The group entered a town filled with determined shoppers eager to get their hands on the best items on display. There were merchants peddling such goods as herbs and spices, fruits and vegetables and others selling jewels and fabrics from every part of the world.
As they squeezed their way through shoppers, the group discovered a man ahead standing on a platform shouting to anyone who would listen. When they drew closer, the four could hear clearly what he was saying.
“Come one, come all,” he exclaimed. “To any fighters who consider themselves worthy of the challenge, step foot into the arena and prove you have what it takes to claim ultimate victory! This year’s prize is unlike any we’ve ever had before! A very rare and magnificent sword with a hilt made of solid gold awaits the conqueror!”
Everyone knew immediately what sword was being offered as prize.
“The Sword of Heaven,” said Archer.
“So, fate has not only brought most of us back together,” whispered Sage, “but it’s given us the chance to reclaim the sword. A powerful force is definitely behind this.”
“What was that?” asked Aiko.
“Nothing,” said Sage. “You’re hearing things.”
James led the way to the man. “Excuse me,” he said. “But I think the sword that you’re talking about belongs to us.”
“Is that so?” asked the man, who sounded less than convinced.
“Yes,” said James. “You see, not long ago my sword fell into the river and was taken by the current. We’ve been searching for it ever since.”
“What a coincidence,” said the man. “The man who found the sword told me that he and his son found it in a river.”
“Then it is our sword,” said Aiko.
“May I have it back?” asked James.
The man began laughing. “Are you serious?” he asked. “You expect me to give you the sword just because you know where it came from? Even if I did believe your story, I still wouldn’t give it to you. The sword’s far too valuable to merely hand over.”
“Please, this is a very special sword,” said Archer. “It’s vital that we get it back.”
“You don’t have to tell me it’s special,” said the man. “Fighters from around the world are competing for it. Without a prize, these fighters will leave and take with them all these people and all their money. So if you want the sword, you’re going to have to earn it.”
“But it’s ours. You can’t do this.”
“That’s too bad. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Very well then,” said James. “If I have to fight to get my sword back, then I will. It looks like there’s no other choice.” He then turned to Sage. “May I borrow your sword for the competition?” he asked.
“Yes, of course,” replied Sage.
“James, there has to be another way,” said Archer.
“Not so fast,” said the man. “Weapons aren’t allowed in these fights. You see, this is a competition for fighters who rely only on their bodies as their weapons. So, tell me, are you still so anxious to take on the strongest fighters in the world to get that sword?”
There was no hesitation whatsoever from James. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get my sword back,” he said. “I won’t let anything stand in my way.”
Hearing this created a feeling of doubt inside Aiko. She knew better than all the others just how badly a person could get hurt in such fights if they were ill-prepared for the challenge. Though she agreed with James wanting to get his sword back, Aiko knew it was wrong for him to take part in such a competition.
“You can’t do this, James,” said Aiko. “If you go into this tournament with no knowledge of your opponent’s fighting style or a fighting style of your own, then you might not come out alive. This is too great a risk to take.”
“I know it’s a risk,” said James. “But this is something that has to be done.”
“Then let me do it,” blurted out Aiko.
“But you’re . . .” said James, who stopped short of finishing his thought.
“If you say I can’t do this because I’m a girl, then you’ll be the first to find out just how capable I am,” exclaimed Aiko.
“Are you sure about this?” asked Sage.
“I know I’m not the most dependable person there is,” said Aiko. “But I believe in myself. I know I can do this. Just give me the chance.”
“If you believe in yourself, then so do I,” said James.
Smiling from ear to ear, Aiko took hold of James’ hands. “You won’t regret this,” she said. “I’ll get the sword back, you’ll see.”
“But at the first sign that you’re in real trouble, I want you to give up, understand?” said James. “Your life is worth more to us than any weapon.”
Aiko blushed. “James, the others are standing right there,” she said.
