"Yeah, it was just sitting there at the edge of town."
Sarah's head was spinning, but she could tell she was lying on something hard. She tried to open her eyes, but the sense of motion threatened to make her sick, so she laid her head back on the floor. She'd heard a voice. Whose was it?
"Got it locked up in the basement with the mutt."
No, that wasn't Porter. It was too deep. Whoever this was, it sounded like a full grown man. What had he said? Her mind was still groggy from sleep, and she could barely piece together what he was saying. He had her locked up? Why would he lock her up?
Dad's never done that before, she thought, trying to fight through the fog in her mind. I must have done something really bad this time. I wonder if he found out I was the one who threw the TV out the window and not Mrs. Rasta?
"Yes, I know they're dangerous. I'm not stupid. The cage is enchanted, so they're not going anywhere. Now, let's talk about price."
Price? she thought, a pinprick of fear worming its way into her sleepy thoughts. Dad's selling me?
No, that couldn't be it. Mr. Heisen may not have been the model father, but he wouldn't just pawn off his only daughter. And besides that, she realized, she hadn't seen her dad in days. Not since the house burned down. Which meant she wasn't listening to her father, or in her house.
Where the heck am I, then?
She tried to concentrate again, and this time had a little more success. Memories began to come back to her. She'd teleported into the middle of a forest with Porter, and they'd traveled together for a couple of days. They'd met Lowatai, and then Droma. Droma had offered to take them to the Sanctuary, but she had wanted to see the human town and run off. And then...
Sarah forced her eyes open, and this time kept them open despite the dizziness. She was in a cage, just like the voice had said. It wasn't so much a cage, she realized, as a tiny room with concrete walls. A barred door blocked her escape, and was kept shut but a thick padlock. Even stranger, what looked like sticky notes had been stuck to the bars. After a few seconds of trying to focus on them, she saw that containment glyphs had been written on them. It was a clumsy way of keeping her away from the door, but it would work. If she tried to touch the bars, they would burn her.
What have I gotten myself into? she thought, and tried to get to her paws. The sleeping agent hadn't completely worn off yet, though, and the action made her head spin even more. With a shout, she fell back to the floor.
"What's going on in there?" the voice she had heard before yelled from somewhere she couldn't see. Heavy footsteps followed, and a large man wearing a cowboy hat came to stand in front of her cage. "Well, look who finally decided to wake up!"
Sarah shook her head, fighting off the wooziness, and asked, "Where am I?"
"Don't matter," the man said. "You won't be going anywhere till the Caravan comes to pick you up."
Sarah groaned, and managed to get herself into a sitting position. "What are you talking about?"
The man reached out and rapped his fist against the bars. "The Slave Caravan, stupid! It's not often a sphinx comes wandering around these parts. Let me tell you, you're gonna be worth a nice, shiny nickel!"
Suddenly, it felt like Sarah's heart had fallen into her stomach. Sell her as a slave? It was just like what Droma had been talking about last night, only this time she didn't think her captor had her best interests in mind.
"You just sit tight," the man laughed, turning to walk away. "I'll be back with food later. Can't have you looking all scrawny and weak when they come to pick you up. Maybe you can make friends with that mutt."
Sarah watched him go, desperately wanting to say something but unable to make her mouth work. No way was she just going to let him sell her like some piece of property! Who did he think he was? Who did he think she was? If she could just get out of this cage, she'd show him a thing or two. Thing is, getting out didn't look very likely at the moment. Even if she could get the glyphs off the door, it would take more strength than she had to break the lock.
A shuffling sound came from behind her, snapping her out of her thoughts. She spun around, and saw that she wasn't alone.
A boy was sitting against the far wall, curled up into a frightened ball. He looked to be about eight. Even in the shadows, it was impossible to miss the snow white hair atop his head, or the tail that wrapped around his ankles.
Sarah blinked and looked again, but nothing changed. A long tail covered in white fur, the same color as his hair, was curled around him. Even as she looked, it twitched, confirming that it was, indeed, part of his body. After a couple awkward seconds, Sarah pulled her eyes off of it to look at the rest of him. He wasn't wearing a shirt, just a pair of torn up shorts. His face was hidden behind his arms as he cowered in the corner, but she could still make out the frightened expression.
"Hey," she said as calmly as she could, "are you okay?"
