Chapter Twenty Four
A deep anger burned in Azkular's heart as he knelt before the Arch-Mirror. It was a mirror the likes of which you would see nowhere else. L-shaped, half of it rested against the wall, and then angled down onto the floor. The frame was decorated with every precious gem known to man— and many that were not.
"Arch-Mythic Rayalga," Azkular said, bowing his head.
The mirror began to glow. A moment later, the Arch-Mythic appeared before him.
"Commander Azkular," the gryphon greeted him, his head held high with pride.
Rayalga was not really in the room with him, but anybody looking in would have a hard time telling that. The Arch-Mirror was, in truth, nothing but a magic mirror. The way it was constructed, and the spells powering it, made it so that instead of merely showing Rayalga's reflection in the glass, it projected a perfect hologram of him.
Azkular didn't raise his head to look, though.
"I have done as you commanded," he said. "I spent the entire day interrogating the Slayer."
Rayalga hummed in his throat. With the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, the Arch-Mythic was an intimidating creature— one of the most frightening Azkular had ever met.
"And what answers has he given?" he asked, his voice heavy with authority.
Commander Azkular clenched his eyes shut. "None," he confessed. "I have tried every technique I know to loosen his lips, but he still insists that he knows nothing."
Rayalga growled, a sound that made the fire in Azkular's veins turn cold.
"I will continue to question him, Arch-Mythic," he promised. "I will not allow his kind to endanger my Sanctuary."
"I want answers, djinn," Rayalga demanded. "His trial is in two days. If he receives the death sentence before you've broken him, we will have gotten nowhere." He paused and leaned down, giving Azkular a piercing stare. "You haven't forgotten what happened the last time you allowed a Slayer into a Sanctuary, have you?"
Azkular's eyes shot open at that comment, burning with blue fire. He clamped then shut again, cutting off the flames.
"I will not fail you again," he said after a moment of painful silence. "I promise."
"Don't fail my people," the Arch-Mythic corrected him. With that, his image faded away, leaving Azkular alone in the room again.
The djinn knelt there for another five minutes, fighting back the memories that Rayalga's question had awakened. Then, once he felt he was under control again, he stood up and left the room. He wouldn't fail. He wouldn't let the Slayers win. He would break the young man's will, or he would break himself trying.
As he made his way down the corridor, he came across a figure dressed in a long, white cloak.
"You're not asking the boy the right questions," Vesper said, speaking in Elvish.
"Begone, elf," Azkular spat and continued onwards.
Vesper followed him. "He has answers, but you're looking for the wrong ones.
"This is none of your concern!"
"It is my concern! That child stole one of my tribe's greatest treasures. Give me ten minutes with him, and I can prove his guilt!"
Azkular halted in his tracks and spun to face the elf.
"Do you think I believe that?" he demanded, advancing on him. Vesper backed away, and soon found his back pressed against the wall. "That you're some kind of noble victim, trying to reclaim what was stolen from your people? I'm no fool. I know why you're here."
He jabbed his finger into Vesper's stark white shirt. "You're here to regain your pride. You want to bring an end to the Slayer somewhere everyone can see you. Then you'll be a hero, just like you've always wanted."
Vesper's eyes widened in outrage. "How dare you? I want only what is best for my tribe, and the Mythic population as a whole!"
Azkular snorted, blowing twin trails of smoke from his nostrils. "Funny. That didn't seem to be your priority until that boy embarrassed you."
The elf's face turned red with anger. "With words like those, Commander," he growled, "I can't help but wonder where your loyalties lie."
Before he had time to flinch, Azkular had swung his leg up, kicking Vesper in the head. The elf fell to the ground with a cry, and Azkular stood over him, his eyes glowing blue.
"Never," he growled, "question my allegiances. I have seen and done things that would make you squeal like a babe. You are no hero. You're an actor, putting on a show for everyone gullible enough to believe you."
Shaking his head in disgust, Azkular left the elf lying on the floor, rubbing his head ruefully. Vesper watched him, giving the djinn's back the most acidic glare he could muster. His face burned with humiliation.
