A Hero, Indeed
Sage stood frozen as he watched Shadow Kahn clutch Aiko by the throat and lift her off the ground. The chilling night breeze could do nothing to send a shiver through Sage as his body had already gone completely numb.
“Why are you doing nothing to stop this, Sage?” asked Shadow Kahn. “Why are you not trying to help her?”
Aiko kicked wildly and attempted to pry Shadow Kahn’s hand from her throat but her effort was futile. Shadow Kahn’s strength was far superior to hers, and the more Aiko struggled, the tighter Shadow Kahn squeezed.
“I know why you allow this to continue,” said Shadow Kahn. “Since you have been alone for so long, you have grown accustomed to it. You would shed no tears if you lost all of these so called friends, because deep down you want nothing to do with them.”
Sage began to shake from his growing rage. He knew the things his former master was saying were nothing but lies. Sage wanted friends, though he would never admit it for fear that it would be seen as a sign of weakness.
Shadow Kahn gazed deeply into Aiko’s frightened eyes. “Allow me to grant your request, Sage,” he said. Shadow Kahn then tightened his grip.
“No!” shouted Sage.
* * *
The terrible dream tore Sage from his sleep. He was breathing heavily and sweating profusely.
To his relief, Sage found Aiko still slumbering. Though she was on a journey that very well could lead to her demise, Aiko’s peaceful face failed to show it.
When morning came, Sage and Aiko continued on their journey. Having had such a disturbing dream about Aiko prompted Sage to act even more distant than usual.
“What’s wrong?” asked Aiko, who already knew Sage well enough to know something was pressing on his mind. “Did you have a bad dream last night or something?” After not receiving an answer or as much as a look from Sage, Aiko was able to figure out what was happening. “You had a dream about me, didn’t you?”
Sage looked at Aiko but quickly turned away.
Aiko’s cheeks immediately blushed a bright red. “I’m so embarrassed,” she squealed. “I don’t know what to say. No one’s ever told me that they had an illicit dream about me before. I suppose I should be flattered.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said Sage.
“Don’t feel bad. I had a dream about you last night, too. You had rabbit ears and could fly.” Aiko then paused to think about how strange her dream was. “Do you think having a dream like that means there’s something wrong with me?”
“I said I don’t want to talk about it. Dreams don’t mean anything.”
Aiko let out a sigh. “Fine, we won’t talk about it anymore,” she said. Aiko then walked in complete silence alongside Sage. The silence was short lived, however, as her stomach began to growl loudly.
“A warrior must learn to have more discipline than that,” said Sage. “In the heat of war, soldiers have been known to go days without eating.” It was immediately after those words were spoken when Sage’s stomach began to growl even louder than Aiko’s.
“You were saying?”
Sage cleared his throat. “At the same time, a warrior must know when to replenish their energy when it’s warranted.” A smile never appeared on his face as Sage tried to make the act look as deliberate as possible.
“You’re not fooling anyone.”
It wasn’t before long when Sage and Aiko entered a town. It looked to be no different from any of the other towns the two had visited on their journey, but for some reason, there was something familiar about it to Sage. He took in his new surroundings and tried to figure out why he thought he should know the place.
“What’s wrong?” asked Aiko.
“It’s nothing,” said Sage.
An old woman sweeping around her doorway was the first to see the newcomers arrive. Her broom fell out of her grasp when the travelers passed by her house. She then froze and looked almost like a statue as she stared at the two.
“What was that about?” asked Aiko.
“I don’t know,” said Sage.
As the two ventured further into town, more people became overwhelmed at the sight of the visitors. An old man standing outside one of the shops was especially stunned, prompting him to give an order to a boy standing at his side. “Go and tell Marta to come quickly,” he told him. The boy sprinted off to do as told.
“Sage, could you please tell me what’s going on here?” asked Aiko, who was trying her best to keep her mouth from moving as she spoke.
“I have no idea why these people are acting like this.”
“Did you and Shadow Kahn once attack this village?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Well, you picked a fine time to start forgetting things.”
Up ahead, a gathering of people had congregated and was blocking the way out of town. It would have seemed as if they were trying to stop Sage and Aiko but the townspeople were turned away from them and looking in the opposite direction.
“I don’t intend to stay long enough to find out why these people are acting like this,” said Aiko. “We should turn around and get out of here as fast as we can.”
Sage came to a stop, prompting Aiko to do the same. It was shortly thereafter when the crowd began to separate. When they did, a woman emerged. She immediately made her way to the newcomers. She approached Sage and began staring into his green eyes. “Sage?” she asked, eyes sparkling with newly forming tears. “Is it really you?”
“Yes,” replied Sage.
The woman embraced Sage and tears began to stream down her face. “You’ve returned,” she sobbed. “After all this time, my beautiful son has returned.”
