Chapter Thirty Nine
A soft hand touched Porter's cheek.
"S- Sarah?" he mumbled.
The young man lay on his back with his eyes closed. His entire body felt numb, except for the part of his face where the hand was touching him.
"No," a familiar voice responded. "I am not the sphinx. Open your eyes, Porter."
Porter's eyelids twitched and then rose, and the first thing he saw was the soft, silver light that filled the forest. Brighter than the moon, but not difficult to look at.
The next thing he saw was the elf kneeling over him.
"Lowatai!" he exclaimed.
"Yes," she said, pulling her hand away from his cheek. There was a concerned look in her eyes. "Do not be afraid. You are among friends."
As soon as her hand left his flesh, exhaustion washed over Porter again. With some effort, he managed to turn his head to the side, and saw that they weren't alone. The other Ragga Elves, clad in their milk-white cloaks, were gathered around them. The trees had bent over to weave their strange nest-like huts again.
"How did you find me?" he asked, looking back up at their leader. His eyelids felt heavy, and he was having trouble keeping them open.
"I have been trying to find you ever since the trial ended and the Slayers attacked," Lowatai answered. "But Azkular's efforts not to be detected by the Slayers made it difficult for us to track you as well."
Porter struggled to put a hand underneath him and hoist himself up, but weariness caused him to collapse onto his back again. Lowatai closed her eyes and shook her head.
"Azkular knows that his djinnfire is dangerous for mortals," she sighed. "I thought he would have better sense than to use it on you."
"He said it was going to keep me from having to sleep," Porter groaned.
A grim look came over Lowatai's face. "It did, but it also kept your body from producing its own energy. When it went out, you became so exhausted that you almost died."
When it went out. He remembered it now. A few minutes after being discovered by the Slayers, the fire in Porter's stomach had disappeared, and he'd collapsed. The young man's head spun, and he realized for the first time how hungry he was when his stomach growled.
"You will need at least a day to recover," Lowatai said. "And plenty of food and water."
Porter tried to raise his head to look at her again. "I can't lay here for an entire day! I have to find Sarah!"
Lowatai shook her head. "I have had scouts searching the area for her for hours, but none of them have found her. Do you know where she is?"
Porter was about to answer, but suddenly his mouth stopped working. Darkness clouded his vision, and he realized he was about to pass out again.
"Sarah... taken..." he managed to say. "Yin potion..."
Lowatai held out a hand and placed her fingers on Porter's brow, making him close his eyes.
"Don't worry about it tonight. For now, just rest."
Porter didn't want to sleep, though. Every minute he stayed here was one another minute Sarah had to be alone with the Other Porter. But Lowatai was right, he was too tired to do anything. And so, he reluctantly let sleep come over him again.
The Master Slayer descended the steps into the dark, cold tunnels of Reaper's Wait. The catacombs beneath Red Castle were vast, a maze that anyone could easily become lost in if they didn't know the way. Mortoph knew the way, though. There were few places on earth that he was more familiar with.
After all, this was where he had been born.
Behind him, he dragged the djinn from the Sanctuary, bound head to toe in chains. It was barely recognizable under the bumps, bruises, and cuts that covered its entire body, but those would be gone before long. Given a few months, even its missing leg would grow back. The djinn's natural healing powers were exactly the reason Mortoph was determined to add it to his growing army of the Repurposed.
Cages lined the walls on every side of him, and Mortoph made sure to look into as many of them as he could. The miserable monsters held within were used to seeing him, but the djinn was another matter. Just as he'd hoped, many of them gasped in shock when they saw it. They recognized Jellaska Kob Lertan's chief guardian, and that only further lowered their spirits. Made them more afraid.
The journey to the bottom of Reaper's Wait was a long one, but one that Mortoph enjoyed. The stench of fear and hopelessness was so strong here, it tantalized his nostrils with every breath. Down here, there was no sunlight, no freedom, no hope. Only hunger, fear, death, and Mortoph.
At last, the final cell loomed in front of him. The thick iron door was twenty feet tall and ten feet wide. Two Slayers stood at attention in front of it, the only two guards he bothered to post in the entire prison. They saluted him when he passed by, and shivered when they thought he wasn't looking. With one strong hand, the Master Slayer opened the gigantic cell door and threw the djinn inside. Immediately, the enchanted chains came to life and wrapped themselves around the fiery blooded creature until it hung from the wall in a cocoon of cold metal.
It could stay there for a few days until Mortoph had time to come back and finish the process. The Repurposement spell was one he didn't care to share with his men, and he only performed it when he was confident there were no spying little maggots to see him. The djinn's eyes had turned black and red just like all the others, but Porter's interruption had caused it to keep control of its own mind. That didn't matter, though. It wouldn't take much more effort for Mortoph to finish the job.
"What about the other matter I've asked you to look into?" he asked as he closed the cell door.
One of the guards saluted him again, and nodded to the cell door closest to the djinn's. It was much smaller, but the door stood ajar, which could only mean one thing...
"The werewolf had not yet returned," the guard said, confirming what Mortoph was thinking.
