“Tick, it’s time to wake up.”
There was a burning sensation in Tick’s chest as he began to regain consciousness, and it only grew worse as he woke up, turning from an unpleasant tingle to genuine pain. With a moan, he opened his eyes.
He had expected it to be Porter standing over him, and so he was startled to see the white cat-thing from before there instead.
“How do you feel?” it asked with a surprising amount of concern in its voice.
“My chest hurts,” he answered hesitantly.
The cat closed its eyes and nodded solemnly. “You were struck point blank by a fireball spell. You’re lucky to be alive.”
Tick looked around without sitting up. “Where’s Porter?”
“I took you away from him,” it answered. “I’ll be the one taking care of you from now on.”
Alarm flooded Tick’s mind, and he sat up. He immediately regretted this when chest flared with pain, but he forced himself to ignore it.
“Why?” he demanded, glaring at his new abductor.
“Because Porter put you into far too much danger,” it answered. A flash of anger appeared on its face, but Tick wasn’t sure whether it was directed at him or Porter.
“He kept me safe from the danger!” Tick shot back.
The cat shook its head. “If he really cared about you, he would never have brought you into those kinds of situations.”
Tick felt his face turn red with anger. “Who are you to take me away from him in the first place?”
“I… uh…” the cat’s voice trailed off, as if second guessing itself. It hesitated, and took a step backwards. Tick wasn’t going to let it off the hook that easily, though. He wanted a proper explanation.
“Well?” he demanded.
“I’m…” the cat began again. It took a calming breath and then said, “I’m your father.”
All at once, Tick’s anger melted away, and was replaced with shock. “My… father?” he echoed, staring at the massive six-legged wildcat.
The cat nodded. “My name is Gwinn. Your mother must have mentioned me at some point.”
“She told me your name,” Tick confirmed. “But she never told me you were a… a…”
“A wampus cat?” it finished for him.
“Yeah, one of those.”
The cat-thing, Gwinn, sighed and sat down.
“I wouldn’t have expected her too,” it explained. “She never saw me like this.”
It looked at Tick expectantly, as if waiting for him to ask what it meant, but the little chimera had so many questions right then that he couldn’t decide which one to ask first. When Tick didn’t speak, the cat began to explain on its own.
“I was born human, Tick, and so were you. It wasn’t until after you were born that we became what we are now.”
Gwinn gestured at his own body, and then motioned towards Tick’s tail. Tick self-consciously hid it behind his back.
For the next twenty minutes, Gwinn told Tick about the corporation and what they had done to him, and how that, in turn, had affected Tick. Finally, with a downcast look on his face, he explained why he had never returned to his wife, Tick’s mother, leaving them to fend for themselves.
“But I want to make up for that now,” he insisted. “I’ll take care of you like the parent I should have been before.”
Tick regarded the wampus cat suspiciously. He seemed to be telling the truth, but Tick reminded himself that he no longer had Porter or Sarah to ask for advice. The thought scared him, being out in the woods with a Mythic that may or may not be who he said he was, without his two closest friends to help judge his character.
“I understand if you don’t trust me,” Gwinn said, “but I hope the time that we’ll be spending together will be enough to ease your mind.”
“How long are we going to be together?”
“Until you’re grown up and I’ve deemed you strong enough to survive on your own.”
Tick felt his spirits sink, and he hung his head in dejection. Above him, he heard Gwinn sigh.
“Come on, son,” he said. “It won’t be that bad!”
“You’re never going to let me see my friends again, are you?”
Gwinn hesitated. “Not while you’re with me. When you’re on your own, it’ll be your choice whether or not to reconnect with them. For now, all of my efforts will be focused on keeping you safe.”
Tick stared at the wampus cat, trying to find a sign, anything at all, that would tell him he was lying. There was none. Gwinn looked at him with a firm gaze, and Tick realized he would be wasting his breath arguing. Finally, with a weary nod, Tick got to his feet. His legs were weak underneath him, and he almost fell down, but Gwinn’s massive paw shot out and caught him.
