Misty lay on the cold, hard concrete, watching the sun set behind one of the hills that bordered the town. Her ears were perked up, twitching to follow every sound she heard. They told her it was safe here, but she wasn't entirely convinced they were alone.
Beside her, leaning against the wall of a nearby building, was Ozzie. He hadn’t said anything to her since Faska left, but they had both volunteered to stand first watch. Misty knew he felt like she did, because he kept reaching down and toying with the knife strapped to his belt. Droma had offered to give him a proper sword, claiming that a knife wouldn’t do much good on a battlefield, but Ozzie had turned him down. This knife, he’d claimed, had always been his weapon of choice. He was more confident with it than he would ever be with a big, heavy sword.
The werewolf opened her mouth and yawned, but in truth she didn’t think she could have fallen asleep if she’d tried. The knowledge of what they were about to do gnawed at her stomach like a nest of ants, and it took a lot of self-control not to squirm. Going up against the Slayers and the Mythics? It was suicide.
If I had any sense, she thought for the hundredth time, I’d just get up and run away right now.
But she didn’t. She turned her head to look down one of the darkening streets, where Porter and Sarah had gone a couple hours ago. It should have been weird seeing the sphinx walking on two legs all the time, but in truth she had gotten used to seeing her in human form lately. She’d almost spent more time like that than in her real body. Well, now it was her real body—and Porter’s too. Misty shook her wolfish head. As a werewolf, she had two forms that were both natural to her. When Sarah turned human it was just an illusion. It was like wearing a costume, except that your body was the costume. Everything about her human body was real, but none of it had been…
Misty shook her head, chasing those thoughts away before they gave her a headache. She’d never really understood the concept behind shapeshifting spells, since her own shapeshifting was an ability all werewolves were born with. However it worked, the body Sarah had now was her real body, just like her lion-y body had been before. With a sigh, Misty shifted on the asphalt to make herself more comfortable.
If Sarah is my sister, she thought suddenly, remembering the conversation they’d had just a couple nights ago, what does that make Porter?
It was a strange thought. Porter and Sarah weren’t married— they weren’t even old enough to get married. That ruled out Porter being her brother-in-law. But then again, the bond he and Sarah shared was stronger than any marriage pledge, wasn’t it? In a way, they were married, and there was no way for them to ever get divorced so long as their souls remained bound together. Misty had never considered herself the romantic type, but even she couldn’t help smiling at the thought.
Speaking of family… she turned to look at Ozzie, and found that he was looking at her as well. She quickly faced forward again, but it was too late. Pushing himself away from the wall, he came to kneel next to her.
“So, what do you think of all this?” he asked, looking out into the forest with her.
“It’s crazy,” she answered. “How can they even think it will work?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, and she could hear the honesty in his voice. He didn’t know what he was doing any more than she did. “But I’m still going to do it.” He turned to face her. “And since you’re still here, I guess that means you are too.”
“Yeah,” she agreed in a quiet voice, looking down at the ground between her front paws. “I guess.”
Ozzie was quiet for a moment, and then he asked. “Misty, you’re not still thinking about going back to Mortoph, are you?”
“No,” she answered immediately. “He sent Vega to kill me, so I can’t really go back, can I?”
“I guess not,” Ozzie agreed, though he sounded hesitant. Misty looked at him, wordlessly encouraging him to speak his mind. After a few seconds, he sighed and then asked, “You still think of him as your father, don’t you?”
Misty stiffened, but didn’t answer right away. In truth, she’d been avoiding thinking about this ever since Vega had shown up. If Mortoph had sent his right hand man to kill her, then that meant he didn’t want her to be his daughter anymore. But if he wasn’t her father, who did that leave her with?
“I don’t know,” she confessed at last. “I know he hates me now, but… well, he’s been my daddy for the last twelve years. He’s all I’ve ever had. I couldn’t just give up on him even if I wanted to. That’s not how love works.” She turned to look at Ozzie. “You know what I mean?”
She wasn’t surprised by the hurt look he was giving her. She braced herself, knowing what was coming next.
“So,” he said softly, “you still don’t believe I’m your brother?”
Misty cringed, the words biting deep into her heart despite her efforts not to let them. “I want you to be,” she said at last. “I want you to be Ozzie more than anything else in the world, but it’s easier if I don’t believe it.”
“Why?” Ozzie asked.
“Because I’ve been alone all this time,” she answered. “I only had my da—” she cut herself off. “I only had Mortoph, and he never wanted anything to do with me. Even now that I know he wants me dead, it’s not much different than before.”
“But you don’t have to be alone!” Ozzie insisted, reaching out and putting his human hand over her wolf paw. “We’re together now.”
Misty hesitated, and then pulled her paw out from under him. “No, this is how it has to be. I don’t want to get hurt again.”
