Vega knelt down and picked up a small bit of dirt between his thumb and forefinger, rubbing them together with a thoughtful expression on his face. After a moment, he stood back up, allowing the dirt to fall from his hand, and turned to his companion.
“We’re getting close,” he announced, a definite hint of pride in his voice. “She was here less than a day ago.”
Granger stood ten feet away, hands tucked into the pockets of his coat, his face as unreadable as ever.
“Good,” the old man said with a nod. “We need to get this done with, before Master Mortoph becomes suspicious of us both.”
“I need to get this done with, you mean,” Vega corrected him. “Master Mortoph ordered me to kill the werewolf. He ordered you to retrieve me.” He looked at the ground, a smug smile on his face. “And looking at things now, I’d say I’m the one closest to completing my mission.”
Granger knew that Vega wanted him to point out that his mission could have been completed days ago if he had just come back with him, but he wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. Instead, he just nodded a second time.
Vega pulled a javelin from his pack and twirled it, eager to put his skills to use.
“I’m a little disappointed, though,” he admitted. “One little werewolf is no match for me. Truth be told, this job is beneath me.”
Granger stepped forward to join his companion and got to one knee a few inches from where Vega had done it a minute ago. He didn’t pick the dirt up like the other Slayer had, he just stared at the ground for a few seconds.
“Well,” he said at last, standing back up, “allow me to ease your disappointment. The werewolf isn’t alone.”
Vega’s eyes widened beneath his sunglasses, and knelt down to examine the tracks again.
“What are you talking about, old man?” he demanded. “There are only—”
“Eight sets of tracks,” Granger finished for him. “The werewolf’s, and then seven others.”
He watched for a few seconds as Vega scrambled around the area, searching for evidence of his partner’s claim. Granger hid a smile under his beard. Vega was only a half decent tracker, while Granger was one of the best in the Slayers ranks. The signs he’d picked up of the other eight tracks would never be visible to Vega’s untrained eyes.
“If I’m reading the tracks accurately,” he went on, earning him an indignant glare from Vega, “then there are two humans, likely teenagers. There is some sort of giant, and two smaller humanoid monsters. A child is with them, but its tracks are so scarce that I would say it is riding one of the others. The werewolf, as you know is with them, as well as a monster with the paws of a big cat.”
Those last two words caught Vega’s attention. “A big cat?” he echoed, his irritation forgotten. “Travelling with a group of humans and other monsters? Then that means...”
Granger nodded. “It would seem that the werewolf Master Mortoph sent you to kill is travelling with Porter and the sphinx.”
Slowly, a manic grin spread across Vega’s face.
“This is perfect, old man,” he exclaimed. “Not only am I carrying out Mortoph’s orders to slay the werewolf, I’ll also take out the traitor and the sphinx that’s been causing us so much trouble!”
A glimmer of concern appeared in Granger’s eyes, and Vega laughed.
“Don’t worry about me. I can handle all of them on my own. In fact, this can be your excuse for not getting me back on time. I picked up the trail of more than one of our targets, and knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up. You decided to tag along with me and help out.”
With a wild gleam in his eyes, Vega turned and continued following the trail. Granger went after him, allowing the other Slayer’s insults to roll off his back. Vega, being the egotistical fool he was, thought that Granger was concerned for his safety. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Granger was worried about Porter.
True, the boy had betrayed the Slayers and everything they stood for. More than that, he seemed to be actively working against them now. Down in his heart, Granger couldn’t really blame him after finding out what Mortoph had done to him. Learning that the person you’ve always been was nothing but a lie was bound to cause some mistrust. Still, he had known Porter better than almost anyone else. He’d been a good person, completely dedicated to doing what he thought was right. That Porter hadn’t been the real Porter, of course, but Granger held on to the hope that the young man could be redeemed. If he could only get the chance to speak to him face to face, surely he could get him to listen to…
“Get down, old man!” Vega hissed suddenly.
Without realizing it, Granger had allowed himself to become lost in thought. Only now did he hear the noises coming from ahead of them. He followed Vega’s instructions and dropped to the ground, hoping he hadn’t already been spotted.
He lay on his belly for a few seconds, listening. The noises were far too loud to have been made by only eight travelers. Granger and Vega exchanged a glance and, both thinking the same thing, began to crawl toward the noise. A hundred feet later, the forest abruptly ended. The two Slayers stopped crawling just inside the line of trees, where they hoped they could stay hidden. In front of them was a cliff, but that wasn’t what caught their attention.
