Chapter Twenty Two

(POV: Sarah)

 

It was the middle of the day, and Sarah was beginning to long for the cold winds of winter as the blazing sun milked her for every drop of sweat she could produce. It had been a full day since Porter had been sick, and the young man had managed to keep down two meals and plenty of water. That was good, Sarah thought as she watched him walk in front of her, holding Flicker out in front of himself like a divining rod. But now she was worried that the heat would make him sick again, and he'd just end up throwing it all up.

 

Suddenly, Porter came to a halt, and Sarah almost walked into him from behind.

 

"What is it?" she asked.

 

Porter didn't answer immediately. He stared at the sword in silence for a few seconds, and then slowly turned to the right. Sarah heard a faint buzz as Flicker vibrated in his hand, and then they both looked up to see where it was pointing.

 

"Do you think that's it?" Tick asked, coming to stand beside Porter.

 

In the distance, still several miles away, a mountain rose out of the ground. It wasn't a real mountain, Sarah thought as she looked at it. More like a really big hill. From what she could see, grass and trees covered every inch of it, but the sheer size of it...

 

"It could be," she answered. "It's definitely big enough to hold a town inside it, if they spaced everything out right. Is Flicker telling us to go there?"

 

"I think so," Porter answered, and Flicker buzzed again. "Yeah, that's the direction it's telling me to go."

 

"All right!" Tick yelled, putting his fists in the air. "Race you!"

 

He tried to dart away, but Porter caught his shoulder. "Stay with us," he said. "We don't want to risk startling the guards or something."

 

"Good idea," Sarah agreed, coming to walk directly beside him. Tick, after shrugging Porter's hand off, reluctantly did as he was told as well.

 

It was another hour before they finally reached the mountain. Sarah's heart began to beat erratically as she paused and looked around. There were supposed to be other Mythics here, but she couldn't see a single sign of them.

 

It's a Sanctuary, she thought, trying to calm herself down. It wouldn't stay a secret for long if every hiker and camper than walked by were spotting gryphons and trolls.

 

Porter turned to follow the base of the mountain, and the other two followed wordlessly. The whole time, chills were running up and down Sarah's spine. Why was she so scared, she wondered? Was she really so nervous about finding her parents? Or was there something else?

 

Porter's hand abruptly jerked to the side, and Flicker's blade tapped against a large boulder that was protruding from the ground. It was smooth relatively flat, and was coming out of the hill at such an angle that...

 

"It's a door!" Sarah blurted out, taking a step towards it.

 

"Are you sure?" Porter asked. "It looks ways too heavy to be a door."

 

Sarah shook her head. "It's a door, trust me. Look at the way it fits into the side of the hill, like it could swing open and lead you right inside. It's just been camouflaged to look like boulder."

 

Porter glanced at Flicker, which vibrated, and then stepped up to look at it with Sarah.

 

"So, then how do we get in?" he asked. "Do we just knock?" He raised his fist and did just that. There was no echo, just the sound of flesh striking stone.

 

"Don't be thick, Porter," Sarah sighed, taking a minute to scan the area around the stone. "You probably can't open it from the outside, anyway. I bet you have to find a way to identify yourself to the guards so they can open it from the—"

 

There came the gravelly sound of rock grinding against rock, and Sarah's head snapped forward just in time to see the boulder swing inwards, revealing a dark tunnel into the mountain.

 

"... Inside," she finished.

 

Porter gave a weak chuckle. "I guess that's our invitation in," he joked, but his tone revealed how uneasy he'd suddenly become. Sarah didn't blame him. Looking into the shadowy tunnel, without a single lantern or torch to light the way, staying outside suddenly seemed like a very tempting alternative.

 

"This isn't right," she said softly, straining her eyes as she looked inside. No matter how hard she stared, she couldn't see a single thing, not even a glimmer of light at the other end of the tunnel. "There should be, I dunno, someone to greet us here. Or a guard, at the very least."

 

"It doesn't make sense that they'd leave the entrance unguarded, does it?" Porter agreed. He took a step towards the door. "But we've come this far, so we can't just turn around now."

 

"Porter," Sarah snapped as he took a step into the darkness. When he turned to give her a quizzical look, she nodded towards his sword. "Maybe you should put Flicker away for now. We don't want to scare anybody when we go in."

