Is To Fall Alone
“Brings a tear to my eye,” Dais said, clapping. Good humor ringing in his voice, with a caustic undertone he added, “What do you think, Sage? Should we call for an encore?”
“I know what you're trying to do,” Sage shouted back, wishing he didn't sound so angry. “But you will not break me with your cheap tricks, so just come out and fight me!”
“By all means!” Dais said. “Do come out, Sage of Halo. If you survive what's coming next, then perhaps I will have to kill you myself.”
“I am here,” Kale said, and Sage saw him step across Cye's fake, unrecognizable body. The press of darkness emanating from him told Sage he no illusion. “Perhaps you'd like to try me. Really though, you can take your time. It gives our soldiers something to do. They do get so bored when they are locked up with nothing to kill, so these excursions are quite good for everyone.”
Sage burned with hatred for them, until it almost blinded him. He wanted so much to rip their throats out. Or was it only the armor? He couldn't, not until he had himself back under complete control. He didn't want to turn into the monster again, didn't want to be like them. But they deserved it.
Not seeing the blond young man, Dais called out again. “If you really didn't like that scenario, young warrior, I can show you a different one. How about this time I show you how happy they could be, working for Master Talpa? We could show them how to live in harmony with their armor. You never know, they might take to it quite naturally, like yourself. Would you like to see that?” He chuckled. “Or perhaps you'd like to kill them, too.”
There was the slightest chink, chink of metal rubbing metal as Sage walked up the short ally between apartment buildings, slightly past them, and stopped. His mouth guard was up, and he had not looked more intimidating. “None of us will ever work with you.”
Kale smiled. “Ronin Warriors, to me!” He cried, and from behind the ruined store fronts streamed dozens of Kentos, Ryos, Cyes, and Rowens, some in armor, some not, and came to the warlord's defense. Kale stepped backwards into the throng, so they came between himself and Halo. Eerily, his was the only shadow in the mass.
Sage was not surprised, and telling himself they were not real, repeating it as a mantra and his own lifeline to sanity, he waded in. It wasn't only the small horde of sadistic impersonations he had to deal with. Kale was always close enough to slip in when his focus was averted and scratch at him with his deadly, shredding claws. The whole time the look-alikes were talking as Sage cut through them.
“Sage, let me help you.” “What are you doing, man?” “Sage, don't hurt me!” “We can get you through this!” “Trust me.” “We're a team, we should stick together.” “You're turning into a monster!” Over and over, ceaselessly. No matter which of them he cut down, another trusted face took his place. Smiling, or frowning in concern, saying things that should never come from the throats of the automatons beneath.
He had to stop seeing them as human, he tried not to hear them. They were the enemy. But he quickly grew fatigued, and had to let more of Halo through, just to help him keep his footing. Then more, and more, until he realized the voices had stopped, and he became aware of the salty taste of tears in his mouth. Why? They weren't real. He knew the difference.
Looking consciously through his eyes, he saw he had the last of them still impaled on his blade.
“Monster,” Cye croaked, and his auburn hair fell forward with his head. It felt surreal. So tangibly surreal.
From the side, Kale darted in, slashing with ferocity. Sage tried to protect himself, but the construct stuck on the nodachi, weighing it down and making movement clumsy. He lost his footing in the first blow, the second drew blood and sent him flying across the destroyed street divider. His grip on his sword stayed firm, and the momentum cleared it of the corpse.
His back against the pavement, Sage lay, half stunned, staring up. A sardonic smile swept his pale lips. He could see Dais, clinging upside down in the shadowed overhang of a tall roof. From there, he could see the whole battle field, while remaining hidden himself.
Using the unlikely agility of his armor, Sage leapt his way from foothold to foothold, narrowly evading Kale and at the height of his third jump, slashed at the surprised Warlord. Dais lost his hold and fell to the ground, landing on his feet next to Kale. Sage was facing them.
“Finally,” the young warrior said, holding the nodachi in front of him. “It's just the three of us.”
“That is soon to change, boy!” Dais said, readying his super power. Kale moved forward in a prolonged feinting maneuver, splitting Sage's attention as Dais called, “Web of Deception!”. The spidery legs on the Warlord of Illusion's armor reached out, driving and burrowing through the ground to erupt around Sage, attempting to trap him in a devious vise.
