Chapter Twenty Four
Glenda had long since given up on walking, and Rayalga had long since given up on trying to make her. At first, the old woman had thought the gryphon would simply leave her behind to die, but he apparently had other plans.
“Carry the worthless retch,” he had ordered the nearest Mythic. Unfortunately, that Mythic had been an ogre with pointy bumps all over its body. Now, days later, Glenda felt as if she had been lying on a bed of rocks in the back of a pickup truck. Her bones ached, and her spine would likely never be completely straight again.
Up ahead, the mad Arch-Mythic called for a halt.
Right here? Glenda thought as her reluctant carrier set her down on the ground. In the middle of the day?
The confused mutterings of Rayalga’s troops told her she wasn’t the only one thinking this. Still, they didn’t complain. They had been marching for hours without a single break, so they would take whatever rest they could get.
Even in madness, that gryphon is cunning, Glenda thought with a scowl. He wouldn’t have stopped his army here for no reason.
Sure enough, her suspicions proved right. Five minutes later, Commander Doluku came sauntering up to her. Even in her predicament, Glenda had been vocal about her disgust for the manticore. She could tell she wasn’t the only one, but the others would never speak out against a commander— especially with the Arch-Mythic in the state he was in. It was no coincidence that he had sent Doluku to fetch her, and not one of the other commanders.
“The Arch-Mythic wants to speak to you,” he said, indicating with his barbed tail that she was to walk in front of him.
Glenda considered herself a bold woman, but even she was cowed by the manticore’s cold eyes. She obediently got to her feet, groaning as her old bones protested, and began to walk to where Rayalga waited.
What could he want to speak to me about? she wondered as she walked, trying her best to stay a good distance away from Doluku.
She found the Arch-Mythic standing tall and proud at the front of his army. From a distance he appeared to be the very definition of authority and poise, but as Glenda drew nearer the illusion was ruined when she saw the manic look in his eyes. He was a creature on the verge of losing control.
No… he was long past that point already.
“Human,” he greeted her, not bothering to hide the disgust in his voice.
“Arch-Mythic,” she returned the greeting, bowing her head to try to preserve the illusion of respect.
Rayalga grunted in derision, and then began his agitated pacing again.
“I assume you’re wondering why I bothered keeping you alive,” he said. “You think that if I had any sense at all, I would have killed you the moment I found you spying on me.”
Glenda thought nothing of the sort, but she wisely kept her mouth shut.
The gryphon let out a low, ominous chuckle. “I don’t plan on killing you just yet. I have plans for you, human, and those plans require you to be alive.”
A pit formed in Glenda’s stomach, and she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “What plans?”
“The boy,” Rayalga said, turning on her. “The one who escaped from the mines.”
“Porter,” Glenda said, apprehension making her skin crawl.
“You were his foster mother,” he went on, a sadistic gleam in his eye. “We will give you to the Slayers in exchange for their complete surrender.”
Glenda’s mouth fell open as she faced the insane gryphon, stunned. Rayalga chuckled again, thinking her reaction was in awe of his brilliance.
“Humans value only their own kind,” he said. “When they realize that we have you, they will lay down their weapons and allow us to take out rightful place.”
He started pacing again, a confident swagger in his step. “And then we’ll kill them!”
“Rayalga!” Glenda shouted, her eyes wide with disbelief. The gryphon turned sharply to face her. “Arch-Mythic,” she quickly amended herself, “this plan is foolishness. You can’t go through with it!”
“And what do you know of such things, woman?” he demanded. “You can’t trick me that easily. I will see my people given what they deserve!”
Glenda shook her head. “The Slayers will never agree to that. One person’s life is not worth the entire war to them.”
“Maybe not, but you are mother to one of their highest ranking members,” Rayalga countered. “They will surrender for you.”
“Porter isn’t a Slayer anymore,” Glenda insisted. “He’s fighting against them now!”
