In the Shadow of the Mask

Fair Trade

“Sparrow,” she turned to the staring Hero, “Do you hear me? Get John out of those shackles and to the exit at the top of the Arena!”

Sparrow couldn’t move. She was in disbelief at what she was looking at. She was staring at Aja, but she wasn’t Aja anymore.

The old woman that once stood before her was now… young and vibrant. The grey had faded from her hair and was now was the color of rosewood. The deep wrinkles that lined her eyes and mouth were replaced with smooth clear skin. Her age spots faded into her perfectly tan skin. The clothes that once hung loosely about her were now tight against her firm and muscular body. She seemed taller than before. A glow was about her, but is seemed to sink into her skin and form blue lines.

“Auntie?” John couldn’t belief it himself.

“So…,” Jack stood up and brushed himself off, “You’ve decided to face me with all that you are… or should I say what you have become…”

He stood there staring at Aja. It wasn’t a glare or full of hate and anger. No… it was strange stare and maybe Sparrow was just imagining it. He was looking at her with longing eyes. It was the same look that John would give Sparrow whenever she came into Bowerstone. And even stranger was that there was a sadness to his emotionless mask.

“I,” Aja turned to him, “will face you with everything that I have. I will do what is necessary to ensure that this world will never have to endure your tyranny again.”

“… Even if it means your life?” Jack asked in a melancholy tone.

Aja lowered her eyes, “Yes… I have lost everything that meant something to me… I only have this left… my final battle with you.”

“Aja!” Sparrow banged her hands on the bubble that covered the Arena, “Get out of there! I made a promise to Scythe… I promised…,” she knew it was futile as she sank to the ground.

They seemed to ignore their two spectators. They spoke freely to each other. They spoke of things that Sparrow didn’t understand. She knew that Aja and Jack had a past history, but it seemed deeper and long than either had admitted.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Jack extended his hand out to her, “Come back to me. I know that we’ve hit some rough patches in the past, but we can work it out. You know… that I will always forgive you…”

“Yes… I know that you will always forgive me…,” Aja closed her eyes, “But,” she went into a glare, “I will never forgive you!”

The blue lines on her body started to glow with an intense light that they almost appeared white. Energy was flowing through her and causing the sand around her to shift and float through the air. Her hair danced around in the waves of energy. It was so intense that Sparrow felt like she would be lifted off the ground. She turned to John. He was starting to float and only the chains seemed to be holding him. She quickly came to him and pulled him close to her.

“Thank you,” he whispered through gritted teeth, “I can barely stand this.”

“I know,” the energy was growing stronger.

Aja must have heard them. Her hair and sand that was lifted up fell to their proper place. The blue lines on her body faded to their normal appearance. The energy decreased and Sparrow no longer felt like she would float off.

“I see,” Jack rubbed his white chin, “You don’t want to hurt the little mortals… their presence here hinders your true power… Well,” he didn’t seem pleased, “That won’t do,” he pointed his iron clad finger at them.

Sparrow didn’t know what he would do. Instantly she got in front of John. She would be ready for anything… at least she would try to be.

“No,” Aja raised her hand.

The Arena became foggy as a mist started to form. It never came up into the seats where Sparrow and John was, but created a cap over the sandy pit.

“A Physical Barrier,” Jack nodded his head, “that surrounds more than just the caster. You were always impressive when it came to Will usage.”

Aja didn’t answer him. She only looked up to Sparrow then turned away. She held up her sword in a defensive pose.

“I see… you really weren’t much one for words,” Jack brought out his pair of daggers, “Shall we start from where we left off?”

She didn’t say a word, but raised her hand. The blue lines on her body intensified once again, but not as much as the first time. Though it was hard to see, Sparrow could make out something forming around Aja. They were long and appeared to have something at their base. They were transparent, but yet they shined… like metal. They were swords. Ten of them floated around her. She pointed to Jack and they went on the attack.

These were not like the swords that Garth or Sparrow summoned. These swords were actually swinging at Jack like there was someone using them. Jack merely blocked and dodged the unrelenting swords like they were nothing. With a blink of the eye, he twirled about and shattered the swords like they were made out of glass.

“Really my dear,” he folded his arms, “You can do better than that.”

