“That is absolutely disgusting,” Vega growled.
Granger didn’t reply, but in his head he agreed. They had nearly caught up with their quarry at last. Porter, the sphinx, and all the others were on the very next hilltop, less than a quarter mile away from them. Both the Slayers had stopped to assess the situation, spying on them from afar with binoculars. There were six monsters, in addition to Porter and Ozzie, just as Granger had deducted.
And Porter was kissing the sphinx.
Disappointment rippled through the old man’s body. After all Porter had been through, all Granger had taught him, it astounded him that the boy could still stoop this low.
That creature may have a human face, he found himself thinking, but the rest of it is an animal. How could he possibly…
He stopped himself, the thought too unclean to even pass through his mind.
“Well, looks like your star student just flunked out of class,” Vega mused, standing up again. Granger gave the other Slayer a scowl. “Don’t give me that look, old man. You saw it just like I did. You know what we have to do.”
“Not necessarily,” Granger argued, though he didn’t really believe his own words. “Porter can still be redeemed. We don’t have to kill him.”
Vega pulled out one of his javelins, but this time he didn’t spin it nonchalantly between his fingers— he gripped it so tightly that his knuckles turned white, signifying how eager he was to use it.
“How in the world did you get to be the third-in-command?” he asked, not bothering to mask his distaste. “You’re old, you’re weak, and you’re afraid to take a life.”
Granger opened his mouth to defend himself, but Vega cut him off.
“If you haven’t figured it out after all these years, a Slayer’s job is to kill things. That’s what the word ‘slay’ means. If a Slayer can’t kill his target, he’s useless.”
Even with how much he disliked Vega, Granger couldn’t deny the truth in his words. Besides, Mortoph had made it clear he wanted Porter dead. What right did he have to argue?
Remain loyal, he thought, steeling himself for what he knew would be coming next.
“Very well,” he said with a sigh, drawing his katana. “Let’s get this over with.”
Vega’s face turned upwards in a sadistic smile. “With pleasure!” he agreed, and turned to face their prey again. Porter had stopped kissing the sphinx, thank heavens, but the two of them were still walking side by side. Within moments, they would be over the hill and out of sight again, possibly throwing Granger off the trail.
Luckily, he and Vega were both skilled magic users. Both of them extended their right hands and threw out an invisible tethering spell. The magic flew across the gap between the hills and struck trees on the other side. Granger tugged on his tether, and since the tree was firmly rooted in place, he was sent flying through the air, the magic pulling him to the other hill. Vega was right beside him, his long black coat billowing in the wind. They streaked across the shallow valley, the ground a blur beneath them, until they reached the second hill. Granger released his connection to the tree before he flew into it, hitting the ground and rolling to a stop right in the midst of the group of travelers.
“What the—” Porter exclaimed in shock, spinning around to face the old man.
“Slayers!” the djinn shouted in alarm, rushing forward to intercept Vega, both of his scimitars in hand.
Granger leaped to his feet and swung his katana in a wide, graceful arc that should have severed Porter’s head from his shoulders. Instead, his sword was deflected with a loud CLANG. Surprised, Granger took a defensive step backwards. Porter shouldn’t have had time to summon his sword and block that attack. In fact, the boy hadn’t even moved. Granger looked at his neck, and saw that a band of metal had appeared around it. Before his eyes, the band expanded around his entire body, becoming a full suit of armor.
“Impossible!” he exclaimed, but then he was forced to defend himself as Porter came at him with his sword.
This was not the first time he and Porter had fought. Just like before, Porter’s moves were quick and powerful, more than enough to defeat any regular opponent, but Granger’s skill and experience still put him safely out of harm’s way. Porter swung his sword at the old man’s chest, but Granger speedily sidestepped his blade and swung another attack at Porter’s shoulder, hoping to damage his fighting arm. His blade bounced off the armor again, though, not even leaving a dent.
To his right, Granger saw Vega taking on the djinn with a javelin in each hand. The djinn jumped and spun and hurled fire, and the Slayer jabbed, parried, and blocked with just as much skill, leaving the two of them in a hectic stalemate. The giant came to assist the djinn, swinging a massive axe at Vega with enough power to cut a tree in half, but the Slayer back flipped and landed on the blade, attempting to stab its wielder in the chest. Granger turned his attention back to Porter just as the armored young man darted in again, this time trying to stab him in ribs. Just like before, Granger knocked his blade aside and made another attack that was deflected harmlessly off his armor.
