An icy grip rested on Porter’s neck, fingers digging in. His arms hung as he was held by the throat and pushed down into the waters. As his face slipped under, he reached to grab Aziacht’s wrists, not to fight back, but to be steadied.
As the river rushed into his ears, Porter’s eyes widened. The sun was beneath the horizon, now, and the mouth of this river let out on the ocean facing it. Aziacht’s placid face was lit by the last light.
With his back hitting the riverbed, inches of water above him, Porter felt the weight of Aziacht’s knee driving him down. The current was swallowing him as it began to race. His feet slipped under.
The sea recalling the waters.
Porter strained. Vessels burst in his eyes as he held tightly onto the hands which drowned him. The rush in his ears took him far away, but he had to watch. Suddenly, the tempo rose violently, his heart leaping. His legs began to thrash, his arms attempting to pry apart Aziacht’s vice grip. His lungs screamed for air, sending convulsions through his chest.
Porter wasn’t sure if it was his sight or the waters which ran red. But when the light began to die, he knew it was his vision going.
He’d watched the Ouroboros fall, pierced in the heart, blood running out into the ocean. The vision was seared into his mind. The meaning? It didn’t matter. That was true of the meaning itself. His thoughts were running away from him.
Porter’s grip released, his hands falling away. Finally, he was submerged. The current washed over him and everything grew silent. Everything slowed. His lungs burned.
His eyes shut.
In the blackness, the pain was distant. It was a subsuming darkness which moved onto him, bringing numbness.
There’s nothing I could have done differently, he lamented. Everything has a time.
The floor melted away beneath him, a sinking feeling flooding through him. A growing expanse stretched out over the landscape of his mind, an abyss like the depth of the ocean. Suddenly, there was light.
Out of the cloudy dark, a random neuron firing. In the dark behind his eyes came a coalescing form from the static. Like a dream, meaning from chaos. He saw the mellow illumination become the pulsating, technicolor light of a deep-sea jellyfish.
It moved into sight, drifting like the ruins of warships scattered across the void. Weightless.
Porter began to fall into the abyss. The lights on that jellyfish, flashing so brightly, rapidly spread apart around him as everything zoomed back. Explosively expanding into the ocean’s dark, those lights filled it with burning fire. Every point was massive beyond understanding. They gathered together into a symphony and began to play. He could see the sound before him.
The tempo was rising. Stars poured out into his blood.
Every inch of him caught fire as time began again like his racing heart.
It’s what you are, the chorus hailed. Fire in your bones.
Aziacht held him down in the water, watching the life go out of him beneath the murk.
Porter’s hands broke the surface.
They shot out to grab Aziacht’s wrists and wrench them apart. With his hold broken, Aziacht was thrown off. Porter was risen from the river, gasping for breath as a titanic melody rose in his ears. His eyes shot open, the starless sky before them. As his chest heaved, his blue eyes relaxed on the vast and the music exploded in his ears. It rose feverishly to climax, shaking him.
Suddenly, he was struck by pure silence.
He was alive, he realized. The loop is never broken.
Aziacht recovered and looked at him, star struck. He didn’t understand. He scrambled up and punched Porter in the face, toppling him back into the stream as he himself fell exhausted beside him. When Porter pulled himself up again, Aziacht held out his hands, as if for mercy. “Stop,” he told him.
Porter made it unsteadily to his feet. “I can’t…”
Aziacht shot up and tackled him, driving him down and wrapping his hands again around his throat. Porter fought him off and rolled to the side. As he recovered, Aziacht pleaded with him. “Please, Quinn! Why won’t you just lie down!?”
“I can’t.” Porter fought him now, shoving Aziacht stumbling back.
Aziacht’s back hit the bank, but he wouldn’t stay down. In return, Porter was knocked back as a shoulder drove into his stomach, bringing him under the icy waters. As he tried to sit up, Aziacht kneed him in the chin. Blood fell from his mouth as he leaned up to keep his head above water. He felt the chips of teeth in his mouth.
Angrier, Aziacht yelled, “Stop!” He kicked at Porter.
Porter caught his leg and wrenched it, putting Aziacht into the water. They both made it to their feet at the same time. Porter’s response came, then. “I can’t,” he repeated for the last time. He almost couldn’t stand, but a weak smile came to him. “I know that I never will, now.” He spread his arms. “You couldn’t kill me.”
Aziacht was frozen for a moment. He refused to believe.
He lashed out. Porter raised his arms to catch the first few punches at head level. As he battered Porter’s ribs instead, Aziacht drowned everything out in an incoherent raging scream. He could still make this right.
Porter broke through with an elbow to the head. Aziacht staggered but grappled. He got a hold and they were locked together, ragged screams filling Porter’s ears.
