A cool breeze wafted through the forest, rustling the branches Commander Azkular's tree as he glared down at the Slayer's camp like a hawk.
The sight made his fiery blood run cold.
There were thousands of them, he realized now. When the dwarf had reported to him, he had hoped without really hoping that they were merely passing by, on their way to attack another target. As horrible as it was to wish the Slayers' wrath upon another Mythic, his priority was keeping Jellaska Kob Lertan safe. Mythics living outside the underground city weren't his concern.
But that hope had proven to be false, as he'd known it would. A hundred Slayers, or even a thousand, could have passed by the Sanctuary with another purpose in mind. But five thousand of them, all camped less than half a mile away from the mountain... Azkular could only come to one conclusion.
The djinn growled, trying to smother his fear with anger. How dare this scum come here, to his Sanctuary? It didn't matter how infuriated he became, though— Azkular had only fifty Mythic soldiers to take on an army of five thousand Slayers.
Moving with feet so light that they didn't even shake the branch, he turned and stalked his way back to the trunk, and jumped down to rejoin his men.
"Commander?" the sasquatch asked. He didn't know if the situation was as bad as they'd feared. Azkular hated having to be the one to break the bad news.
"They've found the Sanctuary," he answered through gritted teeth, "and it's up to us to stop them."
A murmur of fear ran through his soldiers, but nobody protested. For that, he was immensely proud of them.
"There are over five thousand of them," he said, the truth weighing down his soul with every word. "We can't hope to defeat them. All we can do is get their attention, and hope we can lead them away from the Sanctuary."
Nobody responded to this, because there was nothing to say. Even if every one of his loyal soldiers could kill five Slayers, they would barely put a dent into their attack force. Attack them, and then run the other way. That was their only hope.
And there was no more point in thinking about it.
Porter refused to look at Sarah the entire time they were being taken to the cell.
She lied to me, he thought. She's been lying to me all along. She even admitted it, herself.
And if she'd been lying, then that meant Other Porter had been telling the truth. Porter didn't know which thought made him feel sicker.
The sphinx kept pace beside him, walking awkwardly because of the shackles around her legs. Behind them, five Mythics were prodding them with their weapons, ordering them to move faster. Sarah stepped on a damp section of stone, and was sent crashing onto her side.
"Get up!" the guard demanded, looking like he was about to start beating her if she took half a second longer than he thought she should. Holding back a sob, Sarah struggled to get back to her paws until the guard finally grabbed her by her wing and pulled her upright. When his large, scaly hand wrapped around her sensitive feathers, Sarah let out a short cry of pain.
And still, Porter didn't look at her.
"Get going," the guard said, giving her a solid kick in the rear. "He sneered at them. "If you two're really in love, then you're gonna love sharing the same cell."
Any other time, Porter might have been surprised that they were allowing them to be in the same cell. Perhaps they meant it as an insult, but who knew what kinds of trouble putting them together could cause? Then again, he thought with a sigh, perhaps they realized that neither of them had any fight left. They had lost, and all they could do now was accept it and wait for...
And wait for the death sentence.
A pit formed in Porter's stomach. That was what they had planned for him all along, wasn't it? Now that Sarah had been named his accomplice, she couldn't expect anything better.
"It's what she deserves," Other Porter whispered in his ear. "And you too, being the idiot you are."
Porter didn't bother replying as his captors unlocked the cell door, revealing the same tiny room he'd spent the past two days in. There had barely been enough room for him in there. How did they expect two people to fit?
"It's because they're not expecting you to be in there long."
The guards paused for a few seconds to take the chains off of them, and then kicked them both into the cell. Porter went in first, and Sarah fell on top of him just before the door slammed shut, leaving them in darkness. Porter didn't say a word. He just wriggled his way out from under the sphinx and sat cross-legged, facing the wall.
They say in silence for several minutes— silence, except for Sarah's crying.
You should comfort her, Porter's kinder side urged him, but he ignored it. At the moment, his bitterness was just too strong.
