It was midday when the Caravan stopped again. Tick’s back burned like fire, and he’d spent the past several hours sitting stiff as a board to keep the splintery wood that made up the walls and floor from rubbing his wounds. Manchi sat at the other end of the cage, curled into a ball.
“What’s going on?” she asked fearfully as the wagon lurched to a halt.
“I hope they’re going to feed us again,” Tick said, gingerly getting to his feet. He carefully ran his hand down his back, wincing, and wasn’t surprised to see his fingers come away wet with blood. He hastily wiped them clean on his shorts.
“Are you feeling better?” Manchi asked.
“Yeah,” he lied. “I can hardly feel it at all now.”
“Get up!” one of the slave traders yelled, rattling the bars on the cages as he made his way down the wagon train. “Wake up, you lazy weed bags! We got us a customer!”
He came to Tick and Manchi’s cage, and Tick recognized him as the man who had whipped him last night. His face was still bruised from where his boss had slugged him. He scowled as he looked in on the chimeras, and pointed at them threateningly.
“You better keep yourselves in line, or I’ll whip your skin off, you hear?”
Without waiting for them to respond, he banged his arm angrily against the bars and moved on.
“Customers?” Manchi asked, her voice meek. “What does he mean by that?”
“They’re slave traders,” Tick replied, his heart sinking into his stomach. “What do you think he means?”
Manchi’s eyes widened in terror, and she leaped to her feet and ran to him, wrapping her arms around him.
“Ow!” Tick complained.
“Sorry!” she exclaimed, recoiling.
Before they could say anything else, they heard the lock on their cage door unlatch, and the door swung open.
“All right, get out and line up with the others!” the slave trader ordered.
Tick nodded furiously, not wanting to upset his captors any further. He took Manchi gently by the hand, but she resisted going to the door.
“It’ll be okay,” he assured her. “I promise.”
Reluctantly, Manchi allowed herself to be led to the door. Tick momentarily let go of her hand so he could jump to the ground, and then reached up and helped her down as well. Just as the man had said, a line of Mythics was forming further up the Caravan. Tick tugged on Manchi’s hand, trying to pull her towards the growing crowd.
“Get moving, freak!” the man exclaimed, and kicked Tick in the rear, sending him sprawling out on the ground. Tick scrambled to his feet and ran before he could kick him again. He could hear Manchi following close behind him. They reached the end of the line and stood at attention. Manchi whimpered, and Tick saw tears running down her cheeks.
The man who had saved Tick from his whipping last night swaggered out in front of them, leading a man and woman down the line. The man was wearing a fine suit and a pair of sunglasses. Tick vaguely recognized him as a famous actor. The woman sauntered around with the casual air of someone who had never worked a day in their life. A ridiculously large handbag hung from her arm, and a tiny dog poked its head out of the top, growling at the assorted Mythics.
“As you can see, Mr. Marrow,” the slave trader said, speaking to the man, “we have a fine collection of monsters this year.”
“Have you got any sirens?” the woman asked hopefully. “They’ve got lovely voices. We could have one sing to us at home.”
Tick cringed and a put a hand to his throat. He wasn’t a siren, but if the slave traders knew about his magical voice they probably wouldn’t discriminate. He started to rack his brains. Had he sang at all since they’d caught him? He didn’t think so, but maybe he had forgotten.
The slave trader raked his eyes up and down the line of captives. “No, I’m afraid we don’t have any sirens this time.”
“Next time, then” the woman pouted.
Tick breathed a sigh of relief.
“What have you got that’s strong?” the man inquired. “We’re building another summer home on the east coast, and a big strong monster would speed things up considerably.”
“We have quite a few that you might be interested in,” the slave trader said, brightening. “Right this way!”
Tick watched as the slave trader led the pair to a massive troll, where they began to haggle over a price while the woman sneered about how ugly the hulking brute was.
“Two hundred thousand,” the man insisted, reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a wad of bills.
“I’m afraid my men and I went through too much trouble catching that thing to settle for two hundred thousand,” the slave trader argued politely.
“I’ll go up to three hundred thousand,” the man said.
“Five,” the slave trader said firmly.
The actor hesitated a moment for appearances sake before relenting. “Fine, five hundred thousand.” He handed the money to the slave trader.
“All right, you idjit,” the slave trader shouted after pocketing the money. “These are your new owners, so get moving!”
The troll looked as if it might protest, but then nodded in resignation and stepped forward to stand behind them.
