Is To Fight Alone
Sage screamed into the city's outskirts, barely in control of the car in his haste. It nearly tipped over when he slammed on the brakes as it grew too dense to take it further, and he turned its movement into a slide to avoid the heaped pile of cars that had wrecked in moments of reason-deprived panic. It scraped against a lamppost and climbed the curb, but Sage leapt out unharmed.
He climbed the oily, smoking collision easily, though the other side presented a scene of extreme chaos.
The intensity of the fear underneath the shadow of the gates was palpable. People were running and screaming for their lives in all directions, trying to find a place to hide or a way out of the city, trampling each other in their mindless frenzy.
Around and amongst them were the foot soldiers, gleefully chasing anything that moved, and some that didn't. His first impulse was to engage them here, and fight his way to the heart, where he was likely to find Kale and Dais. But that was time consuming, and it would tire him, lessening his chances of successful combat greatly. Besides, there were too many of the horrid things stop all of them no matter how hard he tried.
But if he could take out the generals, it was possible the Dynasty's back would be broken, and its soldiers dispersed. He gritted his teeth and tried to shut out the sounds of the falling around him, and tried not to see anything but the step immediately before him.
He tried, but he couldn't completely, and going forward, leaving the helpless to their violent deaths was the hardest thing he had ever had to do. He didn't think anything could be as hard as putting one foot in front of the other, and his hand off his sword, no matter what else the future held.
His concentration stumbled, then fell apart when he slipped on something. Involuntarily, he glanced down at the severed woman's arm that had tripped him. The world crashed in on him as his gaze was locked, horrified, on that slender, bloody limb. The cries and please eventually drew his attention, and he looked around him with wide eyes.
Some people were being collected to be transported to Talpa's realm for who knew what vile purposes, while others were hewn and hacked far beyond what was fatal. He felt so powerless, so useless, and was caused to question how he, alone, could stop this madness. Talpa's henchmen had never been so brutal, and Sage was dulled by the sheer enormity of the suffering and death lying around him.
Until he turned further, and saw a soldier slide his spear into the soft cavity of a man's body, then push the still living man to the ground. He caught Sage's stare and returned it with the most taunting look, and began to spear the man repeatedly, only losing his smile when the screaming stopped.
Blood again began to pulse in his veins, recovering from the slowed sludge it had become, then began to roar in Sage's ears. Red colored his vision and a hatred seared his heart. He called the armor to him without realizing it, and drew his nodachi, the construct the only thing he could see.
He'd taken three steps toward the automaton, before he became aware of what he was doing, and with difficulty, stopped himself. With cleared eyes, he saw what was being done. The whole thing was an attempt to off-balance him, or cause him to lose control. They were playing war with his mind and heart, and not his body alone. He would have to be careful. Their trap had almost snared him. If he had lost it, it may well have proven a critical failure, which could not be afforded. And all had barely begun.
Sage pushed the images away, pushed the raw pang from his consciousness, and ran forward, trusting he would soon find the Warlords. They wanted him as badly as he wished to find them.
As his legs carried him surely now, he focused on calming the anger that still threatened to boil over. He had to do this for the right reasons, with righteous feelings alone. He knew the fine line he walked would devour him if he allowed anything else to creep under his guard. He thought of his mother, and grandfather, and the guys, reminding himself that his true, sole drive was to protect them. He was glad they were not here to see this. He caught the feeling before it faded, and held on to it tightly.
The warrior slid down yet another loose mound of rubble, bringing him into a large square. Large apartment buildings and a cafe lined one side, facing a row of shops across a wide street. Laughter boomed and echoed cruelly throughout the square, met by a second, equal in animosity and anticipation. They were here. Sage looked quickly all around, but didn't see either of them, though he could feel a pressing darkness at the edges of perception. That was Kale, no mistake.
But he could spare no more time on the search. A group of survivors huddled crying in the middle of the street, hemmed in by the detestable foot soldiers. They couldn't hold out much longer.
Drawing his sword, Sage charged, driving the nodachi to the hilt into one which was holding a raised mace, before it could smash the small girl in front of them. She was holding tightly to a teddy bear, fear trembling in her blue eyes. The action drew their attention, and Sage was soon moving fluidly through the familiar forms and motions. In moments, he slashed through the last one, and began to turn to urge the survivors to flee.
