Chapter Twenty Two
“Porter!” Tick cried, sitting upright in terror.
All seemed calm, but the frantic beating of his heart told him differently. Gray clouds obscured the morning sun, bringing a cold wind with it, but no rain yet.
Something was wrong with Porter. He didn’t know what it was, but something horrible had happened to him. In his dreams, Tick had seen shadows and blood, and he’d felt a ghostlike pain, as if somebody was trying to pass their suffering from themselves to him. And he’d heard screams— Porter’s screams. A cold sweat appeared on the little boy’s brow, and he got shakily to his feet.
I’ve got to get to him, he thought, steadying himself on a nearby tree. He was weak and hungry, like he hadn’t eaten in a week. Why? Closing his eyes, he thought back, trying to remember what had happened. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself singing. Gwinn was searching for a rock he had hidden. Gwinn wasn’t happy, and Tick had gotten angry. He’d sung very loudly, and Gwinn had collapsed…
Tick gasped, his eyes snapping back open. There was Gwinn, still lying where he’d fallen. He stumbled his way over on wobbly legs and leaned against Gwinn’s muscular shoulders.
“Dad, wake up!” he urged him, grabbing his shoulder and shaking it as hard as he could.
The wampus cat groaned, and shifted, but didn’t open his eyes. Tick hesitated a moment, and then punched the cat-man’s shoulder.
“Wha- what?” Gwinn asked thickly. He raised his head and opened his eyes. Tick could tell he wasn’t actually seeing anything through them, or his sleeping brain wasn’t interpreting it right.
“Dad, something’s wrong with Porter!” he said loudly, trying to reach his father through his sleep-induced stupor. “We have to find him!”
Gwinn was silent, staring at his son in bewilderment.
“Get up!” Tick thought urgently. “We don’t have much time!”
“What are you… talking about?” Gwinn mumbled, still trying to focus his sleepy eyes on his son.
“I just had a dream, Dad,” Tick explained. “Porter’s in trouble. We have to go help him!”
“Okay, just don’t… get your tail caught in your… zipper,” Gwinn agreed sluggishly, and tried to lay his head back down.
Oh no you don’t, Tick thought, and kicked his father in the nose.
“Gah!” the wampus cat cried out, eyes flying open. He instinctively tried to stand up, but ended up hitting his head on a low branch. One handing clutching his nose, the other rubbing his head, he stumbled away from his son, promptly tripping over a root and landing on his back. “Wuzzat? What’s going on?”
He paused, taking a few deep breaths, and then finally seemed to see his son.
“Tick?” he asked in bewilderment.
“We’ve got to go, Dad,” he said again. “Porter’s in trouble!”
Giving his nose one last rub, the cat-man stood up again. “What are you talking about?”
“I saw it in a dream,” Tick explained for the second time. “Something’s happened to Porter. He needs our help!”
At first, Tick expected his father to dismiss this as childish nonsense. Instead, he nodded.
“You believe me?” the chimera asked.
“I do,” Gwinn answered. “Dreams can oftentimes be omens, especially to creatures that can use magic. If you think one told you that Porter is in trouble, then he probably is.”
Tick balled his fists, excitement rising up inside him. “Then you’ll take me back to him?” he asked. Even if Porter was in danger, the thought of seeing him again made the boy happy.
To his dismay, Gwinn shook his head. “I didn’t say that,” he answered grimly. “I told you that I’m not letting you anywhere that boy again until you’re full grown.”
It was like the giant cat had pulled a rug out from under Tick’s feet. “What?” he asked in mortified horror. “But he’s—”
“Almost an adult,” Gwinn cut him off. “He can take care of himself.”
“But what if he can’t?” Tick demanded, his face turning red. “What if that’s why I had that dream?”
Gwinn shrugged, and turned to scan the ground. After a moment of searching, he knelt down and picked up the rock Tick had been practicing with earlier and tossed it over his shoulder. “Okay, make me go find it.”
A numb sensation crept over Tick’s body, and he couldn’t stop his mouth from hanging open.
