Porter felt the sun’s rays gently creep over him, waking him up and telling him a new day had dawned.
Morning already? he thought. Ozzie didn’t wake me up for guard duty.
The young man let out a massive yawn, stretched, and then sat—
Something sharp pricked his neck.
Instantly alert, Porter’s eyes shot open, and he summoned Flicker to his hand.
“Don’t move,” a voice above him ordered, “or I’ll cut your throat right open!”
Something pricked his throat again, and Porter made himself go completely still. It took his eyes a few seconds to adjust to the light, but when they did he was stunned to see some sort of green skinned creature pinning him down. It was wiry, barely more than skin and bones, but the strength it used to hold Porter down proved that it was far stronger than it looked. Its gnarled green skin reminded him of a goblin, but this thing was the size of a small man.
“What are you doing?” Porter demanded, resisting the urge to reach up and force the creature’s knife away from his throat.
The creature didn’t answer, but turned to look off to its right. Porter followed with his eyes, afraid to turn his head, and his breath caught in his throat when he saw that each of his companions was in a similar predicament.
“Porter!” Sarah shouted from the other side of camp, a knife held to her throat as well by what appeared to be a living puppet.
“Sarah, don’t move!” he called back. To his left, he heard Manchi let out a frightened whimper as a miniscule man with massive ears held her down.
“I’m sorry!” Ozzie shouted from in front of Porter. He was being restrained too, and another Mythic had hold of Misty’s leash. “They came out of nowhere and said they’d kill me if I said anything!”
Porter turned his attention back to the green man. He released Flicker, letting it vanish again, hoping it would help put their attackers at ease. The green man glared at him through slitted scarlet eyes, looking somewhat disappointed, as if it had actually hoped Porter would put up a fight.
“What’s going on here?” Azkular’s voice rang out from the other side of camp.
For a moment, Porter swore that the green skinned man hesitated, but then pressed the knife against his throat even harder.
“I am Commander Azkular, Guardian Authority over Jellaska Kob Lertan,” the djinn ranted. “You will release me and my companions at once!”
“Ignore him!” the green skinned man ordered. “We have our orders!”
“Why are you doing this?” Porter asked, his heart beginning to beat faster. If these creatures didn’t answer to Azkular, who were they working for?
“Arch-Mythic Rayalga has demanded that all of you be brought before him,” his captor answered. With that, he grabbed the boy’s shoulder, rolled him onto his stomach, and bound his hands with a prickly old rope. Porter tried in vain to break it as the strange Mythic hauled him to his feet, but found that they were enchanted to heat up and burn his skin whenever he struggled.
“This way,” the green man commanded, putting the tip of his knife against Porter’s back, steering him to come stand with the others. All of his friends had been bound as well. Even Droma, with all his size and strength, had been forced to submit.
“Don’t worry,” he said, trying to put a brave smile on his face. “Rayalga’s your leader, right? He won’t let anything happen to you.”
A sharp laugh came from Porter’s captor. “Don’t bet on it, Slayer. The Arch-Mythic himself gave us orders to track every one of you down. That includes you, djinn!”
Azkular make a strange sound in his throat, but didn’t say anything.
“Where is he?” Faska asked from the back of the group.
“The Guaroff Mines,” the green skinned man answered.
“The mines?” Droma echoed in astonishment. “We are nowhere near the mines!”
“Not yet, you’re not,” the green man agreed. When he had forced them all together, he and the other Mythics backed away to form a perimeter.
“What are the Guaroff Mines?” Porter asked.
“Another Sanctuary,” Droma answered. “It is far smaller than Jellaska Kob Lertan, and far poorer.”
“Nothing inside but tunnels and caves,” Faska added.
Before they could speak further, a ring of yellow light shot up from the ground around them, so bright that Porter had to close his eyes. A wave of heat washed over them, and when he opened his eyes again they were standing at the base of a large sandstone bluff. Under their feet were a set of rusty old minecart tracks leading up the hill into a dark cavern.
“They just leave the entrance open?” Porter asked, raising his eyebrows in surprise.