“Silence, you old hag!” Rayalga roared, rearing back on his hind legs. Glenda fell back, cowering in fright. She had pushed the unstable creature too far. “I will not be dissuaded. I will not be defeated. I will not listen to your lies!”
“You’re leading your people to their deaths!” Glenda pleaded from the ground. “Please, reconsider!”
Rayalga silenced her with another roar. “You are a human, and have no right to speak to me. Begone!”
Glenda knew that any further arguments would only get her killed, so she got to her feet and backed away from the maniacal beast. Once she was a good distance away, Rayalga calmed himself and began pacing again. Then, he turned and peered through the trees, into the distance. She recognized the shaking of his body as laughter. Cautiously, she took a step forward and to the side, trying to see what he was looking at.
Her blood ran cold, and she raised a hand to her mouth to stifle to horrified gasp. Directly in the Mythic army’s path, less than a mile away, was a town. A human town. Rayalga hadn’t stopped his army here just to antagonize her. He had reached his first target!
I have to do something! she thought desperately as Doluku led her back to her guard. Her hand deftly brushed the side of her jacket, feeling the reassuring bumps of the bottles she had stitched into the fabric. Rayalga had confiscated everything she had been carrying in her pockets, but he hadn’t thought to check inside the jacket itself. The Mythics were still hidden right now, but how long could they stay that way, she wondered? These were creatures that most people had only heard of in fairy tales. If she could just draw a little attention to this part of the forest, it would be impossible not to notice them.
Doluku deposited his prisoner to her guard and stalked away, barbed tail flicking about eagerly. The ogre barely gave her a passing glance before laying its head down and trying to return to its nap. It saw no need to worry about an old lady like Glenda. Surely she wouldn’t be any trouble.
Oh, how wrong you are, the old woman thought as she took off her jacket. It was cold outside, but she ignored the weather and began to pull at the fabric. The garment stretched a little before resisting her tugs, and a couple of other Mythics glanced at her curiously, but said nothing.
Don’t mind me, she thought. I’m just a crazy old lady doing crazy old lady things!
Then, with a satisfying rip, the fabric of her jacket finally gave way. She clutched it to herself before any of her hidden potions could fall out and looked around, trying to see if anyone was paying her any attention. Then, taking a deep breath, she reached inside her jacket and felt around for the bottle she needed. The familiar contours of the vial rubbed against her fingers, and she drew it out. The orange potion inside reflected the sunlight like liquid fire.
“Hey!” someone in the crowd shouted. “The potion lady’s got something!”
Glenda jumped in fright. Somebody had been watching her after all! Immediately, a group of Mythics jumped up and came at her, but they weren’t fast enough. Springing to her feet, she raised the bottle over her head and threw it down, shattering it on the ground. The moment the potion was released, it exploded into light and color, and a fiery orange pillar shot up into the sky, piercing the clouds. Even in the midday sunlight, it was plainly visible.
It lit the Mythic army up like a beacon.
The pillar flickered and flashed for ten seconds before fading away. The entire army stood motionless in shock. Even the ones that had come to stop Glenda were frozen, unsure of what to do next. She allowed herself a smile. There was no way the people below hadn’t seen that, or the army of Mythics. They wouldn’t have much time to prepare, but at least she had given them a chance.
Suddenly Rayalga roared, and Glenda was bowled over from behind. The world spun when her head struck the ground, and Rayalga pinned her down with a massive paw, pressing her face into the dirt.
“Vile wench!” he screamed in manic fury, pressing down on her so hard that she was afraid she would be crushed.
The Arch-Mythic raised his head and spoke to his army. “Our position has been revealed. Attack!”
Porter woke up, but didn’t open his eyes.
He felt like he was in somebody else’s body. His arms, his legs, every part of him felt unfamiliar, and yet at the same time it didn’t.
“I feel different too.”
He didn’t hear the voice in his ears, or even in his head. He felt it in his heart, like it was speaking directly to his core— or his soul. It caught him off guard, but he found he wasn’t really surprised. This voice inside him felt as natural as his own voice in his thoughts.