What did he know? Nothing! What right did he have to keep him away from Porter? None! It didn't matter, though, he promised himself. He stood up, and patted the hidden pocket on the inside of his cloak. He could feel the reassuring shape of the syringe inside. Oh yes, that child would pay for what he did.
And after that, Azkular would be next...
Lightning lit up the storm-blackened sky. A twelve year old sphinx was curled up with her parents on the living room rug, watching TV. Thunder boomed outside the window, and the young sphinx got to her paws to look outside.
Sarah stirred in her sleep and gave an unconscious kick as her body tried to mimic her dream-self.
"I think there's someone outside!" she shouted.
Instantly, her parents were by her side, looking out into the storm.
"Go to your room," her father ordered her.
Naturally, Sarah had disobeyed. After rounding the first corner she came to, she peeked back around just in time to see both of her parents change into their human forms and go running for the kitchen door.
"Melissa, go get some towels!" Mr. Heisen had said.
Excitement made Sarah's stomach turn flips. She knew having somebody appear unexpectedly in their yard was dangerous, but she couldn't ignore her curiosity. She waited until they were both out of sight and then followed them.
There, in the kitchen, lay a wolf.
"Sarah!" her mother snapped. "Your father told you to go to your—"
"It's okay, honey," Mr. Heisen interrupted her. They were both rubbing the wolf with towels. "She's not in any danger now."
The gray and black spotted wolf was shivering, and a pool of water was forming underneath it on the kitchen floor. Upon closer inspection, Sarah realized that it wasn't a full grown wolf, it was just a pup.
It must belong to somebody, she thought, spying the collar around her neck.
"The poor thing got caught in the storm," Mrs. Heisen fussed as she hurried to dry the sopping wet creature off. "She's lucky she found us, and not..."
Her voice trailed off, but everybody knew what she was thinking.
Sarah cocked her head in confusion. "She?"
Her father nodded toward the young wolf. "Sarah, this isn't just some animal. She's a werewolf— a Mythic, just like us."
A new appreciation for the creature lying in front of her blossomed inside of Sarah. Another Mythic. In the twelve long years she'd been alive, she had never once met anybody besides her parents and Mrs. Rasta. But now here, right in front of her, was a werewolf.
The little wolf's eyes flickered open, and locked with her own.
"Hey," Sarah said, taking a hesitant step forward. "What's your name?"
The werewolf gave a little cough, and then answered, "Misoki."
In the course of only a few seconds, Sarah watched two years' worth of memories go by. Her parents had allowed Misoki to stay with them, practically adopting her as their second daughter. They weren't the only ones that shared such a strong bond, though— within days, Misoki and Sarah were inseparable.
Still lost in her dreams, Sarah's face cracked a smile as she relived the day they had worked together to turn the manor's entire downstairs into a swimming pool. Their parents had grounded them for a month, but that was half the fun.
Their parents, not just Sarah's. After a year, Sarah had stopped thinking of the young werewolf as anything but her sister.
Misoki had never told them where she had come from, and it didn't take long for the Heisens to stop prodding her. Whatever had happened before she'd stumbled into their yard that night, it wasn't anything she wanted to relive. That was okay. Misoki was part of the family now. If she wanted to leave the past behind, then who were they to argue?
Time flashed forward again, and the subconscious smile fell from Sarah's lips.
"No, not this one. Please..."
Two years after her arrival, Misoki and Sarah's father had begun to fight. Misoki wanted to go outside and explore but, of course, Mr. Heisen wouldn't hear of the idea. Being cooped up inside the mansion was even worse for her than it was for Sarah. Misoki had been born in the outside world. She knew what freedom tasted like. And as grateful as she was to the Heisens for taking her in, she would never lose the desire to run free like a proper wolf again. She had kept Sarah awake countless nights, enthralling the young sphinx with stories about everything she had seen and done.
It was Misoki's stories that had awoken Sarah's restless spirit.
Sarah and Misoki, now both fourteen years old, were standing at the Heisen's back door. A bright full moon hovered just outside, as if it had been framed by the doorframe. The full moon always agitated Misoki. That's what it meant to a werewolf.
