Chapter Thirty Six
Ozzie knelt down and gently brushed his hand across the ground, wiping away the thin carpet of fallen leaves. He was greeted with a pawprint, and his pulse spiked.
I'm on the right track.
Standing back up, the young Slayer took a moment to pull his coat tighter around him. It was getting colder, as if Mortoph destroying the Sanctuary had been some sort of signal for the seasons to change. It didn't matter to him, though. The thought of being reunited with his sister was enough to warm him up.
Ozzie had been following Misty for almost two days now. She was making a beeline for something, always following the same path with little deviation, but he couldn't figure out where she was going. It had taken him hours to find the right set of tracks leading away from the volcano, and those precious few hours had allowed her to gain distance on him. This was made even more complicated by the fact that he'd lost the trail entirely more than once, and had to retrace his steps until he found it again. He felt better now, though. Judging by the track in front of him, she couldn't be more than a few miles away.
This is going to blow her mind, he thought, giving the ground an eager smile. It wasn't his manic grin this time— it was a genuine, heartfelt smile.
Before he could take another step, though, something else caught Ozzie's eye. The forest floor was littered with leaves from autumns past, but they weren't so deep that he could miss the gigantic indentation in the ground mere feet away from Misty's. Stooping down again, Ozzie uncovered it and frowned when a pit formed in his stomach.
"It's another one," he muttered to himself.
These tracks were human shaped, but were absolutely massive. Easily more than four times the size of Ozzie's own feet. At first he'd thought they were from a sasquatch, but that couldn't be right because they never wore shoes. Whatever was leaving these tracks was wearing boots, and their sheer size made him wonder just how many cows it had had to skin to make them.
Whatever this thing was, it was chasing Misty.
The change from dirt to pavement was so sudden that Sarah jumped a little when her paw touched it. She looked down, and saw the remains of an old, unused road underneath her. All around them, the forest grew as if man had never disturbed it, and the road was merely an unusual rock formation.
A low rumble reached her ears, and Sarah cocked her head to listen better. A car engine, and it was nearby. That meant that the old roadway wasn't quite so far from civilization as it looked.
Other Porter stood in the middle of the road, staring into the distance with a grim look on his face. A cold breeze blew out of the forest, only making the chill running down Sarah's spine feel even icier.
"We shouldn't be here," she said. "There are people nearby."
Other Porter didn't respond.
"What if someone sees me?"
After a moment's hesitation, the clone turned around and gave her a contemptuous look. "You know how to turn human, don't you?"
Sarah looked away in embarrassment. "I can, but... I'm not very good at it."
Other Porter shrugged. "Then you'd better get good at it pretty quick. Frankly, I don't care whether anyone finds out that you're a freak or not. Let them see you."
Sarah gave him a sharp look and began to mutter the spell under her breath in defiance. In truth, she had a feeling that they were far enough away from the newer road that nobody would see them, but she didn't want to take the chance. Things never seemed to end well when a human saw her in her natural shape.
Her wings, tail, and fur all shrank into her body, and she stood up on two legs as a pair of jeans, a pink t-shirt, and a light gray jacket materialized to cover her. She took a few seconds to look herself over, and couldn't stop herself from grunting in surprise when she realized that she'd become the perfect image of a human being.
Just like someone else, she thought, watching as the Other Porter turned back around to stare at something she couldn't see. A few seconds later, he started walking. Knowing she had no other choice, Sarah followed him.
A few minutes later, they came to a curve in the road. Nature had reclaimed this area too, but when Sarah peered through the trees she realized that, for about thirty feet, the old road and the new one ran side by side. As soon as she saw this, a gigantic semi-truck zoomed past, its engine roaring like a dragon and hitting Sarah with a blast of hot air. Sarah squeaked with surprise and, before she could stop herself, she grabbed the closest thing to her.
"Afraid of cars?" Other Porter chuckled. "That's pathetic, even for you."
Sarah looked, and realized that she was hugging Other Porter's arm like a life preserver.
"No!" she retorted, and let go of him. Her face burned with humiliation, and her whole body felt like it needed to be washed after touching that... thing.
When she let go of him, Other Porter's expression changed. It lasted less than half a second, and Sarah almost missed it, but it was definitely there.
"Get moving!" the lookalike snapped before she could think on it long. He gave her a shove, almost making her lose her balance. "We're nearly there."
They passed a house on the side of the road, and then another, and another. Other Porter had led her into a neighborhood, she realized. Or what was left of one, at least. The houses' doors and windows were boarded up, and some of them had collapsed entirely. When another chilly breeze tickled Sarah's skin, she couldn't shake the feeling that she was being touched by ghosts.
"What happened here?" she couldn't help but ask.
