat asked. “The fight hasn’t even started.”
Tick tried to think of a snappy comeback, but the sight of the razor sharp blade, longer than he was tall, seemed to glue his mouth shut.
“You’ll need something to defend yourself with,” his father said, still not lowering his weapon. “What’s your weapon of choice?”
“I- I’ve never been in a fight,” Tick answered.
Gwinn’s eyes widened with surprise. “Even after all the danger Porter put you in, you’ve never once had to fight someone?”
Tick shook his head.
Gwinn paused for a moment, and then said, “We’ll need to find you a weapon, then.”
“Whenever I got in trouble before, I just sang,” Tick told him, hoping it would count for something. “People do what I tell them to when I sing.”
A thoughtful look passed over the wampus cat’s face. “The Angel’s Voice,” he said, more to himself than to his son. “Yes, I’d forgotten all about that.”
“You already knew?” Tick asked. “How?”
“It doesn’t matter,” the cat-man said with a wave of his hand. “Show me your voice. Sing for me.”
Tick hesitated. If his voice worked on Gwinn like it did everyone else, then it should force him to do whatever Tick told him to. An idea began to form in his head.
“Put away your sword,” he said, drawing out his words and moving his voice up and down just enough for it to sound like singing. Immediately, Gwinn’s face took on a vacant expression. As if moving in his sleep, he reached behind his back and sheathed his sword. Tick smiled. It was working!
“Put me on your back,” he continued to sing. It didn’t matter if it was a real song or not. If he said it in his singing voice, it worked the same. Gwinn did as commanded, and picked Tick up and placed him on his back once again.
“Take me back to Porter and Sarah,” he concluded.
“Back to Porter and Sarah,” the wampus cat echoed, as if he thought this were a splendid idea. He turned back in the direction they’d come from and set off at a brisk trot. Then he stopped, a puzzled look on his face. “Back to… Porter and Sarah?”
“Yeah,” Tick answered, but immediately realized his mistake and said it again in song. “Yes, take me back to Porter and Sarah.”
“Not back… to… Porter and Sarah,” Gwinn argued, his voice still distant, as if he were half asleep. “Staying here.”
“Take me back to Porter and Sarah,” Tick musically insisted, “as fast as you can.”
“Not… going…” Gwinn continued to argue. With that, he reached back and plucked Tick off of his back and placed him on the ground again. He took a deep breath and shook his head.
“Your voice is even more powerful than I thought,” he said a few seconds later, still sounding a bit lost. “It took all of my willpower to resist.”
Tick wanted to be frustrated, but instead he found his curiosity piqued.
“I didn’t know you could ignore it,” he said.
“It’s difficult, but possible,” Gwinn replied. “The Angel’s Voice isn’t a form of mind control. All it does is make what you say sound like a good idea. No matter what you tell me to do, it’s still my decision whether or not to do it.”
“Oh,” Tick said, looking at his feet to consider this.
“Your voice can be used as a weapon,” Gwinn went on. “But just like any other weapon, it can be dangerous in untrained hands.”
“Not if I don’t tell you to do anything dangerous,” Tick argued.
“You don’t always have to mean for it to be dangerous,” Gwinn said. “Take what you were just telling me to do, for instance. You told me to get you there as fast as I could.”
Tick nodded, waiting for his father to continue. Instead, Gwinn, motioned to him, encouraging Tick to figure out what could have gone wrong on his own. The chimera shrugged his shoulders.
“What if the quickest route possible to Porter and Sarah had been over a cliff?” Gwinn asked, frowning.
“Oh!” Tick exclaimed, standing a little straighter. “You would have gone right over it!”
“Exactly,” his father confirmed. “You must always be wary of what you command someone to do with the Angel’s Voice, because once they give in they will be powerless to stop themselves.”
“But wouldn’t they be still be smart enough to know that jumping off a cliff is a bad thing?” Tick argued.
“Not necessarily,” Gwinn explained. “Like I said, the Angel’s Voice doesn’t control them, it just makes them want to obey you. Even if my conscious mind knew jumping over the cliff was a bad idea, the fact that you had led me there would make me think it was a great idea. It would still be my choice, but the only thing I would take into consideration was the order you’d given me.”
