“Whoa,” Porter said when he stepped up to the archive’s door. The rings and runes had been reconfigured in a way that meant absolutely nothing to him, but apparently they had opened the door. That wasn’t what he was impressed by, though. The sight of the bright green fire at the end of hallway, reflecting off the mirror-like onyx stones, was enough to make his stomach tie itself in knots. Beside him, he heard Sarah give a similar reaction. He looked over at her, still in her human form, and saw her eyes wide with amazement. The green light of the Keeping Fire was reflected in them as well.
“Sarah,” he whispered, “are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yes,” she whispered back for the final time, “I am.”
With that, she ventured into the archive with a determined look on her face. Porter went after her, nervous sweat beading his forehead. The others followed silently. Porter was a bit relieved. With the tower’s magic dying, he had been afraid that they’d open the door to find the fire extinguished.
Sarah stopped in front of the fire, the flickering light turning her skin green, took a deep breath, and looked at Azkular.
“What do I do now?” she asked.
“You have to swallow it,” the djinn answered. “And to do that, it has to be removed from its pedestal.”
He stepped forward, gazing reverently at the fire.
“This is amazing,” he said quietly.
“What is?” Porter asked, anxiety still clawing at him from inside.
“My veins are filled with magic fire,” the djinn answered. “This Keeping Fire has been around since the beginning of recorded history. It was fire like this that made it possible for people to become djinns. You could say that, in a way, the Keeping Fire is my great, great grandfather.”
“So, Sarah’s about to eat your grandfather?” Misty asked.
Azkular shot the werewolf an angry look, his dramatic moment ruined. Even with the tension, Porter couldn’t help but smile a little. Behind him, Ozzie snickered but then stopped when it hurt his ribs.
“Well, I would prefer not to think of it that way,” Azkular grumbled. Then, his face going serious again, he turned to Sarah. “We’ll have to do this quickly. The moment I remove it from its base, the fire will start to go out.”
“How are you going to move it?” Sarah asked, her eyes still trained on the fire. “If you touch it, it’ll consume you.”
“For anyone else, that would be true,” Azkular agreed. “But I’m a djinn. Fire is as much a part of me as blood is to you. I’ll be able to pick it up and move it for you.”
Sarah nodded, her eyes betraying how scared she was, but Porter knew she wouldn’t back down.
“Then what?” she asked.
“Then you will open your mouth,” Azkular instructed. “I’ll place the fire inside it, and you’ll have to swallow it.”
“Sounds easy enough,” the sphinx said, trying to dispel some of the tension— including her own.
Azkular shook his head. “I won’t let you do this without knowing what’s in store, Sarah. When I put the fire in your mouth, you will have only a few seconds to swallow it before it burns you. It will be very hot, and holding it in your mouth will be extremely painful.”
Sarah shuddered, no longer able to hide her fear. Porter ground his teeth together and had to hold himself back from grabbing her and dragging her out of the archive. Azkular saw her fear too, and frowned.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” he said softly. “I can still be the one to swallow it. It will be safer, and—”
“No,” Sarah cut him off with a shake of her head. “I have to be the one to do it!”
She turned to Porter and wrapped him in a hug. “If I don’t make it through this,” she whispered into his ear, “remember that I love you.”
“You’ll make it,” Porter promised her, hoping that his words sounded more confident than he felt. “Just believe in yourself.”
The sphinx’s eyes sparkled when she heard her own advice being given to her. With a smile, she leaned forward and gave her hero a peck on the lips, and then turned to Azkular.
“Do it,” she ordered him, not allowing herself any more time to think about it.
Nodding, the djinn reached out and grabbed the Keeping Fire. Porter flinched, still halfway convinced that his friend would burst into flames, reduced to a memory inside the fire, but instead his hands wrapped around it, somehow gripping the flames like a solid object, and lifted it from its pedestal. He began to fold it together, like a child making a snowball, until a much smaller, but extremely bright spark was left in his palm, no bigger than a candle flame.
“Ready?” he asked, giving Sarah a wary glance.
She nodded, and opened her mouth.
Porter could only watch in terror as Azkular reached out and placed the fire inside Sarah’s mouth, right on her tongue. Sarah’s mouth snapped shut, and her eyes opened. Her face contorted with pain, and he could tell she was resisting the urge to spit the fire out.
“Sarah!” he exclaimed, moving to help her, but Droma held him back.
“She has to do this herself, Porter!” the Soul Smith said, though he was obviously just as scared as he was.
Porter struggled against the giant’s strength anyway. In front of him, Sarah doubled over in pain, her cheeks glowing with a faint green light.