The boy didn't say anything, but the look on his face told her all she needed to know.
"I'm not going to hurt you," she said, getting to her paws. "What's your name?"
The boy didn't move for a minute, but then he shook his head.
"No?" Sarah prodded him. "No, what?"
Reluctantly, the boy lowered his arms, revealing an iron brace around his neck. There was no chain attached, but it was locked as tightly as a collar, and Sarah wondered if it was choking him. He pointed at it, then at his mouth, and then shook his head. Sarah nodded her understanding. The collar was magic, and it kept him from talking. Why the slave trader would use something like that on him, though, was beyond her.
Then the boy moved. It was so unexpected that Sarah jumped in surprise, sending the boy back into his corner again. They stared at each other for a minute, and then he slowly crept forward again. He extended a finger, and began dragging it through a spot of thick dust on the floor. When he withdrew, Sarah leaned forward to see what he'd written.
"Tick?" she asked.
The boy nodded, and then pointed at himself.
"Oh," Sarah said. "You're name is Tick."
The boy nodded again.
"How long have you been in here, Tick?"
Tick stopped to think, and then held up six fingers. Six days. Six days trapped in this filthy, cold, dark cell.
"Wow," she whispered. "You poor kid."
She was kept from asking any further questions when the man came back into the room. He was carrying a steel pot full of... she wasn't sure what it was, but it smelled terrible.
"Eat up!" he cackled, and tossed the contents of the pot into the cage. A wave of green slime came out, splattering all over Sarah's face and front legs.
"Ew!" she shrieked, backpedaling until she ran into the back wall. "Gross!"
"Shut up!" the man snapped, throwing the pot to the floor with a clang that made Tick flinch again. "A good guest thanks her host when he feeds her!"
Sarah stared at the man, horrified. "Are you actually enjoying this?" she asked. "What's wrong with you?"
Her captor pointed a finger at her, and his face darkened. "Watch your mouth, you little freak, or I'll have to teach you some manners."
He stepped away for a second, and then came back carrying a long plastic rod. He pressed a button, and a high pitched buzz started coming from it.
"You know what this is?" he asked, gesturing towards it. "It's a stun baton. It's what mouthy little monsters get if they can't be polite."
Beside her, Tick pressed himself even harder against the wall, his face turning as pale as his hair.
"The mutt knows I'm talking about," the man said, pointing at him. "Maybe you should follow his example. Now, both of you, eat!"
Tick obeyed immediately, darting forward and scooping up a handful of the slop that had fallen on the floor and putting it in his mouth. Even though it made him cringe, he dutifully swallowed it and replaced it with a second handful. Just watching him made Sarah's stomach turn, but imagining what the stun baton would feel like was even worse. So, she raised a paw and licked the slime off of it. It tasted every bit as bad as it smelled, and she got the feeling that the man had just mixed a bunch of old leftovers together that had gone bad in his fridge. Still, she made herself swallow it. Even without the baton to entice her, it looked like this was the only food she was going to get until someone came and got her. She kept licking until her paw and her leg were both clean.
The man stood watching her for a few minutes, and then beckoned her closer to the door. "Hey, c'mere a second."
"Why?" she asked, trying to give the illusion that she was feeling brave.
"Because I said so, that's why!" he barked. "Now get over here!"
Reluctantly, Sarah got up and came to the door. What did he want? She remembered how Droma had felt Porter the night before, like he was inspecting him. Was that what the man wanted? To feel her muscles and—
He stuck the rod in between the bars, jabbing her in the side with it. Lights danced in front of Sarah's eyes as she gasped in pain. A tingling sensation spread out across her side, a weird combination of heat and vibration. It was so powerful that her legs buckled, and she collapsed on the floor.
"Next time, you do what you're told, got it?" the man said, pulling the stick away. He looked back at Tick. "You want some, you stupid mutt?"
Tick's eyes went wide with terror, and he frantically shook his head. The man nodded in grim satisfaction, and then looked down at Sarah.
"Piece of trash," he growled, and spat on her through the bars. "If I weren't getting paid for you, I'd skin you right now."
Having made his point, he turned and left them alone. A couple seconds later, the lights went out, leaving Sarah and Tick in pitch blackness. Sarah's side throbbed with pain, and her whole body felt weak. She didn't try to stand back up. She didn't think she could have if she'd tried. As the darkness pressed in against her on all sides, she started to cry.
