A Sage Unleashed

The Price of Blood

Sage woke to the familiar warmth and comfort of the touch of the sun, and tried to blink the night's images away. His sleep had not been restful, full of nightmares forged of his own bloody hands, and haunted by Kayura's screams.

He crawled out of the bed roll and wobbled the short steps to the stream, dropping heavily to his knees at its bank. He stared into the water. His reflection was distorted and constantly whisked away by the happily murmuring current, leaving him vague and lacking in definition. He thought it couldn't have been more accurate.

Sage splashed a hand angrily at it, ruining the image of his face. But even as his hand lay in the stream, it came back, undaunted and unopposed. He knew there was meaning in that somewhere, but at the moment he could see little of that nature

More gently, he put his other hand in the clear water. He drank, then splashed the cold water on his face. It felt good. It felt pure, and clean, and he was overcome by the need for it. He bathed in it, relishing the cold as it cleansed and purified, then dried in the sun. He did not think. He allowed only his senses to bombard his mind. The feel of the sun, the smell of the grass by the bank, and heard the brook. Smelled the faint dank air of the caves. The implacable stones. Birds. Breathed.

Dried, and partially restored, he dressed and retrieved some food from the sports car. He had spread it on the ground in front of him, and was about to eat when he felt a presence. Familiar and welcome. Even though it reminded him of his shame. He stood to greet his visitor. “Hello, Ancient One,” he said, bowing low.

“Good morning, Sage,” Anubis answered, moving to stand in front of the young man. His staff rang with each step, its tone one of mystery and knowledge.

Sage gestured. “Would you dine with me?”

“Of course,” the other answered and settled himself on the ground.

They ate in silence. When they had finished, Sage cleaned the few utensils and returned them to the sports car. He paused for a long moment. He almost didn't want to face the Ancient One, and it would be difficult to discuss this horrible situation. He let his breath out. But he did need to talk about what was happening, had happened. He needed advice, badly. If it was some form of punishment he had coming, instead, then well, avoiding it accomplished nothing. Besides, it wouldn't be undeserved. It wasn't as if he was innocent, anymore.

Anubis was waiting for him. Sage sat across from him, cross-legged, and waited for the older man to speak.

“You seem troubled, young warrior. Your spirit is out of balance.”

It might have been odd to expect him to know already, exactly what was causing the turmoil, but it seemed almost laughable that he would say something so generic.

Sage thought for a short moment on how best to answer. “I found a great strength,” he began, the beginning the only fitting place to tell the short story. “And I made a decision. The five of us recently killed the Dynasty lord who went by the name Saranbo. This had taken a heavy toll on the others.” He corrected himself. “On all of us. Seeing what it did to them, I couldn't allow it to happen again. So I left, at least until I complete my mission,” he almost added, If I survive that long, but those words didn't come. “I used my new strength, and with it I took Sekhmet's life. Afterwards, Lady Kayura came for me.”

His posture slackened for just a moment, and a raw edge came to his voice against his control. “I didn't want to kill her, I tried not to,” Pain welled deeply in his exposed eye. “But somehow, I lost control. I-” his voice broke, and he lost eye contact with Anubis. He did not cry, and soon regained his composure. The other man calmly watched him. “I managed to defeat the army she brought with her. But when I tried to talk to Kayura, I couldn't. When she ran, I cut her legs off, and I pinned her to a tree with her own weapons, before driving her sword through her heart. I didn't want to do any of it, but it seemed beyond my will. She begged, but I couldn't stop myself.”

He searched deep into the other man's eyes, looking for answers, hoping for understanding. Perhaps seeking ablution. “I think it was the armor. No, I am convinced of it. I can believe myself capable of killing a man, but I would rather have done anything than kill a woman. I won't be like him!” He said vehemently, and his voice echoed through the caves. He continued, his voice stressed, but moderate. “I don't understand. And I can't quit now, I'm halfway there. I can still save my friends. But if I cannot trust my armor, what am I to do?”

The breeze stirred, playing with Sage's golden hair and rustling Anubis' robes. He had closed his eyes for the moment, thinking. The young man's plight was very serious. “A hard situation you've found yourself in,” He opened his eyes, but they were still lost to the past, at some convergence between his own memories and the inherited knowledge of the Ancient One. “You have discovered what makes Talpa's Warlords as powerful as they are. It is something I succumbed to, a path I hope you will not follow.

“A very long time ago, the armors you and your friends use to fight the Dynasty, as well as the armors the Warlords utilize, were all united against Talpa.”

