Chapter Forty Three
"You can open your eyes now."
Porter felt like he was frozen in place, flinching from an attack that would never come. Faska's voice was cool and reassuring, and besides that Porter couldn't hear the sounds of the battle anymore. With his heart still hammering in his chest, he opened his eyes.
"Where are we?" he asked. Their surroundings didn't look at all different from any other part of the forest he'd been in over the past few weeks.
"Miles from the Slayers' base," the elf answered, putting his bowstaff in a sling on his back. "We should be safe here."
Azkular, who was still hanging onto Porter's back, got down and hopped until he could lean against a nearby tree.
"Unless one of them decides to trace the spell," he growled, rubbing his leg stump gingerly.
"I don't think they will," Faska reassured him. "We were only three targets, and we left behind an entire tribe."
Porter turned to glare at him, a scathing remark already at his tongue, but he stopped when he saw the agonized expression on the elf's face.
"I'm sure they got away all right," he said instead.
Faska raised his head and attempted to smile. "I'm sure they did. It's just that... my first day as leader, and I've lost more of my clansmen than Lowatai did in a thousand years."
Azkular stiffened, and then spun around with tiny plumes of fire erupting from his skin.
"What did you just say?" he demanded, hopping over to grab the elf by the front of his cloak. "What do you mean you're the leader? What happened to Lowatai?"
Faska turned pale, but before he could answer Azkular threw him to the ground and rounded on Porter.
"You!" he yelled, pointing at the young man. "What did you do to her?"
"I didn't do anything!" Porter protested, taking a step backwards. He flexed his hand, ready to summon Flicker if the djinn attacked him.
Instead, Azkular glared at him for a few tense seconds, and then seemed to wilt. He leaned back against a tree and sank to the ground.
"No," he moaned, putting his hands to head. "This can't be happening. Why her?"
"If it's any comfort," Faska said, straightening his cape, "Mistress Lowatai gave her life for a cause she believed in with all her heart. It wasn't for nothing."
Azkular didn't look up.
Turning back to Porter, Faska asked, "Did you find what you were looking for?"
Porter nodded. "Yeah, I found it. We're going to 332 Graybark Drive."
Normally Mortoph tried to keep the terror he radiated to a minimum, or else risk causing serious damage to anyone around him. Right now, though, he was angry enough that didn't care if some of his men woke up with white hairs in the morning. They instinctively cleared a path for him as he made his way back toward the castle, squirming as though they suddenly had bugs crawling up their clothes. Granger was picking himself up, rubbing the side of his head where the elf had struck him.
"I'm sorry, Master," he said as Mortoph came to stand in front of him. "I've failed you."
"Yes," the Master Slayer agreed, "indeed you have. Come with me."
He turned to go back into the castle, and Granger followed two steps behind like a good, loyal pawn. In truth, Mortoph wasn't as angry with the old man as he was with himself. He had known Porter was coming to Red Castle, and yet he had still managed to get inside. Not only that, but the irritating boy stole the only prize Mortoph had taken from the Sanctuary. That added insult was enough to make him want to kill somebody. Fortunately for the second-in-command, Granger was too valuable to punish. Still, there were other ways Mortoph could get his point across.
Granger remained silent as they descended the steps into Reaper's Wait, and then even further into the prison itself. Mortoph looked into the eyes of his prisoners, as he always did, and immediately noticed the change in their eyes. They weren't quite hopeful, but there was definitely a spark that hadn't been there before... a spark he didn't approve of at all.
"He was here all right," he growled under his breath. The Mythics had seen Porter waltz right in, and then back out again with a prisoner on his back. Mortoph had worked hard to break every one of these miserable wretches as much as any living creature could be broken. Porter's intrusion had, in essence, been the glue. Not enough to fix them, but enough to remind them what it felt like to be fixed. He let out another strong wave of fear to re-cripple their spirits.
They came to the djinn's cell and, just as Mortoph had predicted, found it completely unguarded. He put his hand on the door, unlocking it, and pushed it open.
"Master Mortoph!" one of the prison guards yelled, dangling from the wall with only his face visible through the chains. "Help us!"
The other, fatter guard was completely cocooned, but he struggled a bit at the sound of the Master Slayer's name.
