The fire crackled invitingly as Sarah held her hands out in front of it. The cold had nipped at her human body all day long, and now she sighed in relief as the warm flames finally chased the chills and stiffness away. Porter sat to her right, methodically feeding even more sticks into the blaze. His mouth was stretched into a thin line, and his eyes never deviated from his work. He moved with the determined speed of someone trying not to let their thoughts wander.
None of this has been easy for him, Sarah thought with a sigh. He blames himself for everything that’s happened. He thinks he’s a failure.
Once he’d built the fire to a satisfactory size, Porter collapsed to his rear and busied himself with staring intently at the ground in front of him.
He needs something to boost his confidence, Sarah decided, sitting with her arms wrapped her knees. Something that will show him just how amazing he really is.
Porter wasn’t the only quiet one tonight. The loss of Tick had lowered everyone’s spirits, and an unsettling silence stretched across the whole group. Even if he was free from the Caravan, the fact that Gwinn had whisked him away like that made them feel like they had failed their mission. Sarah turned to look across the fire at where Manchi was sitting. She hadn’t said a word the entire day, but Sarah hadn’t missed the glances she was giving everybody. She couldn’t really blame her, either. A boy leading a werewolf by a leash, a giant, an elf, a one-legged djinn, and a sphinx who had spent the entire day looking like a human girl— all led by a young man who wasn’t even seventeen yet. Such a motley crew was something one would expect to hear about in stories, not find themselves travelling through the forest with. Manchi was either thrilled, or terrified.
Sarah cast one last glance at Porter, who still hadn’t moved, and then stood up and made her way to the other side of the fire to sit down next to the chimera. Manchi looked up in surprise, and then scooted wordlessly to the side to make room for her.
“How are you doing?” Sarah asked softly, giving her an encouraging smile.
Manchi’s breath caught in her throat, and she turned to look into the campfire. Sarah reached out and put a comforting hand on the girl’s back, causing her to jump in fright.
“It’s all right,” she said. “We’re all your friends here.”
“My mom said I’m not allowed to have friends,” Manchi whispered, as if afraid that her voice might offend someone.
Sarah withdrew her hand in surprise. “Why would she say that?”
Manchi blushed, and one hand went up to tug on her furry ears. “Because of these. She said they would scare people.”
A chorus of gentle rustlings came from all around her, and Sarah realized that everyone around the fire had turned their attention to the two of them.
“That… doesn’t sound like a very nice thing to say,” she replied hesitantly.
Manchi shook her head, her panda-like ears flapping wildly. “My mom was really nice. She told me stories, and made me all my favorite foods. She’d tuck me into bed every night, and…” Suddenly, she broke off, her eyes brimming with tears. She bit her lip, trying to fight back sobs, and buried her face into the crooks of her arms.
Sarah didn’t have to ask what had happened to Manchi’s mother.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, not even sure if the child could hear her through her grief.
“It was a month ago,” Manchi said suddenly, raising her head up and staring at Sarah with bloodshot eyes. “We lived in an old house on a farm. It was in the middle of nowhere, but Mom said that nobody would ever come looking for us there. She never let me leave the house, not even when she did.”
Sarah’s eyes began to grow wide as the girl told her story. It was so familiar, yet it sounded strange to hear it coming out of someone else’s mouth.
“Mom would grow stuff out in the fields,” she continued. “She’d cook with it, and sometimes she’d go and try to sell it when we needed something she couldn’t grow. Then, one night she came home and couldn’t stop coughing. She told me she was okay, and tried to make supper. But then she got all dizzy, and fell over. I helped her get into bed, and she felt really hot, like she said I did whenever I got sick.”
Sarah’s heart sank into her stomach. She knew exactly how this story was going to end.
“She stayed in bed for a whole week. I don’t know how to cook, so I had to eat the vegetables raw. I tried to take care of her, but she wouldn’t take any of the medicine I brought her. She said it was the wrong kind.” Manchi paused, and drew in a raspy breath. When she continued, her voice was quivering. “I couldn’t sleep at night because I could hear her coughing in her bedroom. Blood started to come out of her mouth when she coughed. She said she wasn’t going to be around much longer, and that I’d have to take care of myself.”