The movement saved his life, and the blow that would have severed his spinal column instead cut across his jaw. Shocked, he saw the little girl. Instead of a teddy bear, she held a spear and jabbed at him viciously a second time. He jumped backwards, avoiding it well, but all of them chased him, and he realized it had to be one of Dais' tricks. He remembered when it had been used to fool Kento and himself into fighting each other in the past.
The belief this was an illusion did not make it easier to aggressively defend himself now, and with each fatal blow, he feared the feel of vulnerable flesh, instead of the clear ring of metal against metal.
As he fought, he could feel Halo prodding at the limitations he had imposed, trying to broaden the flow between them and incorporate itself more fully with Sage's being. He did not fight the armor's attempts, instead passively holding strong to his defenses. The last disguised soldier fell at his feet.
“I'm impressed,” Kale said, smoothly stepping out of the shadows. His red cape flowed like sin behind him, emphasizing the contrast of the blood and darkness of his armor. The ebony spikes protruding from his helmet and chest plate were menacing reflections of the blackness of his heart. “You barely even hesitated to strike them down. Tell me, Sage of Halo,” he stopped several meters short of the young warrior and brandished the wicked claws secured to his hands. “Does killing come that easily to you now?”
Sage prepared himself. “Is it killing, when they have no soul or body, and no will to speak of?”
Kale grinned. “You still stole their existence, and brought darkness to what had seen light. I could almost be proud of you.”
“Do not corrupt me with your pride,” Sage said angrily and stepped forward, blade raised high.
Kale lunged, but was blocked, a sneer on his face. “Have enough of your own do you?”
The young man did not respond, putting his focus on his opponent's defenses and his breath into calming himself. As their fight stretched into minutes, Sage became frustrated. It seemed no matter what he tried, Kale was always there, stopping him. Slash, parry. Slice up, sidestep. Feint, predicted. He remembered. Darkness and Light would always meet. Somewhere, they were forever adjacent. Despite his best efforts, Kale's superior strength and long millenia of practice began to outweigh Sage's skill and determination.
It did not help Sage was not at the same strength as he had been against the other warlords, and the darkness weighed on his spirit. Kale began to slip past his guard, nicking a leg, scratching an arm, and tasting blood in an armor joint or chink.
Sage pushed the Warlord away, and paused, breathing heavily. He could feel the small wounds, and while they were not debilitating, he knew they were only the forerunners as he stock of the very little he had inflicted on Kale. He became certain upon this examination that if something didn't change in his favor, he would not survive. He had yet to see Dais, which did nothing to ease his mind.
He felt again Halo's push against the barrier, and remembered how very much stronger he'd been with its power in his veins. As Kale came for him again, Sage realized the armor was not the enemy he had to fear now, and widened the flow from Halo to himself. The surge of power served to rejuvenate and embolden him, taking Kale by surprise.
He dashed past Kale, attempting to slice through him on the pass, but the Warlord positioned his claw in time, though clumsily, and he still felt the bite of Sage's blade. Stopping immediately past the man, he then jabbed the hilt brutally into Kale's back, knocking him to the ground and taking the wind out of him. Quickly, he turned the Warlord over. It has to be done, he thought to himself. Surprise widened Kale's eyes, and a hateful snarl lined his lips ans Sage raised the nodachi in both hands, high above his head.
The unexpected sound of Cye's voice caused Sage to miss, sinking the sword into the broken pavement half an inch from the Warlord. Able to move again, Kale got to his feet and left, disappearing into a wall of shadow.
Yanking his sword free, but not in time to chase his quarry, Sage turned in pained disbelief. He wasn't supposed to be here. None of them were, but Cye least of all. The blue armored warrior had already slid down the rubble, with the others close behind him.
“We're here to help ya, man!” Kento called.
“You weren't supposed to be here,” Sage said quietly, upset by their appearance. Normally he would be glad to see them, but he'd seen how ineffective they were as a group, and they needed protection. They shouldn't be trying to protect him. Their very presence ruined his entire objective, the goal he was sacrificing so much to accomplish.
“But we're here now, and we'll help you put a stop to the Dynasty and Talpa, once and for all,” Ryo said with conviction.
“You distracted me, and now Kale's escaped. I had him!” Sage choked on his rising anger, and was confused by the confliction of feelings. Something else nagged at him.