"Come on!" she had urged Sarah, standing just outside the door. Her back paws were in the grass, while her front paws were still on the mansion's marble floor.
Sarah had shaken her head. "It's too dangerous. Come back inside!"
"You've been stuck in this stupid house your whole life, Sarah. You need to get out and see the world."
"Someone's going to see you!"
Misoki had bared her teeth at that. "I'm not coming inside, Sarah. I can't! If we don't go now, we'll never get another chance!"
She and Sarah's father had fought again that day. This one had been worse than all the others. Voices had been raised, and even a few threats had been made. In truth, Sarah wasn't surprised that Misoki was trying to leave now.
"But what about the Slayers?"
Misoki had grinned her wolfish grin. "The Slayers couldn't catch us if they tried!"
But still Sarah had hesitated.
"You don't have to be scared," Misoki said, taking a step backwards. "I'll take care of you."
The way was open.
Sarah hesitantly took a step towards the door. She could hear the crickets and treefrogs making noise, even from inside the mansion. They were noises she'd heard a hundred thousand times before, but now they seemed... different. They were inviting her to join them. To leave her parents' oppressive rules behind and be free.
Sarah had placed one paw out of the door...
"What's going on here?" her father had roared.
Instinctively, Sarah had jerked her paw backwards. Half a second later, the door had magically slammed shut. Sarah could only watch as her best friend, her sister, had turned tail and went running off into the night.
Sarah had known, then, that she would never see Misoki again.
But life, she had learned, had a habit of taking your expectations and completely ignoring them. As if on cue, the memories ended and Sarah's eyes opened. Giving a big, catlike yawn, Sarah raised her head to see Misoki already sitting up on the other bed, looking at her. She was in her wolf form, like always.
"Sweet dreams?" she asked, cocking her head slyly.
"Um, not really," Sarah answered, sitting up as well.
Misoki giggled. "Could'a fooled me. You were smiling in your sleep over there!"
Sarah blushed, but didn't rise to the bait. In truth, she wasn't entirely sure how to behave. She was happy to see Misoki, of course, but... things had changed. Not only had Sarah gone on the adventure of a lifetime just to get to Jellaska Kob Lertan, she had done it without Misoki. Sarah had learned, grown, and become stronger, all by herself.
"Well, come on!" Misoki said, jumping out of bed and making for the door. "It's morning already, so I'm going to give you a tour of the city— a real tour this time!"
Sarah got up and followed her friend as she nosed the door open and padded down the hallway. Misoki's mouth never moved when she spoke, something that had taken Sarah months to get used to. As a wolf, Misoki couldn't speak like a human. To make up for that, she wore a collar around her neck that had been enchanted to speak her thoughts aloud for her. The same collar she'd been wearing when Sarah's parents had brought her to live with them. It had been her only possession, and she had adamantly refused to ever take it off.
"It's a gift from my daddy!" She had argued the first time Mrs. Heisen had attempted to remove it for her bath. "It's the only thing I have left of him!"
After that, the Heisens had let her wear it all the time.
"What do you mean a real tour?" Sarah asked as she followed her into the kitchen.
Using her teeth, Misoki pulled the refrigerator door open and began sniffing the contents.
"We've got bacon, eggs, sausages, um... I dunno what that is," she said. "There's a little grilled chicken, if you want it for breakfast."
"I'll take the bacon and eggs," Sarah said, sitting down on the linoleum floor. It felt strange under her paws, which were used to standing on polished hardwood. "What do you mean a real tour?"
Sarah watched Misoki struggle to pull the food out of the fridge for a few seconds before getting up and coming to help. Muttering the spell under her breath, she grabbed the plates with human hands and set on the floor.
"Still having trouble with that spell?" the werewolf chuckled, looking at the layer of yellow fuzz that still coated Sarah's arms.
Sarah released the spell and shifted back to her true form. "I'm getting better," she retorted.
Misoki raised her snout smugly. "I've never had that problem. Shapeshifting comes naturally to us werewolves!"
"Not that it matters," Sarah said around a mouthful of scrambled eggs. "When was the last time you shifted?"