Sage's eyes widened, and questions formed, but he held his tongue, allowing the Ancient One to continue.

“There was a battle, and it looked as if Talpa had again been driven for Earth by the Nine Armors, but he had not left. When the warriors had dropped their guard, he stole the armors, intending to destroy them. But he could not destroy what was good. He did, however, manage to taint their purity,” His eyes saddened, and an old pain brought a bitter twist to his mouth.

“I was in the group that pushed into Talpa's realm to retrieve the armors. Several of my friends were killed, and we were only able to take back six of the nine. Talpa kept the other three. We escaped, but it turned out to be at a worse cost than we at first thought. In our arrogance, we could not believe possible what happened next,” He glanced at Sage. “Though you, I'm sure, have already guessed.

“Kale, Sekhmet, and Dais, Talpa's favored generals, were given the armors. We were, disheartened, to see our own instruments, the weapons of dead friends, used by the enemy. At first, they were not as strong, but after weeks, and then months of cruelty and violence, they became more powerful than we had ever imagined for potential.” Anubis' voice became slightly quieter, and he looked unsure how to feel. Sage knew he was hearing a store never told before, that this was extremely personal for the other man.

“I lost faith, and became angry. I began to hunt his forces, which were not all comprised of his empty foot soldiers as they almost exclusively are now. The more I fought, the stronger I became. I did not realize what was happening to me. I did not have your wisdom at the time, Sage. My gin was Loyalty, and in doing what I did, I broke that loyalty. First to myself, and then to my friends. I became corrupted, and joined Talpa's ranks, taking my armor with me.”

His eyes met Sage's. “Perhaps because they saw what happened to me, perhaps they had the strongest gin, my former allies managed to defeat us, and avoid my fate, as has been done in the centuries since. Still, Talpa's dominion of this world hangs in a bare balance, and I fear the thread has weakened.” He paused and drank some water.

Sage continued to wait patiently. He had doubted Anubis when first he had assumed the role of the Ancient One, after his predecessor had sacrificed himself for them, but he had proven himself, and Sage knew was receiving only the truth as the other man saw it. It was a fascinating story.

“While this is old history, it relates to you, young warrior,” He set his hands in front of him as in demonstration. “With the knowledge vested in me, and my first hand experiences, I can explain this to you.

“With the corruption from Talpa's tainted touch, violence,” and he pointed at Sage. “Especially violence done with strong intent, and even more specifically intent to kill, brings out the darkness. It worms into your mind and heart, twisting them around until you wouldn't be able to recognize yourself. It becomes almost exponentially more powerful. The interesting thing is that I am convinced if one can keep ahold of their virtue, without losing themselves, they would become ultimately powerful. To tread the balance is perhaps the most dangerous and frightening thing one can do, but as you've seen for yourself, it rewards the daring with bloody dividends. As is the way of war.

“I believe this is the situation you've placed yourself in. Your motives remain true, based on observations born of wisdom, preserving your personal virtue, yet you have opened yourself almost fully to the hidden dark power within your armor. This is why you have survived thus far, this is why you won, and why you lost control, leaving you in a precarious position, my young friend. The more you use that armor, the more it grows to control you in its thirst for blood.” Anubis finished, his eyes on the young man in front of him, waiting to see what he would say on the matter. Praying his virtue would guide him to a safe course.

Sage digested everything he had been told. Some of it confirmed the dismaying convictions he had formed, the rest shone light on a dangerous, endless circle he came so close to following. A circle that would not have doomed only him. Each piece came together, and his eyes widened as implication upon implication made itself clear, and with a hopelessness he had not conceived in himself he burst out, “Then there is no winning!”

Anubis bowed his head in what may have been acquiescence. “To permanently retrieve the armor, and stop the generals is now a task that puts one in grave risk of turning into a vile machination of evil himself. To pursue a stalemate is to risk a critical weakness that may one day be our world's undoing. Until Talpa himself is vanquished, you are correct, Sage, but getting there is not easy.”

“We thought we had him once already,” he agreed. He did not put his head in his hands, but he might as well have from the tone of his voice when he continued. “Then what am I supposed to do, Ancient One? If this taint is a poison that will spread to my brothers,” several thoughts flashed through his mind, making him pause. He remembered the look in Ryo's eyes, and his aggressiveness. He heard Sekhmet say, what will you do when it gets your brothers? “My brothers,” he felt panic, trapped. It was beginning to manifest in them. But he had already succumbed to it once. “If it is already working within them, then what is the best thing to do? And with the taint in the armor of Halo so strong, then we couldn't risk forming the White Armor, could we? I'm alone.”