“I could tell you not to go over the cliff,” Tick persisted, not willing to back down. He could tell that his father was less than impressed by him, and… it hurt. The giant six-legged cat had stolen him from his friends, which he was still bitter about, but at the same time Gwinn was his father, and he wanted to make him happy. Maybe he would be impressed if Tick could, at least, argue with him.
“That would confuse me, though,” Gwinn argued back. “In my mind, I would have been given two contradicting commands. You wanted me to take you to your friends as quickly as possible, but you also don’t want me to take the quickest possible route.”
“And what would that do?” Tick asked.
Gwinn shrugged. “Hard to say. I might adapt to the new command, or I might ignore it. Then again, it might break the spell completely.”
Tick took a moment to absorb this knowledge. There were a lot more rules to his singing voice than he had ever thought.
“Feeling overwhelmed?” Gwinn asked, a hint of a smile on his face. “That’s why I’m here. Let’s assume that your voice is your weapon of choice. From now on, I’m going to train you to use it.”
Not knowing what else to do, Tick nodded his consent. If his singing was as dangerous as his father said, then maybe letting Gwinn teach him how to use it really was the best thing.
“All right,” he said, nodding tentatively. “Where do we start?”
Ozzie moaned when his cloak-stretcher bounced uncomfortably beneath him, causing his ribs to light up with pain.
“Sorry,” Azkular said. “The ground’s a little uneven here.”
“It’s getting dark,” he heard Porter call from the front of the group. “We should stop for the night.”
Everyone gave a collective sigh of relief. They’d covered a lot of ground since escaping from Rayalga, but there was still no sign of the Historians’ Tower. Droma assured them all that they were going the right way, though.
“I know this forest like I know my own forges,” he’d told them. “There is nowhere I can go and not know exactly where I am.”
“Careful,” Faska instructed as he and the djinn lowered Ozzie’s stretcher to the ground. They set him down as gently as they could, but the pressure on his back still hurt him. He gasped, but bit back the sharp complaint that rose to his lips. It wasn’t like they had done it on purpose.
“How are you feeling?” Porter asked, coming to stand over him.
“Have you ever been sat on by an elephant?” the Asian boy asked in reply.
Porter’s eyebrows knitted themselves together. “No,” he said. “Are you—”
“Then I don’t think I can explain how crappy I feel right now,” Ozzie answered.
Porter just stared at him for a moment, but then he finally broke down and laughed. Sitting down next to him, he shook his head, smiling.
“I can’t believe you’re joking at a time like this,” he said.
Ozzie paused and frowned. “If you could remember when we were in the Slayers,” he spoke slowly, knowing this was a touchy subject for Porter, “you’d probably think the fact that I’ve gone this long without telling a single joke was even weirder.”
Porter’s face tightened, and Ozzie sucked in a quick, painful breath.
“I don’t remember, though,” Porter finally whispered. “You said you were my best friend in the Slayers. What was it like?”
“Being in the Slayers?” Ozzie asked.
Porter shook his head. “No, being friends. What did we do all the time? What did we talk about? What was it that made us friends?”
Ozzie rested his head on the ground again, taking his eyes off Porter, and thought for a minute.
“You know,” he said at last, “it’s weird, but now that I think about it, the Slayers might have been the only reason we were ever friends at all. We never had all that much in common. You were always so serious, and I was always laughing and pulling pranks. The only time it looked like you enjoyed being with me was when we sparred.”
He sighed, and turned his head to look at Porter. “The reason we were so close is because we trained together. We both joined the Slayers on the same day, so Mortoph made us partners. We did everything together after that. Training, eating, sleeping. We even shared a room. It made a connection between us that probably would never have formed otherwise. We never left each other’s side.”
Porter thought on this for a while, and then asked. “Then why weren’t you with me when I…” he paused. “When I attacked Sarah’s house?”
Ozzie grimaced. “Because you were promoted before I was. You became a full-fledged Slayer when I was still learning the basics. They started sending you out on missions, but I had to stay at Red Castle and train.”
“Oh,” Porter said, looking away awkwardly.
“I was happy for you,” Ozzie quickly amended. “And whenever I felt jealous, it spurred me to train even harder so that I could join you out there.”
He sighed again, and rolled his head to look up at the stars that peeked between the tree branches.