“I thought we were even!” he heard Porter yell, his voice muffled by his helmet. “I let you live, so you let me go!”
Granger blanched a bit, and hoped that Vega hadn’t heard him. The other Slayer was pouring all of his concentration into his own fight, though, and gave no indication that Porter’s words had reached his ears.
“I am loyal to the Slayers,” the old man retorted, blocking another strike. “I must follow the Master’s commands!”
He half expected Porter to reprimand him like before, telling him that he could choose to be whoever he wanted. Instead, the young man charged at him again, lashing out three times. Granger managed to block all of the attacks, but he couldn’t deny that Porter’s strength was incredible. His armor must have been giving him strength.
“Last chance,” he said, his eyes glaring at him from behind the helmet’s slit. “Run away and don’t come after us again!”
“I can’t do that!” Granger shot back, another attack bouncing off Porter’s armor. “I have to obey!”
Then Granger felt the air shift, and then a sudden burst of wind plowed into him from behind, throwing him off balance. Porter darted in to attack again, but Granger managed to right himself and held out his sword defensively. At the last moment, though, Porter changed his tactic. He spun to his left, using his momentum to strengthen his next blow. Granger jumped back out of the way, but was hit with another strong gust of wind that threw him backwards until he struck a tree. He fell to the ground, dazed.
Porter came at him again. If he had been fighting a less experienced foe, Granger’s momentary incapacitation would probably have been enough for the boy to finish him off. Granger, however, had fought hundreds of battles, and was able to react with the speed of a seasoned warrior. Though his head was still spinning from his collision with the tree, he managed to put one foot underneath him and roll out of Porter’s way. Once he was a safe distance away, the old man stood up, his dizziness already fading, and swung his sword. He was out of range of striking Porter, but he took a cue from Porter’s earlier tactic and sent a lightning spell up the length of his blade, hurling it at his opponent. It struck Porter on the chest, the electricity travelling all over his armor to give him a massive shock. He cried out in pain, and then collapsed to one knee, breathing heavily.
“Yield, Porter!” Granger commanded, keeping a safe distance away from him. “This doesn’t have to end with your death!”
Porter didn’t respond. He weakly tried to rise up, but Granger’s lightning bolt had sapped his strength for the moment. He did manage to look up and give the Slayer one last glare, though.
Granger sighed, but lifted his katana. “Very well, then. Just know that I didn’t want to do this.”
He energized his blade with another lightning bolt. He couldn’t puncture Porter’s armor, that much was obvious, but it still conducted electricity like normal metal. One more good shock would be enough to finish the boy off. Granger wanted to look away so he wouldn’t have to see Porter die, but he forced himself to watch. Porter had been his student. His failure was Granger’s fault. The lease he could do was watch him die. He swung his sword, and unleashed the lightning.
Suddenly, there was a blinding flash, and Granger had to close his eyes to keep them from burning. The hair all over his body stood on end as his bolt was dissipated, sending waves of static electricity over everything. When he opened his eyes, he found that Porter was no longer alone. The djinn that had, just moments before, been fighting Vega now stood between him and the young man. The giant was currently keeping the other Slayer occupied on its own now. With every attack, a new weapon would appear in its hands, forcing Vega to remain completely focused on it to avoid being skewered.
“Nobody hurts my friends,” the djinn growled, holding its scimitars in front of itself threateningly.
Granger was taken aback for a moment. Then, with a gruff sigh, he hefted his sword again. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
The djinn lunged at Granger, trying to scissor its twin blades around the old man’s neck, but Granger countered the attack with an upward sweep of his katana, knocking both scimitars away. His sword continued its upward arc and then came around to his right, going straight from defense to offense in the same move. Granger’s ability to chain together multiple attacks or defenses into a single long, fluid movement was his signature fighting style. The djinn blocked this attack with one blade and swung his other up to cleave open the old man’s neck. Granger allowed his sword’s momentum to be diverted and followed it, ducking underneath the monster’s scimitar and following up with another attack. The djinn back flipped up and over Granger’s katana, landing ten feet away.