 

Porter looked at his weapon, and then back up at her. She knew what was going through his head: if they were attacked while he didn't have Flicker summoned, they would be at a huge disadvantage. But then, finally, he nodded and let the sword vanish.

 

"I'll go first," he said, turning back to face the tunnel. "Sarah, you come next. Tick, you follow her. And if anything happens, you two run as fast as you can, got it?"

 

For once, Tick didn't argue about having to go last. After he'd taken his place behind the sphinx, Porter took a deep breath and stepped inside the tunnel. Sarah followed. The moment Tick's bare feet were inside the mountain, the boulder door swung shut, sealing them in and blocking out the sunlight so completely it was as if it had never existed at all.

 

"We're trapped!" Sarah squeaked in fright. She spun around and tried to look back the way they'd come, but the darkness was so thick now that she might as well have been wearing a blindfold.

 

"Keep calm," Porter's voice came from somewhere in the blackness. She heard him shuffle, and then his hand gently touched her head. "This is supposed to be a safe place, right? They probably just didn't want to keep the door open longer than they needed to."

 

Sarah's heart fluttered nervously, but she nodded. "Yeah, that's probably it," she said. "Tick, are you okay?"

 

"I don't like the dark," the little chimera answered from somewhere behind her.

 

"Just stay behind me," Porter said, taking his hand off Sarah. "We'll be fine."

 

He started walking again, and Sarah hesitantly came after him. With no light, every step was an act of faith, with no guarantee her paw wouldn't spring a trap or send her tumbling into a bottomless pit.

 

Porter's in front of you, she thought. If there's anything there, he'll find it before we do.

 

The thought didn't manage to comfort her...

 

"There's a light ahead," Porter whispered a few seconds later. Sarah leaned to the side, and saw he was right. The end of the tunnel couldn't have been more than thirty feet away.

 

"Hurry, let's go!" Sarah urged him, whispering as well, though she didn't know why.

 

The three travelers made their way further into the mountain, stepping more confidently as the light drew nearer. When they finally reached the end of the tunnel, it took a few minutes for Sarah's eyes to grow adjusted to the light again... but when they did, she got her first look at Jellaska Kob Lertan.

 

Underneath the outer shell of the mountain, an entire town stretched out in from of her. Buildings of every shape and size lined black asphalt roads, the likes of which Sarah had only seen when she'd spied on Westwillow. Hovering directly under the peak of the mountain was a glowing yellow ball, an artificial sun that lit the Dwarf City as naturally as if it was open to the sky above. It was just how Mrs. Rasta had promised her, except for one thing.

 

"It's empty," Porter said, voicing her thoughts for her.

 

And he was right. From a distance, Jellaska Kob Lertan would have seemed normal. But closer inspection would have revealed that the streets were deserted, and the windows dark. The entire town was silent, and the eerie quiet was enough to make Sarah's fur stand on end. Nothing moved. There wasn't even a breeze to make the trees planted along the road sway.

 

"I don't understand," Sarah said, turning in a slow circle. "There's supposed to be enough Mythics here to fill all these buildings. Where are they?"

 

"Do you think they left?" Tick asked. His eyes were open wide with unease, and he stepped closer to Porter.

 

Porter shook his head. "They can't have. An entire city couldn't just pack up and disappear without a trace, could they?"

 

"No," Sarah agreed. "There's something wrong."

 

They were silent for a few seconds, and then Porter asked, hesitantly, "Do you think it was the Slayers?"

 

"Don't say that!" Sarah snapped, whirling around to face him. "My parents are supposed to be here. They couldn't have..." She couldn't finish her sentence.

 

Porter frowned, but then nodded. "All right, let's take a look around. Maybe we can find some clues as to what happened."

 

He started down the road before Sarah could protest.

 

"I don't think it's safe," Tick whispered to the sphinx, his eyes darting around agitatedly.

 

"We'll be fine," Sarah reassured him with confidence that she didn't really feel. "Just stay close." Then, taking a deep breath, she followed after Porter. Tick kept pace with her, one hand resting on her back, as if he thought she'd leave him behind.

 

"There's no sign of a battle," Porter said when they caught up to him. "It really is like everybody just picked up and left."

 

That eased the tension in Sarah's chest a little— though not much. In her experience, the Slayers were fond of making messes. The fact that the underground city was still in such good condition told her that it wasn't likely they had found it. But, then, what had happened?

 

CRASH!