Aja smirked, “I know…,” she was gone.

WHOOSH! BOOM! Sizzle… Jack was on opposite where he once stood. He was plastered against the wall. Small embers still clung to his robe as he pulled himself away.

“That… is more like it,” his mask seemed to smile.

With that, they were at each other. Aja was swinging her sword in a fluid motion. Jack was blocking with one blade and trying to with his other. They couldn’t land a blow; each being able to block or duck out of the way. They were evenly matched in the game they were playing. It was all moving so fast. Sparrow could barely keep up with all the blows. Yet, she was able to see it all.

They jumped away from each other. Neither seemed tired from their bout, but neither wanted to jump back in right away.

“Tell me my dear,” Jack eased his stance, “Why do you fight for such a weak girl? Do you really think that she will be able to defeat me?”

Aja lowered her weapon, “I fight because I must. She has the strength, but not the will. She has what she needs, but she cannot access it…”

“Because,” the mask smiled, “she has darkness in her soul… She will belong to me… Like you do to me…”

Aja’s eyes turned red, “I will never belong to you! She… she will never belong to you… She,” she looked up to Sparrow, “is stronger than me… she is better than me… But this isn’t about her right now… it’s about us… what we started so long ago…”

“Yes… the present can come later,” Jack agreed, “Let us revisit the past were we once had a future.”

The blows started once again. Their blades clanged and clashed, leaving sparks in their wake. Sparrow wasn’t sure how this was going to end. She had fought against powerful enemies and with a fierceness that burned deep within her. But this… this was on another level.

Aja jumped back and her blue lines started to glow brightly once again. The sand started to shift and sink. The Arena trembled as Aja’s energy built up. Sparrow prepared herself and took hold of John once more. The hair on the back of her neck rose, but that seemed to be the worst of it. Whatever Aja had done before, it was dampening her energy.

Balls of light rose out of the ground. They twisted and grew limbs. Their forms started to take familiar shapes. Their eyes glowed. Their fangs glistened. Their claws raked through the air. Their fur bristled and stood up on end. They were transparent.

“Really?” Jack seemed surprised, “You would summon Balverines? You hate Balverines.”

“They’ll do fine,” Aja smiled, “Go!”

They attacked without mercy. Jack ducked and jumped just out of reach of their ghostly claws. They were much faster than the swords she had summoned before. He blocked as many attacks as he could, but some were starting to get through. Aja just stared as her Balverine horde attacked Jack with all their soul.

“ENOUGH!” Jack forced them back.

Some of the ghostly figures shattered midair, while the others broke apart as they slammed into wall.

He didn’t see it coming and neither did Sparrow. Aja was in front of him. Her sword was running through his belly. Several energy blades pierced his arms, legs and head. He tried to pull away, but appeared to not have the strength. Aja pulled him around and made him have his back to the other side of the Arena.

“My dear…,” his voice whispered, “You have cut me deeply again…”

“You have done deeper,” Aja whispered, “AAAHHH!”

She screamed as she kicked him square in the chest. The energy swords pushed him the rest of the way. He crashed through the wall and left a gapping whole in his wake. She stared for a few moments at the hole, waiting to see if he would reappear. All was quiet. Nothing moved in the Arena.

Clink… clink… something heavy and metal dropped to the floor. Sparrow turned her attention back to John. He was on his knees and rubbing his wrists.

“John,” she crawled to him, “Are you alright? Are you wrists broken?” she looked them over carefully.

“Just bruised a little,” he assured her, “Alright for the most part.”

“Thank goodness,” she threw her arms around him.

He returned with his own arms around her.

They sat there, for how long they couldn’t tell. His embrace was so warm and comforting. It is what she had needed for so long. It just felt so right to be in his arms.

He pulled back a little and a devilish smile formed on his face.

“What?” she smiled.

“Nothing… I just missed this,” he quickly kissed her on the cheek.

“John,” Sparrow felt her cheeks turning red.

“Sorry,” he apologized, “I couldn’t resist kissing my sweet Lionheart. It’s been far too long.”

“Come on you two,” a gravelly voice called up to them.

Sparrow looked down to the Arena. The mist that had filled the area dissipated. Everything was much clearer. Aja was looking up at them with a big smile. The wrinkles had returned to her eyes and mouth. Her clothes were loose.

