The blinding light faded, and Porter found himself once again in the middle of the forest. He glanced around quickly, making sure nobody had been left behind, and then turned to Droma.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“Near Red Castle,” the giant answered, and made his way over to a break in the trees before motioning for the others to follow him. Porter came to stand beside him, and looked out over the scene below.
They were on a hill that overlooked both Red Castle and the large open field in front of it. Just as the mirror had shown them, the Mythic army was amassed in the forest outside the castle. Weapons glinted in the morning sunlight, and standing at the front of the army was Arch-Mythic Rayalga, looking as proud, regal, and defiant as ever with his freshly groomed feathers and fur, belying the madness that Porter knew was inside him.
The Slayers were gathered just outside the doors of their base, their black coats looking like an ocean of tar in the middle of the forest. Hundreds more stood on the battlements of the castle, armed with bows, arrows, and spells. Mortoph was nowhere in sight, but Porter guessed that was because he wanted to make a dramatic entrance.
What Porter hadn’t been expecting were the people.
“What are they doing here?” he demanded, pointing to a large mass of humans that had congregated at the far end of the field. They didn’t seem to be Slayers, and many of them were women— something you never saw in the Slayers’ ranks. There were even some children out there, he realized with a start. They all stood together, shuffling anxiously, looking as though they were neither on the Slayers’ nor the Mythics’ side.
“They still don’t understand what’s going on,” Azkular explained. “Most of them know something important is happening, and they want to be here to see it. I would bet they don’t even know that there’s going to be battle in a few minutes. The rest of them probably think this is all a hoax and want to see where it leads.”
Porter shook his head. “They need to get out of here. They’re going to get hurt.”
“Killed, more likely,” Droma agreed.
“No, it’s better this way,” Azkular argued. “If they’re here to see us reveal Mortoph, then maybe it will make it easier to convince them to accept the Mythics afterwards.”
Porter still felt uneasy about it. How many of their lives would be lost before the battle ended?
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Sarah said inside his heart. “Just focus on what we came here for.”
Porter nodded and turned to face the others.
“This is it,” he declared. “This is what we’ve been working towards all along.” He paused, his own words weighing heavily on him. He took a deep breath. “This is where it ends.”
“Then let’s do it,” Azkular said, excitement lighting up his eyes. “Let’s end this war once and for all!”
“We are ready,” Droma said, summoning his massive axe.
Porter turned to Ozzie and Misty. Misty was still in her wolf form, where her teeth and claws would be most effective. Ozzie drew his knife, and Porter felt a twinge of uncertainty. How much good would a dinky little knife like that be in a battle?
“Don’t worry about me,” Ozzie said to him, reading his expression, and flashed one of his trademark manic grins. “I’ll be fine.”
Finally, Porter turned to Sarah. Her green eyes glowed, as if the Keeping Fire knew it was about to be used.
“Are you ready?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she answered. “Wherever you go, I’ll follow.”
Porter nodded, and turned back to the scene unfolding below them. Before he could focus, though, he felt Sarah grab his arm. She pulled on him, spinning him back around and instantly pressed her lips to his. She kissed him with abandon, holding him as tightly to her as she could. He kissed her back, running his hands through her hair and over her wings, knowing that this may well be the last time he would ever get the chance.
“I love you, Porter,” she told him when they finally pulled apart. “No matter what happens down there, I just want you to know that.”
Porter smiled, and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Of course I know that. I’ve always known that. And it’s the one thing I promise I’ll never forget.”
He leaned in closer, resting his forehead against hers, and stared into her eyes. “I love you too.”
A loud noise came from behind them, and Porter spun around to look down the hill again. Rayalga stepped forward.
“Bring forth the Master of the Slayers so that we may discuss our terms!” the gryphon called out, his voice booming magically around the forest.
“Manchi,” Sarah said a few feet back, “go climb a tree. Stay up there until we come and get you, okay?”
This time, the little chimera didn’t argue. She had seen what was going on below, and knew that this was no place for her to be. She scurried away, shooting up the nearest tree like a squirrel until she vanished amidst the branches.
The doors to Red Castle swung open, and Drake Mortoph emerged. A sudden breeze swept through the forest, making his coat billow out behind him like a cape. He regarded the Mythics before him with undisguised revulsion, and then boldly made his way towards them. On the other side of the field, Rayalga held his head high and came to meet the Master Slayer. Behind him he dragged a human, bound by a chain like a dog.
“Wait a minute,” Sarah said, suddenly. “Isn’t that…”
Porter gasped as he suddenly recognized her as well.
“Rayalga, stop this!” Glenda pleaded as the Arch-Mythic dragged her across the field. “Nobody has to die today. Just tell your people to turn around and run away!”
In truth, even she didn’t believe this. The damage had already been done. At least three human towns lay in ruins because of Rayalga and his Mythics. Even if they fled now, the Slayers would face no opposition in their quest to hunt every one of them down. Still, perhaps some of them could find a hiding place if they retreated now.
