James and Archer entered a village that looked to have been abandoned quite some time ago. The houses were in disrepair and shut tight, with neither a door nor window open to allow in the glow of the sun. Though the two believed the village to be empty, neither had a very good feeling about the place they had just entered.
“Something about this place doesn’t feel right,” said James.
“Be on your guard,” said Archer.
What neither James nor Archer saw was one of the front doors open slightly. Through the crack peeked an old man, who upon getting his first glimpse of the travelers, opened his door wide and exited.
More doors began opening and out of their houses exited weary looking villagers. They wasted no time in going to greet their visitors.
“Villagers,” said James.
“At least they look friendly.”
“Welcome to our village,” said the old man who was first to see James and Archer. He then shook their hands as if the two were old friends.
“Thank you for having us,” said James, who was growing uneasy by the fact that everyone was staring at the weapons he and Archer were carrying. Archer was quick to also become aware of what James had noticed.
“It’s not often that we get visitors to our village,” said the old man.
“Tell me,” said Archer, looking around at all the happy faces. “Why were you all locked up in your houses? What are you hiding from?”
The mood among the crowd quickly changed after the question had been asked. There were no longer smiling faces. Instead, despair laid its claim, making it evident that something wicked had a hold of the village.
After their introductions, James and Archer were invited to the old man’s house to listen to the story he had to tell.
“He first appeared a few months ago,” said the old man. “He demanded that we give him money and food, or he would destroy our village. We knew there was nothing that we could do, so we gave him what he wanted.”
“Why hasn’t the king done anything?” asked James.
“The king has no intentions of helping us. You see, some years ago we villagers became so fed up with the taxes being levied upon us that we decided to announce our independence. The king could easily have destroyed us, but he didn’t think we were worth wasting his time on, so he allowed our freedom. But now that we have no kingdom to rule over us, we no longer have protection by an army.”
“Why don’t you fight?” asked Archer.
“We’re a village of farmers and merchants,” said the old man. “We know nothing of combat. Besides, if we did fight, we would be risking losing the lives of good men. These men are fathers, brothers and sons. We can’t risk losing a single one even if victory is assured.” The old man looked upward. “We believed our prayers would be answered and a savior would be sent to deliver us from this evil.” The old man then turned his attention back to James and Archer. “As reward for our devotion, we’ve been sent not one, but two saviors.”
James and Archer looked at one another, both taken aback by the notion of being sent from above to be the village’s saviors.
“Though your cause is a just one,” said Archer, “I’m sorry to tell you that we won’t be able to help you.”
“But this is what the people of the village have been praying for,” said the old man. “I know warriors as brave as you would have no trouble vanquishing this evil.”
“I’m afraid we’re already on a very important mission.”
“I see. It wouldn’t be right for us to force you to do something that you don’t want to do. This is our problem, not yours.”
“We’ll do it,” said James.
“What?” gasped Archer. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes,” replied James. “You have my word,” he told the old man. “Your village will be safe again. We’ll find this man and make sure he never does this to your village or to anyone else ever again. I swear it.”
“Oh, thank you,” said the old man. “Thank you so much.” The old man was on the verge of tears as he spoke. “You’ve saved us all.”
Archer could only wonder how anyone could be so selfless to put their own dire situation aside in order to help someone else with theirs.
James and Archer left the village shortly thereafter and began their trek through the forest. If the directions the old man had given them were accurate, then they would come upon the man they were looking for shortly.
Archer would take quick looks over at James but never stared for too long. There was a question he desperately wanted to ask but was hesitant to do so.
“You’re curious as to why I’m doing this, aren’t you?” asked James.
“To be honest with you, yes, I am a little curious,” replied Archer.
“I suppose it’s because this seems so familiar to me.”
“Yes,” said James. “The man that took his life was wanted for many of the same crimes as the man we’re looking for. He murdered people as if human life meant nothing to him. People like that can’t be allowed the opportunity to hurt others.”
“You’re right. This is something we had to do. It isn’t right that those villagers have to pay for their freedom by living like prisoners.”
James came to an abrupt stop and became focused on something ahead. Archer stopped and looked in the same direction. In the distance ahead was the rocky mountain with the spiked peak the old man had told the two they would find. It was there where James and Archer would find the cave that contained their man.