“Misty,” Ozzie said firmly, reaching out and taking her chin in his hand to make her look at him. “I will never hurt you!”
“You can’t promise me that!” she argued. “Even if you don’t mean to, it could still happen. If I let myself believe you’re my brother, and then you got killed tomorrow, I’d have lost my brother all over again. I’d be all alone again.” She stopped talking, trying to hold back the wave of emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. When she felt she was in control again, she finished, “At least like this, if you die I’ll have only lost someone who thought he was my brother.”
Ozzie froze, his hand still under her chin. Slowly, he withdrew until he wasn’t touching her anymore.
That’s it, then, Misty thought, still trying to keep herself from crying. Now he hates me too. Just like everybody else. Just like it should be.
Without a word, he stood up. She looked at the ground, unable to make herself watch him walk away.
“Then I guess,” he said, startling her out of her thoughts, “I’ll just have to convince you another way.”
He scanned the stores around them. Many of their signs had been broken, but he finally settled on one across the street. A toy store, she realized. Without any explanation, he set off towards it. Misty let him go, curiosity overriding her sadness. Ozzie looked into the window, which was broken just like all the others, and then climbed inside. For a few minutes, everything was still. Misty watched the window, waiting for him to return, periodically looking into the woods to check for signs of intruders. Her skin still crawled with the eerie sensation that she was being watched, and she struggled not to let her hackles rise.
She turned back to look at the toy store just as Ozzie climbed out again. She cocked her head in confusion when she saw him carrying a long, narrow box under his arm. He hid it behind his back as he came closer so that she could still see it but couldn’t make out what was in it.
“Sorry it took me so long,” he said. “I was starting to think they wouldn’t have one.”
“Have what?” she asked, trying to see behind his back.
“I- I know it’s been a long time,” he said, suddenly looking nervous. “You might not even remember this. And, I mean, it’s not even our birthday…”
Misty looked up at him suspiciously. “What are you talking about?”
Ozzie took a deep breath, and then said. “What I’m trying to say, Misty, is that you never really got the chance to use your birthday present all those years ago. Mortoph probably didn’t let you keep it when he came to get you.”
Slowly, Misty got to her paws. All this talk about her birthday was bringing back bad memories. That had been the last day she’d ever seen her father— or Ozzie. Ozzie, or this boy who said he was Ozzie, was forcing her to remember it, and she didn’t like it.
“Ozzie,” she said warningly, but was silenced when he pulled the box from behind his back, revealing…
A BB gun. Just like the one her dad had got her for her birthday. He’d gotten one for both of them.
“What?” she asked in quiet astonishment. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes as she looked at the toy. So simple, so innocent, and yet so full of meaning. “How- how did you know?”
“He got me one too, remember?” Ozzie asked, smiling. “I never got the chance to shoot anything with it, but I remember how happy we both were to get them.”
She looked down at the box, through the clear plastic wrapping that let them see the gun inside. It was black with a brown butt, like the guns she’d always seen on the westerns she’d once watched with their dad.
“Yours was pink and white,” he said with a chuckle. “It even had flowers printed on the butt. You thought black and brown were too boyish.”
Hearing this, Misty couldn’t keep the tears from falling from her eyes, matting down the fur on her snout. Her eyes darting from Ozzie to the toy gun, she stood up on her back legs and morphed into her human form. With tentative hands, she reached out and took the box from him. Ozzie let her have it. She stared down at it, feeling as if she were in a dream, and then clutched it to her chest like a baby.
“But Daddy, Ozzie, and I were the only ones in the house that day,” she said incredulously. “How in the world could you have…” She paused, and looked at the young man standing in front of her. So tall and strong, nothing like the little boy she’d known twelve years ago.
Or was he?
A fresh wave of tears fell down her face, and she had to concentrate to keep herself from falling to her knees and bawling like a little baby. Her lip quivered as she hugged the BB gun box tight enough to crush the cardboard.
“Ozzie?” she asked in a high pitched whisper that came out almost like a squeak.
“Hey, sis,” he said with a smile.
With a whine, she dropped the box and ran to him, wrapping her arms around him. She felt him do the same to her, and she finally let go of her emotions.
It’s my brother, she thought as she cried, wretched sobs tearing from her chest without a thought to who else might be listening. Twelve years of pent up feelings were pouring out of her right now, and she didn’t care who knew. Just as she had cried when she’d been told her family was dead, now she cried when she realized he was alive. It’s Ozzie, and he’s really here! He’s really alive!
She felt Ozzie’s grip on her tighten, and she realized that he was crying too. This was all either of them had wanted for twelve long, lonely years. Brother and sister, together once more.
“Porter, where are we going?” Sarah asked as her chimera twin led her down the street.
