“Open wide, your honor.”
Arch-Mythic Rayalga begrudgingly opened his beak and allowed Glenda to pour the contents of her vial into it. He shuddered as he tilted his head back to swallow the dark yellow liquid.
“It tastes horrendous,” he grumbled, eyeing the old woman with undisguised revulsion.
“It does, Arch-Mythic,” Glenda agreed, bowing her head respectfully, “but I’m afraid there’s no avoiding it. As long as the potion does its work, surely the taste is worth suffering through, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Indeed,” the gryphon agreed, “though I’m sure a Mythic would have been able to make it taste tolerable.”
Glenda bit back a sharp remark. As much as she disliked the Arch-Mythic, the Arch-Mythic disliked her even more. Given the current state of affairs, she couldn’t afford to offend him, lest what little trust he had in her be broken.
He lay on the floor of his personal chamber inside the Guaroff Mines, his body bruised and cut beyond any state she’d ever seen him in. The burns all over his body were the work of the djinn, Azkular. His right wing was stretched out beside him at an angle that was obviously broken. He blamed the former commander for that, as well. None of this surprised Glenda, though. She’d seen Azkular fight before, and knew that the fire-blooded djinn was not to be trifled with. What impressed her was the single cut he had on his side, a stab wound that was neither deep nor overly painful for such a strong Mythic. He claimed it had been given to him by Porter, who had rushed to the aid of his other human friend. As insignificant as the wound was to the Arch-Mythic, the idea that Porter had been able to give it to him was astounding. Glenda felt herself glow with pride for her adopted son, but she wisely hid it from the injured gryphon.
With her potion doing its work inside Rayalga’s body, the Arch-Mythic nodded, signaling the other Mythics that were standing by the wall to approach him. They stepped up to him, one for each of his many wounds, muttering healing spells under their breath and aimed the beam of magic at their designated injury. Rayalga sighed with relief as he felt his wounds begin to heal. The potion Glenda had given him increased his body’s natural healing rate, which in turn made the spellcasters’ work less taxing than it otherwise would have been. Glenda watched as his cuts closed on themselves, burned patches of fur regrew, and his wing snapped back into place. In less than five minutes, the Arch-Mythic stood again, as tall and proud as he ever had.
Except that his eyes were alight with madness.
He flapped his wing a couple of times experimentally before he was satisfied. “You have all done well,” he said to each of his healers as they stood back against the wall again. “You and your families will be rewarded for your service.”
Glenda didn’t miss the fact that Rayalga hadn’t even looked in her direction when he’d said this. She wasn’t surprised. Even after twelve years of service to the Arch-Mythic, the gryphon still viewed her as nothing more than a tool that could be easily replaced. He had said as much several times, adding that whoever she was replaced with would likely do far better at her job than she did. While she doubted that this was true, she knew that the only reason she’d gotten this position at all was because she had Rayalga’s pity, not his respect. That was the best a human like her could hope for.
“Leave me now,” the Arch-Mythic ordered. “I have much to discuss with my commanders.”
The Mythics all bowed their heads and filed obediently out of the chamber. Glenda followed them, but was shoved rudely aside as the commanders made their way in. She recognized three of them, but the fourth was new— likely Rayalga’s replacement for Azkular. He almost looked like the sphinx Porter had been travelling with. He had a lion’s body, rippled with muscle, and the face of a particularly ugly human. His cold black eyes glittered with sadistic anticipation. However, unlike Sarah, he had no wings coming out of his back. Instead, his tail stretched farther behind his back than a lion’s. It was segmented, like an insect’s, and what looked like spear heads poked out of it in several places.
It was a manticore, one of the creatures feared most by Slayers and Mythics alike. They weren’t like most Mythics, who only wanted to exist in peace. Manticores loved violence, and nothing excited them more than taking an enemy’s life. Of all the creatures the Slayers referred to as monsters, Manticores were the only ones Glenda could think of that actually fit that description. She wondered briefly what had possessed Rayalga to name such a horrible beast commander. That rank was only supposed to be given to Mythics the Arch-Mythic believed could adequately care for his subjects. A manticore’s only talent lay in killing— which, Glenda realized with a jolt, must have been Rayalga’s reason for promoting him. Not because he could help his people, but because he could kill his enemies.
Glenda had less than three seconds to figure this all out before she was forced out of the chamber. If the Mythics who had healed Rayalga weren’t welcome at this meeting, then a human like her would never be tolerated. She walked through the curtain that served as the chamber’s door and made her way to the tunnel that would take her back to her potions chamber. Once she was out of sight of the two cyclops standing guard outside the Arch-Mythic’s chamber, she stopped and pulled out another vial she’d had in her pocket. It was full of clear liquid that, to an untrained eye, would have looked just like water. She quickly pulled the cork out and downed the contents.
