(POV: Mr. Heisen)
The morning sun rose above the trees, bathing the ruins of Heisen Manor with light. Where the sphinx family's mansion had once stood tall and proud, there was nothing but a pile of ash and blackened timber. A gentle breeze blew, stirring up a cloud of soot that lethargically moved from one side of the estate to the other, and Mr. Heisen had to close his eyes to keep it from getting in them— squeezing another tear out onto his already damp cheeks.
"Why didn't I listen to her?" he whispered, his voice hoarse with regret as he reached a paw out and lightly ran it over the ashes. Were those Sarah's ashes, he wondered? The thought made a sob rise up in his throat. For his wife's sake, he tried to hold it back, and ended up making a choking noise that spoke clearly of the feelings he was trying to hide.
Mrs. Heisen, who was standing a few feet away, came and stood next to her husband, their lion bodies pressing against each other as they looked at the remains of their former home. Neither of them said a word.
Two weeks. It had taken two weeks for news of what had happened to reach them in Jellaska Kob Lertan. The precautions of the Mythic world caused information to move slowly, and by the time they had learned of the Slayer's attack, it had been far too late.
Neither of them cared about the house, though. They cared about the daughter they had left inside it.
"If I had just brought her with us," Mr. Heisen said, barely able to speak through his grief, "she'd still be alive."
Mrs. Heisen didn't offer any words of consolation, because there were none to give. It was true, and they both knew it. Sarah, their only child's, blood was on their paws. Mrs. Heisen drew in a shaky breath, and then finally broke down. She collapsed on the ground, her face inches away from the ashes, and wailed her sorrow the heavens. Mr. Heisen tried to remain standing, to stay strong for her, but found his will to resist insufficient, and soon joined his wife on the ground.
The two of them lay there for... how long? Neither kept track of the time, and neither of them cared. All of their thoughts were of Sarah, their beloved daughter. Her smile, her spunkiness, the way she could sass anybody into a smile. How much of her life had they wasted on business trips, communicating only through a pane of glass? Too much, and now they would never get a chance to fix that. They would never get to see her grow up into a beautiful adult sphinx. She would never get to experience the world she had so desperately wished to see. If he could only have her back, Mr. Heisen thought, he would take her all over the world, the Slayers be¬—
"Perhaps I can offer you some comfort."
Those words cut straight through Mr. Heisen's curtain of grief. Even mourning the death of his daughter, a lifetime of living as a Mythic couldn't be forgotten. He immediately leaped to his paws, moving to stand between his wife and the interloper. The stranger was standing twenty away feet from Mr. and Mrs. Heisen, and his white cloak swayed in the breeze.
"I mean you no harm," he said, holding his hands up in peace as he took a step towards them. He reached up and lowered his hood, letting the sun shine on his brilliant yellow hair. "I am here to help."
He was speaking in Elvish, Mr. Heisen realized. It was one of many languages he had studied growing up, and it came so naturally to him now that he'd heard it without even realizing it.
"Who are you?" he asked, replying in the same language.
"My name is Vesper," the elf answered, still coming slowly towards them. "I have news of your daughter."
"News?" the sphinx echoed. Even though the sadness still clouded his mind, a small spark of hope appeared in his heart.
"She is not dead," Vesper said, knowing Mr. Heisen was in no mood to beat around the bush. "She came to my tribe's camp only a week ago."
Mr. Heisen's mouth fell open, and he couldn't stop himself from gasping. Instantly, his wife was on her feet.
"David, what is it?" she demanded. "What's he saying?"
She never learned how to speak Elvish, he realized, dimly. She has no idea what he just told me!
"He- he says that Sarah isn't dead," he relayed the message to her, whispering. Could it be true? Dare he hope? "She came to his camp a week ago."
"She escaped?" Mrs. Heisen exclaimed, looking from her husband to Vesper and back again. "Where is she now? Is she all right?"
"There is still troubling news, I'm afraid. She was..." Vesper paused, as if ashamed to have to tell her parents this, "not alone."
The tone in his voice sent a shiver down Mr. Heisen's spine. "Who was she with?"
"A young human man," Vesper answered. "One that I have every reason to believe was a Slayer."