"There was a kid," the first guard said. "He broke in and opened the cell. I don't know how he did it, but we couldn't stop him. He—"
"Shut up!" Mortoph yelled, filling the cell with frigid terror. The Slayer shut up. "I knew you two were incapable of real work, but I didn't think you were this stupid! What kind of Slayer can't even guard a bunch of lifeless monsters?"
"I'm sorry!" the guard yelled. "Both of us are, we promise."
Mortoph glared at the two useless sacks of flesh for a minute, letting the walls and chains frost over with his displeasure.
"Aren't you going to let us go?" the Slayer asked.
"No," Mortoph decided, and slammed the door shut. Taking a couple steps back, he snapped his fingers. For the next few minutes, he and Granger stood side by side, listening to the screams of the failures inside as the chains came to life again, slowly squeezing the life out of them like iron pythons.
"I am not happy, Granger," Mortoph said once the cell finally went silent.
"I know, Master," Granger replied. To his credit, if he was repulsed by Mortoph's actions, he was too professional to let it show.
"I had expected to catch that boy here and end this foolishness, but Porter has escaped yet again."
"We'll get him next time," Granger promised.
"I know," Mortoph agreed, folding his hands behind his back and heading back towards the entrance. "And it's going to happen right now. Retrieve whatever equipment you need and meet me at the site where they cast the spell. We're going after him."
Azkular stared into the flickering campfire, sitting with his legs crossed as best he could with one of them missing. The flames were orange and didn't give off nearly as much warmth as the blue fire inside him, but Faska and Porter had insisted that he keep his magic to himself. The more he used, the longer it would take him to heal. He didn't care one way or the other. If the fools wanted to put that much effort into an inferior fire, let them.
Porter and Faska were both sitting as quietly as he was. The boy was staring at the ground, idly drawing circles in the dirt with a stick. Azkular could tell just by looking into his eyes where his thoughts were. He could still scarcely believe Porter had actually come to rescue him back at Red Castle. That hadn't been his original intention, of course, but the fact that he'd broken into Reaper's Wait the moment he'd found out still bewildered the djinn. If their roles were reversed, Azkular would have left him in that cell without a second thought.
Faska sat with his back rigid, obviously trying to mimic the authoritative air that Lowatai achieved so effortlessly. Images of the white-clad elf oracle danced before his eyes, only becoming clearer when he shut them. Just when he'd thought he had nothing else to lose, the world found a way to prove him wrong.
"Elf," he said suddenly, opening his eyes again. Faska turned his head to look at him, but didn't reply. "How did Lowatai die?"
Faska drew in a sharp breath, like Azkular had just slapped him, but then slumped forward.
"You said she died for something she believed in," Azkular urged him. "Tell me what it was!"
Without a word, Porter stood up and walked away. Faska watched him go with a strange mix of respect and sympathy in his eyes.
"What's wrong with him?" the djinn asked.
"You're not the only one who counted Lowatai as a friend," Faska answered. "Her death shocked Porter just as much as anyone else, especially considering the role he played in it."
Azkular's eyes lit up, and he clenched his fist. "Did he—"
"No," Faska interrupted him. "Porter didn't kill her. It is... somewhat more complicated than that."
With his eyes still glowing blue, Azkular forced himself to sit back down. "Tell me everything."
The forest was so dark that Ozzie could barely see his hand in front of his face— or the tree that he ran into face-first. Even the dim light of the moon and stars were being blotted out by the dense woods, leaving him to stumble blindly along as quickly as he could. Roots and loose stones tried to trip him, slowing him down even more, but the thought of stopping for the night never even occurred to him. He was still on Misty's trail, he was sure of it even if he couldn't see the tracks. If he stopped now she would only get even further away. He couldn't let her—
Ozzie's foot came down on open air, and he let out a yelp as he went tumbling down the steep incline of a ditch. He rolled to a stop on at the bottom, looking up at the invisible canopy of leaves above him. Everything was invisible at this time of night. A minute later he picked himself up, wincing, and took a moment to lean against a tree.
"I need a light," he whispered to himself. All this time, he'd refused to conjure a flame to light his way for fear of alerting Misty and her monstrous companion. But the only thing he would accomplish like this was serious injury. With a sigh of resignation, he cupped his hands and a spark of fire ignited in them. He paused for a few seconds, letting the welcome warmth seep into his frigid hands, and then set off again.