I may be old, she thought with amusement as her body slowly dissolved to invisibility, but I’m still craftier than half the Mythics in this mountain.
She held up her hand to make sure there was nothing left of it that could be seen, and then turned and made her way back to the chamber she’d just left. She stepped slowly and lightly, her feet not making a sound on the stone floor as she moved. The thing about cyclops was that even with only one eye, they had better sight than almost any other creature on Earth. Their hearing, though, was greatly lacking, which was why Glenda was able to walk right between them unnoticed and stand inches away from the curtain.
“Yes, Arch-Mythic,” one voice said. “Everything you told me to do has been done.”
Glenda recognized this as Ogalitz, the fae commander. He stood five inches shorter than Glenda, who was not even tall by human standards, but anyone who knew him knew that his magic was powerful enough to punch a hole straight through a mountain wall.
“Good,” Rayalga said. “And you, Pewter?”
Pewter, the dwarf commander. They said his hands were strong enough to crush diamond, but also skilled enough to chisel it.
“Aye, Arch-Mythic,” the dwarf’s rumbling voice replied. “As many weapons and armor as ye could ever need.”
“And you, Bravvius?”
“I have not had adequate time to train your troops,” the old centaur replied, his voice thick with disapproval. “Another week, at least, is needed before they will be able hold their own in battle.”
This didn’t ease Glenda’s anxiety, but she took some comfort in knowing that at least one of the commanders didn’t wholeheartedly support Rayalga’s plans. Commander Bravvius was the oldest of the commanders, and the most respected archer of their age. Apparently, Rayalga had appointed him the task of training his new soldiers. Glenda knew that no matter what the Arch-Mythic said, Bravvius was not one to look lightly on sending untrained troops to war.
“We don’t have a week,” Rayalga replied. “We march tonight.”
“But Arch-Mythic!” Bravvius argued, dismayed. “What chance will we have if our warriors don’t know how to fight?”
“They will fight,” the gryphon insisted, “and they will win. Not because of their skills, but because it’s their destiny. The destruction of the humans is long overdue. Fate has determined that when we meet them in battle, they will fall.”
“How can you say this?” Bravvius demanded. Glenda heard him stamping his hoof in frustration. “If it were that easy, we would have done it millennia ago!”
“What’s wrong, horse-man? Are you afraid they won’t be able to protect you?” a voice Glenda didn’t recognize asked. It was rough, as if the speaker had been gargling broken glass, and the sound sent visions of death and violence spinning through the old woman’s mind. It must have been the manticore. Only it could carry such malice in its voice.
“I fear they will not be able to protect themselves!” Bravvius shot back.
“Enough,” Rayalga ordered. “Doluku, you have your orders. You will lead the first wave of troops into the human world. I trust they will be able to cause an adequate amount of chaos.”
“It would be wiser to send Bravvius, Arch-Mythic,” Pewter advised, speaking as though he were afraid the gryphon would pounce on him just for speaking his mind. His fears weren’t at all unfounded. “He has experience in leading armies. He will be able to give us a tactical advantage instead of just causing destruction.”
“A tactical advantage is not needed!” Rayalga shot back. “Didn’t you hear me? It is the humans’ destiny to fall. All we need to do is attack!”
Pewter made a sound in his throat, as if he wanted to argue further, but he held his tongue.
“I will do as you command,” Doluku the manticore promised, his voice smug. There came a sharp snick sound as he whipped his tail and hurled one of his stingers into the far wall. “The humans will never know what hit them!”
“Then we have nothing further to discuss,” Rayalga declared. “Go to your troops, all of you. Our forces will march at daylight!”
Glenda gasped. Things were even worse than she’d feared. She had known the day was drawing near when the Arch-Mythic would be ready to deploy his army, but she’d anticipated at least another week’s wait. Suddenly, she regretted her decision not to poison the mad gryphon’s potion. It would have cost her her life, no doubt, but at least it would have delayed the war he was so eager to begin. She needed to do something, but what?
Glenda took a step back, knowing that the commanders would be coming out any moment, but in doing so she accidentally kicked a loose pebble. Immediately, both Cyclops guards turned to look. She was still invisible, but there was no way they could miss the pebble moving on its own. One of them lashed out, quicker than she could react, and grabbed ahold of her. His hand appeared to be closing on open air, but he was smart enough to realize what was going on.
