Ozzie was staring out the window, barely aware of who was speaking to him. The sun was shining bright, with hardly a cloud in the sky. What a shame, to be missing it, trapped inside Red Castle. The Slayers let him outside every once in a while, but just like all the other apprentices, it was strictly for training. When was the last time he'd been allowed to just—
"Oswald!" the voice snapped again, louder this time, and Ozzie's head whipped around to face it.
"Sorry, Master Mortoph," he said.
The Master Slayer folded his hands atop his desk and gave him a stern look. His cold eyes drilled into Ozzie, and the boy shivered as a chill ran down his spine. "Pay attention. If you're distracted that easily in the field, you'll be dead within an hour. Do you remember anything I just said to you?"
Ozzie tried to give him an apologetic smile, but it turned into his wide, crazed grin, and he shook his head.
Mortoph sighed, and began again. "Your training partner, Porter Collins, was sent out on a hunt with Granger two days ago. Granger came back to report the mission a failure, and that Porter had been abducted by the monster he was sent to kill."
Ozzie's grin slid off his face in surprise. "Porter?" he repeated in disbelief. "Kidnapped by a monster? You're pulling my leg, right?"
"I never joke about the safety of my men, Ozzie," the Master Slayer retorted, his expression turning dark. "I would not have believed it myself, had it come from anyone else but Granger. But he reports that Porter chased after his target, a young sphinx, after Granger had set fire to its lair. He did not return before the house collapsed."
"Are you sure he didn't just—" Ozzie broke in, but Mortoph silenced him with a wave of his hand.
"He did not die in the fire. We know this because we combed through the wreckage but found no trace of his remains. There was, however, the remains of a teleportation ring."
Ozzie nodded slowly. "So, you think the sphinx managed to take him away somewhere? What about after that?"
"Such a thing would not have stopped Porter," Mortoph continued. "He would have killed the sphinx anyway, and then contacted us to tell us of his situation. We believe that he was either injured in the fight and taken prisoner, or that the sphinx killed him immediately after teleporting."
Mortoph's bluntness shocked Ozzie. It was just like last time. Suddenly, he was four years old again, sitting in this very chair in front of Master Mortoph.
"I'm afraid that your sister is..."
Ozzie bit his tongue hard enough to make it bleed, bringing himself back to the present. He knew his skin had turned pale. The flashbacks always did that to him. It had been years since he'd last had one. Hopefully Master Mortoph wouldn't notice...
Gulping down the rest of his surprise, he nodded. "What are we doing to help him, sir?"
Mortoph smirked. "That's what I like to hear, young man. We never give up on one of our own until we know for certain that they are dead. To answer your question, we haven't done anything yet. I was waiting to talk to you about it, first."
Ozzie's eyes opened wider. "Me, sir?"
"You've come a long way these past twelve years," Mortoph said, placing his palms flat on the table. "Not as quickly as Porter, but that boy has always been somewhat of a progidy."
Ozzie nodded. He wasn't ashamed of it. Porter had always been a genius. Like that one music guy who couldn't hear. Except Porter wasn't deaf. And he didn't make music. He killed stuff...
"Focus, Ozzie!" Mortoph snapped, tapping his fingers on the desk.
Ozzie forced himself to look into Mortoph's eyes. "Yes, sorry, Master Mortoph."
"I'm trying to tell you that I want you to be the one to go after him. You've trained hard, and I believe you're ready to be promoted to full Slayer status."
Ozzie leaned forward in excitement. That was what he'd been waiting for. What he'd always wanted. These past twelve years of training, of learning how to kill anything that moved, just to hear those words.
"This will serve as your test, as well as your first field mission," the Master Slayer went on. "You will follow the teleportation spell to wherever the sphinx took Porter. If he is still alive, you will free him and bring him back to headquarters."
Ozzie nodded. "And if he isn't..."
Mortoph's voice was like ice when he answered. "Then you will avenge him."
Ozzie shivered again, but quickly composed himself. He couldn't let the Master know that he was scared of him. Who would trust a Slayer to go out into the field when was afraid of his own commander?
"Will I be going alone?" he asked, glad that his voice didn't quaver.
"Of course not. We will be sending a veteran Slayer to accompany you for evaluation and, if need be, intervention."
Mortoph snapped his fingers, and the door to his office opened. Ozzie turned and saw a Slayer he'd never seen before come in to join them. At least, he didn't think he'd ever seen him, but the white bandages wrapped around his head made it a little hard to tell. Those eyes, though... completely black, with red irises. Ozzie felt like he would have remembered eyes like those, no matter who they belonged to.
