Rowen stirred beneath the warm gaze of the sun, peeking through the curtains of his room. Sleep could not be longer held on to, and with a soft, goodbye caress, left him lying awake. It was nearly noon. Sitting up, he looked thoughtfully out the window. With a roll of his shoulder he rubbed his neck and climbed out from under the sheets, spurred on by the smell of bacon and eggs.
Dressed, and his blue hair secured in his equally blue bandana, he went downstairs. He called out a cheerful, “Good morning, guys,” upon entering the main room.
“Always just in time,” Cye said, putting the last eggs onto a plate. He looked slightly troubled. As did Ryo, who was staring at the patched wall. He must have been lost in thought, since he didn't respond.
“Finally!” Kento cried. “Now we can eat!” His eyes strayed to something on the kitchen counter.
“Is this about Sage being gone?” Rowen asked, walking over to read the note, but referring to everyone's distraction.
“You knew?” Cye looked surprised.
“Yeah,” Rowen answered, reading the note written in Sage's graceful, stately style. “I saw him leave early this morning. He seemed to be in a hurry.”
Ryo was suddenly standing in the doorway. “I can't believe he left. He knows it takes all of us. What would be so important that he'd abandon our fight, even temporarily?”
“Hey!” Kento said sharply. “Sage wouldn't abandon us, Ryo, he's not like that.”
“We don't actually know that we know him,” Ryo growled. “None of us have known each other for very long. Maybe he quit because he couldn't stomach it,” he finished quietly.
“No!” Cye yelled. “Sage wouldn't do that! None of us would!” He looked genuinely angry, an uncommon expression for the young warrior. “Besides, he said he'd be back, and I trust that he will.”
Rowen put a calming hand on Ryo's shoulder. “I know you're worried, Ryo. I know you're frustrated, and maybe a little bit afraid, like the rest of us. As our leader, a lot of responsibility rests on your shoulders, and things have happened lately to put lots of strain on us all. I know that sometimes we're not as strong as you want us to be, but none of us would ever turn our backs.” He removed his hand, but continued on in his strong Brooklyn accent. “You're right when you say we haven't known each other for long, but with what we've been through together, we know each other well. Better than most people know the ones they call friends or family, even though we don't know everything about each other. Whatever Sage had to leave to do is important, but he will be back. He has faith that we'll be okay. We should have faith in him, too.”
For a long, tense moment, no one said anything. Kento and Cye stared at Ryo and Rowen, waiting. Finally, Ryo let out a long breath, and Rowen noticed his fists unclench.
“Sorry, guys,” Ryo said. “I've just been having such, such thoughts lately, and I get scared I'll lose control, that I'll have to do things I don't want to. I feel like a jerk.” He sighed. “I know Sage won't betray us, but I hope he gets back soon.”
Cye smiled at him. “It's okay, Ryo. We understand.” Putting on his best Japanese accent, which clashed badly with his English one, he said, “Now lets have some breakfast everybody.”
“Oh, Cye,” Ryo rolled his eyes. “Don't do that again!”
Kento was already heaping a plate full, with Rowen close behind. Cye laughed, happy that an unseen storm had blown over.
At the end of breakfast, Ryo said, “We should try to fix that wall better before Mia sees this place. She'll have a fit.”
Kento sighed. “One way or another, those Dynasty dudes make a lot of work for us.”
Cye said, “They sure d-”
A shiver ran through all the Ronin at once, stopping Cye short and bringing fresh alarm to their faces.
“Did you guys feel that?” Ryo asked, looking each of them over.
“Yeah,” they answered together.
“What was that?” Kento asked. “Is the Dynasty here?”
“It didn't feel like that,” Cye answered, confused. “It felt a little bit like,” he paused.
“Like Sage,” Rowen finished for him. “It felt like Sage.”