“Not everyone can afford a big fancy gate,” the green man snapped. “Get moving!”
Porter started walking towards the cave entrance, the others grouped so tightly around him that they were almost tripping over one another. “Why does Rayalga want to talk to us here?” he asked.
“Because this is where he’s gathering the Mythics,” said his captor. “Now shut up!”
Just inside the opening, the walls on either side of him were lit with lanterns hanging from the walls. They cast a dim yellow glow, but the darkness was so thick that the light barely stretched five feet. As they walked, Porter began to see other tunnels branch off from the main one. More Mythics stared out at him from the shadows, curious but wary.
“It smells sour in here,” Sarah said from somewhere behind him. He couldn’t smell anything except for the damp, hot smell of the cave.
“It’s fear,” the green skinned man replied, for once sounding sincere. “They know what’s coming, and they’re afraid of it.”
Porter tried to get a good look at the Sanctuary, but was being forced along too quickly. The group was steered through several winding tunnels, up, down, left, and right, until Porter had lost all sense of direction. He wasn’t even sure how far they’d walked when they were finally led into a large chamber sectioned off by a hanging curtain. Fires had been built in two large golden bowls on either side of the room, lighting it up and making it suffocatingly hot.
“Go to the center of the room,” the green man ordered. “And don’t try anything funny!”
Porter and his friends were forced to their knees, and their heads were pushed forward so they were bowing. On the far side of the room, Porter heard the sound of claws clicking over hard stone, and feathers rustling.
There was a moment of silence, and then a deep booming voice echoed through the chamber, “Leave us.”
“Yes, Arch-Mythic,” the green skinned man said, releasing Porter’s head and backing out of the room. Porter did a quick survey behind him to make sure all his friends were unharmed, and then turned his attention back to the front of the room.
He had seen Arch-Mythic Rayalga once before, when he had been put on trial in Jellaska Kob Lertan, but the sight of the magnificent gryphon was still enough to steal his breath away. Rayalga’s eagle head glared at the ragtag party, unblinking as it swiveled around to look at each of them individually. The silence was deafening in Porter’s ears, and he wanted nothing more than to speak up, to ask the Arch-Mythic why they had all been brought to him.
Finally, Rayalga’s beak opened and he spoke.
“Why have you come here?”
Porter paused when he heard the gryphon’s question. There was something in the Arch-Mythic’s voice that sounded off…
“You’re men captured us,” he answered. “We weren’t anywhere near—”
“SILENCE!” the gryphon roared.
Rayalga focused all his attention on Porter, and the young man felt his body go numb. The Arch-Mythic was hyperventilating, but, looking into his eyes, Porter suddenly couldn’t imagine that anything in the world could look more majestic and commanding. Porter felt small and weak in comparison and, almost without realizing it, he bowed his head in humiliation like the cowardly worm he most assuredly was.
“How dare you speak to me, human?” Rayalga growled, his loud resonating voice digging deep into Porter’s mind and threatening to shake him to pieces. “How dare you…”
He paused, and blinked.
“Yes, yes, I did send bounty hunters out after you, didn’t I? Of course I did!” If he’d had lips, Porter could have sworn Rayalga would be grinning at them. “And now I have you, so I will finally bring you to justice!”
“Rayalga!” another voice called out, diverting his attention. Released from the Arch-Mythic’s spell, Porter almost collapsed on the floor.
“This is most unbecoming of an Arch-Mythic,” Droma said, looking his leader in the eye. His gaze was calm and unaccusing, yet somehow still defiant.
“You would defend this boy, Soul Smith?” the gryphon asked, turning on the giant. “After everything he’s done to us?”
“No,” Droma corrected him. “I would defend him after all he has done for us.”
“Two Mythic Sanctuaries have fallen because of him,” Rayalga snapped, his eyes flashing dangerously. “The Historians’ Tower and Jellaska Kob Lertan are no more, and still you take his side?”
“Those were no fault of his,” Faska spoke up. Rayalga gave an irritated growl, and he turned to face him.
“And who are you?” he demanded.