Now blushing as well, James pulled his hands free from Aiko.
After signing Aiko up, James, Sage and Archer took their seats inside a huge Roman-like coliseum. A crowd of thousands had joined them to watch the attraction.
“Do you really think Aiko can do this?” asked James.
“It’s hard for me to say,” replied Archer. “Since she uses no weapon, I wasn’t able to train Aiko the same way that I trained you and Jaycee. Most of her fighting skills were either learned before she came to train with us or were self taught.”
“I’ve seen what she’s capable of when someone gets her angry,” said Sage. “If any fighter makes the mistake of upsetting her, things could get ugly.”
The spectators’ long wait came to an end when the first combatants took to the center of the arena. They were welcomed with a resounding cheer from the crowd.
Wanting to measure the level of competition, Aiko watched the fight from the tunnel. Her focus, however, waned quickly.
“Can I really do this?” Aiko asked herself. “I’ve never been in anything like this before. What’s going to happen to us if I fail?”
Thoughts of her past came flooding into Aiko’s mind.
* * *
Aiko was standing in an open field staring down her male opponent, who looked far less eager to fight than Aiko. Without warning, she charged and delivered a punishing blow to her foe’s stomach. With her opponent now slumped over, Aiko brought a swift end to the fight with a kick to his face.
Before Aiko had the chance to fully savor the satisfying taste of victory, someone approached from behind and spun her around. Aiko found herself staring into the eyes of her father, who was nearly twice her size. “Father,” she gasped.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.
“It’s not what it looks like,” claimed Aiko. “He tripped.”
Clearly not pleased with the answer he had received, Aiko’s father slapped his daughter. “How dare you lie to me. I told you never to do this again. And what do you go and do? You defy me time and time again!”
Aiko, who was holding her now throbbing cheek, tossed her fears aside and became as assertive as she knew how. “Well, what do you expect? You keep finding these weak men for me to marry and just expect me to agree to it. There’s no way I would ever marry a weak man. I need someone who’s as strong as I am.”
“How well these men fight should be of no concern to you. They come from the royal families of our neighboring kingdoms. Their strength lies in the armies they will one day command. And I will be damned if I have to explain to another family why my daughter has just beaten their son to a bloody pulp. If I didn’t know you so well, I would think you were trying to start some kind of war.”
“You’re always doing this to me, father!” exclaimed Aiko, tears welling up in her eyes. “You never listen to a word I say. My whole life I’ve had to do things that make you look good. Don’t my feelings count for anything?”
“Damn it, Aiko. A lesser man would have put a stop to this long ago. Honestly, what kind of a girl practices fighting in her spare time? Frankly, I regret ever letting it get this far.”
“What are you trying to say? Just spit it out!”
“What I’m saying is, this is going to be the last time we have this conversation. The next man I find for you, you will marry. Because if you don’t, then the consequences for your defiance are going to be quite severe. Do you understand?”
Aiko turned her back on her father.
“Do you understand?” asked Aiko’s father.
“Yes,” replied a now calm Aiko. “I promise you, father, this will not happen again. Your daughter will never disobey you again.”
“You see how much easier things are when you listen to your father? If only you had started obeying me earlier.”
That night, when the moon had reclaimed its place as master of the sky, Aiko left home, vowing never to return. She had made a promise to herself earlier that day that no man would ever tell her what to do, no matter who that man was.
* * *
When her memory had come to an end, Aiko turned her back on the match she had been watching and made her way to the back to prepare for her first fight.
The tournament moved to its next match shortly thereafter. And much to the surprise of the crowd, the next battle matched fighters of opposing sexes.
“Another girl,” said James.
“Perhaps this fight will help us gauge how well Aiko will do,” said Sage.
The fight began and the girl charged. Her male adversary easily dodged every attack she threw, then thrust his knee into her stomach. With the girl in no position to fight back, her opponent finished her with a kick to the face.
“I certainly hope what we just saw wasn’t an omen,” said Archer.