Suddenly, all the hopes that Mr. Heisen had dared to feel went crashing down again, and he almost collapsed again with them.
Reading his expression, Vesper hurriedly went on, "She was well when I saw her. But the Slayer forced his way into our camp, took our food, and stole one of our most valuable treasures. They were gone before sunrise."
"But why would a Slayer keep my daughter alive?" Mr. Heisen asked. The torment she must be going through. It would almost make death seem preferable.
"I don't know for sure," Vesper admitted, "but she mentioned to us that they were going to Jellaska Kob Lertan. It seems likely that the Slayer is using her to discover the location of even more Mythics."
Mr. Heisen was still for a minute, letting that sink in. Then, all at once, his grief was replaced with rage. One of those lowlife, murderous Slayers was using his daughter as a tool? No, worse— a weapon. How dare he? His claws came out, and he raked the soft soil underneath him in anger. He would teach that little monster a lesson. A lifetime's worth of pain for every minute Sarah had suffered at his hands!
"Thank you, Vesper," he said, his voice barely able to mask the inferno of wrath burning inside him. "I won't forget about this, I promise."
A ring of light rose up around his and his wife's paws, and a moment later they were gone, teleported to Jellaska Kob Lertan, leaving Vesper alone in their yard.
He looked at the spot where the two gullible sphinxes had been for a few seconds, and then grinned. With a swish of his cloak, he turned and went back the way he'd come. He needed to get to the Dwarf City as well.
He wouldn't miss this for the world.
Sarah crouched in the underbrush, eyeing a rabbit between the leaves. The thrill of the hunt raced through her veins, and her tail lashed side to side in excitement, rusting the branches behind her. The small animal's head shot up at the sound, and saw her. It froze, and Sarah pounced.
When she moved, the rabbit broke free of its trance and darted back towards its burrow. Sarah chased it, her longer legs letting her catch up to it before it could escape. In a last ditch effort to survive, the rabbit skidded to a halt and performed an about-face, trying to dash between Sarah's legs. The young sphinx reacted with reflexes that were getting faster by the day, and stomped on it before it could get past her. Then, as it wriggled under her weight, she brought her head down and bit it with her sharp lion teeth. Almost instantly, the rabbit stopped struggling.
She raised her head again and, smiling, tossed her long red hair over her shoulders. A brighter red stained her lips and cheeks, and she licked her chops, savoring the taste.
"I got one!" she finally yelled, and a few seconds later Porter came running to meet her.
"Good catch!" he said, kneeling down to inspect her kill. "That's good for three meals, at least."
"I think I'm getting better," she said, bending down to grab the carcass in her teeth. "Bffrrr lrrng, ermgunnrr buh hrntrnng drrrr!"
"I bet you could take down a deer now, if you wanted," Porter agreed, turning to lead the way back to the little campsite they had set up. In truth, it was nothing but a campfire Porter had built, but it was better than nothing Sarah thought as she dropped the dead rabbit on the ground.
Porter immediately went to work carving the rabbit and getting it ready to be cooked. He used Flicker, since that was the only blade any of them had, but he handled the sword with such skill that it didn't really matter. Sarah moved a few feet away from the fire, since the sun still hadn't set, and began grooming herself to get the blood out of her fur before it dried.
"Hey guys!" Tick exclaimed, hobbling back into camp with an armful of blackberries. "Look what I found!"
"Nice!" Porter congratulated him, getting up to take one. He popped it in his mouth, and chewed it. "They're ripe, too. Want one, Sarah?"
"No thanks," she replied, rolling onto her back and stretching. "When you find a fruit that's made of bacon, maybe I'll have one."
Sarah relaxed while Porter worked to get the rabbit on a spit, and a few minutes later the smell of cooking meat filled the air. She licked her chops again, her stomach growling, and she rolled over to face her friends again.
"We should be getting close now, huh?" she said after they'd sat in companionable silence for a few minutes. "We left the tower two days ago, and Droma said Jellaska Kob Lertan was a three day journey from there."
She had expected that to cheer them up, but when she mentioned the Historians' Tower, Porter's face turned white. They sat in silence again, but this time it wasn't a happy, content silence.
"Do you think any of them made it?" Tick asked, finally breaking it.
