Before the Fall
Not a sound could be heard throughout the coliseum as Aiko and Morigan stared each other down. The spectators were far too enthralled with what was about to happen to even consider doing anything other than watching.
Though she was determined, Aiko had never been in a fight with anyone near the size of Morigan, creating immense doubt within her.
When Aiko charged, Morigan remained still. Upon reaching her opponent, Aiko delivered a punishing blow to his stomach. Not the slightest move was made by Morigan, intensifying the feeling of doubt in Aiko.
“It’s probably at this moment when you’ve realized you’ve just bitten off more than you could chew, isn’t it?” remarked Morigan.
Without warning, Morgan connected violently with a blow to Aiko’s face. The impact was so great that Aiko was taken completely off her feet. She flew through the air a short distance before crashing to the ground.
James, Sage and Archer all rose to their feet, fearing the worst. The three were not alone in their fear as the rest of the spectators had stood to watch what they believed to be the beginning of the end for Aiko.
Morigan stood over Aiko and lifted his foot above her head. “I only regret that I couldn’t make your suffering last longer than I did,” he said. Before his foot could crash into Aiko’s face, she rolled out of harm’s way. A hole the size of his foot was left where Morigan had made impact with the earth.
Aiko sprung to her feet, bringing about a resounding cheer from the spectators. At the same time, James, Sage and Archer let out a collective sigh of relief.
Aiko wasted no time in landing a flurry of jabs to Morigan’s face. Looking only annoyed by the barrage of attacks he had just absorbed, Morigan clutched Aiko by the throat and lifted her high off the ground.
“Did you really think a few taps to the face would be enough to stop me?” asked Morigan. “Better men than you have come at me with far more only to meet with the same fate. I suppose it’s an honor for you to be joining such illustrious company.”
Aiko tried with all her might to pry the enormous hand from her throat but was nowhere near strong enough to pull off such a feat.
“Don’t worry. I’ve decided not to end the fight just yet. I want to make sure you know just how foolish a mistake you made.” Morigan then chuckled. “By dealing out so much pain that you’re going to beg me to finish you off!” He then freed Aiko by throwing her a good fifteen feet through the air. After Aiko hit the ground, her battered body rolled another fifteen feet before finally coming to a stop.
Once she had stopped rolling, Aiko shakily got to her hands and knees. But once she had pulled herself off the ground, Aiko was struck with a booming kick to the stomach that sent her falling back to the dusty earth.
“Get up!” demanded Morigan. He then kicked Aiko in the side, forcing a squeal to burst from her. Hearing this prompted a laugh to burst from Morigan. “Let me make this easier for you,” said Morigan before kicking Aiko in the side again, this time with much less force, more like what one would do when trying to wake a sleeping dog. “I’ll stop kicking you as soon as you get back to your feet. How does that sound?”
Aiko was able to get back to her feet. She was then met with a blow to the face that sent her back to the ground. It was after hitting the ground again when Aiko realized she had made the wrong choice to volunteer herself for such a mission.
“We should end the fight,” one of the judges suggested to another. “The girl clearly doesn’t stand a chance against him.”
“We can end the fight only when the girl is unable to continue,” said the other judge. “That’s the rule. We can make no exceptions.”
Morigan began kicking Aiko in the side again. An insidious laugh accompanied each one. “Get up!” he shouted with a healthy portion of pleasure in his voice. “You know what happens if you don’t. Then again, you know what happens if you do!”
With each kick she absorbed, Aiko grew more irate. The pain from the beating had become dulled by the rage now coursing through her body.
Once again, Aiko was able to muster the strength to get to her hands and knees. Morigan drew his foot back further this time for a stronger kick, and the instant after he thrust it forward, Aiko directed a crazed glare at him. She caught Morigan’s foot and twisted it as far as it could possibly be twisted.
Like a wounded animal, Morigan howled in pain. He then stumbled backward, looking quite pathetic as he did.
“You’re going to do it, aren’t you, Aiko?” whispered Kahoy, watching the fight from the tunnel. “It should be quite interesting to see this move done from a running start. But do you have enough power to take down such a foe?”
An enraged Morigan drove his foot into the ground and began grinding it around in an unorthodox method of pain relief.
Aiko began her charge. And like before, Morigan did nothing more than wait. Once she was within striking distance, Aiko took a small hop and planted a foot against Morigan’s stomach. She then used her plant foot to thrust herself into a back-flip. During the flip, Aiko used her other foot to kick Morigan in the chin, whipping his head back with such violent force that it looked as if it might be separated from the rest of his body.