After hauling himself out of the ditch, Ozzie retraced his steps as best he could to where he'd been before. A long skid in the dirt showed where he'd fallen in, but...
"No!" he yelled, dropping to his hands and knees. "No, no, no! Where are they?"
The tracks! The tracks he'd been following all this time! Misty's pawprints, and the massive boot-prints of the giant she was travelling with. Where were they?
A stack of dry leaves burst into flames from the fire he'd conjured, and Ozzie paused for a minute to put it out.
"Oh, no," he moaned, lying down on his back, feeling dangerously close to losing his mind to sheer panic. He'd lost her. After all this, he'd lost her. Even if he retraced his steps all the way to where they'd separated, by that time she would be so far gone he'd never catch up to her. Getting to his knees, he lashed out at the nearest tree, bloodying his knuckles against the course bark.
"I can't believe it!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. His hand was full of splinters now, but he couldn't care less. His sister, the sister he'd mourned every day for twelve long years, was gone again.
A cold wind blew through the trees. Ozzie barely noticed it, but some small part of his consciousness told him he needed to find shelter or he would freeze to death.
"Who cares?" he asked, rubbing his hands together to warm them. "Just let it happen."
There's still a chance, argued a small voice inside him that still clung to his remaining scrap of hope. It'll take a long time, but it'll be worth it! But if you die here, it really will be all over.
That small flicker of hope wasn't much, but it was strong enough to make Ozzie get to his feet again. He would try to survive the night. After that... he would wait and see. First, he needed to find shelter. Going to a tree with low hanging branches, Ozzie jumped up and grabbed hold of one. He slowly climbed as high as he could before the branches became too weak to hold his weight, struggling to wrap his stiff, numb fingers around the branches. When he was finally high enough to see a good ways around, he hugged his arms around the trunk and scanned the forest—
And nearly fell out of the tree when he saw the light of a campfire burning in the distance.
It's her! he thought, his glimmer of hope suddenly exploding into an inferno. I wasn't that far away after all. She's right over the next hill!
Suddenly his fingers didn't feel so numb, and he climbed down the tree in a fifth of the time it had taken him to go up. He kept his eyes fixed in the direction he'd seen the fire, and the moment his feet touched the ground he was sprinting at it full speed. He no longer cared that the giant might hear him and crush his head. All that mattered was that he was still on the trail, and that Misty was still within reach.
Porter wandered around the campsite for half an hour, letting Faska explain what had happened to Lowatai on his own. He felt bad for leaving the elf alone with the ill-tempered djinn like that, but he didn't think he could bring himself to relive that night all over again. He still blamed himself for what happened to her, and he had a feeling he always would. Even if her predictions came true, that wouldn't bring her back to life.
Finally, when the cold became too much for him to ignore, he made his way back to the camp. Faska and Azkular were still there, but they sat in silence. Porter didn't feel inclined to break it, and so sat down in the place he'd been before without saying a word. He stoked the fire with a stick, making a small shower of sparks leap into the air, and settled down to wait for dawn.
"Look at me," Azkular said. Porter looked up, and accidentally found himself staring into the djinn's unnatural black and red eyes. He managed to hold that stare for a few seconds, but then had to look away with a shiver. Even with how cold the night was, nothing chilled him more than Azkular's eyes.
"I knew it," the djinn muttered.
Azkular hesitated and then shook his head. "I still don't know, exactly. I can see the echoes of someone's life when I look into their eyes. That's why I knew you were a Slayer even though you kept denying it."
Porter shot him a glare. "I'm not—"
"Shut up and let me finish," Azkular snapped. "When I first looked at you, there was something I'd never seen before. It wasn't what I was looking for, though, so I didn't think about. But when Mortoph used his magic on me..."
"You mean when he stuck his fingers in your eyes?" Porter asked when the djinn's voice trailed off.
"Yeah," he agreed, gruffly, "that. When he did that, I felt something. The only way I can describe it is familiar."
"What I felt when he put his fingers in my eyes— I could have sworn I'd felt it before. But at the same time, I knew I hadn't. I've been trying to figure it out ever since, and I think I finally have my answer."
Porter got the distinct feeling he didn't want to know, but he asked anyway.
"I was right, I hadn't felt it before," Azkular answered. "I had seen it."
"Yes, every time I looked into your eyes."