Upon arriving at the cave, Archer drew an arrow, then gave a nod to James before making his way inside. It was immediately after Archer had taken his first few steps inside when a net whisked him off the ground.
A menacing laugh began echoing off the walls. “Looks like I caught myself a trespasser,” said someone from the back of the cave. A dirty rogue with a mangy beard and unkempt hair emerged from the darkness and into the light.
James, who was still outside, calmly drew his sword.
“Now, what am I gonna do with you?” asked the man.
In the blink of an eye, James rushed into the cave and slashed the net, setting Archer free. A thick cloud of dust rose into the air after Archer landed, making it impossible for anyone to see well enough to make the next move.
“So, there are two of you,” said the man, drawing his sword. The dust then cleared, giving him his first look at his second visitor. “No . . . it can’t be,” he gasped, dropping his sword and backing away. “It can’t be you. It can’t!” The man then lost his footing and fell. “There’s just no way! How can this be!”
“What are you talking about?” asked James.
“The devil sent you,” exclaimed the man. Telling by the look on his face, it seemed the man had gone completely mad, and seeing James was the cause.
“What is this nonsense?” asked Archer, who had since gotten back to his feet. “Why are you acting like this? What kind of trick are you trying to pull?”
“Why are you afraid of me?” asked James.
“Because you’re not supposed to be here,” replied the man.
“And why is that?”
It was evident by the way the man was acting that he was too afraid to reply. His mouth was open but speech seemed impossible.
“Tell me,” said James. “Why am I not supposed to be here?”
“Because I already killed you,” replied the man.
With good reason, James and Archer were left in a state of disbelief after hearing what the man had just said. Neither had expected to hear such a grim answer.
* * *
The sun was making its first appearance of the day as James prepared to leave for his journey. He sat alone at the table and put his boots on as quietly as he could. And that was his final task before embarking on a mission that might turn out to be his last.
A floorboard creaked at the other end of the room, alerting James to the fact that someone else was awake. He turned and found Jaycee. Not able to look her in the eye, James turned back around and faced the door. “How did you know today would be the day that I actually went through with this?” he asked.
“I . . . didn’t,” replied Jaycee. “I’ve been waking up this early for months. I knew that eventually this day would come. So that’s why I’ve been going to bed so early, so I would always wake up before you did.”
“How very clever,” whispered James.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do. Please understand. There’s nothing you can say or do that will change my mind. This is something that has to be done.”
“This isn’t what your brother would have wanted. This isn’t right.”
“Sometimes what’s best isn’t always what’s right,” said James. With that said, he swung open the front door.
“How can you do this?” asked Jaycee. “What’s making you act this way?”
“How can you ask me that? I thought you of all people would understand how I feel. None of the others have been through what we have.”
James’ comment only made Jaycee feel worse.
“Put in this situation, you would see things differently,” said James.
“No . . . you’re wrong,” replied Jaycee.
“If that day ever comes, tell yourself that I was wrong,” said James. “Then see if you still believe it.” And with that, James departed, closing the door behind him and not bothering to take one last look at Jaycee as he did.
Jaycee could do nothing but stare at the floor as tears streamed down her face. She feared she had just lost her final opportunity to tell James how she truly felt about him. “You fool,” she whispered. “Why did you let him go?”
The journey that awaited James was a long and difficult one, but he was more than ready for it. The only thing that mattered to him was finding the man who killed his brother and take his revenge. James was so adamant about his cause that he was prepared to give his own life if it meant bringing an end to his nemesis.
The man James sought was a notorious criminal known throughout the land for having a cruelty like no other’s. Nearly ten years prior, James’ older brother, William, had decided to take it upon himself to apprehend the same man. William had been a member of the Knight’s Council, the king’s elite military leaders. He left one beautiful spring morning, much like James had just done, but never returned.
Back home Jaycee had woken the others and told them what had happened. She, Aiko and Archer immediately set out to find James and bring him back. But having no clue as to where he may have gone made their search one based on the hope that fate would lead them to him. But fate had no desire to aid them in their search.
James traveled for days, relying on information given to him by those he met along the way. Most villages James passed through contained a person or two who believed they had seen the man he was seeking.