Anubis, who had, as a Warlord, always begrudgingly admired the young man for his stalwart confidence and unwavering spirit was slightly shaken by the lack of it now. He wanted to comfort the boy, but he could not afford to baby him, not with so very much at stake.

“Sage,” he said more gently than he'd intended. “Do not lose your faith or your courage. These are difficult questions, which require difficult answers. Whatever solution is reached,it will have consequences that will have to be faced. This is where you must make the choices. Once you have decided on a course of action, I suggest you do not look back.”

Sage straightened slightly, and took a deep breath. He was a little ashamed at losing his self control. He needed to be stronger, had always been stronger. “What do you recommend I do?”

“I will tell you what I think, and I will tell you what I see,” Anubis did not like being obtuse, but he had come to understand the world was shaped by the choices of those in it. He was not God, and to tell someone what to do, or tell them what decision to make was outside his jurisdiction, unless under more specific circumstances. He could give advice, and help others make informed decisions.

Besides, he knew in his heart exactly what Sage would do. “If you return to your brothers, and allow them to fight with you, your armor's accelerated corruption may very well speed up what is working within them. Also, I know you are afraid of what will happen to them if they continue to kill. You must allow others to make their own decisions, Sage. If you continue your course, you may lose yourself. You could turn on your brothers and the entire world. You are strong, but what you would have to do to withstand the combined assault of Kale and Dais might overwhelm and consume you. That is what I think.”

He took a breath. “What I see is that you are still determined to spare your friends. I see your experiences have not yet turned you selfish. But I caution you to do what is wisest, even if it conflicts with what you want most. You have a heavy responsibility, Sage, with hard demands, but you must remember there is more at stake than your friends and yourself only,” He hesitated before finishing. “They are looking for you now. I could take you to the others, if you desire it.”

“I believe I need to meditate,” Sage replied. He did need to figure everything out. He needed to be alone. He didn't want to see them, not yet, not now. Maybe later.

Anubis stood, grasping the staff. “Then I will leave you to it,” he began walking away. “If you need me, call, and I will come. You are never alone.” The staff rang with its unique, melodious clarity as the Ancient One walked into the woods.

Sage watched him go. He felt he was again running low on time. He too was convinced Kale and Dais would work together against him. They wouldn't leave him long to himself.

He sipped some water, then moved to sit closer to the stream, its chortling harmony a naturally soothing cadence that helped ease his mind into its deeper state. His consciousness blossomed into being, and he saw himself seated peacefully by the water. The full sun felt good even here, and he stayed for several minutes, enjoying the tranquility. But it was not where he needed to be.

Away from the birds and the tress, far from the cave and its meaning, Sage traveled. Down leaf covered trails, and over stone bridges. He did not take the paths that constantly presented themselves, did not wander into memories, or some of his favorite places. He walked past large houses and hidden temples, walked until all images faded, and he had come to the door. In his hands were four sticks of incense and a candle, and he was now dressed in a white towel. Shifting the candle to his other hand, he opened the door.

Steam greeted him, welcoming and cleansing as he crossed the threshold. He breathed deeply of the warm, damp air, and was relaxed. In the middle of the room was an incense burner and a cushioned mat. Sage settled on the mat, placing the incense on either side of him and the now lit candle to his right. The conflict of sustaining fire and the sauna had never bothered or distracted him. Rather their opposite nature created a space of balance, and it was here Sage went when he was faced with his most difficult situations.

He considered before choosing a stick, then set it in the intricately carved burner, lighting it with his mind. The smell wafted pleasantly into the air, then was diffused by the moisture throughout the room, keeping the scent subtle, but present. It was not, however, the focus of the exercise. This stick represented Rowen, Ryo, Kento, and Cye, and as it burned it seemed to conjure them so Sage could communicate and examine.

He felt a surge of brotherly love as their familiar faces formed, and they were sitting around the room with him, the depth of which was always disguised by his quiet and reserved disposition. He knew, just as with his mother, grandfather, and a very few others , he would do anything for them.

“Hi, Sage!” Cye smiled first. He always seemed to be happy about something. It was never annoying, actually quite endearing. He loved him for it. Such a light should never be extinguished.

“Yo man! What's up?” That was Kento of course, very outgoing and protective. Partially because he had four younger siblings back home that he would die for in a heartbeat, and live for in half of one. Sage knew he saw the rest of them as extended family, and held them just as closely. What would happen if he were to die in this war?