“There’s so many of them,” Vega whispered in awe as an army of monsters marched out of a cave further up the slope. Already, the line was stretched farther ahead of them than they could see, and there seemed to be no end in sight as they continued to flow out of the cliff.
“This is what Mortoph was worried about,” Granger said as he watched them. “He said the monsters were planning something, and he was right.”
“A full on assault,” Vega agreed. “This must be their entire army!”
“We have to return to Red Castle immediately!” Granger said. “Master Mortoph must be made aware of this.”
Vega was silent for a minute, as if he were actually considering this. Then he shook his head.
“No,” he decided. “These monsters have a long way to go before they reach civilization. We still have time to catch up to Porter and the others and complete our mission.”
“Are you insane?” Granger demanded. “A situation like this takes precedence over a single werewolf!”
“Not a single werewolf,” Vega shot back. “An entire band of traitors and monsters that know more about the Slayers than is safe. We have time. We just have to hurry!”
Granger was about to argue further, but Vega crawled backwards and relocated the trail. Granger gave the monster army another look, and then, with a growl of exasperation, followed him.
“The trail leads towards the mountain,” Vega said when he rejoined him.
“We have to alert Master Mortoph of this at once!” Granger insisted. “This is a matter of the utmost—”
“Then send him a mirror message,” Vega spat. “But I’m not going to stand here and wait for you to do it.”
With that, he turned and followed the trail. Granger hesitated for a moment, and then reluctantly went after him. As he walked, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the small mirror he kept with him.
“Master Mortoph,” he told it.
His reflection faded away, and was replaced by the imposing image of his leader seated at his desk. Mortoph was obviously not in a good mood, but Granger hadn’t expected him to be.
“Granger,” he said sternly, “where have you been? I expected you and Vega back days ago!”
“I apologize, Master,” Granger said, bowing his head.
“I don’t want your apologies,” Mortoph growled, and Granger almost believed he could feel a trace of fear leaking out of the sheet of glass. “Have you found Vega yet?”
Granger paused and looked up at Vega, who was walking five steps ahead of him, completely out of view of the mirror. He looked over his shoulder, scowling at Granger, as if daring him to tell the Master what he had done.
“No, Master,” he said at last, looking back at the mirror. “But I found something I believe you will want to see.”
Mortoph raised his eyebrows expectantly.
Granger came to a gap in the trees just beside the mountain and, without a word, turned his mirror to face the army. A few seconds later, he brought the mirror back to himself. Mortoph didn’t seem surprised by this turn of events at all.
“So, that is what they’ve been planning,” he mused, folding his hands in front of his face.
“We’ll have to stop them before they reach civilization,” Granger said. “Otherwise all of our secrets will be revealed.”
“No,” Mortoph said decisively. “Let them come.”
“I…” Granger stopped short. “What?”
“If they are to reveal themselves, let them be revealed as the enemies of humanity,” Mortoph said. “No doubt, when they reach civilization they will attack everything in sight. Allow people to see this, and then we’ll make our move. They’ll be much more willing to trust us that way.”
“But sir,” Granger protested, “how many people will die when the monsters attack?”
Mortoph shook his head. “No war is won without sacrifice, old friend. It will be tragic, but it will also be necessary.”
Mortoph paused, waiting for Granger to state his grudging approval, as he always did. This time, however, the old Slayer could not bring himself to do it. Finally, Mortoph sighed.
“Continue to search for Vega. When you find him, alert him of the situation and then bring him back to base. In the meantime, I’ll use our secret weapon to whittle away the enemy’s numbers so that they won’t do as much damage.”
“Your secret weapon?” Granger asked. “You don’t mean…”
Mortoph smiled wickedly. “Oh yes, my friend. It is time for them to finally be put to good use.”
With that, the image of Mortoph faded, leaving Granger staring at his own reflection once again.
“You heard him,” Granger said, looking at Vega. “We must return to Red Castle immediately.”
“Not until you find me,” Vega shot back. “You told Mortoph that you hadn’t found me yet, so he told you to keep looking. Don’t you think it’d be suspicious if we were both to appear together at base just after telling Mortoph that you hadn’t found me?”
Granger held his emotions in check, but he knew that Vega was right. He’d unwittingly allowed the other Slayer to trap him in a corner. He had two choices: either continue travelling with Vega until he completed his mission, or return now and be branded as a liar. Mortoph was not known for being merciful to those who lied to him.
“You’re in luck, though,” Vega said, examining the dirt he was kneeling over. “It looks like we’ll be moving away from the monsters’ army.”
Granger couldn’t help but take another look at the hundreds of creatures marching out of the mountain, not fifty feet away from him.