“Oh, Austin, look at this one!” the woman exclaimed suddenly, quickly making her way down the line. She stopped before a pair of fae. One was male, and the other female, but it was obvious that they were father and daughter. The woman bent down to examine the girl’s emerald skin and ocean blue hair. “She’s adorable!”
There was a sharp intake of breath all down the line as the Mythics realized what was about to happen.
“No,” the father said quietly, his voice filled with terror. “Please, no. I’m begging you…”
“Wouldn’t she be the cutest little maid?” the woman called to her husband, completely ignoring the fae father’s pleas.
“If you say so, Jessica,” the man agreed absentmindedly, still examining his new troll.
She turned to the slave trader. “How much do you want for her?”
“Please, I’ll do anything!” the father shouted, reaching out to hug his daughter protectively. “Anything!”
“One hundred thousand,” the slave trader said. “She’s young and feisty, so it’ll be up to you to whip her into shape.”
“Daddy!” the girl shrieked.
“No!” the father shouted, but suddenly found himself pounced upon by five slave traders. He fought them with all his strength, but they managed to pull his arms free of his daughter and drag him away, screaming as he went.
“Daddy!” the girl shrieked again, trying to run after him, but another trader grabbed her by her shoulder, holding her in place.
“I know what will keep you in line,” the woman crooned, as if she were talking to an animal. She reached inside her bag, around her dog, and produced a stone medallion, which she promptly placed on the fae child’s forehead. It stuck where she had placed it, and the symbol printed on it began to glow. Immediately, they girl stopped screaming and struggling and stood still. Her arms hung limp at her sides, her mouth slightly agape.
“Much better!” the woman said. “This way, now.” She walked back to her husband, and the fae girl followed obediently.
“Is there anything else I can do for you folks today?” the slave trader asked in a pleasant voice, as if he’d sold them nothing more than a used car.
“That will be all,” the man said. “Thank you very much.”
“No, thank you,” the slave trader grinned in satisfaction as his two customers made their way back to their luxury car. The troll was loaded into a rental trailer by a team of brawny men.
“All right, get back in your cages!” the lead slave trader shouted once both vehicles had driven away. “And if any of you try to run, I’ll cut you to pieces and sell you to a sorcerer!”
Tick, almost numb with shock, had to forcibly lead Manchi back to their wagon. As he helped her up inside, he caught sight of five men dragging the fae father back to his own cage. His dark green skin was marred with cuts and bruises, and both of his eyes were swollen shut. Tick forced himself to look away as his stomach heaved, threatening to bring what little food it still held back up, and climbed into the wagon. A slave trader walked up and slammed their door shut behind them.
“Tick?” Manchi asked, her voice shaking with fear.
“Yeah?” Tick responded. He tried to sound brave for her sake, but his words quivered just as much as hers.
“How long until your hero gets here?”
Gwinn held up a hand for the party to halt. Porter opened his mouth to ask what was going on, but shut it when the wampus cat plucked a strand of fur from his shoulder. He held it up at eye level and began to speak under his breath. Porter couldn’t hear everything he said, but was able to make out certain words, like “Blood,” and “Find.” The hair twitched in his hand for a few seconds, and then bent in the opposite direction. Waving for the others to follow him, Gwinn set off again.
“Why do you do that?” Porter asked, coming to walk beside him.
“It’s a tracking spell,” Gwinn answered. “I’m using it to make sure we’re going the right way.”
“Why do you need to use your fur?”
“That’s how the spell works. I enchant the hair to be pulled towards its closest match. Since Tick and I share DNA, it’s attracted to him.”
“I get it,” Porter said, nodding. “Since you and Tick are the only people in the world with wampus cat blood…”
“… Tick is the only person the spell would work on. You couldn’t track me with one of Sarah’s hairs because she’s not a wampus cat. Likewise, even if you had one of Sarah’s own hairs, you wouldn’t be able to track her with it because there are lots of sphinxes in the world. The hair wouldn’t be able to single Sarah out through all of them.”
Porter thought for a minute. “Then why did it lead you to me the first time?”
Gwinn frowned. “That was a mistake on my part, not the spell’s. I tracked you all the way to the point where you and Tick split up. You already had Tick’s hair stuck to your shirt at that point, so the spell got confused. I figured he would have stayed with you, since he’d been travelling with you all along.”
“But it turned out he went with Joseph, instead.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes, the rest of the group tailing them.
“Can I trust you, Porter?” Gwinn asked.
