A Taste of Victory
Sage slept deeply, and was completely refreshed when he woke. Dawn was a mere rumor the moon yet scoffed at. Sage's only concern was that Rowen would be awake, staring longingly at the stars that called to him mercilessly. It was why the warrior of Strata awoke late in the morning. The stars were what empowered him, and when they showed so clearly as they did this night, he could hardly resist their song.
As yet meeting no one, Sage crept to the kitchen and wrote a short note where it would easily be discovered by Mia or his brothers. He paused a moment at that, wondering when they had become family. He smiled. It didn't matter. He left through the door, as the others had put a crudely constructed patch on the wall, and closed it silently behind him.
All they would find of him in the morning were the words, “I got an emergency call. My family needs me. I don't know when I'll be back. I'll try to hurry, but you guys will be fine without me. Take care, Sage Date.” Misleading, but it contained no true lies.
It was early morning when Sage came to the small town on the other side of the forest. Most people were not yet up, but they would be soon. He chose a sporty looking car that looked to have seen little use, and in its place left more then adequate compensation. His family's money came in useful sometimes.
From there he drove. Sage pushed the speed limit as much as he dared, and disregarded it when visibility and conditions allowed. His goal was a mountain range in the distance, and now that his resolve was strong and his purpose clear, he wanted nothing more than to do it. The strength within him screamed to be unleashed. He was unaware of it, but he had begun to emit a dim glow.
He could sense he was being followed. He knew it was one of Talpa's spies. Exactly what he needed. As soon as he reached the mountain, he would catch the spy, and send it back to the Dynasty. He had already decided who he would challenge first. He would destroy Sekhmet, the Warlord of Venom. He pushed the pedal down further.
He drove the sports car as far up the mountain as it could go, reflecting on the thought a rough terrain choice would have taken him much further. It was pushed aside, speed mattered too greatly. For a moment, he was concerned by his unusual lack of patience. But he was doing the right thing, and he didn't have more than a few days at most before the other Ronin caught on to him, or at least figured something was up.
He left the few food provisions he had borrowed from the cabin kitchen and most of the water in the convertible, leaving the cover up to better protect them. Slinging the lone canteen over his shoulder, Sage began the trek to the plateau-like top of the mountain, watching for a good spot to ambush the spy he still felt tracking him.
Find one he did, about half way up, but he decided to wait till he was closer to the top, to avoid being ambushed himself by the warlord to whom he would soon issue the challenge.
He continued to scale the short mountainside easily. His lungs were strong, averting any ill effects from the higher altitude. Besides, he'd spent a lot of time mastering heights like these as a boy.
Finally, he located a suitable niche in the mountain, slightly behind a large rock. It created enough of a space to conceal him, without looking like a hiding spot from below or someone passing by swiftly. The sort of trail he was following bent sharply around a large collection of rocks. Looking down, as if he was catching his breath, he saw the shadow that darted so quickly behind cover. With a smirk and a quick move of his own, Sage slipped into the hiding space. Keeping his breathing quiet, he listened for the slight sounds that would signal the approach of his prey.
He did not have to wait long. The spy was armored, and though his step was light and swift, it clanged dully against the stony ground.
The spy, not wanting to to lose sight of his target and believing the warrior to have run up and around the bend, did not pause to allow himself more than a cursory glance at his surroundings. His surprise was extreme when something caught his feet and sent him face first onto the stony path. He twisted in panic to get away, but when he turned over he saw the warrior standing over him. With a snarl he began to scramble away. The spy wasn't fast enough. Sage's hand gripped him by the throat and slammed him bodily into the side of the mountain. His other hand brought his sword to the spy's throat, positioned to kill. The spy stopped struggling, his eyes locked in fear onto the reflective edge of that menacing blade. “Spare me,” he pleaded, his voice quivering.
“On one condition,” the blond young man said. “You go to Sekhmet, tell him I have issued him a challenge. Tell him to meet me on the top of this mountain, and that I'll be alone.” His eyes were steel, their unusual lavender gray color enhanced by the faint glow. “You've been following me long enough to know it's true.” He released the spy. “I will only wait for half an hour. If he does not come to meet me alone, then I will know the Dynasty Warlords are cowards.”
Terrified, the spy ran back down the mountainside. He did not look back. Sage watched till he was satisfied the spy would do as he'd said, then he climbed the last hundred meters to the top. Now he had only to wait. There was no doubt the Warlord of Venom would accept the challenge.