Cye looked crestfallen. “Sorry, mate, I didn't mean for that to happen.” They all looked pensively apologetic. Yet they all stood by him, waiting to be accepted. Earnestly hoping he would forgive them, so they could follow through with the duty they had taken upon themselves.
Sage drew and released a deep breath, and allowed the joy of seeing them grow in his heart, until he really could acknowledge the relief of their presence. “It's okay.”
“Yeah,” Rowen put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a thumbs up. “We'll find him again, and this time, we'll be with you. All the way.”
His accent was reassuring. Maybe they would be stronger together, maybe it would be easier to fight with his brothers by his side.
Ryo stepped by him, joined by Kento, facing the direction Kale had retreated in, drawing Sage's attention with them, until all five of them were facing the same way.
“Let's get him,” Ryo said. “And make him pay for what he's done to us.”
“Count on it,” Rowen growled, and a chorus of agreement followed his echo.
Hope burned so sharply in his breast it was painful, and when Sage took a step forward, his feet didn't work right, causing him to drop to his knees. What? The sun that seemed for so brief a moment to shine more fully, now seemed to be swallowed whole by the darkness. He looked down, and touched the spear head protruding through his armor. It came up red with his own hot blood.
Sage looked up, and a pain deeper than any physical wound overspread his fine features. Kento was grinning at him, and Ryo crouched in front of him. That was when Sage realized what had been tugging at the strings of his mind. They had no shadows. That girl and the others had not had a shadow either. It was not because of a lack of sunlight, though that was dimmed. It was the mark of Dais' trickery.
“You really can't trust anybody,” Ryo chuckled. “But I guess it's the last time you'll have to worry about it, huh, Sage of Halo?” His face flickered, the illusion falling away, laying bare Dais' own. The white face plate was ridged, and the legs sprouting from his back seemed almost to move on their own. He really did look like a triumphant spider, about to dine on the fly. Beside him, Kento blurred into a foot soldier, and Sage didn't need the shifting of hollow feet to know who was actually behind him.
He had so easily fallen for it. So distracted with Halo, and Kale, and himself, he hadn't even stopped to question their presence. Having been fooled once, he hadn't left himself on guard for more of the Warlord of Illusion's arts. Blind. Blind and stupid. It was getting hard to focus on Dais' one good eye, as his strength was stolen away, leeched by the pointed stick that had so narrowly missed his heart.
He should have expected something like this, shouldn't have been so naively vulnerable, but as he laid a palm on the ground to support himself, it was the feeling of betrayal that overwhelmed him most. Not the deafening of his ears, or the darkening of his vision, but the bitter anger that surged past it all.
“Bye-bye, little warrior,” Dais said, branching out the spidery arms of his armor menacingly. “This is for Sekhment and Kayura. We may not have liked them, but they were part of us.”
The other soldier ran a sword through the young man's middle, and Sage gasped. His heartbeat began to slow and all his defenses dropped as his consciousness faded away. Until Halo no longer found resistance and roared, breaking the faintly remaining barrier between the two of them. Shattering it, and empowering Sage's failing body with a jolting intensity.
No, Sage thought as he grasped again the hilt of his sword. I will not die here. He rose slowly to his feet, the pain momentarily lost in the incredible power surging through him. A small part of him panicked at how much of Halo had broken through, but he was still too weak to do anything about it. And he knew, without it, he would be dead.
Dais stepped back, raising a hand against the burning glow surrounding and emanating from Halo. When it had quieted to a bright nimbus, he was no less cowed by the look in his enemy's eyes.
Halo swung the large sword up, then swung it down toward him with the cry of “Thunderbolt Cut!”
Too late to run for cover, he tried to brace against it, but was flung violently through a shop front window and slammed through its far wall. The force of the blast knocked him momentarily unconscious. When he struggled to his feet, lucky to be alive, he could no longer see the Warrior of Light. Afraid, he staggered his way to his previous hiding place, cursing Sage's resilience with each painful step.
On the second floor of one of the apartment buildings, Sage slid to sitting against a wall. There were no windows. If there had been they would have been obliterated by his Thunderbolt Cut, and the walls were still intact, making him reasonably sure the Warlords could not find him by the aura of light that he was putting out. His wounds were bleeding badly, and it was with borrowed strength he still breathed.
