The sun had long since set when Tick’s cart finally came to a halt. Tick, who had been sleeping against the back wall, opened his eyes and looked around. With a jolt, he realized that Manchi was asleep as well, her head resting on his lap. He gently nudged her, but she clenched her eyes shut.
“Leave me alone,” she moaned desperately.
“Wake up,” Tick urged her. “They’re bringing us food.”
“I don’t want any!” she said, refusing to open her eyes.
“You have to take it,” Tick insisted. “If you don’t, they won’t give you any later.”
Reluctantly, Manchi forced her eyes open and sat up. She hugged her knees to her chest as they listened to their keeper make his way up the Caravan, banging on the bars to get the captives’ attention. Several minutes later, the slave trader finally arrived outside of their cage with someone following behind him, carrying a cauldron of thick, greasy slop. Tick blinked in surprise when he realized the server was a dwarf. His skin was sickly, and his beard had been shaved off, leaving his pudgy face visible to the world— the most shameful thing that could happen to a dwarf. The slaver stood a few feet away, keeping a passive eye on him. The dwarf banged a wooden ladle against the bars and filled two bowls before sliding them into the cage.
“Hey,” Tick said to him through the bars, “why aren’t you in a cage?”
The dwarf turned to look at him in surprise, and then meekly shook his head.
“Wait!” Tick exclaimed as the dwarf hefted his cauldron. “Don’t go!”
“I can’t talk to you!” the dwarf whispered desperately. “I’ll get in trouble!”
“Where are we going?” Tick persisted, determined to get answers.
The dwarf shook his hairless head again and waddled away.
Tick sighed and looked up to see the other slave trader turning to follow the dwarf, and he couldn’t help but shiver. With his thick mustache and wide brimmed cowboy hat, he bared a startling resemblance to the last slaver Tick had encountered.
That just means Porter’ll come and save me again, he thought, sitting back down on the splintery floor. And he’ll pound his face in too, just like the last guy.
The trader took a step away, but then stopped.
“What the—” he asked, and looked down.
A tiny hand was wrapped around his keyring.
The hand belonged to Manchi.
“Hey!” the man screamed, slapping her wrist. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The dwarf, startled by the sudden uproar, dropped the cauldron. It went rolling down the hill, spilling its contents all over the grass.
“What’s going on back there?” someone farther up shouted.
“The mutt’s trying to steal my keys!”
Taking advantage of the distraction, Tick scrambled over to where Manchi was laying and pulled her to her feet.
“Back here,” he whispered, and she followed him to the other end of the wagon, where the shadows were thicker. From here, Tick couldn’t see what was happening to the dwarf, but he did hear something that sounded a lot like wood striking flesh. Repeatedly.
“Stupid little mutts!” the slaver growled, rounding on them. “You think getting away from us is that easy? I’ll teach you a lesson.”
Tick’s pulse sped up. No, please…. not the cattle prods…
“Which one of you was it? Huh?”
He must not have got a good look at them in the darkness, Tick realized. Manchi curled up into a ball, hiding her face from the man. He looked furious, and Tick knew exactly what was going to happen to the one he decided was guilty.
Manchi looked so small, curled up like that.
“I did it!” he blurted out.
The girl stopped shivering and looked up at him in shock. The slave trader made his way to the cage door, his face red with anger. Selecting a key from the ring Manchi had tried to steal, he opened the door and grabbed Tick by his tail.
“Get out here!” he yelled, yanking him outside. Tick landed hard, and the slave trader dragged him away from the wagon.
“I’ll teach you to make trouble,” the slave trader said, throwing him face-down in the dirt before backing away a few steps. Tick didn’t dare look up. He knew what was coming.
There came a sharp snap, and fiery pain exploded in Tick’s back. He gritted his teeth, willing himself not to cry out. He heard a second crack, and the scream tore free of his mouth anyway. He could barely breathe. Hot tears ran down his face, and his back burned. He heard the slave trader drag the whip back across the ground, getting ready to strike him again, and he braced himself for even more pain.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” an angry voice shouted.
“This little mutt tried to…” the slave trader began, but was silenced by what sounded suspiciously like a fist striking his jaw.
“Idjit!” the first man shouted. “We’re trying to sell that mutt! How much do you think it’ll be worth after you’ve flayed the skin off its back?”
Tick knew the man wasn’t actually defending him, but at the moment he only cared that he wasn’t being whipped anymore. A strong hand wrapped around his neck and carried him back to his cage, throwing him inside. He rolled a couple of times, the rugged wood floor digging into his cuts, and he whimpered.