Sage’s eyes bulged after hearing such unbelievable news.
“She’s his mother?” gasped Aiko.
Sage and Aiko were taken to Marta’s home a short time later. As the three sat at her table, Aiko feasted on an entire loaf of bread. Sage had been offered food, but after hearing the startling news, his stomach was far too unsettled to accept it.
“The man you call Shadow Kahn came to our town a few months ago,” said Marta. “He told us that he knew of a promising swordsman who lived here. We could tell by his appearance that his motives were evil, so we told him there was no such person from our town. He knew we were lying and grew infuriated. His power was incredible. With only a wave of his hand, he began burning homes to the ground.”
“Where was I while this was happening?” asked Sage.
“You and your father were out training.”
“My father?” asked Sage.
“When you returned from training, your father took it upon himself to fight that man. But he wanted nothing to do with your father and demanded that you battle him. We were reluctant to let you, but you were determined to stop him. After you drew your sword, his sword appeared from out of nowhere. The two of you fought, but it was as if he was toying with you. You were still so inexperienced.”
“Shadow Kahn knew Sage couldn’t stop him,” said Aiko.
“We heard that man tell you that the only reason we villagers were still alive was because he was allowing it. He said he would destroy us all if you refused to go with him. You had no other choice, so you agreed to go with him.”
“It’s just like him to resort to making a threat like that,” said Sage.
“When you agreed to go with him, some sort of black light appeared around you,” said Marta, who then went silent for a moment. “As you were leaving, I called your name. But when you looked back, your eyes looked so lifeless and empty. It was at that moment when I thought I had lost you forever.”
After hearing the story, Sage couldn’t help but think back to the moment when Shadow Kahn had told him he was his creation. Being called a “puppet” especially hit a nerve.
“Where’s my father?” asked Sage. “I want to see him.”
Marta was unable to look her son in the eye. “The day after you left, your father set out to find you,” she explained. “But a few days later, he returned. He was in such poor health that he couldn’t continue his search. It was as if he had lost a part of himself when he lost you. And it was only a few days later when he passed away.”
“What?” gasped Sage.
“The last thing your father said to me was that when you returned, he wanted me to tell you he was proud of you. No matter what you had done or what choices you had made, he wanted you to know that he would always love you.”
Sage slammed his fist onto the table. “That bastard!” he exclaimed. “The whole time, it was nothing but a lie. And like the fool that I am, I believed him! I did everything he told me to! I really was nothing more than a puppet.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” said Aiko.
“It was my fault. My weaknesses allowed it to happen.” Sage then slammed his fist into the table again. “As if I didn’t already have a good enough reason to despise that man! Now I don’t care what happens to me!”
“Sage,” gasped his mother.
“I swear to you,” Sage told his mother, “I won’t rest until that man pays for what he’s done to us. I won’t be satisfied until my hands are stained red with his blood. Even if it costs me my own life. I will make him pay!”
“Please, Sage, no,” said his mother. “That’s not the answer.”
“Of course it is. Because of that man, my father is dead! And there’s not a thing anyone can do that can bring him back!”
“You’re right,” said Marta. “There is nothing anyone can do to bring your father back. So what good will come from seeking revenge? The only thing that can come from that is more pain and suffering. And that’s what that man wants.”
Aiko wanted to add to what Sage’s mother had said but felt she had no right to intrude on a conversation that clearly had nothing to do with her.
“You don’t understand,” said Sage. “He must be stopped, and taking his life is the only way. You can’t reason with someone who doesn’t have a soul.”
“Please, Sage. Please stop.”
“I’m sorry that you don’t agree with me,” said Sage. “But this is something that has to be done.” And with that, Sage made his way out of the house, making eye contact with neither his mother nor Aiko as he did.
“Sage, what’s happened to you?” whispered his mother.
Aiko calmly got out of her chair and turned her back on Sage’s mother. Aiko did this to keep her from having to see the look of anger on her face.
It took no great effort for Aiko to find Sage. After she had tracked him down, she leaned against the opposite side of the tree against which he was leaning.
“How could you say such awful things in front of your mother?” asked Aiko. “Can you imagine how she must feel right now?”
“If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t have said those things in front of her,” said Sage. “It was never my intention to upset her.”
“Whether you said those things out loud or not doesn’t matter. They’re still what you believe. And it isn’t right to believe in hate and revenge.”
“But the things he’s put me through, and what my mother’s had to endure,” said Sage. “I can’t just let these things go without doing something about it.”
“You have every right to be angry.”
“My father. I don’t even remember what he looks like. I don’t remember a single thing about him. It’s like he never even existed.”