Misoki's head fell, and she looked away the way she always did when Sarah brought the subject up. She hated her human body, though she would never tell Sarah why.
"So," Sarah said, leaving her food alone for a minute, "I still want to know what you meant when you said a real tour."
Misoki snorted and looked back at her. "You really have to ask? Looks like you still have furballs for brains too, huh? I meant, walking around the city with that Slayer wasn't much of a tour, was it?" She laughed, which was the only sound to actually come out of her mouth. It sounded like a mixture of a bark and a cough. "I bet he didn't even stop to sightsee!"
Suddenly, Sarah's appetite was gone, and she sat up and gave the wolf a flat stare.
"He is not," she said, more angrily than she'd meant to, "a Slayer!"
Misoki took a step back in surprise.
"You- you're talking about the kid with the tail, right?"
Sarah shook her head. "No, that was Tick! The human boy, Porter, he's not a Slayer."
Misoki cocked her head to one side. "But that elf told your parents he was."
"Vesper," Sarah spat, her face turning red, "is just mad because Porter kicked his butt in a fight!"
Slowly, Misoki's expression changed from confusion to amusement.
"Sure," she crooned. "He fought an elf and won, but no, he's not a Slayer!"
Sarah's face turned an even darker shade of red, but before she could argue further, their conversation was interrupted.
"Oh, you girls are already awake!" Mr. Heisen exclaimed as he and his wife walked into the kitchen.
"I was just about to take Sarah out to see the city!" Misoki chirped. Her tail started to wag.
"Good idea!" her father agreed.
Sarah raised an eyebrow. "Did you just say what I think you said?" Mr. Heisen gave her a sidelong glance. "You just told Misoki it was a good idea to take me out of the house."
Everyone stood still for a minute, and then Mr. Heisen burst out laughing. "The whole world's been turned upside down, hasn't it, Sarah?"
More than you know, Dad.
The sphinx calmed himself down and gave a sage nod. "Things are a lot different here than they were at the mansion. You can go outside whenever you want now!"
"As long as we know where you'll be," Mrs. Heisen chimed in.
Mr. Heisen nodded again. "Right. And you'll still have a curfew, young lady, just like any other teenager."
Hearing this, Sarah couldn't help but laugh. "I think I'm supposed to get mad when you say that, aren't I?"
Her father smiled. "Trust me, you'll learn to hate it once you get used to living here."
He glanced at his wife, and then back at Sarah. The smile fell from his face, and he took a step closer to his daughter.
"Do you want me or your mother to come with you?" he asked. "It might be a little scary out there, with so many Mythics in one place."
"I saw way scarier things than that when I was travelling with Porter," Sarah said, taking a step away from him.
Mr. Heisen's frown deepened into a scowl. "Don't worry," he growled. "That Slayer is going to get exactly what he deserves tomorrow morning."
Suddenly, Sarah's good mood soured, and she went to stand beside Misoki. "Thanks, but I want to spend some time alone with my friend."
Her parents looked taken aback by this, but didn't object.
"All right," her mother said. "If you need us, we'll be here."
"Great, thanks," Sarah said, making for the door. "Come on, Misoki!"
The werewolf glanced at the half eaten plate of food. "Aren't you going to—"
Porter lay writhing on the floor. The stones were cold, but all he could feel was fire. It burned him, burned every cell in his body like he was trapped in the heart of the sun. And yet, the creature had kept his word— it didn't leave a single mark on his body. Porter opened his mouth and tried to scream, but couldn't draw the breath into his lungs. The fire was in his mouth, going down his throat and into his lungs.
A wicked cackle echoed in his mind, and Porter was dimly aware of the Other Porter sitting in in the corner, grinning in sadistic amusement. The Other Porter was in his mind. Didn't the fire hurt him too? Porter realized he didn't care. The only thing that mattered was making the pain STOP!
"I can do that," Other Porter said. "Just tell me what I want to hear."
"Wha... wha..." Porter gasped, unable to form coherent words through the agony.