 

Sarah let out a little scream and fell over in her efforts to get away from whatever had made the noise.  Porter moved with the fluid grace only a trained warrior could achieve, and was suddenly standing between her and the noise, his sword once again in his hands. Tick was hiding behind Sarah, peeking his head over her back.

 

"Who's there?" Porter called out.

 

Nobody answered him, but a few seconds later there came a rattle from between two buildings across the street from them.

 

"Somebody's over there," Sarah said, slowly getting back to her paws. She peered into the alley, and was greeted by a pair of large yellow eyes looking directly back at her. "Porter, do you—"

 

"I see it," Porter confirmed, and took a step forward. "Hey, come out here. We're not going to hurt you."

 

The eyes blinked, the rest of its body invisible in the shadows, and then they disappeared as whatever they belonged to turned and ran in the opposite direction.

 

"Wait, come back!" Porter yelled, chasing after it.

 

"Be careful!" Sarah shouted after him. After a moment of indecision, she went after him. "Tick, come on! Stay close to me."

 

She and the chimera charged into the alleyway, and had to leap over a fallen metal trash can, revealing what had made the noise that had startled her. Porter was already on the other side of the alley, looking around.

 

"I lost it," he said when his friends rejoined him. "I didn't even see what it was."

 

Sarah stepped out into the road. "Whatever it was, I bet it knows what happened here. We need to find it."

 

"What if it's dangerous?" Tick asked.

 

Porter gave Flicker a confident swing. "Then I'll protect you. Let's go, but keep your eyes open."

 

Sarah began following him again, and a minute later another noise reached her ears. She paused and cocked her head to listen better. Was that... running water? She looked down another street, and saw a fountain in the center of a small cul-de-sac. To her surprise, she saw that it was still spraying water, like nobody had thought to turn it off when they'd evacuated the city. But then her eye caught something else...

 

"There!" she hissed, bringing her friends to a halt.

 

A goblin stood in front of the fountain in plain view, looking as terrified as a mouse in front of a lion.

 

"A goblin?" Porter asked. "Don't they usually live in packs?"

 

Sarah shrugged, keeping a wary eye on the little green Mythic. "Maybe it got separated from the others. We should ask if it knows what happened."

 

Porter gave her a doubtful look. "I dunno. The last time we ran into one of those, it didn't turn out so well."

 

"They're only dangerous if they swarm you," the sphinx said, starting toward the fountain. She stopped when she felt a sharp tug on her tail, and turned around to see Tick grabbing it with both hands.

 

"Don't go over there," he said, staring at the goblin like something out of his nightmares. "Something bad's gonna happen, I can feel it!"

 

"Tick, relax," Sarah said, pulling her tail out of his grasp. "Porter'll protect us, won't you?" She looked up at the older boy.

 

"No matter what happens," Porter agreed. "Just stick with us and nothing will happen, okay?"

 

Tick looked far from convinced, but he finally took his place behind them, ready to follow wherever they led him. In truth, Sarah wasn't nearly as confident as she was trying to sound, either. Jellaska Kob Lertan wouldn't have been evacuated unless something horrible had happened... or was going to happen. Still, she put on a brave face and walked side by side with Porter as they approached the goblin.

 

"We're not going to hurt you," Porter called to it when they were thirty feet away.

 

The verminous creature's catlike eyes grew wider, and it backed up so its back was pressed against the fountain.

 

"We just want to talk to you," Sarah added. "Do you know what happened here?"

 

The goblin put both hands over its mouth and shook its head.

 

Now they were only five feet away from the goblin. Porter knelt down so that they were as close to eye level as was possible, and asked, "Can you help us?"

 

A frightened squeal came from the goblin's mouth, muffled by its crooked little fingers, and it began to look around wildly, its ears flapping like wings on the side of its head. Sarah followed its eyes, and found out that it was looking at the buildings surrounding the fountain... almost like it was waiting for something.

 

Sarah barely had time to gasp before things started happening. First, the goblin in front of them vanished in a flash of yellow light. Then the doors to every building on the block flew open, and Mythics came flooding out into the streets.

 

"What the..." Porter exclaimed, looking up.

 

"Oh, no," Sarah whispered. A savage cry rose from the Mythics as they charged at the three travelers. They were all armed, Sarah realized, and they all looked angry.

 

The first Mythic reached that Porter was a dwarf, who swung a large hammer at him. The young man instinctively dodged it, and then raised Flicker to parry the second attack.

