The Beginning of the End
There was nothing about the day that made it stand out from any other. Above the Earth, a sky of sparkling azure took on the appearance of a sea flowing through the heavens and doves of pure white soared before a sun that shined with the radiance of a precious jewel on display for all to see.
The sound of steel slashing through the air interrupted the calm of the forest. James, a determined young swordsman, was feverishly perfecting his art. For as far back as he could remember, James had always trained with the same sword. It had belonged to his older brother, William, a valiant knight who had lost his life to a merciless marauder years ago.
Jaycee, a young woman of the same age as James, sat on the stump of a freshly fallen tree and watched as James practiced. Rather than wielding a sword, Jaycee had taken up the staff. Her sheer resilience made up for her lack of strength so that Jaycee could contend with even the most accomplished of fighters. To see the way Jaycee was watching James practice would make anyone realize that she had a great fondness for him.
Deeper within the forest resided a gentle stream. Aiko, a headstrong young woman, stood motionless upon a jagged rock in the water. To shut out the distractions of the outside world, she had closed her eyes and entered an almost meditative state. When Aiko opened her eyes, she unleashed a flurry of swift jabs and powerful kicks.
After Aiko’s impressive display, a grin formed on her face. For it was Aiko’s belief that she was the finest martial artist in the world.
Having earned a well-deserved break, Aiko made her way to dry land. But on her way, she slipped on a wet rock and fell into the stream.
Practicing near his home was the mentor of the young fighters. His name was Archer and he was as skilled a bowman as there was. He had been one of the most favored of soldiers in the king’s royal army but relinquished his duties to establish his school. Having always wanted to teach young people how to reach their full potential at whatever it was they wanted, Archer and his wife, Vera, opened their school and took in the three students, caring for each of them as if they were their very own.
In a neighboring kingdom stood a once beautiful forest recently ravaged by fire. What at one time been mighty oaks were now nothing more than charred black skeletons completely stripped of their canopies of leaves.
A young man of the same age as Archer’s pupils stood alone in the desolate area. All that was known about him was that his name was Sage and he was a highly accomplished swordsman for someone his age.
Three skeletons brandishing swords emerged from the dead woods. Seeing this, Sage calmly drew his sword, looking as if such creatures were nothing out of the ordinary.
Without the slightest hesitation, Sage went on the attack. He took the head off the first of his targets, then attacked another with such might that it was sent crashing into a nearby tree, where it shattered into pieces.
“It’s a shame that you had to be brought back for such a purpose,” Sage told his remaining foe. A swift strike to the chest sent his adversary to the ground. He then stood over the ungodly creature and watched as it struggled to get back to its feet. Not wasting another moment, Sage thrust his sword into the skeleton’s face, splitting its skull.
Someone nearby began applauding. Sage turned to face a man who was dressed in the ceremonial robes of a priest. It would be evident to anyone who saw the newcomer that he was no holy man. The ominous looking man had given himself the name Shadow Kahn, and Sage belonged to him.
Sage sheathed his sword in the presence of his master.
“You never cease to amaze me, my loyal Sage,” said Shadow Kahn. “So effortlessly vanquishing three opponents on your own. You should be quite proud of yourself.”
“What purpose did this battle serve?” asked Sage. “Battling creatures that are already dead, what kind of a challenge is that?”
“Patience, my loyal Sage. Your skills will soon be put to the test as you will face the opponent you have so long been waiting for.”
Not as much as a smile appeared on Sage’s face after hearing the news he had so long been waiting to hear. “I look forward to that.”
The students had returned home for lunch. The others at the table couldn’t help but stare at Aiko, who was still wet from her fall into the stream.
“Did you fall into the stream again, Aiko?” asked Jaycee.
“No, I did not fall into the stream again, Jaycee!” exclaimed Aiko. A calmer demeanor immediately replaced the hostile one. “It just happens to be part of my new training. Sitting in the water helps me to get closer to nature.”
Though no one believed the answer, they accepted it and went back to their meals.
“So, Jaycee, did you get any training done today or did you just sit and stare at James the whole time?” asked Aiko, who believed one good turn deserved another.
Jaycee’s cheeks blushed a light shade of pink. “My wrist is still sore from my fall,” she said. “It might be a few more days before I can train again.”
“That happened last week,” said Aiko, nudging Jaycee in the side with her elbow. “You should be all better by now.”
Vera chuckled as she listened to the girls tease each other. “So, Archer, what do you have planned for everyone this afternoon?” she asked.
“Well, since they’ve been training so hard, I thought I would take them to see the wise man,” replied Archer. “It’s been ages since our last visit.”
