Chapter Twenty Eight
"Wake up, Slayer!"
Porter's door shook under the force of the djinn's knocking, but it didn't wake the young man up. He sat with his knees against his chest and his back against the wall, feeling like he would never be able to sleep again.
The door swung open, and Azkular stepped inside, followed warily by a sasquatch. The Commander walked straight up to Porter, like he had nothing in the world to fear from him, and grabbed him by his collar.
"I said get up!" he shouted, and threw Porter face first onto the stone floor. "The Arch-Mythic has arrived, and your trial is to be held within the hour."
A pit formed in Porter's stomach when he heard this, but he didn't reply as Azkular conjured a pair of handcuffs and fitted them around his wrists. Even though the djinn had made them out of fire, the metal was as cold as ice against Porter's skin. Then, Azkular pulled him to his feet again and marched him out of the cell.
Look for a way to escape, his instincts told him as Azkular and the guard directed him down a dark, featureless passageway. Don't forget anything. If you can manage to break free, maybe you can still get out of this!
"If I even think you're going to run," Azkular growled into his ear, somehow reading the young man's thoughts, "we won't have any need for a trial."
They came to another door, and the sasquatch opened it while Azkular kept his hands on Porter.
"Take off your clothes, wash yourself, and then get dressed with the clothes you find in the locker," he instructed him. Before Porter could say anything, Azkular put his foot against his back, undid the handcuffs, and shoved him inside. Porter turned around to look just as the door slammed shut behind him.
This new room wasn't a cell. It was larger, and Porter immediately spotted a pipe coming out of the ceiling. A few seconds later, a thin stream of water began to spill out of it, splattering on the dirty tile floor below him.
With a sigh, Porter stripped his clothes off and threw them in a pile in the corner. That, at least, was a small comfort. After wearing them for so long in his cold, damp cell, those shirt and pants had begun to feel like a second layer of skin. He knew that Azkular was watching on the other side of the door to make sure he didn't try anything, but he couldn't bring himself to care. He had other things to worry about besides peeping genies.
Porter stepped under the pipe, and shivered as the freezing cold water fell onto him. He didn't have any soap, so he made do with cupping the water in his hands and rubbing it against his skin. After he finished rinsing the dirt and sweat out of his hair, he took a moment and looked down at his body. He was in good shape— really good shape, now that he thought about it. He wasn't really muscular, but his arms and chest were still hard with muscle. It went beyond athletic— it was a warrior's body. It wasn't anything he hadn't seen a hundred times before, but right then, standing under the cold prison shower, he saw himself with new eyes.
What could I have been before I lost my memory, he wondered, that I would need to be in such good shape?
Besides a Slayer...
With a grunt, Porter shook his head and stepped out from under the water. Just as Azkular had said, there was a locker standing just beside the door he had come through. Going to it, Porter found an orange jumpsuit with the word "SLAYER" stitched into the fabric in bold, black letters.
This isn't a trial, he thought as he put the prison suit on. They've all already made up their minds. They want me to be a Slayer!
As soon as he zipped it up, the door burst open and Azkular came in. Once the cuffs were on his wrists again, Porter was led out of the shower and back into the hallway. This time the Commander brought him to a spiral staircase, and they began to climb.
"Consider my offer one more time," Azkular said as they wound their way higher and higher. "Tell me where they're coming from and I'll do what I can to keep you alive."
"I've got nothing to tell you," Porter grumbled in reply. He wasn't even tempted to lie anymore. Somehow, he no longer believed that Azkular was telling him the truth. Even if he could somehow divine the location of a Slayer attack, Porter didn't think for a minute that the djinn would actually step up to do anything less than raise the executioner's axe.
Azkular's grip tightened painfully around Porter's shoulder, but then he relaxed just as they reached the top of the staircase. In front of them stood a grand wooden door. A bench, made of much rougher wood, sat against the wall beside it.
"Have it your way, then," Azkular said, forcing Porter to sit down. "You'll wait here until Arch-Mythic Rayalga tells me to bring you in."
"Sarah, get up!" Mrs. Heisen said, giving her daughter's shoulder a not-so-gentle nudge. "The trial's in an hour!"
"Don't wanna," Sarah groaned, rolling over to face the other way. "Still tired!"
"Well, that's what you get for running away in the middle of the night," her mother snapped. "Maybe next time you'll listen to us instead of..."
Sarah wasn't actually half asleep. In fact, she hadn't gotten a wink of sleep since she'd come home earlier that morning. Thoughts of Porter's upcoming trial were enough to make her fur stand on end, and sleep feel as far away as the mansion she'd grown up in. Even the fact that her parents hadn't yelled at her wasn't enough to make her feel better.
