Chapter Forty Six
Sarah paused and looked up into trees. Porter was sitting up in the topmost branches of an old oak, his legs dangling over the side of sturdy branch. The sight was enough to make the sphinx dizzy.
"What are you doing up there?" she asked.
"Just thinking," he answered. "Want me to come down?"
Sarah thought for a moment, and then shook her head. "No, I'll join you. Hold on."
Tensing her muscles, Sarah jumped and grabbed the lowest hanging branch, scrabbling with her back paws to pull herself up. She did this again and again, with Porter watching with concern from above, until she finally reached him. Panting from exertion, she spread her wings to help her balance and then laid down, resting her head on Porter's lap.
"I thought cats were supposed to be good at climbing trees," he said, reaching down to scratch her back right between her wings.
"I've merely been investing my talents in other areas," she replied, turning her nose up playfully. She purred and arched her back into his hand.
"Why didn't you just fly up?"
Sarah glanced back at her wings. "Didn't I tell you? A sphinx's wings don't fully develop until they're eighteen years old."
"Hm," Porter grunted. "I don't think you've mentioned that."
"Really?" Sarah gave a big catlike yawn. "Could have sworn I did."
"Are you going to be able to get down again?"
Sarah gave him a haughty look. "Excuse me? Being a gentleman, I expect you to carry me down!"
Porter raised his eyebrow at her, and then burst out laughing.
"Whatever her majesty wishes," he said.
"That's more like it." Leaning up a little, Sarah kissed him. It was another cold day outside, but whenever their lips met Sarah could have sworn it turned to summer.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, looking out over the forest. Behind them, a thin column of smoke rose from the chimney of Droma's invisible cabin. The party had decided to retreat there after escaping from Mortoph, figuring that its cloaking spell would make it as safe a place as any to hide.
That had been a week ago.
"So, what did you come up here to think about?" Sarah asked, breaking the silence.
Porter sighed. "Do you really need to ask?"
A pit formed in Sarah's stomach, and she shook her head. "No, I guess not."
"It's crazy," Porter muttered. "They think we're going to end the war."
The sphinx shivered, not from the cold, and moved to cuddle up even closer to Porter. The revelation had shocked her every bit as much as it had him, even more so when she found out Lowatai had died to give it to him.
"What do we do?" she whispered.
"I don't know, but... well, we have to at least try, don't we?"
"Do we, though?" Sarah finally got up, sitting on her haunches to look at him. "We're together again. That's what's important. You've already done enough. Why do we have to jump right back into the middle of the fighting?"
Porter met her eyes, and she could see the indecision in them. He didn't want to fight any more than she did, and yet...
"Because it's the right thing to do," he answered at last.
Sarah shook her head. "This isn't as black and white as you think, Porter. If Rayalga's really building an army, nobody would blame us for getting out of his way."
Porter didn't answer immediately. Instead, he summoned Flicker and began idly chopping at the twigs in front of him. Watching him, Sarah was reminded of the time, just a few weeks ago, when the sight of him holding a sword would have made her run for the hills. Now, she never felt safer than when he had a weapon in hand. Amazing how drastically things could change in such a short amount of time.
You've done it once, her subconscious nagged at her. Why are you so afraid of trying again?
The answer was a simple one: because the stakes were so much higher this time. She wasn't playing with her own life here, or even just Porter's. The Arch-Mythic was planning on waging war against all of humanity, if Lowatai was to believed. By interfering, she and Porter could end up driving one of their races to extinction.
I wonder which side Porter would fight on? she thought. Not the Slayers', but would he choose to protect his own race against the Mythics?
And if he does, could I stand with him against my people?
"I think you're wrong," Porter finally said, breaking into her thoughts. "It really is black and white."
"What do you mean?"
"This isn't just about us anymore," he answered. "Remember what Lowatai said when she was reading our dice? You're supposed to be the peacemaker."
Sarah shook her head. "So what?"
"So, that means there has to be a way to do this without one side destroying the other."
"That's what war is, Porter."
Porter spread his hands. "Yes, I know that's what war is. But that's not what peace is."
"What are you saying? That the Mythics and the humans kiss and make up? Like, forget everything that's happened between them?"
