Chapter Thirty Seven
Porter and the others had already been on the move for two hours when the sun rose, doing a feeble job of chasing away the cold. Porter was in the lead, stepping with more energy than he'd had in weeks. Azkular's fire had done just what he'd promised. Even after standing watch all night long, he didn't feel even the slightest bit fatigued. He felt like he could run all the way to the Slayers' headquarters, kick down the door, and fight all of them singlehandedly.
"Hey, watch this!" Tick suddenly shouted, and scurried up the nearest tree where he began to perform flips, twirls, and spins, leaping between the branches like it was the most natural thing in the world.
"Don't waste your energy, Tick," Porter called up to him. "We don't get to stop until tonight."
"But walking is boring!" Tick protested.
"Well, try doing something to make it more fun." Porter paused. "Something that doesn't involve jumping around in the trees."
"Fine," Tick grumped, and began the climb down. Porter braced himself for the chimera to jump onto his shoulders like he always did, but instead Tick chose to land on Joseph. The satyr set off again without hesitation, but Porter didn't miss the smug grin he gave him.
What the heck? Porter wondered. He knew he shouldn't let it bother him that much, but...
Suddenly, Azkular held up his hand. "Everybody freeze!"
Porter stopped midstep and looked at the djinn. At first, he thought Azkular was just going to tell him and Joseph off again, but then he noticed the look in his eyes as he turned his head from side to side, listening for something.
"Drop!" he ordered them, and fell to the ground on his belly. The others followed suit, and an uneasy feeling formed in Porter's gut.
"What is it?" he whispered.
Azkular didn't answer for a few seconds, but then he motioned for them to follow him and began dragging himself across the ground with his arms. Porter and Joseph exchanged a worried glance, forgetting their arguments for the moment, and began to crawl behind him.
It was slow going, as it was clear that Azkular was trying to move as silently as possible. Within a few minutes they came to a nearby hill. Cresting the top, Azkular stopped and waved for the others to join him.
Porter crawled up beside him. "What is it?" he asked, but his voice trailed off when he saw what was waiting for them on the other side of the hill. "Oh."
"Slayers," the djinn growled, voicing what Porter had already figured out on his own.
The entire Slayer's army was spread out before them, like a great black blot on the greens and browns of the forest. It stretched as far as Porter could see in every direction.
"This is our chance!" Azkular declared.
Porter's eyes widened, and he turned to stare at him in disbelief. "Are you nuts? We'd be killed before we even found Mortoph!"
Azkular wasn't listening, though. "I thought we would have to track them all the way back to their base, but this is even better! If we can get the job done now, we—"
"Azkular!" Porter snapped, forcing the djinn to look at him. "That'll never work. We can't take on Mortoph and the entire army at the same time!"
Azkular hesitated, and then nodded. "Okay, fine, you're right. We have to figure out how to get Mortoph away from his men."
Porter clenched his fist around a twig in frustration, and snapped it in half. The djinn's blood was alight with bloodlust, but Porter couldn't see any way they could possibly make his plan work, especially since Azkular wouldn't be able to help due to his missing leg.
The dead leaves behind him rustled, reminding Porter that he and Azkular weren't alone. He still had Tick to worry about. Small, weak, untrained Tick. And Joseph too, he supposed...
"What about them?" he asked, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder. "Unless you've got your own army hiding somewhere behind us, we're not going to be able to protect Tick and Joseph while we fight."
Azkular looked back, as if he'd forgotten those two were there.
"Both of you need to get out of here," he said after a moment of thought. "Run as far as you can. Try to find another Sanctuary. Tell them I sent you, and they'll let you in."
Joseph nodded, his face chalky white as he looked at the army of black-coated Slayers. He reached out to take Tick by the shoulder, but the boy slipped out of his grip and ran to Porter.
"I'm not going anywhere!" he said, grabbing the older boy's shirt stubbornly. "Not without you!"
"You have to!" Porter insisted, gently prying his hands off. "I'm not going to be able to take care of you once this all starts."
Tick gave him a furious glare, but it quickly melted away into heartbreaking sadness.
"Why do you always have to fight?" he asked, fighting back tears. "Whenever you do, you always send me away!"