"Arch-Mythic Rayalga just arrived, and he wants to speak to you before it begins," her mother insisted, hooking one claw into Sarah's pillow. With a smooth jerk, she yanked it out from under her daughter's head. "You don't keep the Arch-Mythic waiting!"
Even if Sarah had really been asleep, those words would have been enough to rouse her. Arch-Mythic Rayalga, the gryphon who ruled over all the Mythics of the world, wanted to speak to her? Sarah was on her paws before her mother had even finished her sentence.
"Groom yourself and meet us at the door in five minutes," her mother ordered, already on her way out of the room.
"Maybe I still have a chance," she said to herself, hurriedly running her tongue over her fur until it lay flat. "If Rayalga's as wise as everybody says, he won't sentence Porter to death without listening to everything I have to say!"
With that one encouraging thought, Sarah raced down the hallway and found her parents waiting at the door. Her father had groomed himself so thoroughly that his fur and feathers almost seemed to glow.
"Have you seen Misoki?" he asked.
Sarah shook her head. "Didn't she come back last night?"
"No," her father answered, already making for the door. "We have no idea where she is."
For a moment, Sarah felt a pang of guilt in her chest. For a friend she'd been so desperate to see for two straight years, she hadn't been treating Misoki very well. If the werewolf decided not to come back, Sarah wouldn't have blamed her.
"I'm sure she'll be at the trial," her mother said, pushing Sarah towards the door.
Terror mixed with the last shred of hope inside Sarah's chest. This was her last chance. If she failed again, there would be nothing else she could do for Porter. Taking a deep breath, she nodded.
"I'm ready," she said.
"When I open the door," Mr. Heisen said, putting on paw on it, "start walking and don't stop to speak to anyone. The guards will keep everyone away."
Sarah blinked. "Wait, what? Guards?"
In answer, her father pushed the door open— revealing the throng of Mythics just outside. Four burly guards stood between the Heisens and Sarah's admirers, carrying nightsticks.
Holy crap, she thought, taking a step backwards. It was like she was the one being put on trial, and an angry mob had come to harass her. But these Mythics didn't hate her. They loved her, which might have been even worse.
"Just go!" Mrs. Heisen commanded her, cutting off her escape back to her room. "Remember what your dad said."
With trembling knees, Sarah followed her father out of the house. The moment her paws touched the porch, a half dozen flashes went off in her face, stunning her.
"Sarah," one Mythic called to her from between the guards, "How do you feel today? Are you afraid to be in the same room as the Slayer again?"
"Are you eager to see justice be served?" another asked, managing to hold a recording device up to her face. The closest guard elbowed the Mythic away, grabbing the recorder and smashing it on the ground.
"Mr. Heisen," another one said, taking a different approach, "what do you think should happen to the Slayer?"
"Sarah, wait!" a familiar voice hollered.
Sarah paused, and looked out into the crowd to see Mogul pushing his way to the front.
What the heck does he want? she wondered.
"You have to tell them!" he said. "You've got to—" One of the reporters pushed him aside so he could take a picture, and the gorgon had to raise his hand to keep his sunglasses from flying off. "Hey, be careful! You could have killed somebody!"
"What are you talking about?" Sarah called to him as the group left him behind.
"Sarah!" her father snapped. "I told you not to—"
"Shut up a minute, will you, Dad?"
"I know who it is!" Mogul shouted through cupped hands. "They're going to kill him. His only chance is for you to tell them!"
Then he was left behind, his voice covered by the multitude of Mythics asking her questions.
"Back away!" one of the guards roared, finally tiring of the crowd. He was a massive troll with fearsome looking tusks. "Let them through!"
Unsurprisingly, the crowd finally parted to let the Heisens pass. After that, it was easy going on the way to the Judgement Hall, even though thousands of Mythics still lined the streets, cheering whenever they caught sight of Sarah.
They're all so happy! Sarah thought in dismay. She knew they weren't cheering for her, really. They were cheering because they were hoping she'd be the one to send the Slayer to his doom. As morbid as it was, nearly every Mythic in Jellaska Kob Lertan had woken up bright and early to see a boy be killed.
Eventually, they made it to the Judgement Hall. Instead of going in through the big front doors, though, their escorts turned and led the Heisens to the back of the building, where a staff door waited for them. And on the other side...
"Hello, Miss Heisen," said Arch-Mythic Rayalga. "I hope the day finds you well."