Aiko lowered her bowl of stew from her face after hearing what Archer had said. “The wise man,” she exclaimed. “He always has the sweetest treats for us when we visit. Maybe he’ll have glazed plums and apples.” Aiko’s eyes were wide with excitement as she fantasized about the sweet treats. “He might even have my favorite, peaches covered in honey.”
James was staring into his bowl, looking as if he was gazing into another world.
“Is something wrong, James?” asked Archer.
James shook out of his trance-like state after hearing his teacher. “I was just thinking about the last time we visited the wise man,” he said. “When he told me my greatest challenge was soon to come. What do you think he meant by that?”
“You know how the wise man is,” said Archer. “He sometimes does and says things that don’t make any sense. My advice is to not worry about it. There’s no challenge awaiting you. I’m sure of that.”
Archer remembered the visit James was fretting over quite well. And like his student, he, too, wanted to know what the message meant. So curious was he that Archer sent his students home early that day so that he could speak to the wise man alone in his cave.
* * *
“Tell me, wise man,” said Archer. “What were you talking about when you said that James’ greatest challenge was soon to come? I know you well enough to know that what you said was more than just nonsense. Is James in some kind of danger? If he is, then you must tell me. It’s my duty to protect my students.”
“What is soon to befall young James is something that no amount of training can prepare him for,” answered the wise man. “He is soon to embark upon a journey where he must find what his true self really is.”
Hearing an answer that sounded like a riddle infuriated Archer. “Find his true self? What does that mean? Tell me!”
“What I know about this is vague, that is all I can say. You can continue training James if you so desire. But know this, the rest is up to him. Only he has the power to stop the evil that will soon threaten all of mankind.”
* * *
Archer said nothing more to James and went back to eating his meal. He never told the others about the conversation he had had with the wise man. Part of him believed it to be nonsense, while another part began preparing for the worst.
On this day, the wise man was in his cave grinding up herbs in a small stone bowl. He was forced to bring his work to a halt, though, when the light shining in from the outside world became blocked. That was where he found Shadow Kahn and Sage.
“So,” said the wise man, getting to his feet to face his guests, “it would seem the day that everyone has been waiting for has finally come.”
“It would seem so,” said Shadow Kahn.
Archer and his students had left home and were on their way to see the wise man. During their journey, the last trip the group had made began playing itself out over and over again in James’ troubled mind.
Jaycee had been watching James and saw his demeanor change. This worried her as she knew how far James could push himself when a challenge arose.
“There it is,” said Aiko, pointing at the wise man’s cave in the distance. “I wonder if he’ll have a surprise waiting for us.”
When the group arrived outside the wise man’s cave, they were surprised to discover how dark it was inside. The old hermit always had a torch or two set ablaze for light, so it seemed that he might not have been in at that time.
“Wise man,” called out Archer, entering the cave. “Are you here?” A moan emanated from within the darkness. “Wise man, is that you? What’s wrong?”
The torches on the walls lit themselves, illuminating the cave. Standing in front of the badly wounded wise man was Shadow Kahn. At his side was Sage.
“Who are you?” asked Archer. “What are you doing here?”
“Allow me the pleasure of introducing myself,” said Shadow Kahn. “My name is Shadow Kahn, and this is my apprentice, Sage. I would ask you all for your names, but I already know them. Right, James?”
“How do you know my name?” asked James.
“My boy, I know more about you than even you do.”
James began shaking from the rage building inside him, but he dared not advance on an enemy about which he knew nothing.
“Why did you do this?” asked Jaycee.
“You should thank me for what I did to him,” said Shadow Kahn. “If fate is kind to him, though I could care less if it is or not, then his life will expire soon and he will be spared from the calamity that is soon to befall mankind.”
“And just what calamity are you talking about?” asked Aiko, making her way to the front of the group.
“Damnation,” said Shadow Kahn.
“What are you talking about?” asked Archer.
“What I am saying is, all living souls have just been condemned to perish in the fire. There will be no salvation . . . for any of you.”
“Why would you want that?” asked Jaycee.
“My reason is simple. You see, not long ago, I was condemned to spend eternity suffering in the darkest of pits. I did nothing to deserve being sent to such a place. How different was I from those who were spared from the fire?” Shadow Kahn then lowered his head, seemingly about to lose control of his emotions.
Throughout his master’s story, Sage did nothing but stare at the group. It was as if he cared nothing about the torment of the man he followed so faithfully.
When Shadow Kahn lifted his head, a grin was covering his face. “But I was given quite the opportunity. One that I was not about to refuse. I was given the opportunity to punish even those who were made exempt from eternal damnation and make them suffer the same way that I was made to suffer. Of course, there was no way to free me from my punishment, but this was the next best thing. For if I am condemned to spend the rest of eternity in hell, then so will everyone else!”