Six hours had passed since Porter had started looking for Sarah, and he had made an astounding lack of progress in finding her. The town, as far as he could tell, was no different than any other. There were stores, restaurants, three different schools, and absolutely nothing to indicate a thriving underground market selling magical creatures. The only thing of any value he'd learned was the town's name, which it cheerily announced on a billboard above town hall— "Welcome to Westwillow!"
The sun was about to set, and Porter found himself growing anxious.
"The place isn't that big," he said to himself, sitting down on a bench by the road. "Where could they have taken her?"
He should have asked Droma for advice before running off. Even if the Soul Smith couldn't come with him, maybe he could have provided information Porter could use. Like, where could guy in a truck take something that wasn't supposed to exist without being seen? There were plenty of places he could have gone, but most of them seemed busy enough that carrying a sphinx inside would attract attention. Even the clue about searching for the kidnapper's truck didn't do much good. In the past six hours, Porter had found at least fifteen red pickup trucks, but none with the scratch Droma had pointed out. And that was assuming that it hadn't gone somewhere else after dropping Sarah off.
"I can't just give up!" he groaned, putting his head in his hands and massaging his temples. "What am I gonna do?"
His distress was made even worse by the fact that he didn't even know how much time he had to save her. How long did it take to find a buyer on the Mythic slave market? How much longer would it take for that buyer to arrive and take them away? For all he knew, Sarah had been shipped out of Westwillow half an hour after being caught.
Wrapped up in his thoughts as he was, Porter almost didn't notice the old lady sitting down next to him.
"Lose something, dear?" she asked.
"Huh, what?" Porter turned to look at her. She seemed normal enough, wearing a homemade shawl over an old fashioned dress. She didn't say anything for a few seconds as she pulled a bag of seeds out of her purse and threw a handful of it onto the sidewalk. Instantly, the ground in front of them was swarmed by pigeons.
"I asked if you lost something," she finally said.
"Um, kind of, I guess," Porter replied. He had no idea who this lady was. Just how much was it safe to say to her? Did she even know anything, or was she just a friendly old woman making conversation?
"Don't worry," she said, tossing another handful of birdseed onto the pavement. "I'm sure it will come back when it gets hungry."
Porter gave her a blank stare. "I'm sorry, what?"
"Your dog, sweetheart," she said. "I would know that look anywhere. How long has it been missing?"
"Um," not knowing what else to do, Porter decided to play along and see where it got him, "just since this morning."
"Well, I'm sure it's fine," she comforted him, looking back at the pigeons that were fluttering about, waiting for more food. "But if you're really worried, maybe you could check the pound."
"Right," Porter nodded, and then looked the other way so the lady wouldn't see his scowl. His only friend was about to be sold into slavery, and the only advice the old woman could give him was how to find a lost dog? Why was he even still talking to her?
"Well, thanks," he said, standing up. Just as he was about to walk in the other direction, the woman's voice stopped him.
"It's right down Walnut Street. The owner drives a big red truck with a scratch down the side."
Porter froze midstep. For a second, he didn't believe he'd actually heard her say that. Slowly, he turned back around to look at her. She was gave him a knowing smile, and then went back to feeding her birds.
"Let me know if you find your dog, sweetheart," she said.
Porter nodded, his head still reeling. "Yeah, okay. I will. Thank you."
He was tempted to ask the lady who she was, and why she knew he was looking for a red pickup truck with a scratch on it. Had Droma told her? How could he have? The Soul Smith had said it was too risky for him to enter the town. Was it some kind of magic? Had it even been Droma in the first place? Who else would have sent her? Could he trust her? These questions spun around in his head like a tornado, but he pushed them all to the back of his mind. Sarah was still missing, and his curiosity could wait until she was safe with him again.
As her protector, that was his duty.
The man in the cowboy hat stood at the entrance to Sarah and Tick's cage, a cruel smile on his face.
"Who's my pretty little kitty?" he crooned, pursing his lips, and then cackled. "Guess what, princess? The caravan just called back. They've found somebody who wants to buy you!"
Sarah glared at him from the back of the cage, but didn't get up. She had recovered from the stun baton earlier, but knew that rising to his bait would only make him even happier. That, or go make him get the baton again.
