Chapter Forty Four
A chill ran down Porter's spine and his palms went slick with sweat when he saw the sign, barely legible under the rust and moss that had grown on it over the years. A cold breeze blew down the street, as if the ghosts that had once lived here were all coming out to see the child that had cost them their lives. Faska and Ozzie stood behind him, with Azkular leaning on the elf's shoulder.
"They're here," he said softly, mostly to himself.
The sun was beginning to set, the blood red and burnt orange light making slender fingers in between the tree branches. It had taken them all day to get here, and now, standing at the end of his old street, Porter had to fight off a wave of overwhelming dread. What if he was too late? What if Other Porter had killed Sarah as soon as they got out of the mountain? What if he'd completely misunderstood what the clone meant by where it all began? What if he got to his old house and found it empty?
It won't be, he told himself, squaring his shoulders and glaring defiantly at the ruined neighborhood. They're here, and Sarah's alive. She's alive because...
He paused, almost unable to believe what he was thinking.
She's alive because Lowatai said we need her to end the war.
The other side of himself, the confused, frightened part, argued back, When did I suddenly become okay with that? I promised I'd try, but... do I really believe it?
He searched himself for an answer, but was surprised to find he didn't have one. He wanted to believe that Lowatai was right, that he and Sarah were the key to making all the killing stop. He wanted it so badly that a part of himself actually did believe it. But there was a division inside of him, so vivid it was almost like Other Porter was still inside of him, that was skeptical. This wasn't some fairy tale. Two people couldn't end a war that had been raging since the dawn of time. They couldn't bring peace between two races when one of those races didn't even know the other one existed.
Worry about that later, he thought, quieting both halves of his mind. Right now, focus on saving Sarah. That's all that matters.
Faska came to stand beside Porter, bringing Azkular with him.
"Are you ready?" the djinn asked.
Azkular returned the nod glared down the street. "Good. Let's get this over with."
"No," Porter said. Azkular gave him a confused look, and he added, "I have to do this myself."
"Don't be overdramatic," Azkular growled. "Sarah's life is on the line here, and yours too. There's too much at risk for you to have a heroic faceoff."
"That's how it has to be," Porter shot back. "This isn't a fight against a random Slayer to me, this is personal."
"Just because he looks like you doesn't make it personal."
"He doesn't just look like me!" Porter insisted, rounding on the djinn in frustration. "He is me! He's who I was before I lost my memory."
He tried to return Azkular's glare, but couldn't. With a sigh, he turned to face the street again.
"Lowatai said something to me the first time we met," he said. "She told me not to worry about who I was, and to focus on becoming who I am now. I've spent the last few weeks trying to do that, but I can't. Even if Other Porter isn't inside me anymore, even if I've become a different person since I lost my memory, I can't pretend Other Porter is just another Slayer. He's me. I was that Slayer, and what I spent my life doing still haunts me, even if I can't remember any of it."
"You are a different person," Faska chimed in, trying to be helpful.
Porter shrugged. "Maybe, but that's not the only thing that scares me. If I'm going to move past this, I have to do more than look the other way. I have to prove to myself that who I am now is stronger than who I was before. When I face off against Other Porter, I'll be confronting my own past. If I come out on top, that'll mean that who I've become is better than the Slayer I used to be."
He turned to look at Azkular again. "That's why I have to do this alone."
Azkular gritted his teeth in frustration. "But what if you lose? What then?"
Porter hesitated. As much as he wanted to assume he would win, he couldn't deny the very real possibility of losing. And if he lost, he knew for certain that Other Porter wouldn't leave him alive to try again.
"If that happens," he answered at last, "then you can intervene. Kill him and get Sarah to safety. But," he held up a finger, "only if I'm dead. Until the minute I stop breathing, you stay out of it. Got it?"
Azkular growled again, blue flames rising out of his skin. "Fine," he grunted, reluctantly. "It's stupid, but we'll do it your way."
Porter breathed a sigh of relief and summoned Flicker to his hand. "Thanks," he said. Then, without giving himself more time to worry about it, he set off down the road. The others followed a few steps behind him.
A minute later, Ozzie sped up so he and Porter were walking side by side.
"So, I still don't get what's going on," he said.
"You don't need to understand," Porter replied. "We're bringing you here to get your sister. After that, you're going to go your own way."