"We don't have time for this," Azkular barked, casting an anxious look down at the Slayers. Porter felt the same way. This close to their camp, it wouldn't be long before they were discovered. Still, he couldn't send Tick away thinking he was just trying to get rid of him.
"I only do that to protect you," he insisted. "I promise, once this is all over, I'll never have to send you away again."
Tick looked from Porter to the Slayers. "What if you die?"
A shiver ran down Porter's spine. "I won't die," he said. "I promise."
I hope I didn't just make a liar of myself...
"But what if you do?" Tick asked, frantically. "I don't want to lose you! You're... you're my brother!"
Porter froze, and blinked with surprise. He knew Tick looked up to him, but... his brother? Did he really think so highly of him, even after finding out he'd been a Slayer? The wave of emotions that hit him was stronger than he expected, and he reached out and pulled Tick into a hug.
"I'll find you," he said. "I promise. You just have to wait for me."
Then, before Tick could protest any more, Porter pushed him toward Joseph and said, "Get him out of here, and keep him safe. Got it?"
The satyr, who still looked stunned by the army in front of him, nodded absently and pulled Tick closer to him.
"Y- yeah. Sure. Okay."
With that, he picked Tick up and backed away. To Porter's relief, Tick didn't resist, even though he gave him one last pitiful look. Then Joseph turned tail and ran into the woods as fast as his hooves could carry him. Once they were out of sight, Porter rolled back over onto his stomach and looked out at the army.
"You'll have to go in there," Azkular decided, as if he hadn't even noticed the heartbreaking scene. "I'll draw one of them out, and we'll kill him without alerting the guards."
"Do we have to kill him?" Porter asked, the pit in his stomach growing even heavier.
"Yes. After that, you'll take his coat and infiltrate the camp. There's so many of them there that I doubt they'll notice you in the crowd. Once you're in, find Mortoph and draw him away from the rest of the army. Make sure he's the only one you bring with you."
"How am I going to do that?" Porter demanded. "He'll recognize me the second he sees me!"
"I don't know," Azkular admitted. "You'll have to figure that out on your own."
Porter gave him a flat stare. "Gee, thank you. Thank you so much."
Azkular returned the glower with flashing blue eyes. "We're a little low on options here. If you have a better plan, then please enlighten me!"
Porter was tempted to tell him that they could wait for a better opportunity, but he knew it would just fall on deaf ears. This was happening here and now, whether he wanted it to or not. And if Porter didn't help, he would probably end up getting caught in the crossfire anyway.
"All right, fine," he said, and summoned Flicker to his hand.
Azkular nodded, and a fireball appeared in his palm. "I'm going to lure one of them out here, so be ready. One... Two..."
Both of them gasped, and spun around to see a tall, thin man with a bushy red beard standing behind them. In his hand, he was holding a katana.
"Porter," he said with disapproval dripping from his voice, "I had heard the rumors, but I never really believed them. I can hardly believe what I'm seeing right now!"
With a growl, Azkular hurled the fireball at him, but the Slayer expertly dodged out of the way without taking his eyes off the young man.
"Betraying the people who have acted as your family for twelve years?" he asked. "How could you?"
Porter jumped to his feet and held Flicker out defensively. "You're not my family. You're nothing but a bunch of murderers!"
The Slayer's thick eyebrows rose in surprise. "I never thought I would hear something like that coming out of your mouth. Don't you remember who I am?"
Porter's grip on his sword tightened. "I don't remember anything, and I never want you."
To Porter's surprise, the old man sheathed his sword. "I'm the one who brought you to the Slayers in the first place, young man. I'm the one who trained you and taught you everything you know. You were the most gifted pupil I've ever had the honor to teach!"
Porter faltered, caught off guard at the sudden praise. "Who... who are you?"
"Stop wasting time!" Azkular demanded, another fireball already in his hands. "Kill him!"
Porter ignored him.
"I'm Granger," the Slayer answered. "Just Granger."
Porter looked into Granger's eyes, and felt a glimmer of recognition deep inside of him. Recognition, and... admiration? Somewhere in the background, he could hear Azkular yelling, demanding that he kill the Slayer before he alerted the rest of the army to their presence, but Porter didn't do it. He couldn't do it.
"I won't pretend to know everything that's going on," Granger said, "but I'm sure we can work things out with Master Mortoph. Come with me."