None of this mattered, though. The gryphon ignored her and continued to march towards the Master Slayer. The other end of her chain was held in his claws, and if she didn’t walk fast enough she was jerked forward every time he took a step. When he was fifteen feet away from Mortoph, he halted, glaring defiantly at his enemy.
“You are the leader of the Slayers?” Rayalga asked, looking at Mortoph as if he were only a bug waiting to be stepped on.
“I am,” Mortoph said with a nod of his head. “Who are you?”
“I am Arch-Mythic Rayalga. I have led my forces against the human world so that we may finally be free of your oppression and lay claim to what is rightfully ours!”
“And what is it you claim is rightfully yours?” Mortoph asked.
Rayalga snorted, as if he truly believed the man before him was as stupid as he was letting on.
“Everything!” he declared. “The entire world belongs to me and my people! You humans have ruled it for too long. Now it is our turn.”
“And what about my people?” Mortoph asked, not raising an argument.
Suddenly, Rayalga yanked Glenda’s chain. She flew forward, her feet leaving the ground, and landed face down at Mortoph’s feet.
“This woman is foster mother to one of your Slayers,” Rayalga said, the tone of his voice revealing that this was what he had been waiting for. “Surrender the earth to me, and I will allow her to live.”
Mortoph’s eyebrows rose in surprise, and Glenda knew Rayalga had just made a big mistake.
“You think I’m going to surrender the entire planet I’ve been charged with protecting for the sake of one woman?” Mortoph asked incredulously.
Rayalga faltered a bit, obviously taken aback by the Master Slayer’s lack of immediate cooperation, but quickly recomposed himself.
“That is my deal,” the Arch-Mythic said. “And it is the only one I am willing to make with you. Take it, or leave it.”
Mortoph’s eyes looked down at her, and she shivered under his cold, cruel gaze. They were completely devoid of mercy— both for her, and for the Mythics. She was relieved when he looked away from her and at Rayalga again. Rayalga now seemed very disconcerted by Mortoph’s apparent apathy for the situation, but he managed to keep his head high.
“She is foster mother to—”
“I know,” Mortoph interrupted him. “Porter Collins, one of the best recruits the Slayers have known in many years.”
His eyes turned angry. “And our greatest traitor. He is no longer one of us, Arch-Mythic. Why should I surrender to you for the sake of someone like her?”
Rayalga took a step backwards, shocked.
“But… But…” he stammered, his eyes going wide, finally displaying his madness. “I had it all planned out. You were supposed to surrender! You have to surrender!”
“Foul beast!” Mortoph roared loudly enough for everyone in the area to hear now. “You dare to kill those I swore to protect, and then demand my surrender? There will be no surrender, not for my men or yours! You and your army will face the wrath of the Slayers!”
Now Glenda understood what Mortoph was doing. His conversation with Rayalga had been too quiet for everyone else to hear. He had taken advantage of that, and was making it seem like Rayalga had played the part of the rabid monster perfectly. After what Rayalga had already done, nobody would question it.
Rayalga scrambled backwards, his insanity not having allowed for any problems in his “master plan.” Glenda was jerked backwards again, but then the chain slipped from the gryphon’s claws, and she was left lying on the grass.
Mortoph reached behind his back and drew his massive sword.
“If you want a war, monster,” he declared, “then I will give it to you. For humanity!”
The last two words were his war cry, and he charged at Rayalga. With an undignified squawk, the gryphon’s nerve abandoned him and he tried to run. He was too slow, though. Mortoph caught up to him in a couple of steps, and swung his sword. The blade flew straight and true, slicing through feather, muscle, and bone alike. Rayalga’s body thudded to the ground while his head was sent flying across the field before coming to rest at the feet of his army.
The Mythics panicked, backing into each other in their efforts away from their fallen leader’s head, but there was nowhere for them to go. The Slayers were already taking up battle formations, ready to charge their enemies.
Mortoph stood over Glenda, sword still in hand. Rayalga’s blood dripped from the blade, and he turned to look at her.
“Foster mother to the traitor, are you?” he said quietly. He raised his sword again. “Such a crime cannot go unpunished.”
Porter saw Mortoph raise his sword against Glenda, and terror flooded his veins.
“No!” he screamed, and ran out onto the battlefield.
Rayalga was one thing. The Arch-Mythic had been mad, and killing him would have been necessary one way or the other, but Glenda was innocent. More than that, she was his foster mother! He couldn’t let anything happen to her!
“Porter, be careful!” Sarah shouted at him, but he could hear her footsteps right behind him. The others were there too. At least he wasn’t running into this alone.
His feet seemed to be moving in slow motion as he watched Mortoph’s blade fall towards Glenda’s neck. He flung himself forward, knowing that he wouldn’t make it there in time, and out of nowhere a gust of wind hit him from behind. It caught his wings and propelled him forward much faster than he had been running. He knew that the wind had come from Sarah, but he didn’t have time to think about it— because now he was flying straight for Drake Mortoph!
Gripping his sword as tightly as he could, Porter swung, striking Mortoph’s blade and stopping it a mere hairsbreadth from Glenda’s neck. With the rest of his momentum, Porter stuck his leg out, kicking the Master Slayer in the stomach as he flew directly into him. Mortoph grunted with surprise and staggered backwards, away from Glenda.