Mortoph glared at the door for a few seconds, and then stepped forward and threw it open to see for himself. Just like the guard had said, it was completely empty. When he turned around again, both guards cowered in fear.
"We're sorry, sir," the other one said. "There's no way we—"
"Shut up, you cowardly piece of filth!" the Master Slayer growled, and stalked back the way he'd come.
Misoki had defied him again. He had always known she would, and he'd done a lot to postpone it. Still, the werewolf's spirit was wild, and there was no controlling it. There was only one thing left to do.
"Fetch me Dominic Vega," he said to the first Slayer he saw once emerging into Red Castle again. "Tell him to meet me in my office."
The sounds of celebration could be heard through every hallway in the castle. As always after the Slayers won a great victory, there came several days of feasting and merrymaking. It was their reward for further cleansing the world of the monstrous scum that threatened it, and Mortoph was willing to let them have it even if he never joined in.
A few minutes later, once he was seated behind the desk in his office, there came a knock on the door and his second-in-command entered. His cheeks were flushed from all the alcohol he'd been drinking, but the skilled warrior still stood tall and walked without stumbling.
"You summoned me, Master?" he asked.
"Yes," he replied with a nod of his head. "I have a special mission for you."
Mortoph could tell Vega was disappointed. He had been enjoying the celebration, and would be reluctant to go back into the field again so soon.
"This is very important," Mortoph said. "A mission I can trust only you with."
This caught Vega's attention, and he leaned forward with interest.
"There was a werewolf inside the mountain we destroyed. I don't know how, but it managed to learn some very valuable information about the Slayers. If the monsters were to learn what it knows, the damage would be catastrophic."
A grin slowly spread across Vega's face. "And you want me to track it down and kill it before it has the chance to tell on us."
Mortoph nodded again. "Kill it, and anything else that might be with it. Anything and anyone. Do you accept?"
Vega rose to his feet, and was already heading for the door.
"You know I do, Master. After what you did for me, you know I'll accept any mission you give me."
The door closed behind him, and Mortoph let out a sigh of resignation. It was time to start over.
It was still night when Porter's eyes opened again. His thoughts were thick with grogginess, but it didn't take long to remember everything that had happened. The Ragga Elves were milling about the campsite, some giving him passing glances as they worked. Putting a hand on the ground, he managed to push himself into a sitting position.
"How do you feel?" Lowatai asked, and Porter turned to see her sitting next to him.
"Better," he grunted, shaking his head to clear it. His stomach growled, and he put a hand on it. "Hungry."
"You've been more than a day without food," Lowatai concurred, and motioned for one of her elves to bring a basket of fruit over. Porter thanked her and pulled a ripe, bright green apple out.
"Now that you're rested," Lowatai said while he chewed on it, "perhaps you can tell me in greater detail what happened to Sarah."
A pit formed in Porter's stomach, and he suddenly didn't feel like finishing the apple. Setting it on the ground, he tried to make himself look Lowatai in the eye, but failed.
"I..." he said, but the words refused to leave his mouth.
After a moment, Lowatai nodded her understanding and stood up. "Come, take a walk with me," she said gently.
Porter got to his feet, but stopped when she held out her hand. "Take the apple, Porter. You need it."
"Oh, right," Porter said, picking it back up. When the elf didn't look away, he took another bite and swallowed it.
Lowatai turned and walked away, her white robes glistening in the soft light of the lanterns, and Porter followed. They left the camp behind, and didn't stop until the lights and noises were only whispers in the night.
"Now," she said, sitting down on a stump, "tell me what happened."
Porter closed his eyes and sat down across from her. "It was Vesper," he said, forcing the words to come out. "After Sarah and I escaped the cell, he separated us and used something called a Yin Potion on me. After that, the Other Porter caught Sarah and took her away."
For a long, tense minute, Lowatai didn't say anything, but the anger in her eyes was unmistakable. Porter pressed himself against the tree, wishing he could sink into it. He should have known better than to say something like that about her own clansmen.
"Vesper, vintalla fa schur," she spat, putting a hand to her brow in disgust.
"I- I'm sorry," Porter stammered.
"I'm not angry with you," she said. "I'm ashamed of him. I thought lying about you in court was the extent of his treachery, but I see now I was wrong."
She reached out and put a hand on Porter's shoulder. "I'm the one who should be apologizing to you. I am the leader of this clan. If I had acted against him, like a leader should, this could all have been avoided."
Her touch was warm on Porter's skin, even through his shirt, and somewhat comforting.
"The other me killed him," he whispered. "He gave it a sword, and it stabbed him with it."
When Lowatai answered, her voice was as hard and cold as ice. "Then he has gotten what he deserved."
Porter couldn't help but shiver, and tried redirect the conversation. "The Other Porter said if I ever wanted to see Sarah again, I had to come to where it all began. That's why I was with Azkular. He said if I helped him kill Drake Mortoph, the Slayers' records would help me figure out where that was."
Lowatai's eyes flashed with anger again. "That foolish djinn is stubborn beyond reason. He should know by now that killing that... thing is not so easily accomplished."
"I beat him once," Porter said, unsure if she was already aware of the fact or not. "Azkular touched me, said something about releasing a curse, and then..."