He stood up, thumbs tucked into his belt, and said, "You wanna know how much they're going to pay for you? Fifteen million dollars! Can you believe that? That's enough for me to live like a king for the rest of my life! And all that just for a mangy little cat like you."
He laughed again, but Sarah refused to speak. She looked at him with a glare cold enough to freeze his blood— at least, she hoped it was. Not necessarily because she wanted to frighten the man, but because anger was the only thing that could hide just how terrified she was.
When he failed to get a worthwhile reaction out of Sarah, the man turned to Tick. "You hear, ya little crossbreed? Fifteen million dollars, and all for me. What do you say to that?" He paused, and put his ear to the cage door, and then laughed. "Oh, right— you can't! Bet you're sorry you tried that little trick on me now. You can keep that thing on until whoever buys you picks the lock. Hope your cords haven't shriveled up and died by then!"
Tick's eyes grew wide, and he put a fearful hand to the shackle around his neck. Sarah's claws bared themselves without her telling them too, and began to scrape the cement floor below her.
He's just a bully, she told herself. Ignore him, and he'll go away.
There it was, right in front of him. The red truck.
Porter felt short of breath with anticipation as he approached the vehicle. Sure enough, it had the scratch Droma had described all up the driver's side. A quick check behind it revealed the football bumper sticker. He was in the right place.
He turned from the truck to look at the dog pound. He hadn't even seen it during his previous searches of the town, but it wasn't for lack of trying. The old cement building was at the very edge of Westwillow, and the road leading to it wasn't even paved. A thick wall of trees blocked anyone from seeing it as they drove by. Only a dilapidated old sign, its paint almost completely worn off, marked its location. All things considered, it was the perfect place to hide a Mythic in the middle of a heavily populated area.
Porter flexed his hands, ready to summon Flicker at the first hint of trouble, walked to the door, and went inside. He found himself in a small lobby, with a window set in the far wall and filthy furniture strewn across the room. There was nobody in the office on the other side of the window, but he could hear barking somewhere behind it. He took a couple of cautious steps forward, almost expecting some kind of booby trap to spring, but when it didn't he proceeded more confidently to the window. Somebody had sat at the desk recently, if the coffee and half eaten taco were anything to go by, but for the moment no one was in sight. The only other thing in the room was a door to the right of the window, which led to the back area of the building. When Porter tried to open it though, he found it locked.
"All right," he said under his breath. "That's how you wanna do it? Fine."
Taking a step backwards, he kicked the door, making it fly off its hinges and crash into the wall behind it with a bang.
Porter froze, staring at the empty doorway in shock.
"The wood must have been rotten," he muttered, putting it out of his head and going in.
Now the barking was even louder, coming from further down the hallway. Following the noise, Porter found himself in a room filled with cages. The moment he walked in they went into a frenzy, begging to be let out. Porter clenched his fist and looked for a place to hide, sure that the ruckus would draw somebody out to investigate. When no one came, he eventually started walking around, looking for clues as to where they could have taken Sarah.
There were dozens of dogs in there, of every shape and size, but none of them seemed to be of the mythical variety. The room made a big square with cages lining every wall and even more set in the center. The only other door went into a fenced-in backyard, which he assumed was used to exercise the dogs. Finding nothing of interest, he shut the door and went back to investigating the cage room.
"Come on," he prodded himself, "think! There's gotta be something here you're missing."
Whatever it was, though, he couldn't figure it out. It was probably right in front of him, plain as the nose on his face, but the incessant barking was making it hard for him to concentrate. So much noise...
"Shut up!" he yelled, suddenly losing his patience. He lashed out at the nearest cage, striking the bars in the hope that it would frighten the animal inside into being quiet. This particular cage was empty, though, so it only made the other dogs bark even louder.
Wait a minute... empty?
A quick glance around the room confirmed his suspicion. All of the cages were full except for this one. Some of even had two dogs in them. So, why let this particular one go to waste? Porter knelt down to get a better look. It didn't seem to be anything but a normal dog kennel. But, he realized, there were grooves in the concrete floor, like someone had dragged something heavy across it over and over again.
His heart racing, Porter stood back up and grabbed the bars with both hands. With a grunt, he heaved it backwards, dragging it across the floor with a loud squeal of metal on concrete. Some of the dogs howled at the noise, but he ignored them and pulled again. After giving it one last tug, he stepped around it and looked.