“Of course, when they finally decided to test me in the field, it was to track you down after you went missing. It was weird. I was scared for you. My best friend had gone MIA chasing a dangerous monster,” he paused, and gave Porter a wary glance. “Sorry, what Mortoph said was a dangerous monster, and we had no idea if you were even alive. But at the same time, I was happy. I finally got to leave the castle. If I managed to rescue you, that’d be even cooler. But that was before all this,” he looked around the camp, “started happening.”
The two of them sat in silence for a few minutes. Behind them, Ozzie could hear Azkular lighting their campfire with his magical flames, and he welcomed its warmth. He turned his head the other way, and saw Misty lying on the other side of camp, her eyes trained unblinkingly on the two of them.
“Hey, Ozzie,” Porter said softly, bringing his attention back to him. “If you hadn’t found out that your sister was a werewolf, would still have left the Slayers?”
Ozzie gave his sister another quick glance, and then shook his head.
“No,” he answered. “Definitely not. I was raised to be a Slayer through and through. I hated the Mythics. The only thing I wanted was for them to die. If Misty hadn’t reappeared like she did, I don’t think I ever would have snapped out of it.”
He waited for Porter’s reply, but received none.
“But I’m glad she did,” he continued. “Reappear, I mean. And not just because she’s my sister. Since I joined you guys, I figured out just how wrong I was about them. They’re not monsters. They’re just people.”
Ozzie paused, and thought back on a conversation he’d had just before he’d gone to track down Misty.
“You know, Granger said something like that, too,” he said.
“Granger?” Porter repeated in surprise. “You mean that guy with the beard and katana?”
Ozzie blinked. “I can’t believe I just heard that come out of your mouth.”
“Because you used to worship that guy.” Ozzie shrugged as best he could. “But anyway, yeah, him. Just after Mortoph destroyed the mountain, he came to me and said that. He told me that he didn’t think Mythics were evil. The problem was that they’re too dangerous. If we tried to let them live alongside us, they might turn on us, and we’d never be able to stop them. He said it was safer for the entire human race if we just killed them off.”
“That’s stupid,” Porter snapped as if it had all been Ozzie’s idea. “The Mythics are the ones being oppressed here. If they hate us, it’s the Slayers’ fault.”
“I know that,” Ozzie agreed. “But the others don’t. Think about it: when I was four, my dad got killed by a satyr. He hadn’t done anything to provoke it, it just thought it was in danger and fought back. But I was just a little kid back then. I didn’t know what self-defense was. The way I saw it, the satyr had killed my dad for no reason. That made it a monster. And when the Slayers told me there were monsters like that all over the world, I immediately assumed that they were all the same.”
For a minute, Porter didn’t say anything. The only sound Ozzie could hear was the crackling of their campfire and the soft conversations of his other friends.
“They’re not all bad guys either, then,” Porter finally said, breaking the silence. “The prejudices go both ways. The Slayers think the Mythics are bloodthirsty monsters, and the Mythics think the Slayers are homicidal maniacs.”
“Kinda hard to convince them otherwise when they only ever see the side that their leaders want them to see,” Ozzie agreed.
“Well, then that’s what we’ve got to do,” Porter said decisively. “We’ve got to show both sides the truth. Then they’ll realize there’s no reason to keep fighting.”
“Starting with the lies Mortoph’s been telling them,” Ozzie added.
Porter nodded. “When they find out he’s tricked them into joining the Slayers, they’ll be more open to listening to us.” He stood up. “Get some sleep. We’ve got a lot to do, and we need you to heal as soon as possible.”
As Porter walked away, Misty rose to her paws and came to join him.
“Hey,” he said in greeting.
“Hey,” she replied.
They stared at each other in awkward silence for a bit, and then Ozzie finally worked up the courage to say what was on his mind.
“You came to my rescue today.”
Misty looked away, and Ozzie was sure that if wolves could blush, she would be right then.
“I couldn’t just let that giant chicken kill you, could I?”
Ozzie hesitated, and swallowed nervously before asking, “So, does this mean you finally believe me?”
