Sarah gasped in horror when she saw the town.
At first glance, everything seemed normal— exactly as she’d left the last time she’d been here. Upon closer inspection, though, it became apparent that something was wrong. Very wrong. Smoke drifted lazily into the air from several of the buildings, and an even larger plume rose from the center of town. Streets and sidewalks that had once been alive with people were now empty. The entire town seemed deserted.
“Watch your step,” Azkular warned them, carefully picking his way around the broken glass that littered the streets.
“It’s like somebody made an effort to break every window they saw,” Faska chimed in, taking in the scene with calm, calculating eyes.
Across the street, Sarah saw Porter poke his head into one of the shattered windows.
“How is it?” she asked over their new telepathic connection.
“Horrible,” he answered, and she could feel the wave of dread building up in his stomach. “Everything is destroyed.”
He paused, and then shot her an anxious look. “I guess the storm could have done this.”
Sarah shook her head, her stomach tying itself in fearful knots.
“No,” she said back. “We both know what happened here.”
Porter’s face fell, and he nodded solemnly. Moving away from the window, he made his way over to where she was standing and put his arm around her shoulders.
“Be strong for them,” he told her, though she could feel how close he was to breaking down himself. She nodded, and he turned to face the others.
“We’re too late,” he announced, emotion making his voice crack. “The Mythics got here first.”
Sarah could tell from the looks on her friends’ faces that they’d already figured this out. The tension between them grew so thick that Sarah could feel it almost as strongly as her connection with Porter.
“Where are all the bodies?” asked Manchi, breaking the silence.
Sarah looked up at her, and then frowned.
“I don’t…” she turned to the others, but Azkular cut her off before she could say anything.
“Don’t ask,” he said, grimly, and then cast a glare at the thick plume of smoke rising from the center of town.
Sarah’s stomach did a flip.
Oh… oh no…
Porter squeezed her shoulder. “Don’t think about it.”
“They can’t have gotten everyone,” he said out loud, and then headed for the nearest building. “Split up and look for survivors!”
Sarah followed him, trying to keep her eyes off the bonfire in the middle of town. It must have been huge to not have been put out by the storm…
“Don’t think about it!” Porter said again as he stepped through a broken window and offered a hand to help Sarah through. She accepted it, and crossed into the dilapidated room on the other side.
It had been a knickknack shop, she realized as she tried to avoid stepping on one of the dozens of items that littered the floor. Small, useless, but charming nonetheless, Sarah couldn’t help but sigh at the way they had been scattered around the store, the shelves they had once sat on lying like fallen dominoes.
“Hello?” Porter shouted through cupped hands, but Sarah already knew that the building was empty except for them.
They spent the next two hours combing through every building they could get into. There were no bodies, but they did find signs of violence in places, usually in the form of blood drying on the walls and floors. At one point they found a battle axe wedged into a wooden door. With each failed search, Sarah could feel Porter’s spirits sink even lower.
“We have to keep looking,” he said, immediately heading for another building. “There has to be—”
“Porter,” Sarah interrupted him, taking his hand and stopping him in the middle of the street, “stop for a minute. Catch your breath.”
“How can I do that?” he demanded, a surge of anger shooting across their connection. “There might be people in there, trapped and…”
His inner voice trailed off, and Sarah could feel his despair, like a river being held back by a wall of tissue paper. Neither of them wanted to admit it, but they both already knew the truth.
There were no survivors.
A few minutes later, Ozzie, Misty, and Manchi emerged from a building further down the street and came to join them.
“Anything?” Sarah asked.
“It’s a ghost town,” Misty answered.
They stood quietly for a while. The unnatural silence of the town seemed deafening to Sarah’s ears, and she unconsciously reached out and wrapped her arm around Porter’s.
“Relax,” he told her, taking her hand. “There’s nothing here that can hurt you.”
“Something’s very wrong here,” she said back, ignoring the comforting emotions he was sending her way. “It feels like we’re being watched.”
Porter looked around, scanning the rooftops and alleyways, and she saw him shiver.
“You’re right,” he admitted. “But I think we’re safe for now.”
Droma returned to them, then. The massive cloaked man’s eyes were downcast as he, too, reported finding absolutely nobody.
“Do you think anyone got away?” Sarah asked.
“It’s possible,” Ozzie answered. “The slave traders already knew about the Mythics, right? Maybe they saw them coming and warned people.”
