Tick wearily opened his eyes to see Manchi kneeling above him.
“Yeah?” he asked, stifling a yawn. The moon was above them, bright and full, as their wagon trundled on through the forest.
“I can’t sleep,” she responded, looking at him with her big, brown eyes.
Groaning, Tick sat up. His back still tingled where it had been whipped, but at least the searing pain was gone. It hadn’t bled in over a day, either, though he still had to move carefully or he’d crack the scabs. He stared at Manchi, waiting for her to explain. She wouldn’t have woken him just because she couldn’t sleep, he thought.
“Could you…” she began at last, but broke off, looking away in embarrassment.
“Could I what?” Tick encouraged her. In truth, he just wanted to go back to sleep. It had been a long day, and the turmoil he felt at seeing the fae family being pulled apart had left him exhausted.
Manchi looked at him shyly, her cheeks turning red. “Could you tell me a story?”
Tick was taken aback. “A story?” he echoed.
Manchi nodded. “I know it’s stupid of me to ask. It’s just that when I was little, my mom would always tell me stories when I got scared. She’s not here, now, so…”
She looked away again. “I’m sorry. I’m just being a baby.”
“No,” Tick exclaimed, “it’s fine! There’s nothing wrong with that.” He gently sat himself back down against the wall of the cart, wincing as the splintery wood prickled his wounds. “What do you want to hear about?”
Manchi thought for a moment, and then said. “Tell me about the hero you said is coming to save us.”
Tick looked at her in surprise.
“If he’s a hero,” she reasoned, “then he must have a couple of stories you could tell me about him.”
Slowly, Tick nodded. “Yeah, I guess I have a couple.”
He bowed his head in thought, trying to think of what to tell her.
“I met him,” he began, “when I had been caught by slave traders.”
“Slave traders?” Manchi echoed, looking outside the cage.
“Yeah,” Tick confirmed, “but not these ones. These are the ones he was probably going to sell me to, though. Anyway, he kept me in a cage for almost a week before he threw someone else in with me.”
“The hero?” Manchi asked, excitedly.
“No,” Tick shook his head. “It was a sphinx. The slave trader who caught me had caught her too. She was scared, but she told me her name was Sarah. I had a magic chain around my neck so I couldn’t talk to her, but I was able to write my name for her.”
His voice trailed off as memories of the man in the cowboy hat and his cattle prod came back to him, and he shuddered.
“The slave trader hurt us,” he finally continued, “but Sarah was stronger than I was. She was really brave, too. Even though he was hurting her, she looked him right in the eye and yelled at him.”
“She sounds like a hero,” Manchi interjected.
Tick shrugged. “She is, I guess. But if it had just been the two of us, we’d never have managed to get out of there. That’s when he showed up.”
Tick paused for effect. “His name is Porter. He’s not a grown up, but he’s braver than any grown up I’ve ever met. When the slave trader was hurting us, Porter showed up just in time and beat him up. He got us out of the cage, and locked the slave trader inside it. We all escaped, and Porter carried Sarah all the way out of the town. After that, they let me travel with them.”
“Where were you going?” Manchi asked.
“They were trying to get to Jellaska Kob Lertan,” Tick answered. “Sarah’s house had been attacked by the Slayers…”
Again, he broke off, disturbing thoughts filling his head. Porter had been one of those Slayers, hadn’t he? The thought was so surreal. The Porter he knew was so nice. Tick tried to imagine him cutting Mythics’ heads off, but he couldn’t.
“Keep going!” Manchi urged him.
“Sarah’s house was attacked by Slayers,” he began again, deciding that was a secret best kept to himself for now, “but she escaped. The two of them were going to the Dwarf City because they thought they could find Sarah’s parents there. Before we got there, though, we stopped at the Historians’ Tower.”
Manchi wrinkled her nose at this. “The Historians’ Tower isn’t real,” she argued.
“Yes it is!” Tick insisted. “Or… it was, at least. The Slayers showed up just after we got there, and they attacked the tower.”
“Did the hero fight them all off?” Manchi asked.
Tick shook his head. “There were way too many of them for him to do that. They killed everyone in the tower, but he got me and Sarah out safe.”