"See, that's just it!" Porter argued. He was getting more animated now, gesturing with his hands as he spoke. "The humans aren't the ones killing the Mythics off, the Slayers are. Most people don't even know you exist."
Sarah sat up again, catching on to what he was implying. "You're saying that if we could take out the Slayers..."
"There wouldn't be any reason to keep the war going," he finished for her. "We could have peace, real peace, if it weren't for them."
"I..." Sarah paused, unsure of what she wanted to say. Porter's plan sounded good, and she wanted to share his optimism, but it couldn't be that simple. She sighed. "Porter, the Slayers have been doing this since the beginning of history— literally! They're raised from birth to kill Mythics. Even if we focused all our efforts on taking them out, do you know how many Mythics would die in the process? We might win, but..." she looked up at him, and found him smiling. "But you have a plan, don't you?"
Porter chuckled and scratched his head. "I told you, I came up here to think. It's not much of a plan, but, you know..."
Sarah's heart began to pound in her chest. There it was, that hope in his eyes. It made his entire face light up, and... it made him so handsome. So innocent, even after everything he had been through. It was one of the reasons she'd fallen in love with him in the first place.
"Tell me," she said, leaning forward eagerly.
"It's me," he whispered, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Me, Ozzie, and Misty. Mortoph lied to all three of us to make us join him. He murdered our families. He even took away Misty's humanity, Sarah! If he did that to us, how many other Slayers did he do the same thing to? If we can expose him as a liar to the other Slayers..."
This time it was Sarah's turn to finish his sentence. "They might turn against him."
Porter beamed at her and he squeezed her shoulders. "Exactly!"
Sarah couldn't help but smile back. "I like it. They wouldn't all turn against him—"
"— but if enough of them did, it could even out the playing field for the rest of us."
"I think that's what Lowatai wanted us to do," Porter chattered, growing even more excited. "That's why she chose us. I'm the evidence against Mortoph, and you were the one I needed to..."
He stopped, looking away, and gave an awkward cough into his fist.
"You needed to what?" Sarah encouraged him.
"To turn me into who I am now," he finally answered. "That's what Lowatai told me to do, but I couldn't have done it without you. I would have been lost, otherwise."
Sarah smiled and felt her face turn red.
"I didn't do much of anything," she muttered, using a paw to brush a strand of hair out of her face. "I just followed you everywhere. You did all the fighting."
Porter sighed and the smile fell from his face. "I was fighting even before I met you. You're the one who gave me a reason to fight. This whole time, I've been the one following you."
Sarah blinked. When he looked at her like that, she couldn't help but be reminded of the helpless young man she'd found in the middle of the forest. To think that someone as strong as him actually needed her...
She muttered the spell under her breath, and a moment later scooted forward to wrap her human arms around Porter's shoulders. He smiled and hugged her back, pressing her cheek against his.
"We're a team," she agreed. "We both need each other."
"More than a team."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, cherishing their closeness. Sarah didn't know what was going through Porter's mind, but she couldn't banish the nagging thought that they might not have many more chances to do this. Porter was determined to try and stop the war, and she would follow him wherever he went. Nothing was certain. Tomorrow was a hope, not a promise.
She shivered and held him even tighter.
"So," she said, breaking the silence, "how do you plan to expose Mortoph?"
"No idea," he answered, swinging his legs over the open air. "But we'll think of something."
Sarah chuckled. "You mean I'll think of something, and you'll go hit somebody."
Porter shrugged. "That's what we both do best."
Sarah purred in her throat, very feline despite the human form she'd taken, and batted her eyelashes at him. "I think I know something we're both better at than that."
Before he could reply, Sarah had grabbed his head and both hands and mashed her lips against his.
Hours later, the two of them finally climbed down from the tree and started back towards Droma's cabin. The sun was setting, and a frigid wind blew through the forest. Sarah happily took that as an excuse to change back to her true form so her fur could warm her.
"Do you think the others are worried about us?" she asked.
"If Droma were worried, he would have come looking for us," Porter answered. "As for Azkular, I don't think he—"
He froze, his words cutting off midsentence, and he held out a hand to stop Sarah too. She looked up at him, about to ask what was wrong, but the look on his face kept her silent.
Something rustled in the undergrowth to their left, and they both turned to look in that direction. It was getting dark out, and the moon was only a sliver in the sky, leaving the forest a maze of crisscrossing shadows.