“You know,” the djinn taunted him. “I never got to repay you for spoiling our ambush on Mortoph.”
“You should be thanking me,” Granger replied, refusing to react to the creature’s taunts. “Nobody can defeat Master Mortoph.”
He charged at the djinn, already swinging his sword. It met both of the djinn’s blades with a CLANG that sent painful vibrations up his arm, but he didn’t let go.
“I saved both of your lives that day!” he said, and shoved the djinn, throwing it off balance for a moment. Granger took advantage of this and slashed three times at its chest. The first two were knocked aside, but the third one found its mark, cutting a long, thin scratch into the monster’s skin. Granger only had a moment to savor this minor victory, though, before a jet of flame shot from the wound, striking him in the chest and flinging him backwards. He skidded across the forest floor until he drove his sword into the earth and used it to pull himself back up.
“That’s not what it looked like to me,” the djinn said, walking towards him. The cut was already healing itself, closing up until the djinn’s fiery innards were hidden again. “I saw Porter defeat you, and then spare your miserable life.”
Granger focused on the djinn, who was eyeing him like a butcher trying to decide how to properly carve a hunk of meat, and raised his katana into a defensive position just as it came at him again. He successfully blocked another barrage of attacks, but couldn’t manage to wound the djinn again. It was stronger than he was, and it had two blades to his one, but Granger had the advantages of speed and finesse on his side. The two of them moved with equal grace and skill, unable to find a fatal flaw in the other’s technique. It was a battle of endurance, the old man surmised. The first one to tire and make a mistake would be the one to die. Unfortunately, Granger knew only too well how that would end. He may have been a better fighter than most men half his age, but he was still human. His age was catching up to him, and even as he parried and struck at the djinn, he could feel himself gradually tiring. The djinn, on the other hand, had the power of its magical blood to energize it. As Granger’s movements slowed, his opponent’s only became faster. It was only a matter of time before he would react a fraction of a second too late and have his head removed.
Vega must have realized this as well when the elf joined the fight, coming in from the side and spinning his bowstaff like a baton. Vega was barely able to dodge the blow without being knocked senseless. Granger, it seemed, was fighting the best warrior in the group, but Vega was simply outnumbered. This fact wasn’t lost on him.
“Granger, fall back!” he suddenly ordered, leaping into the air and rolling over the flat of the giant’s sword as it swung at him again.
Granger didn’t need to be told twice. While a defeat like this would likely sting Vega’s pride worse than any injury he received, Granger wasn’t ashamed of retreating. If one died fighting a hopeless battle, he lost any chance of making up for his failure later. Blocking another flurry of the djinn’s blades with some difficulty, Granger leaped away from his foe and turned to run just in time to see Vega do the same thing. The other Slayer magically tethered himself to a tree on the hill they had previously been on and flew away. Granger did the same, latching onto a tree and yanking himself toward it. Just as his feet left the ground, though, another strong gust of wind sprang up, blowing him off course and breaking his connection with the tree. The wind picked up even more, raising him further off the ground. He thrashed and flailed around with less dignity than he would have liked, trying to find something to grab hold of, but then the wind suddenly reversed direction, blowing him straight down until he crash landed on the forest floor.
Pain lanced through the old man’s body. That wasn’t a blow he could just shrug off. For a brief moment, Granger hoped that Vega might come back and rescue his fellow Slayer, but then he reminded himself who he was thinking about. As the shadows of unconsciousness crept into his vision, he saw Porter and the others come to stand over him.
“What should we do with him?” the sphinx asked.
“I don’t suppose you’ll let me kill him this time?” the djinn suggested.
“No,” Porter answered, taking a step closer to him. “We’re going to…”
But then the boy’s voice drifted away as painful sleep overtook Granger’s mind.
“All right, son,” Gwinn said. “Try it.”
Tick nodded, standing ten feet away from his father, and began to sing.
“Bring me the rock over there,” he warbled. The song was only one line, but he sang it over and over again, drilling the musical command into his father’s head.