Manchi faltered, her words threatening to devolve into pitiful cries. “I told her I didn’t know how. She said she was sorry, and that she should have taught me, but it was too late for that now. She said she loved me, and then…”
This time, she really did begin to cry. Long, mournful sobs tore free of her chest as she finally let out all the emotion she’d obviously kept pent up all this time. Sarah felt her own heart throb with sympathy for her. The chimera had grown up just like she had, locked inside a house with nobody but her immediate family for company. It was worse than that, though, she realized with a shudder of guilt. Sarah had grown up in a mansion big enough to house at least twenty families. Manchi had lived in a shack. Sarah had had her father, her mother, and her maid, Mrs. Rasta, to talk to. Manchi had only had her mother.
And Sarah had done nothing but complain about it.
Feeling her eyes mist up as well, she moved closer and wrapped Manchi in big a hug. The little girl didn’t respond, but Sarah didn’t let go.
There is so much pain in the world, she thought as the panda-eared child continued to cry. Why does so much of it have to fall on children?
Sarah wasn’t sure how long she stayed like that, holding Manchi in her arms, before she realized that the girl had cried herself to sleep. It could have been minutes, or even hours. Nobody seemed to have moved a muscle, all of them staring unblinkingly at her. Sarah stood up and tenderly took the girl in her arms, careful not to wake her, and laid her down a few feet away from the fire, covering her with one of the few blankets the group had. Before she realized what she was doing, she leaned down and planted a light kiss on her cheek.
As if by some unspoken signal, everyone else got up and began to choose spots around the campsite to sleep as well. Everyone except Porter. He stayed where he was, sitting by the fire, his eyes on Manchi. There was a strange look on his face, one that Sarah, even with her intimate knowledge of how his mind worked, couldn’t identify. Once the last of their friends had bedded down for the night, she went back over and sat down next to him. For a few minutes, neither of them said a word. Sarah didn’t rush him. He would speak when he was ready.
“We did a good thing by helping her today, didn’t we?” he asked at last, his voice a hoarse whisper.
“Was there ever any doubt?” Sarah responded.
“Sometimes I wonder,” the boy admitted. “No matter what we do, people end up getting hurt. Usually, they’re the people closest to us. Sometimes I can’t help but think they’d be better off if we didn’t show up at all.”
He pointed at the sleeping chimera girl. “But she was being hurt before we even got there. She would have been hurt even more if we hadn’t. We set her free, and took her away from the slave traders.”
Sarah nodded, and leaned over, resting her head on Porter’s shoulder. “It feels nice to know you’ve actually done something good, doesn’t it?”
“We can’t change what’s already happened to her,” Porter concluded. “We can’t bring her mother back. But now that she’s here, there’s a chance we can help make things better for her.”
“And not just her,” Sarah added. “All of the Mythics that had been captured by the Caravan are free now. If we hadn’t helped them, they’d all still be in those cages, waiting to be sold to someone.”
“That’s something that’s worth fighting for,” Porter decided.
There was silence again as the two of them thought about the day’s events, and what might be coming in the future.
“Sarah,” Porter spoke up again, his voice hesitant, “about what I said this morning, just before going to the Caravan with Gwinn…”
“You don’t have to apologize,” Sarah said quickly, cutting him off. “You just wanted to keep me safe. When Tick got hurt, I finally understood what you meant. You weren’t trying to separate us, you just wanted to keep me out of harm’s way. What happened to Tick… things like that happen when violence breaks out, and nobody can do anything to stop them. It could have just as easily been me that got hit by that spell.”
“But you were right all along,” Porter insisted. “Gwinn and I needed you and the others there. If you hadn’t come to our rescue, Tick wouldn’t have just been hurt— he would have been killed.”
The young man turned to her, and took both of her hands in his own, staring deep into her eyes. “Thank you, Sarah. You saved all of our lives today.”
Sarah felt a blush rise to her cheeks at the praise. Porter was the warrior, not her. That was a fact she’d never had trouble accepting. To hear him thank her for saving his life made her stomach do front-flips.
“You’re welcome,” she said in reply.
For a moment, she thought Porter was going to kiss her again. She certainly wouldn’t have complained if he had. Instead, he gave her hands one final squeeze, and then stood up.
“You’d better get some sleep,” he said, turning and making his way to the edge of camp. “I’ll take first watch.”
The group rose with the sun, packing their meager belongings and setting off once more. Manchi walked slowly, lingering towards the back of the group, but Sarah hung back with her to make sure she was okay.