“Faska,” the elf answered. “Leader of the Ragga Elves.”
Rayalga narrowed his eyes. “Lowatai Elan is the leader of the Ragga Elves.”
Faska bowed his head. “Mistress Lowatai is no longer with us.”
The Arch-Mythic’s eyes widened in fury, and he turned on Porter again. “And so your list of victims continues to grow, young Slayer.”
“It was not Porter’s fault,” Faska asserted. “Lowatai willingly gave her life so that Porter could continue on his path.”
Rayalga looked at the elf as if he had gone insane, and then shook his head.
“Traitors, the lot of you!” he roared. “Aiding our enemies in our most desperate hour!”
Another wave of intimidation washed over Porter, filling him with shame for having angered such a magnificent creature. He should apologize. Beg the Arch-Mythic for forgiveness.
“Arch-Mythic!” Azkular shouted, speaking up for the first time since entering the mine. “Have you gone mad? None of us are traitors!”
The gryphon opened its mouth and let out the most frightening sound Porter had ever heard, a mixture of a lion’s roar and an eagle’s shriek, filled with unfathomable rage. Behind him, Azkular was lifted off the floor and flung into the far wall with a painful sounding crunch.
“How dare you defend yourself after what you allowed to happen?” Rayalga demanded, his fury causing the entire room to shake. “You too are responsible for the destruction of two Sanctuaries, and now you are aiding the Slayer who led the attack?”
“Porter did not lead the attack,” the djinn said, picking himself up off the floor on his one leg. “He was as much a victim of it as we were!”
Another wave of force crushed the djinn against the wall again, but he kept speaking, “It was Porter who helped me get out alive!” he shouted, though it sounded as if his lungs were about to be flattened.
“Of course he did,” Rayalga screamed, sounding as if he were seconds away from losing all control. “The two of you have been working together from the start!”
Azkular fell from the wall again, landing flat on his face. He propped himself up on his arms and looked up at his leader. The expression on his face was all Porter needed to see to know what was going through his head.
“So the rumors are true,” he whispered, his black eyes widening in dismay. “You have gone mad.”
Everyone gasped. Rayalga backed away, his expression changing from manic to calm and collected.
“No,” he crooned. “I’ve just realized the truth.”
With a twitch of his head, he caused Azkular to rise into the air and float across the distance to him. When the djinn was face to face with the gryphon, Rayalga raised a wickedly sharp talon and brought it a hairsbreadth away from Azkular’s eye. Porter’s breath caught in his throat. He wasn’t really going to…
“Black and red,” he spat, as if that were all the proof he needed. “The brand of the Slayers!”
Azkular froze in midair, completely immobile.
“That’s…” he spluttered. “That’s not true.”
“Lies,” the Arch-Mythic spat, and flung the djinn away from him a third time. Azkular landed on the floor in a crumpled heap right in front of Porter.
“You think I don’t know about your past, djinn?” Rayalga asked. The way he said “djinn” made it sound as if he were reluctant to use the term. “You think I actually believe you are a true Mythic? You are nothing more than a human yourself!”
Porter looked down at Azkular, expecting the proud commander to defend himself, but he didn’t say a word.
“A human child apprenticed to a wizard,” the gryphon ranted, as if he’d prepared this speech a long time ago, “eager to learn magic like he’d heard about in stories. Shocked to learn that his mentor was actually a sorcerer, dabbling in black arts that should never be seen by human eyes. His mentor put a knife into his heart to keep his secret safe, but the boy knew one way he could save his life.”
“Stop,” Azkular pleaded in a soft voice, still lying prone on the floor. “Please.”
“He bled himself dry” Rayalga went on, “and then filled his veins with magic. Blue fire, the only thing that could feed off the anger that burned in his heart. The hatred he felt for his mentor— and soon, the entire human race.”
An icy chill ran down Porter’s spine as he looked at his friend on the floor. To his shock, he saw that Azkular was crying. No tears came from his eyes, only tiny tongues of blue flame.