Ozzie gave him a hurt look— a genuinely hurt look. "We used to be best friends when we were in the Slayers," he said, softly.
"I'm not a Slayer anymore."
"Yeah, and neither am I. So, why do we still have to be enemies?"
Porter hesitated. "We don't have to be enemies. But you threatened to kill Sarah, so why would I want to be friends with you?"
Ozzie spread his arms. "Dude, I did that for you! I thought she'd kidnapped you!"
"That doesn't make it okay!"
"It did to me!" Ozzie was yelling now, and Porter looked around, convinced that Other Porter had to have heard the outburst.
"Keep it down!" he hissed.
"It mattered to me," Ozzie said again, more quietly this time. "You were the only person I had, Porter. My dad was dead, I thought my sister was dead, and everyone else in the Slayers thought I was a freaking psycho! When I heard that my best friend had been kidnapped by a monster, what was I supposed to do?"
Porter's face turned red, and he saw Azkular tense up in the corner of his eye. "Don't call her that," he warned him.
Ozzie was quiet for a few seconds. "I know she's not a monster now, but back then I didn't. All I knew was what Mast... what Mortoph told me. I was wrong, but how was I supposed to know that?"
Porter wasn't sure what to say to this. He couldn't forgive Ozzie for trying to kill Sarah, but he had a point.
"But I'm done with all that," he went on, waving his hand. "I mean, I have to be, right? If not, when I finally found Misty, I'd have to..."
"All right, I get your point," Porter consented.
"Does that mean we can still be friends?"
Porter's grip tightened around Flicker, but he tried to make himself keep calm. "I don't know, okay? We'll talk about it later. Right now, I have to focus on fighting Other Porter."
Ozzie nodded, obviously struggling not to break down and beg for his friendship, and fell back to walk with the rest of the group. A moment later, Azkular took his place, aided by Faska.
"Are you sure you're ready to do what needs to be done?" he asked.
"If this Other Porter is really who you were before you lost your memory, it's not going to be an easy fight."
"I know," Porter replied.
"He'll kill you if you give him half a chance."
"I know," Porter said again.
Azkular reached out and put his hand on Porter's shoulder. "You're going to have to kill him. You know that, right?"
Porter stopped walking as another chill ran down his spine. "I know," he whispered.
"Will you be able to do it?" Azkular asked. "Killing someone isn't easy, especially the first time you do it."
"You don't have any trouble doing it."
Azkular gave a dark chuckle. "Maybe, but I'm probably not the best example you could follow."
"Apparently, I've killed tons of people before."
Azkular pointed at him. "Not if what you keep saying is true. If you're not the same person you were before you lost your memory, then no, you haven't killed anyone. Don't let thoughts like that give you false confidence. Overestimating yourself is just as dangerous as underestimating your opponent. When you do that, you've lost the fight before it's even started."
Trying to avoid the djinn's unnatural eyes, Porter looked down at Flicker, held limply in his fist. Now that he thought about it, he'd never put a single drop of blood on that blade. He had used it plenty of times, but always defensively. When he did strike someone with it he'd used the flat of the blade, like a club. He had never even noticed it until now, but suddenly Azkular's words rang true so loudly that he could almost feel the vibrations. His desire not to hurt people was so strong that it bordered on desperation, and he had unconsciously been doing everything he could to avoid it all along.
"Don't worry," he whispered. "I know what I have to do. And if I don't, remember what I told you."
Azkular gave a silent, solemn nod, and Porter set off once again.
A few minutes later, when the sun had sank completely below the horizon, leaving the forest in complete darkness, Porter finally came to the end of the street. It ended in a cul-de-sac, and the ruins of an old house sat at the very peak of it. The light of a campfire flickered from within it, casting dancing shadows across the overgrown lawn.
"There they are," he said.
"We're right behind you," Faska said. "If you change your mind, we'll be ready to help."
"Thank you," Porter said, unable to take his eyes off the ruins.
So, that's where I was born. That's where Mortoph found me, and my parents died.
He started towards it.
"Good luck," he heard Ozzie say, but he didn't turn around to look.
Porter walked up the crumbling sidewalk to where the front door would have been if the house were still standing. Taking a deep breath, he stepped over the invisible threshold and into the ruins. He followed the glow of the firelight, stepping around a lone section of wall, and came face to face with his own reflection.