As always, Gwinn’s gaze went vacant when he heard his son’s voice. Falling down to walk on all six legs, he turned to the right and began running his paws across the forest floor, searching for a rock. When he didn’t find one, he took a couple steps and searched again. Finally, when he was sure it wasn’t going to work, Tick stopped singing. Gwinn stood up straight again, which for him meant raising his two front legs off the ground, and turned to look at Tick.
“You didn’t bring it to me,” the boy said, disappointed.
Gwinn shook his head to clear it. “You weren’t being specific enough. I didn’t know which rock you wanted me to bring you.”
“But you saw me put the rock over there,” Tick protested, pointing to the aforementioned stone. He’d placed it in plain sight, but Gwinn had gone in the complete opposite direction.
Gwinn had been training his son hard for the past couple days. While singing wasn’t exactly a strenuous activity, Tick had already learned that using the Angel’s Voice repeatedly would slowly drain him of energy. It was less tiring than running, but more so than walking, like taking a long jog.
“Yes,” Gwinn agreed, “but you didn’t tell me to pick up the rock you put over there. You didn’t even specify where ‘over there’ was. You left it up to me to decide which rock to bring to you, so I started looking for one in a direction I chose myself.”
Tick looked down at his feet, embarrassed. It sounded so obvious when Gwinn said it like that, but when Tick was actually doing it, all the rules and limitations became a lot more complicated. Not even an hour ago, Tick had somehow convinced his father that climbing a tree would be the best way to find water to drink. He was beginning to wonder if he would ever learn to use his voice properly.
“Try again,” Gwinn ordered, sounding strikingly unconcerned about his son’s self-doubts. “But move the rock first.”
“Why?” Tick asked, moving to pick up the rock.
“So that I won’t instinctively know that you’re referring to the rock we were just talking about,” he answered. “You’ll have to direct me to it yourself.”
If you didn’t know which rock I meant before, Tick grumped to himself as he picked up the fist sized rock and moved it to a new location, why would you know now?
He kept his mouth shut, though, and returned to where Gwinn was waiting for him. The wampus cat nodded, and Tick began to sing again.
“Bring me the rock you just saw me move.”
Again, he repeated the song a few times as Gwinn’s eyes went vacant, and this time his father immediately turned and retrieved the stone. Tick’s face lit up with happiness as the cat-man deposited the rock at his feet. He’d done it! He stopped singing, feeling slightly winded, and Gwinn took a moment to recover his senses.
“Not bad,” he said. Tick felt his spirits begin to sink. Not bad? Gwinn had done exactly as he’d been told! Reading the disappointment on his son’s face, Gwinn picked up the stone again and threw it over his shoulder without looking to see where it landed. “Now I don’t know where it is. If you want me to get it for you, you’ll have to guide me right to it.”
Tick gave an annoyed huff, but nodded.
Tick quickly began to think. His father didn’t know exactly where the rock had landed, so Tick couldn’t just tell him to pick up the rock he’d just thrown. Finally, taking a deep breath, he began to sing yet again.
“Turn around,” he sang, moving his voice up and down in pitch. Gwinn did as commanded. Tick looked past him, and made a quick estimate of how far the rock was from them. “Take four steps forward, and then turn right.”
Again, Gwinn did as he was told. For a moment, Tick was worried that the wampus cat, with his six legs, would count steps differently than he did, but the abnormal creature went exactly as far as Tick had intended him to. Then he stopped and looked curiously back at his son, awaiting further orders.
“Turn to your left,” Tick continued singing, knowing that if he waited too long between commands the spell would wear off. “Pick up the rock on the ground. Bring it to me.”
Once, again, Gwinn dropped the rock at the boy’s feet. Tick grinned, looking up at his father with pride. Surely there was nothing the cat could criticize this time, right? He’d commanded him just like Gwinn had instructed, and it had worked. That had to be worth a “good job, son,” right?
“Why are you breathing so hard?” Gwinn asked instead.
With a jolt, Tick realized that he was out of breath. He had been so absorbed in his training that he hadn’t even noticed.
“It’s the singing,” he answered, gasping slightly as he tried to catch his breath. “It makes me tired when I do it a lot. Like I’ve been running.”
He expected his father to brush this off and tell him to grow up. After all, singing wasn’t something that could drain your energy like this, right? Instead, he surprised Tick by nodding.
“All right, then,” he said. “Take a break.”