Droma shook his head. “I highly doubt that is what happened. The slave traders were a secret organization, existing under the radar of even the Slayers. By leaving the Mythics alive, they are committing a crime the Slayers are willing to punish with death.”
Ozzie turned pale and averted his gaze.
“If they were to suddenly reveal themselves, even if it were to save other humans,” Droma went on, “the Slayers would still charge them as criminals. So no, I do not believe they helped anybody.”
“Any ideas?” Porter asked, but Droma shook his head again. Sarah felt frustration building up inside him, and quickly began trying to think of something to say that could make him feel better. Instead, it was Azkular that came to his rescue.
The djinn came running up to the others in a frenzy, Faska only a couple of steps behind him.
“Come with me!” he ordered them before turning around and taking off again, heedless of the broken glass that littered the streets.
“What is it?” Porter asked, turning to the elf.
Faska hesitated, and then looked in the direction Azkular had gone. “You’d better just come and see,” he said before running off.
“What do you think it is?” Sarah asked, shooting a confused glance at Porter.
“I have no idea,” he replied. “But it must be important. I’ve never seen him like that before.”
“He looked like he was about to blow a fuse,” she agreed, nodding.
“Let’s go, then,” Porter decided, and took off after them. Sarah was right behind him.
They all had to go slower than Azkular had, their feet incapable of immediately healing themselves if they got cut by glass. Luckily, Faska had to go slower as well, otherwise they would have been left behind. The elf led them down another street to a building that had once been an electronics store. The window was shattered, and through it Sarah could see dozens of TVs that had shared the window’s fate.
“What’s in there?” she asked as Faska stepped inside.
“Azkular found a working television,” the elf answered. “What we saw was… just come see.”
“This can’t be good,” came Porter’s uneasy response. Then he added, “I’m surprised those two even know what a TV is.”
Everyone climbed in after Faska, Droma having to stoop to keep from hitting his head on the ceiling. They followed Faska to the back of the store, where they found Azkular crouching over a television that was lying on the floor. The otherwise dark room was being lit up by the images flashing across the screen. Porter came to stand next to him, and Sarah could feel the panic that immediately grabbed him.
“We still have no idea what’s going on!” a frightened reporter was screaming to the camera. She was kneeling below a window that looked out into a war torn street. Outside, people were running back and forth in blind panic as Mythics chased them. Some carried weapons, others attacked with their claws and teeth. The reporter, a dark skinned woman in her thirties, hastily glanced out the window and then knelt down again. Tears were leaking from her eyes as she forced herself to keep talking.
“Nobody has been able to figure out what these things are,” she said, flinching as a deafening roar came from just outside her hiding place. “They- they’re like something out of a fairy tale! We are the third city to be attacked by them, and they don’t seem to be slowing down.”
Sarah’s breathing began to grow frantic as she watched, her eyes wide with terror. It was so surreal, like watching a nightmare on television. She could feel the same emotions coming from Porter. Outside the reporter’s window, a man was cut down in plain view by a dwarf wielding an axe. The reporter stopped talking, unable to concentrate through poor man’s cries of pain. When his voice finally faded away, the woman gave a couple of frightened sobs, and looked pleadingly into the camera.
“We don’t know how widespread this is,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion, “but if anyone is seeing this, please send help. Send the army, the air force, anything! We can’t hold out here much longer, so hurry! Again, if anybody is watching this, please—”
Her cries for help were cut off, though, when a gargantuan beast landed right in front of her window. Red and yellow scales reflected the sunlight like polished stones, and another earth shaking roar rang out, this time loud enough to shatter the glass. The reporter screamed and scrambled to get away, knocking the camera over in the process. It clattered to the floor, hiding the reporter, but giving the viewers a perfect view as the dragon poked its head through the window and blew a pillar of fire at the television screen. The reporter gave one last scream, and then the screen turned to static.
Sarah could only stare pale faced at the empty screen in shock. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Porter reach up and take large fistfuls of his hair in both hands. The feelings coming to her from their connection made her cringe in sympathy, and she reached out and gently hugged him to keep him from yanking his hair out.
“It’s over,” he whispered, shaking his head.
“No, no,” she whispered back. “It’s not.”