The large room was fittingly dark, with a perfectly evil misty quality pervading through all, though especially prominent at its perimeter. The effect seemed to make the already large room stretch into a twisted infinity. The darkness was grudgingly punctuated by blue-flamed torches. More blue fire lined the far side of the room in two rows, breaking in the middle to reveal the giant, disembodied head of Talpa, his face a permanent grotesque mask.
As usual, the four remaining Warlords, after Anubis' betrayal, were standing idly about the room, eyeing each other in disdain. Lady Kayura looked especially irate, still suffering her peers' mockery at her recently failed mission. Seeing a fresh opportunity at her expense, each of the three of them were eagerly attempting to gain favor with their dark lord.
It was into this room the spy slunk. He didn't want to be here. The warlords and Talpa were far from lenient at best when it came to a minion of his status, and he dreaded the consequences when it was revealed that he'd been captured by the enemy.
Talpa was the first to notice him. Though the evil overlord did none of his own work, not much escaped his notice. “What news do you bring me?” the gruesome face demanded in a voice graveled by age and harsh words.
The spy crawled towards him, cowering under the cruel stare of his master. “The one in the armor of Halo has left the others, Master Talpa, and seems to be alone.”
“Perhaps they are trying to provoke another attack,” Talpa mused. “Or their foolishness is exploring its lack of boundary.”
“There is more,” the spy said, shaking in his boots. “He has issued a personal challenge to Sekhmet!” Finishing with a guiding finger.
“Sage of Halo has challenged me?” Sekhment laughed venomously. “What a foolish boy!” He turned to Talpa. “Let me meet this arrogant armor bearer in battle, Master Talpa, and show him the full cost of his bravado.”
“You may go,” the Lord of Evil replied. “But you had better not disappoint me again against this single boy.”
“Why did he not challenge me?” Kale, Warlord of Darkness complained. “I would have the most satisfaction extinguishing the Warrior of Light.”
“Perhaps your consistent failures on the battlefield leave him in contempt of your lack of power,” Dais said. “He should have challenged me instead, as I am the strongest.”
“What about me?” Lady Kyura said angrily. “I have come the closest to defeating them all!”
“Don't make me laugh,” Kale said, laughing anyway. “Have you so quickly forgotten you were recently defeated by him?”
“Enough!” Talpa bellowed, tired of their bickering, and with another question of his own. “You,” he said, clearly meaning the spy that was skulking at the edges of perception. “How do you know Halo issued the challenge?”
Talpa always knew when one of his constructs lied, it was said. The spy ran to grovel at his face. “He tricked me, Master! He caught me and made me promise to deliver the message! It won't happen again,” he promised. “Have mercy!”
“He detected you?” Talpa's scowl deepened past its usual boundaries. “Then you have failed your duties. Direct Sekhmet to Halo, then report for recycling. Perhaps your next incarnation will prove more useful.”
“Ye-yes, Master,” the spy stammered. The construct scurried out of the room in shame, too horrified at his fate to care at the moment whether the Warlord of Venom followed. If he had turned to look, he would have seen Sekhmet trailing him with a self assured eagerness that would be difficult to rival. No doubts of victory brought a falter to his stride.
Sekhment stepped foot on the mountain top. The red front of his armor borrowed nature's warning signal. He was poisonous. The deadly green of his armor seemed like the great body of a man eating python, though he did not look scaled. Fangs slipped from his mask, and red flaming plumes crowned his head. What really caught attention was the venomous expression so hostile in his eyes, bringing the whole into one, cold-blooded, serpentine fear. He could have been the very inspiration for the instinctual fear humans had for their reptilian predators.
Sage was in his armor, sitting with his back to the warlord. The clouds had sunk, leaving the sun and sky alone to witness the upcoming battle. The top being a plateau, it looked as if its desolate surface was the only feature in the world, as the clouds roiled below in breathtaking expanse. There was nothing here that could be destroyed by Sekhmet's poisonous touch, the reason it had been selected as the battleground.
“How lovely,” Sekhmet said with a sneer, advancing. “Quite a dramatic backdrop for your death.”
“For a death,” Sage replied quietly, standing and turning, his hand upon his sword hilt. “But not mine.”
Sekhment had seen determination in those eyes before, but now there was something else, as well, and the sun seemed to be reflecting very brightly off his armor. He was not worried. What was one where five were insufficient? “You sound so serious, Halo. You aren't going to tell me to give up my evil ways and walk away?” He stopped a few meters short of the challenger. “Or have you dropped those silly morals?”