Manchi looked crestfallen. “But heroes are supposed to save everyone!” she argued. “You’re telling me he just ran away?”
Tick looked at her, not knowing what to say. She’d never met Porter, so there was no way she could understand what he was like. Yes, he’d run away from the fight, but it hadn’t been out of cowardice. In fact, Porter had felt guiltier than any of them afterwards. He’d thought it was his fault the historians had died. But wasn’t he a hero anyway just for doing what was right? Porter had decided to save his friends instead of dying for the ones who were doomed anyway. It had been a hard decision, one that Tick wasn’t sure he would have been able to make himself.
“He’s a hero,” he said at last. “And he’s out there, coming to save me.”
He looked at Manchi, and corrected himself. “To save us.”
Manchi sat down at the other side of the cage. “I hope I get to meet him someday,” she said.
Tick nodded. “You will, I promise.”
As the Caravan rolled on, Tick looked up at the moon. Somehow, just talking about Porter, telling someone about all the brave things he’d done, was comforting. Porter was out there, he repeated in his head, and he was coming to find him. With that thought in his mind, he nodded off again.
“Granger!” Vega called out. “What are you doing here?”
Granger stood twenty feet away from the other Slayer, the cold wind causing his coat to billow out behind him like a flag. He’d been following Vega for over three hours, waiting for him to finally notice his presence. The man may be nigh unstoppable in a fight, but he was next to worthless anywhere else. Why Mortoph had decided to send him on this mission, of all people, Granger could not understand.
Of course, none of this made it out of his mouth.
“Master Mortoph has sent me to retrieve you,” he answered, making his way closer. “He wants you to return to base immediately.”
Vega was still for a moment, his expression unreadable. Then he reached up and removed his ever present sunglasses. His eyes were cold and hard, enough to send shivers down a lesser man’s spine— but Granger wasn’t a lesser man.
“Did he, really?” he asked. “And why would he do that?”
“He thinks that the monsters are planning an attack, and he wants you back at Red Castle to help prepare for it.”
Vega huffed in his throat, but Granger couldn’t tell if it was in amusement or irritation. “Well, then I guess he’ll have to wait a little longer.”
Granger raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You would defy the Master?”
“Of course not,” Vega answered casually, “which is why I won’t go back until I’ve killed this lost werewolf of his.”
Granger’s hand itched to rise to his katana’s hilt, but he resisted. “And what of my orders? I was commanded to bring you back to base with me.”
Vega shrugged. “You’re more than welcome to come with me. Just don’t get in my way when I find the wolf.”
With that, he turned and continued on his way. Granger hesitated for a moment. Defying Master Mortoph’s orders was a crime of the highest magnitude in the Slayers. Vega was clearly bent on completing the mission he was given, and Granger wasn’t sure if he could force him to return. Dominic Vega was ranked higher than him, but in truth their fighting skills were nearly equal. The only thing that set them apart was that Vega could use his javelins for close and long range combat alike, while Granger’s katana was only good for hand to hand combat.
Finally, with a grunt of irritation, he followed.
“There will be punishment for us both if Master Mortoph finds out we’ve disobeyed him,” he said.
Vega shrugged again, making his javelins clack together. “That’s the difference between you and me, Granger. You’re too scared of breaking the rules.”
Granger bit back a sharp remark. He was most certainly not afraid of breaking rules. On the contrary, he simply valued loyalty above all things.
“Loyalty is a thing of the past,” he said. “Something that I’m interested in bringing back.”
Vega smirked. “Really? How do you figure?”
“People today think that loyalty is something that can change at the drop of a hat,” Granger explained. “They’ll only stay loyal so long as it continues to benefit them.”
“And why shouldn’t they?” Vega challenged him. “What good is fighting for a side if there’s nothing in it for you?”
“Your honor as a warrior,” Granger answered. “What good is a soldier if they fight for gain and not loyalty?”
He sighed, watching his breath fog up the air in front of him. “There used to be a time when it was considered an honor to die for your leader, even if you didn’t understand why. Today, everyone wants to understand everything. They don’t want to give their life for their cause because they don’t know if that cause is worth their life.”
“That’s good,” Vega countered. “There’s no point in dying for the losing side.”