“You’re serious?” he asked in a quiet voice. “You’re… you’re actually going to make me stay here while my friend is in danger? Maybe even dying?”
“Yes,” Gwinn answered with a nonchalant nod. “Now get busy. I want to see some improvement by nightfall.”
Anger burned inside Tick’s chest, so much that he thought he might explode. In the end, he did.
“How about I make you take me to him?” he demanded. “How’s that for practice?”
Gwinn shook his head. “That wouldn’t work, remember? I can resist it if I want to.”
Tick shook his head back at him. “Not if I sing loud enough. When I do that, even you can’t resist it.”
Gwinn’s furry white brow furrowed in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
Tick pointed an accusing finger at his father. “Do you remember what happened before you went to sleep?” He didn’t wait for him to answer. “I sang as loud as I could, and it knocked you out!”
Gwinn’s looked at him, confused, for a few seconds, but then his eyes widened when the memories returned to him. “How could you do something so stupid?” he roared, stepping forward so that he towered over his son. “You could have been killed! What were you thinking?”
Tick wanted to cower before the wampus cat’s anger, but he forced himself to stand up to him— even if he was nowhere near as tall as his father.
“I’m thinking that if you don’t take me to help my friend, I’ll do it again!” he shouted. “I’ll sing even louder this time. It would kill me, right? It might even kill you!”
His threat had the intended effect. Gwinn’s eyes went wide, and he backed away. Not because he was afraid for his own life, Tick knew, but because he knew that his son would really do it. He’d nearly died from the stunt he’d pulled earlier. If he did it again, and sang even harder, there would be no doubt about it. It would definitely kill him.
Gwinn regarded him suspiciously for a few seconds, making sure Tick wasn’t going to do anything rash, and then sat down with a sigh of resignation.
“You are your mother’s child, aren’t you?” he asked.
Tick raised his eyebrows in confusion. Nobody had ever said that to him before.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
Gwinn gave a rueful chuckle and shook his head. “She used to talk to me the exact same way when she wanted something. If she thought something was right, I would have had to tie her down to keep from doing it.”
“She was never like that for me,” Tick replied, thinking back. He remembered her being a good mother, but cautious. They would play together, but she would never let him out around other people. She taught him how to read and write, but had never let him go to school. She had showered him with everything she had thought would make him happy in his life of isolation, but had never once taken a risk that might have revealed his secret.
“I don’t doubt it,” Gwinn replied. “She may have had a caring heart, but lost puppies and homeless people with signs were nothing compared to how much she loved you. It must have been hard for her, but I’m not at all surprised that she threw away everything else to keep you safe.”
Tick looked up at his father, suddenly feeling guilty. She had given all that up for him? How much happiness had he cost her?
Seeing the look on his son’s face, Gwinn quickly backtracked. “Son, you were worth it to her. Given the chance, I’m sure she would choose you all over again.”
Tick tried to hold the cat-man’s stare, but couldn’t. His eyes fell to the ground, trying to hide his shame, and his tail curled shyly around his leg.
“You keep saying ‘she was’, and ‘she did,’” he said at last, keeping his gaze fixed on the ground. “Why?”
Gwinn made a strange sound, and Tick finally looked up to see that now it was his father who had averted his gaze.
“Well, it’s… I mean…” he stammered, at a loss for words. Finally, he squared his shoulders and looked back at his son. “You’re not with her. I found you kidnapped by slave traders after wandering around the forest for over a month with a group of Mythics and humans. I guess I took that to mean, well… that she’s dead.”
Tick was startled to see that Gwinn’s green slitted eyes were red, as if he were fighting back tears.
“She is,” the wampus cat asked, “isn’t she?”
A familiar pain stabbed at Tick’s chest. It wasn’t his wound, which had already healed, it was deeper than that. He clamped his mouth shut, not trusting himself to speak. Eventually, he nodded.
“Yeah,” he said, his voice hoarse as he tried to keep himself composed, “I think she is.”
Without a word, Gwinn closed his eyes and lashed out at a nearby tree. His razor sharp claws sliced easily through its bark, leaving five long gashes in its trunk.