Working his arms between them, Porter pushed, slipping under and out. As Aziacht was forced back, his eyes were cast briefly into the forest. His voice died in his throat. He’d seen something. As he was lost in confusion, Porter jumped in, beating him down at full force.
Aziacht fought to put distance between them, regaining his focus. “Enough!” The words were like an explosion, turning the river momentarily into a violent storm, forcing Porter to cover his eyes. When he looked again, Aziacht’s hand was outstretched. “You can’t deny me!” he said, the Ender Blade flying into his hold. “I killed your name, serpent.”
Porter was still for a moment. He clenched and unclenched his fists, spitting blood from his mouth. “What can death do to me,” he asked, “when its wages are death? You can’t win.” A laugh broke out. “The jokes on you. Because I don’t quit.”
Aziacht charge, sword readied. “There’s no one to carry on for you! This wretched fucking game is done!”
Sickle and cleaver clashed.
Aziacht looked at the blade in Porter’s hands, called up from the water. The weapon of the Ouroboros in his hands. Nature’s truth. He could wield it.
Porter strained against him as their weapons locked, but Aziacht was suddenly somewhere else, blood boiling in his veins.
He isn’t one of the three, Aziacht thought. It was he, the Curse, and Elicht, that was how it was supposed to be. Immoral, Moral, and Amoral, the three answers to existence. What had happened?
Aziacht kicked Porter in the chest, almost putting him on his back. He bashed the sickle down as Porter awkwardly tried to wield it for the first time. Striking again and again. “No!” he bellowed. “You can’t cheat me! I killed you!”
Each hit was a brutal hammerfall. Porter fought the volley, but he was quickly put on his knees. He was going to lose his grip. Each strike brought it closer. Aziacht wouldn’t have his ending stolen. Not now. Everything he’d done was for this. He knew he was right. He wouldn’t be denied.
The sickle was knocked away. He could bring down the final swing.
This was his moment.
His hand froze. Their eyes locked.
The cleaver wavering inches from Porter’s neck.
In an instant, Porter took up the sickle and threaded it between his ribs. The cleaver was thrown away into the waters. Aziacht struck the side of Porter’s head, his gaze hollow, his teeth clenched in pain. He began to stumble forward.
Aziacht put a hand to his side where the sickle curved inside, trying to press down on the pain. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t think past the horrible emotions welling up.
Porter crawled exhaustedly onto the riverbank, watching as Aziacht walked towards the ocean. His breath was strained, he couldn’t go any further. But it was done. He was alive.
He collapsed in the mud, watching as the cracks in reality began to regress. When he finally sat up on the bank, looking back the way Aziacht had gone, he felt his heart racing still. Like liquid fire pumping in his veins.
They had disappeared out of sight.
The power thrumming in his chest was matched by the deadness that settled in his body. A weight too heavy to move laid over every inch of him. Some light raindrops were falling in the forest, dotting the surface of the river. It was all dissonant to him.
Porter let out a scream.
The Ouroboros was dead. That was the burden. That corpse had occupied his soul to survive. It was glorious and awful. He had swallowed that death and it poisoned him. Where was the victory?
He was lost.
Porter struggled to sit forward and look down at his hands. He’d held the sickle, he’d had the power, but he’d traded it away to survive. He felt that it was beyond his reach, now.
He rubbed at his face, trying to clear his mind. The dark forest was shaken with the wind, and again he could feel how small he was.
Every justification was lost. He’d proven it didn’t matter.
He looked along the river, but couldn’t spot the Ouroboros’ body. Taken away by the current, maybe. Fallen through the floor of reality like all the others.
Aziacht had stepped off the map. He’d never see him again, Porter knew. Never again. The universe lacked the constitution to submit to that sickness again. He bore it.
It was just him in existence. The last man alive…
The Deus Ex loomed, barely visible above the world. He could only catch it by the light on its black edge, shining from beneath the horizon. Aku was alive in there. The machination.
Then there were two.
Porter clenched his fist. He still had power, something new in him. It was a part of him he’d never been able to reach. A truth. He’d not made the choice to fight back as he’d drowned. It hadn’t been the will of reason. No emotion, even. He’d wanted to live. That made him a liar and it made him right.
That wouldn’t be enough.
Porter sighed. He hung his head.
His legs were almost immovable, but he stood. He cast his eyes deeper into the woods, up the river where it only got darker. He couldn’t see the way ahead.
He wanted to swear, to damn this forest and Aziacht. Screw them all. But he couldn’t. He still had to fix the universe. To order it. He could do that.
“You drank death,” Porter said, somber. “I’ll have to see you on the other side. But you…” he stopped to let what hit him pass. Keep composure. “Just be there, you bastard… Please.”
Glancing back once more the way Aziacht had gone, he nodded.
He was done.