Halo chaffed at the rest, hungry for more fighting, but it was without too much effort Sage could sway its course to bolster the healing he called on the armor to provide. He had never quite understood why with Halo came the gift of healing, but his gratitude was renewed as his wounds closed and the pain receded. His lung functioned properly again, and he gladly took several deep, steadying breaths, allowing the healing to continue, to let his body repair in this brief respite.
Its host strong again and able to wield it in battle, Halo pulled at Sage, willing him back to the war. But Sage was not ready, and knew he couldn't keep half as much control as he needed if he continued to allow Halo as great a flow between them as there was now. It was difficult, with Halo fighting him, to dam up the river, and he was not able to assert as much control as before, but in the end, it would have to do. He allowed much more than he wanted, nearly as much he dared, to fortify him. He had nearly died, and had much yet to do. The warlords were strong, and they hadn't yet taken him together.
With everything quiet around him, all the thoughts and images from the last half hour began to trickle before his eyes, but Sage blinked them away. His mind was beginning to feel fatigued, trying to battle through the games Dais was sparing no effort, it seemed, to play with him. Between the pressure from the inside, and the hideous cruelties out there, he was beginning to wonder how much more he could take. But every moment he spent here, in this semblance of shelter, meant that many more of Talpa's thugs were rampaging through the city.
He stood, wondering where he should search for them. The Warlords would not have left. He was sure there would be dire consequences for them if they failed to kill him. A reflection of his own situation. And he could still feel Kale out there, somewhere. Right now, though, it was Dais with his tricks that was the larger problem, and if he could, that was whom he would prefer to eliminate first.
As he stood, he heard the very same Warlord's voice, easily audible with so few walls and no windows between.
“Quite impressive, Sage, you killed them all. I see you've figured out our little secret to power.”
He stayed against the wall, trying to determine where it came from. So far no good.
“For a time I really had hoped you boys would feel the masters touch and join us. Especially with that ruffian in the Wildfire armor, I thought the chances were good. Or perhaps just as fun would have been if you all had destroyed each other.”
Sage edged towards the stairs. He didn't want to be seen yet, but he had to get outside.
“It hasn't happened in all the times we've invaded this backwards little world, but with you gone, Sage, it might yet prove possible! You're always so cool headed, I imagine you were quite the steadying element to the rest.”
Here, just before becoming exposed, the blast had destroyed part of the wall. He jumped out, landing behind the building. Not guaranteed cover, but it kept him separated from what had been the arena so far.
“They'll be quite beside themselves when they learn of your demise. I wish I could see their faces when we send them your severed head!” Dais laughed quite delightedly. “Can you imagine the chaos? Their hearts stirring against them already, and then that delicious little yellow cherry on top. They'll tear each other to shreds with their armors!” It was vile how much Dais was enjoying this. “And unlike you, Sage, they won't figure it all out until it is far too late to stop!”
His maddening laughter was impossible to pinpoint, and Sage moved to the other side to see if he could discern anything from there. More foot soldiers were gathered in the remains of the ruined square, again disguised under the faces he held dear.
“Perhaps your imagination is a bit dull for task, Halo,” Dais said maliciously. “Try mine.”
Like puppets dancing to a master's strings, the Ronin automatons came to life. From where he was, Sage could hear and see it all, and worst, couldn't keep himself from watching. The real trick to Dais' art was understanding his source material, and his infernal machinations were all too terrifyingly possible.
Ryo lifted something into the air, and though Sage couldn't make it out in perfect detail, it was impossible not to know what it was. The horror and shock on their faces cut Sage deeply, even though he knew it wasn't truly them.
“Those monsters!” Kento shouted. Cye began to weep.
Rowen turned his head away, and the little light that defied Talpa's gates reflected sharply at the corner of his eye. “We shouldn't have let him run off by himself. We should have followed him.”
“It's our fault, we weren't there for him, and now he's gone,” Cye wiped his eyes ineffectually, his voice rough.
“He made his own choices, we aren't responsible for the outcome,” Ryo said quietly.
Kento stepped up to him, his footfalls resounding angrily. Sage was surprised by the emotions these illusions portrayed, it was hard not to believe his senses, easiest to ground them in the lack of shadow coalescing at their feet.