After a few more fights, it was Aiko’s turn to go into battle. She stood firmly in the middle of the arena and stared down her opponent.
“This is it, Aiko,” she thought. “This is your chance to show the world that you’re the best. To show that no man can stand in your way.”
With a grin upon his face, Aiko’s opponent cracked his knuckles. “Any last words, little girl?” he asked. It was evident that seeing a girl as his opponent made this fighter extremely overconfident.
“I just ask that you please be gentle,” said Aiko, putting forth her best defenseless little girl act. “This is my first time.”
Aiko’s opponent laughed heartily after hearing the obviously insincere plea. “Oh, I’ll be gentle,” he said. “Real gentle.”
Immediately after Aiko took to her fighting stance, her opponent charged. The instant the man was close enough, he delivered a jab at Aiko’s face. Aiko had no trouble whatsoever in dodging the attack. Clearly not in the mood to let a fight with a girl go any great length, the man let loose an array of attacks at Aiko’s face. With ease, Aiko dodged every one.
“Are you going to fight back or not?” asked Aiko’s opponent, who had since stopped his aggression to catch his breath.
“I don’t know if I should,” said Aiko. “I don’t think these people want the fights to end so soon. Besides, I’m having too much fun making you look bad.”
“You’re going to regret that!” shouted the man, throwing an uppercut. Aiko shifted to the side to avoid the strike and retaliated with a lightning quick jab to the man’s chin. The force of the impact left Aiko’s opponent stunned and temporarily unable to move.
“Was it as good for you as it was for me?” whispered Aiko into the man’s ear. She then brought a swift conclusion to the fight with a devastating kick to the man’s face that sent him crashing to the ground.
With what Aiko presumed to be the first of many victories under her belt, she turned toward the speechless crowd. She then made a V with her fingers. “I guess he won’t be marrying me anytime soon,” she exclaimed before giving the crowd a playful wink.
James, Sage and Archer turned to one another as they had no idea as to what Aiko’s comment meant.
The entire coliseum erupted in a resounding cheer. It seemed the crowd had selected the fighter they were going to collectively support.
Aiko couldn’t help but laugh with joy and wave to her adoring fans. “Thank you!” she shouted to them. Aiko continued to bask in her glory until she was forced by officials to go back to the prep area so the next match could begin.
As Aiko was walking through the tunnel, she passed by another fighter. She paid him no attention and walked by him.
“You shouldn’t boast so much after just one victory,” he said, stopping so he could face Aiko. “You of all people should know that the fighter who battles only for pride inevitably becomes their own opponent.”
Aiko came to a stop and faced the man. The feeling of joy that had just been brimming inside her was quickly replaced with hostility. “You don’t know me,” said Aiko. “And I don’t know you, so don’t act so familiar with me.”
“My name is Kahoy,” said the fighter. “Now you know me.”
“Well, Kahoy, my name is Aiko, and I’ve been preparing my whole life for an opportunity like this. I finally get to show the world just what I’m capable of. And I don’t care who I have to go through to prove it. I’m gonna win this tournament.”
“Well, I sincerely hope I don’t have to face you.”
Hearing such a thing made Aiko feel more sure of herself. She knew there was nothing more intimidating to a man than a woman who stood up for herself.
“I would hate to get in trouble for battering that pretty little face of yours,” said Kahoy. Having said his piece, Kahoy departed.
An incredible rage swelled up inside Aiko. “If he knew what I was really fighting for, he wouldn’t have said that to me,” thought Aiko. The unfortunate encounter reminded Aiko of the many heated arguments she used to have with her father.
Lurking within the darkest recess of the coliseum underground was Shadow Kahn. In the shadows before him was the man he had enlisted to aid him in his mission.
“Remember our agreement,” said Shadow Kahn. “Win this tournament and return that sword to me. Do this and I will most gladly pay you your weight in gold.”