Shouts of speculation began to fill the room, debate, and calls for action. Rowen closed his ears to them and thought, focused on Sage, his expressions and mannerisms from the last few days, on the note. Sage never really talked about his family, and it was Rowen's impression that he was not close to them. Also, while Sage may very well have had a cell phone, he'd never seen it, and no one had been aware of any messages for their blond brother. He'd been troubled, they all had, but he'd also been studying the rest of them quietly, much as Rowen himself had done. Then yesterday, after the battle, he had looked particularly contemplative. Most of them had been in bed when Sage got back after disappearing, though Cye had seen him in his favorite glen. When he left his morning, his stride had been focused and purposeful. Rowen believed he knew what Sage was doing. And he knew why. He looked at the anxiety on Cye's face. His still innocent face, through which his kind soul shone clearly. He knew. But should he tell the others? He didn't see how Sage could possibly survive his self appointed task, but he rarely did anything without serious thought and consideration. It was clear he didn't want them to know what he was up to, because that would defeat the purpose. Yet could Rowen hold his tongue, and allow his friend to face slaughter at the hands of a pitiless enemy? That feeling hadn't been Sage's death. Rowen was sure the death of one of them would be felt as a rending anguish. That had felt like, and his mind searched for the right word. Triumph. He suddenly realized the others were looking at him.
“You know something, don't you, Rowen?” Ryo asked, fastening his eyes on the blue warrior's.
Rowen swallowed. What should he say?
“Rowen?” Cye echoed, uncertainly.
Who would he be betraying?
“Come on man!” Kento said.
Have faith. His own words came back to him. Normally very logical, Rowen followed his heart, reluctantly admitting, in a dark, secret place, that it would be a relief. He forced a smile. “Sage is fine,” he said. “If he wasn't, we would have felt something else entirely.”
“Then what was that?” Ryo persisted.
“I don't really know,” Rowen said, edging the boundaries of truth.
“Could he be captured?” Cye asked, gripping the edge of the table.
“If he is, we'll break in and free him, kicking some serious tail!” Kento brought his fists together.
“I don't think its anything like that,” Rowen said truthfully. “Maybe he did what it was he had to do, simple as that.”
They glanced around at each other, not wanting to mistake a brother in need, willing to be the first by his side. Eventually, feeling nothing further, they again sat down. Sunlight pried through the cracks in their temporary wall, probing the uneasy cloud in which they breathed.
“You sure, Rowen?”
“I'm sure, Ryo.”
Sage sped along the quiet highway. He wondered if he should have stayed on the mountain, but he didn't want to stay in one place for too long. It was a possibility Rowen or one of the others could find him if he did, which was not acceptable. Also, he didn't know if he could take all of the Warlords on that plateau. He doubted they would all come for him at once, but if they did, he needed different terrain. He couldn't beat them if they could come at him so easily from any side.
He wondered who would come for him. He reminded himself it was possible more than one would be hungry for bloody vengeance, though they had never seemed inclined to strategize like that in the past. But then, the game had changed. Still, he became certain Kale would come for his life. The Warlord of Darkness had always had an obsession for him, which Sage realized he shared. Light and Darkness were opposites after all, and one could not survive where the other tread. Yes, it would be Kale. It would not be an easy fight, but he was sure he could win.
The fields flashed by, a continuous blur, as the sun began to recline. Sage could feel, as much as see the light retreating. He never suffered ill effects from the absence of the sun, but it was like being taken off a battery charger, and he suddenly knew they would strike at night.
Seeing forest begin again up ahead, he hurried for the shelter of the trees. He would like to rest, if possible, and the noise of the dead and drying leaves and twigs would easily alert him to the presence of his enemies. Sage almost wished the others were with him. The strength of their bond had carried each of them through pain, injury, and daunted spirits. The Ancient One had taught them to fight together. Alone, Sage felt their absence strongly, though had missed them surprisingly little during the battle with Sekhmet. He wondered briefly if there was a reason the Ancient had told them to fight together, when he had found such strength alone. He shied away from the thought, picturing instead what it would be like to have the others there right now. Kento's annoying pranks, Cye's happy smile, Ryo pretending to be above it all, and Rowen joining in when opportunity presented. He knew they sometimes thought he didn't approve, because of his reserved nature, but sometime, maybe he'd tell them he had come to rely on it all. He had reached the trees.
Driving the sports car as far off the road as he dared, Sage took some of the food and water with him, carefully stowing the box containing Sekhmet's armor in a little spot under the hood. He regretted he couldn't hide it better, but it was superior to leaving it under a seat, and he didn't want it to fall back into the Dynasty's hands.