“You still have a lot of healing to do,” he said. “Until you’re in proper condition to walk again, you will ride on my back.”
Without giving his son any time to argue, the cat reached down and plucked him off the ground as if he weighed no more than a few pounds and deposited him on his back. Tick found himself sitting on top of Gwinn’s longsword, and he reached down and grabbed two fistfuls of white fur.
“Hold on tight, son,” the cat ordered, before taking off into the forest.
Mortoph stalked down the halls of Red Castle, his aura of fear causing the Slayers he passed to stand at rigid attention. Mortoph left them to it, offering neither threats nor comfort. He knew his men’s faith in him was low. Not so low that he needed to fear rebellion, but lower than he liked. Word had spread like wildfire of how he had killed Alexander Himaly, the Slayer’s oldest and wisest member, for an act of defiance. Mere months later, he had executed three prison guards for allowing a Mythic to escape Reaper’s Wait. Now fear haunted the halls of Red Castle even when Mortoph wasn’t present, its residents terrified of what would happen to them if their Master’s disapproval came their way. A little fear could be very useful, but too much of it could turn them against him.
Not that he had anything to fear from them, but still, it was better to hold onto their loyalty for now.
None of that mattered right now, though. It had been days since Mortoph had sent Granger away to retrieve Vega. The old man was one of the greatest trackers in the Slayers, and Vega was not known for his ability to move with stealth. There was no reason Granger should not have returned by now. The Master Slayer felt like a volcano, his rage burning just beneath his skin, ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. He forced himself to keep his expression neutral, though, as he made his way to the stairs that led down to Reaper’s Wait.
The cool, musty odor that greeted him as he pushed open the great iron door did quite a bit to calm his nerves. It smelled of mold and dampness. More than that, it smelled of suffering. Fear was everywhere, even more so than in the castle. Closing the door behind him, Mortoph took a deep breath, feeling his anxiety melt away a slight bit. Turning to his left, he peered through the bars at the centaur that lay inside.
“And how are we today?” he asked in a mockingly pleasant voice, bending over as if he were speaking to a small child.
The centaur looked up at him, and then doubled over in a fit of coughing. Mortoph stood up straight again, chuckling in satisfaction. Tormenting these monsters was not at all productive. There was no threat to be found here. These ones were broken, and most would beg for death if he were to offer it. Still, sometimes he liked to come down here and feel their dread. He had played this role for so many years that it came naturally to him now. Visiting Reaper’s Wait reminded him of who he truly was. Beneath the long black coat, even beneath his frail human flesh, he was…
“Hopeful,” a weak voice rose to his ears.
His thoughts interrupted, Mortoph stiffened and turned back to look at the centaur. A startling change had come over it. While it still lay on the floor, pale and sickly, it now glared up at him in defiance. Worse, he realized, there was no fear coming from it. That was wrong. Very wrong. The Slayer sucked in his breath as the Mythic put its hooves underneath itself and rose from the floor. It struggled for a moment, its body grown unaccustomed to movement, but then found its balance and stood before him. These monsters were lucky to receive one meal a weak, so its body was thin and emaciated. The fur of its lower half was stained with so much dirt and grime that it could have been any color. And yet this centaur squared its shoulders, balled its fists, and glared at the Master Slayer with all the pride of one its wild cousins.
“What did you say?” Mortoph asked, his voice deathly quiet. He was stunned. He didn’t want to show it, but he knew the emotion was written all over his face. The purpose of bringing these monsters here was to strip them of their defiance, pride, and hope, and leave nothing behind but suffering and despair. This particular centaur, he knew for certain, had been here no less than five years. Where had it suddenly found this strength?
“I said…” it stopped, and began to cough again. It put its hand on the wall, almost falling over, but managed to remain standing. It raised its head again and continued to glare at Mortoph. “I said that I feel hopeful.”
Mortoph narrowed his eyes, his teeth grinding against each other in his anger.
“And why is that?” he growled.
“Because of the boy,” the monster answered. “The one who rescued the djinn.”