"Something bad," was all Other Porter said in answer.
The two of them walked down the street in silence, and Sarah fought the urge to look behind her. This neighborhood wasn't a good place. Horrible things had happened here. She could almost hear the echoes in the wind.
The road ended in a cul-de-sac in front of them. Two more houses stood there, but what caught Sarah's attention was the third one. Or, rather, the lack of one. The foundations of a house squatted there, almost indistinguishable now from the forest that had retaken the neighborhood. Three walls, now only tall enough to reach Sarah's hip, and a few wooden beams were all that remained. Just looking at it was enough to make Sarah's skin crawl, and she knew what Other Porter was going to say before he'd even opened his mouth.
"This is it," he said, his voice heavy with melancholy. "We're here."
He walked to the ruins, and Sarah followed, ignoring the desire to turn tail and run from this terrible, haunted place.
"Where are we?" she asked as she stepped over one of the crumbling walls. The ground was soft beneath her human feet, even softer than the forest floor around it. It almost felt like ashes.
"This is where it all began for me," Other Porter said. He went and stood in the center of the foundations and turned in a slow circle. "This is where I was born."
Come find me where it all began, and we'll finish this there.
"Twelve years ago, when I was barely four years old, I lived here. There was a fire, and I was the only one to make it out alive. Neither of my parents even made it to the door."
He fixed his cold eyes on her, and for a moment Sarah couldn't help but feel sorry for him. She'd lost her home to a fire as well, but at least she was old enough to take care of herself afterwards.
"I was told that a fire sprite started it," he went on. "It thought it'd be funny. I joined the Slayers the very next day."
He paused for a moment and walked over to put his hand on one of the walls, as if seeing it the way it had been years ago.
"I used to come here all the time growing up," he said. "I came to meditate. I would sit out here in the ashes of my old home for days at a time and think about what that fairy did to my parents. What it took away from me. That's how I taught myself to hate the Mythics."
He turned and gave Sarah another glare, this one filled with unfathomable anger. "All of them."
If Sarah had still been harboring any doubts that this wasn't the old Porter, the Porter that had killed her maid and chased her through a burning mansion, they vanished when she heard the hatred in his voice.
And the worst part of all was that she couldn't blame him.
"Now do you understand?" he asked. "This is where my parents' lives ended. This is where mine began. And when your Porter finds us here, it'll be where his life ends too."
It was another cold night, but Azkular's fire warmed the campsite enough that it wasn't noticeable. Porter sat with his back against a tree, looking into the flames.
He could see Sarah in them. It was strange, almost like he was seeing her on TV. The flames flickered and waved, but her image stayed as clear as day in front of him. The two of them made eye contact, and she smiled...
"Don't look at it for too long," Azkular said, breaking into his wistful fatigue.
"What?" Porter blinked and looked at the djinn, who sat across the fire from him.
"It's djinnfire," he explained. "If you look at it, it'll show you the thing your heart desires most."
Porter glanced into the fire again, and saw that he was in there now too. He and Sarah were together, embracing each other, and—
"It's not a thing," he said, tearing his eyes away from it again, his face burning. "It's a person."
He didn't have to explain who that person was for Azkular to understand. The djinn's eyes narrowed, but he didn't say anything.
Joseph and Tick were both asleep already. They had walked without stopping all day, but had never once caught sight of the Slayers' army. Porter wasn't sure how they could be going slower than a group of people that big, but he was too tired at the moment to think about it. Crossing his arms behind his head, he made himself more comfortable against his tree and closed his eyes.
"Hey, wake up!"
Porter's eyes snapped open, and he saw Azkular struggling to stand up on his only leg.
"What do you want?" he asked irritably.
"We're the only ones here who know how to fight. That means we're standing guard."
"All night?" Porter protested. "I'm exhausted!"
"What's more important?" Azkular sneered. "Protecting your friends, or getting your beauty sleep?"
Porter shut his mouth. There wasn't anything he could say to argue with that, so he stood up as well and summoned Flicker. Azkular took his place looking out into the forest, and Porter went to stand beside him. With one hand, Azkular braced himself against a tree, and with the other he conjured one of his knives.
"Isn't there anything you can do about your leg?" Porter asked. "You're not going to do us much good if you can barely stand."
Azkular growled softly, and then said, "It'll grow back, but that takes a long time. A few months, at least. Maybe a year."
"I thought you could heal yourself with magic."
"How do you think I'm going to grow it back? Regrowing a limb isn't the same as healing a cut. You have to grow new bones, muscles, veins, nerves, everything. If I tried to do that all at once, I'd burn myself out before it even got to my knee."
"And if you ran out of fire..."
"I would die."