“Sarah, listen to me!” Azkular shouted, trying to catch her attention. “You have to swallow it right now!”
If Sarah heard him, she gave no indication of it. She collapsed to her knees, still struggling to keep her mouth closed. Porter wasn’t sure if his panicked mind was imagining things or not, but he almost thought he could see smoke curling off of her skin. She thrashed and flailed, and Porter did everything he could do break free of Droma’s grip and save her. Desperate tears began to fall from his eyes as he was forced to watch the one he loved slowly burn to death from the inside out.
“Sarah!” Azkular shouted. “Swallow it! Now!”
“Please, Sarah!” Porter begged her, falling to his knees as well.
The Keeping Fire blazed inside Sarah’s mouth like an exploding sun. She brought her hands to her face as her lips puckered, trying to keep herself from spitting it out.
What have I done? she screamed at herself inside her head. I can’t take this! I can’t do it!
She fell to her knees in agony. The pain began in her mouth, but it was quickly spreading throughout her whole body. All she had to do was swallow it, and the pain would be gone. It would save her life, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. It hurt too much. Swallowing the fire was like trying to walk to the hospital with your leg cut off— necessary but impossible.
Everything else faded away, and she began to wish the fire would hurry up. The sooner it killed her, the sooner the pain would go away. There was nothing she could do about it…
The voice rang through her mind like a bell, breaking through the pain and the fear. It was Porter’s voice. He was still there. She had forgotten. He was asking her to do it. Begging her to swallow the fire. To overcome the pain. To survive.
Summoning strength she never knew she had, Sarah forced herself to swallow.
“Sarah!” Porter screamed as he watched her movements grow weaker, and he began to beat on Droma’s hand. How could he have let her do this? He should have stopped her. What kind of—
It was so weak that he almost didn’t see it, but the muscles in her throat suddenly moved, and she collapsed to the floor. His breathing strained, hardly willing to believe what he’d just seen, Porter went limp in Droma’s arms, and the giant had to keep him from falling over.
Azkular knelt down next to her and felt her forehead. Why was he doing that instead of checking her pulse, Porter wondered? A relieved smile spread over the djinn’s face.
“She’s alive,” he said. “Her body is burning hot, but it isn’t overheating. That means the Keeping Fire has successfully been ingested into her system.”
Porter put his feet firmly underneath himself, and Droma let him go. The young man stumbled over to the human-shaped sphinx lying motionless on the floor and put his own hand on her forehead. Azkular had been right, her skin was burning. It wasn’t like she had a fever— it was much warmer than that.
“Why isn’t she moving?” he asked, the ordeal still making it difficult for him to form coherent words.
“Keeping the fire in her mouth that long nearly killed her,” Azkular answered. “She needs time to rest and regain her strength.”
“Will she be okay?” Porter asked, imagining Sarah having to live the rest of her life with third degree burns inside her mouth.
Azkular nodded. “Yes. The Keeping Fire was magical. It doesn’t burn things like normal fire, it consumes them. If Sarah hadn’t swallowed it when she did, it would have swallowed her instead. As it is, she’ll be fine once she wakes up.”
Porter stared at his sphinx, finally noticing the gentle rise and fall of her chest. She just swallowed the Keeping Fire, he thought. Every moment in history since the beginning of time had been recorded in it. What would it be like to have all that knowledge inside of you?
“When she wakes up,” he asked tentatively, “will she be… different?”
“She will feel the effects of the Keeping Fire until it burns out in her system,” Azkular answered. “I would avoid asking her any questions about the past.”
“Because the fire will compel her to answer,” the djinn said, standing up. “Come on, let’s get her out of here.”
Porter nodded and slipped his hands underneath Sarah’s body. He could feel the heat even through her clothes as he lifted her off the floor and cradled her in his arms. The archive was completely dark now, the only light coming from outside the door. It was depressing, the young man thought as he carried her out into the hallway again. Countless historians had devoted their lives to recording the knowledge the Keeping Fire had held, and once it burned out of Sarah’s system it would be gone forever. He tried to convince himself that Father Lucius would be happy if he knew what they were using it for, but couldn't.
They descended the stairs to the hallway they had been in before, and Porter gently laid Sarah on the floor. He stood up and looked at her. If he hadn’t known better, he might have thought she was just taking a nap.
“You’re sure she’s safe now?” he asked. “Nothing else can happen to her?”
“Once the fire was swallowed, it became a part of her own body,” Azkular assured him. “She’ll be fine.”
“So, what do we do now?” Ozzie asked from the other side of the hall, still lying on Droma’s cloak.