"This is Shadow," Mortoph introduced him. Shadow didn't move an inch. It didn't even look like he was breathing. He just stared at the young Slayer, unblinking, like he never planned to budge. "He will be your escort."
Mortoph snapped again, and Shadow vanished.
"Shadow is the most accomplished camouflage expert on earth. He will remain out of sight at all times, unless you need help."
Another snap, and Shadow reappeared where he had been standing before.
"He does not actually disappear," Mortoph explained. "He has the power to fool the senses of those around him. Instead of turning invisible, he only makes you think he has turned invisible."
He snapped for the fourth time, and a second Shadow stepped out from behind the first. Then a third. Soon, that entire section of Mortoph's office was packed wall to wall with identical Shadow copies. Then, suddenly, a strong hand clamped over Ozzie's mouth. A sharp metal blade poked him in the back, and he fought down the urge to struggle.
"As you can see, he can effect more than your sight. Can you tell that what you're feeling now isn't the real Shadow?"
Ozzie meekly shook his head, and Mortoph snapped his fingers for the fifth and final time. Instantly, all of the fake Shadows disappeared, as did the hand and knife that Ozzie felt, leaving only the real Shadow standing where he had been before.
"I assure you that as long as you have Shadow with you, you will be completely safe. But I cannot assign you this mission without your consent. What do you say, Ozzie Druid?"
Ozzie rubbed his neck, staring at his strange companion. He could hardly believe there hadn't actually been anyone choking him. There had to be a handprint on his neck, or something. After a few seconds, though, his face broke out into his crazed grin yet again.
"Yeah, I think he and I'll get along just fine."
Mortoph nodded his satisfaction. "Good. Go and collect your gear. You leave immediately."
"Let's see," Porter said, sitting down on a rock and rummaging through one of the packs. "Here's more water, some fruit, some bandages..."
"Any meat?" Sarah asked, sitting down across from him with a sigh of relief.
"Yeah," he answered, pulling out a lump of fresh red meat, wrapped in paper. "There's a flint and tinder in here too. Want me to cook it?"
"No, I can eat it raw." She came forward and snapped the package out of his hand with her teeth. The wrapping came off easily, and she devoured the whole thing in a couple of minutes.
I didn't mean just for you, Porter thought, looking at the empty paper. I like my meat cooked.
That was okay, though. Sarah was part lion, so she probably needed the meat more than he did. Instead, he reached back into the pack and pulled out an apple.
"The sun's about to set," Sarah said, looking up at the darkening sky. "Maybe we should just stop here for the night."
Porter nodded and took another bite of his apple. "I think Lowatai gave us some stuff to make a tent."
"Could you set it up?" Sarah asked. She laid down, crossing her paws under her chin. "I'm pretty tired."
Porter glanced at his apple, and then tossed it away. "Sure," he answered, and started going through the other bags until he found the one that had the tent in it.
It had been an entire day since they'd left the Ragga Elves behind, and they still had yet to find any trace of civilization. Porter felt like that should have been discouraging, but Sarah's confidence made him feel better. She knew where she was going. All he had to do was follow her.
And protect her.
Porter's hand went to feel the pommel of the sword sheathed across his back. He would protect her. She'd already done so much for him, even though he was nothing but a burden to her. He'd change that. When there was danger, whatever it might be, he would be the one to keep her safe.
"Could you hurry up?" Sarah asked irritably, opening one eye to look at him. "I don't like there to be a breeze when I'm trying to sleep."
"Yeah, sorry," he said, and went back to setting up the tent. It took a few minutes, but eventually he managed to stretch the thick, rubbery tarp between the poles. He built it right over Sarah so that she wouldn't have to move. The poor girl really did look exhausted.
The sun finally disappeared behind the trees, leaving them in near total darkness. The moon was a thin sliver, and the stars gave hardly enough light to see by. Suddenly, Porter was struck with an intense feeling of paranoia.
We're out here in the woods, he thought. But are we alone?
Going for the bags again, Porter found one of the lanterns Lowatai had given them. Using the flint and tinder was difficult in the darkness, but he eventually got a spark, which he used to light the wick. Without a word, he set it down in front of the tent flap and stood beside it, staring silently out into the night.
"What are you doing?" Sarah demanded, snapping his concentration.
"Keeping watch," he told her. "Making sure nothing tries to hurt us. Go back to sleep."
"I can't sleep with that thing lighting up the tent," she complained. "Put it out!"