“Someone’s here!” he shouted. “Somebody’s spying on the Arch-Mythic!”
Glenda didn’t struggle. She knew she was no match for the giant man’s strength. Immediately, the curtain was thrown aside as all four commanders and Rayalga stormed into the hallway to see what was going on.
“It’s turned itself invisible,” the Cyclops explained.
“Name yourself,” Rayalga commanded, letting his authority wash over her. Her will to rebel immediately melted away.
“I’m Glenda Moore,” she said obediently. “The potions keeper.”
“The filthy human!” Rayalga spat. “I knew you couldn’t be trusted.”
For a horrifying moment, Glenda thought that he was going to kill her there and then, invisible or not, but then a cunning look came into his eye.
“Who did you think you were going to report this to?” he asked. “There aren’t any other humans here.”
Again, his authority hit her. The truth was, she wasn’t sure who she was going to report to. Still, under the Arch-Mythic’s influence, she felt obligated to give him some answer.
“Porter Collins,” she said, and immediately felt her gut twist with guilt. It hadn’t even been a day since she’d helped her adopted son escape, and she was already betraying him!
“What connection do you have to that Slayer?” the Arch-Mythic pressed her. This time, she resisted when he struck her with his intimidation. She couldn’t, she wouldn’t, willingly give him any more information.
Rayalga growled in his throat, the sound vibrating the tunnel. “Speak, wench!” he ordered.
Glenda’s will to resist shattered, like a window trying to withstand a shot from a cannon. She looked at the Arch-Mythic with eyes clouded with shame that he couldn’t see, and told him everything. When she was done, if Rayalga’s beak could have smiled, she was sure it would have.
“Allow me to kill the human,” Doluku offered from the Arch-Mythic’s side, flexing his tail in anticipation. “It would be a great honor.”
“No,” Rayalga decided. “I think she may still be useful. Take her to a cell. I’ll retrieve her when I’m ready.”
As the cyclops dragged her away towards the prison, Glenda shut her eyes as invisible tears of shame ran down her face.
I’m sorry, Porter. I’m so sorry!
With Sarah’s rejection fresh in his mind, it took a long time for Porter to fall asleep that night. When he did, though, he found himself in a place he hadn’t seen in a long time. A long dark hallway stretched in front of him, further than he could see. He immediately recognized it. This was where Other Porter had been imprisoned. Before that, he, himself, had been locked in here.
But what am I doing here now? He wondered.
Porter hesitated, an icy chill running down his spine. He didn’t like this place. Still, seeing no other option, he began to walk down the hallway. There was no source of light, but the shadows retreated just enough for him to see as he journeyed down the ominous passage. Slowly, his destination came into focus in front of him.
It was a doorway. The last time Porter had been here had been when he and Lowatai had searched his mind for memories of Red Castle’s whereabouts. He stopped, facing the door, and took a deep breath.
Lowatai had died that night.
Mortoph had been the one to kill her.
The darkness inside the doorway was like a wall. Even in the dim light that travelled with him, Porter couldn’t make out anything inside it. And yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.
The Master Slayer was still here, he realized. He could feel him in there, waiting like a spider waits for a fly to wander into its web. Standing in front of the door felt similar to standing in front of Arch-Mythic Rayalga, except that instead of authority, Mortoph was radiating an aura of fear.
“Are you brave, little hero?” a cold, cruel voice drifted out to him. “Can you bring yourself to do what must be done?”
Porter wanted to answer, to say yes, he was brave, but something held him back. A quiet laugh came out of the shadows.
“Then come in,” it said, “and take a look around.”
Porter stared at the shadows for a moment, paralyzed. He tried to steel his nerves and banish his fear, but it didn’t work. Going through that door was the last thing in the world he wanted to do, and there was no changing that. Still, if was what he needed to do…
Porter forced himself to take a step forward. His feet felt like lead, and every fiber of his being screamed at him to turn around and run, but he didn’t listen to it. The wall of shadows loomed less than a foot in front of him now, beckoning him and threatening him at once. Taking one last deep breath, he stepped through it, and…
Walked straight into something.
Porter gasped, and another cold laugh rang out. Whatever he had walked into was strong, like walking into a solid wall. It pushed against his chest, forcing him back out into the hallway. The Master Slayer’s grinning face emerged from the darkness with him. Porter immediately flexed his hand, calling for Flicker, but the sword didn’t appear.
“There’s no fighting me here, Porter,” Mortoph said, his voice smug with confidence. “Here, I am in control.”
“No, you’re not,” Porter argued. “This isn’t your mind. It’s mine!”
