Chapter Twenty One
The name bounced inside the young man's head like an echo in a cave, soft but persistent. His skull felt like it was being inflated like a balloon... and it wouldn't take much more to pop him.
"Porter, wake up!"
That was only making it worse. Why couldn't they just leave him alone? He was tired. He was in pain. He needed to sleep! But despite his efforts to ignore it, Porter felt himself rising into consciousness.
"I think he's coming around," the voice said, sounding closer this time.
Porter opened his eyes, and was greeted by the sight of Sarah's face mere inches from his own.
"Porter, can you hear me?" she asked loudly, the fear evident in her eyes.
Her voice cut straight into Porter's head like a heated knife, and he put a hand to his forehead and moaned, "Not so loud."
As soon as he spoke, his stomach turned over inside of him and he had to lay is head back down on the ground for a few seconds. When the nausea finally passed, he took a deep breath and sat up. "What happened?" he asked.
"You tried to eat some rabbit," Sarah explained, backing away and sitting down with an uneasy look on her face, "but you threw it up."
It began to come back to him, and he nodded. That had come after his brief fight with the Other Porter, and his copy had carried out his promise. Just thinking about it made him want to throw up again.
"If you're sick, then we should take a couple days off," Sarah said. Without asking, she stepped forward and put a paw on Porter's forehead. "You do feel a little feverish."
Porter shook his head. "It's just the weather. I'm fine."
Sarah frowned. "Porter..."
"We don't have time to waste," he cut her off. "We need to get you and Tick to that Sanctuary before the Slayers catch up to us."
Sarah's face paled, but she didn't argue anymore. "Can you walk?" she asked softly.
Porter was about to say yes, but stopped when a dark cloud rolled over his thoughts. What if he wasn't okay? Other Porter was obviously gaining more control over his body. What if he actually succeeded in overpowering Porter someday? The Other Porter... whatever he was... Porter had no doubt that he would actually try to hurt Sarah and Tick if he ever got the chance. If that happened, Porter would have no way to protect them, since he would be the one hurting them... which meant the only thing he could do was prepare them for it.
"Um," he said at last, and glanced at Tick, who was watching them both from a few feet away. Sarah followed his eyes, and caught on to what he wanted.
"Hey, Tick," she said, turning to look at the tailed boy for a moment, "why don't you go and get some more of those blackberries for the trip? They'll keep longer than the rabbit meat will."
Tick looked from Sarah to Porter a few times, but didn't get up. Sarah gave him an encouraging smile, and put her paw on Porter's shoulder. "I'll take care of him, I promise."
Tick gave a reluctant nod, and scampered off into the forest, leaving Porter and Sarah alone. When he was out of sight, Sarah turned back towards Porter and looked him in the eye.
"Okay, Porter," she said, her voice stern, "I know that look. Now quit lying to me and tell me what's wrong."
Looking at her, with that strict expression on her face, Porter couldn't help but laugh.
"Yes, Mother," he consented, but his mirth faded when he remembered what he was about to tell her. He huddled up with himself, bringing his knees up against his chest. "The truth is, I don't really know what's going on, myself. It's... I don't even know how to explain it."
Sarah came and sat down beside him, extending one of her wings so that it rested across Porter's shoulders. "Just tell me. I'm not going to judge you or anything."
Porter sighed. "All right. It's like there's somebody in my head. I can hear him talking to me, and sometimes when I close my eyes I can see him." He looked at his friend. "And I'm scared of him, Sarah."
Though she obviously tried to hide it, Porter didn't miss the way she shivered when he said that. "Who do you see?" she asked.
"It's... me," he admitted. "I see myself."
Sarah was silent for a minute. "Yourself?" she asked when she finally found her tongue.
Porter's frown deepened when he saw the look she was giving him. She'd said she wouldn't judge him...
"Yeah," he admitted, pretending not to notice. "I'm giving... He's giving me nightmares."
"Is that why you haven't been able to sleep?" Sarah asked, instantly.
Porter nodded. "He's there when I close my eyes. He makes threats." When Sarah didn't reply, he added, "Threats against you and Tick."
Sarah's face went pale, but she still didn't say anything.
"He says that he's who I was before I lost my memory," Porter went on. "But... that can't be true!"
"Why do you say that?" Sarah finally asked, her voice little more than a frightened whisper.