The crowd gasped at what they had just witnessed, some even jumped out of their seats. Though what Aiko had just done was a clear act of severe and utter aggression, there was more beauty in the move than anything else.
The attack was so fierce that Morigan dropped to a knee.
“Much of her momentum was lost to the plant foot,” said Kahoy. “The move lost much of its impact. Had she perfected it . . . this fight would be over now.”
Knowing when opportunity was presenting itself, Aiko followed her attack with a flurry of blows to Morigan’s face, which was now level with hers. Morigan thrust a hand into Aiko’s chest, sending her staggering back.
Morigan stood and began staring down Aiko. He then wiped his hand across his nose, smearing his fingers with the blood running from it. “She’s drawn my blood,” he whispered. “How could that impudent little bitch have done this?”
“What’s he waiting for?” thought Aiko.
“I see I’ve been going too easy on you,” said Morigan. “So the time to bring this fight to an end has come. Sorry to disappoint you.”
“What?” gasped Aiko. “He’s been going easy on me?”
“This fight ends now!” shouted a now charging Morigan. When Morigan had reached striking distance, Aiko leapt into the air and delivered a kick to his face, sending Morigan’s head whipping to the side. Morigan was grinning when he looked back at Aiko.
“It had no effect,” thought Aiko.
Morigan wasted no time in wrapping his massive arms around Aiko. He then snatched her off the ground and proceeded to squeeze her incredibly tight. A scream burst from Aiko’s bloodied mouth.
“What’s wrong?” asked a chuckling Morigan. “I thought you liked pain. That’s what everyone’s been saying about you.”
Aiko growled loudly as she attempted to break free. But with each attempt at escape she made, Aiko was squeezed tighter.
Having had no luck breaking free from Morigan’s grasp using conventional means, Aiko decided to take another approach. She pulled her head back and propelled it into Morigan’s face. After the devastating impact, Aiko discovered she had done a greater deal of damage to herself than to her opponent. Her vision became blurred and her head began throbbing. “That wasn’t a very good idea,” she said to herself.
“There’s no quit in you, is there?” asked Morigan. “Well, since you won’t be breaking free from this hold, I suppose I can let you in on a little secret. You see, I’m getting paid a great sum by a certain man to get that sword for him. But I’ll be getting paid even more if I, well, you can figure that part out for yourself.”
“Shadow Kahn,” gasped Aiko, who was running so short on breath that she could barely muster the oxygen to utter her enemy’s name.
Having learned in her youth that some fights had to be won using underhanded means, Aiko decided she had to play outside the rules. She clamped her teeth onto Morigan’s already wounded nose and bit down as hard as she could. Morigan let out a roar before ripping Aiko off, then throwing her away.
Seeing an opportunity to finish the battle, Aiko charged. It was quite a foolhardy charge, though, as Aiko had no idea as to what she was going to do when she reached her target. Not at all prepared to launch an attack, Aiko was caught completely by surprise when Morigan backhanded her across the face, sending her falling flat on her back.
Morigan jerked Aiko up, then slammed her back into the ground.
Though Aiko was experiencing excruciating pain, she knew she had to continue to ensure the Sword of Heaven returned to its rightful owner. She rose to her feet, holding her right arm, which had been badly wounded by the last attack.
“Incredible,” said Sage. “She won’t give up.”
“This girl’s really asking for it,” said Morigan.
As Aiko glared at her opponent, she couldn’t help but think back to an important lesson she had learned some many years ago.
* * *
Aiko was no more than twelve years old when she learned something that would remain with her forever. She was training with her teacher when he landed a kick to her arm. The impact left her limb completely numb.
“That’s enough!” shouted Aiko. “I quit!”
“And why is that?” asked her teacher.
“Because I’m hurt, that’s why,” replied Aiko, holding her battered arm. “I think you broke my arm. Oh, father’s going to be furious. He never wanted me doing this in the first place. I can just imagine what he’ll have to say.”
“You want to stop because you can no longer continue?”
“That’s right,” said Aiko.
“Then tell me. If you’re unable to continue, why are you still standing?”
“What are you talking about?” asked Aiko.
Before Aiko knew it, her teacher was back on the offensive, bringing an end to the fight in the only way he saw fit to end a fight.
* * *
“I’m still standing,” whispered Aiko. Her breathing then became extremely heavy. “I’m still standing!” she shouted.
“Not for long!” exclaimed Morigan who, like a mad bull, began his charge.
Aiko charged, as well. When she met Morigan, Aiko unleashed a barrage of wild punches, all of which were blocked.