“Not that I haven’t seen or done worse,” she laughed.

Sparrow continued to blush, “Come on,” she gently helped John to his feet.

“Might I say Auntie, you were brilliant,” John commented.

She only nodded her head.

“I’ll help you out of there,” Sparrow headed for the exit at the top of the seating area, “Let me get John up there first.”

“I would say take your time,” she glance over at the hole, “but there isn’t much.”

“Will do,” Sparrow helped John up the stone stones.

“Just be careful,” Aja warned, “Some of those stones might be …. GAAHHH!”

Blood spew out of her mouth as a blade pierced through her chest. It dribbled down her face and started to collect on her vest. Her eyes were filled with shock. There was no fear though, but for some odd reason she looked relieved.

“AJA!” Sparrow looked on in horror.

Jack stood behind her. His one arm wrapped around her throat; his other resting on her abdomen. Putting his chin on her shoulder, he rubbed his face against hers.

“Auntie!” John tried to pull away from Sparrow, but he collapsed to the ground.

“How about this,” Jack’s voice filled the air, “You take what belongs to you and I’ll take what belongs to me,” he gently stroked her cheek.

“Release her!” Sparrow ordered as she came down next to John.

“What? It’s a fair trade,” Jack laughed.

Sparrow gritted her teeth and placed her hand on the hilt of her sword.

“No…,” Aja weakly called out, “Leave me… You can get away from your life… there is still hope as long as you and the others stay alive… Death is near and I’ve been waiting for him for quite some time…”

“No,” Sparrow had to disagree, “I won’t leave you behind!”

“You have no choice,” Aja raised her hand.

She couldn’t react in time. She could see the wave of energy coming at her. All she could do was grab hold of John as the powerful force pushed them up and into the exit. Sparrow was expecting to land, but they kept tumbling further and further down the tunnel. She couldn’t tell how long they were rolling about, but suddenly she was in the fresh air. It was sweet and salty at the same time. Gulls called in the background and waves rolled beneath them. They were falling, falling towards the open waters of the ocean.

SLPASH! They landed in the cold water.

Sparrow held tightly onto John, not wanting him to slip into the deep, dark waters. She tried to swim to the surface, but she was moving slow. Her body ached from all the tumbling she had done just before. She looked down to John. He hung lifeless; his limbs floated about like he was ragdoll. She had to get him to the surface; that was her first and foremost thought.

Summoning all of her remaining strength, Sparrow pushed through the water. It was so close and the light was growing brighter with each stroke. She was almost there. Her lungs were on fire and were screaming for air. Whatever air she had left escaped through her nose and raced to the top. Her body was going limp and she could feel her grip loosening.

It was a losing battle. This was going to be how it ended.

She was going to die. John was going to sink to a watery grave. Jack had taken the life of the woman that had saved her so many times before even in her death. The others would face Jack and most likely die in the process. It was all her fault… she was and going to be the cause of a lot of people’s pain… she was no Hero… she was a failure.

So you’re giving up Hero? A familiar voice mocked her.

Not now Scythe, she just wanted to fade into nothing in peace.

I’m surprised that you gave up so easily, he continued, I thought you would maybe…

Well I didn’t, Sparrow yelled at him.

Hero, another voice came, You have survived much in your short life, it was Theresa, I have put much on you, but you have always triumph. I still have faith in you…

I let Aja die… I failed her…, Sparrow cried, I failed to keep my promise…

She chose to as she pleased… she had no regrets save for her husband and child…, Scythe sighed, She gave her life for you… shouldn’t you respect her last wish and be the hope for this world?

I don’t know if I can…, Sparrow was getting tired.

Take my hand Hero, she could make out the hand of a hand, and live…

She… she wouldn’t reach. His hand… no… someone else’s did.

Air filled her lungs as her head broke surface. She knew that she was being pulled ashore, but she couldn’t tell by whom. They were calling her name and lightly tapping her face. She didn’t want to open her eyes. She couldn’t bear seeing the world… now that she was sure it was going to come to an end.

She clinched her fist, “Aja… I’m sorry…”

The world grew dark and she allowed it to…

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