Porter hesitated, and then scooted around so that the two of them were facing each other again. "Because he says I'm a Slayer," he answered.
Porter moaned, and shook his head so hard that it irritated his headache again. Then, before he knew what he was doing, he got onto his knees and grabbed Sarah by her shoulders.
"But he's lying! You told me I wasn't a Slayer, and I trust you more than I'll ever trust him! You..." he faltered, and tears began to sting his eyes. "You promise, right?"
Sarah put a paw on his chest and gently pushed him away. "Yes, Porter," she said forcefully, "I promise. Whatever this other you says, it's not true."
"She's lying again."
"So," Sarah said, unaware of the inner argument he was having, "what does that have to do with you being sick?"
"That's just it," Porter said, leaning back against a tree. "I think he's getting stronger. I don't..." No, this was the part she needed to hear the most. He couldn't back out of the conversation now. "I don't know how much longer I'll be able to keep him locked up."
"You mean you're getting your memories back?" Sarah asked, still confused.
"No, I still don't remember a thing. And, somehow, I don't think I ever will. I think the Other Porter is where all my memories are, and the only way they'll ever come back is if he takes control again."
Sarah shook her head. "You're not making any sense, Porter. You're talking about yourself like you're a completely different person."
"Sarah, he is a completely different person," Porter insisted. "It's not like I just forgot who I was, that guy is someone else entirely."
Sarah sat in silence for a minute, contemplating this.
"Porter," she finally said, "I don't think you understand what's going on, yourself."
Porter stared at her, and then sighed. "If you don't believe me, then at least promise me something, okay? If I ever try to hurt you and Tick, run."
"But what about..."
Porter waved his hand. "I don't care what happens to me. I don't care where I end up going, or doing. I just want you to be safe and far away from me."
Sarah bit her lip, and Porter could see the storm of emotions rolling behind her eyes. She stepped up close to him, until their faces were only inches apart again— close enough that, when she spoke, Porter could feel her warm breath brushing his lips.
"Porter, you listen to me, and you listen hard," she whispered. "It will not come to that, because you are not a Slayer. Do you understand me?"
Porter gulped, and his cheeks started to turn red when he realized how close they were to each other. He nodded.
"You promise?" he asked a voice that, to him, sounded humiliatingly meek.
"I promise," Sarah said a second time.
"Okay," Porter said, sighing with relief. Then, forcing himself to ignore his nausea, he picked himself up off the ground. "Then let's get going."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Sarah asked, getting up with him. "What if you get sick again?"
"Then maybe the best place for me is Jellaska Kob Lertan," he answered, and then summoned Flicker. He held the sword out in front of himself, so the top of the blade pointed into the forest. "Okay, Flicker, which way do we go from here?"
The sword vibrated gently, and then tugged itself to Porter's left. Porter followed, and stopped when another vibration ran down Flicker's length.
"That way," Porter interpreted. He looked up just as Tick came waddling back to them, his pockets so full of fruit that it made it hard for him to walk. The fabric was already starting to turn purple from the juice.
"Oh, Tick!" Sarah exclaimed, hurrying over to look at him. "You ruined your only pair of pants!"
"Sorry, Mom," Tick shot back. "You told me to bring as many back as I could!"
"I didn't want you to..." Sarah shook her head as she circled around the little boy, taking in the damage. "Now your clothes are going to draw flies. You- you even got juice on your tail!"
Tick smiled mischievously. "Fine. I can go without them, if that's what you want." he reached slowly for the zipper.
Sarah glowered at him. "Try it, and I'll tear them to ribbons, tie you up with them, and drag you the rest of the way to Jellaska Kob Lertan!"
Watching his two friends bicker, Porter couldn't help but laugh. His mirth chased away the last remaining sliver of dread in his heart. Sarah was right, he decided as he led the way in the direction Flicker had given them. Everything would be fine.
A pit formed in Sarah's stomach as she dutifully followed her friends. Porter was just going through some kind of guilt trip about the Historians' Tower, she told herself. Seeing so many of his friends die had to have had some sort of effect on his brain. She remembered the flashbacks she'd had after the Slayers attacked her house, and shuddered. Nobody deserved to go through that— especially not her best friend.