The days were just as long and hard for those James had left behind. The stress from the situation proved too much for Jaycee to bear. During the search, she fell ill, making it impossible for her to continue, though she argued vehemently with Aiko and Archer that she could. It wasn’t so much her body that was ailing Jaycee but a heart that had suffered a wound so deep that it might never recover.
Every night Jaycee would sit alone in the dark and hope that the front door would open. She thought if she just believed strongly enough, then she would be rewarded for her devotion and James would be returned to her.
The day James had been waiting so long for finally came. The information given to him at a nearby town had led him deep into the forest. And it was there where James found a trail of smoke in the distance. James knew it was coming from the camp of the man he had come to slay. So with a trembling hand and a sharp pain in his stomach, James drew his sword and made his way to the camp.
Upon arriving, James found a small fire that was nearing its end. It looked as if whoever had been there had left, but not long ago.
With no immediate threat at hand, James was about to put away his sword. He stopped short, though, as something about the situation felt wrong.
A rustling behind him prompted James to turn. When he did, James found the man he had come for charging toward him, sword ready to strike. Just barely was James able to block his opponent’s strike. The intense hatred and rage that had been festering within James for the past ten years began to increase drastically as he looked into the eyes of the man he had come to despise more than anything in the world.
The man happened to be the same brute James and Archer had encountered in the cave. Even before the passage of time, his appearance was slovenly.
“I would ask you why you’re here,” said the man, “but I already know. You’ve come to seek revenge.” The man then pulled away from James. “You’re not the first to come for me, and I know you won’t be the last. For this is what my life has become, constantly being hunted. But the only thing those headstrong fools that came before you ever found was their own demise. And I don’t see why you’ll be any different.”
“I didn’t come here to listen to you talk,” exclaimed James.
Before his adrenaline could wear, James unleashed as powerful a swing of his sword as he was capable. His opponent blocked the attack with relative ease.
Having never been tested in combat, James was at a clear and exploitable disadvantage. His foe was able to force him away from camp and into the forest. It was almost as if he was toying with his prey, but his motivation for doing so was unknown.
After the most grueling few minutes of swordplay of his life, James had been forced out of the forest. It then became apparent as to what his opponent’s intentions were. The two were nearing the edge of a deep chasm, which was where James’ foe intended to bring the battle to an end. James tried to drive back his foe but had nowhere near enough strength.
With James just steps from a fatal fall, the man locked swords with him.
“You can’t defeat me,” said James. “This sword belonged to my brother, and with it I’m going to kill you!”
“Though some day the kin of one of my slain might succeed in claiming my life,” said the man, “that day is not today and that person is not you.”
“My whole life has led up to this moment. I won’t fail.”
“You’d be surprised by how many times I’ve heard that,” said the man. He then knocked James’ sword from his grasp and into the chasm. The man then pointed the tip of his blade near James’ throat. “I don’t know who you are or who your brother was, and I really don’t care. But I do know that you won’t be seeing him where you’re going.”
“What?” gasped James.
Wasting no more time conversing, the man ran his blade through James. “Those who allow their anger and hatred to control them all condemn themselves to suffer in the same place,” he said. “Hell is full of people like us.” The man then withdrew his blade, allowing James to fall over the edge and into the chasm.
With the passing days, Jaycee and the others lost hope that James would ever return to them. But even though she was sure James was gone forever, Jaycee continued to sit alone in the dark every night and watch the door.
One night as Jaycee sat alone, the front door opened. It was difficult at first to see through the darkness, but after the person took their first steps inside, Jaycee could see clearly who it was. A feeling of unimaginable joy filled her and tears immediately began to fall from her eyes when Jaycee found it was James. She rushed out her chair, knocking it to the floor, and embraced him tightly. “James,” she gasped. “I thought . . .”
“You don’t have to worry anymore,” said James, embracing Jaycee. “Everything’s going to be alright. I promise.”
“I can’t believe it’s really you.”
James gazed deeply into Jaycee’s eyes. “How did you know tonight would be the night that I came back?” he asked.
Jaycee’s cheeks blushed. “I . . . just had a feeling,” she replied. Jaycee then rested her head against James’ chest, knowing that telling him she had been waiting every night would only embarrass the both of them.