“There’s a ring on the ground right here,” Vega explained. “I guess Porter and the others weren’t very popular with the freaks in that mountain either. They teleported away.”
“Can you trace the spell?” Granger asked quietly. Knowing that he would have to spend even longer in this insufferable fool’s company was doing more to lower his spirits than he liked.
Vega looked at him, offended. “Of course I can! That’s kid’s stuff.”
Going to the edge of the ring left by the teleportation spell, Vega traced two fingers around the circumference. As he went, the circle began to light up with yellow light, though it was an uglier, less brilliant yellow than it originally had been. Reusing a spell was like trying to suck power out of a battery that was almost dead. It would work, but not for very long, and it could be far less effective than casting a new one. If the teleportation ring were to run out of energy before Vega was through completing the spell, there was no telling what would happen. At best, they would be left standing where they were. At worst, part of them might be transported away while the rest stayed where it was. Still, if Vega was determined to keep chasing Porter and the werewolf, this was his only choice.
“Hurry, old man!” Vega snapped. “I can’t hold the spell for much longer!”
For a moment, Granger was tempted to let Vega continue on his own. Perhaps the spell would malfunction and kill him. But then the image of Vega ramming a spear through Porter’s chest appeared in his mind, and he found himself stepping into the ring.
“Hold onto your beard,” Vega instructed as walls of putrid yellow light rose up around them.
Grief weighed heavy on Sarah’s heart, making her paws drag across the forest floor as she trudged behind her friends. The sun had risen, bringing with it warmer weather than they’d had in weeks. The others were enjoying it, relieved to be free of the biting cold if even for a day, but Sarah couldn’t bring herself to notice.
My parents are dead, she would remind herself every time a warm sunbeam alighted on her body, darkening her mood and depressing her even further.
All the happiest memories of her parents ran incessantly through her mind. Her father teaching her magic. Her mother doing her hair. Both of them surprising her with a cake for her birthday. Tears stung her eyes, but she refused to let them out, not in front of the others. She chanced a look forward, and saw Porter walking at the front of the group, behind Droma. His movements were sluggish, as if he’d hardly slept at all the previous night.
He didn’t deserve to be treated that way, the small, quiet voice of her conscience spoke to her. Sarah knew it was right. Porter hadn’t meant to ignore her. There was just as much going on in his life as hers.
Still, the bitter side of her argued, it shouldn’t have been hard for him to think about me at least once. He’d found out his foster mother was alive. She’d found out that both of hers were dead. He should have been happy, but instead he was brooding, lost in thought about how he could get to see his nana again. He couldn’t even spare a moment to help comfort her.
You are being selfish! her conscience accused her. You’re upset about your parents, and you’re taking it out on him!
She raised her head again, and for a moment she felt sorry for him. It had been wrong for her to lash out at him, and now he was miserable because of it.
You need to apologize to him, the little voice said. NOW!
Sarah bit her lip, trying to think of what she could say. What apology could make up for the way she’d treated him? As she thought, a memory of something her mother had once told her drifted to the front of her mind.
“An apology is a confession that you’ve done something wrong, and a plea for forgiveness,” she’d told her daughter. “Not a speech about how sorry you feel.”
However, instead of spurring Sarah on to apologize, it brought on a flood of other memories. Only now, the memories were painful, and they quickly buried the sympathy she’d felt for Porter. She saw all of the things she’d done that had made her parents angry. Every rule she’d ever broken, every cross word she’d slung at them. And how many times had she apologized to them? How many times had she admitted she’d been wrong and asked them for their forgiveness? Not nearly enough, she realized with a sick feeling in her stomach. She’d been a spoiled rotten brat, but they had always forgiven her anyway. They’d always loved her more than anything else. Nothing could have ever changed that, but she’d always taken it for granted. The rules they set up to keep her safe. The mansion they’d built to hide her from the Slayers. Why had she never recognized these things as the blessings they were?
I was a horrible child, she thought miserably.
She walked for another ten minutes, lost in her own misery, before she felt a tentative hand poke her side. A flash of annoyance distracted her from her thoughts, and she turned to see Manchi walking beside her, her eyes timidly pointed at the ground. She took a moment to work up her courage, and then, without raising her head, gave a barely audible, “Um…”
“What is it?” Sarah asked. She didn’t care what Manchi had to say to her, and that only made her feel even worse.
“Never mind,” the little girl said, shaking her head, and trying to walk away.
Sarah groaned, and extended her wing to block Manchi’s way. “Hey, wait,” She said as gently as she could. Manchi turned back to look at her, her mismatched eyes uncertain. “What’s wrong?”