“It’s not about which side wins or loses!” Granger snapped. “It’s about doing what’s best for the greater good! Why can’t we fight and die just because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of whether it will lead to victory or not?”
For a moment Vega was silent, and Granger could see that he’d backed him into a corner.
“What I don’t understand,” Vega said at last, “is what my finishing a mission says about my loyalty to the Slayers. I’m doing exactly what Mortoph brought me here to do: kill monsters!”
“Because you’re being disobedient to the will of the Master,” Granger insisted. “A man who pursues his own goals, even in defiance to his superiors, is only loyal to himself.”
Vega stopped walking and glared at Granger. For the first time, the old man could see emotion on his face. He’d struck a nerve, and he knew it. Whether that had been truly wise, however, he wasn’t sure…
“Don’t forget that I outrank you, Granger,” he said in a low, threatening voice. “Sounds like you have a thing or two to learn about respecting your superiors too.”
He set off again, anger putting a new fire in his step. “Now come on, I have a werewolf to kill.”
“We’re close,” Gwinn exclaimed, pulling up so suddenly that his companions almost ran straight into him. He was holding yet another piece of his fur in his hand, staring at it with wide eyes. His hand, Sarah noticed, was shaking.
“To Tick?” she asked.
Gwinn nodded. “Less than an hour away from us. If we hurry, we can catch up to him by noon.”
“Then let’s go get him!” she exclaimed.
She looked at the others, expecting them to agree with her, but she found them exchanging concerned glances.
“We have no idea who else might be there,” Porter said, frowning. “We should scout ahead first, just to be safe.”
Sarah took a step back in surprise. “You’re kidding, right? We came all this way, and now you think we need to start being careful?”
“No, he’s right,” Gwinn said. “Tick’s been away from you for weeks now. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s probably not alone.”
“It’s probably just Joseph,” Porter admitted, though Sarah didn’t miss the way he clenched his fist when he said the satyr’s name.
“All the same, better safe than sorry.”
“I’ll go,” Faska declared, easing Azkular off his shoulder. “I can move around more stealthily than you can. I’ll be back within an hour.”
Sarah turned to look at the elf, dressed in his brilliant white cloak. “You practically glow in the dark wearing that thing. They’ll see you a mile—”
Sarah blinked, and Faska was gone.
“Oh…” she said, sitting down. “Okay, then.”
The next hour was one of the most excruciating of Sarah’s life. Tick was so close, and here they were, sitting around a blue campfire. She could tell Porter wasn’t faring much better. He had sat down without complaint, but the rigidness of his posture told her how close he was to jumping up and chasing after Faska. Trying to get him to relax, Sarah extended one of her wings and put it around his shoulders, pulling him over so he was leaning on her.
“Is anyone hungry?” she asked. “Porter and I can go catch something.”
“No,” Azkular answered with a firm shake of his head. “We all need to be here when Faska comes back. Besides, we won’t be able to fight with food in our stomachs.”
Sarah sat up a little straighter. “A fight?” she echoed. “What makes you think there’s going to be a fight?”
“I can feel it in my fire,” the djinn answered.
Before she could ask what the heck that meant, a twig snapped just outside their campsite and everyone turned to see Faska emerging from the woods. His face looked even paler than usual, and a pit formed in Sarah’s stomach.
“What did you find?” Gwinn demanded. “Did you see him?”
Faska shook his head. “It’s bad, really bad. I followed the trail, and I found the slave Caravan.”
Everyone jumped to their feet. “The Caravan?” Gwinn demanded raising his front paws off the ground. “Are you sure?”
“I didn’t see him, but he has to be there somewhere,” Faska explained as quickly as he could. “Why else would your spell lead us straight here?”
“Could it be wrong again?” Porter asked. “Maybe they just have one of his hairs or something.”
Gwinn shook his head, his eyes open wide with alarm. “I wish I could say that was the case, but it isn’t. The slave traders have my son.”
“Again,” Sarah added, feeling like she was going to be sick.
“Well, we’ll just have to break him out again!” Porter declared, summoning Flicker.