“Hey, Sage, seems a bit early, don't you think?” He winked, talking with that strange Brooklyn accent. Rowen was even more intelligent than Sage, but he would never make a big deal out of it. Though he was sometimes harder to understand than the others, it would have been hard to find anyone more dedicated and willing. From some of the things he'd said, and others he hadn't, Sage suspected he had a troubled family life, and that the four of them were almost all he had in the world. It wouldn't be fair if all he knew were war and strife. He deserved to find more in life.

“Sage, what's going on?” Ryo. Sage respected his selflessness and courage, and of course loved him as a brother. Yet there was something about him. An incautiousness that sometimes bordered arrogance, and a dangerous undertone that was effectively overwritten by a character trained to be strong. Still, Sage knew that Ryo would give everything he had to stop the Dynasty, and his best to them all. Whether or not he struggled with a darker nature, his actions had always spoken well of him. He needed the opportunity to find his balance, without being tugged and torn by the burdens he'd shouldered.

He smiled at their greetings. “I just wanted to talk.”

“Well go ahead man,” Kento said loudly. “We're all ears!”

“About what we're doing, and what we should do,” Sage continued. He knew it was not actually the others he was talking to, only his representations of them, but the process still helped. “I think we need to make sure the Dynasty's defeat is final, which means killing Talpa and the Warlords. But I am concerned about how that would affect everyone. My first question is, how do you think you would feel if you were to kill, or help kill the Warlords?”

Ryo answered first. Sage didn't think he even noticed Cye turn pale. “It's gotta be done, and when it comes to saving the Earth from those tin cans, the ends justifies the means.” He was so sure of himself.

It was silent for several moments before Kento spoke up with his usual energy. “They've killed lots of us over time, I say it sounds like justice!” Conflict in those boyish eyes, with several years yet to maturity.

“They do need to be stopped,” Rowen agreed, looking resigned to something unpreferred. “I don't see how else they're going to leave us alone. And we're the ones who got these armors, which seems to be the only way to fight them. I guess it's our responsibility.”

Sage looked over at Cye, who seemed to be struggling to find words. “Be honest, Cye, please.”

“I don't want to,” the young man said suddenly, looking ashamed of himself for it. “I wish there was another way, but if there's not, then I'll do everything I can to help get rid of them. They can't be allowed to keep hurting people.”

Sage nodded. “My second question is, would you do it, even if you knew it would destroy you? Would you do it if it might turn you into one of them?”

Ryo snorted. “That's impossible. We'll never be like them. I'd rather not die, but if it gets rid of them, then I guess it would be worth it.”

Rowen looked as uneasy as the rest of them. “What do you mean, turn us into one of them? Do you really think we would serve Talpa?”

“Not willingly,” Sage closed his eyes. “Take my word for it, you can do monstrous things without serving him. Killing them might make you do it, too.”

“So you're saying we might only be trading one evil for another, and that we would be that evil?” Rowen asked.


“You're wrong,” Cye said with simple sincerity. “I believe in you guys, and myself. We would not become that. I trust you, I trust what I've seen.” His blue eyes shone without doubt. “We will not become monsters.”

Sage was sure he couldn't say that if he knew, if he could see, what Sage had already done. He couldn't tell them, he would never be able to bring himself to explain to them why he knew the looming doom hanging over their unknowing heads.

“Yeah,” Kento said, standing up. “Cye's right. We can get through anything, as long as we're together.”

“I can't be so sure,” Sage murmured.

“Why do you ask?” Rowen queried.

“I'm trying to make a decision,” Sage answered, then reached to snuff out the incense. Their images faded away. He set the stick back next to him and reached for the next. He lit it, and waited, closing his eyes and opening his ears.

Slowly, a picture formed around him, given substance from the scent of the incense but built by the sounds of the world. It slowly grew from whispers to a roiling cacophony of human voices. Sage frowned in concentration. Finally, he could begin picking out individual voices, focusing on those within Talpa's reach of influence. The suffering, wailing for the lost, the terror were almost overwhelming, but Sage persevered, listening to as many voices as he could distinguish.

There, a man tried to fight back and defend his family, and was cut down. Here, a woman sobbed over the wreckage of a home, with acute grief. Sage did not want to know why. A child ran away from the metal monsters, screaming hysterically. A military tank full of brave men overrun by Talpa's foot soldiers. He heard desperately whispered prayers for protection, and others mocking the rumors of destruction. Until the dark gates opened above them, and death and ruination fell upon them all.