“No!” he shouted at the top of his voice as bits of wood scattered all around him. Then he made a fist and punched the tree. Tick took a step back, convinced that the tree was about to come falling down. It didn’t, but it did rock back and forth violently, groaning at the force of the cat-man’s attack.
Gwinn stayed like that for a few minutes, his fist still pressed against the tree, and his head bowed. He didn’t speak, and Tick was afraid to approach him. The large Mythic quivered as he stood there, and Tick realized that he was trying to hold back his sobs. Tears were running down his face, staining his pure white fur. Then, just when Tick was starting to think he would stay there all day, he turned his head and opened his eyes to look at his son.
“How did it happen?” he asked in a harsh whisper.
“I- I didn’t see it happen,” Tick answered, still trying to speak around a lump of emotion in his throat. “But it was…”
“Tell me, son,” Gwinn ordered him.
“It was my fault.” Tick spat the words out quickly, knowing he would never be able to say them otherwise. “She always told me not to go outside with my tail uncovered, but I hated wearing the baggy pants she used to hide it. S- so one night I waited until she fell asleep and then went outside without them. I was only wearing a pair of shorts…” He stopped, memories of the horrible events that followed rising up in his mind like a rotten corpse that wouldn’t stay buried.
“Keep going,” his father commanded him, unwilling to let his son’s past remain hidden behind the happy memories.
“I was out climbing trees and stuff,” Tick continued, visions flashing before his eyes. Hopping between branches, doing a cannonball into the pond below, thinking there was absolutely nothing to worry about. “A man in a black coat appeared out of nowhere. I didn’t try to hide from him because he’d already seen me. I ran home. He had a sword, and I thought he was going to kill me. He could have caught me, but…”
“But he let you get home,” Gwinn finished for him. He stood up straight, finally taking his fist away from the tree. Tick saw that the white fur on his knuckles was stained red with blood. “Then what?”
“I got inside and woke Mom up,” the boy went on. “I told her what happened, and she grabbed me and ran out the back door. She didn’t take anything with us. She didn’t even change out of her pajamas. We hopped the fence, but the man in the coat was already there. Mom picked me up and ran. We outran him, but then there was another, and then another. They kept appearing in these bright yellow lights. Some of them shot magic at us, and they ended up setting the trees on fire. We got away, but she said we couldn’t go back to our house anymore.”
He looked at his father, trying to read the wampus cat’s emotion, but couldn’t. Gwinn had fixed an icy stare on him, but Tick couldn’t tell if he was angry at the Slayers, or at him.
“We lived outside for a month after that,” he continued, “but then they found us again. There were even more of them this time. They chased us, but Mom already had a plan. There was a circus in town, and she had told me that if they ever found us, she would leave me with them. I… I never thought it would actually happen,” he said with tears in his eyes. “But it did. She brought me to them, and asked them to keep me safe. They all looked human, but I think some of them must have been Mythics because they took me without asking questions, even after they’d seen my tail. They gave Mom a dummy with a white wig, and she ran away without me. I never… saw her… again.”
And that was all he could take. His last word devolved into a pitiful cry, and he lay down on the ground and curled into a ball, holding his knees to his chest. Long, miserable sobs tore from his throat, and the dirt beneath his head slowly turned to mud from all the tears that gushed from his eyes. He wasn’t sure how long he lay there, but eventually he felt a pair of large hands covered in soft fur pick him up. He could feel the strength they contained, enough to crush stones and uproot trees, but right then they cradled him with the all the gentleness of a calm spring breeze. Gwinn hugged the boy to his chest as if he were nothing more than a baby, and for once Tick didn’t mind. He reached out and took two large handfuls of the wampus cat’s fur, burying his face in it.
“It’s okay,” his father said softly, stroking the back of his head. “It’s okay. Just let it all out.”
“I’m sorry,” Tick managed to say between sobs, his voice sounding like he was hiccupping the words. “It was my fault.”
“No,” Gwinn admonished him, “it wasn’t.”
“I didn’t listen to her,” the little boy wailed. “I went outside without hiding my tail. I led the Slayers right to her. She’s dead, and it’s my fault!”
