Sarah flopped down gratefully on the hard marble floor next to Misty. She and the others had gone back to rejoin Ozzie, Misty, Faska, and Manchi, leaving Droma alone to work on the lock.
“What did you find?” the elf asked, standing vigilant in the empty hallway.
“Nothing yet,” Porter answered, sitting down next to Ozzie. “The door’s locked, but Droma’s trying to open it.”
“How long will that take?” Misty asked.
Azkular shook his head as he came in. “Impossible to say. It could be hours, maybe even days.”
Porter shifted agitatedly on the floor. “We don’t have days! The Mythics are marching now, and we have no idea how long it will be before the Slayers catch up to them.”
“The Slayers will not get involved yet.”
Everyone turned in surprise to Granger, who was standing by the opposite wall. Though he had spoken to Porter, he hadn’t said a word to anyone else— until now. Sarah saw Azkular’s hand twitching, as if debating whether or not to conjure his knife.
“Why’s that?” she asked, standing up.
“I spoke to Master Mortoph when Vega and I saw the Mythic army,” Granger answered. “He told us his plan is not to attack the Mythics immediately.”
“Doesn’t that go against a Slayer’s basic mentality?” Faska asked, eyeing the old man suspiciously.
“He told me that he intends to let the Mythics reach society and cause some chaos,” Granger continued, ignoring the elf. “That will turn the public against them. Then the Slayers will come and defeat them, and everyone will see us as heroes.”
Cold, stunned silence filled the room.
“Then we have even less time than we thought,” Azkular said, his eyes wide with barely contained anger. “If Rayalga attacks before we can intervene, it won’t matter if the Slayers win or lose. Everyone will see the Mythics as monsters, just like Mortoph wants them to.”
“He also told me that he would be deploying the Repurposed to whittle away their numbers before the real battle starts,” Granger added.
Ice filled Sarah’s veins as she remembered the first time she’d encountered a Repurposed Mythic. It had been in the room just at the top of the stairs they were standing by now. Shadow had cornered Tick and her in the archive while Porter fought Ozzie on the stairs. She shivered, the image of the mindless dragon’s black and red eyes still vivid in her memory. In front of her, she could see Porter’s face turning red with anger.
Is it really worth it to try to change this man? She wondered. Porter’s just going to give himself a headache!
“Why are you telling us this?” Porter demanded. His eyes were hard and his face angry, but Sarah knew what was going on inside his head. He was hoping Granger would admit that he was trying to help them, which would mean that what Porter was trying to do was working.
“Because there’s nothing you can do about it,” the Slayer answered. “You will refuse to leave this tower until you’ve gotten what you’re after. Without it, you have nothing to use against us. By then, it will be too late.”
Everybody fell silent.
“Do you understand, Porter?” Granger asked, looking directly at the young man. “There’s no way you can stop what’s coming. You’ve already lost.”
Lightning flashed outside the windows, followed by an ominous roll of thunder. When it faded away, another sound could be heard.
Porter was hyperventilating.
For a moment, Sarah thought he was going to hit the old man. After standing there for a minute, his face turning an alarming shade of scarlet, he spun around and punched the wall instead. Hot tears were running down his face as he cradled his hand, falling back against the wall.
It broke Sarah’s heart to see him like that. Leaving Misty’s side, she said the magic words under her breath and morphed into her human form. Standing on two feet again, she walked across the room and knelt by Porter’s side, wrapping her arms around him. He didn’t look up at her, but she could feel him shaking with pent up frustration.
“It’s okay,” she whispered into his ear, pressing her body against his. “It’ll be fine.”
Porter shook his head weakly. “It’s all been for nothing,” he whispered back. “If we can’t beat the Mythics to civilization, it’s over. The humans will turn against them, and they’ll just stand aside let the Slayers destroy them.”
“Then we’ll just have to do it,” she said, trying to sound encouraging. “We’ll get there first and stop them!”
“We can’t, Sarah!” Porter argued, turning bloodshot eyes on her. “He’s right. If we don’t have the Keeping Fire, we’ve got nothing. We can’t leave without it, and by the time we get it the Mythics will already have attacked some innocent town. We were too slow, Sarah.” He hung his head. “We’re too late.”