"But I won't be able to see without it," Porter protested.
"Don't worry about it," she grumbled. "Just get some sleep."
"Well," he said hesitantly, and then reached for the lantern, "okay."
He extinguished the light and took the sword from his shoulder. There had been nothing to serve as a floor for the tent, so when he laid down it was on top of dirt, twigs, and dead leaves. He tried to sweep them away with his arm, but stopped when Sarah gave him another irritated, one-eyed glare.
"Goodnight," he said, crossing his arms behind his head.
"Whatever," she replied, already half asleep.
As the two travelers slept, neither of them heard the quiet, anxious footsteps, or the big sets of yellow eyes that peered in through the tent flap. One of them stepped inside, tiptoeing on tiny, clawed feet. Its ears, each of them easily as big as its head, waggled with each step. It sniffed the air, and then turned to look at Porter.
"Looka, Chief," it whispered in a high voice, "Izza kidboy! Izza hoomin!"
"Yoosay what?" another voice exclaimed, shoving past the first to get inside. It stopped when it saw the young man asleep on the ground. "Yoosay right, Gizz! Izza hoomin kidboy!" he cackled wickedly. "Ooh, good eats, good eats! Take'im!"
Three more of the little creatures came in, but faltered when they saw Porter. To them, the young man was a giant. Their chief waved irritably, though, and they reluctantly came the rest of the way in. One of them carried a rock that was half its size, and raised it above Porter's head. It released it, and the stone struck Porter with a crack. The boy's head slumped to the side, but he didn't wake up.
"Hey, hey, Chief!" another voice spoke up. "We gotza cattygirl here! A wingy one! What we do widdit?"
The chief came to look, and then struck the one who had spoken on the head. "Stupid toadfart!" the chief hissed. "It eat us if it wake up! Kidboy enough. Go!"
It nodded violently, ducking and covering its head as it hurried to obey. Small, knobby hands grabbed at Porter's hair and clothes, wherever they could find a grip, and dragged him out of the tent. The boy didn't stir. Even after he was long gone, Sarah kept sleeping, unaware that she was now all alone.
Something was wrong. There was a horrible stench in the air, so strong that it even invaded Sarah's dreams. She stirred restlessly, fighting to not give up her much needed sleep. Eventually, she opened her eyes and raised her head. It was still dark out, and the sliver of moon outside was just visible through the tent flap. It provided enough light for her to see that Porter wasn't there.
Sarah wrinkled her nose as she took another sniff. The tent smelled like rotten meat and week-old sewage. That piece of fruit he'd eaten must have been bad, she surmised.
Good grief, though, she thought irritably, standing up to push the tent flap open so it could air out. Couldn't he have waited until he was outside to do that?
She took a moment while she stood there, with her head poking out of the tent, to take a look at her surroundings. The trees rustled above her, and she could hear crickets, treefrogs, and the occasional hoot from an owl. It was nice, she thought. Like nature itself was playing a symphony for her. And, for once, it wasn't being played over a TV or computer— she was finally getting to hear it performed live and in person. It was almost enough to make her forget how afraid she was.
It's ironic, she thought as she looked up at the moon. I'm free from my parents for the first time in my life, and what do I do? I make a beeline for the one place I know they'll find me.
It couldn't be helped, though. Even with Porter, she doubted there was much she could do but make her way to the Sanctuary. He could fight, but not much else.
Speaking of Porter, she thought, where was he? She'd assumed he had left the tent to relieve himself, but she couldn't hear him. If he was out there, he'd gone out a lot further than he needed to.
A chill ran down her spine. Had he left her here? Or, even worse, had he regained his memory and gone to fetch some of his Slayer friends? Suddenly, the noises of the forest seemed much less comforting. They were all around her. Surrounding her. And she had no idea what was making them...
She retreated back into the tent, but gagged when the rotten stench flooded back into her nose. Even after all that time, the tent still hadn't aired out. Could it be that Porter had actually left something inside the tent with her? It didn't sound like something he would do, but what else could explain that horrible smell? If he had, Sarah thought she was going to puke. Still, she looked around on the ground anyway— and gasped!
There were footprints in the dirt. And there, in the center of the tent, was a groove. It was much bigger than the footprints, and it led out of the tent. Comprehension finally dawned on Sarah, and she charged outside. Just as she'd suspected, there were even more tracks out there. The long groove led further into the forest.
Oh no, she thought, panic building up inside of her. Oh no, oh no, they got him. What'd they do to him?