Other Porter stood at the opposite end of the house with his sword already drawn.
"It's about time you got here," the clone said. The shifting light of the fire was making shadows play across his face.
"Where's Sarah?" Porter asked.
Other Porter smirked. "She's—"
"I'm here!" he heard her call, and her head poked around from behind another section of wall. "He tied me up so I wouldn't run."
Porter's face turned red with anger and he pointed Flicker at the Other Porter. "Let her go. Now!"
Other Porter shrugged. "Doesn't make any difference to me. Now that you're here, I know you won't just run off with her."
He walked back behind the wall and swung his sword. Panic lit up Porter's heart for half a second, but then Sarah came running out to join him, unscathed.
"You came!" she yelled, jumping up so that her front paws rested on his shoulders. "I was starting to think..."
"Of course I came," Porter reassured her, cupping his hand around her cheek. "I would never abandon you like this. I love you too much."
The two of them looked into each other's eyes, and for a minute everything else faded away. Other Porter wasn't there, Azkular, Faska, and Ozzie weren't there, and the Slayers didn't exist. The two of them were together again, and that was all that mattered. Almost without realizing it, Porter's face moved closer to Sarah's, all of the affection he had for her rising to the surface like a bubble in the ocean, ready to burst as soon as...
"I think I'm going to puke," Other Porter snapped, breaking straight through Porter's blissful distraction.
Porter scowled, still looking into Sarah's eyes, and stood up straight again. "Sarah, go back with the others."
"No! I just found you. I don't want to lose you again already."
Porter raised Flicker and looked at Other Porter. "Don't worry. Everything's going to be okay."
Reluctantly, as if her paws were being weighed down with cement, Sarah obeyed him and went to stand with Azkular and the others, leaving Porter and Other Porter alone, facing each other on opposite ends of the campfire.
"Now that is trippy," he heard Ozzie say as the Asian young man's eyes darted from one Porter to the other.
Finally noticing his old friend, Other Porter actually seemed to be caught off guard. "Ozzie? What the heck are you doing here?"
"Long story," Ozzie replied. "But..."
"He's not the real Porter," Porter interrupted him. "He's just a puddle of black slime pretending to me."
"Just as delusional as ever," Other Porter shook his head. "You still don't understand what it is that makes me better than you."
"I'm not as weak as you think I am," Porter argued. "I had to break into Red Castle to find out where you were, and I broke Azkular out of Reaper's Wait while I was there. What have you been doing for the past few days? Bullying a sphinx who doesn't even know how to fight?"
Other Porter's eyebrows rose, impressed despite himself. "But can you kill me?" he asked.
Porter didn't answer.
"That's what a real warrior is measured by, after all," he went on with a smug grin. "What good is a hero who leaves his enemies to come back and hurt him again?"
"I don't..." Porter stammered.
"I've spent my entire life learning how to kill," Other Porter interrupted him. "It became the only meaning I had in life. I lived to kill monsters like them!" He pointed at Porter's friends.
"That's why you're the monster here," Porter shot back. "A warrior should only kill to keep people safe!"
The two of them began to circle the fire, swords held at the ready, never looking away from the other one's eyes.
"I was keeping people safe," Other Porter said. "The monsters would kill us all if we gave them a chance. I stopped them before that chance came."
"You and the other Slayers are the ones who started the war in the first place!"
Other Porter shook his head. "This is a pointless argument. You'll never listen to me, and I'll never listen to you, so I suggest we skip to the next part."
Porter took hold of Flicker with both hands. "Fine with me."
Other Porter looked at the sword and burst out laughing. "Hold on there, tiger! Aren't you forgetting what else I promised to do when you got here?"
Porter lowered his sword.
"I promised you answers," the clone reminded him. "All of those questions you never knew you had. The parts of our past even I didn't remember."
Porter forced himself to relax again. "Fine. Tell me everything you know."
Other Porter grinned. "Everything Mortoph ever told us was a lie. A fire sprite didn't burn down our house. He did."
"I figured that part out on my own," Porter shot back. "It was in my file."
Other Porter went on as if he hadn't been interrupted. "Of course, we were too young for what Mortoph had planned for us then. He took us and gave us to a foster family who taught us to hate the Slayers. That was all part of his experiment."