Other Porter knelt in front of him and looked him in the eye. "Say it. Tell me, and I'll make the pain go away!"
Suddenly, the copy's voice changed into that of the creature that had been torturing him. A moment later, his image shimmered, and he became the shirtless man who controlled the fire. The man stared into Porter's eyes for a few seconds, and then stood up.
"Puh... leeeez!" Porter begged him. He didn't care how pathetic he sounded. He just wanted the fire to go away.
The creature raised his lip in disgust, and then made a quick gesture with his hand. Instantly, the pain stopped. Porter lay still for several minutes, panting. His brain was lagging behind, and it took a while before it even registered that he wasn't burning anymore. Then, slowly, he forced himself to sit up.
"What do you have to tell me, Slayer?" the man asked.
Porter's mouth moved, trying to remember how to speak. "Thuh- thank... thank you."
The creature's brows drew low over his eyes, and Porter flinched, convinced that the pain was about to begin again. Instead, the creature shook his head and crossed his arms.
"Very well, then," he said. "We're going to try this a different way now."
Porter, still weak from the pain, inched his way backwards until his back was pressed against the wall. Even doing that, he had to bring his knees to his chest to keep his feet from touching his captor.
The man raised a hand, and a fireball formed in his palm. Cold sweat broke out on Porter's skin, even more noticeable now that the fire inside him had been put out, and his heart stared to race. But, instead of using it on Porter, the man let the fireball fall to the floor, where it spread itself out into a long rectangular shape. A few seconds later, the fire solidified into a thin, white mattress. Little more than a blanket, it was still enough to make Porter temporarily forget his fear and look closer in curiosity. The man sat down on it, cross-legged, and faced Porter.
"My name is Azkular," he said. "I am the Commanding Guardian of Jellaska Kob Lertan."
He sat still, waiting for Porter to reply.
"What is your name?" he asked when the young man didn't say anything.
Azkular folded his arms in front of himself again, and for a moment Porter was convinced the mattress was going to rise into the air and carry the strange man away.
"If you haven't already figured it out," Azkular said, "I am a djinn. The fire I use is my lifeblood. With it, I can either destroy, or," he gestured toward the thick blanket he was sitting on, "I can create."
Porter looked down at the mattress again. He had seen Azkular make it out of fire. Was it still hot, he wondered?
"I am going to ask you some questions," the djinn continue, bringing Porter's attention back to him. "Give me answers I want to hear, and you will be rewarded."
"Rewarded?" Porter echoed.
"So far, you have had only the floor to sleep on," Azkular explained. "I can't imagine that it's very comfortable. Answer my next question, and I'll let you to keep this bed."
Porter looked a third time, and suddenly became aware of just how hard the floor of his cell was. He wanted that mattress very, very badly...
Azkular fixed Porter with a piercing stare, and he asked, "When will the other Slayers arrive?"
Porter's heart fell into his stomach. That question again. Azkular still thought he was a Slayer, despite Porter denying it more times than he could remember.
"It's because it's true," Other Porter taunted him.
For once, Porter had no problem ignoring his double. His eyes were fixed on the cloth Azkular was sitting on. If he didn't answer the djinn's question, he wouldn't get to keep the mattress, and he'd have to spend the night sleeping on the floor again. His back began to ache just thinking about it.
I could... I could tell him what he wants to hear, Porter thought desperately. It doesn't have to be true. If it's what he wants to hear, he won't stop until he hears it anyway, will he?
Almost immediately, those thoughts were chased away by an overwhelming wave of shame. He couldn't tell Azkular that, no matter how much the djinn wanted to hear it.
BECAUSE SARAH TOLD ME I WASN'T A SLAYER!
"There's aren't any," he finally said, looking Azkular directly in the eye.
Azkular's lips pressed themselves together, and Porter could tell he was trying to hold back his anger again.
"Where are the other Slayers?" he asked again, his voice dangerously low.
Porter shook his head. "There aren't any. I'm not a Slayer!"
Azkular clenched his eyes shut for several seconds, and Porter got the distinct feeling that he was about to feel the djinn's fire again. His eyes reopened, and he waved his hand. The mattress underneath him evaporated into smoke.