“Do you hear what you’re saying?” asked Jaycee. “This is madness!”
“Why would I expect any of you to understand?” asked Shadow Kahn. He then focused his attention squarely on James. “Especially not you.”
“I can’t allow this to continue,” said Archer, taking his place at the head of the group. He then motioned for his students to stand aside.
“So, you think what I have to say is nothing more than the ramblings of a man who is without a sound mind, is that it?” asked Shadow Kahn. “It would seem you are not a very perceptive teacher. Not very perceptive at all.”
When Archer reached for an arrow, Shadow Kahn extended his arm and shot an unseen force from his hand that sent Archer flying into the cave wall. The impact was so fierce that it left Archer temporarily unable to move.
James and the girls immediately went to their teacher.
“How did he . . .” asked Archer before falling into an unconscious state.
“Now that you have witnessed just how powerful I am,” said Shadow Kahn, “would it not be wise to do exactly as I say?”
Leaving Archer and the girls, James approached his foe.
“Fear not,” said Shadow Kahn. “I have no intentions of taking anything of significance from you. All I want is your sword. I doubt that you even know how to use it.”
James drew his sword and readied himself for battle. He had no intentions of merely giving his weapon to such a despicable person.
“I had a feeling you were going to make this difficult.”
“If you want my sword, then you’re going to have to take it from me,” said James. It was shortly thereafter when the girls stood at James’ side.
“I’ll never give up my sword,” thought James. “Not to someone like him. It belonged to my brother. It’s all I have left of him.”
Shadow Kahn’s eyes changed to solid black. “If you refuse to give up your sword willingly, then I will take it from you!” he exclaimed. A fierce wind then began swirling inside the cave. Its power was so great that it nearly lifted James and the girls off the ground. “Do you really want to know how I intend to do that?”
Just when it seemed Shadow Kahn was going to unleash his full fury, the display of power came to an abrupt end. Shadow Kahn’s eyes then returned to normal. “Now give me your sword, or face the most severe of consequences.”
James could do nothing but stare back angrily.
“Patience is not one of my virtues, boy.”
“What good would it do to fight someone this powerful?” thought James. “With or without my sword, I don’t stand a chance against him.” James then gazed at his weapon. “I don’t know why he wants my sword, but if giving it to him will appease his anger, then I have no choice.” Knowing he was defeated, James lowered his head.
“James, no!” exclaimed Jaycee. “That sword means everything to you. You can’t just give it to someone like him.”
“There’s nothing else I can do,” said James. Reluctantly, he tossed his sword to Shadow Kahn, who eagerly snatched it out of the air.
“You just made a very foolish decision,” said Shadow Kahn.
A chill immediately traveled down James’ spine. “What?” he gasped.
“Combining this sword with mine will create the most powerful weapon of all. And with it, I will destroy heaven!”
“What have I done?” thought James. “I gave him what he needed to destroy us.”
Shadow Kahn looked over James’ sword, but as he did, his eyes began to bulge. To see the way Shadow Kahn was staring at James’ weapon made it seem as if he had previously come into contact with it.
“This sword,” said Shadow Kahn. “Is this supposed to be some kind of joke? What could I possibly want with this worthless piece of scrap?” He then hurled the sword back at James with such force that it stuck in the ground. “I want your other sword and I want it now!”
“I don’t have another sword!”
“Damn you, boy. This is not the time to play games.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said James.
“I see,” said Shadow Kahn, focused on the wise man’s motionless body. “You never told him, did you?” A chuckle then escaped from Shadow Kahn. “Foolish old man. Did you think this day would never come? Did you think he would never have to face his destiny or his fate? You should have told him exactly what was to come. For if you had, then perhaps he would have been better prepared for this day.”
The wise man raised his weary head. “James,” he groaned.
“Wise man,” gasped James.
“You must summon the power that is buried deep inside of you. For it is that power alone that can stop this menace.”
“What power?” asked James. “What are you talking about?”
“You must believe in yourself, James. Only then will you be able to call upon your sword. And once you have learned how to do so, you can combine it with the final sword and use it to destroy the evil that threatens us all.”
“The final sword?” whispered Shadow Kahn. “How can this be? I thought there were only two. Where could such a weapon come from, and to whom does it belong?”
“But how?” asked James. “How do I call upon this power?”
