Vega hissed as he ran his hand over the tear in his Slayer’s coat. That accursed giant had managed to break through his defenses once, and even though he hadn’t actually been injured Vega would now have to return to the Slayers with a torn coat. It would be easy to fix, but until it was it would be a blatant giveaway that the great Dominic Vega, second-in-command of the Slayers, had let his guard down in battle.
Vega’s face turned red with anger. He wanted to lash out and kill the closest thing to him, but his wooden javelins wouldn’t do much good against the army of trees surrounding him. A nocturnal bird alighted on a branch above him and began to sing its song, and Vega flung a dart of fire at it with a flick of his wrist. It fell from the tree, the smell of burning feathers filling the air.
Porter would pay for this. Oh yes, he would make that insolent child suffer for this humiliation. Vega’s plan had been perfect in idea and in execution. The only thing he hadn’t foreseen was Porter somehow acquiring that magical suit of armor. Without that, Granger would have been able to kill the brat with one attack and then come aid him. Where had Porter gotten a suit of armor like that anyway?
Then again, he mused, it could be Granger’s fault. He’d volunteered to kill Porter himself. The incompetent old man should have foreseen Porter having that armor and avoided confronting him head on at all. Using lightning against it had been the right choice. If Granger were in any way intelligent, he’d have done that from the beginning. Vega’s failure was just as much Granger’s fault as it was Porter’s.
Feeling somewhat better about himself, he knelt down and ran his hand across the ground again. He wasn’t as skilled a tracker as Granger, even he had to admit that— though not out loud. It was also far more difficult to track something in the dark than it was in broad daylight. The fight earlier had worn Vega out more than he cared to admit, and he would have liked very much to lay down and rest. He couldn’t, though. His prey was still out there, and they were so close he could practically taste it. There would be no rest for him until their bodies lay dead at his feet.
He stood back up and kept following the trail. As he walked through the moonlit forest, his thoughts turned once again to Granger. What had Porter said to him while they were fighting? Something about how he’d spared the old man’s life, and as such expected Granger to leave him alone. Vega played those words through his head again and again, an idea began to form.
Granger was a fool. That much had been obvious to Vega for a very long time. He was old, weak, and he hesitated to do what was needed. The Slayers would have been better off, he decided, if Granger had been replaced years ago. If Granger really was in Porter’s debt, then it could be inferred that Granger had had secret dealings with the boy. Since Porter was an enemy of the Slayers, that would make Granger their enemy by association. A wicked grin rose to Vega’s face.
There was only one thing to do with traitors to the Slayers. Mortoph wouldn’t even need to know the specifics. All Vega would have to tell him was that Granger had abandoned him, which was true enough, and had gone to aid Porter and the sphinx. As luck would have it, the werewolf Vega had been ordered to hunt down was also with their group. In such an occasion, it would be Vega’s solemn duty as second-in-command to destroy all of them.
The javelins in Vega’s pack clacked excitedly with every step he took, as if they were just as eager to taste blood as he was to spill it. Human blood. Monster blood. Traitor blood.
“There it is,” Droma announced, pointing towards the hilltop. The sky was darkened today by clouds, and the air smelled of rain. There would be a storm before the day was over.
Porter squinted, trying to see what the Soul Smith was looking at. At first, there was nothing to see, but then an image flickered just over the top of the hill. A massive white pillar appeared and then disappeared again, like a lightbulb on the verge of going out.
The Historians’ Tower.
As the tower appeared again, Porter could hear his friends muttering in fascination behind him. He felt something brush his side, and looked down to see Sarah standing next to him. She looked up at the tower in silence.
“What’s going on?” he asked, turning to face Droma.
“The enchantments were kept active because of the historians’ constant maintenance,” Droma explained. “Without them, the magic is slowly running out. Before too much longer, it will be visible to everyone.”