“I wish my father cared for me half as much as your father cared about you. All I ever was to him was the disobedient daughter who never did what she was told. I doubt he ever made any kind of effort to find me. He’s probably glad to be rid of me.”
Sage was surprised to hear Aiko speak so candidly about herself. He knew little about her past, and to hear that she had run away from home was more than a bit surprising.
“But one thing’s for sure,” said Aiko. “I refuse to be the one who has to come back here some day to tell your mother that you’re dead. Do you hear me? I won’t do it!” By the quiver in her voice, it was clear that Aiko was fighting her emotions.
“What are you saying?”
“What I’m saying is, after you left and your father passed away, your mother very easily could have lost all hope and withered away to nothing,” said Aiko. “But she didn’t. And do you know why? Because a part of her believed one day she would see you again. And now that you’ve returned, you’re just going to turn your back on her and leave again just to satisfy your need for revenge. How selfish can you be?”
“This is something that I have to do,” said Sage.
Tears were on the verge of falling from Aiko’s eyes but she refused to set them free. “Don’t you understand? Your feelings don’t matter anymore. The only person whose feelings mean anything right now is your mother.”
Sage would never admit it, but he knew Aiko was right.
Aiko removed herself from the tree, prompting Sage to do the same. The two then stood side by side but facing in opposite directions.
“It’s up to you to look after your mother,” said Aiko.
“I understand,” said Sage.
There was a lengthy silence before Aiko spoke again. “The time we spent together, I’ll always cherish it. But this is where we have to part ways.”
Sage was unable to give Aiko a reply.
“I hope you’re not thinking about following me,” said Aiko. “Because I plan on running. And I can run really fast, so you’ll never catch me.”
“Goodbye, Aiko,” said Sage, a half-hearted smile upon his face. It wasn’t that Sage was happy about what was happening, he merely wanted to be able to someday look back at the moment and remember how fortunate he was to have gotten the chance to know Aiko. “Perhaps we’ll meet again someday.”
“Of course we’ll meet again,” said Aiko, voice quivering more noticeably than before. “When this is over, I’ll come visit you.” Unable to hold them back any longer, tears began streaming down Aiko’s cheeks. “Goodbye, Sage.” And with those last few words, Aiko sprinted off into the forest.
Sage was unable to bring himself to watch Aiko depart.
After running herself into a state of near total exhaustion, Aiko was forced to take a much needed rest. She found a place to regain her strength against a shady tree. “I should be happy for Sage,” she said to herself. “He’s found a place to belong. It would be wrong for me to want him to come back.”
“What an unfortunate turn of events,” said Shadow Kahn. “The helpless little girl has lost her protector. What ever will she do?”
Aiko sprung to her feet and immediately began looking for her foe. She found him standing only yards away. “What do you want?”
“I merely wanted to offer my condolences for the loss of Sage,” said Shadow Kahn. “Am I not allowed to do that?”
“I don’t need sympathy from someone like you.”
“How ungrateful,” said Shadow Kahn. “After I came all this way to make you feel better, this is how you thank me. Well, just to show you how much better I am than you, I will present you with a gift anyway.”
“What are you planning now?”
A gathering of bushes began to rustle. From them emerged Shadow Kahn’s Beast.
“What is that thing?” asked a wide-eyed Aiko.
“I would introduce you,” said Shadow Kahn, “but your life will be ending soon, so why should I waste my time?”
The Beast immediately advanced toward Aiko.
Refusing to give her opponent the chance to attack first, Aiko let loose a flurry of blows to the Beast’s face. Though its face was concealed behind its hood, the Beast was clearly unfazed in the slightest by Aiko’s assault. “This can’t be,” said Aiko. “How?”
“Loyal Beast, try not to disappoint me.”
“Try this!” shouted Aiko. She then delivered a kick directed at the Beast’s head. An instant before Aiko could connect, the Beast caught her by the foot.
“Very good, loyal Beast,” said Shadow Kahn.
“How could it have seen it coming?” thought Aiko.
The Beast wasted no time in hoisting Aiko up, then slamming her into the ground. All the feeling immediately left Aiko’s body after impact.
“How could it have seen?” said Aiko, her voice fading.
The Beast pulled Aiko off the ground and drew her close. Aiko kept her gaze elsewhere as she refused to allow such a horrible creature to be the last thing she saw before dying. The Beast then hurled Aiko into a tree.
“Beast,” said Shadow Kahn. “I want to hear her body break in your hands.”
“I’ll see him again,” thought Aiko. Just the thought of seeing Sage again, even if outside of the world of the living, brought out a smile. “I know I will. Somehow, someday, I will see him again.”
Before the Beast could finish what it had started, Sage rushed in and ran his sword through its back. Everything then came to a standstill.
Sage slowly withdrew his blade, which now glistened with black blood.
