Chapter Thirty Two
Azkular ran faster that day than he had ever run in his life. Desperation lent speed to his feet, and the forest flew past him in a blur of brown and green. Even with the head start his men had gotten, he easily passed them before they were even halfway back to the mountain.
How could I have been so stupid?
But now was not the time to punish himself- that would come later. Right now, he had an entire city full of Mythics about to be attacked by an army of Slayers. If the attack hadn't already begun, that is. The thought sent another bolt of fear through him.
"No, not fear," he said to himself as he ran. "Fear doesn't help. Anger. I need anger!"
As he drew nearer to the mountain, Azkular tried to redirect his thoughts. How dare the Slayers attack his Sanctuary? How dare they even set foot in this forest? He was going to kill every single one of them, and then burn their remains until even their ashes had been reduced to ashes.
It worked. He could feel his temper rising, and his anger caused his heart to beat fresh fire into his veins. Anger, the one thing that set him apart from a mere human. His blood may have been made of fire, but it was his anger that fueled it.
And Azkular was always angry.
The djinn burst out of the trees, and was horrified to see that the entrance, the door that had been disguised to look like a boulder, had been blasted into gravel. Even worse, the only Slayers in sight were the two that had been left behind to guard the exit.
"You scum!" he roared, conjuring his blades again. Seeing those two men, in their long black coats, only served to increase Azkular's anger even further, and small blue fires began to spring up in his footprints.
The Slayers reacted more quickly than the golems had, but they still weren't nearly fast enough to keep up with Azkular. The djinn immediately plunged his knife into one's chest, and then backflipped over the second Slayer's sword, cutting his head off in the process. Then, without pausing to admire his handiwork, Azkular turned and raced into the mountain.
The words wormed their way through the thick blanket of unconsciousness that wrapped around his brain, and the young man stirred. There was no sleepy confusion this time. He remembered exactly what had happened before he'd been knocked out, and he knew he had to wake up as quickly as possible.
Forcing his eyes open, Porter found Tick standing with his face inches away from his own. Just as his eyes began to adjust to the light, Tick threw a cup of water in his face.
"Okay, okay," Porter spluttered, sitting up straighter. "I'm awake!"
"Are you okay?" the little chimera asked.
Porter felt his head. Sure enough, there was another bump on it, just like every other freaking time he got knocked out. Fortunately, this one felt a little less painful than the others, and he nodded.
"I think so," he answered, and shakily got to his feet. "Where did you come from, Tick? I thought someone was taking care of you."
Immediately, Tick's face fell, and Porter didn't need to hear the answer to know exactly what had happened.
"Oh, man," he said, kneeling down and putting his hand on Tick's shoulder. "I'm sorry."
Tick sniffled a little, but when he looked up into Porter's eyes, they were strong. "It's okay. I- I didn't like them much anyway."
Porter raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"
Tick shrugged. "Because they said bad things about you."
That, more than anything else, tugged at Porter's heartstrings. Before he could think overly long on it, however, he was suddenly reminded of what was going on when a building a few streets over exploded.
"We need to get out of here," he said, standing up and taking Tick's hand. "Did you see Sarah anywhere before you found me?"
Tick shook his head, and Porter groaned.
"All right," he muttered half to himself, "she said she was going to look for her parents at her house. Do you know where she was staying?"
"Um," Tick thought for a minute. "I think so. There were a lot of Mythics there trying to talk to her this morning."
"Can you take me there?"
Tick nodded without hesitation, and turned to run out of the alleyway. Porter followed, and immediately grabbed the child and pulled him back in.
"Get down!" he hissed, pulling the child behind an overturned dumpster. Two seconds later, a small squad of Slayers ran past, their weapons gleaming in the firelight. Tick's eyes widened, and he pressed himself closer to Porter, trembling.
"I didn't even see them!" he whispered, frantically shaking his head. "I didn't-"
"Don't worry," Porter said, turning to so that they were looking each other in the eye. "I'm going to take care of you. Now show me where Sarah's been staying!"
It was everything Azkular had feared, and more. The Slayers couldn't have begun their attack more than a few minutes ago, and yet there were already buildings burning and bodies lying in the street. The djinn was leaving bloody footprints before he'd even stepped out of the tunnel.
He didn't slow his pace, though. If he stopped to think about it, despair would overpower his anger and his magic would be gone. He would need it if he was going to save his people from the Slayers.
Or, as many as he still could...
A band of five Slayers stood further down the street, and when they saw the lone Mythic they raised their weapons and charged at him. Azkular's lips spread in a savage grin, and he tightened his grip on his knives.