Porter looked up at him in surprise. “Yeah, of course you can. Why?”
Gwinn hesitated, and Porter saw how hard his feline eyes had become. “Because Tick is the most important thing in the world to me, and I’m sharing him with you. Can I trust you with that kind of responsibility?”
Porter wasn’t sure why, but that question bothered him. “Sarah and I have been taking care of him for almost a month,” he reminded him.
“And during that time, he’s been through two different Slayer attacks. Then, after that, you sent him away with a Mythic you barely knew.”
“Those attacks weren’t my fault,” Porter shot back. On the surface, he looked offended. Inside, though, he was wilting. “And I only sent him away because Azkular and I were about to ambush the Slayers. I thought I was doing the right thing.”
Gwinn frowned. “Even if you thought you were doing what was best for him, you’re not exactly the safest person to be around, are you?”
Porter wanted to keep arguing, but there was nothing else he could say. Gwinn was right. Danger followed him like a moth to flame, and even he couldn’t deny that Tick had been caught up in it more times than he liked.
“I don’t know what I can say to make you trust me,” he said at last, “except that Tick is one of my best friends. I’m sorry for everything that’s happened to him, but I’ll do everything I can to make things right.”
Gwinn growled softly. “Pardon me if I don’t take your word for that.”
A sports car lay turned on its side, wrapped around a tree. Smoke billowed from under the hood, and broken glass sparkled on top of the gray asphalt in the midafternoon sun. A man and a woman lay in the road.
“J… Jessica?” the man moaned, stirring. Getting to his feet with some difficulty, he stumbled over to his wife. “Jessica, answer me!”
He gently put his hand on her shoulder and sighed in relief when she turned her head to look at him.
“Are you all right?”
“Mr. Pookums,” she whimpered.
He blinked. “What?”
Jessica raised her hand and pointed to her handbag, shredded to ribbons by the course pavement, and the remains of what had been inside it.
“It’s… it’s all right,” Austin said, gently pulling her to her feet. Luckily, it didn’t look like either of them had broken bones. A lot of cuts and bruises, but nothing life threatening.
A quick glance at the trailer twenty feet away showed that their new troll hadn’t been as fortunate. Somehow, though, the green skinned girl they’d bought looked to be in much better shape. It was cut up pretty badly too, blue blood dripping from its wounds, but at least it was standing. The rune talisman Jessica had put on its head earlier was still glowing, making it completely brain dead.
“What happened?” Jessica asked, having to lean on her husband as he led them to the side of the road, right beside the remnants of their car.
“The car crashed,” Austin answered, giving the pile of scrap metal a forlorn look. Wasn’t that just the way of things? The replaceable servants survived, but his car, that beautiful piece of machinery, had been destroyed. There had only been twenty of them made in the whole world!
Something caught his eye as he was staring, and he leaned closer to get a better look. A long, narrow branch stuck out from one of his tires. How could he have missed that laying in the middle of the road? It was nearly two feet long, and so straight that it…
It almost looked like a spear.
“Oopsie daisy,” a voice crooned in sadistic pleasure. “Looks like someone had an accident.”
Austin and Jessica spun around to see a man emerging from the forest. He was dressed in a long, black coat and sunglasses, and carrying a pack over his shoulder. It clacked with every step he took.
Something about the man didn’t seem right to Austin, but he couldn’t think of what it could be. Leaving Jessica by the car, he took a hesitant step toward him.
“Excuse me,” he said. “My wife and I’ve been in a car accident. Do you have a—”
The man kicked Austin in the chest, throwing him onto his back.
“Austin!” Jessica screamed.
Austin scrambled away from the man on his back, leaving a few trails of blood on the road.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Who are you?”
Instead of answering right away, the man reached into his pack and pulled out a wooden spike identical to the one embedded in the car’s tire.
“I’m the judge,” he answered, grinning. With his other hand, he removed his sunglasses and tucked them into the breast pocket of his coat. “And you two are a couple of very bad people!”
“Bad… We haven’t done anything wrong!” Austin protested, getting back to his feet next to his wife. Jessica cowered behind him.
The man chuckled and pointed at the fae girl. “Is that so? What do you call that, then?”
“A monster,” Austin answered. “We bought it.”
“Just for a little help around the house,” Jessica added, her voice cracking with fear.
The man turned to look at her now, the javelins in his pack clattering as he moved.
“So, you admit that you bought it off the illegal slave market?”