“Sarah?” he called back.
“Hello, Porter,” the sphinx’s voice greeted him. Feelings of happiness and contentment washed over him, and yet he knew instinctively that they weren’t his. They were Sarah’s.
“Is this what it’s like?” he asked. “Having our souls bound together?”
“Yes,” she answered, and he could feel the smile in her thoughts. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”
He smiled as well, his eyes still closed. “It’s wonderful.”
He gradually became aware of other noises around them. The gentle patter of rain, and the wind blowing through the trees. His friends were there, he could hear them moving around and… breathing.
“How can I hear them breathing?” he wondered.
“You’re part sphinx now,” Sarah answered with a giggle. “They have better hearing than humans do.”
His sense of smell was better, too. He could detect the scents of things around him that, as a human, had always been beyond his reach. His nose was flooded with smells, and yet his brain was able to differentiate them all. The wet bark of the trees. The decaying leaves beneath him. The musty smell of the dirt. Sarah.
“I can smell you,” he realized suddenly. Then, realizing what that must have sounded like, he grew embarrassed. Sarah just laughed again, her amusement chasing his humiliation away.
“It’s okay,” she replied. “I can smell you too. Everyone has a scent. Someday you’ll be able to recognize people by their scent as much as you do by their face.”
Porter was silent for a minute, taking all of this in.
“We should probably wake up,” Sarah suggested. “We have things we need to do, right?”
“Right,” Porter agreed, and opened his eyes.
Everything around him looked unchanged. Clouds still covered the sky, but the storm had passed, leaving nothing but weak drizzles in its wake. His body still felt different, but he forced it to cooperate and sat up. The first thing he noticed was that he had two massive limbs on his back that hadn’t used to be there. Craning his neck back, he was startled to see two wings hanging limply between his shoulder blades. He concentrated on them, and with a little difficulty was able to stretch them out behind him, the morning sunlight glinting off his raven-black feathers.
No way, he thought in wonder.
“They look good on you,” Sarah’s voice spoke to him again.
Porter jerked his head to the side, and saw Sarah sitting across from him. His eyes opened wide at what he saw, and he couldn’t hold in his astonished gasp.
Sarah was sitting upright, her body in an unmistakably human shape, and yet her wings were stretched out behind her, just like his own. She wore the clothes that appeared on her body whenever she turned human, but he could still see the light golden fur that ran over her arms and legs, just like when she was in her sphinx form. Her tail, he saw, was lying on the ground behind her.
“How do I look?” she asked, a smile rising to her face.
“I think you are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on,” he answered truthfully.
Sarah giggled again, and replied, “You don’t look too shabby yourself.”
Realizing what she meant, Porter took a deep breath and looked down at himself. His human body, the body he’d had all his life, was gone. Now he saw himself just as Sarah was. He still had a human shape, but fur had sprouted up all over him. It was a darker brown than Sarah’s, but still tan. He raised his hands, and saw the black pads that had formed on his palms, and the claws that now tipped his fingers. His tail twitched behind him, dragging across the muddy ground.
“I have a tail,” he thought in bewilderment. “Weird!”
Only then did Porter become aware of his friends, who were standing all around them, waiting for them to say something. He exchanged a glance with Sarah, and felt a surge of encouragement flow from her to him. As one, they stood up. He took a step towards her and, facing their companions, they clasped each other’s hands. He knew exactly what to say, both of them having agreed on it without having to say a word.
“We are one,” Porter said.
“One soul, one heart,” Sarah agreed.
“From this day forth,” Porter continued.
“Until the day we die,” Sarah concluded.
Ozzie, Manchi, and Misty didn’t seem to know how to respond to this, and stared at them with a mixture of awe and confusion. Droma, Azkular, and Faska, however, smiled.
“Well done,” the Soul Smith said, coming forward to clap them both on the shoulder. “Both of you!”
“Thank you,” they said together.