She just spent a whole day in her human form, Porter thought, watching her. She’s never done that before.
Before he could ponder this further, though, Faska quickened his pace so that he and Azkular were walking beside him.
“We can’t afford to wander around aimlessly anymore,” the djinn said, wasting no time in getting to the point.
“We haven’t been wandering around,” Porter argued. “We were rescuing a Tick.”
Azkular nodded. “And I’m not criticizing you for it. However, we’ve been ignoring the bigger problem. Rayalga is still gathering the Mythics so he can declare war on mankind, and we’re no closer to stopping him now than when we started.”
“We need a plan,” Porter said. “Any ideas?”
“I stand by what I said before,” Azkular said. “We have proof that Mortoph lied to at least three of his minions to get them to join his cause, so I’m willing to bet that he’s done the same thing to more of them, maybe even most of them. If we can bring this to light, Mortoph will lose his followers’ loyalty.”
“But how are we going to do that?” Porter asked. “If we tell them ourselves, they’ll assume we’re lying. That is, if they even let us get close enough to tell them at all.”
“No,” the djinn agreed, “we can’t rely on our own experiences to persuade them. We’ll have to convince them that they have been affected as well.”
Azkular paused before answering. “I don’t know. But we’ll have to figure something out soon. We’re running out of time.”
With that, Faska slowed his pace, leaving Porter to lead the group alone— but where was he leading them to? Now that he thought about it, he had absolutely no idea where they were. Their only sense of direction before had been where Gwinn’s spell told them to go.
That wasn’t the only problem, though, Porter realized. Whenever he needed to get someplace, he had depended on someone else to lead him there. Droma had brought them to the Historians’ Tower, and Flicker had led them to Jellaska Kob Lertan. Azkular and Faska had led him to Red Castle, and then to his old home. After that, Gwinn had been the one to lead them to Tick. When left on his own, Porter realized with a sinking feeling in his stomach, he had always been completely lost. The tables had been turned, though. Now everyone was depending on him to make the next big decision. They wanted him to be the leader and tell them where to go.
But what does a leader do when he doesn’t know the best path to take? he wondered. With a soft grunt of frustration, he started to walk more slowly. The others passed him, continuing on their way, until Sarah finally caught up to him, Manchi walking so close to her that she almost tripped over the sphinx’s human feet.
“I know that look,” Sarah said. “What’s wrong?”
Porter looked back to make sure none of the others might be listening in, and then answered softly, “I don’t know what to do. Azkular says we have to stop the Arch-Mythic from declaring war on humanity, but I have no idea how.”
Sarah reached out and took Porter’s hand in her own, giving it an encouraging squeeze. “Just do what your heart tells you to do,” she said, putting on a brave smile.
“My heart is giving me the same problem,” Porter admitted. “It tells me what I need to do, but not how to do it.”
Sarah’s smile fell away, leaving a worried frown on her face, but she didn’t let go of his hand.
“All of the progress we’ve made so far is because someone else took us where we needed to go,” Porter said, his spirits sinking further. “Now they expect us to have all the answers.”
“And I guess setting off in a random direction isn’t a good option this time either,” the sphinx mused.
“It might be our only option,” Porter added, a hint of bitterness in his voice.
“What’s going on?” Manchi asked from Sarah’s other side.
“It’s… complicated,” Sarah answered. “We’re trying to stop something that would hurt a lot of people.”
“Oh,” the girl said, looking ahead at their companions. “Are they trying to stop it too?”
“All of us,” Porter answered. “But we don’t know what to do next.”
“Will Tick be there when it happens?” Manchi asked, looking hopefully up at Sarah.
Porter and Sarah exchanged wary glances.
“Probably not,” she answered at last. “And we hope you won’t be either. When it happens, it’s going to be dangerous.”
“What?” Manchi exclaimed, her eyes going wide with hurt. “You want to get rid of me?”
“No, no, of course not!” Sarah quickly amended herself. “We don’t want to get rid of you. We just want you to be somewhere you won’t get hurt.”
Manchi scowled at them, but didn’t argue.
“But,” Porter said, turning his attention back to Sarah, “that still doesn’t answer the problem of what we need to do.”
