We Meet Again
Not a word had been uttered amongst the group in the last few hours. Having had the cruelest of acts perpetrated against them left them in a collective state of misery. To make matters worse, a bitter wind seemed to be following the travelers everywhere they went, but no one had the nerve to complain about their own discomfort at such a time.
“We need to find shelter soon,” said Sage. “The sky’s growing dark.”
“At least it isn’t raining,” said Aiko. At that moment, the sky opened up and a steady drizzle began to fall. Had the circumstances been different, Aiko surely would have thought up something clever to say.
Jaycee, who had been deep in slumber, awoke. An immediate panic consumed her when she discovered her surroundings. Jaycee scurried to her feet and looked out at the endless void in which she once again found herself.
The group was now sprinting through the forest as a downpour had begun to descend upon them. They had no desire to have their journey delayed due to falling ill, so if as much as an outcropping of rocks from the side of a mountain presented itself to them, then that would have to serve as shelter from the storm.
Upon exiting from the forest, the travelers discovered an old inn waiting for them in the distance. James and Archer knew all too well what could be waiting for them inside after the last time such a seemingly fortuitous situation had presented itself.
“A little too convenient, don’t you think?” Archer asked James.
As the group pondered their next move, Aiko sneezed. “So, are we going inside?” she asked in a voice shaking as badly as her body.
“We don’t have much of a choice,” said James.
The group reluctantly made their way into the inn. Before venturing any further, though, they took a thorough look around the lobby. Fortunately, a number of candles and the means with which to light them were waiting for them on a table.
For nearly an hour the group searched. Their investigation yielded the discovery of no threats, leaving everyone quite surprised as to how fortunate they were to have found such a place at such a desperate time. After their search, the group reconvened in the lobby.
“What do you think?” asked Sage.
“It seems safe,” replied Archer. “But we’ve seen far too many times that looks can be deceiving. We should do our best not to get too comfortable.”
“We’ll take turns keeping watch while the others sleep,” said James.
“We’ve searched this place from top to bottom,” said Aiko. “There’s no one here but us. Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m tired and want to go to sleep.”
“We can’t take any chances,” said Archer.
“This place is locked up tight,” said Aiko. “If anyone or anything tries to get in, we’ll know. Now, please, can we all just go to sleep?”
“Our search did turn up nothing,” said Sage.
“Very well,” said James. “But we should still be ready for anything.”
The group made their way to the second floor and to the room located nearest to the stairs. James, Sage and Archer entered. Aiko, however, stayed out in the hall.
“What’s wrong?” asked Archer. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Well . . .” said Aiko. “There are so many rooms in this place, and I thought that maybe I could have one all to myself.”
“Out of the question. We have to stay together.”
“Why not? I can take care of myself.”
“It isn’t safe,” said Archer.
Aiko lowered her head. “Please don’t make me say this.”
The others were clueless as to what Aiko meant.
“Look,” said Aiko. “I’m a girl. And sometimes a girl needs her privacy. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I enjoy being around you three, really, I do, but it’s been so long since I’ve had any time to myself.”
“What do you need to be alone for?” asked Sage.
A low growling sound began emanating from Aiko. “There are just certain times when a girl needs to be alone,” she explained. “I’m really not comfortable saying any more than that. Besides, I’ll just be right next door.”
“If that’s what you want,” said James.
“Are you sure?” asked Archer.
“Not really,” said James. “But if we hear as much as a floorboard creak during the night, we’re bringing you back here. Understand?”
“You have nothing to worry about,” said Aiko.
Unbeknownst to the others, within the attic the black water they had encountered earlier on their journey was dripping from the ceiling. There was already a puddle of it on the floor and it was growing larger with each passing second.
Jaycee had been running frantically through the endless void. After exhausting herself, she was forced to stop and catch her breath. “Is anyone out there?” she shouted. “Please, somebody, anybody, please answer.”
For some reason, the endless void seemed even more desolate a place now than the last time Jaycee found herself there.
In the distance a golden light began to flicker. It wasn’t before long when the light started to grow not only in size but in radiance.
Jaycee walked toward the light. “Is it really you?” she asked.
Rather than taking to the comfort of one of the beds, Sage was resting against the wall that separated Aiko’s room from his.
“You’re not trying to listen to what she’s doing, are you?” asked Archer. “Aiko wouldn’t be very happy if she knew one of us was doing that.”
“That’s not it,” said Sage. “I’m just worried about her, that’s all.”
“You know how capable Aiko is of fending for herself,” said James, who was standing at the window watching the rain fall.