“Don’t make any more trouble!” the man yelled, and slammed the door hard enough to rock the wagon.
Tick felt weak, and he couldn’t bring himself to move. He simply lay on the floor, limp as a rag doll, until he felt the wagon begin to roll again. He gradually drifted in and out of consciousness, but the pain never faded.
Eventually, he opened his eyes again and saw Manchi sitting next to him, her face directly above his.
“Why?” she asked softly.
Tick didn’t answer, but managed to give a confused grunt.
“Why did you do that?” Manchi asked again.
“To protect you.” Tick whispered hoarsely.
Through dimming vision, Tick could see tears begin to leak out of Manchi’s eyes, but the girl turned away to face the wall. Then everything went black.
A cold wind blew against Sarah, rousing her from her sleep. Yawning, she raised her head and looked around. The entire party was asleep except for Porter, who stood guard at the edge of camp with a determined look on his face as he stared out into the darkness. He had his Kalion armor summoned, minus his helmet, and Flicker was gripped tightly in both hands, the point resting on the ground.
Sarah smiled to herself. My hero.
The wind blew again, letting her know she wouldn’t be going back to sleep soon, so she got to her paws. She may as well keep Porter company.
“Hey,” she said softly as she padded over, careful not to wake her other friends.
Porter turned to look at her. “You should be asleep,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go tomorrow.”
“I know,” she replied. “But you looked lonely. I couldn’t let you face the night alone, could I?” A playful smile crossed her face.
Porter grinned too, and knelt down so that they were the same height. He placed his hand on her back and began to scratch her between her wings.
“Mmm,” Sarah purred, arching her back. “That’s nice.”
Porter chuckled. “You’re just a great big kitty cat, aren’t you?”
“Something like that,” Sarah moaned, rolling her shoulders in pleasure.
Porter continued to scratch Sarah for several minutes before she heard him give a weary sigh and take his hand away. She looked up, sighing in disappointment, and saw a worried look on his face.
“Porter, what’s wrong?” she asked.
“Are we really doing the right thing?” he asked softly without turning to look at her.
Sarah sat up. “It was your idea for us to listen to what Lowatai said. Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts."
Porter didn’t answer.
“You’re thinking about Jellaska Kob Lertan again, aren’t you?”
“Everywhere we go, people die. Jellaska Kob Lertan, The Historians’ Tower…”
Sarah leaned in closer. “No! You can’t blame yourself for what happened there, Porter. It wasn’t your fault!”
Porter didn’t respond. He looked so sad, she thought. Even in his Kalion armor, he seemed as helpless as a little boy. He put on a brave face in front of the others, pretending to be confident in his ability to end a war that had been going on since the beginning of recorded history, but in times like this, when it was just the two of them, Sarah could see the real Porter. The one who was terrified of what the others expected him to do, and even more terrified of who else might get hurt in the process. Sarah stepped closer and nuzzled her head under Porter’s arm until it went over her shoulder.
“I know it’s hard, Porter,” she comforted him. “But what else can we do but keep on going?”
“How many more people are going to die because of us?” Porter finally turned to look at her. His eyes were red.
“So what, you think we should just give up?” Sarah asked. It wasn’t an angry question. How could she be angry when that same anxiety was eating away at her every hour she was awake?
Porter didn’t answer, but his grip around her shoulder tightened a little.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” she went on, “but if there’s even a chance we can make a difference, shouldn’t we take it?”
Porter sighed again, and his gaze dropped to the ground. “All I can see when I close my eyes are the people that died because we decided to save ourselves. We could have helped them, but we ran away.” He turned to face her. “But no, I won’t give up. Not yet.”
In his other hand, Porter tightened his grip on Flicker. “People are going to die no matter what we do. I have to make myself accept that. That’s the only way I’ll stay sane.”
Porter’s voice drifted away. A stray thought came to Sarah, and suddenly her body went rigid.
“What’s wrong?” Porter asked, turning to look at her.
“I… I just realized something,” she replied, her voice hollow. “I don’t have any idea if my parents made it out of Jellaska Kob Lertan alive or not!”
Porter’s mouth fell open in shock and he moved so he was kneeling in front of her.
“Sarah,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry. It didn’t even occur to me…”
“It’s not your fault,” Sarah assured him, fighting to speak around the big ball of emotion in her throat. “I’m sure they’re okay. I just… I just…”
Before she could force the words to come out of her mouth, Porter reached out and wrapped her in a hug.
“I’ve been so selfish,” he said into her shoulder. “I’ve been so wrapped up in my own feelings that I never thought to ask how you’ve been taking all this.”