“Is that all?” asked the fighter.
“Not quite,” said Shadow Kahn. “You see, a certain girl has entered the tournament, as well. And let us say, by chance, you were to face her. If something happens to her . . . well, I may just have to pay you ten times what I promised.”
Out of the shadows and into what little light there was appeared a man who stood over seven feet tall and weighed well over five hundred pounds. “Consider the job already done,” said the man who went by the name Morigan.
The next few rounds came and went. Aiko continued to amaze the crowd with her amazing blend of speed and power. But even though she was still the darling of the competition, Aiko felt she was losing much of her well deserved adoration from the spectators to Kahoy. His technique was similar to Aiko’s but seemed more refined. Morigan, on the other hand, was garnering attention for a far different reason. He made extremely short work of each and every poor soul that had the misfortune of crossing his path.
It wasn’t before long when the competition was down to its final few competitors. Aiko found herself up against a man by the name of Elias. There was an arrogance to the way he fought. For it was widely known that Elias believed it to be a privilege for each fighter he defeated to have gotten the opportunity to compete against someone as skilled as him.
“I’ve heard much about you,” said Elias. “It seems you’re the one all these people want to see win the tournament.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Aiko. “But it does make me feel kind of bad.”
“Oh, and why is that?” asked Elias.
“Here you are saying nice things about me, and I have nothing nice to say about you,” said Aiko. “Well, you can’t really blame me. I haven’t heard anyone say anything about you since I got here. I guess that means no one thinks you stand a chance against me.” Usually Aiko wouldn’t be this forthright with an opponent, but she knew Elias was trying to throw her off her game, so she decided she would do the same.
When the signal was given to begin the fight, Elias charged. Like she had done in all her other matches, Aiko was able to dodge or block all attacks thrown at her.
“Not bad for a girl,” said Elias, leaping back.
“That’s funny,” said Aiko. “I was just about to say the same thing.”
Elias immediately unleashed a barrage of powerful jabs. With Aiko’s attention focused on his fists, Elias delivered a kick to her leg, knocking Aiko off balance. With his opponent now staggering, Elias drove his fist across Aiko’s face.
Aiko pulled back after the assault. She did her best not to show any pain as she wiped away a trickle of blood running from her mouth.
“You should have known eventually something like this was going to happen to you,” said Elias. “If you want, you can give up right now before you really get hurt. It won’t bring that much shame to you to admit that you were wrong to get involved in this. After all, you are just a girl, and no one expected you to get this far. So do yourself a favor and quit.”
Shut up!” shouted Aiko, who immediately charged. Elias caught her by the wrist, then drove his knee into her stomach. With Aiko slumped over, Elias drove his elbow into the back of her head, sending the headstrong girl crashing to the ground.
Kahoy was watching the match from inside the tunnel. “Why is she allowing her emotions to control her?” he asked. “She’s playing right into his hands.”
James, Sage and Archer looked ready to rush to Aiko’s aid, but they knew she would never forgive them if they did.
When Aiko had mustered the strength to get to her hands and knees, Elias kicked her in the face, sending her crashing back to the ground.
“I gave you a chance to give up,” said Elias. He then crouched and grabbed Aiko by the hair to force her to look at him. “But I knew you wouldn’t accept my offer. Any guesses as to how I knew?” After not receiving a reply, Elias gave his answer. “It’s because you little bitches are all the same. You can talk all you want, but it doesn’t mean a damn thing if you can’t back it up.” He then let go of Aiko’s hair, allowing her head to fall to the ground.
After his impressive display, Elias turned to face the crowd. He raised his arms above his head and let out a boisterous shout. This prompted the crowd to express their resentment for him with boos and insults.
Aiko shakily got back to her feet. Her breathing was heavy and the expression on her face was one nearing madness. The crowd erupted after seeing her stand.
“So, she’s hungry for more,” said Elias.