Though she was afraid she might ruin the moment, Jaycee had to ask a very difficult question. “Did you . . . find him?” she asked.
“No,” replied James. “I’ve stopped looking for that man.”
“Never leave me again, James,” whispered Jaycee in a voice so silent that not even she could hear it. “Promise you’ll stay with me.”
* * *
“What do you mean you already killed me?” asked James. “How is that possible? I’m standing right here! Can’t you see that?”
“Don’t bother asking him questions,” said Archer. “He’s clearly mad.”
James nodded. “That must be why he’s been tormenting those people. He doesn’t know what he’s doing is wrong.”
“You mean, you would spare my life despite the terrible sin that I have committed against you?” asked the man.
James knew of no sin committed against him but decided to play along to ease the man’s unstable mind. “I’ll spare you only if you promise me one thing,” said James.
“You must leave this place and never come back. You must also never do anything like this again. Because if you do,” said James, pointing his blade toward the man’s throat, “then I will find you, and I will not be as forgiving as I was today. Am I making myself clear enough for you to understand?”
“You have my word.”
Archer retrieved the man’s sword. “You won’t be needing this anymore,” he said. “And let it be known that if you ever try anything like this again, then swift and severe punishment will be waiting for you. You won’t even see it coming.” By the way Archer was acting, it seemed as if he was taking pleasure in what he was doing. “And just to let you know, there are more than just two of us out there. So one false move and it’s over.”
“Yes,” said the man. “How can I refuse those who have spared my life and given me the opportunity to redeem my wretched soul? A new man has been created today. One that will do all that he can to spread the word of forgiveness.”
“You had better live by those words,” said Archer. “Now leave this place and do it before I have a chance to change my mind.”
“Yes,” said the departing man. “Thank you.”
“Did we do the right thing?” asked James. “Was letting him go the best idea?”
“There’s not much more we could have done. We’re in no position to remain here and keep watch over this area. And this land isn’t part of the king’s jurisdiction, so taking him to be tried wouldn’t do us any good. Just out of spite, the king would probably end up letting that man go free. Besides, you saw the state he was in. He believed every word that I said. I’d be more than surprised if he tried anything like this again.”
“Still, it all seemed too easy.”
“Let’s go,” said Archer, making his way out. “You’ve been through enough for one day. I’m sure you’d like a better place than this to rest.”
“I’ve been through enough for one day?” asked James. “Everything that happened happened to both of us.”
“Well, when the old man told us how he believed we had been sent from heaven, he was looking at you,” said Archer. “And it was you who the rogue thought had come from hell. It’s not often a person is thought to have come from both places.”
James took some time to think about what Archer had said. “Good and evil,” he said to himself. “The two are separated by so little.”
“What do you mean?” asked Archer.
“Man is neither inherently good nor evil. The factors that determine which path we follow are the choices we make. Had either of us made the wrong choices, we very easily could have become the same thing that man had become.”
“Those are the people we should be most wary of.”
“No,” said James. “The ones we should be most wary of are those who waver between good and evil. Those are the most dangerous. One moment they’re your friend, the next, you’re at their mercy. Those people can’t be trusted, no matter who they are.”
Jaycee found herself walking through a very dense area of the forest. With so little light penetrating through the canopies of leaves, the forest looked to be the perfect place for a person to conceal themselves from others.
Jaycee couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the area she had just entered. As hard as she tried, she was unable to get past the feeling that someone was lurking nearby, following her and watching her every movement.
Believing she had heard something, Jaycee began looking in every direction. “Who’s there?” she exclaimed. After those words had been spoken, a flock of black birds shot out of a nearby tree and flew into the sky.
A gathering of bushes ahead began rustling, prompting Jaycee to take to a readied stance. The man that James and Archer had dealt with not long ago emerged. In his hand was a sword. Telling by the look on his face, he was quite pleased to find a helpless girl wandering around the forest all on her own.
It happened immediately after Jaycee had gotten her first glimpse of the man. Her body went completely numb and her heart skipped several beats. There was absolutely no mistake about it, Jaycee knew this was the man. He was far more unkempt looking than Jaycee remembered from their last encounter, but it was definitely him. Jaycee was now standing only feet from the man who had so callously taken the lives of her parents all those years ago.