"Porter," she finally whispered.
Porter didn't respond.
"Porter, I'm sorry," she whimpered, sounding like she was on the verge of breaking down completely. "I didn't mean for this to happen. Please, forgive me."
Porter meant to keep ignoring her, but the words rose to his mouth unbidden.
"How can I do that?" he asked, his own voice cracking. "Everything you've ever told me was a lie."
"Not everything," Sarah replied. "But... yeah, most of it. I thought I was doing the right thing."
"You knew I was a Slayer all along, but you refused to tell me. How is that the right thing to do?"
He heard Sarah move around behind him, and felt the delicate touch of her wing on his shoulder.
He shrugged it off.
"I thought... I thought if I told you, you might start to remember. If that happened, you might try to kill me again."
Despite himself, Porter shivered. Even now, he didn't want Sarah to get hurt. He wasn't sure what he wanted now, but it definitely wasn't that.
"Besides," she went on, still sounding like she was about to cry, "you hated the Slayers. I knew if I told you the truth, it would break your heart."
"We wouldn't be in this mess if you had."
"I know..." Sarah's breathing became heavy for a few seconds, and he could tell she was fighting to keep herself under control. "I know. This is all my fault. Porter, I'm sorry."
The young man said nothing, and they fell into silence once again.
"The offer still stands," Other Porter said. "We don't have to die here."
"Porter?" Sarah spoke up again, interrupting Other Porter without realizing it. "Do you hate me?"
With a savage battle cry, Azkular turned and ran for the Slayer's camp. He flexed his hands, and two spurts of blue flames erupted from his palms. They solidified into a pair of twin steel knives, their metal as blue as they fire they were created from, and he clasped his fists around them just as he broke into the clearing where the Slayers were waiting.
The first Slayer, who was standing guard at the edge of camp, reacted sluggishly and swung his sword too late. Azkular ducked underneath it, the weapon moving far too slowly to be any threat to him, and then rammed one of his knives into the Slayer's chest. He ripped it out again and continued his charge without even glancing at the dying Slayer.
The second Slayer had more time to prepare, and thrust a spear at Azkular as the djinn approached. Azkular swung both his knives at once, the heat of the blades slicing twice through the weapon, and it fell to pieces. Azkular lashed out a second time, cutting deep into the Slayer. The wound wouldn't kill him immediately, but he knew he had damaged enough major arteries that he would bleed to death before too long. This one, too, he left behind.
Behind him, Azkular could hear his soldiers doing the same as him. None of them could move with the same speed and agility he did, but they fought bravely all the same. He really was proud of them, but he didn't have time to dwell on it. After finishing off his third Slayer, Azkular finally caught sight of his primary target.
The Master Slayer was standing in the midst of the battle, as tall and imposing as the last time Azkular had seen him. In his hands was a long, thin blade that was almost as tall as he was. Looking at him, Azkular felt his fire burn hotter than ever, and he ran for him, screaming with rage.
Sarah waited for Porter to respond, not even daring to breathe. In the darkness of the cell, she could barely see him sitting with his back to her. With his weak human eyes, she bet he couldn't even see the wall in front of him.
"I could never hate you," he whispered at last. "But I can't trust you."
Sarah closed her eyes, and a tear ran down her cheek. Without another word, she turned and faced the opposite way. She knew he was staying calm so as not to hurt her feelings, but his anger would have been easier to cope with. She deserved for him to be mad at her. What she didn't deserve was a friend who could find out she had lied to him since the day they met, and still care enough not to make the situation worse.
"I'm sorry," she said again. "I know that doesn't make things better, but I didn't mean for any of this to happen."
Porter didn't reply.
"And I was telling the truth back in the courtroom. I didn't realize it until right then, but I really do love you. I..." She hesitated. "I don't know if we could make it work, or if you even want to, but you're the only person I've ever felt this way for. If you could just forgive me, it would mean the world to me."
She could hear Porter beginning to breathe heavily on his side of the room, and she realized he was fighting just as hard as she was to keep his composure.