Through her grief, Sarah felt her heart melt.
“It’s okay,” she said again. “You’ve had your own problems to worry about.”
Porter said nothing, only tightened his embrace. Muttering the magic words under her breath, Sarah’s body morphed into her human form, and she returned Porter’s hug.
“I’m going to do what Lowatai told me to do, Sarah,” Porter said. “I promise!”
“What do you mean?” Sarah asked, pulling away to look at him.
Porter looked directly into Sarah’s eyes, and she saw fiery determination burning in them now. “I’m going to be your protector. As long as there’s breath in my body, I will never let anyone hurt you!”
A small smile rose to Sarah’s lips. “You’ve already been the best protector I could ever ask for, Porter. Every time I got in trouble, you were the one who chased after me until I was safe again.”
Porter’s eyes involuntarily went down, taking in Sarah’s human body.
“Sarah,” he said breathlessly, “you’re beautiful.”
The sphinx blushed. “You’re just flattering me. I’m not that good looking as a human.”
“You’re wrong,” Porter argued. “You’re the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid eyes on, human or not.”
With that, the boy reached out and took Sarah’s head in his hands and gently brought it towards his face until their lips locked in a passionate kiss. When they finally parted, Sarah smiled.
“If I look good as a human, I’d like to know what you’d look like as a sphinx,” she said teasingly.
Porter laughed. “I don’t think I could handle the furballs.”
“Excuse you,” Sarah slapped his arm, “sphinxes do not get furballs!”
Still smiling, the two of them stood up and faced the forest, content to stand guard together until the sun came up and Gwinn roused the others.
Clouds had moved to cover the sky by midmorning, bringing with them cold winds and light freezing rains. Ozzie crossed his arms, holding Misty’s leash with numbing fingers.
You threw your coat in the fire, he thought as his breath puffed out in front of him. Your nice, thick black coat. Couldn’t let them take your word for it. Just had to be dramatic about it.
He looked to the front of their group where Porter was walking beside Gwinn, wearing little more than Ozzie was. And yet, he didn’t seem to feel the cold. He walked determinedly, his fists clenched by his sides as if he couldn’t wait to punch someone. Ozzie chuckled under his breath. Apart from Porter and himself, it seemed like everyone was prepared for the cold. Sarah and Gwinn had their fur, Droma had his big leather cloak, and Faska had his white cape. Even Azkular, who only wore a pair of pants, had that blue fire in his veins that made it impossible for him to feel the cold.
And Misty had her fur as well, of course.
Ozzie tentatively turned to look at his sister. She was padding along beside him silently, but he could still sense her anger. She practically radiated it. He toyed with the idea of saying something to her, but quickly abandoned it. What was there for him to say? He’d only make her angrier. He growled under his breath in frustration and faced forward again. Slayers were trained to ignore fear. Why had he suddenly become such a coward?
He walked in silence for another hour before Droma turned and made his way toward him.
“It is getting very cold out here,” the giant said. “Your hands must be getting numb. Would you like me to take the rope for a little while?”
The muscles in Ozzie’s neck still stung a little when he looked up at the gigantic Soul Smith, reminding him of their less than pleasant first encounter. They were on good terms now that Porter had vouched for him, but Ozzie still shied away from the offer.
“Nah,” he answered. “I’ll keep it.”
“Are you sure?” Droma asked. “You might lose your grip and let her escape.”
“She’s my sister,” Ozzie insisted. “I thought she was dead for the last twelve years. I’m the one who has to do this.”
Droma nodded in understanding and reached inside his cloak. He produced two large leather gloves and held them out. “These should help you keep your hands warm, then.”
Ozzie thanked him and took the gloves, slipping them over his hands while being careful not to let go of the rope. Without another word, Droma turned and walked away. The gloves were made to fit the giant’s hands, so they were five times too big for Ozzie, but they did indeed help fight off the cold. A low growl came from his right, and he turned to see Misty glaring at him with her hackles raised. He tried to make himself look her in the eye, but couldn’t.
“Come on,” he said quietly. “We need to keep moving.”
She resisted when he tugged on the rope, but a more insistent pull got her moving again. She kept her eyes on him, unblinking, so he fixed his gaze on the ground in front of him.
Why do I feel so guilty? Mortoph did this to her, not me.
Because you’re her brother, a voice in his head told him. You should have been there for her.
“There was nothing I could do,” he argued under his breath. “I thought she was dead. They tricked me!”
But did you make sure? Did you ask to see her body? To attend her funeral?