Mortoph didn’t respond. Porter could feel his gaze, the Master Slayer’s eyes drilling holes right through him.
“What are you even doing here?” the boy demanded, trying to sound braver than he felt.
“Don’t bother trying to hide your emotions,” Mortoph answered. “I know exactly what you’re feeling. You’re scared out of your mind right now, aren’t you?”
“Answer my question!”
Mortoph spread his hands. “Do you really want to know, young man? Very well. When I Repurposed you, I put a piece of my own soul inside you as well.”
Porter almost gasped, but he held it in, making a strangled grunt inside his throat. Mortoph’s smile widened.
“I had to keep an eye on you somehow, didn’t I?” he asked. “My communication with my full self is limited from here, but I did manage to keep you under control for twelve years.”
“I don’t care why you put yourself here,” Porter interrupted him. “Get out!”
Mortoph pretended to think for a minute, but then shook his head. “No, I don’t think I will.”
“I don’t remember giving you a choice,” Porter growled, balling his fist.
Mortoph smiled and gave a quiet chuckle. At a wave of his hand, a table and two chairs rose up out of the floor. The Master Slayer took one seat and motioned for Porter to take the other.
“Sit down, child,” he said, folding his hands in front of him like some kind of counselor, “and let’s talk about the sphinx.”
“Let’s not,” Porter retorted, taking a step away from the table instead.
Mortoph kept talking anyway. “You’ve finally found the closest thing you’ve ever had to a real family, and that monster can’t bring herself to be happy for you.”
“She’s not a monster!” Porter shot back. “And she’s just upset that her parents are dead!”
Mortoph leaned towards him, his eyes glinting with a challenge. “And so she takes it out on you? The one she claims means more to her than anyone else? Is that what kids these days consider love?”
“Sh- she just needs time to come to her senses,” Porter argued. Despite his best efforts, Mortoph’s words were hitting him right where he wanted them to.
“As do you,” he said. “You’re so infatuated with that creature that you haven’t realized just how little she actually cares for you.”
“That’s not true!”
Mortoph rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Don’t lie to me, boy. I wouldn’t be saying this if it weren’t somewhere in your head.”
Porter took another step back, but Mortoph stood up, the table and chairs evaporating into fog, and followed him.
“Admit it. Somewhere deep in the recesses of your consciousness, there is a seed of doubt. You wonder if that thing really loves you like you love it.”
“No,” Porter insisted, but he kept backing away.
“Oh, it’s there,” Mortoph promised him. “And I intend to grow that seed into a weed that will slowly choke your love for Sarah to death.”
Suddenly, all of Porter’s fear vanished, and was replaced with anger.
“Shut up!” he shouted. With or without Flicker, he was no longer afraid of the Master Slayer. With a roar of fury, he charged at Mortoph, fists balled to beat him to a pulp.
Mortoph didn’t even flinch. When Porter came within reach, his hand shot out and grabbed ahold of the young man’s face, clamping down on it with a grip like iron.
“Remember what I told you tonight,” he said, his voice dripping with malice. “Now, wake up!”
Porter sat upright, back in the forest once again. His skin was beaded with sweat, and he was breathing heavily.
Oh no, he thought miserably. Not these dreams. Not again.
When Other Porter had been ejected from his body, he’d been convinced that his nights of talking to people inside his own head were over. A pit formed in his stomach as he remembered how Other Porter had been able to manipulate his body indirectly. But Mortoph was worse— far worse. He didn’t want to think about what kinds of things the Master Slayer might be able to do in there.
Still trying to get his breathing under control, Porter looked around the camp. Everyone was asleep except for Azkular, who was standing guard. The peaceful breathing of his friends did a bit to calm him down.
His eyes drifted over to Sarah, and he froze when he realized he and Azkular weren’t the only ones awake. The sphinx was staring at him from where she lay on the other side of camp. For a moment, he dared to hope that she would come and comfort him just like she had the first time he’d started having nightmares.
That had probably been where he’d started to fall in love with her, he realized.
She didn’t move, and his hopes sank again. With one last icy glare, she laid her head back on the ground and rolled so she was facing the other way, leaving Porter to deal with his nightmares alone.
A seed of doubt, young hero, Mortoph’s voice echoed in his mind. And now it begins to grow.
NEXT TIME: Glenda is in Rayalga’s prison, and Mortoph is in Porter’s head. That’s a wonderful combination, don’t you think? What reason could Rayalga possibly have for keeping Glenda alive? Will Mortoph really be able to choke Porter’s love for Sarah to death?