"Porter, if you don't want anything else to do with me, then I understand. But I can promise you one thing: I will never, ever lie to you again."
Sarah waited for him to say something, silently begging for the young man to speak up. For several long minutes, the silence stretched between them.
He does hate me, she thought, her heart sinking even lower into her stomach. She had lost everything today. Her parents, her freedom, her people... if she lost Porter too, she didn't know what she was going to do.
"It doesn't matter anyway," Porter said, surprising her.
"Huh?" she asked, craning her head around to look. "Why not?"
Porter kept staring at the wall. "Because they're going to kill both of us."
The Master Slayer saw Azkular coming long before he reached him, and drew his sword back behind his head. Azkular jumped into the air just as Mortoph swung, performing a cartwheel over the blade swinging his own weapon. Mortoph spun with the momentum of his swing, and parried the attack.
"I won't let you destroy the Sanctuary," Azkular growled, dodging a second attack. "Not this time!"
In his anger, Azkular's eyes glowed blue, and he vaulted upwards just as Mortoph lunged at him, trying to drive his sword through the djinn's chest. Azkular landed atop the blade, balancing like an acrobat. Before the Master Slayer could react, he scissored his blades around Mortoph's throat.
"This," he spat, "is for all the Mythics you've killed!"
Then drew his knives back, slicing cleanly through Mortoph's neck, and then back flipped off the Slayer's sword, landing just in time to see the Master Slayer...
Crumble into dust.
"What?" he exclaimed, and spun around to see the rest of his soldiers experiencing similar results. Every Slayer they killed turned into a lifeless pile of dirt. Panic took hold of Azkular's mind.
"Golems!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. "Everyone, back to the mount—"
Before he could finish his order, he felt the cold, sharp sensation of a dagger sliding into his back. Reacting with trained instincts, he lunged forward, tearing the blade out of his body, and somersaulted as he turned to face... nothing. There was nobody there.
Then, the air in front of him shimmered, and a single Slayer materialized. He was wearing the standard Slayer's coat, and everything but his black and red eyes were covered by bandages. The djinn wasn't fooled, though. He could tell exactly what the Slayer was the moment he appeared before him.
Porter pounded his fist against the cell wall.
"They declared us both guilty, and now they're going to give us the death sentence!"
His fist throbbed with pain, but he ignored it and leaned his forehead against the wall.
"I've been trying to protect you all this time," he moaned, "all for nothing."
"Don't say that!" the sphinx snapped, getting to her paws behind him. "This isn't over, not by a long shot!"
"What else can we do?" Porter shot back. "We're both criminals now. Even if we break out, where do we go? We'll have both the Slayers and the Mythics after us. Face it, Sarah, it's over!"
Sarah was quiet for a few seconds, and then Porter heard her mutter something under her breath. A moment later, her arms, her human arms, snaked around his neck. She hugged him, and put her cheek against the back of his head.
"Don't talk like that," she said, her voice barely a whisper. "Please. You're the optimistic one. You're the one who always sees the good in things. Please, don't give up."
"Why not?" he asked, still refusing to move. Her body was warm, pressed against his like it was, but he ignored it.
"Because," she said, "if you give up, then that means it really is over."
The human-shaped sphinx took a moment to choke back a sob, and her grip around his neck tightened.
"If you can keep going, then I know I can too," she said. "But if you stop, I... I don't know what'll happen."
Such a small wound wouldn't kill Azkular. Even as he stood facing the dragon, he could feel his flames licking the injury, healing it.
"What are you doing?" he asked, raising his knives defensively. The dragon made no move to attack him yet, but he wasn't going to be careless. The creature's eyes... they were unnatural. He found he couldn't look at them for more than a few seconds.
The dragon didn't reply. It stood there for a few more seconds, its eyes never leaving him, and then it vanished. The moment it disappeared, Azkular felt the dagger stab him in the back again. Except... it didn't. He couldn't explain exactly how he knew it, but this wound wasn't real. He had felt so much pain in his life that he could instinctively tell that, this time, the knife hadn't even touched him. It was counterfeit pain.