"Experiment?" Porter echoed. He thought back to his file. Hadn't it said something about him being a test subject? "What kind of experiment?"
"We hated Mortoph the moment we laid eyes on him," Other Porter said. "We knew who he was, and we had been raised on stories about how evil the Slayers were. We even knew he was the one who killed our parents."
He grinned sadistically, and Porter crossed his arms, trying to look unfazed.
"But by the end of the day, we thought he was the greatest man alive, and we hated the monsters. We were ready to join the Slayers before he even asked us to. We were angry, coldhearted, and ready to kill the ones we blamed for our parents' deaths. We were exactly what a new Slayer recruit was supposed to be."
Porter drew in a shaky breath. "What did he do to us?"
"You still haven't figured it out?" Other Porter asked. "Think about it. Remember Shadow, back at the Historians' Tower? Remember the way he did everything the Slayers told him, even though he's a dragon? Remember how he had eyes," he pointed accusingly at Azkular, "just like his?"
Mortoph's mind control trick? Porter wondered, looking back at the djinn. What does that have to do with...
He froze when comprehension finally dawned on him, and turned to look at Other Porter again.
"You mean Mortoph did that to me?" he asked.
Other Porter nodded. "That's where I came from. He reached down into you, locked your soul away, and put me in your place. You were the first person to ever be Repurposed."
Porter reached up and felt his face, as if he were afraid his hand would pass straight through it.
"But what about my eyes?" he asked. "Shouldn't they be black and red like Azkular's?"
"They were," Other Porter answered. "I'm not sure how Mortoph fixed that, but when he first changed you they were as freakish as your monster friend's."
Other Porter stopped talking and glared defiantly at Porter. Porter, for his part, couldn't think of a single thing to say. What could he say to this?
"Now do you get it?" Other Porter finally asked. "I'm not your dark side. I'm something Mortoph made out of black magic. I'm..."
He paused, and his entire face contorted with pain.
"I'm not even a real person!" he yelled, all of the anger, fear, and frustration he'd been holding exploding out of him in one sentence.
Porter stood where he was, watching Other Porter gasp for breath on the other side of the fire. To his surprise, when he looked at him now he felt something new. It wasn't anger, it was... pity. He was just as much a victim of Mortoph as Porter, himself, was.
When the clone had finally regained his composure, Porter asked, "So, what do we do now?"
"We fight," Other Porter said without hesitation, drawing himself up to point his sword at him. "That's the only thing we can do."
"No, it's not," Porter argued. He felt like he should raise Flicker, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. "We can just walk away. We can both live our own lives. We never have to see each other again."
"You don't get it!" Other Porter screamed. "That's not good enough for me. If I let you live, I'll still be the Other Porter. I spent my whole life being the real thing. I don't want to be the fake Porter, the one who has to spend every minute of his life knowing he was never supposed to exist. If I kill you, there will be only one of us. I'll be the real Porter again!"
Porter could see the storm of emotions inside Other Porter's eyes, and he knew that there was nothing he could say that could get through to him.
"Now," Other Porter growled, holding his sword out, "pick up your weapon and fight me!"
With that, Other Porter lunged at him, and Porter had barely enough time to raise his sword before the clone's blade took his head off. Flicker vibrated in his hands, and he almost lost his grip on it under the force of Other Porter's attack. With a grunt, he pushed back on Other Porter's sword and took a step backwards before he could swing again. Behind him, he could hear his companions drawing their own weapons.
Don't you dare! he thought angrily, but he didn't dare turn away from his opponent to tell them that.
Other Porter regained his balance and, with an animalistic growl, charged at him. One of his feet went right into the fire, but he didn't seem to notice. His attention was zeroed in on Porter, and the rest of the world had ceased to exist. Porter knew that because he felt the same way.
Other Porter brought his sword back over his shoulder and swung it with all his might. Porter mimicked the action, and their blades met halfway with a deafening ring. Their swords bounced off each other in perfect unison, and they were both thrown off balance. Porter stuck Flicker into the ground, using the strength of its Kalion metal to support his weight while he regained his footing, and then yanked it out and swung it at Other Porter's exposed sided.