This was bad. Without Porter, she was defenseless. What could have been strong enough to overpower him like this, though? If the tracks were anything to judge by, there hadn't just been one. There must have been dozens. How had they taken him without waking her up? Why hadn't they taken her too? What were these things, anyway?
There was only one way to find out, she decided, but the thought made her stomach tie itself in knots. She had to follow the tracks. Her common sense rejected this idea, but she forced herself to ignore it. These whatever-they-weres had Porter, and without Porter she didn't stand a chance. Gritting her teeth, she stepped into the trees.
There wasn't much moonlight, but it was enough to keep her going in the right direction. The numerous small prints and the single, long groove wound ceaselessly through the forest, and if they were following a path Sarah couldn't see it. She moved as slowly as she could, trying not to make much noise, but she still flinched every time her paws snapped a twig or rustled the fallen leaves. At the same time, she had to fight the urge to move faster. She had no idea how long Porter had been gone before she woke up. Every minute that it took to find him only made it more likely that he'd be dead when she arrived.
Several minutes later, she spotted a dim, flickering light in the distance. A campfire, she thought with a sigh of relief. That relief was quickly chased away when she took a breath through her nose, and found that the stench was even stronger here. Whatever had taken Porter was right over there. She lowered her belly to the ground, moving as quietly and carefully as she could. As she drew nearer, another scent began to fill the air.
No, she thought, biting her lip to keep herself from whimpering. Please don't let them have eaten him!
She crouched behind a bush and tentatively poked her head over it. The first thing she noticed was the half-eaten deer carcass hanging over the fire. The knot in her stomach untied itself just a bit. That meant they hadn't cooked Porter. Well, not yet at least.
She peeked again, and this time she finally saw what is was she'd been following. They were tiny, hardly more than a foot tall each. Their skin was dark green, and huge yellow eyes, far too big for their faces, darted back and forth frantically.
Goblins. Sarah ducked back down behind the bush. She'd never seen one, of course, but she'd read about them in her father's books. This wasn't good. They were like piranha. Alone, they weren't much of a threat, but put several of them together and they'd work together to take down larger foes. It looked like she and Porter had stumbled on a whole tribe of them.
One more look revealed Porter's location. He was sitting against a tree, his arms wrapped around the trunk behind him. The way he was struggling, Sarah guessed his hands must have been tied together. He looked terrified.
Isn't he supposed to be protecting me? she thought, irritation momentarily overpowering her fear.
One thing was obvious: she had to free him. Steeling her nerves, Sarah peered through the bush again to make sure the goblins were still fighting over the last scraps of meat, and then moved. Her fur bristled with fear as she walked, her belly so close to the ground that it almost dragged on the leaves, terrified that at any moment she'd be spotted. Somehow, she made it behind Porter's tree without being seen.
"Porter!" she whispered as loudly as she dared.
"Huh?" he exclaimed, trying to turn his head around to see her. "Sarah, is that you?"
"Shh!" she hissed. "Be quiet or they'll hear us."
Porter gave the goblins another frightened look. "Are you okay?" he asked, more quietly this time.
She paused. He was the one tied up, and he was asking her if she was okay?
"I'm fine," she answered. "Now hold still."
Kneeling down, Sarah began to bite the ropes. They were old and frayed, and her sharp teeth made quick work of them.
She wasn't quick enough, though.
"Looka!" the chief goblin exclaimed.
Sarah froze, expecting him to raise the alarm.
"Tall Thing coming!" It shouted, instead. "Tall Thing coming!"
"Sarah," Porter whispered, more frightened than ever, "get out of here. Now!"
She could hear footsteps. They were loud, way louder than a goblin could ever make. Whatever was making them was bigger than the goblins. Bigger, even, than her or Porter, she thought with a shudder. Her heart began to race, and she leaned out far enough to see around Porter's tree.
Somebody else was approaching the camp. At first, she couldn't see him in the darkness, but as he drew closer to the fire, she felt her blood run cold. He was huge, at least ten feet tall, and he was covered from head to toe with a leather cloak and hood made up of more material than their tent had been.
"Sarah," Porter whispered again, "go!"
This time, she obeyed.
NEXT TIME: Tall Thing... bum bum BUMMM! Ten feet tall and wearing an entire cow's worth of leather? I don't know about you, but this guy sounds like bad news to me. Who (or WHAT) is it, and what does it want? (*Switches to Dragon Ball Z narrator's voice*) Tune in next week for another exciting chapter of THE SLAYER AND THE SPHINX!