The moment he thought that, the pain vanished.
The dragon appeared by his side, its weapon raised to attack again. Azkular ducked out of the way, and then brought his knife up in a counterattack. He didn't want to hurt the dragon, even if it was working for the Slayers, but his responsibility was to protect the Mythics inside Jellaska Kob Lertan. If that meant incapacitating this dragon, then so be it. When his blade passed straight through his foe's body, though, he realized he had worried in vain. The dragon shimmered and vanished, not even leaving a set of footprints in the dirt.
"It's using illusions," Azkular said to himself, just as another dragon appeared on his other side. He lashed out again at this one, and it vanished as well. Then, a second cut appeared on his arm— and this one was real. With a roar, Azkular kicked in that direction, and was rewarded when his foot connected with something solid. The dragon appeared, and collapsed on the ground.
"Explain yourself!" the djinn shouted, raising his knives to strike.
The dragon still didn't answer. Rolling upright, he faced Azkular and then vanished again. Azkular gripped his knives tighter, trying to anticipate its next move.
Three times, the dragon's knife cut him. Two of those wounds vanished, but one remained. He ground his teeth together. This was bad, and he knew it. If this kept up, even he wouldn't be able to heal all the wounds the dragon inflicted on him. His powers weren't infinite, and when they ran out he would be as mortal as a human. More importantly, every minute he wasted here fighting the dragon was one minute closer to the Slayers getting into Jellaska Kob Lertan. He had to end the fight, and he had to do it quickly.
Scanning the ground around him, Azkular's eyes finally settled on a spot of grass that had been flattened, while all around it was standing up. He hurled his knife in that direction, but it was thrown off course at the last second with a clang!
"Yes!" he grunted, and threw himself towards the flat spot. With a knife in one hand and a fireball in the other, he attacked to kill— Mythic or not. The grass straightened, and he connected only with air.
Suddenly, he was surrounded by more than twenty identical enemies. Twenty dragons, taken human form and dressed in the garb of the Slayers. Azkular immediately threw his fireball at one of them, but it passed straight through and the illusion disappeared. While he had his back turned, the real dragon stabbed him again. Azkular tried to turn and attack back, but his legs buckled underneath him and he collapsed to one knee. His knives fell from unfeeling fingers. Five more wounds appeared, and this time three of them were real. The dragons loomed up around him, the false ones completely indistinguishable from the real ones.
I can't... let it end this way! he thought, breathing heavily as his magic struggled to heal him. Who knew whether the Slayers had made it into the Sanctuary by now or not?
He had to win.
If he didn't, nobody would protect the Sanctuary.
The dragon drove its dagger into his chest.
The world around him began to grow dark, and Azkular realized he was dying. It wasn't a sensation he was unfamiliar with, but it was one he had never gotten used to. As the shadows crept into his vision, they began to fill with images of the past... images he didn't want to see.
Blood running in the streets. The walls were cracking to let the ocean in. Buildings catching fire, only to be extinguished by the flood. Mythics dying, and men in black coats everywhere. And it was all... his... fault...
"No!" he screamed, as new fury erupted inside his heart. Fire exploded from his skin, healing his wounds and giving him strength. He got back to his feet, but didn't bother picking up his weapons. Instead, he drew in a breath, pulling the fires back towards him. And then, looking straight into the eyes of the nearest dragon, not caring whether it was the real one or not, he released the fire in an explosion that turned all the trees within a thirty foot radius into piles of ash.
When the light died, all but one of the dragons had disappeared. The one that remained lay face down in the dirt, unmoving. Its clothes and bandages had been burned away, but Azkular couldn't tell if it was alive or not.
He took a few deep breaths, until he felt he had gotten himself under control, and then turned to see the last golem crumble to dust at the hands of his soldiers. The golems had been so slow, so stupid... and Azkular had been even stupider not to realize he had been tricked.