She tried to summon some encouraging feelings for him, but found that she had none to give. She felt hollow inside, just as she knew he did. Granger’s promise had come true after all. They were too late. The Mythics had made their move, and now all of humanity would be turned against them. Nobody would argue when the Slayers came out to destroy them.
“What do we do now?” Ozzie asked from behind them.
“We- we’ll have to go into hiding,” Faska answered, sitting back dejectedly against a wall. “Nobody will oppose the Slayers now. The only thing we can do is hide, and hope nobody finds us.”
Sarah’s face burned with anger— anger at the Slayers, the Mythics, and even her friends. It felt wrong to just give up hope after they had believed for so long. What other option did they have, though?
“Well,” she said, desperately trying to think of something that would make things seem better than they were, “at least we all still have each other.”
Rage erupted from Porter’s heart, and Sarah instinctively released him and moved away, afraid of what he might do. Without a word, he stood up and stalked out of the room. Instead of climbing out the window, he went to the front door and kicked it down, adding it to the debris on the street.
“Porter!” she called after him, but he didn’t respond. His soul was a tornado of conflicting emotions. He wanted to keep fighting, but he couldn’t find a reason to. He didn’t want to give up, but he had no reason to keep fighting. He wanted to get his friends to safety, but he didn’t want to abandon the cause he’d been fighting for all this time. He didn’t know what to do, and that, she realized, infuriated him more than anything else. All this time, he’d had a plan. A far-fetched plan with very little chance of succeeding, but a plan nonetheless.
Across from her, Ozzie rose to go after him, but Sarah reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Let him be alone for a while,” she said. Ozzie glanced at her, and then sat back down.
“We need to leave as soon as we can,” Azkular said, finally looking away from the television. “The Guaroff Mines are close. They’ll be a good place to hide.”
Droma shook his head. “Granger and Vega both saw the Mythic army coming from the mines. That will be the first place the Slayers come looking for strays.”
Sarah had to avert her eyes so they wouldn’t see her crying, and used the fur on her wrist to wipe away the tears. It hurt to hear them talking like this. They had already given up.
“Did we ever even have a chance?” she found herself asking.
All eyes turned on her, and the air became thick with guilty silence.
“I like to think we did,” Droma admitted at last. “Everything was going perfectly. Well, as close to perfect as we could hope for.”
Faska nodded his agreement. “Mistress Lowatai believed in the prophecy enough to give her life to help complete it. That was all I needed to believe in it as well.”
“But there’s nothing we can do now,” Azkular said. “It’s over. It doesn’t matter if the Slayers or the Mythics win. We’re outcasts on both sides.”
“That’s not true.”
Sarah’s head jerked up, and she saw Porter standing in the doorway again. Having been so wrapped up in her own emotions, she’d completely blocked his out, and so was surprised to find that all his anger was gone. In its place was sorrow, and a cold sense of determination. With a silent gasp, Sarah understood what he was planning to do.
“I can’t ask you to come with me,” he told her, the others still unaware that he was there.
“You don’t have to,” she replied. “You’d have more trouble telling me to stay behind.”
A flutter of happiness bloomed in his chest, tickling her soul and making her want to smile. Then it was gone, replaced by the fearsome knowledge of what they were about to do. Porter turned to face the others.
“I’m still going,” he announced, finally catching their attention.
Azkular looked at him incredulously. “You can’t be serious,” the djinn exclaimed. “What would be the point?”
“To do what I can,” Porter answered. “Even if it costs me my life.”
Droma shook his head. “Porter, that is insane. There is nothing you can do. You will die for nothing.”
“It won’t be for nothing!” Porter and Sarah shouted in unison. The others looked back and forth between them, unsure of who to look at. Sarah turned to Porter, indicating that he would be the one to speak.
“We began this mission because it was the right thing to do,” he said. “We hoped we would succeed, but our success wasn’t what drove us onward. It was because, even if we were going against the world, we knew we were doing the right thing.”
He paused, his tail swishing back and forth in agitation, and Sarah could feel how uncertain he was about what he was about to say. Not uncertain because he didn’t think it was right, but because he wasn’t sure how to properly put it into words. “Lowatai thought what we were trying to do was worth dying for,” he continued at last. “And so do I. Even if I lose, I’ll die knowing that I was fighting for a good cause.”
Though she didn’t share a soul connection with them, Sarah could see the hesitation on her friends’ faces. Their hopes had been dashed. They no longer saw a reason to continue fighting.