There was sadness in his voice, and though the giant held his head high there was sorrow in his eyes. Porter understood what he was feeling. The last time he, Droma, Sarah, and Tick had been here was just before the Slayers attacked and slaughtered everyone inside.
“What are the chances that any of the historians are still in there?” Sarah asked in a quiet voice. “Alive, I mean?”
Droma shook his head. “Next to none, I am afraid. It would be a miracle for even one of them to have survived the Slayers’ attack.”
Porter turned to look back, and he saw Ozzie quickly avert his eyes, his face pale. Pretending he hadn’t seen anything, Porter nodded to Droma to lead the others on. As the group moved forward, Porter hung back until Ozzie caught up to him, still being carried on his cloak stretcher between Azkular and Faska.
“Hey,” he said quietly, falling into step with them. “How are you feeling?”
“I don’t want to go in there,” Ozzie answered. There was sadness in his voice as well, but it was not like Droma’s sadness. His grief, Porter realized, came from guilt.
Porter’s face turned grim as he remembered the first time he’d met Ozzie after losing his memory. While he, Sarah, Droma, and Tick had been visiting the Historians’ Tower, their tracks had led Ozzie straight to them. Ozzie had been the one who alerted the Slayers to the tower’s location.
“It was my fault,” Ozzie whispered. “The historians would still be alive if it weren’t for me.”
“You can’t blame yourself for that,” Porter argued.
“Why not?” Ozzie demanded. “I knew what I was doing the whole time. I told the Slayers where you were. I even fought with them when they invaded the tower. None of it would have happened if it weren’t for me.”
Porter wanted to keep arguing, but he stopped himself. What could he say that would make Ozzie feel better? In the end, he was right. It was Ozzie’s fault everyone in the tower died that night.
“Come inside with us,” Porter urged him.
Ozzie shook his head. “If I go in there, all I’ll be able to see is all those people that got killed because of me.”
“Then face it,” Porter said.
Ozzie looked up at him, half wary, half confused.
“Ozzie,” Porter explained, “do you know how I felt when Other Porter came out of me? All I could see in him was the person I used to be. All I could think about was how many Mythics I’d killed with those hands. I wanted to run from him and pretend like he’d never existed.”
Ozzie remained silent.
“Instead, I decided to do something good. I chased him, and I confronted him. In doing that, I confronted my own past. And I overcame it.”
“That’s different,” Ozzie argued. “You had a real enemy to fight. I don’t.”
“Yes, you do,” Porter shot back. “It’s just inside you. Mine managed to get out, but before he did he was inside of me, too. That didn’t mean I couldn’t still fight him. And that doesn’t mean you can’t either.”
Ozzie looked thoughtful for a moment. “You want me to go in there and face what I’ve done.”
Porter nodded. “It won’t be easy, but I think it’s what you need to do.”
Ozzie was silent again for a full minute. Finally he sighed and nodded. “All right, I’ll go in. But then what?”
“Then you help us to do some good,” Porter answered. “We need the Keeping Fire that’s inside the tower. Once we have it, we’re going to stop the war.”
Ozzie chuckled a bit, and then winced as his laugh moved his ribs.
“It sounds so simple when you say it like that,” he said once the pain had passed. “Do you really think Mortoph is just going to sit back and let you beat him?”
A pit formed in Porter’s stomach as his mind flashed back to the last time he had encountered the Master Slayer. Everyone had fought together, but Mortoph had defeated them without breaking a sweat. He brushed the dread away, though. He would worry about that later. Giving his friend a friendly, and gentle, pat on his shoulder, Porter quickened his pace to catch up to Sarah and Droma, who were nearing the top of the hill. He reached them just as they got to the top, and looked out over the other side.
Sarah gasped. “All the fairies are gone!”
Where the Fairies’ Field has once lay, as beautiful and colorful as the rainbow, was only a circle of gray ash. Porter shivered as he remembered seeing the Slayers lighting the tiny sprites on fire as they made their way to the tower. He reached down and put a comforting hand on Sarah’s back.