She looked up at her friend, bravely leading the way through the unfamiliar forest. He'd already gone through a lot, but he was still just as determined to keep Sarah safe as he'd ever been. His was the kind of selflessness that people stopped believing in when they became too old for fairy tales. But, then again, Sarah herself was living proof that not all fairy tales were false. Maybe, she wondered, Porter could be the same?
That's what I'll tell them when we get there, she decided. He's a hero, and I'll bite anyone who says differently. He's saved my life a dozen times over, and Tick's too! I don't care what he used to be, I care about who he is now!
Her thoughts were interrupted when Porter turned around to her. "What's the Sanctuary going to be like?" he asked.
"Um," Sarah thought back to what Mrs. Rasta had told her. "It's supposed to be a city built inside a mountain."
Porter's eyebrows rose. "You're joking."
Sarah shook her head. "Nope. Jellaska Kob Lertan means City Under the Hill in Dwarvish."
Tick and Porter exchanged glances.
"Wow," was all the tailed boy could say.
Porter nodded slowly, but didn't take his eyes off of Sarah. After a moment, he slowed down to let Sarah catch up to him.
"And then what?" he asked.
"And then what, what?" Sarah asked back.
"What do we do after we find the Sanctuary?"
Sarah paused. What were they going to do? All this time, she'd been obsessed with the idea of just getting to Jellaska Kob Lertan. She knew the answer, of course. Her parents had a house there. She would move in, and her life would go back to normal— or, at least as normal as it could be after everything that she'd been through.
"Well," she said at last, looking up at her friend, "it looks like our adventure will be over."
Porter didn't say anything, but the smile he gave her... she could tell it was only skin deep. What was going to happen to him and Tick, Sarah wondered? They didn't have houses or family there. Plus, if what Mrs. Rasta had said was true, neither of them would be able to afford to live in such an expensive Sanctuary, either.
Suddenly, the end of their journey seemed a lot less appealing.
(POV: Drake Mortoph)
The air was thick with anticipation as the Slayers' Board gathered around the long, narrow table in Red Castle. Drake Mortoph stood in his customary place at the head of that table, hands folded as he waited for his comrades to seat themselves. When they had settled and turned their attention to him, he spoke.
"I am aware that there are rumors circulating through these halls." Drake spoke softly, but his voice still resonated through the room for all to hear. "Rumors that our ranks have been infiltrated. Accusations that we have been betrayed by one of our most loyal warriors. And, talk that we are on the verge of a great victory." He paused and allowed a confident smile to show on his face, "Well, I am here to tell you, my friends, that these rumors are true!"
All at once, ten confused voices rang out, demanding explanations. The only ones who remained silent were Dominic Vega and Granger, who were the only two who knew what was going on.
An uneasy silence fell as Alexander Himaly got to his feet. He was old, but he wore his age proudly and still managed to stand steadily when most men would have succumbed to their body's frailty years ago.
"Then you are saying that the Slayers have been compromised?" He asked.
"Allow me to explain, Alexander," Mortoph replied. After a moment, the old man sank back into his seat, and the Master Slayer continued. "First of all, the betrayal. I'm sure you have all heard of Porter Collins. He is a fine young Slayer, perhaps the best we have seen in generations. Though he is not yet a man, his skills surpass those of many thrice his age."
"Has something happened?" another one of the board members asked.
Mortoph turned to regard this Slayer, and had to fight the urge to smile in wry amusement. These men thought themselves so wise, so experienced. Like a child putting on his father's work boots and...
The mask, he reminded himself. Remember the mask. You are the mask.
Mortoph composed himself, and answered, "Several days ago, Porter and Granger were assigned to hunt and slay a family of sphinxes. Porter was separated from Granger by one of the sphinxes, but we have recently received confirmation that he is still alive."
He discreetly glanced at Granger, who was staring fixatedly at the table. Granger, the epitome of loyalty. Never questioning his orders, never talking back. Of course he would feel guilty about the loss of his greatest pupil.
"We do not know much yet," Mortoph continued, "but it seems that after this, he has been travelling with and aiding the same sphinx he was ordered to kill. When confronted by his training partner and best friend, Ozzie Druid, Porter attacked and nearly killed him. It would, by all appearances, seem that Porter Collins has betrayed the Slayers."
"Then he must be eliminated!" the same Slayer as before declared without hesitation.
