Chapter Thirty Four
"This is the Arch-Mirror," Azkular said, leading Porter, Joseph, and Tick into a small room, revealing the two-paned mirror he had used the day before. "Normally, I use it to speak to Arch-Mythic Rayalga when he's not here. It has another use, though."
Before anyone could ask what he meant, the djinn conjured a fireball and threw it at the mirror. Both panes of glass shattered into million tiny pieces, but at a wave of Azkular's hand they parted to leave the pathway to the mirror clean. There was a tunnel behind where the mirror had been, with stairs leading down into the mountain.
"It was supposed to be used just for an event like this," Azkular said, hanging his head in dejection. "If given enough warning, we could have evacuated the entire city through that tunnel. Given the situation, though, we didn't have time to use it. The Slayers attacked before we could send the signal to begin to evacuation."
Porter stepped forward to look into the dark tunnel. To think, so many lives could have been saved just by breaking some glass. He pushed those thoughts away, though. They would only depress him, and slow him down.
"Where does it lead to?" he asked, turning around to look at the djinn.
"Outside the mountain, stupid!" Joseph shot back.
"It goes on for about a mile," Azkular answered, not bothering to rebuke the satyr, "and then lets out by the river. Hopefully, that'll put us far enough away from the Slayers to avoid detection."
With that, he shrugged Joseph's arm away and hopped towards the tunnel. With one hand on the wall, he descended the crudely chiseled stairs into the darkness. Joseph followed directly behind him.
"Porter," Tick said, tugging gently on the young man's sleeve. "What's going to happen to the others?"
Porter sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I told you, Tick. Sarah's been taken, and—"
"No, the other Mythics!" Tick interrupted him. "The ones in the city!"
Porter's hand fell limp by his side.
"They're... not going to make it."
Tick stared at him. "Just like at the Historians' Tower?"
Porter grimaced. "Yeah. Yeah, just like that."
Tick looked down at the floor and crossed his arms over his chest. For a few seconds, he didn't say anything.
"I don't care," he finally muttered under his breath, so low that Porter barely heard it. But Porter did hear it, and his mouth almost fell open in shock.
"What?" he asked, dumbly.
"I don't care if they die," the little chimera said, still refusing to look at him. "They all said bad things about you, and they locked you up, and they wanted to kill you, and..."
Tick's voice trailed off, his spiteful comments devolving into a long, pathetic whine. He started to shake, and he was grasping his forearms so tightly that his fingernails were leaving little indentations.
"Tick, Tick," Porter said, and pulled the child into a hug. "It's okay. Everything's going to be okay."
"Why do people have to die everywhere we go?" Tick asked.
Porter shook his head. "I don't know, but—"
"Come on!" Azkular's voice echoed out of the tunnel. "Get in here before they see you!"
"We have to go, Tick," Porter decided, standing up and taking his friend's hand. "Now."
Tick still looked miserable, but he didn't resist as Porter led him down into the passageway. The immediate area was dark, but he could see a glimmer of blue light about thirty feet in the distance.
"We have to be out of the tunnel before they destroy the mountain," Azkular said once they'd caught up. "If we're too late, even the secret passageway won't be able to save us."
Azkular began to hop away again. Even with his leg gone, his balance and speed were impressive. Tick let go of Porter's hand and followed the djinn without a word. Joseph lagged behind, and when Porter tried to follow the others, he stopped him with a hand on his chest.
"Where's Sarah?" he demanded, not bothering to hide the loathing in his eyes.
"She's... gone," Porter answered, looking away. "She got taken."
Joseph's hand tightened into a fist around Porter's shirt. "Taken by who?"
"A Slayer," Porter told him. Explaining that Sarah had been kidnapped by his evil clone would take too long. Besides, Joseph probably wouldn't even believe him.
"Is she alive?"
Porter nodded. "She's alive, and once we get out of here I'm going to get her back."
Joseph yanked Porter closer so their noses were almost touching.
"Like heck you are!" he yelled. "This is all your fault in the first place!"