“It’s all right,” he said softly. “Let’s just get inside.”
Sarah nodded wordlessly and allowed the young man to lead her down the hill, towards the Historians’ Tower. The ashes, long since cooled, crunched softly beneath Porter’s feet. With the cold temperature, he could almost believe he was walking on snow, and not the remains of millions of fairies. The tower popped in and out of existence. The front door was directly in front of them, so they continued on a straight path forward. When they reached the door, Droma halted.
“Prepare yourselves,” he said. “I do not know how much the Slayers cleaned up after they invaded the tower.”
Porter didn’t need the Soul Smith to explain what he meant. Behind him, Ozzie groaned quietly. When nobody objected, Droma raised his hands and pressed them against the door. With a mighty heave, he threw all of his weight against it. Even with his considerable size and strength, the door only moved an inch. Droma stepped back, panting slightly from the effort.
“This might take a few minutes,” he said, and then pushed against the door again.
Porter wanted to help, but knew that if Droma was having that much trouble, he would do even less. Best to stay out of his friend’s way. While he waited, he turned to look at Sarah.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” he asked.
“Of course I am,” she answered. “We have to do this so we can end the war.”
Porter shook his head. “I mean swallowing the Keeping Fire. You don’t have to do it. Azkular can do it.”
Sarah shook her head back at him. “It has to be me. It’s what Lowatai said, remember?”
Porter sighed, but nodded. Lowatai had foretold that Sarah would bring peace to the two armies, and that Porter would protect her while she did it. The way things were going, he couldn’t really argue with her.
“But does that mean that you have to swallow the fire?” he persisted. “Azkular could do it, and you could still be the one to bring peace.”
“No, Porter!” the sphinx insisted, her wings extending in emphasis. “It has to be me! I just… I feel like that’s the right thing to do, okay?”
Porter hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. Sarah glanced at Droma as he continued to move the door, inch by inch, and then gave Porter an encouraging smile.
“I’m not scared,” she said.
Porter raised an eyebrow in confusion. Even though he did his best not to show it, he couldn’t help but feel afraid. The ragtag group, though all competent in their own way, had not one, but two armies that wanted them dead. The odds were anything but stacked in their favor. He couldn’t keep himself from shivering when he thought about what would happen if he failed. And even if he and Sarah were to end the war, what would the cost be?
As he stood there worrying, Sarah rose up and placed her front paws on Porter’s shoulders, putting them at eye level.
“I have the greatest protector in the world,” she said, smiling with confidence. “What do I have to be scared of?”
Looking into the sphinx’s eyes, Porter found the strength to push his fear down once again and return her smile.
“What, indeed?” he asked, and leaned forward to give her a quick peck on the lips.
“There!” Droma announced, slamming against the door one last time. Sarah dropped to all fours again, and Porter turned to see that the door had been opened wide enough for them all to get through.
“I will have to squeeze a bit,” the giant admitted, trying to catch his breath, “but at least it is open.”
“Brother Koob always opened it with one hand,” Porter said, half teasingly. Brother Koob had been even shorter than Tick, and in no way a match for the Soul Smith’s strength.
“Brother Koob was the designated doorman,” Droma explained. “The door was enchanted to open at his command.”
Porter frowned, remembering how the kooky little gnome had been able to unlock the door by whispering to it. He’d clearly been off his rocker, but he’d had a good heart.
“At least we didn’t have to answer his riddles again,” Sarah joked, trying to lighten the mood as the group began to file one by one through the door. Nobody laughed.
Porter waited outside, letting all his friends go in before him. Droma went first, followed by Sarah. Manchi followed close behind the sphinx. After her came Azkular and Faska, carrying Ozzie on Droma’s cloak. Lastly, Porter turned to watch Granger go inside. His hands were still bound, but they’d been forced to untie his legs so he could walk. Misty had volunteered to watch over him, and hadn’t let the Slayer out of her sight all day. Porter had his doubts as to how much the werewolf would be able to do if Granger had decided to run for it, but since the old man hadn’t made any attempt to escape he’d kept his mouth shut.