"Not necessarily," Mortoph corrected him. "I have reason to believe that Porter is not acting under his own judgment in this situation. Going by what Ozzie has told us, I feel it is likely that the sphinx has wiped his memory and is controlling him like a puppet. I do not like to give up hope on my men so easily, so if there is still a chance he can be redeemed, I will take that chance. But this is not all bad news, my friends. Porter's condition may in fact lead us to another victory, one even greater than the one at the Historians' Tower."
This, as he knew it would, caught his men's attention, and they all sat a little straighter in their seats as they waited to hear what he had to say.
"During our attack on the tower, Ozzie confronted Porter. While Porter managed to escape and get the sphinx to safety yet again, Ozzie was able to slip a stone with a simple tracking spell on it into Porter's pocket. I, personally, have been working on expanding upon the spell he cast. Before long, that pebble will be providing me regular, detailed reports on Porter's whereabouts, statuses, and actions."
Mortoph withdrew the pebble from his chest pocket and displayed it to the Board.
"I hope you understand what I am getting at here, gentlemen. That sphinx is young and inexperienced in dealing with the human world. There is only one place it can be going."
The room went so silent that Mortoph could hear the heartbeats of every man sitting at his table.
"A Sanctuary," Alexander breathed.
Mortoph clutched the tiny stone in his fist and then slipped it back into his pocket. "Exactly. And with Porter accompanying it, the monster will lead him straight to it. And by leading him there, it will also be leading us. The last attack on one of the monsters' hidden Sanctuaries was over thirty years ago. If my plan works out, it will show us the location of so many monsters that the Historians' Tower will look like a run of the mill hunt by comparison."
"If you know where he is," one of the other Slayers spoke up, "then we should apprehend them now, and then force the sphinx to reveal the location of the Sanctuary. Then we wouldn't have to wait."
Mortoph turned to him, and his icy stare quickly made the Slayer settle back into his seat.
"Do not get ahead of me," Mortoph said, speaking to the entire Board. "I have sent an informant to scope out the scene. They, too, will provide reports to me on what is going on within the Sanctuary. They will tell us when the time comes to strike."
"You sent an informant to infiltrate a monster Sanctuary?" someone asked. "Who?"
Mortoph glanced his way, and smirked.
"That leaves only the third issue to be resolved," he said. "As I've said, there are rumors going around that the Slayers have been infiltrated. I am telling you now that this is only half true."
"So, then we are compromised!" Alexander Himaly exclaimed, his pale, knobby hands squeezing the armrest of his chair.
Mortoph sighed. "Again, my friend, allow me to explain the situation in full. The easiest way to do this would be to show you." He paused and looked at the door leading from the room. "Shadow, enter!"
The door opened, and in stepped the Slayer with the black and red eyes. Fresh bandages had been applied over his face, covering the strange markings on his skin. Shadow walked to the end of the table opposite from Mortoph, and waited there, completely motionless.
"Gentlemen, this is Shadow," Mortoph introduced him with a brief wave of his hand. "If you were to judge him solely by what you can see and sense, what would you think of him?"
"He's strong," one Slayer immediately deduced. "Both physically and magically."
"But his slender build makes him perfect for a knife fighter," another added.
"Drake," Alexander asked, "What does this have to do with..."
"Shadow is a dragon," Mortoph interrupted him.
As one, the members of the Board jumped to their feet, either drawing weapons or readying spells to cast. The only ones who remained seated were, again, Vega and Granger. Before any of them could attack, though, Shadow winked out of existence.
"Calm yourselves," Mortoph commanded. "Shadow is no longer a threat to any of us!"
"What do you mean?" Alexander demanded, stubbornly refusing to extinguish the fireball in his hands.
"Shadow, appear!" Drake commanded, and the bandaged man appeared once again, now standing beside him. "Shadow, stand on one leg!" He did. "Shadow, sit down." The man sat down on the floor. "Shadow, stand up." The man stood back up. Mortoph looked back at his underlings. "As you can see, Shadow is completely under my control. Now, sit down!"
All the Board members exchanged wary glances, but finally returned to their seats.
"I call it Repurposing," Mortoph explained, patting Shadow affectionately on the shoulder. "It's quite a simple concept, really. All I have to do is break into the monster's mind and wipe it clean of everything inside. After that, you could say I reprogram it to be whatever I want it to be. Shadow has been given a basic cloaking spell. I have also gifted him with phenomenal skills in knife combat. The eyes are the only negative side effect. Unfortunately, it is unavoidable."