"The Slayers knew we were coming!" he shouted, and then pointed back toward the mountain. "They're headed for the city. Go back, and defend your families!"
As the Mythics charged back toward the Sanctuary, Azkular looked down at the fallen dragon.
"I'm sorry, brother," he said.
And then he, too, ran for the mountain.
Porter wanted to stay bitter, but he could tell she was telling the truth now. No more lies, she'd said, and he believed her. Slowly, almost without realizing it, he reached up with his right hand and took her wrist. It wasn't an affectionate gesture, it was just to reassure himself that there was someone else there. That he wasn't alone.
"How can you just expect me to forget about this?" he asked. "I trusted you more than anyone else on earth."
"I don't expect you to," she answered, her face still buried in his hair. "I don't want you to. I want you to forgive me, but I don't expect you to trust me."
Finally, Porter lifted his head from against the wall. Sarah drew back, and he turned around to face her. In the dim light, he could just barely make her out on the other side of the cell, and for the first time, he looked at her. Really looked at her.
How had he not noticed how pretty she was until right this moment?
"What do you expect me to do?" he asked. "We're stuck in here until they come get us, and we won't be going anywhere after that."
Sarah reached out and took his hand in hers. "We'll think of something," she promised. "My parents are out there. I don't think they'll let their only daughter be put to death two days after finding out she's still alive."
"Do you think they'll be able to help?"
Sarah sighed and shook her head. "I don't know. We'll figure this out, though, I promise!"
Porter took a moment to look at her again.
"Why did you turn human?" he asked.
Sarah's face turned red, and she looked away.
"Because," she said, hesitantly, "I want you to like looking at me."
Porter wasn't sure how to respond to that. For a minute, they just looked at each other. Then, Sarah yawned.
"You should sleep," Porter said.
"I was up all night," she said, lying down on the floor. "I'm exhausted."
She shifted back into her true form, and curled up with her chin on her paws. Porter nodded, and turned towards the door.
"Get some rest," he told her. "I'll... I'll keep watch."
"Keep watch for what?" Other Porter snorted. "When they come through that door, that's it for you both. You may as well lay down and go to sleep too."
But Porter wouldn't sleep. He had promised to protect Sarah. Liar, lover, whatever she was, he intended to keep that promise. But...
She thinks I'm optimistic, he thought, looking back at the sleeping sphinx. I'm not, though. I'm just naïve. Through everything that's happened, I really believed that everything would turn out fine. That that's just how the world worked.
How could he keep thinking like that now, though? His entire existence had been shattered. Now, he was forced to look and see the world for what it really was. There was a war being waged, even if most people didn't know about it— and he and Sarah had made enemies out of both sides. Two incredibly powerful armies, and no safe place from either of them.
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, Porter thought. It was a gloomy thought, but the one that came next chilled his blood so thoroughly that it nearly stopped his heart.
Maybe it would be better for us if we were dead.
He could make it quick...
He could make it painless...
Wouldn't it be better than waiting for Azkular or Rayalga to come do it?
"After all," he whispered to himself, looking down at his hands, "I'm a Slayer, aren't I?"
Sarah stirred in her sleep and moaned, reacting to the S-word, but didn't wake up. The noise snapped Porter out of the dark, cold hole he'd sank into, and he immediately felt disgusted with himself. How could he think like that? Even now, when everything was lost, he could never stoop so low as to... no, not ever!
Porter clenched his fist so hard that his fingernails cut into his skin, making four small rivers of blood flow down his palm.
"I made a promise," he growled. "And I'm going to keep it."
He didn't know how he was going to keep his promise, but he knew that if there was even the smallest chance he could save Sarah, he would take it. Until then, the only thing that could stop him was death itself.
Before he could dwell overlong on it, though, a deafening BOOM rang out, like the blast of a cannon, and the entire cell shook...
NEXT TIME: Here it comes, guys... here it comes! Will they manage to fight off the Slayers, or will Jellaska Kob Lertan fall just like the Historian's Tower?