“Allow me to show you,” said Shadow Kahn. He then extended his arm and clenched his hand into a fist. From seemingly out of nowhere, a black light in the shape of a blade appeared protruding from his grasp. When the light faded away, a magnificent sword with a black hilt was now in Shadow Kahn’s possession. “Behold the most powerful weapon in all creation. Born in the fires where the demons sleep. Behold the Sword of Hell!”
“Sword of Hell?” gasped Jaycee.
“It can’t be,” said Aiko.
James was the most dumbfounded of all and was unable to muster a single word.
“James, you must believe that you have this power,” said the wise man. “You must have faith in yourself. If you have no faith in yourself, then all hope is lost.”
“Yes, James,” said Shadow Kahn, “you must have faith. This old fool had faith in you, and look at what it got him.”
“Bastard!” shouted James, pulling his sword from the earth and charging.
“No, James, don’t!” shouted Jaycee.
Before James could strike Shadow Kahn, Sage stood in his path and blocked his blade with his own. Mustering all of his strength, James tried to overpower Sage, but his counterpart was superior to him in every aspect. This made it possible for Sage to push James back with such force that he was sent crashing to the ground.
Seeing James so vulnerable, Jaycee unleashed as powerful an attack as she was capable. Sage had to use only minimal effort to block Jaycee’s attack. He then kicked her in the stomach, sending Jaycee crashing to the ground beside James.
After taking a quick glance at his vanquished opponents, Sage looked to see who else would be foolish enough to challenge him. It was at that moment when he was struck across the face by a jarring kick that forced his head to whip violently. After wiping a trickle of blood now running from his mouth, Sage stared angrily at Aiko, who looked more than ready to continue the battle she had just started.
Shadow Kahn stretched his arm out in front of Sage to keep him at bay.
“There really is no point in continuing with this fight,” Shadow Kahn told James, who was shakily getting back to his feet. “If you were unable to get past my loyal Sage, then what chance do you possibly have against me?”
Shadow Kahn looked almost remorseful as he watched Jaycee struggle to stand.
A newfound strength began building up inside James. “I must believe,” he thought. “I must.” James then closed his eyes and extended his arm in the way Shadow Kahn had just done. A stunning white light in the shape of a blade appeared from James’ grasp. After the light faded away, a magnificent sword with a hilt made of gold was now in James’ hand.
“Unbelievable,” said Aiko.
“How can this be?” whispered Jaycee. “How could James possibly have something in common with that demon?”
“The Sword of Heaven,” said Shadow Kahn. “What a glorious sight.”
“What did you call it?” asked James, who had heard clearly what Shadow Kahn had called his weapon, he merely wanted to hear it again as it seemed more than beyond belief.
“The Sword of Heaven. Crafted by the hands of the angels. A pity that it will be the very weapon they created that I use to slaughter them with. And how good it was of you to summon it. Now give it to me.”
James immediately took to a battle ready stance. “Now that I know what your intentions are for this weapon, there’s no way I can let it fall into your hands,” he said. “I will protect this sword with my life.”
After a lengthy stare down with James, Shadow Kahn surprised everyone by turning his back on his foes. “I now know that you possess the Sword of Heaven,” he said. “And that will have to do for now.”
As surprised as James was to find that Shadow Kahn was declining the opportunity to do battle for ownership of his sword, he was far more relieved to be spared from doing battle with a man with such an incredible weapon of his own.
A black hole appeared in the back of the cave. “Mark my words,” said Shadow Kahn, not bothering to face the one to whom he was speaking. “That sword will be mine. It is only a matter of time.” And with that, Shadow Kahn entered the black hole.
Rather than following his master in, Sage stayed behind, keeping his icy glare focused on Aiko. Showing no signs of fear, Aiko glared back at him. Eventually, Sage entered the black hole, which disappeared immediately thereafter.
Jaycee had returned to Archer’s side just as he was coming back to his senses. “Are you alright?” she asked.
“I’ve been better,” said Archer, rubbing the back of his head.
“What are we gonna do now?” Aiko asked James. “I guess if there’s anyone who should know, it would have to be you, right?”
“I have to find the third sword,” said James.
Shadow Kahn sat upon a magnificent throne in a darkened room. His ever loyal Sage was standing in a brief area of light in the middle of the room.
“So, his spirit has remained strong despite all that he has been put through,” said Shadow Kahn. “He has proven himself to be quite the worthy adversary after all. But a strong spirit alone will not be enough.” Shadow Kahn then met eyes with Sage. “Everything that I have planned depends on me obtaining that sword.”
“I swear to you, my lord,” said Sage. “I will not rest until all the swords belong to you. I will cut down anyone who stands in our way.”
“I must have his sword,” said Shadow Kahn, clenching his hands into fists. “I must have his sword . . . and his life.”