“Think about it,” she spoke up, drawing their attention to her. “What would you rather do? Die for what you believe in, or go back to living in hiding?”
She turned to look directly at Azkular. “You told us that you would do anything to see the Mythics live in peace. You said you wouldn’t hesitate to give your life. You’ve always fought for your people, even when things looked bad. Right now, they need you more than ever. If you go back into hiding now, you’ll be abandoning them.”
Azkular sucked in a sharp breath, and Sarah braced herself for a scolding remark. Instead, he hung his head in shame.
“You’re right,” he whispered. “I can’t stop now, not even to save my life.” He raised his head, his angst already replaced by his fiery determination. “I refuse to hide when those I swore to protect are out there dying!”
“I’ll go with you too!” Ozzie declared, standing up. He turned to Porter. “After all you’ve done for Misty and me, I’d be a coward to do anything else.”
Beside him, Misty gave a bark-like laugh. “Well, then I guess I’m going too.”
Porter nodded, but Sarah could feel the confusing mixture of relief and worry inside him. He was glad they were coming with him, but afraid of what would happen to them if they did. Still, she knew he would feel better facing two hostile armies knowing they had his back.
“I will come as well,” Droma said.
With that, all eyes turned to Faska. The elf’s skin always looked pale, and his pure white outfit only enhanced that. Now, however, he looked like a ghost, and the fear on his face was plainly visible.
“I want to go with you,” he said hesitantly. “But I can’t.”
“Why not?” Azkular demanded, turning on him.
“Because of my tribe,” he explained, unable to look any of them in the eye. “The Ragga Elves. When Lowatai died, she left me in charge. I’ve spent all this time travelling with you, and my people have been without a leader.”
He looked at them all, and gave a guilty shrug of his shoulders. “For what it’s worth, I think you are all the bravest creatures I’ve ever met, whether human or Mythic. I would be honored to see this through the rest of the way with you, but if things don’t work out, then I need to be there for them.”
His face turned red with shame, and he dropped his gaze. Sarah turned to Porter, searching his emotions to see what he had made of the elf’s confession. There was no anger, she realized with relief.
“He’s not doing this to abandon us,” she told him.
“I know,” came the reply.
With that, Porter stepped forward. The elf didn’t look up until Porter’s hand alighted on his shoulder, giving it a friendly squeeze.
“Do what you need to do,” he said. “Your people need a leader, so go give them one.”
Faska still looked guilty, but Sarah interrupted him before he could say anything. “We know you’re not running away. You’re going to where you’re needed most.”
She stepped forward now, and Porter backed away. She gave the elf an encouraging smile, and then leaned in and hugged him.
“You’re every bit as brave as the rest of us,” she said when she released him. Faska, she noticed with amusement, was blushing now. “You’ve been a big help. We couldn’t have gotten this far without you.”
She backed away, and was happy to see that the elf was smiling now too. On the other side of the room, Azkular grunted.
“I guess I need to thank you for letting me lean on your shoulder all this time,” he said, trying to sound gruff.
“He’s faking it,” Sarah said with an internal laugh. “He’s just as sad to see Faska go as the rest of us.”
Inside her heart, she heard Porter laugh as well.
“Don’t worry,” Faska said, his smile growing larger. “I don’t think you caused any lasting damage.”
Then, he turned to Porter and Sarah.
“Good luck, both of you,” he said reverently. “I don’t know what’s going to happen out there, but… well, maybe Lowatai was right after all.”
“We can only hope,” Porter agreed, shaking the elf’s hand.
“Good luck to you too,” Sarah said, shaking his hand as well. “Be a good leader.”
“I’ll try,” he agreed, turning in a circle to look at them all one last time. “That’s all anyone can do, right?”
And with that, he turned, his milky white cloak billowing out behind him, and made his way to the door. The moment he stepped outside, there came a flash of bright yellow light, and then he was gone. For a few lonely seconds, everyone stared at the place where he had just been, forcing themselves to accept that he was not coming back. Finally, Porter turned to face them, his face bearing the look of a leader once again.
“Whatever happens,” he said, his voice grave, “it all ends tomorrow. Get some sleep while you still can.”
NEXT TIME: The final battle draws near. Soon our heroes will go head to head against not just Mortoph, but Arch-Mythic Rayalga as well. They have one night left to prepare… and to make their peace.