"But this goes completely against the Slayer's code!" Alexander protested.
"Does it?" Mortoph challenged him, his eyes alight with excitement. "The Slayer's code commands that any and all monsters we encounter must be killed, this is true. But, it is rather lax when in regards to how or when that is to be done."
He pointed at Shadow, who was still standing in the corner, as still as a statue. "I have developed a new tactic for slaying the monsters, one that is safer and more efficient." He spread his hands, "I ask you now, my friends, what better way is there to fight our enemies than with their own kind? While we give the commands, the monsters we have taken control of will go to battle for us. They will fight without fear or mercy, because they no longer know how to feel those emotions. They will slaughter their own friends and families when we tell them to. Those of them that die will have met their deserved fate, and those that survive will then take their own lives at our command."
All the Board members were now staring at Shadow in amazement rather than fear.
"As you can see, I have already begun the preparations for this plan. All that remains is for us to reach an official agreement. What do you say? Will you men join me in this venture?"
"Of course we will!" Vega immediately declared, slamming his fist into the table. "This is brilliant! Killing two monsters with one stone. What more could we ask for? You have my support in this, Master!"
Mortoph smiled, and turned towards Granger, "And what do you say, old friend?"
For a minute, Granger said nothing. He sat with his elbows propped up on the table and his hands folded in front of his face. Finally, with a voice devoid of emotion, he said, "Very well."
Once Mortoph's two right hand men had voiced their agreement, the rest of the Board didn't hesitate to follow. All except Alexander Himaly.
"No, absolutely not!" the old man protested. "This is insanity!"
"It is not insanity," Mortoph argued. "It is innovation. We are growing out of the ways of our fathers. Growing stronger."
"But at what cost?" Alexander demanded. "You are abandoning your honor by doing this!" He pointed at Shadow, "By creating this abomination, you have robbed our enemy of its dignity. I have no love for the monsters, but I cannot condone this. If they are to die, let them die with honor!
Mortoph frowned, but Alexander continued to rant. "And how will this represent the Slayers? That we are cowards who will sit in safety while our enemies fight our enemies? We are warriors, not bullies! This innovation you speak of is despicable, Mortoph, and I will have no part of it!"
Mortoph was still for a moment after the old man had finished, and then sighed. "I'm sorry to hear that, Alexander. You have been with the Slayers for longer than anyone else. You fought beside my grandfather, and shared your wisdom with my father after that. But if this is your decision, then I will allow you to make it. Perhaps it is time you retired after all."
"Retire? Alexander sputtered indignantly. "I have no intention of retiring yet, but I will not aid you in this mad venture. Please, listen to reason! What you are doing is—"
But Mortoph was no longer listening. Without another word, he made a discreet gesture, and, with one swift motion, Shadow whipped a knife out of its belt and threw it across the room. The blade struck Alexander directly between the eyes. The old man's legs gave out beneath him, and he was dead before he hit the floor.
The board room was filled with stunned silence once again— only this time, it was broken when Vega let out a boisterous laugh.
"Stupid ol' fart!" he guffawed, pounding a fist on the table again. "Good riddance!"
Mortoph nodded and put an appropriately sad expression on his face. "Though I hate to say it, I foresaw this happening. Alexander was old, and set in his ways and beliefs. Such men are of no benefit to the Slayers. The key to winning a war is to evolve. The Repurposed monsters," he pointed to Shadow, "are the next step in that evolution. And they are what will finally bring us the freedom we and our ancestors have been fighting for ever since the Slayers were first formed."
He gestured to Shadow again, and the brainwashed dragon walked across the room and picked up Alexander's corpse. The remaining board members shied away from him when he drew near. Then, silent as the grave, Shadow carried Alexander out of the room, not even stopping to remove the knife from his skull. Mortoph sat back down in his seat.
"Make yourselves comfortable, everybody," he instructed. "We have work to do."
NEXT TIME: The plot thickens! If it gets much thicker, you guys'll be able to scoop it up with a spoon and eat it! You'll have an edible story, and I'll have solved world hunger, so everybody wins. But what's really important is that, tomorrow, Porter, Sarah, and Tick finally make it to Jellaska Kob Lertan...