Manchi looked around, as if afraid the others might be listening in, and then came in close to the sphinx again.
“Why are you sad?” she whispered. “Was it what the chicken-cat said back at the mountain?”
Sarah blinked, and almost laughed at this. Manchi was just as new to the Mythic world as Porter had been when this whole adventure had started. To her, “chicken-cat” probably described Rayalga perfectly.
“Yes,” she said softly, nodding. “A lot of things happened before we met you. Rayalga told me that…” she paused, choking up again at the thought, “he told me that both of my parents are dead.”
Without warning, Manchi reached out and hugged Sarah around the neck. It was made awkward because of the fact that they were both walking, but she managed to squeeze her tight for just a moment before releasing her.
“I’m sorry,” she said once she’d let go. “My mom died just a little bit ago, too.”
Sarah paled a bit when she heard this. She’d known this, but had already forgotten about it. Manchi had told them the entire story not four days ago, but apart from her breakdown that night, she’d given no indication of her tragic past. She’d just kept going, day after day, putting one foot in front of the other as she followed her new friends.
How is she so strong? Sarah wondered. Out loud, she asked, “Aren’t you… Don’t you ever feel sad about your mother?”
Manchi nodded, and Sarah didn’t miss the tear that ran down her cheek.
“I miss her,” the little girl said. “I miss her so much it feels like I’m going to throw up. But I can’t let myself think about it too much.”
“Why not?” Sarah asked. It was strange, a sixteen year old asking a girl half her age for advice.
“Because of what she taught me,” Manchi answered. “She said that bad things always happen, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. All I can do is keep on going, and hope things get better.”
She paused, her eyes just as red as Sarah’s now. The words sounded too mature for such a young girl, Sarah thought. That had probably been a direct quote from her mother.
“Mom wouldn’t want me to sit and cry about her,” she continued at last. “She always told me I couldn’t have any friends because of how I looked. But if she’d ever met you guys, I think she’d tell me that if I wanted things to get better I would need to stay with you. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m going with you, and hoping things get better.”
She turned to look at the sphinx. “’Cause that’s what you guys are trying to do, right? You’re trying to make things better for everybody.”
Sarah bit her lip as a wave of emotion washed over her. She nodded.
“Yeah,” she answered, her voice breaking. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do all along.”
“Then I’ll stay,” Manchi said, “and I’ll help.”
Obviously thinking the discussion was over, Manchi picked up her pace and left Sarah behind without another word. Sarah watched her go, her words still ringing in her ears.
“We are doing something to make things better for everyone,” she whispered to herself. “That’s something Mom and Dad would be proud of if they were still alive.”
She thought back to one of the last conversations she’d had with them. They had never been able to understand why she felt the way she did for Porter. To them, every good thing she said about him was because she was in shock. Never once had they ever considered that maybe she was telling the truth…
Or had they?
They had been in the jury the day of Porter’s trial— the trial she had ended up being convicted at as well. The jury had placed their votes, naming both her and Porter guilty. She had always assumed her parents had voted for her innocence, but what if they hadn’t? What if her outburst in the courtroom had finally convinced them, and they’d placed their votes for her condemnation right alongside everyone else? Had they really believed she was a traitor to her people? Or, had they done it out of shame? Were their votes their way of disowning her? Another wave of emotion washed over her, almost strong enough to make her legs give out underneath her. She was low, she was worthless, she was wretched…
The guilt continued to gnaw at her heart, but now she forced herself to think through it. Her parents hadn’t understood the situation like she did. Now that they were gone, maybe they could see things more clearly. Maybe they could finally see inside her heart… inside Porter’s. They were fighting to end the war and make the world safe for the Mythics. Her parents would be proud of her for that.
In the end, there was no way she could really know for sure. They were dead. She’d never be able to hear them congratulate her, or condemn her. The thought still burned a hole in her heart, but now she forced herself to focus on their mission.
Her parents would be proud of her.
She was doing the right thing.
They were going to succeed.
And the first thing she needed to do, she decided, was apologize to Porter for the way she’d treated him.
Porter froze midstep, and turned to see Sarah making her way toward him. Her eyes were red and puffy, and tear trails still staining her cheeks.
“Yeah?” he asked warily.
She looked up at him, paused for a moment, and then asked, “Can we walk together for a while?”
“Sure,” Porter said, nodding, and started walking again. Sarah kept pace beside him. Their silence was palpable, and he swore he could hear his own heartbeat. His palms grew slick with uneasy sweat, and he deftly wiped them dry on his pants.