There was a trap door where it had just been sitting.
Porter's palms were starting to sweat with anxiety, and he wiped them off on his pants. He grabbed the heavy metal ring on the door and pulled it open. A dark pit opened up beneath him, with only a ladder set into the wall to lead him down. Setting the door down to keep it open, he put his foot into the ladder rung, and ventured down into the darkness.
Hang on, Sarah. I'm coming!
"You ain't ever gonna sing again!" the man cackled, kicking the door. "What do you think of that?"
Tick began to tremble, and wrapped his tail around himself like a protective barrier. The man opened his mouth to say something else, but Sarah's temper chose that particular moment to snap. She stood up and spread her wings to keep him from seeing Tick.
"Is this how you get your kicks, you sicko?" she yelled. The shock was evident on the man's face, which gave her the confidence to keep going. "Scaring people in cages? Does this make you feel like a big, bad dude?"
The slave trader's expression darkened even further, but Sarah kept going— against her own common sense.
"You're nothing, you hear me? Nothing but a bully wearing a big hat and belt. You can make fun of us all you want, but it's not going to work because I know one thing you'll never be able to understand: even if we're in a cage, we're both a hundred times the man you'll ever be!"
She stopped, out of breath, but refused to be the first to look away. For a few tense seconds, the man just stood there, looking angry enough that for his head to explode. Then he turned and walked away. Sarah sat down, suddenly feeling dizzy. Had she really just said all that? Where had that courage come from? It was gone now, leaving her feeling drained. Her wings drooped, too tired to even tuck them in, and she turned to look at Tick.
"Are you okay?" she asked. The little boy was staring at her with a mixture of fear and awe on his face. She gave a weak chuckle. "I know, right? I don't know where that—"
"You piece of trash!" the man roared, making her just in fright. He came storming back into the room, carrying the stun baton, which was already buzzing with electricity. "You wanna talk to me like that? This is what you get!"
Before she could move, he stuck it through the bars and stabbed her with it. A jolt of electricity coursed through her, even stronger than before, and she immediately lost feeling in her legs and collapsed. The man didn't stop there, he jabbed her three more times, ranting and spitting all over her.
"I'll kill you! I'll skin you alive and burn it! Nobody talks to me like that you rotten, filthy, worthless little—"
"What are you doing?"
Everything went silent in the little room. Darkness swam in front of Sarah's eyes, but she was still conscious enough to recognize that voice.
"Porter!" she croaked.
Porter stared at the slave trader in utter disbelief. Sarah was lying on the floor of the cage, and her breathing was coming in quick, shallow gulps. The man himself was holding a long metal stick that buzzed with electricity, and looking at Porter with a similar expression to his own. The rod buzzed with electricity. He had been hitting her with it through the bars. Porter clenched his fists as a powerful emotion he'd never felt before rose up inside of him...
"Who the heck are—" the man said, but was cut off when Porter's fist slammed into his mouth. He stumbled backwards, tripping over the stick when it got caught behind his legs, and fell to the ground.
"How dare you treat my friend like that?" Porter roared, jumping and landing on top of him. He punched him again and again, each time slamming the slave trader's head into the hard floor beneath him. "How dare you?"
Blood was leaking out of the man's nose and mouth now, but Porter's anger was only growing. This guy had hurt Sarah. He had to pay. Porter had to make him pay! Over, and over, and over again, his fist met the slaver's face until he was long past unconscious. All Porter could see was red. In the back of his mind, he knew that he would eventually kill the man. He didn't care, though. He'd hurt Sarah. He needed to be—
"Porter..." a quiet voice pierced straight through his rage, and he froze. His head felt cloudy coming off his anger high, but it cleared quickly and he finally realized what he had been doing. The slave trader was lying in a broken heap underneath him, his face a mess of black, blue, and red. Porter's stomach clenched, and he threw himself backwards, off of the man's body, hardly able to believe what he was seeing.
"Did... Did I do that?" he whispered, unable to take his eyes off the sight.
The slave trader was still breathing, which was good. Still, Porter felt nauseated just looking at him. Not because of the injuries, but because he had been the one to inflict them.