"Is it him?" she whispered. It had been a whole week since they'd escaped the Master Slayer. As much as she wanted to pretend they were safe, she wouldn't be at all surprised if Mortoph jumped out of those trees and—
"Sarah, run!" Porter yelled. He spun around and flung Flicker into the woods with all his strength. Sarah reacted without thinking about it, and ran for Droma's cabin at a dead sprint. Before she got far, though, something ran out in front of her. It was a flash of white, blindingly visible even in the darkness, and she crashed headlong into it. Both she and the white thing went sprawled out on the ground, rolling over each other until they came to a stop in a dazed pile.
"Get away from her!" Porter yelled, and the next thing Sarah knew she was looking into a pair of bright green and yellow eyes. The pupils were slits, like a cat's.
The whatever-it-was rolled off of her and scrambled backwards just as Porter reappeared, Flicker back in his hand. He stood between Sarah and the thing as it got to its paws— all six of them.
"Don't hurt me," it said, backing away. "I mean you no harm!"
It looked like a big cat, maybe a mountain lion, except that its pelt was as white as snow. It walked on six legs, and its body was abnormally elongated to fit all of them.
"Who are you?" Porter demanded. "And what do you want from us?"
The cat arched its back so its front paws dangled by its sides like arms, and held them out cautiously. "My name is Gwinn, and I'm here looking for my son."
When he stands like that, Sarah realized, squinting her eyes at the weird Mythic, he looks like some sort of cat-centaur.
She studied him, but couldn't figure out what species he was. She did, however, notice the two handed greatsword that was sheathed over his shoulder.
"My spell tracked him here," he went on. "But... I don't know why it brought me to you."
"Who's your son?" Porter asked. He still held Flicker out defensively.
Instead of answering, Gwinn plucked a strand of fur from his arm and held it up in front of his face. His paws weren't actually paws, they hands. He muttered something to it under his breath, and Sarah realized too late that it was a spell.
"Porter!" she exclaimed, but it didn't matter because the hair only began to twitch in the Gwinn's hand. All three of them stood in breathless anticipation, staring at it until it froze— pointing at Porter.
Gwinn looked at the young man in confusion and slowly approached him. Porter took a step back, but other than that he didn't resist when Gwinn reached out for him. With nimbler fingers than Sarah would have thought possible on a hand that large, he grabbed something off of Porter's shirt and held it up to the moonlight.
It was another strand of white hair.
"Where's my son?" the cat-thing demanded, looking at Porter and baring his teeth. "Where is Tick?"
Being a human in a Mythic Sanctuary had both its advantages and its disadvantages.
Trying to make her way through the crowded passages of the old Guaroff mines, the woman felt like she was experiencing both at the same time. She was relatively small compared to most of the mine's new occupants, which meant she was usually able to squeeze her way through the tunnels that, even before their arrival, had been narrow and cramped. The downside, however, was that some of the mine's larger inhabitants never thought to look where they were going— which was why she now found herself pressed against the wall by a nine foot tall, sweaty ogre.
"Excuse me," she called, tapping on its wrinkly back with one hand.
The ogre grunted and moved as much as it could, having to push a centaur aside to make room for her to escape.
"Thank you!" she said, and continued on her way. As she wound her way through the crowded maze of tunnels, she glanced down at the beaker of sapphire blue liquid in her hand and allowed herself a proud half-smile. It was uncorked and filled to the brim, yet she had managed not to spill a drop.
Not bad for a woman my age, she thought, running one hand through her iron gray hair. Her clothes probably smelled like ogre now, but it was unlikely Rayalga would allow her time to change in the middle of the day.
Thinking of the Arch-Mythic made a pit form in her stomach, and her steps slowed a little. Something had happened to him at Jellaska Kob Lertan. She'd heard that the dwarf city had been destroyed by the Slayers, but the details were fuzzy. Not many of the mine's denizens were willing to speak to her about such things.
That was another disadvantage of being the only human in a Mythic Sanctuary.
At last, she came to the alcove that Rayalga had named his own. It was a circular chamber, branching off from one of the larger tunnels, that was just the right size for the Arch-Mythic and his advisors to meet. It was nothing grand, but then again the majestic gryphon's presence could turn any room into a palace.