 

"Tick, get down!" Sarah screamed, and pounced on the chimera, knocking him to the ground. It wasn't much, but hopefully her body would serve as a shield long enough for Porter to get away so they could run.

 

Porter kicked the dwarf in the stomach, sending the short man stumbling backwards into the crowd. A pale skinned vampire came next, trying to drive its sharp nails into Porter's skin. Porter swung Flicker, striking the vampire on the head with the flat of the blade and knocking it unconscious.

 

"Porter, behind you!" Sarah shouted, and he spun around just in time to knock away an incoming spear. The elf that wielded it spun with the momentum and slammed the butt of his weapon into Porter's back, almost making him lose his balance.

 

As she watched the fight, a pit formed in Sarah's stomach. There were too many pf them. It didn't matter how good a fighter Porter was, eventually they would take him down with their sheer numbers.

 

I have to help him, she thought, getting to her paws. "Tick, stay here and don't get up," she said.

 

Before she could take a single step towards her friend, though, the sphinx was suddenly yanked off her feet. A troll had grabbed her, and was carrying her away from the fight as quickly as it could.

 

Sarah screamed and writhed in the strong Mythic's grip, but couldn't break free. She caught a glimpse of Tick being carried away in a similar fashion.

 

"Sarah!" Porter yelled, and she looked just in time to see him receive a powerful blow to his back from an ogre's club. He fell on his face, and quickly rolled to the side before the club came down a second time.

 

"Let me go!" Sarah growled trying to sink her claws into the troll's leathery skin. It ignored her, and abruptly dumped her in an alleyway, fifty feet away from where the fight was taking place. She scrambled back to her paws and looked.

 

Porter wasn't doing well. More and more Mythics were coming to attack him at the same time. Though the human boy fought bravely, Sarah could tell he didn't have much time left.

 

I can protect you too, Porter, she thought, letting her claws scrape the asphalt beneath her paws. Don't worry, here I—

 

"Sarah!" a familiar voice called to her, evaporating her focus in an instant. She turned around, and was greeted by the last face she had expected to see.

 

"Dad?" she exclaimed as the older sphinx came running to her.

 

"Are you all right?" he asked when he reached her, wasting no time in looking her over. "Are you hurt?"

 

"I'm fine," Sarah answered, her head spinning from all the activity. "I just... Dad, what's going on?"

 

"Your mom and I found out what happened," Mr. Heisen answered, coming to stand in front of his daughter again. "We knew you were going to be here, and..."

 

He paused, and tears began to well up in his eyes. A moment later, he stepped forward and pressed his forehead against Sarah's.

 

"I thought you were dead!" he cried. "Sarah, I'm so sorry! I should have let you—"

 

A cry of pain caught Sarah's attention, and she spun around to see Porter receive a heavy blow to the head. He dropped Flicker, which promptly vanished, and that was all the Mythics needed to begin piling on top of him, their fists and weapons pounding on him wherever they could find room.

 

"Porter!" Sarah screamed. Her father placed his paw comfortingly on her shoulder.

 

"Don't worry," he said gently. "You're safe now."

 

Sarah shook her head and shrugged Mr. Heisen's paw off. "Dad, that's my friend. Tell them to stop! We have to help him!"

 

"You're scared and confused," he insisted. "You need to rest. Come with me, I'll take you home."

 

Sarah ignored him and raced out of the alleyway. She didn't know what she could do against a small army of Mythics, but was determined to save her friend all the same. Before she was halfway there, though, her mind went blank, and her legs gave out underneath her. She collapsed on the ground, but was already so close to falling asleep that she didn't feel any pain. In the distance, she saw five large Mythics pick Porter's unconscious body up over their heads and carry him away.

 

No... Porter...

 

She managed to turn her head, and saw Mr. Heisen making his way out of the alleyway after her. His mouth was still moving in what had to have been a sleeping spell. The magic was working fast. Sarah couldn't fight it any longer, and finally gave in to the exhaustion, her mind slipping into a deep, dreamless sleep. The last thing she heard was her father's voice.

 

"Sarah, what did that Slayer do to you?"

 

NEXT TIME: That's not good, is it? Do you think Sarah can convince her parents to let Porter go? Yeah, maybe after the Slayers set up a bake sale to fund a new Sanctuary for homeless Mythics.

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