Mortoph’s eyes widened. It was speaking about Porter. It had seen Porter! Of course it had seen him, the blasted child had walked right past it twice!
“He fought through the dungeon,” it continued. “He defeated two of your guards, and then rescued his friend.”
“What of it?” Mortoph asked, waving his hand nonchalantly. “He left you here, didn’t he? You obviously weren’t worth rescuing.”
Again, the centaur had a coughing fit, but this time it did not break eye contact with Mortoph.
“He’ll be back,” it said. “There is something about him… he will be back!”
Mortoph clenched his fist by his sides, trying to reign in his anger. How dare this filthy abomination speak to him? How dare it stand in his presence? How dare it feel hope?
“And you know he will,” the centaur finished, taking a step towards the bars. “When he does… that means the war will be over.”
With that, the centaur’s strength finally gave out, and it collapsed back to the floor, coughing its diseased lungs out. Those words still rang in Mortoph’s ears. In his shock, it took him a moment to realize that this was because they were being echoed down the hallway.
“The war is almost over,” the monsters whispered, passing it down from one cell to the next, until all of Reaper’s Wait was filled with the hopeful message.
“The war is almost over.”
“The war is almost over.”
“The war is almost over.”
The fear around him was evaporating like snow in the desert. As the words surrounded Mortoph, slithering into his ears like snakes, something within him snapped. Instead of exploding with wrath and fury, though, he let his face go calm. He steepled his fingers together in front of him, as if about to explain a simple concept to a particularly stupid child.
“You’re right,” he agreed, speaking again in his deceptively pleasant voice, loudly enough for all of the nearby monsters to hear him. “The war is almost over.”
The dungeon went silent. Again, the air around him began to fill with fear. This was his fear, though. His power filled every crevice of the massive prison, making his victims’ blood run cold in their veins. He smiled.
“But there’s one thing you’re wrong about,” he continued. “The war is about to end, but nobody will be coming back here to rescue you. That’s because, soon, there won’t be anyone left to rescue you.”
He paused, and then chuckled. He laughed softly, but his voice carried through the entire prison, a morbid sound that sent chills down the spines of his captives. He turned back towards the centaur who had spoken against him. It still lay on the floor, unable to summon the strength to stand. The Master Slayer took a step closer to the bars, raised his hand, and uncurled two fingers for the centaur to see. Before its eyes, they turned black and began to crackle with red energy.
“Oh yes, the war is almost over,” he said again, relishing how the words felt rolling off of his tongue. “And you’re all going to help me end it.”
“That wasn’t very nice of you earlier.”
Porter looked up, having been lost in thought, to see Sarah standing over him. The fire crackled invitingly as the sun sank below the horizon, promising warmth in the cold night, but Porter found that he couldn’t bring himself to sit by it. Joseph was there, chatting merrily with Droma and munching on a mushroom he’d happened across.
“What do you mean?” Porter asked, feigning ignorance.
“You know what I mean,” Sarah answered, sitting down next to him. There was no anger in her voice, just disapproval. “Joseph didn’t deserve those things you said to him.”
Porter sighed and turned his head so that he was staring out into the darkening forest.
“Why don’t you come sit by the fire?” the sphinx asked.
“Somebody needs to take first watch,” he replied. “May as well be me.”
“Don’t lie to me, Porter,” Sarah snapped. “You know you don’t have to start your watch until the rest of us go to sleep.”
Porter fell silent and stared at the ground, tracing little patterns in the dirt with Flicker’s tip.
“Is it because of Joseph?” Sarah asked softly.
Porter paused, and then looked up at her. “I know helping him is the right thing to do, Sarah, but… I don’t want him here.”
Sarah reached out and put her hand on his shoulder, squeezing it.
“Is it because of what happened back at the Dwarf City?”
Porter gave an involuntary twitch, which he hoped Sarah didn’t notice.
“Yeah,” he admitted, reluctantly. “While I was in prison, he was out there hitting on you.”
“And I turned him down,” Sarah reminded him, “because I love you.”