He trekked deeper into the woods, till he found a suitable spot. Scattering twigs and branches around the perimeter of the small clearing, Sage hummed an old battle song to himself. His mother said the family had taken it up during the time of the Samurai, among which their ancestors had become nobles and were established as honorable. Neither of which had changed drastically in the intervening centuries, though Sage had his own opinions on the latter, which went strongly against public perception.
He then constructed a crude blind against the base of the largest tree. Satisfied it looked a good attempt at camouflage, he climbed up a tree opposite. It was sturdy enough to keep him from being too uncomfortable in his armor. He was high enough he could still catch the last few minutes of the sunset as it steadily retired, trading its vibrant robes for the cloak of darkness.
Though he knew the sun never slept, and was merely orbited by the Earth, Sage found it hard not to see it as a mighty being who, while abundant, generous, and powerful to near-limitless extremes, must also rest and regenerate. Or perhaps the brilliance of its incredible strength would never be dimmed if not for the quietly whispering Night, who slowly took control, murmuring reassurances as it sent the Light hurtling out of place. Something about the comparison made him uneasy, though exactly what he did not know. It was not the time for contemplation, however, and with the sun gone the Dynasty could strike at any moment. He had not lost his focus or attunement,
and while his mind and body felt indefatigable, he knew resting at least one while he had the chance was the wise course of action. He could not afford to be caught off-guard by the enemy, so his body it would be.
It only took a few minutes for him to complete the process he had long been perfecting. Relaxing his mind and body and slowing his breathing brought tranquility and a sense of peace. Wading deeper and deeper into the sensation, he pictured floating his body on a bed of pure light in an undefined room of rejuvenation. Picturing leaving it there, he walked his mind out of the room and back to the waking world, so that his mind and senses were full alert, and his body would be fresh and ready when he needed it. By being passive, his mind was also was also receiving rest, and he knew neither would fail him from experience. He could go several days without sleep with this technique, without his performance taking a heavy toll, if need be.
Using it in place of true sleep for extended periods of time often required a long period of rest afterward, especially for his mind. But it was needed now. Sage knelt in the tree, under a red moon, waiting for a dawn that would be long coming.
Sometime after midnight, a twig snapped. Sage aimed his attention at the noise, but did not move. There had been several false alarms already as animals had wandered through the clearing in search of sustenance. But this was no herd of deer checking his blind.
Many feet tried clumsily to walk stealthily across the forest floor. With such heavy metal bodies, Talpa's constructs had no hope of succeeding. Slowly, cautiously, Sage tilted his head to better observe their movements. He counted at least a score, hearing others he could not see. Their focus was on his blind. His diversion had worked.
He could see Kayura in the middle of the clearing, signaling her men to surround the unoccupied camouflaged spot. She looked tense. Sage was surprised, and a little dismayed. She was the last warlord he had wanted to see. Sage did not want to kill a woman. He didn't want to be able to do something like that. Perhaps he could convince her to shed the armor and leave. Soon, there would be no Dynasty to return to, and without her armor, she wouldn't be much of a threat. Still, she may not choose to accept his offer. Something cold seized his heart. If she chose death, then his mission would not be swayed. He would do whatever it took, and woman or not, no one would stop him.
Amidst their own noise, none below heard him rise to his feet and position himself.
With her constructs arranged, Lady Kayura brought her arm down as the signal to attack. Weapons pierced the blind and a great roar filled the night. As Kayura brought her arm down, so did Sage leap from the tree. The moon reflected off his armor and was caught on his blade as he fell with a battle cry.
Halo destroyed two constructs by landing on them, literally crushing them beneath his feet. He swiped the one closest on his left across the chest, stabbed the one turning in front of him, and beheaded the one on his right with a graceful spin. They were the only ones he caught by surprise.
“There you are!” The Warlord hissed. The she shouted, “Kill him!” Something her soldiers needed little goading to attempt.
Sage was swarmed, but he kept his back to the tree, fending and dispatching valiantly until two of the enemy cut it down, trying to pin him under it.
Alerted by its aching groans, Sage spun to the side, and with an arm strengthened by the mystical armor, pushed it to land atop his foes instead.
A second wave of foot soldiers burst from their reserve positions in the woods, joined by the female warlord. Sage was pushed to the middle of the clearing and assaulted on all sides.