“Someplace where we can be alone,” he answered without turning around. He walked with long, purposeful steps. Sarah probably didn’t realize where he was taking her, but there was only one place in this town he knew where they could be by themselves.
“As romantic as that sounds,” she replied, “shouldn’t we be getting ready for tomorrow?”
Porter felt Sarah prodding his emotions, trying to make him laugh at her joke, but his anxiety proved too strong.
“We are getting ready for tomorrow,” he told her, pausing at an intersection. After a moment of thought, he chose the street to his left and set off once again. “Remember earlier today when you said you didn’t want to try using the Keeping Fire until we were somewhere safe?”
Once again, he felt the heat of the mystical green fire flare inside Sarah’s body when it heard its name. He turned to look, and wasn’t surprised to see her eyes faintly glowing green in the early dusk shadows. He also felt the pang of fear that struck her when he suggested it.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” she asked hesitantly. Her pace slowed, and Porter stopped walking to turn and speak to her.
He wanted to lie to her and tell her everything was okay, but he couldn’t. Not only would she see through it in an instant thanks to their new connection, but he would be insulting their relationship in doing so. He loved her, she loved him back, and she deserved the truth.
“I don’t know,” he said with a sigh. “I have no idea what to expect when we do this. But this is what we set out to do, right? We have to make sure we know how to do it right.”
Her initial fear had been expected. What he hadn’t expected, though, was the sudden surge of bravery that erupted inside of her. It was infectious, and he couldn’t help but feel strengthened by it as well.
“All right,” she said confidently. “Where are we going to do it?”
A small smile rose to Porter’s face, and he took her hand, leading her onwards. “You’ve been there before.”
A couple more minutes later, they reached their destination. The old dog pound lay in front of them, squat and long, without a single glimmer of light coming from any of its windows. Beside him, Sarah grimaced at the sight.
“You sure know how to spoil a lady,” she said wryly, but he still felt the flutter of amusement deep inside her.
“Only the best for you, my dear,” he replied, holding the door open for her and giving her a low, sarcastic bow. Sarah slugged him playfully on the arm and went inside. After making sure his wings were folded as tightly as they could be, Porter followed her, allowing the door to swing shut behind him.
The pound was much as it had been the last time they’d been here. Kennels of all shapes and sizes were scattered all over the floor, only this time they were devoid of any dogs.
“Good idea,” Sarah silently told him. “The others won’t find us here.”
Porter had come to understand that she actually preferred speaking through their new special connection. She thought it felt more intimate. He had to admit, she was right.
They made their way through the pound until Porter found the particular kennel he was looking for. Just like he remembered, there were long scratch marks on the floor where it had been dragged back and forth countless times. Getting a firm grip on the bars, he slid it backwards, revealing the trap door hidden beneath it. He felt Sarah shiver when she saw it.
“Let me go down first,” he told her, taking hold of the ring. With a grunt, he heaved the trapdoor open. A gust of dusty air blew out of the passageway, blowing back his hair and making him sneeze. Behind him, Sarah laughed.
“Nobody’s been down here in a while,” he said, rubbing his nose.
Sarah stepped up next to him. “How do you know?”
“I can smell people,” he answered, “but the scent is faint. They’ve been gone for a long time.”
Sarah nodded, inhaling the scent herself. “They probably left after you rescued me. The Caravan wouldn’t have taken it well if they’d found out they’d lost two valuable Mythics.”
“Still,” Porter cautioned her, “stay here until I tell you to come down.”
She agreed, and Porter summoned Flicker to his hand. The living sword didn’t seem to mind that Porter was no longer human, it still came to him like it always had. Holding it in one hand, Porter used the other to hold onto the ladder rungs as he descended into the old holding pens. The underground shaft was totally dark when he reached the floor, so that even with his enhanced cat-like vision, Porter couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face. Reaching out with his free hand, he began to feel the walls, looking for a light switch. In his other hand, he kept Flicker at the ready just in case something was hiding in the darkness.
“Is it all right?” he heard Sarah ask.
“I don’t know yet,” he answered. “I’m looking for the lights. Don’t come down yet.”
He felt a quick flare of annoyance, and then heard her footsteps as she, too, descended the ladder, blocking out the meager light the trapdoor provided.
“Sarah!” he exclaimed out loud. “I told you to wait up there! We don’t know what’s—”
“Oh, hush,” she said dismissively. “If there were anything down here that wanted to hurt you, it would have done it already.”
He tried to argue, but she interrupted him again. “The last time I was here, there wasn’t a light switch. You had to pull a cord to turn on the lights.”
She fumbled in the darkness for a few seconds, hand extended, until she gave a satisfied “Aha!” and tugged on something. The long florescent bulbs above them gave a weak flicker and then turned on, casting the room around them in a dull light.
“See?” she prodded him with a smug grin. “Empty!”