"I hope so," Porter whispered in reply, but Sarah could see the despair on his face. Truth be told, she felt the same way. The historians were scholars, not warriors. She wouldn't have been surprised to learn none of them had made it out alive.
"The important thing," she spoke up, "is that we got away. There wasn't anything we could do for the rest of them."
Tick shook his head, a bewildered look on his face. "But Father Lucius was nice to us!"
"If we had stayed," Porter said, whispering again, "we'd be dead too."
"But... but..." Tick began to make gestures with his hands when the words wouldn't come. "Wasn't... it our fault the Slayers were there?"
Sarah drew in a sharp breath as Tick, effectively, drove a knife into her heart. It was true, the Slayers would never have found the Historians' Tower if it weren't for them. But... did that really make it their fault?
Porter looked sullenly at his feet for a few seconds, and then, without a word, stood up and walked away.
"Porter?" Tick asked.
"Don't let the meat burn," was all he said.
Tick got to his feet to go after him, but Sarah put a paw on his shoulder, stopping him. "Let him have some time to himself," she said. "He needs to figure things out."
Tick reluctantly sat down again and watched the rabbit like he had been asked. With Porter gone, Sarah's thoughts turned again to Jellaska Kob Lertan. With Droma gone, the sword he'd left them with was their only guide. Without Flicker, they would never find the way. For the past two days, Porter had held the living sword out in front of him, following the vibrations it gave when it was pointing in the right direction. Since Flicker only came to Porter, that meant he was their only chance to find the City Under the Hill. That, itself, was the problem.
"If we were to bring a Slayer into a Sanctuary," Droma had said, "his own execution would be the best outcome. At worst, we would all be executed."
Now that the former Slayer was their guide to the Sanctuary, leaving him behind was no longer an option. Besides that, Sarah thought, Porter had done so much for her over the past few weeks. He didn't deserve to be abandoned just because a bunch of grumpy old monsters didn't like him. He wasn't a Slayer anymore. He was something better.
Maybe if I just explain what he's done, she thought, digging idly in the dirt with one claw, they'll let him in. After all, I'd be dead if it weren't for him.
Besides, nobody needed to know he was a Slayer. With Droma gone, Sarah was the only one left who knew about that, and she didn't plan on telling anybody.
Arch-Mythic Rayalga is a rational creature, she told herself. He won't have Porter killed just because he's a human... right?
Her mind was made up. If that old featherbrain didn't like Porter being there, he could... Sarah stopped digging, and a blush rose to her face.
Oookay, let's not get carried away here.
When Porter was confident that he was too far away for Sarah and Tick to see him, he immediately dropped the façade and fell to his knees. His face contorted in agony, and he grabbed the sides of his head as his breathing became heavier. And then, after hours of fighting to keep it silent, the voice came back.
"Coward!" The Other Porter screamed at him from inside his head. Porter could feel his dark side throwing itself against the bars in his mind, desperately trying to break free. They were weakening. He could feel it. How long would it take before—
"How can you call yourself a protector when you run away from danger?" The Other Porter interrupted him. "You think you can protect Sarah? What will happen when she's in trouble? Are you going to run away from that too?"
"No!" Porter shouted at himself.
"You're weak! Give it back! Give me back my life!"
"Shut up!" Porter screamed.
Other Porter fell silent for a few seconds. Just as Porter began to relax, he felt his stomach turn over and he gagged.
"I'm getting stronger," Other Porter said as Porter bent over and dry heaved. "I can do things to you now. If you don't give up, I'll keep doing it. I'll starve you, I'll dehydrate you, I'll keep you up all night until—"
"Leave me alone!" Porter pleaded.
To his relief, Other Porter's voice began to recede into his mind once more, leaving him with one final taunt.
Something's wrong with him, Sarah thought as she watched Tick turn the rabbit on the spit. Porter's always been the optimistic one.
He was bothered by what had happened at the tower, of course. They all were. What she couldn't figure out was why he didn't talk to them about it. Why go off on his own like that?
Sarah sighed, and looked up to better hear the birds chirping above her. She wished Porter would let her help. She really wanted to try, even if all she could do was be there for him. Maybe if she let him hug her again, he would...