“Illegal?” Austin exclaimed. “There’s no law against it!”
“No laws recognized by the government,” the man corrected him. “But laws like that are worthless anyway.”
The couple stared up at him, uncomprehending.
“Let me explain,” he said, casually pacing back and forth in front of them. “You obviously know monsters are real. Judging by the rune on that one’s head, you probably even know a little magic.”
“I bought it,” Jessica spluttered. “We use it to keep them under—”
“So,” the man cut her off, “I’d be surprised to find out you didn’t know about the Slayers too.”
He folded his arms, grinning in pride. “They’re an army of brave soldiers trying to save the human race from monsters like that one,” he said, his voice loud and boastful. His grin turned into a scowl. “But how are they supposed to do that if every lazy numbskull with a fat wad of cash keeps buying them up, feeding them, and hiding them?”
Horrified comprehension dawned on Austin’s face. “You’re a Slayer.”
The man nodded in mock approval. “Now you’re getting. You’re pretty slow, so how about I explain what’s going on? The Slayers have a law that any man, woman, or child who is caught sheltering monsters can be executed without a trial. Just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, that’s exactly what I just caught you doing.”
“You’re going to kill us?” the woman asked, her voice trembling with fear.
He shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s my job. You should have made wiser choices.”
Fueled by terror, Austin lunged forward and grabbed the front of the man’s coat in both hands. “You don’t have to do this,” he pleaded. “Do you know who I am?”
The Slayer huffed and effortlessly brushed him away. “No idea. Should I?”
“I- I’m a famous actor. I’ve been in dozens of blockbuster movies. I’m one of the richest men in the country. If you let us go, I- I’ll…”
The man feigned shock. “You’ll give me money? All the money I could ever dream of having?”
Austin bobbed his head. “As much as you want! I promise! Just don’t—”
He never finished, because the man reached out and grabbed him by his throat, turning his promises into a gurgle.
“You people are scum,” he growled. “Collecting truckloads of money without ever having done a hard day’s work in your life. Never giving a second thought to your fellow man. And now you think you can bribe me to do the same?”
Austin tried to answer, but the man’s grip only tightened.
“I’m the one making a difference in the world,” he went on. “I’m saving our race from monsters like that,” he jabbed his finger at the fae child yet again, “and from people like you!”
With that, he shoved Austin away. Austin fell to the ground, gasping for air, as the Slayer came to stand over him. Jessica scrambled to get away but tripped, ending up sprawled out on the ground. Austin could only look up in terror as the man drew another of his javelins from his pack. He did it slowly, letting Austin see what was happening, letting the terror really set in. He twirled the short spear expertly between his fingers and, without warning, dropped to his knees and slammed it into Austin’s chest.
“Austin!” his wife screamed as she saw the blood erupt from the wound. Austin convulsed on the ground for a few seconds, but then fell still.
The Slayer rose to his feet and turned towards her.
“No,” she begged. “No, no, please! I’ll do anything! Any—"
He casually threw the javelin, cutting her off midsentence.
Smiling in satisfaction, he retrieved his weapon and returned it to his pack. Another job well done. Master Mortoph would approve. He could still remember, clear as day, the first time he’d met the Master Slayer. Sitting alone in a dark cell, a former Navy SEAL convicted of murder and waiting for execution. It wasn’t his fault the world was full of weaklings. Doing things his way wasn’t murder, it was efficient. Get the job done and kill anyone who got in your way— man, woman, or child.
And then, out of the shadows, a gigantic man had appeared.
“I have a job for you,” Mortoph had said. “This is your chance to actually do some good in the world. Carry out your own brand of justice. No rules, no laws, no questions asked.”
His only other option being to stay there and wait to die, he had agreed without a second thought.
Mortoph had smiled. “Then welcome to the Slayers, Dominic Vega.”
Vega turned to the fae girl standing in the street with a dumb look on its face. The job wasn’t done yet. He snapped his fingers and a dozen javelins floated out of his pack, surrounding it.
“Hold on a second,” he said, stepping between them. “Can’t let you take the easy way out, can I?”
With that, he plucked the talisman from the monster’s forehead. It blinked twice, and then it eyes widened and it screamed. Vega couldn’t resist laughing as he snapped his fingers a second time.
And then then the job was done.
NEXT TIME: Porter and Sarah are following Tick, Vega’s following Porter and Sarah, and Granger’s following Vega. Will Porter and Sarah catch up to the Caravan in time? And where is Granger, anyway?