Porter tried to be annoyed, but the negative emotion was pushed aside by her internal laughter.
“All right, all right,” he said. “Come on, we don’t have all night.”
Taking her by the hand, he led her down the narrow hallway, but stopped when they reached the corner.
“Will you be okay going back there?” he asked, feeling embarrassed that he hadn’t thought to ask her already. Her memories of this place couldn’t be good ones.
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation. “We need to do this. Besides,” she added, sending a grim feeling from herself to Porter, “I’ve seen things way worse than this since we left.”
Porter nodded, and suddenly she leaned in to peck him on the cheek.
“Thank you for asking anyway,” she said with a smile, and then took the lead, pulling Porter into the room behind her.
This room, like everything else, was just the way it had been when Porter had been here before, except for the thick layer of dust it had accumulated. The door to the cage that had once held Sarah and Tick stood wide open, but the runes that had been stuck on it with sticky notes were gone. The first place Porter looked was at the floor just in front of them, remembering how he had thrown the slave trader to the ground and very nearly beaten him to death in his anger. He sighed and shook his head, bringing his thoughts back to the present.
Standing beside him, Sarah’s grip on his hand tightened, and he felt sorrow burrow its way into her heart. It felt like nothing more than a long, low cry that lasted for several seconds. He shivered, her feelings affecting him as well, and followed her gaze. She was staring at the place inside the cage where Tick had been kept. The manacle that had been put around his throat to silence his magical singing still lay on the floor, untouched.
“Do you think he’s okay?” she asked softly.
“I’m sure he is,” Porter answered. “Gwinn cares about him. He wouldn’t let Tick get hurt.”
Sarah nodded, but Porter could feel how she wasn’t convinced.
“I wish we could see him,” she said. “Or at least know where he is.”
“Maybe we will, someday,” Porter said, and then led her to the other end of the room. “Sit down.”
She did, and Porter followed suit, facing her. She shivered, and he could feel the fear inside her.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
Sarah nodded. She was frightened, but she knew it needed to be done. Porter stopped for a minute, trying to think of an appropriate question to ask her. He wasn’t familiar with any Mythical histories, so he wouldn’t know how to ask her about them. If he wanted to know whether the Keeping Fire worked inside of her or not, it would have to be something that he already knew.
Finally, taking a deep breath, he spoke to her in a loud, clear voice. “Tell me about Drake Mortoph.”
Immediately, Sarah’s eyes lit up green, even brighter than the lights above them. Porter felt the terror that grabbed her heart, but could do nothing to help her as her head tilted back on its own accord. She opened her mouth, and a column of green fire erupted out of it.
“Drake Mortoph is the son of Edward Mortoph,” the Keeping Fire said to him, speaking in Sarah’s voice. “He is now the leader of the Slayers.”
The fire shrank until it disappeared inside Sarah’s mouth again. The green light in her eyes dimmed, and she gasped for breath, looking down at Porter again.
“How do you feel?” he asked, getting up to check her.
“I- I’m okay,” she mumbled, as if half asleep. She opened her eyes, wide and unfocused, and gave her head a little shake to reorient herself. Taking a deep breath, she managed to focus on Porter. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
Porter gently took her face in his hands and inspected her. Even now, his concern brought a smile to her face.
“Porter,” she insisted, taking his hands and lowering them, “I’m fine!”
Porter reluctantly retreated to his side of the room again, but couldn’t deny that she was, indeed, feeling okay.
“So,” he said, retreating into the comforting speech of their souls, “we know how it works now.”
Sarah nodded. “Yeah, but will it be enough?”
Porter stood up. “Yes,” he said decisively. “It has to be enough. We have to believe that it will be.”
He motioned for her to join him, and she stood up and took his hand once again.
“We need to get back to the others. They’ll start to wonder where we are before too much—”
Suddenly, Porter stumbled as weariness suddenly washed over his body.
“Porter?” Sarah asked worriedly as he put one hand on the wall to steady himself. She grabbed his other shoulder, trying to keep him upright as his skin turned pale. “Porter, are you all right?”
“So, you want to know about me?”
Porter gasped, and Sarah recoiled in fright. That voice had been neither Porter’s, nor hers. A low, sadistic chuckle rose from the depths of Porter’s mind as Mortoph rose up to overshadow Porter’s mind.
“Come, then, and let me give you something to fear.”
“Porter? Porter, what’s going on?” Sarah pleaded, but her voice was fading, even from their soul-bound connection, as he sank to his knees, and then to his stomach. Shadows converged on him as the Master Slayer pulled him deep inside his own mind once again.
NEXT TIME: Oh, shoot whistles! Looks like Mortoph’s got one last trick up his sleeve before they meet for the final battle. If he has his way, there won’t even be a final battle! What does he have in store for Porter and Sarah, and what, exactly, is he planning on showing them?