“There will be no choices for you today, but I retain my guiding beliefs.” Sage drew the nodachi and held it forward with both hands. “I will not be corrupted by your serpent tongue, so draw your weapons.”
“I like you this way,” Sekhmet said, unsheathing his own swords. “I might only take you prisoner if you stay this amusing!” With that, he lunged.
Sage parried the blows easily enough, but couldn't seem to find an opening for a returning blow. Sekhmet's mocking voice was a constant, and where his blades missed, the rock face was scored, the edges of the cuts continued to hiss and steam from the withering effect of the warlord's weapons.
Taking a calculated risk, Sage stepped backwards, inviting his opponent in, then went low, shifting his momentum forward. Sekhmet swung high, and Sage came up under his defenses, slicing the warlord across the waist and moving past him. Blood seeped freely from the wound, and when Sage met his enemy's eyes, the fury was almost frightening. Sekhmet gathered his strength to unleash the special power unique to his armor. “Snake Fang Strike!” He roared as he released the ability upon his young foe. Chaining the six swords he carried into a whip, he cracked it against Halo, sending him flying towards the edge.
The blow knocked the wind out of Sage, but he managed to stick his sword into the mountaintop to stop himself from rolling off the sheer cliff. He struggled to catch his breath and regain his footing.
Sekhmet advanced on him menacingly. “Now,” he said between clenched teeth. “I'm going to kill you, boy.” And he brought a sword down with both hands to split the young man in half.
With a surge of adrenaline Sage brought his sword up and rose, thrusting with his powerful legs. Surprised, Sekhmet's blade glanced off of Halo's shoulder, and the Warlord of Venom slumped forward. Sage retracted his sword from his opponent's body, and Sekhmet fell to the ground. Sage rolled him onto his back, wary of a last attack. The warlord was chuckling. “What's so funny?” Sage asked, standing over him. Strangely, he felt strong and invigorated, even as he fought the urge to help the dying man.
“I see now,” Sekhmet wheezed, and blood spilled over his lips. “I wonder, Sage of Halo,” and he looked him in the eyes as the light drained from his own. “What will you do when it gets your brothers?” He laughed again. “By killing me, you've sealed your own fate.” His chuckle turned into a wracking choke as that last breath of life escaped into the unconfined space beyond him. Sage stood in the sun, bewildered, the glow around him strengthening.
A bright light shimmered around Sekhmet's body, obscuring it from sight for several moments. Sage watched in fascination as the light expired. Sitting atop Sekhmet's robed body was now a small box. Sage knew the armor was inside.
A slight hissing sound reminded his that the warlord's poisoned blade had scratched his armored shoulder. Sage grabbed the canteen he'd brought with him and rinsed the vile substance off. He then used the rest to wash the blood off his sword. Task completed, he dismissed his armor and picked up the body of his slain enemy, to carry him off the mountain and bury it at the base. He made sure to bring the box, as well.
He buried him quickly, then paused, wondering if he should say something. The urge to hurry was as strong as it had been before, but still. It was early afternoon. He face the grave, above which he had carved an S. “I don't know if you were always evil. It's hard to imagine anyone as being evil from the time they were children.” He tilted his face to the sun. “I don't know what drove you to be the man I knew, but I hope you find peace, now that you cannot further corrupt your own heart.”
Sage climbed into the sports car, and got back on the road. It had been easier than he had thought. One down, three to go. His heart surged with power at the thought of another battle. He could hardly wait to finish the job.
“What?!” Talpa's voice, marred by shock rebounded through the otherwise silent room. The warlords were not bickering. For the moment they simply stared at the messenger, aghast at his unprecedented news.
“He failed, against one, lone, boy?” Talpa's voice conveyed his anger clearly. If he was saddened by the loss of his general, it did not show, unless the proof lay hidden in his rage.
“Master Talpa-” Kale began to say, but the fires roared to greater life and leapt, crackling fiercely, towards the high ceiling.
“This is your fault!” Talpa yelled. “He was your opponent. If you had killed him before, then this would not have happened!”
Kale staggered backwards, stunned. The others stayed silent. The fires began to quiet again.
“Kayura,” Talpa spoke again. “Kill Halo!”
“O-of course, Master Talpa, as you command,” she stammered. With a hasty bow, she left the room, throwing Kale a look of contemptuous victory.
The look she got in return made her quicken her steps and drop eye contact.