He held out his hand, and Porter found himself wanting to take it. Not because he was interested in rejoining the Slayers, but because, for some reason, he couldn't help but trust the old man.
Then, a second blue fireball flew towards Granger, and he dodged out of the way again. His katana came back out of his scabbard, and the metal gleaming in the sunlight snapped Porter out of his funk. Instinctively, he swung Flicker, and the blades connected, even though Granger hadn't attacked.
"I don't care who you are, or what you've done for me," Porter said. Granger looked back at him, the shock plain on his face. "You're still a Slayer, and that makes you my enemy!"
With that, he shoved Granger away. The veteran Slayer didn't stumble, but when he held out his sword he did so reluctantly.
"Don't do this, Porter," he warned him. "I'm the third ranking Slayer. You can't beat me."
Porter's face turned a shade redder. "We'll see about that!"
He threw himself at Granger, swinging his sword with as much power as his strong, young arms could muster. But Granger had skill and experience on his side, and deflected every blow. It wasn't the inhumanly quick and precise defense that Mortoph used, Porter could tell that the old man was having to put forth effort to keep up with his opponent. Still, Porter didn't manage to land a single blow on him.
"You're wasting time!" Azkular yelled, another fireball sitting in his palm. "Take him out, or we're going to lose our chance."
"You're chance to do what, exactly?" Granger asked.
Porter gritted his teeth. Granger wasn't playing games with him the way Mortoph had with Azkular, but somehow that only made things worse. The fact that he was more concerned with figuring out what Porter was up to than staying alive made the young man's blood burn as hot as Azkular's.
Push the anger aside, his warrior's instincts whispered to him. Let it fuel your attacks, not cloud your thoughts.
He needed a strategy, Porter realized. Granger was right, Porter couldn't beat him in a fair fight. That meant Porter would have to trick him somehow...
His mind flashed back to the moment when he'd beaten Drake Mortoph. The wind had obeyed him, and thrown the Master Slayer through a building. Could he still do that, he wondered?
He would need to concentrate to find out, but Granger wasn't about to give him that luxury. It was taking all of Porter's focus just to keep the old warrior from cleaving his head from his shoulders.
His chance finally came when Granger countered his attack with another, more powerful one. Their blades collided, throwing Porter off balance. He staggered backwards, and had to catch himself on a tree to keep from falling. Seeing that he was momentarily incapacitated, Granger lowered his sword.
I have to do it now, Porter thought, closing his eyes. Before he starts to wonder why I'm not attacking him again.
And there it was, hidden just beneath the surface of his consciousness like a coin in shallow water. Unnoticeable for those who didn't know where it was, but easily obtainable for those who did.
"Enough of this, Porter," Granger scolded him. "Come with me! We can still make things right."
Porter opened his eyes and gave the Slayer a defiant glare. "You're right," he said, and lifted his sword again. "Enough is enough!"
He drew back his arm and threw Flicker at Granger with all his might. The old man ducked, letting the flying blade pass safely over his head. When he got back up, his eyebrows knitted themselves together in confusion.
"You just threw away your only weapon," he said. "Such amateurish tactics should be below you, Porter."
Porter wasn't listening to him, though. Grabbing ahold of the powers he still didn't understand, he gave the air a strong pull.
Granger noticed the shift in the wind at the last second, and turned around just in time to see Flicker come flying back at him with the power of a tornado behind it. He barely had a chance to raise his own sword before it struck him. The two swords hit each other, the steel ringing like a bell, and Granger was thrown onto his back.
Yes! Porter thought in exultation, and flexed his hand. Flicker vanished just before embedding itself into a tree, and reappeared in his grip. He dashed forward, kicked Granger's katana into the woods, and held Flicker's point up to his throat.
Granger looked up at him in disbelief. "Impossible," he gasped. "You've never been able to—"
"He's at your mercy," Azkular interrupted him. "Kill him before he recovers!"
Porter looked into Granger's eyes and braced himself to do what he had to do. If he didn't, Granger would sound the alarm and set the entire Slayer army on him. If that happened, he and Azkular would both die, and then there would be nobody left to rescue Sarah.
And yet, he hesitated.
Granger was an unrepentant Slayer. A murderer. Who knew how many innocent Mythics had fallen victim to him over the years? He deserved death, just like all the Slayers did.
Just like I did, he realized.