There were voices coming from the other side of the curtain that had been hung over the entryway, and so she stood outside it, waiting for the correct moment to request entry. One did not interrupt the Arch-Mythic when he was meeting with his advisors, and those meetings had been constant over the past week. When he wasn't admitting the growing number of Mythics to the mine, he was sequestered away in his room, making plans for... she wasn't sure what, but she knew they were important.
Ten minutes passed without any sign of the meeting drawing to a close. This hallway was used less than the others, due to its close proximity to the Arch-Mythic, but there was still a constant flow of Mythics going through it. Eventually, she abandoned her post in front of the curtain and leaned with her back against the wall next to it. It wasn't the most proper pose for someone waiting to speak to the Arch-Mythic, but she hoped he would understand the benefits of keeping his potions lady un-trampled.
Then again, she wasn't sure what to make of the Arch-Mythic anymore.
From this new position, she could hear the meeting taking place behind the curtain. Though she tried not to eavesdrop, she couldn't stop herself from catching snippets of the conversation.
"— heartfelt sympathies, Arch-Mythic," someone was saying. "The dwarf city was a terrible loss. You can rest assured, we will never forget this tragedy."
"Mourn for the dead later," Rayalga replied. His words were short and concise, and more than a little imbalanced. She could hear his talons clicking across the stone floor as he paced. "Right now, we concentrate on avenging them."
Avenging them? Was Rayalga summoning all these Mythics to the mines to build an army? A chill went down the woman's spine. She knew she shouldn't be listening in on things like this— her position was tenuous enough as a human— but she couldn't pull herself away.
"My people have suffered enough," the Arch-Mythic went on. "I won't stand for it any longer. As soon as our numbers are great enough, we will march against the humans and claim what is rightfully ours. Will you stand with me?"
"I will," said the other voice. She didn't recognize who it belonged to, but it hardly mattered in light of what the Arch-Mythic was saying. Suddenly, her suspicions that he had gone mad seemed more real than she had feared.
"Good," the Arch-Mythic crooned. "I already have a mission for you."
"How may we serve you?"
More pacing. Rayalga didn't say anything for a full minute.
"Jellaska Kob Lertan fell because of one person," he finally answered. "One Slayer. I'm putting a bounty on his head, and double that much if it's still attached when you bring him to me.
"You want us to focus our efforts on finding a single Slayer?" The Mythic sounded confused.
"He has to pay!" Rayalga screamed, so loud that the curtain swayed.
"It will be done, Arch-Mythic," the Mythic conceded in a small voice. "What is this Slayer's name?"
The beaker fell from her hands, shattering on the floor. Blue potion splattered everywhere, but she neither noticed nor cared.
The curtain moved again, and the Arch-Mythic's head poked out from behind it. He glared at her, his eyes boring straight into her skull.
"Who are you, and how dare you eavesdrop on me?" he demanded.
"I- I wasn't eavesdropping, Arch-Mythic," she answered, coming back to her senses. "I was just trying to deliver the potion you ordered."
Rayalga's eyes narrowed. "Why is a human woman delivering my potions?"
"I've been this Sanctuary's potions keeper for more than ten years, Arch-Mythic," she said. It was all she could do to keep her focus on the gryphon. He had said Porter's name...
Rayalga looked back into the room.
"It's true, Arch-Mythic," one of his advisor's said. "She's proven herself trustworthy."
Rayalga scoffed. "There are no trustworthy humans." He turned around to regard her again. "What is your name, woman?"
"Glenda," she answered.
"Well, Glenda," he practically spat the word, "clean this mess up and then fetch me another."
"Yes, Arch-Mythic," she said with a respectful nod of her head. "Right away."
She turned to go back to her storeroom, but was stopped when Rayalga called out to her.
"And Glenda," he said, "I'm watching you."
A chill ran down her spine as he retreated into his chamber, but it was quickly forgotten. She set off for her stores with a spring in her step she hadn't felt in years. Twelve years, to be exact.
Porter is alive!
NEXT TIME: That's it for The Slayer and the Sphinx, friends and fans! Keep your eyes open for its sequel, The Protector and the Peacemaker. I'm hoping to have it done within the next couple months, so the wait shouldn't be too long!