Sarah cut those thoughts off as her face began to burn.
Whoa, she thought, hoping it was too dark for Tick to see her expression. Where did that come from?
Before she could think on it more, she heard a rustle and turned to see Porter making his way back to the campsite. She got to her paws, determined to give welcome him back with a smile, but it fell from her face when she got a good look at him.
"Holy crap!" she exclaimed as he shuffled into camp, one hand on his belly. "Are you okay?"
Porter set his back against a tree and moaned softly as he slid down into a sitting position. "Yeah," he said a moment later. "I'm fine."
"Are you sure?" she took a hesitant step closer to him. "You look pretty green."
"Just tired is all," he insisted, and looked at Tick. "How's the rabbit coming?"
"I think it's ready," the little chimera answered.
"Good," Porter nodded his approval, and then reclined his head back against the tree. "You two go ahead and eat. I'm not hungry."
"Not hungry?" Sarah asked. "You haven't eaten anything since breakfast. You need some of this!"
"I'm fine," the young man said again. "You guys need it more than I do."
Tick scowled at the older boy, and tore a handful of meat from the rabbit.
"Eat it," he ordered, forcing it into Porter's hand. "It'll be good for you."
He sounded so grown up that when Porter looked at him, he couldn't help but smile. Sarah breathed a sigh of relief when he finally brought the meat to his mouth and took a bite. He chewed for a few seconds, relishing the taste, and the uneasy knot in the sphinx's guy began to unravel.
Then, suddenly, Porter's eyes shot open wide. He grunted, puckering his lips, and then turned around and spat the meat back onto the ground.
"Porter?" Sarah exclaimed, rushing to stand in front of him. "Porter, what's wrong?"
He wasn't listening to her, though. He was too busy retching. There was nothing in his stomach to throw up, so he just dry heaved for almost a full minute before his strength gave out and he collapsed on his face.
Drake Mortoph made sure to make eye contact with each and every one of his prisoners as he walked past their cells. Monsters of every size and shape stared back at him, their eyes hollow and devoid of life— just the way he liked it. Looking him in the eye added a good amount of fear to their despair, which only sweetened the deal. He knew what his gaze did to things, human or nonhuman, and he was proud of it.
The Master Slayer's good mood was soured, though, when he came to the sentries standing at attention midway down the tunnel. They immediately saluted him as he drew nearer, but the gesture was meaningless to him. The guards of Reaper's Wait were the weakest Slayers in his ranks. Unfit for true duty, he assigned them to watch over prisoners that he, himself, had long since broken, and no longer needed guarding.
"At ease," he snapped, not bothering to mask his contempt.
"All is well in here, Master Mortoph," said the one on the right, as if Mortoph actually cared.
"Very good," the Master Slayer responded. "Now get out."
"Sir?" the one on the left asked.
"I have business to conduct here," Mortoph said. "For that, I need privacy. Leave the prison, and do not return until I have left."
"But Master," the one on the right spoke up again, "protocol says that—"
"I said get out!" Mortoph roared, his patience running dry. His voice came out so loud that the bricks that made up the wall and floors shivered. Without another word, both guards took off running towards the exit. Mortoph watched them go until he was satisfied they weren't coming back, and then continued his slow journey down the hallway.
A few minutes later, he came to an iron door set into the wall to his left. Even an untrained eye could notice how it was different from the other cells, the doors of which were nothing more than bars. Nobody knew what this cell contained, and Mortoph wanted to keep it that way. Giving one last glance towards the exit to make sure he was alone, he pulled a single large, iron key from his pocket and stuck it into the lock. He swiftly pulled the door open and stepped inside, closing it behind him.
Inside the cell, there wasn't a single trace of light. It was so dark that even Mortoph's eyes couldn't make out anything. He heard a sound come from the far corner, and he turned in that direction.
Then, a soft voice rang out, crystal clear and full of hope...
NEXT TIME: Oooh, Drake's a daddy! Do we call him Papa Mortoph now? Personally, I wouldn't recommend that. The last person who called him that was wiped from existence itself, which means it never really happened at all. But more importantly, Porter and co. are getting closer to the Sanctuary. Doesn't sound like anything good's waiting for them there, though...