They met halfway, and immediately the first Slayer fell dead with a gaping slash in his chest. The others attacked as a team, spreading themselves out to surround him. Seeing this, Azkular was reminded again how stupid he had been to think the slow, uncoordinated golems had actually been Slayers.
Without waiting for them to make the first move, Azkular lunged forward, curling into a somersault. When he came back up, he struck the Slayer's spear so hard that it went flying straight up into the air. Azkular stabbed the Slayer, and then let go of the knife. The second one came at him from behind, and received a fierce kick in his gut. Azkular threw his second knife over his head, caught the spear just as it descended, and then threw it so it skewered the Slayer he'd kicked before he could regain his balance. The third Slayer carried a weighty battle axe, which he swung in an effort to cleave the djinn's head from his shoulders. Azkular jumped up, doing a flip over the axe, and caught the knife he had thrown. The Slayer barely had time to blink before Azkular retaliated with a slash of his own, beheading the black-coated warrior. Then, in one fluid motion, Azkular dropped to the ground, retrieved his second knife, and rolled back to his feet to face his final opponent.
"Ah..." the Slayer said, his eyes wide with disbelief. He dropped his weapon. "Okay, you win!"
He turned and ran, his cowardice so strong that Azkular could practically smell it. This was the slime that had dared to come into his city and kill his people. If he thought he was going to leave the mountain alive...
A fireball formed in Azkular's hand. Drawing his arm back, he flung it at the retreating Slayer with all his might. It flew as straight and true as an arrow, punching a hole as large as a man's fist in his back and out through his chest. Grim satisfaction washed over Azkular. That had been a waste of magic, and he knew it, but right then he felt angry enough for it to be worth it.
The sound of clapping reached the djinn's ears. Growling, he spun around to see another Slayer standing behind him, applauding. They were slow, sarcastic claps, and they made Azkular's blood burn even hotter- but not as much as seeing who the clapping was coming from.
"Very impressive," Drake Mortoph sneered, genuinely amused. "Would you like me to fetch you some scarecrows? If you're looking for a fight, I'm sure they'd be more of a challenge."
A strange sensation washed over Azkular when he looked into the Master Slayer's eyes. It was as if Mortoph were somehow reaching down inside him, trying to pull the fear out of the very depths of his soul.
Just like the last time...
Pushing the feeling away, with some difficulty, Azkular twirled his knives in his hands. "Mock me if you want, Mortoph, but I've been waiting for this day for a long time."
Mortoph smiled, which was enough to send shivers down the djinn's spine. "Oh, I'm sure you have."
He stopped fifteen feet away from Azkular, and spread his arms, giving the djinn a clear shot as his chest.
"Go ahead, then. Kill me."
She's got to be alive, Porter told himself as he hurtled through the flaming city. She has to be! If she's not, then...
He couldn't finish that thought, but the ominous message still weighed down his mind like a sack of bricks. If Sarah was dead, it would be his fault. He could have fought back against Vesper. He could have tried harder to escape. Instead, he had sat there and practically allowed Vesper to release Other Porter.
Where was the clone, for that matter? Other Porter was a Slayer to the core, so he didn't believe for a moment that he had run away during an attack on the biggest hive of Mythics he had ever seen. Plus, he had issued his challenge to Porter just before knocking him out. "Come and get me, hero!" No, he was still here somewhere. Whether or not Porter would be able to look for him was another story. With an entire army of Slayers swarming the city, which was already half destroyed, escape needed to be his top priority.
Tick was still sprinting at top speed, leading him down roads that all looked the same. Maybe it was because half of them were burned down now, but Porter's brief time roaming Jellaska Kob Lertan's streets hadn't been nearly enough to give him a clear sense of direction.
"Are you sure you know where you're..."
Before he could finish that sentence, the two of them rounded a corner and came face to face with trio of Slayers. For a moment, all five of them were frozen with surprise. Porter recovered first, and slammed his fist into the first Slayer's face. He fell to the ground with a moan, unconscious.
"Tick, get behind me!" he ordered, just as the other two Slayers moved to attack. They didn't seem to care that Porter was a human like them. Perhaps that was all the more reason to kill him.
The first one swung his sword, and Porter caught his wrist just before it struck him. Then, without releasing him, Porter swung him around and slammed him into the second Slayer. They both fell down, and Porter took a step back. He might have been able to take them both on barehanded, but he didn't want to risk it. He flexed his hand, and...
Flicker didn't appear.