“Hold on just a moment,” Droma said, putting a massive hand on Porter’s shoulder. “You cannot just go running into this. This is not one slave trader keeping Tick in a dog kennel, this is a small army of them.”
“Droma’s right,” Gwinn agreed. He put his fist to his furry chin in thought. “We have to be smart about this. We can’t fight our way to him, so we’ll have to sneak in.”
“Then who’s going?” Azkular asked.
Gwinn thought for a minute more. “Porter and I will go.”
“And the rest of us?”
“The rest of you stay here so you won’t get in our way.”
The fur on Sarah’s back bristled with outrage. “Excuse me?”
Gwinn turned on her. “We don’t have time to argue about this!” Out of all of you, Porter is the only one who’ll be of any use.”
“That’s hardly true,” Azkular protested. “You have—”
“A one-legged djinn,” Gwinn interrupted, “an elf that can’t leave his side, a sphinx with no battle training, a werewolf that would run the second we let her off her leash, and the Slayer who has to hold onto that leash. The only one of you that might actually be able to help me is Droma, and that means he needs to stay here and stand guard.”
Sarah’s cheeks turned red with anger, but she held her tongue. “Porter,” she said, turning to face him, “it’s too dangerous for you to go alone. Please, let me come with you!”
Gwinn turned to look at Porter, and the boy glanced uncertainly between him and Sarah.
“Sarah,” he said at last, “I can’t ask you to do that.”
Sarah took a step back in surprise. “What? Why not?”
Porter grimaced, but didn’t back down. He got on one knee in front of her so that they were at eye level.
“Sarah, do you remember what I promised you?” he asked. “I said that I would protect you. I said I would never let you be put in danger, and… well, I haven’t been doing a good job of that lately.”
“Porter,” Sarah said, “those times were not your fault. You can’t blame yourself!”
“But I do!” Porter exclaimed. He reached out and put his hands on her shoulders. “Do you have any idea how I felt whenever something happened to you? When the slave traders caught you? When the Slayers attacked the Historians’ Tower? When Other Porter kidnapped you? Sarah, I was so scared that I felt sick! Please, don’t make me go through that again!”
Sarah shook her head. “I can help you!”
Porter looked pleadingly into her eyes. “Don’t you understand what’s going on here? Tick’s life is in danger.”
“And I want to help him just as much as you do!”
“I need to go in there with a clear head,” Porter insisted. “I need to concentrate on getting to Tick and getting him out all right. I… I know it sounds horrible, but I can’t do that if I’ll have to keep looking over my shoulder to make sure you’re safe!”
Sarah took another step backwards, feeling like he’d just slapper her. Porter sighed and hung his head.
“I’m not trying to hurt you,” he insisted. “I’m trying to keep you from being hurt.”
Anger rose up inside of her. “I don’t care!” she shouted. “How do you think I feel?”
“I—” Porter began, but Sarah cut him off.
“How do you think I feel whenever I know you’re in danger? I know I can’t fight, but that doesn’t mean I want to be left behind. Whenever you have to go fight something, all I can think about is how easily you could be hurt— or worse! I love you, Porter, and you love me. Aren’t I entitled to come along and help you when I can?”
Porter hesitated, caught off guard.
“It seems that what it comes down to,” Droma said in his low, deep voice, “is whether you love her enough to keep her safe, or keep her by your side.”
Porter looked back at the sphinx helplessly.
“Please,” Sarah begged him, “please understand what I’m saying. Whenever something like this happens, you and I get separated. I don’t want to lose you again. Porter, I want to be with you!”
“The Caravan won’t stay in one place for long,” Gwinn said impatiently. “We need to get going!”
Porter looked at him as he began to walk away from the group, and then turned back to Sarah.
“We’ll talk about this when I get back,” he said. “I promise! For now, though… please, just stay here.”
“Porter!” Sarah cried out as the boy turned and ran after the giant cat. Her heart felt like it was breaking as he left her behind once again.
Just like always, she wondered if that would be the last time she ever saw him.
NEXT TIME: They’ve finally caught up with the Caravan, and the know how much trouble Tick is in. Will Porter and Gwinn be able to get him out of there all right? Will Sarah be able to stay put like Porter said? How long do they have before Vega and Granger catch up to them?