Why was she here? Why didn’t she say anything? Was she trying to make up? Porter’s pulse spiked a little. Nothing in the world would make him—
“She’s not here to apologize,” Mortoph’s voice interrupted him from inside his head. “She’ll never forgive you for what you did to her.”
Porter pushed the voice away, but it was harder than he expected. Mortoph had been whispering things like that into his ear all day, and they were getting harder to ignore. In fact, Porter was concentrating so hard on keeping the Master Slayer quiet that when Sarah finally spoke again, he’d almost forgotten she was there.
“Can we talk about last night?” she asked.
Porter looked down at her. Her face looked uncertain, yet hopeful. The small flame of hope rekindled itself in his chest.
“So she can whine about her parents some more,” Mortoph taunted him.
“Shut up!” Porter yelled back.
He nodded to Sarah again. “All right, what do you want to talk about?”
Sarah hesitated again, and looked away. For a moment, Porter thought she’d just given up and was going to refuse to speak to him anymore, and his heart sank into his stomach. Then she looked back up at him.
“Do you remember anything about your parents?” she asked. “Anything at all?”
“See? It’s still about her and her parents!”
“No,” he answered. “They were killed before I was old enough to remember anything.”
“That’s so sad,” Sarah said, and it sounded to him like she truly felt sympathetic.
Porter shrugged, trying to look unconcerned. “It doesn’t bother me much. I’ve got enough friends that they’ve made up for it. And I’ve got…” He paused. He was going to say that he had her, but he stopped short. Was that really the best thing to say right now?
Was it even still true?
Beside him, Sarah shook her head. “It’s not the same, though. Friends are great, but they can never replace your family.” She sighed wistfully. “You don’t grow up with your friends like you do with your family. They don’t teach you right from wrong. They don’t watch over you at night when you’re scared. They don’t…”
She paused, seeing the strange look that had come onto Porter’s face. “I’m sorry, I’m not making my point very well, am I?”
Porter shook his head, and Sarah took a deep breath.
“What I’m trying to say,” she said after gathering her thoughts, “is that I understand why you were so overwhelmed by meeting Glenda yesterday. Finding out that someone in your family is still alive after so long must have been… I can’t even imagine it.”
A strange mixture of emotions began to roil inside Porter’s chest, leaving him unsure of how to respond. She was right, finding out Glenda was alive had completely blown his mind. Even if she wasn’t related to him by blood, the relationship the two of them had once shared made her just as much a mother to him as Mrs. Heisen had been to Sarah. On the other hand, he knew that Sarah hadn’t forgotten about her own parents. He could still see the pain in her eyes. Feeling so happy that one of his parents was still alive while his girlfriend cried about losing both of hers… it seemed wrong.
“I’m sorry for ignoring you last night,” he said quietly.
“You don’t have to be,” she replied. “I understand. I mean, yeah, I needed someone to be with me, but I don’t blame you for not doing it. We both got hit hard yesterday.”
Porter shook his head, rejecting her words. “No, it’s my responsibility to make sure you’re all right. That’s why I’m your protector. Ignoring you when you needed me was inexcusable.”
The young man hung his head dejectedly, but gave Sarah a surprised look when he heard her laugh.
“You’re so cute when you’re serious,” she said, a smile on her face. It wasn’t big, but it was genuine. Then she sighed. “Maybe we could both admit that we messed up last night. You ignored me, and I…” she hesitated. “I treated you like crap.”
Suddenly, the candle flame of hope in Porter’s chest erupted into a volcano of happiness. He turned and smiled at the sphinx, and was relieved when he saw her smile back at him.
“I forgive you,” she said. “Will you forgive me?”
Porter came to a halt, and dropped to one knee. Ignoring his companions’ stares, he reached out and wrapped Sarah’s neck in a hug. He felt her put one of her large lion paws on his back, her way of hugging him back while in sphinx form.
“I already have,” he whispered into her ear, tears of happiness running down his face.
In the back of his mind, he heard Mortoph roar in anger, but he ignored it as he leaned his head in for a kiss. Knowing that the Slayer’s plot had failed only made the moment even sweeter.
Vega lowered his binoculars, staring at the two tiny dots on the next hill that were Porter and Sarah.
“That,” he growled, “is absolutely disgusting.”
NEXT TIME: Say goodbye to the Drama Llama, everybody! His visit was short, but I don’t think he’ll be missed. Of course, maybe the Llama of Drama would be preferable to the Vega of… Killing Things with Pointy Sticks (hey, rhyming is hard!). Now the group has two of the highest ranking Slayers less than a mile behind them. Will this be the end of their adventure?