For a moment, the chill running down Porter's spine overpowered even the warmth of the campfire.
"What does that mean?" he asked.
Azkular shook his head. "I have no idea, but I know what I felt."
"Are you saying Mortoph did that... whatever it was to me?"
Azkular thought for a moment. "No, he couldn't have," he finally decided. "Otherwise, your eyes would look like mine."
Relief swept over Porter, and he let out the breath he'd been holding. He didn't know what he had been so worried about. Even if Mortoph had tried something like that, it obviously hadn't worked. He was still himself, Porter Collins, to the core.
A twig snapped in the woods, and as one the three travelers sprang to their feet. Flicker appeared in Porter's hand, Faska whipped out his bowstaff, and a pair of blue fireballs ignited in Azkular's palms. More noises were coming now, and they were growing louder.
"Did they follow us?" Porter asked, jumping over the fire so that he was between the others and whatever was coming for them.
"They must have," Faska said, scanning the woods with his keen elf eyes. "But why did it take... there!"
Just as he spotted the oncoming threat, a man in a black coat came hurtling out of the trees so suddenly that he ran straight into Porter.
"It's a Slayer!" Azkular yelled, almost sounding happy that they'd been found.
"Misty!" the Slayer screamed as he struggled wildly against Porter. Porter managed to push him backwards and then landed a solid punch on his chin, knocking him to the ground. When the Slayer fell, Porter got his first good look at him.
"You!" he yelled.
Hearing Porter's voice, Ozzie stopped thrashing around, blinked, and then looked up at him.
"You... you're not Misty," he said, dumbly. "Where is she? She's here somewhere. Tell me—"
Ozzie started to get to his feet, but was silenced when Porter punched him again.
"I thought I told you not to let me see again!" he yelled, towering over him.
The second punch seemed to bring wake Ozzie up, and he shook his head. "Porter? What the heck are you doing all the way out here?" He paused, and finally noticed the elf and djinn standing around the campfire as well. "Aw crap, are you serious?"
"What are you doing here?" Porter demanded, raising Flicker threateningly.
Ozzie held up his hands. "I wasn't looking for you, I swear! I'm trying to find my sister."
Azkular extended his hand, making the fireball extend into one of his curved knives. "How many more Slayers are chasing us?"
Ozzie eyed the blade nervously, but shook his head. "Knowing what you guys have been doing lately, I'd say all of them."
Before Porter could stop him, Faska stepped forward and whacked Ozzie over the head with his staff.
"Don't play games with us," the elf warned him, taking the staff in both hands.
Ozzie held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, fine. Truth is, I'm not with the Slayers anymore."
Porter raised Flicker so that the firelight reflected off the blade. "Right. Try another one."
"I swear!" Ozzie insisted. "After we attacked the..." he paused when he saw the face Azkular was making. "After the Slayers attacked the Sanctuary, I saw my sister. You know, the sister who's supposed to be dead?"
Porter gave him a flat stare.
"Right, of course you don't remember," he grumbled. "Anyway, it was her. She's a werewolf now. I have no idea what's going on, but she thinks Mortoph is her dad and that I'm dead."
Porter shared a glance with his companion. "Even if we believed you," he asked, "why should we let you just walk away? You could still lead the Slayers right to us."
"I told you, I'm not with them anymore!" Ozzie spat. "I spent twelve years thinking my whole family was dead. Do you think I'm just gonna let that go?"
"That still doesn't explain why you're here," Azkular growled. The djinn's grip on his knife tightened, and Porter moved so he was standing between the two of them. Even if Ozzie was a Slayer, he didn't want Azkular killing him.
"I was trying to find Misty," Ozzie explained. "I've been following her ever since the mountain blew up, but this huge guy in a cape chased me off the last time I caught up to her."
Porter held up his hand. "Wait a minute, a huge guy in a cape?" He looked at the other two. "Do you think that means..."
"Droma," Faska agreed, already knowing what he was going to say.
Something occurred to Porter. "I think Sarah said something about having a werewolf friend before."
"Yeah, that's it!" Ozzie said, sitting up in excitement. Faska whacked him with his staff again, and he laid back down. "Misty said something when she was talking to Mortoph. She asked if the sphinx was dead, and Mortoph told her no."