“Then ask what the others think,” Sarah suggested. “They might be able to think of…”
Suddenly, Sarah froze, cocking her head to the side. Porter stopped as well, watching her intently. She was listening for something. Ahead of him, he saw the others come to a halt as well.
“Did you hear something?” he asked.
“Shhh!” she hissed, turning her head. She began to whisper. “There’s something out there.”
Porter summoned Flicker to his hand, holding it at the ready. The others immediately drew their weapons as well. Sarah turned on the spot, scanning the area with her ears. Even in her human form, her ears were as keen as a lion’s. She paused for a moment, her breath catching nervously in her throat, and then pointed into a thick patch of trees.
“There!” she declared.
Reacting instantly, Porter charged forward, intending to take whoever was following them by surprise.
“Wait! Wait!” a frightened, high pitched voice called out of the woods. “It’s me!”
Porter stopped in his tracks, the voice registering dimly in his memory. In front of him, a satyr came out from behind a tree, hands raised in surrender.
“Joseph?” Porter exclaimed.
“I’ve been following you guys since you took the Caravan down!” he explained as quickly as he could. His clothes were torn, and his hair and fur were matted against his skin. Bruises and cuts covered his body, and his eyes had dark rings under them, as if he hadn’t slept in a week.
“The slave traders caught you too?” Porter asked, lowering his sword.
But Joseph wasn’t paying attention to Porter anymore, he was staring intently at the young woman behind him.
Sarah sucked in a breath when Joseph’s face broke out in an excited grin. Ignoring Porter, he dodged around the young man and ran to her.
“Hey!” Porter exclaimed, but the satyr didn’t give him a second glance.
“Tick and I got ambushed,” he explained, talking so quickly that it was hard to understand him. “Azkular told us to run, and we did, but the slave traders took us by surprise a few days later. I tried to keep him safe, but I couldn’t. I’m sorry!”
“It- it’s okay,” Sarah replied, her brain still trying to catch up.
He leaned towards her, so close that she could make out the prickly stubble that had grown over his face. He stank. “I heard that the Slayers kidnapped you. I wanted to help you. I really did! I wanted to find you and recue you, but I couldn’t. I’m sorry!”
“You didn’t have to,” she reassured him, goosebumps rising on her arms. “Porter saved me.”
Joseph went stiff, and he shot an agitated glance at Porter, who gave him a cocky wave, before turning back to Sarah. He looked her up and down, as if just now seeing her for the first time.
“You’re human,” he said incredulously. “Why are you human?”
“I…” Sarah paused, a blush rising to her cheeks. “I just… want to be human right now.”
Joseph narrowed his eyes, looking at her as if she’d just told him she wanted to be a duck. Glancing over his shoulder, Sarah saw the looks Porter was shooting at him.
“Look, no offense,” she said, raising a hand, “but could you back up a little? You’re, you know, in my bubble.”
Joseph blinked, but took a step back. Porter relaxed a little, but he still didn’t look at all pleased by the satyr’s sudden appearance.
Something happened between them, Sarah realized. Does Porter think that…
“Joseph, you are welcome to join us if you want,” Azkular spoke up.
Porter opened his mouth to protest, but when everyone turned to look at him he closed it again, face burning.
“Okay, all right,” Joseph agreed, turning back to the others. “I’ll come. Where are we going?”
“That’s what we were trying to figure out,” Porter said, taking a step forward.
“Arch-Mythic Rayalga is going to declare war on the human race,” Droma answered.
Joseph began to nod vigorously. “And you’re all going to enlist, right?”
“No,” Porter spat. “We’re going to stop him.”
Something changed in Joseph when he heard Porter’s voice. His expression went stony, and his fist clenched at his side.
Oh yeah, Sarah though. Something definitely happened while I was away.
“Come with us if you want,” Porter said, setting off in the direction they had previously been heading. “We can’t promise it’ll be safe, though.”
He paused, and looked into the satyr’s eyes, giving him the coldest, hardest glare he could muster.
“And Joseph,” he said, his voice dark with unspoken threats, “don’t try to stop us.”
Sarah watched him march into the woods, back rigid and steps hurried. Looking up, she saw Joseph giving the back of Porter’s head an equally venomous glare.
Great. That’s all we need right now.
NEXT TIME: Porter and Sarah might be lost and short on time, but at least they have Joseph now, right? That’s a good thing, right? … right? I wonder what Tick and Gwinn are up to?