Porter pushed the satyr away and glowered at him. After everything that had happened today, his nerves were wearing thin. He didn't need Joseph's attitude, or his accusations.
"I didn't kill those Mythics," he shot back.
"You brought them here!"
"I did not!"
"Everybody who died, died because of you!"
Porter's patience finally snapped, and he stepped up to face Joseph.
"Do you want to fight me?" he demanded, his face burning red. "Is that what you want? Because if it is, I'll kick your freaking butt right back into that mountain and let the Slayers have you!"
Joseph went a little pale in the face, and took a step backwards. Porter, realizing too late what had come out of his mouth, was immediately ashamed of himself.
"Look..." he said, trying to calm himself down.
"What are you two idiots doing standing there?" Azkular roared from further down the tunnel. "Get moving!"
Joseph pinched his lips together, and pointed at Porter. "You don't deserve Sarah. You'd better hope she's alive, because I'm going to kill you if she isn't."
"Get moving, freak," Other Porter said as they emerged from the tunnel, into the forest. The three Slayers that had been guarding the exit lay dead behind them.
The words cut through Sarah's skin, straight down into her heart. It was almost surreal, hearing something so cruel come out of Porter's mouth. It wasn't him, though, she reminded herself. The Other Porter was a copy, a cheap imitation of someone better. The thought emboldened her, and she gave the clone an icy glare.
"Bite me!" she shot back, and flinched when Other Porter kicked her in the side. She stumbled a bit, but managed to keep her balance. To her surprise, the kick didn't even faze her. Mere weeks ago, that would have sent her slinking for cover with her tail between her legs, but now it only made her even angrier. The Other Porter, this thing that looked like the boy she loved, might have kidnapped her, but if it thought she was going to lose her nerve and submit, it had another thing coming.
Other Porter saw the defiant look on her face, and hesitated. With a flick of his wrist, he held the tip of his sword in front of her face, so close she would have had to cross her eyes to see it. It wasn't Flicker, thankfully, but it was still plenty lethal... especially in the hands of a Slayer.
"I could kill you, you know that, right?" he said.
With a huff, Sarah brushed the blade aside with her paw. "Try it."
Other Porter glowered at her for a minute, and then kicked her in the ribs a second time.
It's not really him, it's not really him, it's not really him!
"I said move!" he yelled. "If you're still here in a few minutes, you're going to die."
Sarah gave him a spiteful smile. "I'm not stupid. I know you're not going to kill me."
"What makes you think that?" Other Porter asked, the grip on his sword tightening. "You know what I am."
Sarah took a step closer to him to prove she wasn't afraid. "Because I'm too valuable. I'm the only reason Porter's coming after you. If you kill me, you'll never see him again."
Other Porter gave a humorless chuckle. "For someone who's spent her whole life reading books, you're pretty stupid. I didn't say I was going to kill you. I said you were going to die."
He turned and pointed back at the mountain, "Mortoph won't be satisfied just killing everyone in the city. He has to make it so no monsters will ever be able to live in it again."
Sarah took a moment to look at the mountain, and a chill ran down her spine. "You mean the Slayers are going to destroy the entire thing?"
Other Porter's gleamed now that she was catching on, but he shook his head. "No, I mean Mortoph's going to do it. All by himself."
Sarah took a step backwards and gave Porter's copy a sharp look. "You're lying, aren't you? Nobody's powerful enough to destroy a mountain all by themselves."
Other Porter's grinned widened. "You don't know anything about Drake Mortoph. You have no idea what he's capable of. He's more powerful than you could ever imagine."
If looking at the mountain had sent a chill down Sarah's spine, then looking into Other Porter's eyes was enough to freeze her blood solid.
"That's why we need to get out of here," he went on. "Because if we're still anywhere near the mountain when he does it, we'll get caught in the blast."
Sarah took another step backwards. Her parents, Tick, Porter... were they all still in there? If Other Porter was telling the truth, and she had a horrible feeling that he was, then they were in even more danger than they realized. For a minute, she was tempted to go running back inside to find them. Other Porter, somehow knowing what she was thinking, held out his sword to block her path.