Sage, under Kale's assault, managed to avoid the greedy tentacles several times, but the long battle and mental strain were telling heavily, and his reflexes were slowing. He moved his leg barely in time to escape Dais' extended grasp, and Kale reached across the webbing, hitting Sage hard enough to off balance him. The young warrior was snatched up and suspended, his sword knocked from his grasp. He struggled against the bonds, but they only grew tighter. He was helpless.
Both Warlords laughed maliciously, sure now of their victory.
“You look nicely caught,” Dais said, and Kale walked up to Halo.
“You better hope I stay that way,” Sage grunted under the pressure of his chains.
Dais chuckled. “You are quite amusing. I think I'm going to miss our little conversations. Tell you what, I think I'll tell you a little story while Kale sees what you're really stuffed with. I know it will make me feel better, and I can't wait to see the second to last look you'll have on your pretty little face. I imagine it will be priceless.”
“Can't say I've approved of your imagination so far,” Sage said bravely, getting nowhere in his attempts to release himself. Kale slashed his claws across Sage's chest, scratching his armor.
“First, I've got to know,” Dais seemed quite content to simply suspend him, talking over the sharp screech as Kale slashed again and again at their opponent. “Did any of you stop to wonder why we didn't simply work together to eradicate you weaker lot like so many vermin?”
“You didn't want to overwhelm us with your charming personalities?” Sage said, using the conversation as a distraction for himself. Kale slashed again, in the more flexible middle, toying. Sage knew his armor wouldn't withstand it all for long. He still couldn't escape. Let me out, Halo whispered. Free me.
“You would have been as a Warlord!” Dais continued. “Master Talpa wants all the armors, then there will be nothing to oppose him, and when he turns his gaze to other worlds, there will be nine generals at his side, to conquer in his great name!”
Kale broke through, and drew his arm back to puncture the tender flesh.
“Not too soon!” Dais told him sharply. “I still haven't finished with my fun.”
“Get on with it,” Kale growled, and began to beat the boy instead.
“Leave his ears and face. I really want him to hear this,” His casual tone could not have been rivaled. “You pathetic, underdeveloped humans could not possibly have hoped to overthrow the Dynasty. Since you presented so small a threat, this was the time to tip the scales in our favor. Fools! All we had to do was keep you fighting!”
Since he couldn't kill him yet, Kale was sparing nothing in venting his hatred and frustrations. Sage didn't know what to do. He needed help, and fast. But from whom? Me, the other voice whispered. You can trust me. I'll save you. No! There was one other.
“After so many years of fighting, repulsing our master again and again, those armors you wear are certain to be near an irreversible breaking point. Did you know the violence is cumulative? I'm sure you know, Sage of Halo, the more violence you commit with it, the stronger and more bloodthirsty it becomes. That does not end when its bearer takes it off and leaves it for another generation. The long years of peace do perhaps dull it somewhat, but the growing, festering need becomes greater after each use.
“So we kept you fighting, kept you waging war, teased you with anger and hate. If your armors do not answer their true master's call in your lifetime, then it could very well be the next time. At this rate no later than the time after. It cannot be stopped!” He crowed. “It cannot be undone! Even with the knowledge, you are trapped. You cannot dare to be strong, and your weakness is temporary. All you blind fools are doing is forging Master Talpa's path to complete dominion of your world! You cannot win the war, you never could!”
Dais' laughter resounded harshly through the broken structures, flung carelessly over the slowly disappearing corpses of his puppets.
“You're lying!” Sage gasped, blood in his mouth. “That's all you ever do! This is no different.”
“Oh, Sage,” Dais said, mirth still in his eye. “To be an effective liar, one must know full well the truth, and know when that truth will better serve them. I gave you the truth. Really, is there any lie I could have made up that would send your corpse to the birds with more horror? Anything I could have designed to better demonstrate your futility? No, dear Sage, sometimes my best weapon is what can't be denied or twisted.”
Could it be? Sage wondered. He didn't want to believe him, but it did ring with truth. It fit with Sage's own feelings. The others wouldn't know. How could they? This whole time, this entire war, all their efforts, worse than useless? In trying to help and preserve, they were only building towards greater destruction? They had suffered, and bled, for Talpa?!
No! Oh yes, yes! Unavoidable or not, these two would not live to see their evil schemes come true! That's right, let me punish them, let us punish them together. He remembered his brothers, and how it felt to watch them tear each other apart.