“You never should have gotten yourself mixed up in this, little girl,” said Morigan. He then clamped onto Aiko’s throat and lifted her off the ground. With his other hand, Morigan grabbed Aiko by the leg and lifted her completely over his head.
James, Sage and Archer rose from their seats.
“I can’t say that it was a pleasure meeting you,” said Morigan. “But when it comes to filling my pockets, I don’t let anything stand in my way.” And with that, Morigan drove Aiko back first into his knee. He then dropped her motionless body on the ground.
One of the judges rushed to the scene. When it was found that Aiko was in no condition to continue, he ended the match.
Morigan grabbed the judge and pulled him close. “This fight isn’t over until I say it is!” he exclaimed. “Or do you value your life as little as this girl did hers.” The frightened judge shook his head. After receiving his answer, Morigan threw the judge away. “And now for you,” said Morigan, looming over Aiko.
“He’s going to kill her!” shouted James who, along with Sage and Archer, vaulted from their seats and made their way toward the center of the arena.
“I think you know what comes next,” said Morigan, lifting Aiko off the ground by the back of her neck. He then directed a crazed glare at the arena wall.
“We’re not going to make it,” exclaimed Archer.
Before Morigan could advance toward the wall, he was struck in the back of the head. Aiko fell from his grasp.
“What was that?” asked Morigan, rubbing the now throbbing back of his head. Standing a few feet behind him was Kahoy. “What do you think you’re doing? This doesn’t concern you, so stay out of it!”
“Oh, but I’m afraid this does concern me,” replied Kahoy. “You see, I can’t allow you to do any more harm to that girl.”
“And why is that?” asked Morigan.
“Because I’m under strict orders to make sure nothing happens to her,” said Kahoy. “Though I may be severely reprimanded for letting things get this far. I just hope I’m shown more mercy than what you’ll be shown by me.”
James, Sage and Archer arrived and immediately went to Aiko. There was a collective relief when they found she was still breathing.
“You should get her out of here,” Kahoy told the newcomers. “The only ones allowed on the arena floor are judges and the participants of the current battle.”
“So, it’s a fight you want?” asked Morigan.
“Well, I have qualified for the final round,” replied Kahoy. “And if I’m not mistaken, so have you. So a fight is in order.”
Sage carefully picked Aiko up and cradled her in his arms. It was at that moment when she opened her eyes. “Sage,” she whispered.
“Don’t speak,” said Sage. “You need to conserve energy.”
Tears began to fall from Aiko’s eyes. “I failed,” she said.
“You did the best you could,” said Sage. “Let us worry about the rest.” And with that, Sage and the others departed into the tunnel.
“I should let you know,” said Morigan, “stopping me from finishing off that girl cost me a lot of money. And the only thing that’s going to make me feel better is doing to you what I was planning on doing to her.”
“Since you’re so confident, make the first move,” said Kahoy.
“You’re going to regret that,” exclaimed Morigan, pulling his arm back in preparation of delivering as powerful a blow as he was capable. Kahoy waited for Morigan to throw his punch, then leapt so high that he vaulted completely over his opponent. After landing behind Morigan, Kahoy locked onto his arms.
“There’s something I should tell you,” said Kahoy. “Aiko left home before she could finish her training. And that’s why she failed to defeat you. Unfortunately for you, not only did I complete my training, but I mastered those techniques so quickly that my teacher resigned from his position and gave the responsibility of teaching the art to me.”
“I don’t care for stories,” said Morigan, ripping free from Kahoy. He then lashed around with fist already in full swing. The attack was pointless, however, as Kahoy was no longer standing behind him. “Where the hell are you?”
When he turned back around, Morigan was met with a kick to the face, followed by a blow to the stomach. Kahoy then struck his opponent under the chin with a devastating uppercut. The attacks left Morigan dazed.
“You see,” said Kahoy, “our fighting style not only relies on power, but also on speed. For many times power negates power, and when this happens, it’s the fighter who has the quickest fists who wins. I hope this fight has taught you that speed can be a very powerful weapon. After all, brute strength isn’t everything.”
Not wanting to prolong things, Kahoy executed the same back flip kick Aiko had performed but did so without taking a running start. Like a tree downed in the forest, Morigan fell helplessly to the ground, creating a minor tremble from the earth as he did. It was the first time a fight involving Morigan had resulted in a loss for the giant of a man.
Lurking within the depths of the arena underground was Shadow Kahn. “It would seem that I have no other choice,” he said. “I never wanted things to go this far, but they have left me no other choice. They are about to see just how cruel a man I can be.”