Granger paused just outside the door, turning his head to look up. Misty growled, but he ignored her.
“I’ve only seen this place once before,” the old man said, just loud enough for Porter to hear him. “It seemed grander then.”
Porter’s face grew hard. “That’s because you killed everyone inside.”
Granger looked at him and shook his head. “I didn’t come here until after the attack took place. Even then, in the aftershock of such a huge event, the tower seemed majestic. Now it just seems dead.”
“Whether you were there during the attack or not,” Porter argued, “you’ve got no one but yourself to blame for how it is now.”
Granger looked at Porter for a moment, and then nodded. “Yes,” he agreed quietly, “I suppose you’re right.”
Without another word, the old Slayer stepped inside the tower, followed by Misty. Being the last one outside, Porter went in after them.
The inside of the tower wasn’t what Porter had been expecting. He had braced himself for hundreds of bloody corpses strewn all over the place, the Slayers too proud to clean up their mess. But while there were no bodies or blood to be seen, things hardly appeared normal. Bookshelves and torches lined the walls every few feet, just like they had the last time Porter had come here, but now the torches were long since burnt out, and the shelves were empty.
The Slayers apparently hadn’t been averse to further disrespecting the dead. Thousands of pages littered the floor, their covers torn to shreds and flung in different directions. It looked as if every tome the historians had dedicated their lives to making had been destroyed. The parchment covered so much of the floor that it was difficult to walk without slipping on it.
Beside him, Porter heard Sarah make a distressed sound in her throat. “How could they do this?” she asked, her eyes wide as her eyes scanned the hallway, taking in every detail.
Droma shook his head, and reached down to put a hand on the sphinx’s back. He offered no words of comfort. What could he say? He had known the historians far longer than Porter or Sarah had. Many of them had been great friends of his. Whatever pain they felt for their deaths, Porter thought, Droma probably felt a hundred times worse.
“I can still feel despair echoing through these halls,” Azkular whispered. Porter shot him a stern look before he could say any more. “Sorry.”
“What do we do now?” Porter asked, turning to Sarah.
The sphinx tore her gaze away from the ruined tower and turned to him, grateful for the chance to look at something else.
“The Keeping Fire was on the very top floor,” she said. “We need to get up there.”
Porter nodded and turned to Droma, who knew the tower better than anyone else.
“This way,” the Soul Smith said, making his way down the corridor. He had barely taken two steps when his foot slid underneath him, and he had to grab a nearby bookshelf to keep from falling. He looked down at the sheets of paper that covered the floor.
“Here,” Porter offered, taking a step forward. He thrust his hand out, sending a gust of wind down the hallway to carry away the pages of lost history. He knew that blowing them away like old candy wrappers was disrespectful to those who had spent their lives writing them, but he wasn’t willing to risk anyone in his party slipping on one of them and getting hurt as they climbed the innumerable stairs to the top of the tower. Droma gave him a hard look, but didn’t say anything.
As the giant led them further into the tower, Porter stayed close to Sarah. She was pressed up against him again, and the young man quickly realized that she was shaking.
“It’s so quiet now,” she whispered, as if afraid to break the eerie silence.
“I know,” Porter agreed. While the Historians’ Tower had never been loud, it had always been filled with sounds. Historians would bustle to and fro, discussing their work, with the sound of thousands of quills scratching in the background as their owners watched and rewatched the recordings their magic mirrors gave them, taking notes on things they thought were worth being remembered. Back then, the tower had been filled with life…
“I don’t like it here,” Manchi said, speaking up for the first time that day.
Porter looked down at the little chimera, who was pressed against Sarah’s other side. Her eyes were never still, looking from one place to another in fearful fascination.
If only she could have seen it before, he thought. Then again, she was probably too young to really care about history the way the historians had. Manchi paused for a moment and picked up one of the sheets of paper. It rustled gently in her hand as she held it up close to her face.