Tortured, beaten, chained under a black sky, Sage vowed to save them from themselves. Whatever the cost. You need me. Yes, he thought. I do. And he broke the walls between them.
“Now,” Dais said. “You can do the honors.”
A clear, rhythmic ringing sang out, and a wooden thump followed it. Dais' web broke, dropping Halo limply to the ground.
“It's that traitor, Anubis!” Kale shouted, looking for this new enemy.
“Quick! Kill the boy,” Dais said, turning to find their excommunicated brother. “I want to see his soul rot in Talpa's-” His mouth still formed the word 'hands', even as it flew free from his shoulders.
Kale turned, and had to shield his eyes from the raging glow. Sage moved stiffly, slowly, but his eyes burned with a hatred fresher than Kale's own. There was no apathy from long centuries spent steeped in turbid conditions in his wrath. At that moment, Kale felt fear. He shouldn't have listened to that old fool, he should have just killed him when he'd had the chance. But he wasn't finished just yet.
Halo swung the nodachi, but Kale moved aside, swiping and scratching with his claws. Halo readjusted his stance and tried again. Kale blocked, then put his strength into pushing his opponent away. He began to initiate his power. “Black Lightning-” he began the verbal activation, but Sage closed the distance with surprising speed, driving his sword into Kale's chest.
“The light!” Kale screamed, writhing against that which he could not escape. “It burns! It burns!”
“No more darkness,” Sage said through gritted teeth, and twisted the blade. The oppressive feeling against his aura lifted, and he removed the sword with its crimson sheen. Kale's body fell to the ground, dull eyes crying for his master's aid. Halo also looked up.
“Talpa!” Sage roared. “Leave! Leave or face me!”
For a long, silent moment, nothing happened. Then the great Dynasty doors began to slowly swing shut with a great groan. The whole thing shimmered out of existence, taking its soldiers and the great black clouds with it.
There was an unspoken promise that Sage knew had been made. He would be back.
“You've done it,” Anubis said quietly beside him, and not without wonder.
Sage turned to him, the glow expiring. “Where are the others?” He asked flatly, a certain numbness setting in.
The Ancient One put a hand on his armored shoulder. “They're safe now. You should rest, and let me tend your wounds.”
Halo knocked his hand away angrily. “Then you know nothing! Tell me where they are, or I will find them myself.”
Anubis took a step back. “What's happened to you? Sage, are you still in there?”
Sage snorted contemptuously. “Of course I am. But if you continue to deny my question, then I will have no choice but to see you as my enemy. I will save them!”
“The threat is gone,” Anubis said warily. “If you remove your armor and let me help you, I will take you to them.”
“Liar!” Sage hissed and lunged forward. Anubis raised his staff to protect himself, and Sage grabbed it. “You don't want me to save them, you're still on the other side!” And he broke the Ancient's Staff.
“No!” Anubis yelled, dropping to catch the pieces as they fell. “Sage,” he whispered, his face pale. “What have you done? What have you become?”
“I thought you would be pleased that I destroyed the Warlords,” Sage shouted, and, gripping Anubis by his robes, lifted him to his feet. “But now all you're doing is calling me a monster!”
The Ancient One's eyes were sad. A deeper sadness than he had ever hoped to feel. “I'm-”
“You're what?” Sage shook him.
“I'm sorry, Sage. I should never have let you do this. I'm sorry.”
Halo stared at him, and Anubis was sure he would be killed. Seen as the enemy he once was, and had worked so hard to put behind him. A fate he would gladly have accepted, if it had meant he could have saved the man in front of him.
“You're pathetic,” Halo said and threw him against against the wall of an apartment building.
By the time Anubis had gotten back to his feet, Sage was gone. The two Warlords lay where they were felled, and there were still the bodies of a few foot soldiers, scattered in various forms of grotesque repose. They'd lost their borrowed appearance the moment Dais lost his life. Anubis hadn't paid them much attention when he'd first arrived, focused on trying to help Sage, but if what he thought he had seen was accurate...
It made him shudder. What all had they done to him? Just what had he suffered to make him lose himself like this? The battlefield seemed hollow, despite the incredible victory won.
“What has been sacrificed for this?” Anubis wondered aloud. It seemed so very shallow, now.