He had been in Granger's position the night Sarah had teleported them both into the woods. Injured like he was, she easily could have killed him. She certainly would have been justified, after everything he had just done to her. Instead, she had let him live. She'd bound his wounds and let him come with her. That was probably the biggest risk she had ever taken, but it had paid off because Porter wasn't a Slayer anymore. He had changed.
And if he could change, so could anyone. So could Granger.
Porter lowered his sword and said, "No."
There was silence for a few seconds, and Porter looked at Azkular.
"I won't do it," he said. "It wouldn't be right."
"Wouldn't be right?" Azkular demanded, his eyes wide with rage. "After everything he's done? He's a Slayer!"
"So was I!" Porter shot back. "If I can change, then—"
"There's no changing him!" Azkular roared, fire erupting from his skin. "He's been killing Mythics since before you were born. It's the only thing he knows!"
"I don't believe that!" Porter insisted. "It doesn't matter who he was yesterday, or today. All that matters is who he decides he wants to be tomorrow."
The djinn fumed for a few seconds, and then held up his fireball. "If you won't kill him, then I will."
Porter whipped his sword around so he was facing Azkular. "I won't let you!"
"We can't let this opportunity pass us by!" Azkular yelled, his black and red eyes bugging out of his skulls. "We might not get another chance!"
"No," said a voice on the other side of the clearing, "you won't."
Porter felt the unnatural chill run down his back, and spun around to see Mortoph standing there with a vain smirk on his face. Before he or Azkular could react, the Master Slayer waved his hand, and both of them were thrown backwards. Azkular collided with the tree he was balancing himself with, and Porter went skidding across the earthy ground. Sharp twigs and pebbles scraped at his skin, but he ignored the pain and struggled to get back up.
"A word of advice," Mortoph said. "If you're plotting an ambush, yelling and shouting is usually something you want to avoid doing."
Granger stood up, and bowed his head solemnly. "I'm sorry, Master. I've failed you."
Mortoph chuckled and patted the older Slayer on the back. "You've done nothing of the sort, old friend. I would never expect you to defeat Porter in a real fight."
Both Granger and Porter paused when they heard this, but Mortoph didn't offer any further explanation.
"Capture the djinn," he ordered. "And bring Porter to me."
The Slayers behind him surged forward to do his will. Ten of them ran to where Azkular lay. He conjured one of his knives, but he wasn't able to wield it properly from the ground. Another fifteen came for Porter.
"Kill him!" Azkular screamed. "Kill him before it's too late!"
Twenty five common Slayers, plus Granger, stood between Porter and the most powerful human on earth, and now he didn't even have Azkular to back him up. The djinn might not have wanted to admit it, but Porter had already realized the truth: it was already too late. Whatever chance they might have had to kill Mortoph was gone.
And so, he turned and ran.
"I'm sorry!" he called over his shoulder, hoping the djinn could hear him. Not that it would matter. Azkular was all but dead, and if he survived he would never, ever, forgive Porter for this.
Porter ran for almost ten minutes, and gradually the sounds of his pursuers faded away. He could run for the rest of his life and never once have to stop to catch his breath. That was the gift Azkular had given him, even if—
Just like that, the warmth inside of him vanished, leaving him feeling freezing cold by comparison. Exhaustion clouded his mind, and his muscles gave out instantaneously. He fell on his face, his momentum sending him sliding and rolling across the forest floor for a few feet until he came to rest on his back. He couldn't move an inch. He was too tired.
Before sleep could take him, a shadow appeared above him, and Porter felt a hand grab his shirt and haul him upright. Through the weary haze in his mind, he vaguely recognized Granger's face in front of his own.
"Please," he whispered, barely able to make his lips form the words. "Don't."
For a full minute, the veteran Slayer held him there. Porter couldn't read his expression. He could have been angry, or sad, or...
Granger set him back down on the ground.
"You've shown mercy to me," he said. "This makes us even. Don't let me see you again, or I'll have to obey my Master's command."
He turned to leave, and the darkness began to claim Porter's mind again. Before he succumbed, though, he said one last thing that stopped Granger in his tracks.
NEXT TIME: No Sarah, No Tick, No Azkular. Porter doesn't even have Joseph anymore! Now that he's all alone, how's he going to find and rescue Sarah?