"If Mortoph's really that powerful, then why don't you go back to him?" she asked, her claws digging anxiously into the dirt.
"Because I don't care about Mortoph anymore," Other Porter answered. "All that matters now is me, and him."
"Why are you doing this?" she asked, quietly. "You got out of his head, somehow. What else do you want?"
Other Porter raked his hard, mean eyes over her. "To prove that I'm the better Porter."
"That you're... what?"
"Do you have any idea what it feels like?" he asked, rounding on her, his black coat billowing behind him. "Being stuck inside somebody's head?"
The sudden movement startled Sarah, and she fell over backwards.
"I spent weeks having to watch that idiot live my life," Other Porter's grip on the sword tightened, and Sarah began to worry that he was going to kill her anyway out of anger. "I saw everything he did, and I heard everything he said. I even heard his thoughts, and they made me sick! So confident, so innocent, so... childish! I was embarrassed just to share the same body as him. But now that I'm out, I'm going to give him a hard dose of reality."
He didn't have to explain the rest of his plan for Sarah to figure out how it was going to end.
"I'm the better Porter," he said, his voice quieter now, "and when he finds us... if he ever finds us, I'm going to prove it. Now move!"
On shaky paws, Sarah obeyed, turning her back on the mountain that held her friends and family. There wasn't anything she could do for them now, anyway.
Still, she couldn't resist saying one more thing.
"When Porter finds us," she said in her most threatening voice, "the real Porter, he's going to make you pay for this."
Other Porter kept his eyes up, resolutely looking in front of them as they trudged through the forest.
"I am the real Porter."
Porter grabbed the wall of the cave as his feet slid out from underneath him again. The cave floor was coated in slick, wet mud and his shoes weren't able to find any purchase, leaving him slipping and sliding down the tunnel with almost every step.
"Hurry up!" Azkular snapped from further ahead. "We don't have much time left!"
Tick came scampering back, his tail helping him to keep his balance on the slippery surface.
"Do you need help?" he asked as Porter righted himself again.
"I'm fine," Porter answered, keeping his hand on the wall for the next time he slipped.
Joseph put his hand around the chimera's shoulder. "Come on, Tick," he said gently. "We need to hurry."
Tick waited until Porter gave him a nod of approval, and then turned and let Joseph lead him away. The satyr, in return, gave Porter a hateful glare.
Porter was the one holding them back. Joseph didn't have a tail that Porter could see, but his hooves gave him the natural balance of a mountain goat. Even Azkular, to Porter's astonishment, was making faster progress as he hopped down the tunnel on one foot.
In the distance, a pinprick of light twinkled in the darkness.
"There's our way out," the djinn said, pointing.
There was a rumble, and the tunnel shook, nearly tripping Porter up again. A thin shower of dust rained down on their heads.
"Maybe it's time we started running," Joseph said, looking uneasily up at the ceiling.
"I think you're right," Azkular said.
"Tick, come here," Porter said, holding out his hand. "Let me carry you out."
"I can run by myself," Tick argued.
"I know you can, but I don't want to risk us getting separated. I already lost Sarah today. I don't want to lose you too."
"Then I'll carry him," Joseph said. Without waiting for the chimera to agree, he hoisted him up on his shoulders. "You can barely walk. What good do you think you can do him?"
Porter bit back a sharp retort and nodded when he saw the sense in Joseph's words. He might not have liked the satyr, but right then Tick's survival was more important than anything else.
There was another rumble, and Azkular turned towards the exit. "Let's go!"
Ozzie stood in the front row of the Slayers' ranks, on top of a hill where they could clearly see the mountain. Drake Mortoph stood between them and the Sanctuary, his coat billowing in a breeze that should have been too weak to move it. His hands were clasped behind his back as he regarded his followers. There were lots of words that could have described him, but right then the one that rose above all the others was intimidating.
"My friends," he called out, and his voice carried on the wind so everybody could hear him clearly, "today we have earned a great victory! Hundreds of monsters lay dead, all because of your bravery." He raised his sword above his head. "We are triumphant!"