“We wait,” Porter said, sitting down so he could watch the sleeping sphinx. “And when she wakes up, we’ll move faster than we’ve ever moved before.”
Sarah’s dreams were anything but peaceful. Visions of things she had never seen before danced in front of her eyes. People doing things. Mundane things. They went about their lives, unaware that Sarah was there watching them, and with a start she realized that she was watching history play out in her mind. Thousands of years of history flashed before her eyes in mere seconds, and yet she saw every detail— and memorized it.
How long is this going to take? she wondered as she watched civilizations rise and fall, wars begin and end, people be born and die. It was all happening at an incredible speed, but even like this it would take her an entire month to witness all of history, at the very least. It didn’t look like she had a choice, though. She watched scene after scene go by, day after day after day. Most of what she saw was completely useless, and she eventually grew annoyed. The historians’ had believed that every single detail had to be recorded if history were to be remembered accurately, but right now all it was doing was driving her insane.
Time had no meaning in Sarah’s dreams. She had no idea how long she’d been asleep. It could have been minutes, days, or even years. The end of the Keeping Fire’s memory caught her by surprise. The memories were running past her eyes one moment, and then they simply ended, leaving her looking at nothing but darkness. No, not darkness, she realized. The backs of her eyelids…
Sarah opened her eyes. Her body felt stiff and sluggish, as if her she’d only just had a good night’s sleep. She raised her head groggily and looked around, and found that she was back in the hallway the group had camped out in earlier, with her friends all around her, fast asleep. The storm still raged outside, wind and rain battering the windows while lightning periodically lit up the room. Other than that, it was dark. She’d slept right into the middle of the night.
And there was Porter, sitting right across from her. She smiled fondly. He had obviously tried to stay awake until she woke up, but the day’s events had finally caught up to him. His back was against the wall, but his head was hanging so that his hair obscured his face. He was snoring softly.
I’ll let them sleep, she thought, leaning her head against the wall again. They’ve earned it. Besides...
She shivered as the rest of the thought ran through her mind. When morning came and they realized she was awake, they would set out again, but this time they wouldn’t be searching for another piece of the puzzle. They had what they needed. Now they would be running to intercept the Mythic army and convince them not to attack the humans. After that, assuming they were successful, they would turn their attention to the Slayers and Drake Mortoph. Her stomach twisted itself into a knot just thinking about it. They weren’t running from the bad guys anymore, they were running to them. What would happen then was anybody’s guess. If Lowatai was right, they would end the war. The nagging voice of logic kept reminding her how unlikely that was, buts she did her best to ignore it.
Trembling slightly, Sarah hugged her knees to her body, waiting for morning to come. There would be no more sleep for her tonight.
Sarah thought she alone was awake in the early hours of the morning, but she was wrong. Shrouded in shadows, hidden from the young sphinx’s view, Granger watched her with speculative eyes.
During his time as a Slayer, he had known many emotions. He had felt determination, anger, pride, and, on rare occasions, fear. Never before had he felt what was biting at his heart now. That cold, creeping feeling that one gets when they know they’ve done something wrong.
He studied the human-shaped sphinx across the hall as she huddled up in the darkness, and couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy. Part of him wanted to go out and comfort her, but the Slayer part of him kept him hidden in the shadows. If he were to try, she would undoubtedly see a murderer closing in on her while her companions slept, not an old man who had inexplicably begun to feel sorry for her. Besides, he reminded himself gruffly, his hands were still tied. What good could he do like that?
The Mythics hadn’t been stupid enough to leave him alone, so Granger had gotten to see Sarah swallow the Keeping Fire with everyone else. He had felt pain during his life— pain that would make hardened warriors shake in their boots. Sarah, however, was no warrior. She didn’t back down from danger, but it was Porter’s place to fight their battles. And yet, she had allowed the djinn the put the fire into her mouth without hesitation. The expressions he had seen on her face were ones of absolute agony. After his many years on the battlefield, Granger was able to recognize when somebody was wishing for death. Enough pain could steal a person’s will to live— and a Mythic’s too. Sarah had been beyond that point, and yet she had survived. Where had that strength come from?
Porter, he realized. It had come from Porter. The sphinx had given herself up to death, but the boy’s voice had brought her back. He called to her, and she obeyed.
It goes both ways, too, Granger thought, turning his eyes to Porter, who was still fast asleep. He had to admit, the young man was performing admirably, given his circumstances. He had deliberately broken Porter’s will earlier by sharing Mortoph’s plan. Someone as young as him was not meant to carry these kinds of responsibilities, and Granger had been able to push the buttons that had sent him over the edge. Sarah had been the one to bring him back. She spoke encouragingly to him and showed him how much she believed in him.