“I know,” Porter nodded. “But I don’t think he understood that. After the Slayers attacked, he managed to get out of the mountain with Azkular, Tick, and me. He blamed me for everything that happened in there. The Slayers attacking, all the Mythics that died, the city being destroyed. All of it.”
“But it wasn’t your fault,” the sphinx argued. “You know that.”
“And he said I didn’t deserve you,” Porter said, turning to look Sarah in the eyes.
Sarah froze, and her eyes grew wide in surprise.
“He said that you deserved someone better, and that he’d always be here to get between the two of us.”
Sarah wilted a little under his gaze, and Porter immediately felt bad for having said it.
“Sarah,” he said, reaching out to her. “I’m sorry. I—”
“No,” she interrupted him. “Don’t be sorry. You have every right to be angry with him.”
Sarah sighed and leaned back against a nearby tree. “When he asked me to be his girlfriend back at Jellaska Kob Lertan,” she said, “I turned him down because of the things he said about you. He was just like everybody else, telling me how eager they were to see you dead. Back then, I hadn’t realized I was in love with you. I just thought you were my best friend. Still, I knew there and then that I couldn’t be in a relationship with somebody who thought that way about my friends.”
She was quiet for a moment, and then shook her head. “I should have seen it when he found us this morning. It’s so obvious now. He still hopes that I’ll choose him over you.”
Porter avoided looking into Sarah’s eyes, his hand gripping Flicker so tightly that his knuckles turned white as his emotions stormed inside of him. He felt angry at Joseph for not giving up on Sarah, but he felt disgusted at himself for wishing harm onto the satyr too. He was confused as to how he really ought to feel. Above all, though, he scared. Scared that, should Joseph continue his mission for Sarah’s heart, someday he would succeed.
“Porter,” she said softly, leaning in towards him, “I’ll never let him have me. You understand that, right?”
It didn’t ease his misgivings, but Porter managed to flash a confident smile at her anyway.
“Of course I do,” he reassured her. “Porter and Sarah forever. Nobody can ever tear us apart.”
Sarah smiled back, her eyes sparkling in the firelight. “Never ever,” she agreed, and came forward to give her hero a quick peck on the lips.
Before too much longer, the band of adventurers began to bed down for the night. As Porter stood up to take his place for first watch, though, he felt a hand alight on his shoulder. He turned to see Ozzie standing behind him, Misty’s leash grasped in his hand as always.
“You look tired,” the Asian boy said. “Why don’t you get some sleep and let me take first watch tonight?”
“Are you sure?” Porter asked, giving the werewolf at his side a suspicious glance. She growled in response, and Ozzie tightened his grip on the rope.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” he promised.
Porter hesitated for a moment, and then nodded his consent. Ozzie took his place at the head of the camp, and then pulled out his knife and drove the blade into the dirt, pinning Misty’s leash in place. Without a word, he turned the other direction and leaned against a tree.
Misoki laid down while Ozzie stood watch, and pretended to go to sleep. She counted the seconds in her head until fifteen minutes had passed, and the gentle breathing of the others told her they were asleep. Then she stood up, moving with the natural silence of a predator…
And she changed.
She had never truly been able to describe the sensation of transforming from girl to wolf, or vice versa. It was like her entire body was melting into putty, and reshaping itself into a new form. There was no pain, not after the first time it had happened.
Crouched on the forest floor in her human body, Misoki had no trouble getting the leash off of her neck. The knot yielded easily to someone with opposable thumbs, and it soon lay on the ground, completely untied. The rope tying her mouth shut had fallen off during the transformation, no longer having a snout to fit over. Free from her restraints, she crept forward without a sound, just like Mortoph had taught her, and pulled Ozzie’s knife out of the ground.
With a wicked scowl, she turned to look at the others. The satyr was there, snoring quietly. Anger rose up in her chest, seeing him lie there as bold as you please. Her father and brother had been murdered by a satyr just like him. She wasn’t naïve enough to believe that Joseph had been the one who did it, but she didn’t really care. All that mattered was that her family had been killed by a satyr, and Joseph was a satyr. And now, she promised herself as she advanced on him, raising her knife into the air, he would pay the price.