Not knowing any other way to make his point, Porter took hold of the powers he'd just recently discovered and caused a cold breeze to blow past them. To his surprise, Lowatai didn't seem taken aback by this at all.
"So, you've learned how to use your magic again," she mused.
Porter blinked. "Again?" he echoed.
"Magic does not come naturally to humans like it does Mythics," the oracle explained. "It has to be learned. Most Slayers know at least one spell. It seems you were trained to be able to control the wind."
"But if I always knew, then why couldn't I do it before?"
"You could, you just had no reason to do so. Just like when you discovered your combat training by fighting Vesper. The moment you needed your magic, your subconscious mind took control and made it happen."
Wow, Porter thought, making another gust of wind blow past them. When Lowatai pulled her cloak a little tighter around herself, he stopped.
"Sorry," he said, his face turning a shade pinker.
Neither of them said anything for a while. Finally, when Lowatai spoke again, Porter caught an edge of fear in her voice.
"And what of Azkular? What happened to him?"
Porter gritted his teeth and clenched his fist. "The Slayers got him," he whispered.
"Oh," the elf moaned, and swayed on her stump. Porter jumped up, thinking she was about to faint, but she waved him away. "This is not good. This is the last thing we need right now."
"Why?" Porter asked, taking a step back. "What else is going on?"
Lowatai fixed her eyes on Porter's and he almost took another step back when he saw the storm of emotions behind them.
"The Slayers did more than destroy a Sanctuary at Jellaska Kob Lertan," she said, her voice quivering. "They have finally broken our leader."
"The gryphon?" Porter asked.
Lowatai nodded. "Arch-Mythic Rayalga took the destruction of the mountain worse than anybody else. It has... driven him mad."
Porter only knew the Arch-Mythic from what he'd seen during his trial, but even his pulse spiked when he heard this.
"He has decided that his people have suffered too long," she went on. "He's bringing all the Mythics together. Amassing an army."
"That's good, though, right?" Porter asked. "Taking down the Slayers will—"
"He is not just targeting the Slayers," Lowatai interrupted him. "The Arch-Mythic is beyond reason. He no longer sees the difference between the Slayers and..."
"And the rest of the human race," Porter breathed in shock. Suddenly, the full weight of the situation pressed down on him. If the most powerful Mythic in the world declared war on all of humanity, the Slayers wouldn't be the only ones to feel his wrath. Innocent civilians would get caught in the crossfire too. No, not the crossfire. They would be his primary targets.
"What do we do?" he asked, standing up again.
"Both Rayalga and the Slayers have to be stopped," Lowatai said. "And to do that, we have to get you and Sarah together again."
Porter looked up at her in surprise. "What do we have to do with that?"
Lowatai fixed him with a stare more intense than any he had thought her capable of. "Because the two of you are the key to ending this war."
Porter sat, staring at her, stunned, for almost a full minute. Then he shook his head in disbelief. "I... don't think I understand."
Lowatai leaned forward and put her hand on his knee. "Do you remember what I said when I cast my runes for you and Sarah?"
Porter nodded. "You said we it was our destiny to change things and that—" He stopped talking, finally realizing what he was saying. He held up his hand. "But I thought you meant that... I guess I didn't know what you meant, but I didn't think it was about ending this whole war!"
"Why not?" Lowatai asked gently, leaning in even closer. "The two of you bridge the gap between the humans and the Mythics. You can fight, and Sarah knows more than she's let on. The two of you together can finally bring peace between our races."
"But the Slayers," Porter argued. "And Mortoph! And now Rayalga, too!"
Lowatai reached out to touch him again, but he scooted away from her. "This is insane. You can't tell me that I'm supposed to do something like that all by myself!"
"No!" Lowatai shot back. "Not by yourself. With Sarah."
"Because that's so much better," Porter groaned, hanging his head in frustration.
Lowatai was quiet for a second. "You doubt me, Porter."
"No, no, it's not that," Porter said, shaking his head. "I just—"
"I can see it in your eyes," Lowatai cut him off. She sighed. "But you have to accept your place in things. You and Sarah both. If you don't... one way or another, things are drawing to a close. How the war ends depends on what you two decide to do."
Goosebumps rose up on Porter's arms as the elf's words echoed in his mind. She wasn't kidding, he realized. Whatever it was she had foreseen, the war couldn't continue for much longer. Once the Mythics revealed themselves, things would only escalate higher and higher until one side or the other was completely destroyed.
"What are we supposed to do?" he asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.
"I don't know," Lowatai admitted, and held up her palm. "But the first thing you have to do is find Sarah."
"Azkular said the Slayers' records would tell me where the Other Porter took her," Porter said. "I don't know how to get there, though."
"Come here," the elf said, softly. Hesitantly, Porter got up and knelt down in front of her. "There is a way I can find out."
"How?" Porter asked.
In answer, Lowatai put her palm on his forehead. Porter blinked in surprise, but before he could question her, everything went dark.
NEXT TIME: Things are only getting worse and worse. Lowatai's been working behind the scenes this entire time, and Porter might not have it in him to do what she's asking. Whatever she's doing now, hopefully it'll be enough to convince him.