"We are triumphant!" the army echoed back in perfect unison.
Like robots, Ozzie thought. Or sheep...
How had he never noticed before?
"The war continues, though. Their leader, the cowardly buzzard Rayalga, was present at the battle, but he managed to escape yet again."
A chorus of jeers came from the crowd, as Mortoph had no doubt expected. He was the shepherd, guiding his obedient little flock wherever he wanted them to go. It made Ozzie's blood boil to think that he had been one of them not even an hour ago.
"Now all that remains is to destroy their nest so that it may never be defiled by their ilk again."
An expectant silence fell over the Slayers as their Master turned to face the mountain. He raised his hand, and the sky darkened so that only the mountain was visible. An unnatural chill washed over Ozzie, making him want to curl up into a ball and scream. For a few seconds, nothing seemed to happen.
Then, with an earsplitting sound, a crack opened up in the side of the mountain, releasing a hellish orange light.
(POV: Mrs. Heisen)
Heat, blood, and the stench of death invaded Mrs. Heisen's senses as she and her husband ran through the streets.
"Hurry, to the exit!" David yelled.
The Slayers had finally retreated, but not out of defeat. Just looking at the bodies piled up in the streets, Mrs. Heisen knew it was because their job was finished. As far as she knew, she and her husband were the only Mythics left alive in the Sanctuary.
Sarah, wherever you are... please, be alive!
The exit tunnel was dead ahead. Just a little farther, and they—
The mountain began to shake again, throwing both of the sphinxes off their paws. A moment later a deafening boom filled rang out, and a wave of heat even greater than that of the fires coursed through the mountain.
"What's going on?" Mrs. Heisen asked as the ground began to quake underneath them.
In answer, there came a second boom, and a fountain of lava erupted from the road in the center of town. Even from the outskirts of the city, she could see the geyser of molten rock rise above the few remaining buildings.
"Go," her husband ordered her, his voice numb with shock. "Go, go, go!"
They both scrambled back to their paws, but before they could take two steps the ground under their feet heaved and groaned. The pavement cracked, sending up a ring of smoke and orange light around them. Mrs. Heisen skidded to a stop as the heat singed her fur.
"Melissa, run!" Mr. Heisen shouted, just as his shoulder slammed into her. The force sent her tumbling forward, right as the ground caved in underneath her. She fell on her side, less than an inch away from the droppoff, and rolled over just in time to see her husband fall into the pit.
"David!" she screamed.
Mr. Heisen didn't have time to spread his wings, didn't even have time to scream, before he hit the lava. The pool molten rock swallowed him, hiding him from his wife's eyes forever.
Looking at the spot where her husband had disappeared, unable to believe what she had just seen, Mrs. Heisen let out a gut wrenching scream.
The lava was still rising, though. Even now, it had reached the lip of the hole, and was creeping over the edges. Mrs. Heisen took an unconscious step backwards, her brain still focused on survival even though her heart was overcome by grief. Behind her, another small section of the road exploded as a lava fount shot up, throwing her off her paws yet again.
He's gone, her subconscious mind shouted at her. You can't help him now. Sarah's alive, though. She has to be. You've got to find her!
There was no way out, though. When she turned to look, the exit tunnel was already being filled with lava. The only way she escape now was with magic, and that carried the risk of the spell being redirected by the Slayers.
The feathers on her wings were starting to turn black and crumble to ash from the heat. She didn't have anymore time to think about it. Just as her daughter had weeks ago, Mrs. Heisen closed her eyes, summoned her magic, and vanished in a ring of yellow light.
A wave of heat struck Porter from behind, and he turned around to see an orange glow coming from the mouth of the tunnel.
"Faster!" Azkular yelled.
Porter's eyes widened. If that was what he thought it was, then yes, running would be a very good idea. He turned and chased after the others, sliding more then he ran, as heat greater than any he had ever felt before filled the cavern. Greater, even, than when Azkular had tortured him in the dungeon— and it was only getting worse.