"Crap!" he gasped, just as the Slayers came at him again. He had hoped that, now that he was out of the prison, he would be able to summon Flicker again. Apparently, that wasn't the case, because the living sword was still wasn't answering his call.
The first Slayer came at him again, and Porter ducked underneath his sword. When he came back up, he punched the Slayer as hard as he could in the chin. He, too, collapsed. The final Slayer eyed his two fallen comrades, and decided not to join them on the ground. Dropping his weapon, he turned and fled into the burning city. Porter let him go.
"You can come out," Porter said. Hesitantly, Tick pocked his head out of the trash can he'd been hiding in. "Are we almost to Sarah's house?"
"Just a little farther," Tick answered, taking the lead again.
As they ran, Porter looked down at his hand. If they were going to get out alive, he would need a weapon. There was no way around it. Flicker would be his first choice, but if he couldn't summon it then he'd have to find something else.
"There, I think that's it," Tick said, pointing toward a house on the other side of the road. He had led them into a neighborhood and, fortunately, most of the houses seemed untouched- including the one he said Sarah was living in.
"Sarah, are you in there?" Porter called, running ahead of Tick. When he reached the door, however, he hesitated. It had been broken down, and now lay in splinters on the entryway floor. For a moment, Porter's heart stopped.
"Sarah!" he yelled again, and charged inside.
It was a trap, that much was obvious. Mortoph may have been arrogant, but he wasn't overconfident. Still, seeing the Master Slayer standing right in front of him, completely exposed... He didn't care.
With a roar, Azkular raised his knives and charged at his enemy. He moved at speeds that would have blinded a normal human, crossing the distance between him and Mortoph in less than a second. The moment he was within arm's reach, he lashed out with both knives- one aimed at Mortoph's neck, the other at his legs.
And, just like Azkular had known he would, Mortoph deflected both attacks.
The Master Slayer had moved even faster than Azkular. With one hand he drew his enormous sword and twirled it in a wide arc, batting away both of Azkular's blades. Then his foot shot out, kicking Azkular square in the chest and sending him rocketing back in the direction he'd come from.
Azkular rolled, skidding on the unforgiving pavement, but managed to right himself. He drove his knives into the road to slow his momentum, carving two long, glowing grooves in their path.
"I thought I told you to kill me!" Mortoph laughed, taking his sword in both hands. A hot breeze blew down the street, making the Slayer's coat and long hair billow out behind him.
Azkular ground his teeth together, but fought to keep his expression calm. It was happening again, exactly like last time. Did Mortoph remember, or did he just enjoy playing with his prey before killing it?
"I fought your dragon," he said, slowly getting back to his feet. "What did you do to him?"
Mortoph's face lit up with amusement. "You mean Shadow? Why don't I just show you?"
This time, the Master Slayer came at him. With a single step, he was able to launch himself all the way across the distance between them, and Azkular barely had time to raise his knives to block Mortoph's attack. Even so, the strength behind his swing sent the djinn flying again, until he struck a building behind him. He smashed straight through the brick wall, landing in the middle of what had, until recently, been a store. Now, flames had consumed the entire building, erasing it and whoever might have been inside from existence.
He got to his feet, teetering as the sheer force of Mortoph's attack took its toll. He put his hand on the wall, heedless of the fire, and took a moment to regain his balance. A moment was all he had, because a moment later the wall imploded, sending chunks of brick and mortar flying everywhere. Azkular covered his face with his arms, but still ended up with a maze of cuts crisscrossing his body, almost as intricate as his tattoos.
"Pathetic," Mortoph declared, standing in the hole he had created. He held his sword casually, the tip scratching the floor in front of him. "Is it any wonder these Sanctuaries fall so easily when their guardians fight like legless kittens?"
"Don't be so cocky," Azkular growled, conjuring his knives again. "This cat has claws!"
With that, he threw himself at the Slayer again. Inside, he knew that it was meaningless. Mortoph was clearly too powerful for him. His time would be better spent escaping and trying to help any Mythics that were still alive. But his anger was burning hotter than ever, to the point where it was clouding the djinn's judgment. What he wanted more than anything at that moment was to wipe that smug, arrogant grin off Mortoph's face.
Azkular swung both of his knives again, but had no real intention of striking Mortoph. Instead, when the Slayer retaliated, he withdrew and jumped over Mortoph's head. He performed a flip in midair, lashing three times in the split second he was up there. To his disbelief, Mortoph blocked all three of those attacks as well, and was already facing him when Azkular touched the ground.