Sarah bit her lip as Porter’s misery threatened to creep into her heart as well. She could feel his despair. Their chances of success were slim, she’d always known that, but she had still believed they could do it. So had Porter. So had all of them. To suddenly have those hopes dashed at their feet… to know that everything they had done had been in vain… Sarah closed her eyes, trying to hold back her own wave of tears. She looked up at the others, who were staring at them. All of them, even the strong and independent Azkular, were lost. She could see it in their eyes. If Porter didn’t get his act together, they would fall apart too.
“Porter,” she whispered into his ear, “you can’t give up. You’re the one everyone is following. If you give up, they’ll all give up! Please, you have to stay strong for their sake. For my sake.”
At this last comment, Porter finally turned to look at her again. He looked absolutely wretched, Sarah thought, but she couldn’t hold it against him. He’d been through so much already, almost all of it for somebody else’s sake. He was holding so much weight on his shoulders she was astounded that he hadn’t collapsed long ago.
This was the first time she’d seen him cry, she realized. He’d held it in all this time. After everything he’d seen and done, he had managed to keep it all bottled up until this very moment. She couldn’t imagine the kind of strength it took to do something like that. If any of them deserved to let go and have a good cry, it was him.
“Maybe this will help,” she said, putting a brave smile. Before he could react, she leaned in and gave him a kiss. It was the longest kiss they’d ever shared, their lips pressing together for over a full minute. Her hand came up to caress his cheek, wiping away his tears before running her fingers delicately through his hair. Sarah tried to put all of her passion into that kiss, forcing it out through her lips and into Porter’s. She tried to make him feel her love for him. How much he meant to her. How much she believed in him. What she would be willing to do to help him succeed. When she finally pulled away, both of their faces were red, and they were both breathing heavily. There was a look of astonishment on Porter’s face.
“I love you,” she said, loud enough for only him to hear. “If anyone can do this, it’s you. But you can’t give up, Porter. You have to keep believing in yourself!”
Slowly, as if coming up out of a dream, Porter nodded. He was still uncertain of himself, she could see it in his eyes, but he put on a brave face and, turning to face the others, stood up.
“We can’t do anything until after Droma opens the door,” he said, his voice strong once again. “But once he does, we’ll have to move fast. Faster than we’ve been moving in the past. I don’t know how much time we’ll have, but we need to beat the Mythic army to civilization.”
Azkular folded his arms and nodded, his black eyes defiant, as if he were daring fate to try and stop them. The others muttered their agreement as well, and Sarah felt a spark of hope light up inside her again. Nothing had changed, but she believed in Porter, even if he didn’t believe in himself. He was capable of far more than he gave himself credit for. If he was the one leading them, then she could believe that they were going to succeed.
Azkular paced back and forth, his hands clasped behind his back and his black eyes staring intently at the floor. It had been three hours since they’d left Droma alone to work on the lock, and the djinn was beginning to grow restless. Porter’s meltdown earlier had struck a blow to everyone’s confidence— including his own. The young man was better now, but Azkular wouldn’t feel the same until they were on the move again.
It’s work, he thought as he turned and paced back down the hallway again. When he’s running around with something to do, Porter doesn’t have time to think about how the odds are stacked against him. Sitting here like this, that’s the only thing he has to do.
Even now, Porter was standing at the end of the hallway by the stairs, waiting for the Soul Smith to descend with good news. Flicker was in his hand, which to Azkular’s eyes said more than words ever could. He wanted to fight, if for no other reason than to have something to do. Sarah sat next to him, leaning her back against the wall, still in her human form. Occasionally she would look up and throw an encouraging word to him, but then she’d go back to hugging her knees and staring into space.
Porter’s not the only one who needs something to do, Azkular realized. Their group was like water. When they were running, they stayed pure. When they were trapped in one place, they stagnated.
“Porter!” he said suddenly, spinning on his heel to face the boy. Porter turned to look, and Azkular conjured both of his knives. Putting himself into an offensive stance, he yelled, “Defend yourself!”