The sun was setting behind the mountains, giving the sky an orange glow. The festivities had since come to a close and Kahoy was crowned the victor of the tournament. And as was promised, he was awarded the Sword of Heaven as his prize.
Aiko, who would have been in no shape to converse or even stand had she been awake, was asleep on Sage’s back.
“So, you were sent by Aiko’s father,” said Archer.
“Yes,” replied Kahoy. “It took me quite a while to find her, but after hearing about this tournament, I knew there was a good chance she’d be here.”
“Does this mean you’re taking her home?” asked Sage.
“At first, all the king could talk about was getting his daughter back,” said Kahoy. “But he soon realized Aiko was her own person and should be allowed to make her own choices. It’s funny that it took her leaving for him to figure that out.”
“Her father’s a king?” asked James. Sage and Archer were just as shocked to hear the truth behind Aiko’s identity.
“Yes,” replied Kahoy. “Aiko’s a princess. Has she never told you?” There was an awkward silence after that. “Back home, all Aiko ever did was boast about being a member of the royal family. I see her journeys have helped her grow up.”
James had missed much of what Kahoy had just said as his attention was focused on the Sword of Heaven. Kahoy then tossed the weapon to him.
“What are you doing?” asked James.
“I have a feeling that the sword rightfully belongs to you. It wouldn’t be right for me to keep something that doesn’t belong to me.”
“But you earned this.”
“It’s yours,” said Kahoy. “Besides, I don’t know anything about swordplay. A sword this exceptional should belong to a true master of the art.”
“Thank you,” said James, who was unable to take his eyes off the magnificent sword. “I swear I will never let this out of my sight again.”
With his mission complete, Kahoy climbed onto his horse. Before departing, he left the group with one last message. “When Aiko wakes up, tell her to visit her father,” he said. “He misses her.” And with that, Kahoy rode off toward the setting sun.
Before continuing on their journey, Sage took Aiko to the top of a small hill to admire the setting sun. Aiko had woken but was still in no shape to travel on her own, so Sage continued to carry her on his back.
“Sage,” she said in a near whisper of a voice.
“What is it?” asked Sage.
Realizing how perfect the moment already was, Aiko decided to let it remain that way. “Nothing,” she said, nestling her head against Sage’s shoulder. The two then took in the beauty of the scene that had been laid out for them.
The group set out shortly thereafter. With the sun already departed, they were in need of a place to set up camp for the night. With so many visitors to the nearby town, the price of a room was far out of their reach.
On their way through the forest, the sound of someone splashing water at a nearby stream captured everyone’s attention. The group followed the sound and were soon at the source. Nothing could have prepared them for what they found.
Kneeling by the stream still holding water in her cupped hands was Jaycee.
The newly reunited group had done their rejoicing and was back on their way.
“What happened to your staff?” asked James.
“I must have lost it,” replied Jaycee.
James was more than a bit surprised by the answer as he knew Jaycee’s staff was her most prized possession. It wasn’t just because she had so few items to call her own, but because it was a symbol of their unspoken bond.
“Oh, forget about that,” said Aiko, who despite her improved strength, was still riding on Sage’s back. She could be so unconcerned about Jaycee’s weapon because she had no idea of its importance. “Not only did we get the Sword of Heaven back, but we’re finally all together again. There’s no way Shadow Kahn can stop us now. So he’d better watch out!”
“I wouldn’t take him so lightly,” said Sage.
“He’s right,” said Archer. “It seems Shadow Kahn always has something new to throw at us, so we have to be prepared at all times.”
“There’s no telling what he’ll do next,” added Sage.
James was oblivious to the conversation as he was peeking at Jaycee, who was aware that he was doing so. She never looked back at him, though, but she did allow a smile to grow on her face that was now blushed a light shade of pink.
The group eventually found a place that was suitable to set up camp. There was an ample supply of sticks for them to get a fire started and a stream nearby.
Jaycee had temporarily left the group. She had told the others that she wanted to finish washing up. And when asked if she needed someone to go with her, she was quite insistent that she could manage on her own.
“Jaycee really likes to stay clean,” said Aiko, picking at the fire with a stick. “But I guess she’s always been like that.”
“Go easy on her,” said Sage. “She’s been through more than any of us.”
“I know. We should treat her especially well. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for Jaycee to be out there all alone.”
Watching the group from behind a tree was Jaycee. She listened intently to every word that was being said and watched closely every move that was being made. After a while, she closed her eyes and lowered her head. Jaycee’s body then began to shake as if from some sort of rage building inside her. As abruptly as the shaking had begun, it stopped. And when Jaycee lifted her head, her eyes now glowed a bright blue.