This is impossible! he thought in frustration, using his fire to propel himself away from the Slayer. How can he be so fast? So powerful?
It was exactly like the last time they had fought, right down to the icy needle of terror that was worming its way into Azkular's anger.
"I can still do it!" he grunted when he felt another wall at his back. On the other side of the road, Mortoph raised his sword and came at him again. "I can win!"
Azkular waited until Mortoph was close enough to attack, and then jumped again. The Slayer's blade sliced through the air just beneath him, cutting through the wall like it was made of cotton. Azkular put his foot on the wall, and thrust himself away so that he flew over Mortoph's head again. Once he had created some distance between them, he crossed his knives in front of himself and poured his magic into them. The blades began to glow, and he swung them in Mortoph's direction, flinging a fiery X at him.
Mortoph extended one finger, and the X came to a stop a mere inch away from his skin.
"Pathetic," he chuckled again.
The X collapsed in on itself, turning into a ball, and then shot back at Azkular. Azkular didn't bother reacting. It was still his fire, after all, and it was incapable of harming him.
Just before it reached him, the jet of fire transformed into a lightning bolt, and struck him square in the chest.
Azkular cried out in pain and fell to his knees, unable to move. He may have been a djinn with fire in his veins, but being struck by lightning wasn't something one could just shrug off. As he knelt there, Mortoph casually made his way across the street.
"You seem familiar," the Master Slayer said, letting his sword trace a long, thin scratch in the road as he walked. "A djinn who fights with blue fire. Have we met before?"
Azkular looked up to glare at Mortoph, but he wasn't able to speak. The black clad man stood over him, already assuming the battle was over.
"I'll admit," he went on, "I'm surprised that Rayalga gave you this position after what happened last time."
Azkular's head shot up to look at Mortoph, his eyes glowing with rage.
"Don't you ever," he screamed, lunging at him, "speak of that!"
It was another futile move, and Mortoph stepped away from it without batting an eye, but Azkular didn't care. The images were appearing in his mind's eye again, and he couldn't banish them. The last Sanctuary he had failed to protect, and the hulking shadow that had stood there mocking him as it happened. The same shadow that stood before him now.
"This is for my people!" the djinn howled, sending two streams of fire shooting at the Master Slayer. Mortoph twirled his sword again, redirecting the flames so that set yet another building ablaze. "This is for Mushiina Shawa!"
Azkular had more anger, and more fire, burning inside of him now than he ever had before, and it made him feel invincible. With daring recklessness, he threw himself at Mortoph, sending out a flurry of attacks. Mortoph blocked every one of them, but Azkular didn't care. He would continue to batter the Master Slayer until the end of eternity if it meant leaving even one scratch on him.
Growling in irritation, Mortoph swung his own sword. It was a slow attack, and Azkular jumped to cartwheel over it. By the time he realized it was a trick, it was too late. Mortoph's blade moved so quickly that it seemed to vanish, and the next thing Azkular knew, he felt a fierce, cold pain in his leg.
He tried to hold in his cry, but when he hit the ground and lost his balance, it escaped all the same. His severed leg lay several feet away from him, cut just above the thigh. No blood came from the wound, since Azkular had no blood to spill, but a small gout of blue fire erupted from Azkular's stump.
He didn't even try to get up as the Master Slayer turned to face him again. The fight was over, and he knew it. If he stood no chance against Mortoph at his best, then he was less than useless without his leg. Still wearing his infuriating smile, Mortoph knelt and wrapped his fist around Azkular's throat, lifting him up off the ground.
"Just make it... quick," Azkular croaked, struggling to speak with his throat being crushed.
Mortoph raised his free hand and extended two fingers.
"I told you," he replied, "I'm not going to kill you. I'm going to show you what I did to Shadow."
Mortoph's fingers turned black, as if a shadow had been cast over them, and sparks of red energy began to jump from them. Azkular could only stare at them, wondering what the Master Slayer planned to do.
Then, laughing, Mortoph drove both his fingers into Azkular's eyes.
Sarah stood with her back pressed against her bedroom wall. In her panic, she had run to the only place in Jellaska Kob Lertan that was familiar: her house. To her dismay, her parents hadn't been there. Just like that night so weeks ago, she was all alone in her home with Porter... and he was still trying to kill her!
The Slayer stood at her bedroom door, his sword held carelessly in his hand. He didn't have anything to fear from Sarah, and he knew it. For the hundredth time, the sphinx closed her eyes and shook her head, still unable to believe what was happening. How could Porter go back to being a Slayer after everything they'd been through? The young man she'd fallen in love with could never hurt another living being. And yet, her eyes didn't lie to her.