Misty shot him an angry look, but the anger melted away and she sighed. “Ozzie, I… no, I don’t. I’d love it more than anything if you were my brother, but I’ve been hurt so many times already that I can’t trust anybody. If I believe you, what’s to stop you from turning around and hurting me too?”
“I would never hurt you!” Ozzie insisted.
“I want to believe you!” she insisted. “But I just… I don’t know… I have to think about it.”
Ozzie looked at her with big sad eyes, the farthest thing in the world from the manic smiles he always wore before, and he nodded.
“All right,” he agreed. “Think about it. Take as much time as you need.”
Misty turned to go back to the spot where she’d been before, but stopped when she heard Ozzie calling her name. She turned around, unsure of what else he would have to say to her.
“Thank you,” he said.
With that, he closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift off to sleep.
Porter stared absently into the fire as the night wore on. All around him, he could hear his friends preparing to go to sleep, but he didn’t stir. As he stared into the flames, which were blue tonight thanks to Azkular’s magic, he began to imagine that he was seeing Glenda, her gentle eyes staring at him.
My foster mother? He found himself wondering for the hundredth time. It was so hard to believe. Not just that the woman who had raised him as a child was still out there, but that he would run into her so conveniently. Still, if she was telling him the truth, what did he have to complain about? He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn’t notice when somebody came to sit down next to him until they spoke.
“Djinnfire has many qualities that normal fire doesn’t,” Azkular said.
“I kinda figured,” Porter agreed, not taking his eyes off of the flames. “It’s magical, right? There had to be something special about it.”
“Indeed,” Azkular said, nodding. “But the quality that I was referring to is the ability to show you what you most desire.”
Porter said nothing, only stared into the fire as Glenda’s lips rose up in a kind smile.
“Knowing you,” Azkular went on, “I’d have thought you’d see Sarah. Who is that woman?”
Porter jumped and felt his face go red with embarrassment, and he finally wrenched his gaze away to look at the djinn. “You mean you can see her too?”
“Only because it’s my fire,” Azkular answered. “If the others were to look, they’d see only their own desires.”
Porter sighed, and resisted the urge to look back into the flames again.
“Her name is Glenda Moore,” he said. “Sarah, Ozzie, Misty, Manchi, and I met her in the mines while we were escaping.”
“And what is she to you that you would see her in my fire?”
“She’s…” Porter hesitated, his cheeks going red again. “She says she’s my foster mother.”
He expected Azkular to rebuke this and tell him not to be so gullible. Those very thoughts had passed through his head a hundred times already. The idea that she would be in the exact place at the exact time that he needed her to save him was… it was just too perfect.
To his surprise, though, the djinn nodded.
“It makes sense,” he said. “I’ve met Glenda the few times I went to the mines. She told me that she had once lost a son to the Slayers. A human son.”
“But what makes you think it was me?” Porter asked.
“Did she greet you by name?” Azkular asked back. “Without you having to introduce yourself?”
Porter thought for a moment, and then nodded. “Yeah, she called me Porter before I’d even said anything to her.”
“Then what else do you need?” Azkular asked, and then stood up. He clapped the young man on the shoulder. “Take my advice, Porter. When you receive a blessing, don’t question it.”
Porter gave the fire another look, and this time he saw himself standing with Glenda. A small smile rose to his face, and he nodded.
“All right,” he said, turning back to the djinn. “Thanks.”
Azkular was about to walk away when a something occurred to Porter that he hadn’t thought about already.
“Hey,” he said, stopping the djinn. “I thought you said that you’d die if you regrew your leg all at once. How did you do it?”
Azkular turned back to face Porter, and for once he thought he saw a smile on the djinn’s face.
“That’s just something else you’ve taught me, Porter. When the ones you care about need you, you have to do whatever it takes to help them. You all needed me to be at my best, and so I was.”
“I don’t get it,” Porter said. “You can’t do things you’re not supposed to be able to do just because you need to do it.”
Azkular’s eyebrows rose. “Are you sure about that?” he challenged him. “Think about every fight you’ve been in that looked hopeless. Somehow, you always managed to come out on top. Not because something special happened that gave you the ability to do it, but because Sarah, or Tick, or even I was in trouble.”
Porter sat back and thought on this.
“You fought Drake Mortoph and survived,” the djinn insisted. “You broke me out of Reaper’s Wait. You’ve done things that have impressed even me, and believe me when I say, Porter Collins, that I’m a difficult man to impress.”