“I know, it’s just that . . .” Sage trailed off before finishing his thought. “It would be best if she was in here with the rest of us.”
In the adjoining room, Aiko was already deep in slumber. She had encountered no trouble whatsoever in falling asleep. But that would turn out to be to her detriment as it made her unaware that the creature of black water was standing by her bed.
There were no features on the intruder’s face, making it no different from Shadow Kahn’s Beast. It was an unfeeling creature created for the sole purpose of unleashing its destructive fury upon anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path.
Jaycee was resting with her head nestled in the Angel of Golden Light’s lap. It had been years since Jaycee had felt so comforted, and that made a part of her glad to be trapped in such a dire situation.
“I want to see them again, mamma,” said Jaycee. “I want to be with them.”
“But you can’t see them in the state that you’re in,” replied Jaycee’s mother.
“But why can’t I go back to them? Why can’t you help me?”
“Because you’ve allowed yourself to become consumed by despair. That’s why you’re back in this place.”
“But I was here before. And you saved me. Why can’t you do it again?”
“I can only bring you out of this place now if you tell me why you want to see the others,” explained her mother. “You must say the words.”
“Because they’re my friends,” said Jaycee.
“There is a far more important reason than that, Jaycee. You must look deep within yourself and find the reason why you want to be with them.”
Though she was in a deep sleep, Aiko was easily awoken when something warm dripped onto her cheek. She was hesitant to open her eyes but was forced to see what was happening when another warm drop landed on her.
Aiko found the creature made of black water standing at her bedside. So horrified was she that Aiko let out an ear piercing scream.
In the next room, James, Sage and Archer jumped from their resting places.
Aiko had vaulted out of bed and was now gawking at the gruesome intruder standing on the other side of the bed. Unsure as to how swift the creature was, Aiko refrained from making a quick retreat before she could better gauge its speed.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” said Aiko, “but I’m sure we can work this out without resorting to violence.”
The creature lunged across the bed. Thinking quickly, Aiko jumped and grabbed hold of the chandelier hanging above her. She then swung herself over the creature and to the door, where she wasted no time in making her escape
Aiko ran next door and tried frantically to gain entrance. “Someone, let me in!” she shouted, pulling on the knob.
“The door won’t open,” exclaimed Sage.
“Aiko, what’s out there?” asked James.
The creature had exited Aiko’s room and was now standing in the hall staring at her. It waited for Aiko to notice her before it began its advance.
Aiko had no choice but to sprint down the stairs.
“Aiko!” shouted Sage. “Aiko!”
Had she been thinking clearly, Aiko would have made her way out the front door. But in her present state, she ran to the back of the inn instead.
The creature stopped at the top of the stairs. It had every intention of continuing its pursuit, but not in the most traditional of manners. The creature regressed back into a puddle. Once it was back to its original state, the black water trickled to the bottom of the stairs, where it then returned to its human-like form to continue the chase.
“Tell me, my dear little Jaycee,” said her mother, running her fingers through Jaycee’s hair. “How did you come to know those friends of yours?”
“How did I come to know them?” asked Jaycee.
“Yes,” replied Jaycee’s mother. “It was destiny that brought you all together. So tell me how they came to be your friends?”
Jaycee honored her mother’s request and told her story.
* * *
It was only two years earlier when the first meeting with Aiko took place. James and Jaycee were training in the forest when she came staggering onto the scene. She was covered with dirt and scratches and looked extremely fatigued. The instant Aiko met eyes with the strangers, she collapsed.
After getting cleaned up and having her wounds tended to, Aiko sat down with her hosts to have a much needed meal.
The others quickly learned that though she was petite, Aiko’s appetite was anything but small. She finished everything on her plate before the others had gotten the chance to take more than a few bites of their meals.
With her hunger still not satisfied, Aiko turned her attention to James and what was on his plate. “You plan on finishing that, good looking?” she asked before stabbing a sausage with her fork and taking it from James’ plate. Without James’ blessing, Aiko devoured it.
* * *
“I don’t think Aiko was that badly hurt when she found us,” Jaycee told her mother. “I think she just wanted someone to feel sorry for her.”
Aiko did her best not to make any noise as she stood in the middle of a darkened room. Though no footsteps could be heard outside, Aiko knew her pursuer was only steps away. Her fears were soon realized when the knob began to move. Having locked the door, Aiko made the task of gaining entry more difficult than a mere turn of a knob.
When it was found that the door was locked, a series of violent strikes was executed against the door.