Confused, Porter barely had time to raise his sword before Azkular threw himself at him. Both of his knives were a blur of steel, attacking anywhere he thought there might be an opening. He didn’t intend to hurt Porter, of course, but he also had no intention of going easy on him. Fortunately, Porter reacted with the warrior instincts the djinn knew he possessed, parrying every attack. He didn’t do it with ease like Mortoph had in Jellaska Kob Lertan, but his skill still far surpassed that which a boy his age had any right to possess. Azkular’s attacks were relentless, though, and gave Porter no chance to strike back. After a couple minutes of his relentless onslaught, he leaped backwards out of Porter’s reach.
“Attack me!” he commanded, pointing one of his knives at his opponent. Now everyone was looking at them with interest. Manchi looked frightened, unsure whether the dancing blades would come after her next, and she went to hide behind Misty.
With a shout, Porter came at Azkular. He swung Flicker at the djinn’s neck, which he parried easily. His other knife shot out towards Porter’s waist, but Porter followed his sword’s momentum up and over so that it came down and knocked Azkular’s knife away. Azkular was impressed. He had seen Porter fight before, but he’d never actually fought him. Granger had been a challenge, but he was old. Given enough time, Azkular would have worn him down and finished him off. Porter, however, was young and in peak physical condition. There was no telling how long he could continue to fight like this.
Porter thrust Flicker out to stab Azkular, but the djinn flipped into the air and landed on the sword, balancing on its blade. He swung both of his knives at Porter’s throat simultaneously, but the young man released his sword and ducked underneath the attack. Azkular hit the floor without losing his balance and came at Porter again. Porter dropped to the ground and rolled away before getting to his feet again. With his fists balled, he ran at Azkular.
What is he doing? the djinn wondered, but didn’t have time to contemplate the boy’s actions. Porter threw a punch at Azkular’s face, which he nimbly sidestepped. Azkular followed up his dodge with a strike at Porter’s unprotected shoulders, but Porter raised his arm and blocked the blow. For a moment, Azkular thought he had actually hurt Porter— his bare arm would serve no protection against the djinn’s blade. But then his knife bounced off Porter’s arm with a loud clang.
Azkular paused, surprised. Porter’s forearm was covered with his armor. Even as he watched, the magical metal melted away into nonexistence. Azkular chuckled.
“So, that’s your plan, is it?” he asked with a smile. “Very well, let’s put it to the test!”
Again, he came at Porter. He swung his knives, unworried about injuring the weaponless young man. Porter deflected every strike with his own body, summoning his armor in just the right place to block the attack. He threw punches, his fists suddenly covered with hard metal gauntlets. This continued for several minutes, neither of them having a clear advantage.
Then Azkular managed to land a solid blow on Porter’s side. The armor appeared to shield his skin again, but the force of the attack was enough to throw Porter off balance. He spread his arm out to correct himself, one facing Azkular, the other facing the wall. Sensing an opportunity, Azkular raised both his knives and brought them down towards Porter at the same time. Porter summoned his gauntlet again and, reacting with almost superhuman speed, reached up and caught both of the djinn’s knives in one hand. Azkular blinked in surprise.
With a shout, Porter swung his other hand around to reveal that he had summoned Flicker without Azkular noticing. Azkular cursed, but had no time to move before the magical sword whipped around, and the flat of the blade slapped him on the side.
“Ow!” he shouted, more for effect than from actual pain. He released his knives, which remained in Porter’s hands for a moment before evaporating into fire once again. Porter stood there, breathing heavily, and then let Flicker and his armor vanish.
“Well fought, my friend,” Azkular congratulated him, holding out his hand. Porter reached out and shook it, his own hand covered in sweat.
Though he didn’t feel the least bit tired after the fight, Azkular went and sat down heavily against the wall so he was facing Sarah. Porter went to rejoin her, and she smiled up at him.
“That was amazing, Porter!” she exclaimed.
Porter smiled weakly, still trying to catch his breath.
“Sarah,” the djinn said. “If you don’t mind, there’s something I want to talk to you about.”
“Okay,” the sphinx agreed warily, rising to her feet. “Should we go somewhere, or…?”
“No,” he answered, “sit down. We should talk about this where the others can hear.”
As Sarah sat back down, Azkular explained what he was thinking, “When we were talking to Rayalga in the mines, you mentioned something about what you saw in the Keeping Fire.”