Without another word, Azkular turned and walked away, leaving Porter to stare into the djinnfire again. Glenda still smiled at him, himself standing by her side. Yearning filled his heart.
Foster mother. He thought, resisting the urge to reach into the fire and take her hand. Mother.
This time, he wasn’t caught off guard when somebody came to sit next to him.
“Sarah,” he greeted her as the sphinx lay her lion’s body on the ground beside him. “You should be getting some sleep.”
“I don’t want to sleep,” she said wearily. “I’m afraid of what I’ll dream about.”
Porter was about to ask her what she meant when she spoke up again. “You see her in the fire, don’t you? That woman.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “How did you know?”
“Because I know you, Porter,” she answered. Porter turned to look at her, but her eyes were glued to the fire like his just his had been.
“Azkular thought I’d see you in there,” the boy pointed out.
“You wouldn’t, because you already have me,” the sphinx said. “You’re not someone who would see something he already has. You would see something you wanted to get.”
“I don’t have to look into the fire to see you,” he said, smiling at her lovingly. “I just have to turn my head.”
Porter had expected this to make her feel better. She always smiled when he talked about her like that. Instead, she continued to look into the fire, and sighed. Concerned, Porter leaned forward, and for the first time saw how red her eyes were— as if she’d just got finished crying.
“Sarah,” he asked softly, “what do you see in there?”
Sarah didn’t answer for a minute, and Porter got the feeling that she was biting back some sharp remarks, but he couldn’t figure out why. Finally, she turned to look at him, and he saw fresh tears coming from her eyes.
“It must be nice,” she said, her voice like ice, “to know that at least one person in your family is alive.”
Porter blinked in surprise. All at once, Rayalga’s words to Sarah came back to him.
“Sarah,” he said again, his voice quivering, “you don’t actually think they’re—”
“Of course they are!” the sphinx snapped at him, getting to her paws. “Who else would know better than him?”
Porter got to his feet as well, and stepped forward to give her a hug. “I’m sorry. With everything that happened, I completely forgot.”
Sarah took a step back, evading his arms, her face turning red with anger.
“Of course you forgot!” she accused him. “You found out that your foster mother is still alive. I found out both my parents are dead! Why would you think about me?”
Porter stopped in his tracks, Sarah’s words like a knife to his heart. She looked at him angrily, as if daring him to take another step towards her.
“Please don’t be mad,” he said, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper. “I never meant to hurt you.”
“No,” she agreed, narrowing her eyes at him. “You didn’t want anything to do with me. You wanted me to go through this by myself so you could think about your precious Nana!”
Porter sucked in his breath. Part of him wanted to snap back at her for saying that. The rest of him reminded him that she was upset and obviously not thinking clearly. Yelling back would only push her farther away. Instead, he sat down and motioned for her to do the same.
“Don’t be like this,” he pleaded with her. “Sit down. Let’s talk about this.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Sarah shot back, tears running down her face again. She cast one last resentful glare at the djinnfire before turning and going to the other side of the camp. “Just leave me alone!”
Porter watched her go, but did as she asked. He watched silently as she lay down on the forest floor, turning her head so she was facing away from him, and went to sleep. He turned back to the campfire. Glenda had vanished, and in her place was Sarah, a smile on her face as if she were happy to see him again. He saw himself materialize in the fire next to her, and the two of them pressed their lips together in a loving kiss.
Is it over? He wondered. She’s upset now, but she’ll get over it, right? She still loves me…
Of course, no answers came from the djinnfire. It could show him what he wanted, not tell the future. Even though the Sarah he saw within the flames nodded enthusiastically that, yes, she still loved him, he knew it might not be the truth. Tears were running down his face now as well at the thought of her abandoning him.
He looked into the image of Sarah’s eyes one last time, and then summoned a cold wind to blow the fire out.
NEXT TIME: I bet you all thought Porter and Sarah’s relationship issues were over now that Joseph is gone, huh? Too bad, they’ve both been bitten by the Drama Llama! Hopefully they can work this out before they get to the Historians’ Tower. Can they still be the Protector and the Peacemaker if they can’t even make peace with each other?