Sarah had been raised on stories of the Arch-Mythic, but nothing could have prepared her for what she saw here. Rayalga stood tall and proud, with his scarlet feathers gleaming like rubies even in the weak fluorescent light of the Judgement Hall's break room. His beak came to a clean, razor sharp point beneath two golden eyes that Sarah swore could contained all the secrets of the universe.
"Arch-Mythic Rayalga," Mr. Heisen exclaimed, and lowered himself into a bow. Beside him, Sarah's mother did the same. After taking a second for her brain to catch back up, Sarah bowed as well. "We're honored to be in your presence."
"The honor is all mine," the gryphon said.
Something in the air changed. At least, that was the best way Sarah could describe it. In front of her, Rayalga seemed to grow even more impressive. She couldn't help but notice the way his feathers transitioned perfectly into his golden brown fur. She'd heard of this before. It was said that Rayalga was so powerful that he could manipulate his own sense of authority to influence those around him. That was one of the things that made him such a great leader— but only one of them.
"Thank you all for coming," the Arch-Mythic said. "Allow me to explain what is going to happen. We will bring the Slayer into the courtroom and question him in front of the jury. Then, Sarah, you will be brought to the stand to testify against him."
Sarah gulped, but nodded. "What about Tick?"
"I would have Tick do the same, but it seems he is in no condition to appear in front of the Slayer. That burden will fall solely on you, I'm afraid." He leaned his head in closer. "Can you do it?"
Sarah's stomach did a flip inside of her, but she nodded again. Rayalga obviously thought he knew what she was going to say, just like everybody else in Jellaska Kob Lertan. Problem was, she wasn't sure she could defy the Arch-Mythic himself. As if to bolster reinforce that thought, another wave of his authority washed over her, encouraging her to let go of her arguments and do what was expected of her.
"Good," he said. "If all goes well, then this will be a short trial. I don't expect anyone will step up to defend him. Now, please follow me."
Rayalga turned away from them, and the break room door opened at a nod of his head.
"Don't worry," her father whispered into her ear as he followed the Arch-Mythic. "You'll do fine."
Rayalga led them down the hallway and through a set of double doors that led into a massive room. Rows upon rows of benches were lined up, and they were quickly being filled with Mythics coming in through another set of doors. For a moment, Sarah had to stop and gawk, because the courtroom was easily big enough to hold the entire population of Jellaska Kob Lertan. Thinking back to the last gigantic room she'd been in, the Historians' Tower's gathering hall, she wasn't sure which of the two was bigger.
And everyone there was staring at her...
A short, squat gnome carrying a briefcase came bustling up to Sarah, breaking her free of her trance.
"Miss Heisen," he said, adjusting his glasses. "My name is Atticus. I'll be your lawyer during this trial."
"Pleased to meet you," Sarah said, barely aware of the words coming out of her mouth. She was still overwhelmed by the number of Mythics watching her. It wasn't just a small crowd of them this time, it was the entire city!
"You'll be sitting here," Atticus told her, leading her to a table at the front of the room. He swung his briefcase up onto the table and hopped into the chair. Sarah sat on the floor.
"Your mother and I are going to join the jury," Mr. Heisen said. "Don't be scared. Just answer all of their questions and tell the truth!"
With that, the two older sphinxes walked away, and were instantly absorbed in the sea of nonhuman creatures. Rayalga walked towards the podium at the front of the room, his head held high with dignity.
"Order!" one of the guards hollered, pounding his spear on the floor. The courtroom instantly went silent. "Judge and Arch-Mythic Rayalga presiding. All rise!"
As one, the jury got to their feet, paws, and hooves until Rayalga was in his place behind the podium.
"Be seated," he commanded, and was obeyed. His authority felt even stronger here, as if it were amplified by the number of Mythics. She couldn't imagine anybody not obeying him. "Bring out the Slayer!"
A door on the other side of the courtroom was thrown open, and Sarah got her first look at Porter in two days. He was dressed in a bright orange suit, and his hands were cuffed behind his back as Commander Azkular herded him, none too gently, to the other table in front of Rayalga's podium.
His mind's already made up too, she realized with a sickening lurch. He didn't say bring out the prisoner, or the convict. He said to bring out the Slayer!
Azkular sat Porter down behind the table, never once unchaining his hands, and Porter immediately slumped forward, like has exhausted. Azkular immediately grabbed him by his hair and forced him to look at the Arch-Mythic. The sight made Sarah's blood boil so much that she had to bite her tongue to keep from yelling at the djinn.