“No,” Ozzie admitted. He had harbored and nurtured his pain for an entire year, and then only pretended to forget about it when Mortoph commanded him to. But when it came down to it, Ozzie knew he had swallowed the Master Slayer’s lies hook line and sinker. He hadn’t asked questions, he hadn’t demanded proof. He’d just accepted the worst without a single protest.
You let her down, the nagging voice in his head insisted. Everything you went through, she had a hundred times worse. She’s not even human anymore!
“What could I have done?” Ozzie demanded. “What?”
He froze, realizing that he had been speaking out loud the entire time. Misty was staring at him with her brow raised.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, and continued walking.
A few minutes later, Porter called for the group to stop and rest for a few minutes. Ozzie sat down gratefully, resting his back against a tree. Sarah and Porter spoke for a minute, and then ventured away to try to hunt something. Turning, Ozzie saw that Misty was still standing up, her muscles tense and ready to bolt at the first given opportunity.
“You may as well rest while you have the chance,” he advised her, his voice coming out a lot more timid than he liked. “We’re probably not going to stop again until nightfall.”
Misty snarled at him through her muzzle and turned to face the other direction, but didn’t lay down. Ozzie sighed, but left her to it.
A few minutes later, Porter and Sarah returned carrying a couple of rabbits. Ozzie’s stomach gurgled at the sight. While they weren’t exactly starving, their meals tended to be on the lean side. He watched as Porter set up some wood for a fire. He would have helped him, but that would mean he’d have to put down Misty’s rope.
Soon, the fire had been kindled and the rabbits were roasting above it. The tantalizing smell reached Ozzie’s nose, and he inhaled it, making his stomach growl again. His wasn’t the only one, though. A low growl came from Misty’s direction, but this time it didn’t come from her mouth. Porter came over to them, carrying a hunk of meat for both of them.
“Be careful,” he warned his friend as he handed him the meat.
Ozzie nodded wordlessly. He knew the drill. Taking out his knife, he thrust it into the end of the rope, impaling it firmly in the ground, and then stood up and cautiously made his way to Misty. She didn’t move, so he reached out and slowly untied her mouth. Quick as a flash, she pounced upon the meat Porter had left for her, devouring it in only a couple of bites. That was their unspoken agreement. Ozzie would untie her mouth when it was time to eat, but only so long as she didn’t cause trouble. After she had eaten, he would tie her up again.
Once she had swallowed the last bite, she turned to look at him. Her eyes were resentful, but he knew she wouldn’t try anything. As he approached her to tie her mouth shut again, he heard another faint rumble come from her stomach. He wasn’t surprised. A full grown wolf needed more than a handful of rabbit meat to get full. He looked down at the meat he still held in his hand, and his own stomach growled in response. He hadn’t eaten for six hours…
It’s the least you can do, the voice in his head told him, after what you did to her.
Reluctantly, Ozzie put the meat on the ground in front of her. Misty eyed him suspiciously.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“You need it more than I do,” Ozzie replied, sheepishly. “And because you’re my—”
“Shut up!” Misty snapped. “That isn’t true!”
Ozzie clamped his mouth shut. Misty glared at him for a second, but then darted forward and snatched the meat off the ground, devouring it as well. Once she was finished, she glared at him again. Ozzie hesitated, daring to hope for a thank you. It never came. With a sigh of resignation, he stepped forward and tied her mouth shut once again.
Porter stood facing a pile of freshly cut logs fifteen feet away from him. Droma stood just in front of it, waiting for the signal. Taking a deep breath, Porter summoned Flicker to his hand, and then shivered at the cool metallic feeling of his Kalion armor spreading across his body. When he opened his eyes, he saw the world through the slit of his helmet.
“Ready,” he said.
Droma nodded and reached behind him, hefting a log with both hands. With a grunt, he raised it over his head and threw it at him, and Porter swung the living sword in a diagonal strike. With his strength increased by the magical armor, Flicker sliced straight through the wood, splitting the log in half. The pieces separated and thudded to the ground behind him, leaving him untouched.
Droma flung two more logs at him, and Porter felt the armor nudging his body in the way it wanted him to move. Heeding its instructions, he bent his knees and vaulted into the air. One foot came down on top of the first log, and he pushed off of it and slashed at the second one, cutting it in half as well before landing gracefully. They continued for several minutes, Droma throwing log after log, and Porter managing to either dodge or cut through each one, until the giant had run out. When the last log had been thrown, Droma dusted his hands off on his cloak and smiled.
“I think you are getting the hang of it,” he declared.