“We have work to do,” Porter said. “The Mythics are still moving. We have to catch up to them and stop them before they reach civilization!”
“We don’t know exactly where they are,” Sarah added, “so we might miss them if we teleport. We’ll have to go on foot.”
“And we’ll have to move fast,” Azkular agreed. “They’ve got a big head start on us.”
Porter nodded. “We can move fast.”
Azkular grinned, as if accepting a challenge. “Yes, we can.”
No further discussion was needed. Porter and Sarah both turned and began to run in the direction Granger had told them the Mythic army was going. Porter’s body still felt strange to him, and he figured that it would for a long time, but he was astounded by how fast it was. Muscles stronger and tighter than any he’d ever had as a human worked flawlessly underneath his skin to propel him forward. Sarah matched him step for step, never once falling behind or running ahead. He could hear the others following behind them, each of their footsteps deafeningly clear in his supersensitive ears. He could still feel Sarah’s emotions. She was scared of what was going to come, but those feelings were all but buried beneath how happy she was. Happy that she was so close to Porter. In both body and spirit, they were inseparable.
“We’re going to end this war,” he said to her over their newfound telepathic connection. “Together.”
“Together,” she agreed.
They ran for several minutes, and though Porter was still impressed by his speed, he began to grow annoyed by the way his new wings caught the wind around him, slowing him down. He angled his body forward so that they were flat against the air, but it wasn’t enough.
“Tuck them in against your back,” Sarah advised him. “That’ll keep them from catching the air.”
He looked and saw the way she had folded her wings across her spine, and tried to do the same. Sarah had spent her whole life having wings, and knew exactly what to do with them, but Porter had only gotten his that morning, and was having a hard time controlling them. After a couple minutes of struggling with them, though, he managed to fold them against his back just like Sarah had. As she had promised, they stopped acting like parachutes and allowed him to run without any resistance.
“Raise your tail!” she said. "You’re letting it drag on the ground.”
“That still sounds so weird!” he said back, but he did as she suggested and flexed the muscle that would raise his tail up, keeping the tip of it from snagging on the twigs and rocks below him.
“What’s your plan when we get there?” she asked a few minutes later.
“When we reach the Mythic army, we have to get in front of them,” Porter answered, speaking out loud so all of them could hear him. “Sarah will have to use the Keeping Fire to show them what they need to see.”
Porter felt the magical fire stir inside of Sarah, reacting to being mentioned. He could even feel its heat through their connection.
“How?” Faska asked, bringing his mind back to the situation at hand.
Porter was about to answer, but then stopped. He had never made a plan for this, had he? He’d always assumed that getting the Keeping Fire would solve their problems. He hadn’t stopped to think about how Sarah would use it.
“Do you know how to make it work?” he asked.
“No,” Sarah answered, her troubled emotions reverberating in Porter’s chest. “I feel it in me. It’s waiting for me to call on it, but I don’t know how.”
Porter turned back to look at Droma, shooting him a look he hoped appeared more curious than afraid. They’d come all this way. They couldn’t be stopped by something like this!
“It should work just like it did before she swallowed it,” the giant answered. “All you need to do is ask it something.”
Porter paused, considering this, but Sarah mentally interrupted him before he could say anything.
“Not right now,” she urged him. "Wait until we’re alone.”
“Why?” he asked in confusion, but then he noticed that the fire inside her had grown warmer. He could feel it even more sharply now than he could before. He could feel apprehension in Sarah as well.
“I don’t know how it will happen,” she told him. “I’d rather be somewhere we know is safe before we try it.”
Sarah’s fear squeezed Porter’s stomach as if it were his own, and he nodded.
“All right,” he agreed. “We’ll wait.”
The group stopped to rest an hour later. Porter felt like he could have easily run three times that distance without stopping, and he knew Sarah felt the same. With their souls joined, both their bodies were stronger, and their respective energies had doubled. Still, with the exception of Azkular, the others were still bound by mortal limitations. As they sat and rested their legs, Porter crouched at the edge of the group, sitting on his haunches. Strangely, he found the position just as comfortable as sitting now, and it made him feel like a predator about to pounce. Sarah came and sat by him in a more womanly pose.