“No,” Gwinn said again, hugging him tighter. “You didn’t know what you were doing. You were just a child. You still are. It was the Slayers’ fault, and it’s… it’s my fault too.”
In his astonishment, Tick forgot to cry for a moment and looked up at his father.
“I should have been there,” he went on, his own eyes clenched shut now to stem the flow of tears. “I never should have run away. I was a coward, and now both my wife and son have suffered for it.”
Gwinn bowed his large head, grinding his teeth together, and began to cry as well. It was strange, watching such a big, tough creature display such a tender emotion. Tears that were twice the size of Tick’s rolled down his cheeks and fell on the little chimera’s head.
“I keep saying I want to keep you safe from danger,” he said with difficulty. “I’ve done nothing for you. I can’t even teach you how to use your voice. You were safer with Porter and Sarah than you ever were with me!”
Porter! In all the excitement, Tick had completely forgotten about him! But as he looked up at his heartbroken father, he found it difficult to interrupt him. These were tears he had obviously held in for years, and he needed to let them out. Gwinn hugged his son even tighter, and the chimera began to feel something for his father that he’d never felt before: a connection. It wasn’t quite love, Tick wasn’t sure he was ready for that yet, but in their shared grief for the passing of Tick’s mother and Gwinn’s wife, they had finally found something they had in common. And it felt better, he realized, than suffering the loss of his mother all by himself.
“We need to help your friend,” Gwinn said suddenly.
“What?” Tick asked in confusion as the wampus cat stood up and placed his son on the ground.
His father sniffed one more time and ran his furry arm over his eyes, wiping away the rest of his tears, and then fixed Tick with a look of fierce determination.
“Porter and Sarah have been taking care of you all this time,” he said, “and they did a better job at it than I ever did. They even helped me rescue you, and then I took you away without so much as thanking them.” He shook his big cat head. “That’s unacceptable. I owe them a debt I can never fully repay, but I’m going to try— and I’ll start by taking you back to Porter so you can help him.”
He paused, as if feeling uncertain about himself. “They’re working against the Slayers too. I want to help them.”
“Because they killed Mom?” Tick asked quietly. The thought of Gwinn tearing through the black coated killers in a vengeful rage was a terrifying image.
Gwinn shook his head. “No. Your mother wouldn’t approve of revenge, especially on her behalf. But they’ve been tormenting the Mythics for too long. Your friends told me they were trying to find a peaceful solution to end the fighting.” He sighed, a faraway look in his eyes. “If there’s one cause I know your mother would fight for, be willing to give her life for, it’s that.”
A warm feeling spread across Tick’s chest, and, for the first time he smiled at his dad.
“All right, then,” he said. “Let’s go make Mom proud.”
With that, Gwinn picked Tick up and placed him on his back once again. Turning back in the direction they’d come from, he charged through the forest at an incredible speed, and Tick had to hold on tight to his fur to keep from flying off. As the trees streaked past him in a blur of brown and green, his heart began to pound harder in excitement.
Don’t worry, Porter, he thought. I’m coming!
Silence flooded the room as everyone watched the young man pass away. Even Vega had stopped throwing his javelins to observe. Sarah knelt over the young man’s body, cradling his head in her arms as she wept unashamedly. From the back of the room, Granger’s grip on his katana tightened, and he clenched his eyes shut. It hadn’t even been ten minutes since he’d switched sides, vowing to help Porter in his noble cause— and he had already failed.
“No way,” he heard Ozzie whisper beside him, shocked to his very core. “He- he can’t be…”
“Porter, please come back!” Sarah wailed. “Come back!”
Another emotion began to pull at Granger’s heart now that he hadn’t felt in a long time: grief. Porter had been a good man, and a great hero. It was fitting that he should die protecting the one he loved most.
But that didn’t make his death excusable.
He turned his eyes on Vega, who was standing at the other end of the hallway, smiling as he looked at his enemies. He could have killed them while they were distracted, but he considered himself above that. He’d rather let the pain settle in their hearts, knowing they had failed to protect their friend and leader, and then send them to join him.