Sarah nodded. “It told me about how the Slayers were formed.”
“I want you to tell me about it as best you can,” the djinn instructed.
Sarah blinked in surprise.
“I want to know this story,” he explained before she could ask. “All my life, I’ve assumed that the Slayers were killing Mythics just because we weren’t human. What you said to Rayalga made me question that. Porter is trying to get us to look beyond our own prejudices and see the real reasons behind our enemies’ actions. So, tell me how and why the Slayers were formed.”
Sarah hesitated, and then nodded.
“I asked the Keeping Fire how the Slayers were formed. It told me that at the beginning of time, the world was ruled by a Fear Feeder named Uthas Drall…”
For the next half hour, Sarah retold the tale the Keeping Fire had once told her. She described how the Slayers of Darkness had been formed, and eventually overthrew the Fear Feeder. She told them about how the Mythics had refused to treat the humans as equals and ignited the second war which had ended with them all being driven into hiding. All the while, everyone’s eyes were trained on her, their undivided attention hanging onto her every word.
“Where we are today is just as much our fault as it theirs,” she concluded, shaking her head sadly. “We forced the humans’ hand in this. If they hadn’t fought back, we would have driven them to extinction.”
Silence filled the room as her friends took this in. Azkular took a deep breath and stepped forward.
“It’s strange,” he said with a regretful shake of his head, “to have everything I’ve ever known be turned its head. You were right, Sarah. The Mythics are just as much to blame for this war as the humans are. The Mythics just happened to be on the losing side.”
Nobody argued with him.
“But the Slayers took it too far,” Porter added. “The Mythics stopped being a threat after the war with Uthas Drall was forgotten. They had no reason to keep hunting you.”
“A victim can only take so much abuse before he snaps,” Faska agreed, solemnly. “Rayalga has reached his breaking point and now he doesn’t care if the entire Mythic population is wiped out so long as he finally gets to release his pent up anger.”
“The problem,” Azkular added, “is that I suspect the vast majority of the Mythics have reached that point as well. If we could calm them down and convince them to go back into hiding, we may still be able to survive this. As it is, I don’t think they’ll back down until either they or the entire human race has fallen.”
“No,” Porter said, shaking his head as he stood up. “No more hiding. No more running. No more living in fear that you’ll wake up to the Slayers kicking down your door. You’ve been living like that for too long. It’s over.” He sighed. “One way or another, it’s over.”
Everyone nodded. Whether the Mythics met victory or defeat, there would be no going back to the way things were. They would either rule the world, or the world would destroy them. The fires of anger in Azkular’s veins dimmed for a second as fear gripped him. His people were marching to war, and there was no telling which side would win. For a minute, the same despair that Porter had felt came over him. What chance did they really have? Both the Mythics and the Slayers were determined to see each other destroyed. Until recently, he, himself, had never given the notion of peace a second thought. How could they possibly convince two entire armies to try it?
Disgust rose up inside of him, then, rekindling his fires. Disgust at himself. He’d come all this way believing in a foolish dream a human boy and a love-struck sphinx had given him. The things he had been doing over the past two weeks had gone against everything he’d ever believed. The strangest part was that he wasn’t disgusted at himself for following that dream, but because he was tempted to give up on it.
This way is better, he thought with conviction. This way is worth fighting for. Even if we fail, at least I can at least take solace in knowing that I was fighting for the right side.
He was saved from further contemplation by Droma, who chose that moment to come down the stairs and join them.
“The door is unlocked,” he said, but if he was proud of his accomplishment he didn’t show it. “We can go into the archive now.”
With that, he turned and went back the way he had come. Everyone eagerly got to their feet. Porter and Sarah immediately went after him, side by side. Azkular and Faska picked up Ozzie’s stretcher, and followed the others. Misty brought up the rear, growling as she led Granger up the stairs.
This is it, Azkular thought as he ascended the steps. This is the turning point for everything.
NEXT TIME: The Mythics are on the attack, and only the Keeping Fire has the knowledge needed to stop them. Sarah will have to swallow it, but that may be more dangerous than she imagines. Will she survive? And if she does, will they be able to stop the Mythic army before they turn the world against them?