“The Earth Shakers slept for over five hundred years,” she read out loud, speaking slowly as she sounded out every word. “Their last awakening was in the year 625 AD. They were the cause of many events that humans considered natural disasters.”
Porter looked at her, interested despite himself. When last he came, he hadn’t touched a single one of the historians’ books. Back then, he had been preoccupied with finding out who he was, and was convinced that the historians’ records held the key. His heart sank as he realized that that chance was lost to him now. Before, one could barely see the walls inside the tower for all the books that lined them. Looking at the pages scattered across the floor, Porter knew it would take someone a lifetime to collect and sort through them all.
Manchi dropped the page and kept walking. Droma led the group in solemn silence, leading them ever upwards through the endless hallways and staircases. An air of gloom filled the tower. As they passed through Mirror Room 97, they had to step carefully when they found that the Slayers had also taken the time to shatter every one of the historians’ magic mirrors. As their journey stretched towards twenty minutes, the only sounds coming from their footsteps, Porter swore he heard Granger muttering to himself behind the young man.
“All this knowledge,” he was saying, “wasted. What could we have learned from it?”
“How much further is it to the top?” Faska asked.
“Not much farther,” Droma answered. He glanced back, and noticed how much difficulty they were having in carrying Ozzie up the stairs without dropping him.
“Maybe they should just stay here,” Porter suggested.
Droma nodded. “We are only a two floors away from the top. Set Ozzie down here and stay with him.”
The elf did as he was asked, but Azkular had different ideas. “I never got to see this tower when it was alive,” he said. “I want to go the rest of the way with you.”
“I’ll stay with him,” Misty volunteered, coming to sit beside her brother.
“Manchi,” Sarah said, “you stay with them too.”
Despite her childish energy, Manchi looked as if she were about to collapse from climbing all those stairs. She nodded gratefully and sat down next to Faska, leaning against the wall. As the djinn came to join the others, he gave Granger a suspicious glare.
“Are you sure you want to bring him up there too?” he asked so only Porter could hear.
“What else can I do?” Porter retorted. “Leave him here with three kids and a single elf?”
Azkular grunted. “Point taken.”
“Besides, the longer he’s around us, the more likely it is that he’ll see what we’re trying to show him.”
Azkular didn’t reply, but went to take a cautionary position on Granger’s other side in case he tried to escape. Droma turned and resumed the journey up the tower. They passed by a window, and Porter was surprised to find that he could no longer see the ground. They had climbed so high that the tower was actually in the rain clouds he’d seen from outside. Water droplets tapped loudly against the glass, and he jumped a little when a bolt of lightning suddenly lit the room up, followed by a tremendous boom.
“Do not worry,” Droma said over his shoulder. “The tower is still sturdy. The storm can not harm it.” Porter hadn’t been worried about this, but he heard Sarah give a sigh of relief.
They continued down a hallway that Porter found strangely familiar. He had only been up to the top of the tower once, and it hadn’t been to sightsee, so he didn’t understand why he would recognize this hall in particular, until…
“Look,” he said suddenly, pointing at a shattered window.
Sarah looked, and after a moment of confusion, she too recognized it.
“That’s the window we jumped out of to get away,” Porter said, almost reminiscently.
Droma turned and shot them an incredulous look. “Is that how you escaped last time?”
“We were trapped up here,” Sarah explained. “I had to jump out the window with Tick on my back. Porter jumped behind us and grabbed my legs.”
“Your wings shouldn’t be mature enough to fly yet,” Azkular said speculatively.
Sarah shook her head. “I didn’t fly. I just slowed our fall.”
Droma and Azkular exchanged glances.
“What?” Sarah demanded, her face turning red from the attention.
“Nothing,” Droma said. “We are here.”