“Stop it!” exclaimed Aiko. She then covered her ears to block out the horrible sound. “Leave me alone!”
It was immediately after Aiko had made her plea when the commotion came to a stop. She thought the worst might be over, but with the way things had gone so far, Aiko knew it was best to stay prepared for anything that might happen next.
Black water then began to seep in under the door.
Back in their room, James, Sage and Archer were ramming themselves into the door. Their effort was paying off as the door began buckling.
“One more time!” shouted James.
The three propelled themselves into the door once more, breaking their wooden foe off its hinges and granting them their liberation.
Aiko watched in horror as the puddle of black water took on its human-like form. It was immediately after completing its grisly metamorphosis when the creature began stalking toward its defenseless prey.
“Stay away from me,” said Aiko. “I’m warning you.”
Knowing her only hope for escape would be to take to the offensive, Aiko cast her fears aside and delivered a blow to her aggressor’s face. All the attack accomplished was forcing the creature’s head to jerk to the side, spraying the wall with black water as it did.
Clearly in no mood to play games, the creature grabbed Aiko by the shoulders and pulled her to itself. Though she put up a valiant effort, Aiko was unable to free herself from her captor’s grasp and was absorbed into the creature’s body. There was nothing left for the creature to do now but wait for Aiko’s heart to stop beating.
Sage crashed through the door to find a most horrific sight. From the waist up, Aiko was submerged within the creature’s body. Knowing how vital each second was, Sage charged and tackled Aiko, expelling her from the creature.
“Over here!” shouted James, prompting the creature to turn its attention away from Sage and Aiko. “This is what you came here for, isn’t it?” asked James, brandishing the Sword of Heaven. “Well, come and get it!”
The creature immediately advanced toward James.
“Be careful,” said Archer.
James slashed the creature down the middle. The black water lost control of its form and collapsed back into a puddle. When their enemy failed to return to its human-like form, it was realized that the battle was over.
“It would seem I need to have more confidence in your abilities,” said Archer.
“That would make two of us,” said James.
Jaycee and her mother were now standing and facing one another.
“And what about that boy James?” asked Jaycee’s mother.
It was evident by the immediate blushing of Jaycee’s cheeks that she had strong feelings for James. “What about him?” she asked.
“I want you to tell me about your first meeting,” said Jaycee’s mother.
“Our first meeting,” said Jaycee, who could do nothing to stop her blushing.
* * *
James was no more than ten years old on that fated day. He was feverishly training with Archer behind his teacher’s home. And though he was putting up a noble effort, James soon found Archer’s wooden sword against his throat.
“Why do you keep letting your guard down?” asked Archer. “If this had been a real battle, I would have killed you three times already.”
Rather than give his teacher a reply, James lowered his head. This prompted Archer to begin laughing. “Maybe it’s a credit to your fighting spirit that not even death can stop you,” he said, mussing up James’ hair.
Vera and an old woman who was holding Jaycee by the hand arrived. The young Jaycee looked frightened by the unfamiliar surroundings.
“Well, what do we have here?” asked Archer.
“It looks as if we’re going to have a new student joining us,” explained Vera. “And it’s a girl. Isn’t this exciting?”
“Uh . . . it sure is,” replied Archer.
“This girl’s name is Jaycee,” said the old woman.
“Hello, Jaycee, my name is Archer,” said the shy girl’s soon-to-be teacher. “I see you’ve already met my wife Vera. And this young man is James, he’s our other student.”
“Hello,” James said timidly.
Jaycee’s cheeks blushed, prompting her to lower her head to conceal her embarrassment. “It’s nice to meet all of you,” she said in a barely audible voice.
“You’ll have to be patient with her,” said the old woman. “Jaycee can get a bit shy around new people. But I’m sure once she begins training with you, she’ll gain enough confidence to open up and make new friends.”
“You have nothing to worry about,” said Vera. “Despite Archer’s best efforts, I’ll make sure Jaycee turns into a fine young lady.”
“Well, I never had any intention of treating her like a boy,” said Archer.
“Yes, but you’ve never taken in a girl as a student before.”
As Archer and Vera prattled on, James sneaked a peek at Jaycee, who was in the middle of doing the same. After meeting eyes, the embarrassed youths immediately looked away.
* * *
“He’s very special to you, isn’t he?” asked Jaycee’s mother.
“They’re all special to me,” replied Jaycee.
“Yes, but special in very different ways.”