Every enemy Halo destroyed made Sage feel stronger, but there were too many for him to protect himself under the conditions. He blocked, thrust, parried, redirected, and swung fluidly, but he could not guard every direction at once. Soon, there were scratches in his armor, an occasional cut or gash where Kayura or some lucky lackey had gotten under his guard. It seemed she had brought an entire army against him. Between the soldiers pressing upon him, and the bodies of their comrades piling up, Sage became in danger of losing his footing.
Kayura's third string had joined the fray minutes ago, and Halo was convinced they were the last of her forces. It was time. He was filled with a strange and wild glee at thought of what came next. Embracing the true strength of Halo, gathering his energy, Sage leapt into the air. Electric light crackled and arched around him, imbuing his sword and dancing furiously around the young warrior. Kayura turned and ran, not wanting to be caught by Halo's unique attack. She had seen it before.
Sage had never felt more powerful as gravity called him back to the ground, propelled by his own energy. “Thunder Bolt Cut!” he cried as he made landfall and punctuated the moment by slamming his sword into the ground. The energy was unleashed, obliterating all who had previously stood against him. The blast flattened the woods immediately around him, and the sound bled into silence.
Searching the bodies, Halo saw that Kayura was not among the fallen. He was unaware of the uncharacteristic twist to his lips as he went to find her. All the creatures of the woods had either fled or gone silent, making it easy for Sage to hear her rapid breathing, and the clink of her armor as she ran. The warlord must have been knocked down by the blast. She was near.
Sage caught up with her, and could immediately see she was wounded. He tried to tell her to give up, surrender, and he'd let her live, but his voice was knocked aside. He stopped, confused, and tried again, but met the same bewildering resistance.
Seeing her chance, Lady Kayura unleashed her special power. “Starscream Sword,” she snarled like the wounded animal she was, and took to the night sky, drawing extra strength from the clear light of the hard stars. Star-like lights swirled around her in a sparkling nimbus, then burst radiantly from her, pelting the ground below with deadly force.
Sage, in his rising panic over his sudden lack of control, did not react quickly enough to avoid getting hit. He lost his footing, and, unable to find shelter was brutally battered. His response was to draw more from the armor, merge himself further with it, but a dawning realization made him cringe away from Halo with horror. Finally, on the edge of losing consciousness, it seemed the only way to survive, and he grasped again for that power.
The Warlord descended. She bled, and limped from her wounds, but she was sure she could not return to Talpa unless it was with Sage's head in her hands. Halo lay unmoving, but she walked no less cautiously. Almost timidly, she prodded him with a sword. No response. Relief flooded over her, as well as returning confidence as she realized what she had done. Raising the sword to sever the noble head, she cried, “I am the strongest!” and brought the blade down surely.
Halo rolled out from beneath the strike, the tip of her sword just catching the edge of his helmet. He struggled to his feet as she watched, horrified. All of her confidence and most of her courage deserted her, when he took first one step, then another with an intent that she could not attribute to Sage. He was still close enough she could easily attack him, but there was death in his walk, and she knew it would be hers if she did not flee. Yes, flee, back to Talpa, back to the warlords! She turned to run, and with choking terror heard Sage's abnormally heavy step speed up behind her.
She made it a dozen meters, but she suddenly fell forward, with such shock on her face as it had never known. She hit the ruined ground hard. Kayura knew Halo stood above her, but she tried frantically to crawl away, anything to get away.
Halo grabbed her by her hair and pulled her up as she gasped from the pain. From the air like this, she could see why she had fallen. She no longer had legs below the knees. A sense of surrealism took hold of her, even as Sage slammed her against a still standing tree. Sage of Halo couldn't possibly be capable of this, none of the Ronin were. Where had he gained such brutality and power? Piercing pain brought her back to her senses with a scream, and she realized Halo had pinned her to the tree by driving her own sais that she carried through her shoulders. She saw he had one of her Starlight swords as well.
“Halo!” she cried, tears of fear running down her smooth face. “Don't do this. Just let me go. I swear I'll quit the Dynasty, I'll leave the country! You can can have my armor, or anything you want, but please,” she begged. “Please don't kill me. Sage, spare me!”
He drove the sword through her heart. Under the red moon and cold stars, Sage crumpled to the ground, unconscious.