Porter nodded his understanding, and the two of them stood in silence for a few minutes, staring out into the dark forest.
"Tell me, human," Azkular spoke up at last, "why do you think you love Sarah?"
Porter's face flushed, and he gave the djinn a sidelong glance. "Come again?"
"It's unnatural for a human to love a Mythic," he answered, as stubbornly as ever. "It just doesn't happen?"
"Why not?" Azkular scoffed. "She has more in common with a cat than she does you! The only part of her that even looks human is her head."
Porter shrugged. "So what?"
"So, it's like falling in love with your pet dog!"
"Are you saying Sarah's no better than a dog?" Porter shot back.
Azkular's eyes flashed in annoyance, but just like the remark he'd made to Porter earlier, he couldn't argue with the young human's logic, and he went back to glaring out into the night.
"The problem is," Porter said after thinking for a few minutes, "that you think Sarah and I aren't compatible just because she walks on four legs and I walk on two."
"That would be enough for most people," the djinn grunted.
"She's not an animal, though. She can talk and think just like I can." He paused, and laughed. "Probably better than I can, in fact. She's a human in everything but, well, her body."
"Careful, boy." Azkular's eyes flashed again. "There might be someone here who would take offense to that."
"I see her as a woman," Porter insisted. "Don't tell me you're not the same way."
Azkular raised an eyebrow. "Oh, I'm not, huh? Why is that?"
"Because you've sworn to protect Mythics. Not just the human-like ones, not just the ones without fur or scales, all of them. You can't tell me that you see them as a bunch of monsters with nothing in common. To you, they're all just Mythics. Your people."
The conversation lapsed into silence again. After a few minutes of watching the forest, with nothing but the sounds of the night to keep them company, Porter yawned again. He really was tired.
Porter turned and saw Azkular holding out a hand. At the tip of his finger was a small tongue of blue flame.
"What's that?" he asked.
"If you swallow it, you won't feel tired anymore. Until it goes out you won't need to sleep. You could run for days on end without feeling the slightest bit fatigued."
Porter raised his hand a little, but then gave the djinn a dubious look. "Why would you give me something like that?"
Azkular glanced back at the sleeping chimera and satyr. "Because their lives might depend on you being awake and alert when we encounter the Slayers."
Hesitantly, Porter reached out and touched his finger to Azkular's. The flame slid and came to rest on his fingertip. He could feel the heat on his skin, but it didn't burn him. Without giving himself time to think about it, Porter stuck his finger in his mouth and swallowed the tiny flame.
Instantly, his exhaustion vanished. Azkular had been telling the truth. Porter felt as though he could run a hundred, no, a thousand marathons without even losing his breath. With renewed vigor and determination, Porter tightened his grip on Flicker and stood watch.
Sarah wasn't the only one who needed his protection, after all.
Misoki walked with her nose to the ground, seeking out Sarah's familiar scent. The forest's darkness was nothing to her keen wolf eyes, and she hastily wove her way in between trees and shrubs as she tracked the sphinx.
Freedom... the word alone was enough to light her blood on fire and hasten her steps. Her daddy might have ordered her to go straight back to the dark, cold place, but she had a better idea. Sarah was still alive, and that made her daddy mad. Misoki knew Sarah better than anyone else in the world. Surely he wouldn't be mad if she were to hunt the stupid sphinx down and kill her, would he? After that, she'd go back to her room, where there was never any light, and tell her daddy what she'd done. He'd be proud of her once he found out why she'd disobeyed him again.
Maybe... maybe he'll be so proud that he'll turn me back! she thought. Then I won't have to live in the cold, dark place anymore!
The sound of a heavy footstep came from behind her, but she didn't look back. This guy, whoever he was, had asked to come with her after they'd happened across each other in the woods. He said he knew Sarah. Misoki wasn't sure to make of that, but figured it wouldn't hurt to have him around.
"Are you certain this is the way she went?" the huge guy asked.
"Yeah," she answered. "I can smell her tracks."
"That is good. I need to catch up with her and Porter as soon as possible."
Porter. So, he knew Porter too? Misoki was tempted to ask him about it, but instead put her nose back to the ground. She hesitated, though, and looked back at the hulking, hooded figure.
"What did you say your name was, again?"
"You can call me Droma."
NEXT TIME: Other Porter's got Sarah right where he wants her, and Porter still has a long way to go to figure out where to find her. More importantly, though... DROMA'S BACK, BABY! Where has he been, and why does he need to find Porter and Sarah as quickly as possible? Also, if you haven't already, then please, please, PLEASE, go read my brand new story, Juryokine! There's only one chapter so far, but there's more coming every Saturday. It's a wild ride for of preposterously awesome actionitude!