Having had more than their fill of the place, the group decided it would be safer to battle the elements than spend any more time at the inn. Archer attempted to exit but the door refused to open. “Why am I not surprised?” he asked.
“We have to get out of here,” said James, joining Archer in grabbing the handle. The two then used all the strength they could muster but they had no success opening the door.
“Above you,” exclaimed Sage.
Black water was flowing down the wall, forcing James and Archer to retreat. From a safe distance, they watched as the whole front wall became covered.
“We have to find another way out,” said James.
“That might be a problem,” said Aiko, who was facing in the opposite direction.
The others turned and found black water flowing down every wall as well as down the stairs. In some places, it had already spilled onto the floor and formed large puddles.
“Damn it,” said Sage. “We’re surrounded.”
Like a snake slithering toward its helpless prey, the black water was making its way closer to the group.
Aiko, again facing the opposite direction, gasped.
The others turned again to find a most disturbing sight. In front of the door was the creature thought to have already been disposed of.
“We have to find a way to beat this thing,” said James, tightening his grip on his sword. “There’s nowhere else for us to run.”
When the slithering water reached the group, black hands thrust out and grabbed hold of each of the members’ legs, ensuring that no one would escape.
Jaycee and her mother stood mere inches apart.
“Tell me, Jaycee,” said her mother in a far more authoritative tone than she had been using. “You must tell me why you want to be with your friends.”
“Because we’re supposed to be together,” said Jaycee.
“No, Jaycee. That’s not the reason. You must tell me the reason and you must tell me now. Your friends need you.”
“If they need me, then you have to take me to them.”
“You have to tell me now, Jaycee,” demanded her mother, grabbing her daughter by the shoulders. “You have to say the words. Please, you mustn’t be afraid.”
“I . . .” whimpered Jaycee. Tears then began to fall from Jaycee’s eyes and her mouth began to quiver. “I can’t.”
“Jaycee, you have to,” said her mother.
“Because . . .” said Jaycee.
“You have to say the words,” urged her mother.
“Because I love them.”
Jaycee’s mother embraced her daughter.
“I don’t want to be alone anymore, mamma,” said Jaycee. “After I lost you and papa, I swore I would never feel this way about anyone ever again. But I couldn’t. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it.”
A burst of golden light that exceeded even the brilliance of the sun engulfed both Jaycee and her mother. When the light faded away, both were gone.
So much black water was covering the floor that it had made its way past everyone’s ankles. At that rate, the group would be submerged in minutes.
“What are we going to do?” asked Aiko, who was trying frantically to pull her feet from the grip of the black hands.
“It doesn’t look like there’s much we can do,” said Sage.
“Don’t say that,” exclaimed Aiko. “There’s always a way.”
“It can’t end like this,” thought James. “It can’t.” Thoughts of Jaycee then began to race through James’ mind, causing his eyes to water. “If only I could see her one more time. If only I had one last chance.”
“I’m sorry, Vera,” whispered Archer. “I’ve failed you.”
A golden light appeared between the group and the creature. It grew so bright that everyone was forced to shield their eyes. The creature was so much more sensitive to the light that it looked as if it was in physical pain as it shielded itself with its arms.
The Angel of Golden Light emerged from the glow. When she waved her arm at the creature, it lost its form and melted back into the rest of the black water.
The golden light then grew to an unimaginable radiance, and when it did, the black water began to disappear. Before long, there was nary a trace of it in the room.
The Angel of Golden Light then made her way to James. “Please take care of her,” she whispered into his ear. And with that, she began to fade away. In her place appeared Jaycee, who fell into James’ chest.
James was the first thing Jaycee saw when her tired eyes opened, prompting her to begin crying. “James,” she said. “Is it really you?”
“Yes,” replied James, who was powerless to stop his tears from falling.
Jaycee embraced James as tightly as she could. “I thought I was never going to see you again,” she said.
James tightened his embrace. “It’s alright,” he said. “We’re together now.”
The inn began fading away.
“What now?” asked Sage, tightening his grip on his sword.
“Enough of this!” shouted Shadow Kahn, whose voice was coming from seemingly out of nowhere. “I have seen enough!”
Standing only a few yards behind the group was Shadow Kahn. An imposing mountain of black rock that hadn’t been there previously loomed behind him. “I hate to break up this reunion of yours,” he said. “But I can not allow it to continue.”
The bitter wind that blew across the gathering howled like a wounded animal. It was clear to everyone involved that the end to their struggle was at hand. And when all was said and done, either James or Shadow Kahn would be taken from the world of the living.