"We're almost there," he heard the djinn yell, but he was too focused on getting away to listen. The light at the end of the tunnel was getting bigger. It couldn't be more than a hundred feet away.
Chancing a look backwards, Porter gasped when he saw a river of stone-meltingly hot lava closing in on him. Balancing as best he could on the slimy cave floor, Porter put on an extra burst of speed and charged for the exit.
Suddenly, the cave was gone, and the sun, the real sun, was shining down on him again. For a second, it was so bright that Porter raised his hand to shield his eyes, and forgot to watch where he was going. His foot came down on a mossy stone, and shot out from underneath him, sending him falling backwards towards the lake of death behind him.
Then a strong hand shot out, caught Porter by the back of his shirt, and pulled him out of the way. He landed sprawled on his back on a bed of water-smoothed rocks, and watched as a wave of lava crashed down on the place he had just been. It flowed further down the incline, and into a stream, promptly turning the entire thing to steam.
"Holy... whoa," Porter breathed, putting his hand on his chest to calm his heart. "It almost got me!"
He rolled over to see Joseph standing behind him, with Tick still on his shoulders. Getting to his knees, Porter pointed a shaky finger at him.
"You saved me?"
Narrowing his eyes, Joseph said, "Don't flatter yourself, Slayer. He saved you."
Porter followed the satyr's nod, and saw Azkular hopping away from them, looking up at the mountain that had been his home. Cracks had opened up in its sides, spilling lava down the slopes to set the forest below ablaze. Even from here, Porter could barely breathe because of the heat.
Azkular fell to his knee, and then collapsed entirely. He lay there, motionless, for several minutes, and Porter almost thought he had died.
Even though he wasn't sure if it was the wisest decision, Porter picked himself up and slowly approached the grieving djinn.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, kneeling down beside him.
"This is all your fault," Azkular said in a ragged gasp.
Porter hung his head and didn't deny it.
"You led them here," the djinn went on. "Whether you meant to or not, you brought them to my Sanctuary. Now everyone's dead, and we're all that's left."
He rolled over and propped himself up on one arm. When Porter looked into his eyes, he didn't see anger, only suffering.
"Every man, woman, and child," he whispered. "And it's all your fault. Their blood is on your hands!"
Porter felt like Azkular wanted him to argue, to give him a reason to lash out, but he couldn't. It was his fault. He had been stupid to think the Slayers wouldn't show up here. Everywhere he went, they followed... and now he knew why. First the Historians' Tower, and now Jellaska Kob Lertan. And this time, he didn't even have Sarah around to share the pain with.
"I'm sorry," he said again.
"Keep your apologies," Azkular growled. He shed no tears, but tongues of fire, like blue candle flames, were coming from the corners of his eyes. "They won't do anybody any good."
He took a moment, and the pain faded from his face, and was replaced with the anger he usually wore. With some effort, he got up and pointed an accusing finger at Porter.
"You want me to believe that you're no longer a Slayer? Then prove it. If you are truly against them, then you will henceforth follow my commands."
Porter met the djinn's eyes, already knowing what he would say next.
"And I order you to accompany me and undo the damage you've caused."
"You want me to help you fight the Slayers," Porter said. It wasn't a question.
"I fought the Master Slayer for the second today," Azkular replied. "That man does things that no human should ever be able to do. Even I didn't stand a chance. And yet, somehow you defeated him."
Porter wanted to point out that he had no idea how he had beaten Mortoph, but kept his mouth shut. His arguments would only fall on deaf ears.
"You and I together can do it again," the djinn reasoned, his eyes widening with bloodlust. "And this time we'll make it permanent."
The crack widened, and lava spilled down the side of the mountain. A few seconds later, everybody flinched when the top of the mountain exploded, shooting a jet of lava into the sky. All around Ozzie, the Slayers began to cheer and clap, like Mortoph was putting on a show just for their entertainment.
Finally satisfied, the Master Slayer turned to face them again and lowered his hand. Without a word, he marched away, splitting his ranks in two as he passed through them. In an orderly, sheeplike fashion, the Slayers followed him. That was it. The battle was over, and it was time to go home.