The Beast spun around to face Sage. The fact that it showed no sign of being hurt proved how powerful it was. Seeing this prompted Sage to take a step back and prepare for a battle he was unsure he could win.
“Loyal Beast,” said Shadow Kahn, “return.”
The Beast looked at its master, then at Sage.
“Now,” exclaimed Shadow Kahn, prompting his Beast to immediately return to his side. “Never force me to repeat myself again.”
Having reprimanded his subordinate, Shadow Kahn focused on Sage. “I must admit,” he said, “I never expected to see you again. I say this because of how readily you abandon your friends. It was my understanding that allegiances meant nothing to you.”
“You were never my friend,” said Sage.
“Nevertheless. When you were under my command, you never showed such devotion. What is it about this girl that would cause you to do such a thing? Can it be what I think it is? I was unaware that you were capable of such emotions.”
Aiko’s heart began to beat rapidly after hearing what Shadow Kahn had just said. She then began staring at Sage, who stared back for a moment before turning his attention back to Shadow Kahn.
“How I feel about her is of no concern to you,” said Sage.
“True,” said Shadow Kahn. “How you feel about her is of no concern to me. The only thing that matters to me is claiming the Sword of Heaven. And since neither of you possesses it, I have no reason to waste any more of my time on you.” Shadow Kahn then abruptly turned his back. When he did, Shadow Kahn and his Beast were swallowed by a cloud of black smoke. When the smoke cleared, both were gone.
Sage knelt beside Aiko. “How badly are you hurt?” he asked, wiping the now dried blood from around her mouth.
“You know me,” replied Aiko. “It’s going to take more than a couple bruises to keep me down.” She then attempted to get back to her feet but her body was in no shape to allow her to do such a thing.
“You have to rest,” said Sage, placing his hand on Aiko’s shoulder. Their eyes then met, prompting both to quickly look away.
“You’re right,” said a now blushing Aiko. “A little rest couldn’t hurt. I just need a few more minutes to regain my strength.”
“Take as much time as you need,” said Sage. He then walked away and began staring off into the distance. As much as he wanted to be with Aiko, there were too many thoughts running through Sage’s mind for him to give her his full attention.
* * *
Sage was back in his mother’s home staring out the window. Though he badly wanted to continue the fight, he knew it would be unfair to his mother to leave her so soon after the two had found one another. So with her he would stay.
“You care for that girl,” said Marta, standing behind her son.
“I didn’t really know her all that well,” replied Sage. “You can’t really miss someone you hardly knew.”
“That attitude isn’t going to work on me. I can tell how you really feel about her. Though we may have been separated, I’m still your mother and I can still tell when you’re hiding something from me.”
“I . . .” Sage trailed off, not knowing what to say next.
“When your father set out to find you, I feared I would never see him again,” said Marta. “But just like he promised, he returned. And though our time together after that was brief, it didn’t diminish how special it was.”
Marta then stood beside her son to catch the cool breeze blowing by.
“It was unbearable having to watch such a strong man’s life slip away before my eyes. I prayed I would never have to live through something like that again. And that’s why you have to promise me you’ll come back. Just like your father did.”
“Of course,” said Sage, whose voice showed how surprised he was to hear such a request. “You have my word.”
“That’s exactly what your father said,” said Sage’s mother.
* * *
Despite trembling legs, Aiko was able to get to her feet and ever so slowly make her way to Sage. She stood behind him but did nothing to make her presence known as it was clear that much was on Sage’s mind.
Sage had heard Aiko approach. “You’re feeling better already?” he asked.
“Like I said,” replied Aiko. “It takes a lot to keep someone like me down.”
Sage averted his gaze as he was reluctant to say what was on his mind while looking Aiko in the eye. “If you want,” he said, “I’ll be your hero.”
“What?” gasped Aiko. She had heard clearly what Sage had told her, Aiko merely wanted to hear the words again.
“Like in your stories. I’ll be your hero.”
Whether propelled by fatigue or some other reason, Aiko fell into Sage. “Sage,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “I thought I was never going to see you again. I was so scared. I just wanted to be with you.”
Sage wrapped his arms around Aiko. As far as he was concerned, there were no words he could say that could make the moment any more meaningful.
Shadow Kahn had returned to his throne. “Damn him,” he said, clenching his hands into fists. “I should have foreseen his returning.”
The Beast emerged from the shadows and took its place beside its master.
After taking some time to compose himself, Shadow Kahn let his follower in on what would turn out to be quite a revealing secret. “I have a confession to make, loyal Beast,” he said. “I was lying when I told Sage that he was a waste of my time. The truth is, I still have a great interest in him. For you see, he still has something that belongs to me. And I intend to get it back. One way or another, I will get it back.”