"Porter," Sarah whispered again, snapping him out of his trance. He turned to look at her, lying on the floor of her cage. "You came."
Porter managed a weak smile. "Of course I came."
He shook his head and stood up on wobbly legs, and went to where the man was laying. A quick search of his pockets revealed a key ring, and he brought them to the door. After a couple of failed attempts, he found the one that fit the door, and swung it open.
"Are you all right?" he asked, kneeling down next to her.
"I'll be fine," she answered. "I just need to rest."
"Yeah, you rest," Porter agreed. "Don't worry, I'll get you out of here."
"Wait," she motioned toward the back of the cage. "Help him, too."
Porter looked, and was surprised to see a little boy sitting back there. For a few seconds, he had a hard time tearing his eyes off the boy's tail, but then he nodded. There was a clasp around his neck, and Porter rifled through the keys until he found the one that unlocked it.
Immediately, the boy bent over and started coughing. His throat sounded dry, like he hadn't had anything to drink in days. Then, without warning, he lunged for Porter and wrapped his arms around him.
"Thank you!" he cried. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
"Don't worry about it," Porter said. "Are you all right?"
The little boy nodded, and Porter turned back to Sarah. He slid his hands underneath her, and then picked her up.
"Come on," he told the kid, and they both walked out of the cage. Once out, Porter set Sarah back down on the floor.
"What are you doing?" she asked, weakly.
"Just taking care of a little problem," Porter answered, going back to where the slave trader was lying. With a grunt, Porter picked him up and dragged him into the cage before slamming the door.
"He won't be selling anybody else for a while," he said, taking the keys and dropping them on the ground, just out of the man's reach. Then he picked Sarah up again, and left.
The moon was already in the sky when Droma heard his friends making their way toward him, and he sighed in relief. A moment later, they came over the hill, into the firelight. Porter was carrying Sarah, and a little boy with a white tail was following behind him.
"You are back," the Soul Smith said, standing up to greet them. "I was beginning to worry. Is she all right?"
"He was hitting her with a stun baton," Porter said, his face darkening with anger. "A freaking—"
"I'll be fine," Sarah interrupted him, though her voice was hoarse. "I just need to sleep a little."
Droma nodded, and motioned for them to join him. Porter laid Sarah down so she would be comfortable by the fire, and sat down next to her. The child hung back in the shadows, looking unsure of himself.
"Come on and sit down," Porter called, patting the ground beside him.
The boy needed no further encouragement, and came to sit with them as Droma ladled out three bowls of soup. He gave a curious glance at the furry white tail, which twitched on the ground behind the boy.
"You are a chimera, are you not?"
The boy looked up at him in surprise. "Um, yeah."
"What is your name?"
He looked away for a second, shyly, and then said, "Tick."
"He was in the same cage as Sarah," Porter explained.
Droma nodded his approval, and took a drink of his soup.
"Did you send that old woman to help me?" Porter asked a few seconds later.
Droma smiled. "I did. Her name is Almira, and she is one of the few humans to sympathize with the Mythics."
Porter looked down thoughtfully, and then asked, "How many people know about you? The Mythics, I mean."
Droma sighed and shook his head. "Not nearly enough, I am afraid. If there were more, perhaps we could put a stop to all this."
"Why don't you?"
"It is too risky. It could backfire, and make things even worse."
Porter nodded, accepting his answer, and went back to eating his soup. Everything was quiet for a few minutes, apart from Sarah's quiet snoring as she slept. Then Tick spoke up again.
"Where are you going?"
Droma looked down at him. "I am taking them to Jellaska Kob Lertan. It is a place where Mythics can live in safety."
The child's eyes lit up at this. "Can I come with you?"
"Of course you can!" Porter said. "What, did you think we were just going to send you away?"
Tick looked down into his soup, and then whispered, "Well, that's what my mom did."
Both Porter and Droma went silent, hearing this. Finally, Porter reached out and laid a hand on Tick's bare shoulder.
"Don't worry, we'll take care of you. That's what friends do, right?"
And for the first time that night, Tick smiled.
NEXT TIME: Porter, Sarah, Droma... and now Tick! Our crazy little party is getting bigger and bigger, isn't it? Who will be the next to join? And what other adventures will they have on their way to Jellaska Kob Lertan? I know the answers, but YOU'LL have to wait! Ha ha, neener neener neener!