“Don’t you dare touch her!” Porter shouted, pushing off of Mortoph and performing a backflip. The wind died down, and he tucked his wings behind his back before landing neatly in a crouch. His tail swung on its own accord, helping him keep his balance.
Now there was commotion coming from all three sides of the field. The Mythics were still distraught over their fallen leader, and the Slayers were shocked that somebody had interfered in Mortoph’s declaration of war. The civilians were still unsure of what to think, but they knew that something significant had just happened. Porter had their attention now— just like he wanted.
“Mortoph has been lying to you!” he cried at the top of his voice, turning to the Slayers. “He drafted you into his army because you thought the Mythics had wronged you, but it was Mortoph all along! He set everything up himself so that—”
“Porter, look out!”
With Sarah’s voice echoing in his head, Porter dove out of the way just as Mortoph’s sword sliced through the air, nearly taking his head off. He rolled and sprang back to his feet, facing the Master Slayer with his own sword held in both hands.
“You think I’m just going to sit here and let you tell your story?” Mortoph asked, looking more amused than angry. “This isn’t a debate, boy. It’s war!”
Mortoph raised his sword to attack again, but before he could, Porter spotted Sarah standing a few feet away.
“Do it,” she silently encouraged him.
“Sarah,” he yelled, “tell everyone how Drake Mortoph lied to them!”
Immediately, Sarah’s eyes lit up bright green, and just like the night before she leaned her head back and opened her mouth. Instead of a single flame, though, this time a massive jet of green fire erupted out of her mouth, rising a hundred feet up into the air before ballooning out into a giant ball. Porter stumbled backwards, staring up at it in awe.
Then, with a boom like a clap of thunder, the great fireball exploded, sending thousands of smaller fireballs scattering over the field. Most of them flew directly at the Slayers, who moved to defend themselves from what they thought was an attack. To their surprise, though, the balls froze in the air, only a few feet away from them, and began to speak. Even from so far away, Porter could hear what many of them were saying.
“Drake Mortoph burned Simon Alchuster’s wife and children to death, and told him that a dragon had done it…”
“… Daniel Fuller’s sister and told him that she had been murdered by an elf.”
“… and drained them of their blood before telling him that a vampire had killed them.”
Sarah’s voice rang through the morning air from a thousand different places, each of them saying the same two things: Drake Mortoph was a murderer, and a liar. Porter finally turned to look at the Master Slayer, and saw that Mortoph had turned pale. It took several minutes, but the Keeping Fire finally managed to tell every story it knew about him, and the voices faded to silence. Their job done, the fireballs winked out of existence, never to share their knowledge again. Sarah teetered for a moment, looking dazed, and then collapsed.
“Sarah!” Porter shouted, and ran to her. He lifted her head off the ground and felt her neck for a pulse, breathing a sigh of relief when he found it. “Sarah, are you okay?”
Her eyes fluttered open after a moment, and Porter noticed they had changed back to their normal shade of brown. “Yeah,” she said weakly. “Just give me a minute.”
“I don’t think we have a minute,” Porter said, turning back to look at the Master Slayer, whose face had turned an alarming shade of red.
“Did you actually think that would work?” he demanded, advancing on them. “Do you really think my men’s faith in me is so weak that they would—”
Before he could finish, his hand shot up, catching an arrow just before it struck him. He stared at it in shock.
It had come from Red Castle.
“My kids!” one Slayer yelled, still holding his bow. He stepped forward, reaching for another arrow. “You killed my kids, you… you…” The expression on his face was one of absolute shock.
“Mine too!” another declared, hefting his battle axe. “How could you? You said the monsters did it!”
“My wife was innocent!” a third joined in.
With that, the dam broke. What seemed to be every Slayer in Mortoph’s ranks surged forward, yelling accusations at their leader.
“You can’t be serious!” Mortoph shouted, gripping the arrow so hard that it broke in half. “You would actually believe this child over me, your own Master?”
“You’re not my Master!” one Slayer shouted, and threw a fireball at him. Mortoph reversed its course with a wave of his hand, and it struck the Slayer in the face, killing him.
The Slayers hesitated, looking at their fallen comrade, and then charged at Mortoph with roar of anger.
“This isn’t happening,” the Master Slayer said softly with a shake of his head, his eyes wide with rage and disbelief.
“It’s over, Mortoph,” Porter told him, triumphantly.
Mortoph raised his eyebrows. “Over? You think those fools were my only means of achieving my goal? You underestimate me.”
Turning back to his former Slayers, Mortoph spread his arms, and a blinding flash of yellow light exploded in front of him. Porter had to shield his eyes, and a furious gust of wind billowed out from around the Master Slayer. When Porter was able to look again, his blood ran cold and he took a step back.
There was a second army of Mythics standing between Mortoph and the Slayers.
Mythics with black and red eyes.
NEXT TIME: The battle’s begun! The Slayers have already turned against Mortoph, but that isn’t going to matter if Mythic army isn’t pacified. And Porter and Sarah still have to deal with Mortoph himself, too…