Porter finally turned to look at her, and in his eyes Sarah could see... hopelessness. Then, before she had a chance to say anything, he looked down at the table again. Sarah stared at him, stunned, for a few seconds, and then glared at the djinn.
What did you do to him? she thought, her anger rising even more. I swear, if you've hurt him, I'm going to... to...
"Bring the Slayer to the stand," Rayalga ordered.
Once again, Azkular hoisted Porter to his feet and led him to the box next to the Arch-Mythic's.
"What is your name?" the gryphon asked.
"Porter," the young man answered without looking up at him.
"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"
What a stupid question, Sarah thought. Porter'll tell the truth, but they'll all think he's lying anyway.
Porter was silent for a few long, tense seconds before he finally answered, "Yeah."
"Then let us begin," Rayalga nodded to Azkular, who crossed his arms behind his back and came to stand in front of the boy.
"Porter," he said, "you have been charged with the crime of being a Slayer. How do you plead?"
Porter shook his head. "I don't know."
A pit formed in Sarah's stomach. He knows...
"What do you mean, you don't know?" Azkular demanded.
"I don't know if I'm a Slayer or not," Porter answered. "You keep telling me I am, but Sarah told me I'm not. But I... I might be."
Excited mutterings broke out in the jury, and it took Rayalga's direct command to settle them down again.
Sarah's heart started to beat faster. What was he doing? That was exactly what everyone wanted to hear! He had to deny the charges, fight for his innocence. If he even hinted to the possibility that he was a Slayer, the jury would eat him alive.
"Explain what you mean," Azkular said.
"I..." Porter put his hand on the side of his head. "I have amnesia. I woke up in the forest a few weeks ago, but I can't remember anything from before that."
"Then how did you manage to make it to Jellaska Kob Lertan?"
"Sarah brought me here."
Sarah's face turned a shade paler, and she had to remind herself that nobody in the Sanctuary blamed her for Porter getting in. Then again, when he put it like that, it kinda sounded like a conspiracy.
Azkular began to pace in front of Porter's box. "And how would a sixteen year old sphinx, who had never once set paw out of her childhood home, know the location of a hidden Sanctuary?"
"An elf named Lowatai gave us directions," Porter answered.
"Lowatai Elan of the Ragga elves?"
"We have an ambassador from the Ragga elves here today," Azkular said, looking up at Rayalga. "Your honor, I would like to bring Vesper to the stand."
"Granted," the Arch-Mythic answered.
Azkular grabbed Porter and brought him back to his table while an elf clad in a flowing white cloak came to take his place in front of the jury. Sarah's breath caught when she recognized Vesper's face, and the haughty expression he was wearing. He looked down his nose at the assorted Mythics, as if waiting for them to thank him for coming.
You rotten, filthy, good for nothing liar, Sarah fumed as he swept his cloak back and sat in the chair. This is all your fault!
"What is your name?" Azkular asked.
"Vesper of the Ragga elf tribe," he answered. He spoke in Elvish, but a translation of his words appeared on the wall behind him.
"Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"
Vesper gave a solemn nod. "I do."
"Were you with your brethren the night Porter and Sarah came into your camp?"
"I was," Vesper answered, and then looked dramatically up at the ceiling, "though I wish I hadn't been. Never before have I seen such terror in the hearts of my brothers and sisters." He pointed accusingly at Porter. "I could tell that boy was a Slayer the moment I laid eyes on him. He demanded food, water, and shelter, and threatened us if we did not comply."
"Drama queen," Sarah muttered under her breath. How could anybody take him seriously?
"And did you give it to him?" Azkular asked.
"Not I," Vesper answered with a firm shake of his head. "But our leader, Lowatai Elan, did. She had always been a sympathetic soul, even when... I hesitate to say it, but sometimes her kindness borders on foolishness."
He's trying to make her look bad too, Sarah realized. Is that his plan? Embarrass Lowatai so much that she had to step down as leader?
"It wasn't long before he found out that we had a sword made of Kalion metal in our possession," Vesper went on. "It was our most precious treasure. So, naturally, he demanded that it be given to him."
It sounds like he's writing his own soap opera!
"I did my best to keep the Slayer from taking it," Vesper said, making fist and pounding it on the stand. "But even though I defeated him quite easily—"
Sarah snorted, which drew a few looks her way.
"... he still managed to get away with it. And, he took the sphinx away with him, though I would have personally escorted her to the gates of Jellaska Kob Lertan if I'd had the chance."
He looked directly at Sarah now, putting on a mask of regret, but the sphinx could plainly see the venom in his eyes. She glared back at him just as defiantly, and the elf immediately looked back at Azkular.