Gasping, Sage snatched the incense off the burner and snuffed it out. The screaming and the tears echoed slowly out of existence. There had been laughter, and there had been joy, but the tears on Sage's cheeks were not for them, and he had to take many steadying breaths. He set his eyes to the flickering flame of the candle, and let its gentle warmth and light soothe him.

Now he could move on to the next. He hesitated before lighting it. Even in here, he reflected, he dared not fight the armor, if it did indeed grow stronger through conflict. The last stick had taxed his strength, and he needed it just as much for this. It would have to do. He lit the incense.

The Armor of Halo appeared across from him, kneeling as well, a mirror of Sage's position. It's expression seemed to mock him, and it felt alien. Empty sockets viewed him with contempt, yet he could hear it whispering to him, calling him to take it and use it as it so desired. Sage did not let himself be distracted or moved, instead looking deeper. Passively probing the taint that was now so prominent. There. He saw the glow, the good, righteous core that was unbreakable, even if it was starving. He reached to touch it, but Halo knocked his hand away angrily.

The feeling flared in Sage as well, and retaliation tingled in his palms. He mastered himself, and released the emotion, allowing it to slip away into the steam. He focused again on the glow, trying to thread his consciousness into it, entwining and strengthening. The smell of the incense and his own sweat was the lifeline to his mind. Sage centered his concentration on this glow, and soon found the veins running from it throughout the entire suit. They were small, and they felt fragile, but they pulsed in their course with an undeniable presence.

He began to lose himself in the flow, enraptured by the pure light that he felt inseparable from. But the darkness pushed against him, and the rest of the armor tried to evict him, even as it sang ever more alluringly. It was suffocating.

Sage became disoriented, lost between the push and pull, tumbling through the rapids of another's entity. Something bumped against him, and he caught it with a hand. Relief engulfed him as he recognized the thin tendril of jasmine, and he crawled along it until he was back to himself. He took the incense out with a shaking hand, and lay on the floor panting.

The smell of jasmine still clung sweetly to the air, for which Sage had never been more grateful. He shuddered as he wondered what would have happened to him if he had not come out. He felt so alone, and for the first time since he'd left, he wished the others were there with him. But they weren't. The candle was burning, and he was not yet finished.

It was an effort to pick himself up off the floor, but he again took his place before the burner. He picked up the final stick and placed it.

“Hello, Sage,” he greeted himself, bowing.

“Hello,” he returned, bowing as well. “You don't normally summon me, what is it you need to speak with me about?”

“This situation, the armor, what is happening to me. I normally know my own feelings well, but I am finding a great amount of confusion.”

“I see,” he said, inclining his head. “But you must keep in mind I am a reflection, and though the image may be true, the perception of which may be skewed.”

“Of course,” Sage agreed. “When I think about carrying on with this on my own, I almost feel overwhelmed with the enormity of the task, but when I consider bringing the others into this, especially with what I know now, I fear for them, and I am torn between desperately wanting their support, and dreading for them a fate worse than death.”

He stared back, unblinking. “I'm afraid I won't be strong enough to ward off the effects of my armor. I fear I will fall, and hurt my brothers. That I'll fail to destroy the Warlords, fail to stay in control. I am tempted to think that I cannot do it without them, because of what I've been told. I do not think I could face it if they suffered the full effect of Talpa's taint.”

Sage frowned. “I have always relied on my strength, I have always been strong. I have never,” honesty. “Until now, been afraid of myself.”

“But I am,” he said, with a slight toss of his blond hair. Sage wondered how often he actually did that. “And that is the crux of the issue.”

“I have to stop fearing myself before I can truly accomplish anything,” Sage's brow creased. “But does that mean I shouldn't be afraid?”

“I did not say that,” he said. “It is a point of grave concern. Halo is very powerful, and I do not know if I am strong enough to resist its influence. Perhaps the question is, though, can I withstand it long enough?”

“If I could do this quickly, then maybe I can avoid the worst of it.”

His own purple gray eyes locked on his. “Or I might burn up all the faster, and then endanger everything I want to protect.

“I do not know how strong I am.”

“Neither do I,” he smiled. “I'm feeling many things, but I know if I believe in myself, whichever way I choose, I will make the best of it.”

Sage smiled back. “Yeah.” He put the incense out, but left it in the burner. The candle was burning low now, but he thought he had time yet. Grabbing the other three sticks, he added them to the first, and lit them all.

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