“Nobody gets away with calling me a bitch,” said Aiko. “Nobody!” And with that, Aiko charged and delivered a trio of crushing blows to Elias’ face. The sound of flesh crashing into flesh brought an unusual pleasure to Aiko, whose body began to tingle.
Elias was stunned momentarily but far from out of the fight. He immediately retaliated with a blow to the side of Aiko’s head. A moan spilled from Aiko’s mouth, but it was a moan that was filled with more pleasure than pain.
“Don’t tell me you enjoyed that,” said Elias.
Aiko lunged and took a firm grip on the back of Elias’ head. She then repeatedly drove her knee into his face until he went limp.
There was no celebration from Aiko after this victory. After releasing Elias from her grip, Aiko made her way off the battlefield, ignoring the cheering crowd as she did.
Morigan’s match followed Aiko’s. Telling by the ease with which he had won his other matches, it was assumed that this fight would be over very soon. And when it was over, Morigan would prepare for his upcoming fight with Aiko in the semifinal round.
Aiko watched the fight from the tunnel leading to the arena. She wanted to see first hand what her next opponent was capable of doing to an opponent.
When the signal was given to begin the fight, Morigan’s opponent charged. He was successful in landing a pair of blows to Morigan’s face. But only ever so slightly did Morigan’s head move after each strike, prompting him to let out an amused chuckle.
Morigan’s opponent then delivered a kick to the face.
Morigan rubbed his cheek after the strike. “Not bad,” he said. “But this is how you do it!” He then grabbed his foe by the throat and lifted him off the ground.
The crowd gasped at the show of power.
Morigan turned toward Aiko, who was just as awed as the crowd by what she was seeing. Morigan then drove his opponent into the ground. The sound of impact was so tremendous that people in the highest reaches of the arena heard it.
When Morigan turned his attention back to Aiko, he received a defiant glare. “What was that?” he asked. “You say you want more? Well, then more is what you’ll get!” Morigan then picked his opponent back up by the neck.
“What’s he doing?” exclaimed Archer. “The fight’s already over!”
Morigan rushed his motionless opponent toward the arena wall and slammed him face first into it. Not at all finished, Morigan then drove his enormous fist into the back of his opponent’s head. The man who had been so full of life just moments ago fell limp to the ground, leaving behind a large smear of blood on the wall.
The crowd levied boos and insults at Morigan, who had since begun to laugh hysterically. Some fans went so far as to start throwing things at him.
Aiko’s breathing came to a near halt after witnessing the gruesome act. And for one of the few times in her life, she found herself trembling with fear. Aiko knew any person capable of doing such harm to another human being was capable of doing it more than once.
Focused on Aiko, Morigan ran a finger across his throat.
After the arena floor had been cleared, Kahoy and his next opponent took their places. This was the first match of the semifinal round, and the winner would be squaring off with the winner of Aiko and Morigan’s match.
“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” said Kahoy. “But I have a lot on my mind, so I plan on making this quick.”
“Bastard,” exclaimed Kahoy’s opponent, who immediately charged. “You shouldn’t take your opponents so lightly!”
The instant his opponent was within striking distance, Kahoy delivered a vicious blow to his chin followed by a kick to the face. By the time the officials could even declare the fight over, Kahoy was already on his way to the tunnel.
On his way to the back, Kahoy encountered Aiko in the tunnel. He made sure she would stop by standing in her way. Aiko gazed into Kahoy’s eyes, which lacked the fear that hers did. Having no time for such things, Aiko made her way around him.
A soothing breeze swept across the arena as Aiko stared down Morigan. She knew if she could find a way to take this match, then nothing would stand in the way of her winning the tournament and claiming the Sword of Heaven.
Not a sound could be heard from the usually lively crowd.
With good reason, Aiko’s friends were deeply concerned for her. Though it didn’t show on his face, Sage was most troubled. To him, he was watching more than just a friend putting her life on the line for them. “Aiko,” he thought. “Please be careful.”