Suddenly, a hand covered her mouth, and another one grabbed the hand she was holding the knife in. Before she could struggle, her assailant spun her around and threw her to the ground, disarming her in the process. She sprang back to her feet, whirling around to see who would dare—
“Are you crazy?” Ozzie demanded in a high pitched whisper his face pale. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Get out of my way!” Misoki ordered, taking a step forward. Ozzie didn’t move.
“Quiet” he hissed. “If the others wake up, they’ll kill you for this!”
“I don’t care!” Misoki shot back. “I have to avenge my father!”
“Our father!” Ozzie retorted, his eyes flashing with anger, making Misoki to take a step backwards in fright. He pointed at the satyr. “Do you think the same thing hasn’t occurred to me? I know what it was that killed Dad, Misty. I was there! I saw it happen!”
“No, you weren’t,” Misoki argued, a wolfish growl rising from her throat. “He wasn’t your father and you’re not my brother!”
Ozzie glared at her for a moment, and then pointed back towards the edge of camp. “Get over there before you wake somebody up.”
For a second, Misoki considered disobeying him and going for the satyr anyway. Joseph was still lying there behind Ozzie, completely unaware of what was going on. Then again, Ozzie still had the knife. Her chances of beating him without injury, or worse, were slim. Giving Joseph one last venomous look, she turned and made her way to the edge of camp.
“Why are you protecting him?” she demanded when they were out of earshot, baring her teeth in anger.
“Because he’s not our enemy,” Ozzie answered, sheathing his knife and leaning against the tree again.
“A satyr killed our…” she froze as Ozzie shot her a strange look. “My father.”
Ozzie sighed and shook his head, but then turned back to look at her.
“I know that. But it wasn’t Joseph.”
“Does it matter?” the young woman spat, her slanted eyes turning red with emotions she’d promised herself never to feel again. “They’re all the same!”
“No, they’re not,” Ozzie argued back, pointing an accusing finger at her. “I have to believe that.”
Misoki gave an annoyed huff, and spread her arms. “Oh, you have to believe that, huh? Why?”
Ozzie let his hand fall, the anger and tension suddenly melting off his face. “Because,” he answered softly, “if they’re all the same, then that would mean you’re just a monster too.”
“You’re the reason I quit the Slayers,” he went on. “Because it didn’t matter if you were a mon… a Mythic. If it was really you, then you couldn’t be bad.”
Misoki glared at Ozzie for a moment, and was ashamed to feel her eyes burning with tears.
No! she screamed at herself in her head. Don’t let them out. You promised you wouldn’t. He’s not your brother!
But as she stood there glaring, she found that her heart no longer believed what her head told her. Wasn’t this what she’d always wanted? For her brother to be alive? Why was she resisting so much?
“You know,” Ozzie said tentatively, when his sister did not reply, “this is the first time I’ve seen you up close in human form since I found out you were alive.”
“I try not to use it much,” she admitted, though she couldn’t believe the words were coming out of her mouth. Almost without realizing it, she began the process of shifting back, but froze when she felt Ozzie’s hand on her shoulder.
“Can you stay that way for a little while longer?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you for twelve years. I want to look at you, not some wolf.”
“The wolf is me,” she shot back, but allowed herself to become fully human again anyway. For a full minute, they just stared at each other. Finally, she asked. “Well, what now?”
“Let’s talk,” he suggested. “You’ll have to change back when morning comes so I can tie you up again. Otherwise, they’ll be suspicious. For now, though, let’s just talk.”
Slowly, Misoki sat down, nodding. Her instincts still telling her not to trust this boy, but she ignored them. Even if he wasn’t Ozzie… well, it might feel good to pretend for a little while.
“All right,” she said softly. “Let’s talk.”
NEXT TIME: I’m so glad Joseph joined the group. He’s such a positive influence. He da real MVP. But seriously, don’t these guys have a war to end? We’d better hope they find something to do pretty soon… or maybe something will happen to them.