"Another question, then," he growled, standing up. He conjured another fireball, which reshaped itself into a plate filled with hot, steamy food. Steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, corn... it made Porter's mouth water just looking at it. More than that, it made his stomach growl. He hadn't been given a thing to eat since he'd been locked up.
"I know you're hungry," Azkular said, grasping the plate tightly in his hands. "I told them not to feed you for this very reason. Answer my question, and I will let you eat your fill."
Here we go again...
"When do the Slayers plan to attack?"
Porter shook his head wearily. "I don't know. I don't know anything about them. I'm not a Slayer!"
The room suddenly grew very hot, and Porter looked up to see blue flames coming out of Azkular's skin. The plate of food had already vanished. Azkular stepped forward and knelt down so that he and Porter were face to face.
"I'm only going to say this once, boy," he growled, and Porter caught the sight of blue fire dancing on Azkular's tongue when he opened his mouth. "We know what you are. Your lies aren't fooling anybody!"
Porter swallowed his fear and, despite all his better judgement, asked, "Why do you think I'm a Slayer? What have I done to make you think that?"
Azkular scoffed and stood up, turning his back on the boy. "Because all the evidence points towards it," he spat. "You weren't exactly subtle in what you did."
Other Porter sniggered inside Porter's head, and Porter leaned forward, intrigued despite himself.
"What do you mean?" he asked, softly.
"I mean," Azkular said, "that three weeks ago, the Heisen's mansion was attacked by Slayers and burned to the ground."
All at once, it felt like somebody had dumped a bucket of ice on Porter's head.
"Wha- what?" he asked in disbelief.
Sarah never mentioned her house being attacked...
"Her parents were away, leaving only their daughter, Sarah, and their maid in the house," Azkular went on. "The maid was killed, but Sarah managed to get away. Two days later, Sarah happens across the Ragga elves' encampment with a young man whose broken leg had been bound with a Slayer's coat."
Porter's eyes opened wide. That coat... how could have forgotten it? Now that he thought back, it had borne a striking resemblance to the coats he saw the Slayers wearing. But, where would he have come across one of those?
"A few days after that," said Azkular, "Sarah and that boy go to the Historians' Tower. The Slayers show up two days later, and every Mythic in the tower was killed."
"That wasn't our—"
"And now those two show up at my doorstep," Azkular concluded, anger lighting his eyes up blue again, "and that boy expects me to believe this city won't meet the same fate as the last Sanctuary he went to?"
Unconsciously, Porter brought his legs up and hugged his knees. He started to tremble. No, it couldn't be true. It couldn't...
Porter found that he couldn't quite believe it anymore.
Azkular, seeing the struggle going on inside the young man's head, raised his own head in triumph.
"As I said, you're not fooling anyone. So, here is my final offer: answer my questions, and I will do what I can to keep you from receiving the death sentence at your trial tomorrow."
Porter looked up at him sharply.
"Arch-Mythic Rayalga is arriving tomorrow morning," the djinn explained, "and he intends to make an example out of you. You will be tried, and you will be found guilty. The Arch-Mythic wants to sentence you to death. Give me the information I need to save my city, and I will appeal on your behalf. Lifelong imprisonment, as opposed to the slow, painful death Rayalga has in mind."
At that point, Porter was sure his heart stopped beating entirely.
"I'll leave you to think about that," Azkular said as he backed away toward the door. It swung open, and he stopped just outside of it. "I'll return one more time. When I do, I recommend very strongly that you give me those answers."
And with that, the cell door slammed shut, leaving Porter alone again. Azkular hadn't hurt him this time¬— he'd done something far worse. Porter's empty stomach turned a somersault inside of him, and he moaned and put his head in his hands.
Somewhere deep inside the recesses of his mind, Other Porter laughed.
NEXT TIME: Looks like everybody in Jellaska Kob Lertan wants Porter dead, except for Sarah, but nobody's willing to listen to her! It's gonna take some serious noggin stretchin' to get him out of this one. But there's nothing she can do right now, so she may as well go check out her new home!