Tick sat down gratefully, leaning his back against a nearby tree. They had been at this for over two hours. The boy took a few minutes to rest, and then looked back up at his father, who was still towering over him.
“Why does singing make me so tired?” he asked.
“It’s not the singing,” Gwinn answered. “It’s the magic you’re using.”
Gwinn took a step back and began to explain. “Magic comes easier to some creatures than it does others, humans least of all. Since we’re both part human, using magic can be difficult for us. Using it too much will sap our strength. That’s why you feel so tired right now. Even though all you’ve been doing is singing, the magic that your voice carries is making you feel like you’ve just run a mile.”
Tick leaned his head back against the tree and thought about this.
“But,” he said at last, “I’ve seen people use magic before. Porter did it.”
“I didn’t say it was impossible,” Gwinn corrected him. “Just difficult. In fact, the nonhuman parts of us probably make it easier for us to use magic than it would be for Porter.”
He paused, looking into the distance thoughtfully.
“The day we came to rescue you,” he said at last. “Porter used wind magic to make a tornado that knocked out an entire team of slave traders. It was effective, but I think it nearly killed him.”
“What?” Tick demanded, sitting up straight again in alarm.
Gwinn raised his hand. “Relax, son. He’s fine. I’m just saying that that spell was more than he should have attempted. Harnessing that much wind, not to mention keeping it under control for as long as he did, took a lot of effort. He collapsed and almost passed out right after he did it.”
Tick considered this. If what Gwinn said was true, then singing too much over too short a time might have negative consequences. As he thought, another question formed in his head.
“Do you think my voice might be more powerful the louder I sing?” he asked.
Gwinn cocked his head. “Why would you think that?” It wasn’t a denial. Tick had come to know his father enough to understand that when Gwinn answered a question with another question, it meant he wanted Tick to figure it out himself.
“Well,” the boy said tentatively, “it would be louder, and that means more people could hear it.”
Gwinn nodded. “That makes sense. Anything else?”
Tick thought for a moment, and then shook his head.
“You’re right,” Gwinn agreed. “Singing louder would have more of an effect on people than singing softly. But that’s not just because more people can hear it. It’s because you’re putting more strength into your singing, which in turn increases the amount of magic you’re using. However, I wouldn’t recommend trying it.”
“Why not?” Tick asked.
Gwinn raised his furry white eyebrows. “Why indeed?”
Again, Tick began to think. A few seconds later, he looked back up at his father. “Because it would tire me out even faster, wouldn’t it?”
“Exactly,” Gwinn confirmed. “You’ve been singing softly up to this point, and it’s taken only a couple hours to wear you out. If you were to sing louder, you wouldn’t have lasted even this long.”
Tick felt his cheeks turn red. Gwinn probably hadn’t meant it as an insult, but Tick couldn’t help but feel the wampus cat was mocking him for his lack of endurance. He knew that Gwinn had been less than impressed with him over the course of their training. Tick was small, weak, and could never hold his own in a fight. If it weren’t for his voice, he would be completely helpless— and even with that, he’d failed to impress his father.
And it made him mad.
I’ll show him, he thought defiantly. I’ll show him I’m stronger than he thinks!
Taking a deep breath, Tick let out a single long, high note. His voice rang through the forest, singing as loud as his vocal cords would allow him to. There were no words, no commands, just his voice.
In front of him, Tick saw Gwinn’s eyes widen with a mixture of emotions: shock, anger, fear, and dimwitted happiness, all in the space of a single moment. Then, overwhelmed by amount of magic being forced into his ears, the cat-man’s eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted.
Tick stopped singing and stood up, grinning in victory.
“How’s that for strength?” he taunted the fallen cat. “I’m stronger… than you… think.”
Suddenly, the world around Tick turned black, and his energy vanished. He could barely force his lungs to rise as he collapsed to the ground in a heap. Fear crept into his mind as he quickly began to lose consciousness.
What have I done? he thought desperately. I’m going to die!
NEXT TIME: Welp, Tick’s done something stupid. Is he going to survive? What about Porter and Sarah? They’ve taken Granger captive, which might be just as stupid as the stunt Tick just pulled? Who’s stupider? Who’s gonna die first? Now taking all bets!