"I blame myself," he lamented. "If I had just had the courage to defy Lowatai, perhaps none of this—"
A startled gasp echoed through the jury, and every head turned as one to see who had dared to interrupt Porter's trial. A single figure stood up from the back row, its face obscured by a white hood.
"Who are you, and why have you interrupted the witness?" Rayalga demanded, flaring his wings angrily.
The interloper lowered its hood, letting long golden hair fall around its shoulders. When she recognized the elf's face, Sarah's heart leaped for joy.
"Lowatai!" Commander Azkular exclaimed, taking a step backwards in shock. Behind him, Vesper had turned a ghostly pale.
"I am Lowatai Elan," she answered, looking Rayalga directly in the eye, "leader of the Ragga elves. This one," she pointed at Vesper, "is a traitor, and he represents neither me nor my people."
A smile spread across Sarah's face. If they wouldn't listen to her, then Lowatai would beat some common sense into their skulls!
"Lowatai Elan," Rayalga said after a moment's consideration, "please come to the stand."
"That's not necessary!" Vesper protested, grabbing hold of the stand as if it were a life preserver. "I've told you everything you need to know!"
"You may return to your seat," the Arch-Mythic instructed.
Even with his ego inflating his head to ten times its size, Vesper couldn't refuse a direct order from the Arch-Mythic. The elf stood up, his face red with rage and his back as stiff as a board, and stepped down from the box. Lowatai passed him without so much as a glance, and took his place.
"What is your name?" Rayalga asked.
"Lowatai Elan," the oracle answered.
"Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"
She spoke with fluent English, unlike Vesper.
"Can you describe the night when Porter and Sarah found you?" Azkular asked. He held his hands behind his back, and they were... fidgeting.
He actually looks nervous, Sarah realized. He sounded like it, too. He was speaking a little faster now than he was before, as if he wanted to get Lowatai out of the stand as quickly as possible. Interesting...
"Porter and Sarah had been travelling all day," she explained. "Porter was injured, and they were both exhausted. It was a work of destiny that they happened across our camp."
Suddenly, the pit formed in Sarah's stomach again, and her claws came out to scratch the floor beneath her. Was Lowatai really going to bring up that nonsense here, now?
"Both of them were perfectly polite," Lowatai went on. "They even offered to leave when Vesper demanded I throw them out. But I would not let two lost and weary travelers ignore our hospitality. I welcomed them into our camp, and healed Porter's wound."
A few mutterings came from the jury, but this ti e Rayalga didn't bother to silence them.
"Can you tell me how Porter came to possess your Kalion sword?" Azkular asked.
"I gave it to him," Lowatai answered, simply. "I knew that he and Sarah would face danger on their way to the Sanctuary, so I gave him our greatest weapon so that he could defend them both."
"And you gave them directions to the mountain?"
Lowatai nodded. "I did."
Azkular gave the elf a long, hard stare.
What's he thinking? Sarah wondered. This was good, though. Lowatai was telling everybody what they needed to hear. Maybe, just maybe, if Sarah did the same thing when she was called up, she'd be able to save Porter.
Finally, Azkular spoke. "I was under the impression that an oracle could look into someone's heart and see their true nature. Weren't you aware that Porter is a Slayer?"
"It is true," Lowatai replied, "I looked into Porter's soul and saw who he truly was. There was nothing of a Slayer in Porter's heart, only in his past."
Sarah turned her head just in time to see Porter's head shoot up and look at the elf in horror.
No, no, no! Sarah thought, looking back up at the stand. What are you doing? We're supposed to convince everyone that he's not a Slayer!
"Explain what you mean by that," Azkular said.
"I mean that Porter had been a Slayer in the past, but the night he came into my camp it was like his soul had been washed clean of that evil."
Azkular was quiet for a few seconds, and then he nodded. "No more questions. You may return to your seat."
Lowatai didn't move. "I have looked into your heart many times, Azkular."
The djinn froze, like his fiery blood had been turned to ice.
"Do what you know is right," Lowatai said, finally rising from her seat. "Do it for me."
Azkular didn't say anything as the oracle returned to her seat in the back of the room. Sarah found herself looking between Azkular and Lowatai.
"What the heck," she whispered, "was that about?"
Azkular coughed into his fist and turned back to the Arch-Mythic. "Your honor, I request that Sarah Heisen be brought to the stand."
"Granted," the Arch-Mythic agreed.
NEXT TIME: Here it comes... whatever Sarah says up there will decide whether Porter lives or dies. Can she save her best friend? Or will she have to live knowing she's the one who condemned him?