“I have stripped you of your title,” the Arch-Mythic went on, raising his head high in triumph. “Wherever you go now, you are an outcast to both man and Mythic. Should you dare to enter into one of our Sanctuaries ever again, the guards are commanded to kill you on sight.”
Porter highly doubted that a team of regular guards would be able to stop Azkular if he really wanted to come inside. He also doubted Rayalga cared at the moment. The gryphon turned away from the group and began pacing back and forth agitatedly. He was muttering to himself, but Porter was able to make out a few words.
“Going according to plan… Forces arriving now… Humans will pay!”
“You’re actually planning on leading a war against humanity?” Porter asked, stunned. He’d known it was true all along, but hearing it come directly from the Arch-Mythic’s mouth finally hammered home just how real the situation was. Real and dangerous.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Rayalga demanded, spinning around to face Porter. “Your kind has been in power for too long. Wars, pollution, plague— none of it would happen if not for you!”
“But you don’t have to fight us!” Porter insisted, hoping against hope that the Arch-Mythic would listen. “We can live together in peace!”
“Peace?” Rayalga shrieked, and this time it was Porter who was flung backwards. He struck the wall hard enough to make stars dance in front of his eyes. “You of all people wish to speak to me about peace? After everything you’ve done?”
The gryphon began pacing again, shaking his head wildly. “The humans are the ones hunting my people down to extinction. They turned us into nothing but fairytales. Everything that is wrong with this world could be fixed by eliminating them!”
“That’s not true!”
Porter gasped and sat up as best he could with his hands bound. Now it was Sarah who stood against the Arch-Mythic. When Porter had been thrown back, she’d scrambled to her feet and was now glaring straight into her leader’s eyes.
“The humans didn’t decide to hunt us down just because we’re not like them,” she said, her words filled with strength. Porter didn’t know how she could feel so strong at a time like this, facing off against a creature with so much authority that it could be used as a weapon, but the sphinx didn’t wilt or back down. “We forced their hand. The Mythics were working against them. The only way they could survive was to fight back!”
“Sarah,” Faska asked, shocked, “what are you talking about?”
“I learned this at the Historians’ Tower,” she answered, not taking her eyes off Rayalga. “I asked the Keeping Fire how the Slayers had been formed. They were originally an army built to overthrow an evil tyrant. They won, but the Mythics wouldn’t leave them in peace. So, they brought the fight back to us. It was the only way they could save themselves!”
The chamber went deathly quiet. Porter could hear the flames crackling in the bowls. His breath caught in his throat when he saw Rayalga glaring at Sarah with undisguised hatred. His bloodshot eyes looked like they were going to pop out of his skull and his body quivered with anger, as if he were having to hold himself back from tearing the sphinx limb from limb. Porter got to his feet, ready to run between the two of them if the Arch-Mythic lost control. He would be useless in a fight with his hands bound, but he couldn’t just lay there while the one he loved was killed…
“So, you have sided with the human monstrosities as well?” Rayalga demanded at last, his words as sharp as glass. “I should have guessed. The disgusting form you have chosen to take tells me all I need to know about your loyalties.”
Sarah clamped her mouth shut, knowing that to further defy the Arch-Mythic would be dangerous. The gryphon took a step closer to her so that they were staring directly into each other’s eyes.
“If your parents were still alive,” he spat hatefully, “they would be ashamed of you!”
Sarah gasped, and her face went pale with shock. Her lip quivered, trying to hold back her cries, but nothing could stop the rivers of tears that began to run down her face.
“I will have nothing more to do with any of you!” Rayalga decided, backing away from them. “From this moment on, every one of you is dead to me. Guards, take them away!”
Sarah fell to her knees, her hands still bound behind her back, unable to wipe away her tears. Porter could only look at her, her grief strong enough to make him want to cry as well, as the guards rushed back into the chamber and dragged them all away.
NEXT TIME: Well, they got what they wanted, right? They were looking for a way to stop Rayalga and the Slayers from going to war against each other. What better place is there for that than in the Arch-Mythic’s own stronghold? Of course, first they have to escape… and hope the mad gryphon doesn’t have them executed. You know, fun stuff.