The boy in orange armor spoke. “That doesn't change the fact that we could have prevented this!” Pointing at the false Sage's head. “We could have been a team! You should have led us!”
Ryo's voice rose sharply. “You want me to always tell you what to do? You want me to manage you? Well fine! We'll do it that way, just don't come complaining when you don't like what I say!”
Rowen jerked him roughly by his shoulder, spinning the black haired boy to face him. “You just don't want to feel responsible, you can't face up to your own shortcomings! Sage is dead, dead! And you want to just brush it off as meaningless? How dare you!” And he punched the Japanese boy.
Ryo wiped his lip. “Cheap shot. But then that's all you've got, isn't it?”
“Stop it, Rowen!” Cye said, his eyes wet still, but now something else could be seen in his stance. “He's doing the best he can, just like us. You don't have to judge him so harshly for what seems so obvious to you. I get so sick of you sometimes, with your nose always a bit in the air because you think you're so much smarter than us! I could always feel it from you, feeling so smugly superior with that big head of yours,” Somehow Cye had turned ugly, and it was coming over the others, too. “Well I've had enough!” He swung strong and low, hitting the American in the middle, doubling him over.
“What are you doing?” Kento sounded surprised, and grabbed Cye so as to restrain him. Sage's mock eyes stared at the scene from where he had been dropped. A gruesome omen. “Calm down buddy!”
“And you,” Cye snarled, slipping out of Kento's grasp and pinning his arm behind his back. “Always making me feel weak, always under your huge thumb, how you constantly reminded me how much smaller I am. Now you'll see the truth!” He pulled up with his arms, simultaneously kicking his legs out from under him. Kento cried out in pain as his right shoulder was rendered useless. Cye locked eyes with Ryo. “And I'm not taking anymore orders from you. Your selfish recklessness was bound to kill us sooner or later. Sage just got it first.”
Rowen stepped between and put his arm out, barring Cye's advance. “This is all wrong, you aren't acting like yourself.”
“Maybe I am,” Cye said, and he shoved Rowen backwards, then summoned his armor. Ryo and Rowen did as well in response.
Ryo rose, the fire building in his eyes. “So you're not just a pathetic wimp, you've actually got a spine in there.”
“Yeah,” Cye said bluntly, and his accent emphasized his dry, serious tone. “Now I suppose you'll be wanting to do something about it.”
“Challenge accepted,” Ryo brandished his dual swords and leaped upon his former comrade. He was fast, but Cye was good as well, and whenever their weapons met, steam hissed on contact.
Rowen stepped in to try to stop them, and as he did the ground trembled and broke beneath them, blasting boulders and rocks amongst the three, pummeling and rag-dolling them away from each other.
“Cye!” Kento roared, his right arm dangling uselessly. It made the heavy pointed staff in his left hand look no less threatening. “You dirty back-stabbing traitor! I'll kill you!” He too was in his armor.
Cye struggled to his feet, dazed, but still hot for the fight. He lined his trident with Kento, who was coming fast, and called on his unique, devastating power. “Super Wave-Smasher!” Water roiled from the prongs of his weapon, twisting into an incredibly forceful horizontal vortex.
But Kento got to him first and hit him hard with the staff, easily breaking bones despite wielding it one handed. The blow caused Cye's aim to shift wildly, and it caught Rowen in full force, knocking him back down, possibly killing him. Kento brutally beat the slighter boy until there was nothing left.
“He was mine!” Ryo snarled, standing now.
“You were too slow,” Kento hefted the bloodied weapon. “You lose.”
“Do I?” Ryo asked, and called forth all the power of the fire within, and burned his friend in a blinding inferno. The smell of charred flesh turned Sage's stomach, even more than everything else.
“That puts me back on top,” Ryo said, bruised from Kento's earlier attack. They were his last words. From the side, a golden arrow screamed through the air, hitting Ryo's center of mass. Rowen's Arrow Shockwave obliterated Ryo, but the blue haired warrior was not alive to see it.
Loosing that arrow had been his final act before the combined power of Kento and Cye took their final toll in his last heartbeat. All was silent for a long moment. Sage knew these were not his brothers, that the horrible scene just played out had not actually happened. But he'd seen what he'd become capable of, with the corruption. Was it so far off?