“So, what do you think so far?” she asked.
Porter had been hesitant to speak to her with his real voice. It seemed so distant compared to the intimacy of conversing with their souls. Still, he understood why she was doing it— he understood everything about her now. They both knew that the others were still casting wary glances at them, unsure of what to expect from the soul-bound pair. Sarah wanted to reassure them.
“I love it,” he answered, flashing her a grin. His new tail swept back and forth across the forest floor, kicking up leaves and dirt, and he stretched his wings out behind him.
“This body is different,” he told her silently. “It’ll take a lot of getting used to.”
Sarah smiled at him, though her lips didn’t move. Porter could feel it in her heart. “Still, you do love it, don’t you?”
Porter smiled back. “Of course I do.”
“And I love you,” she responded, and the smile finally reached her face. Slowly, she slid her hand across the ground and up Porter’s leg until it was resting on his calf. “You know, I wasn’t joking when I said this looks good on you.”
“I know you weren’t,” Porter said, taking her hand and pulling her towards him. Leaning forward, he took the beautiful chimera’s face in his hands and brought it to his own. The usual explosion of emotions erupted inside of him, but this time they felt different. Stronger.
“You’re feeling what I feel,” she told him, her eyes closing as she pressed her lips against his. “And I’m feeling what you feel.”
Then, feeling bolder than she ever had before, Sarah grabbed Porter by his shoulders and pulled herself to him. Her arms snaked further around him until she was embracing him, her body pressed up against his. Burning desire exploded in Porter’s heart and soul, and he wrapped his arms around her as well. Once he felt he had a good grip on her, he stood up, pulling her to her feet with him, and put her back against a nearby tree, kissing her with more enthusiasm than he ever had before, their mutual passions fueling each other’s arousal. Almost unconsciously, their tails intertwined, hugging each other as they lost themselves in the isolated, burning bubble of their love.
It was several minutes before Porter managed to pull away, and that was only because Sarah urged him to.
“Porter!” She said sharply into his soul. “The others!”
Porter released her, gasping for breath, and he realized that they had completely forgotten the others in heat of the moment. He turned to look at them, and found them staring back with eyes wide. He barely gave them a glance, though, before turning back to look at Sarah. Both their faces were red, and their cheeks burned with desire.
“That was… amazing,” Porter said to her, still trying to catch his breath.
“Yeah,” she agreed. Then she laughed. “But I don’t think it had the desired effect.”
“Let them think what they want for now,” Porter said, turning back towards the direction they’d been going. “We’ll show them we’re still the same people we used to be.”
“We should get moving again,” he said out loud. “Droma, how much farther do we have to go?”
The Soul Smith paused and looked around. “We are nearly there. Just a few more miles.”
Porter nodded and turned to continue on their way, but stopped when Sarah put her hand on his arm.
“What if they beat us there?” she asked.
An uneasy silence fell over the group, but nobody spoke up to offer a solution.
“It’ll be fine,” Porter finally said. “Granger told us we had a chance to beat the Mythics there if we hurried, so…”
He let his voice trail off. His words may have sounded confident, but he couldn’t hide his true feelings from Sarah. Granger hadn’t seen the Mythic army in days. For all he knew, they could have changed targets, or marched faster, or… Even if he could inspire the others, his chimera twin would always see right through his lies.
“Stay strong,” her voice whispered to him. “For all of us.”
Porter nodded, and turned to keep going. He didn’t offer them any words of encouragement, but neither did he hesitate as he struck out towards Westwillow.
“Hope for the best, Sarah, but expect the worst.”
NEXT TIME: Good to see Porter and Sarah are both okay, isn’t it? They’ve got everything they need to stop the Slayers and the Mythics now, but they still have Rayalga and Mortoph to deal with. What’s going to happen next?