But while as everybody left, Ozzie stayed where he was, staring at the volcano that Mortoph had created. He hadn't spoken a spell, he hadn't even worked up a sweat. All he had done was hold up his hand and will the magma to rise up from the earth and into the mountain, filling the Sanctuary and burning anything that remained inside alive.
Was Misty one of them? he wondered. Or did she manage to get out?
"Are you all right, Ozzie?"
Caught off guard, Ozzie spun around to see Granger standing behind him. For a second, he thought the veteran Slayer had somehow guessed what was on his mind, and had to fight down a surge of panic.
"Quite a sight to see, isn't it?" Granger asked, looking at the volcano with his hands behind his back. Even now, it was still spilling lava down its slopes.
"Yeah, I guess," Ozzie answered.
For a minute, the two of them watched in silence. Then, Granger said, "I know what you're thinking. Why do we have to do this?"
Ozzie sucked in a startled breath, but the look on the second-in-command Slayer wasn't judgmental. He was still looking out at the scene of destruction.
"The others don't understand," he continued. "They think this is hero's work, saving the world from monsters that want to destroy humanity. They're wrong."
"If it's not right, then why do we do it?" Ozzie asked.
"I never said it wasn't the right thing to do," Granger corrected him. "I said it doesn't make us heroes. These monsters we fight, I don't think they're as evil as everybody believes."
Ozzie blinked, stunned. On the scale of weird things he'd seen and heard today, that ranked just below finding out his sister was alive.
"We've had it hammered into our minds that the monsters are, well, monsters but I don't think that's true. I believe they only want to live normal lives like we do." He began to gesture with his hands. "They want to have jobs, they want to make friends, they want to go to school. Do you know why we can't let them, Ozzie?"
Ozzie shook his head, too confused to say anything.
"It's because they're too powerful. Most of them are three times as strong as a human, and even more of them can use magic. It takes years of training to teach a human to cast a single spell. What you just saw," he gestured towards the volcano, "is something that would take more than a hundred normal men like you and me to do. Mortoph is the only man on earth powerful enough to do such a thing by himself. If the monsters were allowed to roam the world, then the power they would hold over us humans would be unimaginable."
He paused, and folded his hands behind his back again. "But, they might not do that. Perhaps they would live in peace with us, helping us in ways that we cannot help ourselves. With their abilities and knowledge, I'm sure many problems we face could be solved quite easily. Even so, one does not allow a lion into his house and hope that it would sleep in front of the fire and protect his family. He goes into the wild and hunts it, and kills it, so that his wife and children will be safe."
Finally, he turned away from the mountain and fixed Ozzie with a firm stare. "Because once the lion is dead, it doesn't matter what it could have done. All that matters is what it can no longer do. Do you understand what I mean, Ozzie?"
"You mean that it's not worth the risk," Ozzie answered in a hoarse voice.
Granger nodded. "We are not heroes. It is a hard truth to accept, and one that most of the others never will. We are only here to do what is necessary for the human race, even when we it means we might be the real monsters for doing it."
Slowly, Ozzie nodded. "I understand."
"Good," Granger said, and gave him a comforting pat on the shoulder. "Come, let's catch up to the others."
Ozzie watched as the old man marched in the direction the rest of the army had gone, but made no move to follow. He looked again at the volcano, which had almost blacked out the sky with smoke and ash. He could feel the heat, even from a mile away... and he knew what he had to do.
I'm not a monster.
He set off towards the mountain. He wouldn't be able to get too close, but he didn't need to. He just had to find a certain set of tracks and follow them.
He was going to find his sister.
NEXT TIME: That just about wraps up the battle for Jellaska Kob Lertan. I think their trip could have gone a little better, but then again, I'm a cynic by nature. I'm sure they all had a great time being thrown in prison and drowned in lava. BUT... will Porter ever find Sarah? Will Ozzie ever find Misty? Will this story EVER END? ALSO, the first chapter of Juryokine is coming in a little more than a week! Be ready for it on November 7th.