With a wild, one handed swing, Other Porter spun around and knocked Flicker aside. It was a desperate move, one that would have thrown a lesser warrior out of balance again, but the clone planted his feet firmly on the ground and stayed upright. He changed his grip on his sword and thrust it at Porter, the tip aimed directly for his heart. In the split second that he had to react, Porter realized he wouldn't be able to recover in time to parry the attack. Instead, he let the momentum from Other Porter's attack guide him, spinning around out of the sword's path. He slammed Flicker into Other Porter's weapon, and then followed that up with a strike at his neck. Other Porter ducked, and the sword passed harmlessly over his head. He retaliated with an upward slash, which Porter had to step back to avoid. Springing back to his feet, Other Porter and charged at him, already swinging his sword. Porter swung back, and their blades clashed together.
Porter pushed at Other Porter's blade, and Other Porter pushed back. They stood like that, their faces only inches apart, both struggling to overpower the other. It would never happen, though. They weren't two different opponents, they were the same person. The same strength, the same skill.
"There's only one way this can end," Other Porter growled, continuing to push against Flicker.
"It doesn't have to," Porter insisted. His muscles were on fire. He may as well have been pushing against a wall for as much as Other Porter yielded. He didn't yield either, though.
"That's why I'm going to win!" Other Porter yelled. "You'll never be able to do what it takes!"
Saying this, he deftly moved his sword so that the angle they were pressing against each other changed, and they slid off of each other. Porter managed not to stumble, but was forced to drop to his stomach anyway when Other Porter's blade came whizzing toward him. Rolling onto his back, Porter kicked out at Other Porter, knocking his feet out from under him too.
Other Porter crashed onto the ground, and Porter scrambled back to his feet. For a moment, he was sorely tempted to attack. Other Porter was lying there on his stomach, completely prone. Flicker twitched in his hand, as if urging him to end the fight while he still had a chance.
No, he thought, lowering his hand and taking a step back. That's something he would do. But not me. That's why I'm better than him.
Other Porter seemed to be thinking the exact opposite as he got back to his feet.
"What'd I tell you?" he asked, the sadistic smugness clear in his voice. "You had your chance to win, but you didn't take it. You couldn't!"
"If I'm going to beat you," Porter said, evenly, "I'm going to do it because I'm better than you. Not because of a cheap trick."
"That's why you're going to lose," Other Porter taunted him. "If a warrior doesn't capitalize on every advantage he can get, he'll be dead within a day!"
He came at Porter again, but this time he swung low at his knees. Porter jumped into the air, clearing the blade by a good six inches, and kicked Other Porter in the face at the same time. The clone grunted and tottered, but caught himself before falling. Porter swung Flicker over his head, aiming for Other Porter's shoulder. If he could hurt the clone enough that he couldn't hold a sword anymore, the fight would be over.
To his surprise, Other Porter dropped his sword and grabbed Porter's wrist.
"You're just a kid," he yelled, driving his other fist into Porter's stomach, "pretending to be a hero!"
He punched him again, refusing to let go of his wrist. So long as Porter couldn't swing his sword, he held a momentary advantage.
"I've killed a thousand monsters!" he declared. "I'm the greatest recruit the Slayers have had in generations! What are you?"
He punched him a third time.
"What do you think you have that I don't?"
Porter let go of Flicker, letting it vanish into thin air. Other Porter tried to punch him again, but Porter caught his fist and then drove his knee into the clone's stomach. Other Porter gasped as his breath was knocked out of him, and his grip on Porter wrist loosened just enough for Porter to break free. Now he had the advantage, but he was too close to effectively use his sword. Instead, he grabbed Other Porter, one hand on his shoulder and the other on his hip, and threw him. Other Porter flew even farther than Porter expected, going all the way over the campfire and landing in a heap on the other side.
Now's my chance! Porter thought, calling Flicker back to his hand. He just had to pin Other Porter down with his sword to his throat, and the fight would be—
Other Porter thrust his empty hand out toward him. Before Porter could react, a gust of wind sprang up, blowing red hot embers directly into his face. He cried out in pain as the sparks flew into his eyes, and instinctively closed them.
Too late, he realized his mistake.
Porter forced his eyes open, just in time to see Other Porter barrel into him. The clone's weight took him by surprise, and he fell over onto his back. A swift kick to his face ensured he wouldn't get back up, and then Other Porter scrambled backwards to retrieve his sword. There was no time to react, no chance to defend himself. Other Porter grabbed his weapon and spun around, already swinging it.