That’s not going to happen, Granger thought with sudden conviction, raising his sword. He stepped forward, passing the speechless Mythics, and knelt at Porter’s side. He reached out and, being careful not to disturb the crying sphinx, pressed his fingers against the boy’s neck. He held no hope that Porter was still alive. The javelin had undoubtedly pierced his heart. Still, he had to know for sure. He had to…
His eyes widened in surprise.
“He’s alive,” he whispered.
Sarah’s head snapped up to look at him. “What?” she demanded.
“He’s alive,” Granger repeated. “His heart is still beating.”
Sarah’s breath caught in her throat, and she quickly moved to feel his pulse herself. She shook her head. “I don’t feel anything.” She looked back at him pleadingly, unwilling to let her thin ray of hope be destroyed so easily.
“It’s there,” Granger promised. “It’s faint, hardly there at all, but it’s there.”
Sarah looked down at Porter, hardly daring to believe it.
“He won’t last long, though,” Granger declared, standing up. “He’s weak, and he’s already lost too much blood. You have to get him out of here.”
“Nobody’s going anywhere,” Vega said, drawing two more javelins.
“Put Porter on your back and carry him,” Granger instructed, ignoring the other Slayer. “You’ll have to hurry if you want to save him.”
Sarah nodded, shifting back to her true form. Azkular came up behind her, gingerly lifting Porter up to set him on her back. The boy’s blood immediately began to stain her fur, but she didn’t appear to notice.
“I will show you the way out,” Droma said, coming to stand in front of them.
“I said nobody’s going anywhere!” Vega said again, moving to stand between them and the way out. “You’ll die before you get past me.”
“No,” Granger said, stepping forward and raising his katana. “You’ll be too busy dealing with me to stop them.”
Vega chuckled humorlessly. “You’re going to take me on alone, old man? Good luck with that.”
With that, Vega drew his arm back and hurled one of his javelins at the other Slayer. Granger reacted with lightning fast reflexes, and swung his sword. The razor thin blade connected with the wooden spear, cutting through it from its tip to its butt so that the javelin was split in half, leaving Granger untouched as the pieces clattered to the ground on either side of him. Before Vega could retaliate, Granger charged at him. Vega managed to draw another javelin, but Granger knocked it aside with his sword and slammed his shoulder into him, pinning him against the wall.
“Go, now!” he commanded the others. Granger was far from in poor shape, but Vega was still stronger than him. He’d be free in a matter of seconds. Luckily, Sarah didn’t hesitate. She ran past Granger, carrying Porter down the stairs and out of their sight. The others hastened to follow, and within moments Granger and Vega were alone.
“Stupid old man!” Vega roared, punching him in the stomach and sending him staggering away. Vega made to go after the runaways, but Granger deftly put himself between the Slayer and the only exit.
“So, you actually did betray the Slayers,” Vega growled, pulling another two javelins from his pack. “I’d point out what a filthy traitor you are, but in all honesty this is exactly what I wanted.”
Vega threw himself at Granger, stabbing one javelin at his stomach, and the other at his throat. Granger moved with the fluid grace he’d always been known for, and deflected both attacks with a single swing. He followed with a second swing aimed at Vega’s neck, but Vega ducked underneath the strike and came up and thrust both spears towards Granger’s chest. Granger leaped into the air, put his foot against the wall behind him, and thrust off of it. His momentum carried him over Vega’s head, and he landed neatly behind him, immediately spinning around and swinging his katana at his enemy’s head. Vega yelped in surprise, and dropped to the ground, rolling out of the way.
“You really shouldn’t call me an old man,” Granger said as Vega got back to his feet. “I’m thirty years older than you, but I’m still the better fighter.”
“Don’t make me laugh!” Vega shot back. He thrust his javelins at Granger in a flurry of stabs, but every one of them was deflected. Unperturbed, he continued, “If you’re the better fighter, then why am I ranked higher than you?”