The giant came to the top of the stairs and stopped. Porter held his breath in anticipation. The spells protecting the Keeping Fire were strong, but there was no guarantee that the Slayers hadn’t managed to get in there anyway. What if they’d come all this way just to find that the fire had been taken? His fears proved baseless, though, as he came to stand beside Droma and saw that the metal door that led to the Archive was still there. It showed signs of abuse where the Slayers had obviously tried to batter it down, but the tower’s enchantments had kept it on its hinges.
Beside him, he heard Sarah breathe another sigh of relief. Without a word, she came to the front of the group and faced the door.
“A turkey pickled in olive juice, a flying cucumber plant, and a quarter the size of Kentucky!” she declared.
Porter blinked in confusion, and looked at Sarah. She was still staring at the door as if waiting for it to do something. He turned to look at Azkular, who shrugged, every bit as confused as he was.
“Th- that was the password,” Sarah said, nonplussed. “Why isn’t the door opening?”
“Weren’t those the answers to the Brother Koob’s riddles?” Porter asked.
Sarah shook her head. “No! Well, yes, but they were the words that unlocked the door to the archives, too!”
Droma stepped forward and took a close look at the door.
“Ah,” he said at last. “That explains it.”
“Explains what?” Sarah demanded, still stunned that her password hadn’t worked.
Droma turned to face the group again. “The tower realized that the Slayers were trying to break the door down, so it went into panic mode. Password access has been overrode, and the only way in is to unlock it manually.”
“Father Lucius had a key,” Porter remembered. “Is that what it was for?”
Droma nodded. “Probably. However, there is no use looking for it now. If Father Lucius is dead, and the door is still locked, then that means nobody realized what the key was for. It is long gone by now.”
“Then how do we open it?” Azkular asked, taking a step forward to look at the door.
Droma turned and put his palm on the iron door. Glowing lines and symbols began to spread out from around his hand, forming several layers of rings until it covered the entire door.
“What’s that?” Sarah asked, subconsciously taking a step back.
“The lock,” Droma answered. He removed his hand from the door, but the lines remained. There were twelve rings, and each ring had eight symbols around its edge. The symbols each had a single ring around them as well, each with five even smaller symbols around them.
“How do you unlock it?” Porter asked.
Droma put his finger on the outermost ring and dragged it across the door. The ring and its symbols moved it.
“It’s like a combination lock!” Sarah exclaimed in realization.
“Very similar,” Droma agreed without turning from the door. “Except that this lock won’t open based on how many times you turn it. You must align the symbols in the correct positions.” He turned and looked at her now. “If I remember correctly, such a lock can only be bought from a company named Lockout.”
Sarah gasped, and Porter looked to see a shocked expression on her face.
“My dad’s company,” she whispered, and tears welled up in her eyes. Porter knelt down and put his arm around her shoulders.
“How can you tell what the combination is?” he asked a minute later.
Droma shrugged. “You can not. That’s the point of a lock. The only person who was supposed to know the combination was the one who was supposed to go through it.”
“Father Lucius,” Porter said.
Droma went still, and then answered in a quiet voice, “Yes.”
“How can we help?” Azkular asked.
“You do not need to,” the Soul Smith answered. “The lock doesn’t care if there’s one of us here or ten of us. It will still open the same way. There is no point in all of you remaining here with me. Go rejoin the others.”
It looked like Azkular was about to argue with him, but then he closed his mouth and nodded. Porter understood too. Droma was grieving for the friends he had lost when the Historians’ Tower fell. He had known about it all along, but this was the first time he’d gotten to see it with his own eyes. He wanted to be alone in his thoughts, and breaking the lock to the archives gave him the perfect excuse to do so.
“Come on,” Porter said, motioning for the others to follow him. “We’ll come back when Droma’s finished.”
NEXT TIME: They’re close. They’re so freaking close they can taste it! Right now all they can do is sit around and wait for Droma to pick the lock, but the Mythic army is getting closer to civilization by the minute. Will they be able to get the Keeping Fire in time to stop them?