“Are you talking to me, or to Flicker?” Porter asked. As the armor and the sword faded into nothingness once again, he was surprised to find that he wasn’t even out of breath.
“Both of you,” the giant clarified. “Flicker may know how it needs to move, but in the hands of an untrained fighter it is no more than a shiny stick. The two of you complement each other.”
A cold breeze blew through the forest, making the group shiver. Porter paused, feeling the wind brush against him, and then held both his hands out in front of himself. After a moment of concentration, he caused a small whirlwind to form between them, stretching to the ground where it began to kick up dust and leaves. He let it spin for a few seconds and then released it, letting it dissipate.
“Kind of like how I could always use magic, but didn’t remember how until I needed it?”
Droma brought a hand to his chin. “Yes, almost exactly like that.”
“You always were good at that.”
Porter and Droma turned to see Ozzie standing at the edge of the clearing, watching them. He still held Misty’s leash in his hands.
“Good at what?” Porter asked.
“Magic,” Ozzie answered, taking a step closer to them. “Not all the Slayers can do it. Even the ones that can usually don’t get the hang of it until they’re almost done with their training. You cast your first spell when you were barely six.”
“They trained me to do this?” Porter asked.
“Yeah,” Ozzie nodded. “We’re supposed to learn a lot of different spells, but you were so good at controlling the wind that they let you focus on that.”
A bitter mood crept into Porter’s heart, and he scowled into the distance. “Yeah, and now we know why. It’s because Mortoph locked me inside my own head and turned me into a puppet.”
An uncomfortable silence crept over the party. The night they had rescued Sarah from Other Porter, Mortoph had revealed that Porter had been the first successful subject in the Repurposement experiment. While all the other subjects had been reduced to zombies, their black and red eyes a dead giveaway, Porter had been able to function and live as a normal human being. The whole idea still made Porter sick.
With an angry growl, he summoned Flicker back to his hand, along with the gauntlets of his armor, and lashed out, the blade cutting cleanly through a nearby tree. He watched with satisfaction as the tree fell and crashed to the earth. Unproductive waste of energy though it might be, nobody said anything. If anyone had the right to let off some steam, it was Porter.
“We need to keep moving,” he said at last. “Gwinn, where are we going?”
Casting his spell again, Gwinn pointed into the woods and took the lead. Everyone fell in behind him without complaint. Porter walked in silence, staring at the ground until Sarah caught up to him.
“Porter, are you all right?” she asked.
“Of course I’m not,” he answered. There was no point in lying to her. Sarah knew him too well. “A psychopath turned me into a murderer for twelve years. How many Mythics have I killed because of what he did to me?”
“That wasn’t you,” Sarah argued. “That was Other Porter, remember?”
“It was still me,” Porter insisted. “It was my hand that swung the sword.”
Sarah shook her head. “Don’t you remember anything about Other Porter? He was cruel, selfish, and violent. Does that sound anything like you?”
Porter didn’t answer, but a small blush rose to his cheeks.
“No, it doesn’t,” Sarah answered for him. “You’re kind, sweet, and brave! You look out for your friends before you think of yourself, and you’d never willingly take someone’s life. Porter,” she looked at him in the eye, “when you fought Other Porter, you were facing your own past, and you beat it! You overcame the person you used to be and proved that who you are now is stronger!”
Sarah paused for a moment. “Besides,” she concluded, “he’s probably dead now, anyway.”
Porter shivered. They had left him behind to face Mortoph alone. There was no possible way he could still be alive.
“The point is,” the sphinx continued, putting herself back on track, “that it doesn’t matter who Mortoph turned you into. What matters is who you choose to be now. Remember what Lowatai said the first time we met her?”
“Don’t worry about who you used to be, let yourself become who you are now,” Porter answered. A small smile rose to his lips. “I remember. Thanks, Sarah.”
Sarah grinned. “It’s the least I can do after everything you’ve done for me. Besides,” she moved closer so that her side was brushing up against Porter’s hip, “I love you. I’d do anything to make sure you feel good about yourself.”
Porter put a grateful hand on the precious sphinx’s back as they continued to walk, forcing the dark thoughts of the past to the back of his mind. He would rather think about Sarah, the one who loved him, and would always love him no matter what happened, than the monster he had used to be any day.
NEXT TIME: Tensions are high. Misty’s plotting against the group, and Porter and Sarah are having second thoughts. If they don’t get a boost in confidence soon, they’re mission isn’t going to end well. Things are bad right now for Tick too, but can they still get worse? Well… just keep in mind what the caravan caught him for in the first place.