Granger retreated for a moment, and ran his hand over the blade of his katana, his magic flowing into Droma’s enchanted metals. The sword began to hum just as Vega lunged at him, stabbing at Granger from both directions. Granger leaned backwards, letting the javelins cross harmlessly in front of him, and then gave an overhead swing at Vega’s skull. With a growl, Vega thrust both his javelins upwards, catching the sword in between them. The moment their weapons touched, the magic burst out of Granger’s katana in a deafening explosion of pressure. The javelins in Vega’s hand disintegrated, and the shockwave spread out so far that every window lining the hallway shattered, letting the storm blow into the hallway. Vega was thrown off his feet, but he did a backflip and landed in a crouch, glaring at Granger.
His sunglasses crumbled to ashes.
“You know as well as I do that you can’t stand against me in hand to hand combat,” Granger finally answered him. “You’re only better than me when you have room to throw those things.”
A savage grin rose to Vega’s face. “Then give me a little space, old man!”
Vega feinted like he was going to run towards the exit, and when Granger moved to stop him he sprang in the other direction, flying through the air until he was fifteen feet away from Granger. As soon as his feet touched the floor, he drew two more javelins and threw them.
Granger cursed, and ducked. The first javelin sailed over his head, and he held up his sword so the second one bounced off the blade. Standing back up, he charged at Vega. If the other Slayer managed to keep his distance, he would eventually get a lucky throw— and that was all it would take to end the fight.
Vega cackled, jumping into the air and landing another ten feet away from Granger. With a wave of his hand, a dozen javelins floated out of his pack and flew at Granger.
“It’s over, old man!” Vega shouted.
“Not yet!” Granger shouted back, and swung his sword. A wall of flame erupted in his katana’s wake, burning the spears to ash as they passed through it. With a flick of his blade, Granger caused the fire to vanish, and charged at Vega again—
And two javelins struck him, one in the gut, the other in the thigh.
Granger cried out in pain and stumbled, falling to his knees before Vega. He looked up, powerless to stop the other Slayer from raising another javelin. The spear came down, its master driving it in between his shoulder blades. Granger hunched over in pain, and Vega yanked the javelin out and then stabbed him again.
“I told you you were no match for me!” Vega laughed, kicking Granger in the chest and flipping him onto his back. The former Slayer groaned in pain, his own blood now mixing with Porter’s on the floor. Vega knelt over him and drove the javelin into his chest.
Granger tried to scream, but Vega had punctured his lung with that one. Even as he lay there, the wooden spike protruding from his stomach, breathing became more difficult. Vega smiled, knowing he had won. Reaching down and grabbing the front of Granger’s coat, he picked him up like a ragdoll, holding the dying man out in front of him.
“Before you die,” he said, “I want you to tell me who’s better. Me or you?”
He shook Granger, causing him to moan quietly in pain.
“Who’s better, old man?”
Granger forced his eyes open, and glared defiantly at his enemy
“I am,” he croaked, his voice almost gone.
An incredulous smile rose to Vega’s face. “You still think you’re better than me? I beat you, old man. You’re about thirty seconds away from dying. How are you better than me?”
“I never…” Granger said, struggling to remain conscious, “let go… of my sword.”
Before Vega could comprehend what he had said, Granger used the last of his strength to raise his sword and swing it at Vega’s neck. Vega let out a surprised grunt as the blade slid through his body, slicing through muscle and bone, and came out the other side. His eyes went vacant and his hands went lax, letting Granger fall from his grasp. Granger watched in satisfaction as Vega fell backwards, his head toppling from his shoulders. It rolled a few feet before coming to rest, facing his decapitated body.
I told you, Granger thought as his life slowly eked out of his body. I’m not just an old man.
For the first time in so many years, Granger felt at peace. He’d done something good. He’d helped Porter’s friends escape from the tower alive. Hopefully they would be able to save Porter.
I believe in you, Porter, he thought. You can end this war. You can bring us peace.
And with that, feeling as if a weight had finally been lifted from his chest, Granger closed his eyes and died.
NEXT TIME: Vega’s dead, and Granger’s redeemed himself. Neither of that will mean a thing if Sarah can’t save Porter, though. Their roles have been reversed. Now the Protector’s life is in the hands of the Peacemaker, and she may already be too late.