And how much she loved him, Granger added, but the thought didn’t make him shudder as much as it once had. This wasn’t just physical attraction. Porter wasn’t in love with the sphinx’s pretty face, and Sarah hadn’t fallen for Porter’s muscled body. They genuinely cared for each other. Their eyes practically glowed when they met, and Granger knew that there was a fire burning behind them that was hotter even than the Keeping Fire had been. They were, completely and undeniably, in love.
It was refreshing to the old man, who had become accustomed to living in a world where the heart was less important than the skin. Boys and girls were more concerned with convincing the world that they were in love than convincing themselves. Such a pure, sweet love like Porter and Sarah’s was something one could go their entire life without ever witnessing.
Sighing, Granger leaned back against the wall and stared into the storm that was raging outside. He’d spent only one day with this band of Mythics, and already his resolve was wavering. He’d told himself that he was entirely devoted to the Slayers— loyal to the end of his days. Now, though, he was forced to question himself. These Mythics were more than allies, they were friends. Their loyalty for each other was born out of more than having a common goal. They cared about their companions, and wanted to bring them a better future. That wasn’t something he saw in the Slayers. The only thing those men had in common was a desire to kill monsters. And yet, he thought, these “monsters” were behaving with far more humanity than he saw in his comrades.
This was a time of decision, he thought gravely. Could he go back to the Slayers after what he had seen today? What else could he do? Switch sides and fight for the Mythics? He could never do that. Even if the Slayers were in the wrong, how could he condone the Mythics waging war on humanity, much less join them? There was always Porter’s option, of course. Try to reveal the truth and bring peace. No more fighting. No more bloodshed.
But what right had he to advocate peace? He had been a Slayer longer than he had been a normal civilian. More than forty years of killing Mythics. How could he face them now and tell them to forgive and forget?
“You always have the chance to do some good,” Porter’s voice spoke into his head. “You just have to choose to do it.”
Granger felt a tugging at his heart, something he had not felt for a long time— not since he had first pledged his loyalty to the Slayers. It was, in fact, the same pull that had brought him to the Slayers in the first place. The thought that what he was doing wasn’t enough, that there was something else he could do to make the world a better place. All this time, he had convinced himself that being a Slayer was the ultimate honor. What higher cause was there than to protect the human race from the forces of evil? Now the tugging was back, but this time it was pulling him in the opposite direction. It wanted him to switch sides.
For the first time in as long as he could remember, Granger’s mind was clouded by indecision. He leaned against the wall, making himself as comfortable as possible for the long night ahead of him. Like Sarah, he knew there would be no sleep for him.
The storm raged on as the sun crept over the horizon. The trees whipped back and forth in the wind, and icy rain pelted Vega like tiny arrowheads as he continued to follow the trail left by Porter, Granger, and all the others. It wasn’t a hard trail to follow— with nine members, only a fool would be able to lose it. The storm, however, was threatening to wash it away.
Vega’s fiery anger was what kept him going. Anger at Porter, his freaky lover, and all their vile little friends. More than anything, though, he was angry at Granger. Everybody knew the two of them didn’t get along. Their differences in opinions made them incompatible as partners, a fact that Mortoph refused to acknowledge since he kept teaming them up together. A wry grin rose to the Slayer’s face. His feelings for Granger would only make killing him more fun when he finally caught up.
Granger was a traitor. Vega wasn’t entirely sure he believed that, but it was what he would tell Mortoph when he came back. The old man had ignored his orders to kill Porter, and had instead run away with him. Vega knew that Granger had been taken captive, but the others wouldn’t need to know that. Killing Granger wouldn’t be for the Slayers’ benefit, he was doing it for himself, but the Slayers would benefit from it all the same. There was no place in their ranks for weak old fools like him— another flaw that Mortoph chose not to notice. Still, that wasn’t the real reason Vega was doing it.
He just wanted to see the old man die.
He paused and looked up, shielding his eyes from the rain. Even with the sun rising, the forest was still dark under the storm clouds. What little light there was, though, kept getting blocked out, casting him into shadow over and over again. As he looked, he saw something flickering in the distance. At first he thought it was the lightning playing tricks on him, but then a hearty laugh burst from his mouth. He wouldn’t need the tracks anymore, he realized. He knew exactly where they would lead him.
He was going back to the Historians’ Tower.
NEXT TIME: They have what they need. The Keeping Fire is in Sarah’s body, ready to reveal the truth to everyone. Now all they have to do is make everybody listen. Before they do that, though, they’ll have to get out of the tower.