"Still trying to figure it out?" Porter chuckled with a sadistic look in his eye. "Want me to give you a hint?"
"Porter," she pleaded with tears running down her cheeks, "stop it, please! This isn't you. What happened?"
Porter shrugged indifferently. "I was pretending the whole time, it's as simple as that. I knew you'd bring me here, and I led the other Slayers here because of you."
"No!" Sarah screamed. "You're lying! Porter would never do that!"
Porter spread his arms. "Really? Then who am I? Because I'm pretty sure I'm-"
Both of them froze when they heard this. For a few seconds, Sarah stopped breathing. She would know that voice anywhere. But... how could it be?"
"Well, it's about time he showed up," Porter said, giving the hallway behind him a hateful glare. Then, before Sarah could react, he dashed across the room, got behind her, and brought his sword to her throat. "If you want to live, then don't move a muscle," he growled.
A few seconds later, Porter came running through her bedroom door, and skidded to a halt when he saw what was waiting for him.
I'm insane, Sarah thought as she watched the two Porters make eye contact. I hit my head when they threw me in the cell, and I've gone completely insane.
"You let her go right now," the Porter in front of her said, and there was so much hatred in his eyes that she could barely tell the difference between the two of them
The Porter behind her laughed, and raised his sword so that the edge tickled her throat. "Why don't you come over here and make me?"
Porter balled his fists, but didn't move. He knew just as well as Sarah did that Other Porter had control of the situation.
"That's right," the lookalike Porter sneered. "If you take one step closer, I'll cut her head right off!"
Porter growled, but did as he was told.
"I bet you're frustrated," Other Porter said. "I know I would be. You said you were going to protect her, but now the only way you can do that is by not doing anything at all!"
"Let her go," Porter said again. "She's got nothing to do with this!"
"Porter, what's going on?" Sarah asked.
"You keep your mouth shut!" Other Porter snapped, and then looked back up at Porter. "She has everything to do with everything, pal. Everything that's happened revolves around her. She's the one you care about more than anything else."
"If you want to fight me, then fight me!" Porter yelled. "Don't drag Sarah into this!"
"Trust me, I would love to!" Other Porter retorted. "But this isn't the time or the place. If you hadn't noticed, there's an army of Slayers outside tearing the city apart."
Porter's face turned red, but he didn't say anything. As much as she hated doing it, Sarah pressed herself as close to the Other Porter as she could. It made goosebumps rise up on her skin, but at least it put a half inch of space between her and his sword.
"Right now, she's going to be my ticket out of here," Other Porter went on. "And my guarantee that you'll come after me."
"You don't have to..."
"If you manage to get out of this place alive," Other Porter spat, "then come to where this all started. I'll be waiting for you, and we'll settle things there. We'll... he paused, and pressed the blade against Sarah's neck again. "We'll find out who's the better Porter there."
"What do mean, where this all started?" Porter asked. "Do you mean Sarah's house?"
"No," the Other Porter said. "This goes back way before she even came into the picture. I mean where everything started sixteen years ago!"
Porter shook his head. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Then figure it out! Unless you want me to kill her now and save you the trouble."
For a few seconds, Sarah thought Porter was going to attack him anyway. He still didn't have Flicker, though. Would he be able to beat the Other Porter without his sword? To her relief, he finally let his arms relax, but when he spoke it wasn't to Other Porter.
"Sarah, I'm sorry," he said, looking at her for the first time.
"Don't be," she said, shaking her head as best she could with a sword at her throat. She was still fighting to hold back the terror, but she managed to give him a brave smile. "You'll come rescue me, just like you always do. I believe in you!"
"I won't let this thing win," Porter said, giving Other Porter another hate filled glare. "I'll find you, and everything will be all right."
"It's time to go," Other Porter said. "Get out of my way!"
Reluctantly, Porter stepped aside so that the doorway was clear. Walking awkwardly, always making sure to keep Sarah between them, Other Porter made his way through it.
"Sarah, listen to me," Porter said just before she passed through the door and lost sight of him. I love you too!"
NEXT TIME: Aaw, isn't that sweet? Porter and Sarah are officially a couple now! Too bad Porter's evil twin is kidnapping her and won't give her back unless Porter finds him and beats him in mortal combat. But, you know, these things happen. Right now, I'm more worried about Azkular. What's Mortoph doing to him, and will Azkular be able to stop him? I'm guessing... probably not.