He closed his eyes.
"Porter!" he heard Sarah scream.
There was a sound of movement, and the air around him stirred. Porter waited in tense resignation for the sword to fall...
But it didn't.
Opening his eyes, Porter gasped in horror. Sarah stood with her back to him— and Other Porter's sword a hairsbreadth from her face. Other Porter stood frozen with a look of absolute terror on his face. Sarah's eyes were squeezed shut, and her face was as pale as snow. Between her and Other Porter, Porter wasn't sure which one looked more petrified.
"I... I..." Other Porter stammered, and his hands began to tremble. He took a step backwards and lowered his sword. "I didn't mean to..."
Porter's senses returned to him, and he sprang to his feet. The only thing that could have possibly scared him more than dying to Other Porter was for Sarah to be killed in his place, and that fear put fire in his veins as he darted forward and swung Flicker as hard as he could. He struck Other Porter's sword, sending it flying out of the clone's limp fist. Realization dawned too late on Other Porter's face, and he immediately spun around to retrieve his weapon. The two Porters raced for the weapon, the key to either ending the fight or continuing it.
Sarah almost died to save me, Porter thought as he closed in on the sword. I won't let that be for nothing!
He threw himself at the sword, diving for it with outstretched arms. Time seemed to slow down as his fingers brushed the hilt. He wrapped his hand around it as tightly as he could, and then curled forward into a somersault. He hit the ground, rolled, and then spun around and thrust both swords out in front of him. Other Porter skidded to a halt, the blades scissored less than an inch from his throat.
"What?" he exclaimed, staring in disbelief at the swords. "How did you—"
"If you move," Porter warned him, "I'll cut your head off."
Other Porter glared at him. "You don't have the guts."
"You think so? You almost killed Sarah just now. I could kill you without a second thought!"
Other Porter went still for a few seconds, and then fell to his knees. Porter kept the blades at his neck the whole time.
"No," he whimpered to himself. "No! How could this happen?"
"You asked what Porter thought he had that you didn't," Sarah said, sounding like she was about to faint. On unsteady paws, she came to stand beside him. "Well, there's your answer. He has me!"
Porter took his eyes off Other Porter just long enough to look at her, and warmth erupted in his heart. She looked so beautiful, standing there in the firelight. He had thought beating Other Porter alone was the only way to overcome his past, but he couldn't have been more wrong.
He wasn't alone, and he never had been...
"That's why you couldn't kill me before, isn't it?" Sarah went on. "Because as much as you hate to admit it, you love me just as much as Porter does."
Other Porter's mouth fell open, and he shook his head, almost slicing his own neck open.
"But I don't love you," Sarah concluded, with fiery passion burning in her eyes. She nodded towards Porter. "I love him... because he's the better Porter."
Having said her piece, she backed away, leaving the two Porters alone. Other Porter turned and gave Porter a sullen stare.
"Hurry up and do it, then," he croaked. "Get it over with."
Porter hesitated. All he had to do was flick his wrist and Other Porter would meet the same fate he'd sent countless Mythics to in the past. He was dangerous. He had almost killed Sarah. And yet...
"No," Porter replied, keeping the swords pressed against his throat.
Other Porter's eyes opened wide in surprise.
"I won't kill you."
"You have to," the clone insisted. "If I can't be you, I've got nothing left!"
"Then find something else," Porter commanded him. "Stop trying to be me. Become..." he paused when he realized what he was about to say. "Become who are you now."
"Save me the poetic crap."
"Fine." Porter nodded toward the forest. "Run. Turn around and run the other way as fast as you can, and never let me see your face again."
For a full minute, the two of them glared at each other. Porter wasn't sure if he was going to take the offer or force his hand, but...
A wave of terror rolled through the ruins of the old house, making Porter's emotions spike.
"Oh no," he whispered.
"We're too late," Other Porter agreed.
"Indeed you are," Mortoph declared, stepping out of the trees.
Time seemed to freeze when the Master Slayer emerged from the woods. The fire gave sputtered, and then extinguished itself in his presence. Mortoph turned to look at each of them in turn.
"Porter, I would be very interested to know why there are two of you."
NEXT TIME: Porter and Sarah might have won the first round, but the fight's far from over. Now the Master Slayer himself is here, and the stakes are even higher.