Adrenaline surged through Porter's veins. "So, Droma and this werewolf girl are going after Sarah too?" he asked, turning to his companions.
"They must be," Azkular agreed. "That's the only reason they'd be in this area at the same time we are."
Porter banished Flicker, any threat Ozzie might offer forgotten, and put his hand to his chin in thought. "Droma said he had something really important to do just before the Slayers got to Jellaska Kob Lertan. If he's looking for us, that must mean he's finished."
"Does it have anything to do with your destiny?" Azkular asked.
Porter's hands fell to his sides. "You know about that, huh?" he asked, looking at the djinn's feet.
"Droma and Mistress Lowatai were close," Faska piped up. "If Mistress Lowatai knew something about you and Sarah, I don't doubt that she would have told Droma. Especially since he found you so soon after you left our camp."
Porter nodded slowly. "So he's in on this too, is he?"
Faska nodded back. "It would appear that way."
"But there's no way he knows about Other Porter," Porter realized. "If he shows up before I get there, who knows what'll happen?"
"Then it's even more important that we get there before he does," Azkular agreed. "Faska, how far away are we from this place?"
Faska pulled a map of the area from his cloak, which was what they had been using to find their way to Graybark Drive. "Another full day of hiking," he answered.
They fell silent, contemplating this.
"We'll have time to get there tomorrow," Porter said, trying to sound more confident than he felt. "But we're tired tonight. We need to sleep so we'll be ready for whatever happens tomorrow."
"I could just give you some more—"
"No more djinnfire," Porter cut him off with a wave of his hand. "No offense, but that stuff nearly killed me last time."
"I agree," said Faska. "It's too dangerous. A good night's sleep will help him far more than your magic."
Azkular grumbled, but extinguished the fire in his hand anyway. Then he pointed at Ozzie. "What about the Slayer?"
Porter spun around, having almost forgotten Ozzie was there. "He's right. What are we supposed to do with you?"
"Take me with you!" Ozzie demanded without hesitation. "I want my sister, that's all."
"Why?" Azkular asked. "So you can kill her, Slayer?"
"I'm not a Slayer!" Ozzie yelled, pounding his fist on the ground.
Porter drew in a sharp breath and almost took a step backwards. Those words were so familiar, because he'd said them so many times he'd lost count. Coming out of Ozzie's mouth, they sounded completely alien. And yet, he couldn't ignore the tone in his voice, the same one Porter had used every time he'd denied being one of the black coated hunters.
"Azkular," he said after thinking about it for a few minutes, "look into his eyes."
"Why?" the djinn asked.
"You were just saying you could see the echoes of people's lives when you looked into their eyes, right? Well, look into Ozzie's and tell me if he's telling me the truth."
"That's not really how it works," Azkular grumbled, hopping awkwardly so that he could kneel down in front of the young man on the ground. "But fine, whatever."
They stayed like that for almost a full minute, the only sound coming from the crackling logs as the campfire blazed behind them. Finally, Azkular growled.
"He's a Slayer, all right," he said in a low, dangerous voice. "But... he's telling the truth. Something happened just a few days ago that changed his life. I can't see any details, that's not how the echoes work, but it could be what he said."
Porter looked down at the boy on the ground. He said they'd used to be best friends, but he couldn't imagine himself ever feeling kinship for a Slayer. And yet, Porter was only alive because Sarah had given him a chance to change, even though she'd had every right to kill him. If he didn't allow another Slayer that same chance, didn't that make him something even worse than the Slayers?
"All right," he said at last. "You can come with us."
"You're joking," Azkular snapped, spinning around to look at him. "He's a Slayer!"
"So was I," Porter reminded him. "If I can change, anybody can."
They all turned to look at Ozzie, who slowly got back to his feet. Moving cautiously, like he was afraid of spooking them, he took off his coat. Then, with a disdainful flick of his wrist, he threw it into the fire. All four of them watched as the flames gradually consumed the black fabric, making it burn even hotter.
"Fine," Azkular grunted, going back to his side of the fire. "But I'm keeping my eye on you, boy!"
NEXT TIME: Party settings updated. Ozzie has joined the party! And tomorrow, they're all going to confront Other Porter. Will Porter be able to overcome his past, or will his dark side prove stronger? Will Ozzie get his sister back? Or will Mortoph and Granger show up and bring an end to this adventure?