Sage put his complete focus on Raspheet’s blade. He paid the weapon’s owner no attention. The blade was the only thing that mattered to him. When the gleam of the sun shined off it, it meant a move had been made. This prompted Sage to begin his charge, and when he did, Raspheet did the same.
The combatants clashed weapons with the force one would expect when two highly skilled fighters met. But the effects from the impact on each fighter differed vastly. A powerful vibration coursed through Sage’s body, while Raspheet felt nothing.
Sage and Raspheet then became locked in a struggle to overpower the other. When they found their strength equal, the fighters separated.
Sage remained as composed as he could for someone in his position. He had taught himself long ago to never let emotions cloud his judgment. Raspheet, on the other hand, wore a grin as it was clear who was in control of the battle.
A still incapacitated James watched in amazement at how Sage and Raspheet battled. But as he watched, a lingering feeling festered within him. “That sword,” he thought, “it’s not like the others.” James then recalled how light had appeared when Shadow Kahn and he summoned their swords, but no light had appeared from Raspheet’s. “I can’t feel it,” he said.
“Can’t feel what?” asked Jaycee, who had taken to James’ side.
“His sword,” replied James. “When Shadow Kahn summoned his sword, I felt this energy coming from it. And when I summoned my sword, I felt it again. But there’s no energy coming from Raspheet’s sword.”
“What do you think that means?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe that isn’t the third sword,” said Jaycee.
“Who is this Raspheet?” thought James. “And if his sword isn’t the third sword, then why was he able to summon it?”
Aiko was sitting up with the assistance of Archer. The only thought running through her mind was how badly she wanted to get even with Sage. It had been quite some time since Aiko had been bested in a fight, and the way it happened only intensified her anger.
“You’re every bit as powerful as I thought you would be,” said Raspheet. “But as I said before, without one of the three swords, you stand no chance against me.”
“I don’t need one of those swords to defeat the likes of you,” said Sage. “When it comes to swordplay, I have no equal.”
“It’s good that you’re confident. But all the confidence in the world won’t be enough to save you!” And with that, Raspheet unleashed a number of attacks. Sage was able to defend himself from the assault but his body once again trembled from each impact.
“Though your strength may be impressive,” said Sage, “I won’t be defeated so easily.” Sage then followed with a flurry of attacks of his own. With exceptional proficiency, Raspheet blocked each and every one.
“I’ve played this game with you long enough,” said Raspheet. He then let loose as powerful an attack as he was capable. Sage was sent stumbling back from the impact. It was evident that had Raspheet chosen to follow the attack, he could have ended the battle. “Seeing as I have no real grievance against you, I see no reason to continue this.”
Sage kept his sword before his body, looking ready to continue the fight.
Raspheet did the same. “But if you’re so determined to see what I’m capable of when I don’t hold back, then I have no objection to showing you.”
Sage lowered his sword, prompting Raspheet to do the same.
“Don’t think this means you and I are finished,” said Sage. “This is far from over.” Sage then turned to James. “Your sword will belong to the master. And once he has it, you will all be dealt with accordingly.” He then focused on Aiko. “But I’ll make sure you go last.” With those last few words, Sage fled into the forest.
With Jaycee’s assistance, James was able to get back to his feet. Archer did the same with Aiko. The group then focused on Raspheet, whose back was turned. They had witnessed first hand just how powerful Sage was, and to watch him defeated with such ease by Raspheet left them in a somewhat awe of the newcomer.
“Are any of you injured?” asked Raspheet.
“Not seriously,” replied James.
“That’s too bad,” whispered Raspheet. When he turned around, he directed a glare at the group. To see the way Raspheet was looking at them would make one believe he had just come face to face with his worst enemies. “I do hope what you just witnessed didn’t give you a false perception of me. I merely wanted to rid myself of an unwanted distraction.”
“Then you’re,” gasped Archer.
“Yes,” said Raspheet. “I, too, am your enemy. I want the same thing that Shadow Kahn wants. I also want what he has. For I am the one who is destined to be the possessor of the three swords. And neither you nor he has the power to stop me.”
“But why would you want them?” asked Jaycee.
“Why, to destroy both heaven and hell, of course.”
“This one’s even worse than the other,” said Aiko.
“Who are you?” asked James.
“I already told you. I am Raspheet . . . the king of purgatory.”
“King of purgatory?” asked James.
“For centuries I have been forced to watch over the mortals in my land, only to witness their punishments end once their sentences have expired,” explained Raspheet. “But what about me? When will I be set free? I detest my position as ruler of a wasteland. But once heaven and hell are destroyed, purgatory will be all that awaits you mortals once your miserable lives have come to an end. And since I am its ruler, I will be God.”
“You’re no better than Shadow Kahn,” said James.
“I should cut you in two for what you just said to me.” Raspheet then let out a boisterous laugh. “But where would the fun be in doing that, hmm? I know that you’re still in a weakened state from your previous battle, and therefore would be easy prey. So I’m going to allow you time to recover.”
“Recover for what?” asked James. Though he had asked the question, James was quite sure that he already knew what the answer was.
“For our battle, what else?” said Raspheet, turning his back. “I’m going to allow you one hour to regain your strength. Once that hour is up, I will return. And when I do, we will find out who is truly worthy of possessing these swords.”
James could think of nothing to say in response to the challenge presented. Regardless, he knew there was nothing he could say to prevent the inevitable.
Raspheet said nothing more before departing into the forest.
When Raspheet was completely out of sight, Jaycee clutched James by the arm. “We have to get out of here before he comes back,” she exclaimed.
“No,” replied James.
“But he said he would be back in an hour.”
“Then that only leaves me an hour to build up my strength.”
“What’s wrong with you? Don’t you understand what he plans to do? We have to leave before he comes back.”
“And where would we go?” asked James, looking deeply into Jaycee’s frightened eyes. “No matter where we run or how well we hide, our enemies will still find us. The only way to put an end to this is to stand and fight. I wish there was a better solution, but there’s not.”
“But . . . James.”
“I know I haven’t used the sword in battle yet, but I believe what the wise man told me. He said I was the only one who could put an end to this. If I can defeat Raspheet and claim his sword, then I’ll be able to defeat Shadow Kahn, as well.”
“You’re right,” said Jaycee. She then allowed a smile to form on her face, albeit a half-hearted one. “If you believe you can win, then so do I.” Never would she admit it, but Jaycee’s confidence was nowhere near the level of James’.
After his defeat, Sage stopped at a nearby stream. He knelt at the bank and splashed cold water onto his face. When the ripples subsided, he was forced to stare at his defeated reflection. Sage was far too proud a warrior to let what had happened to him go unpunished. In a way, he was much like Aiko, far too proud for his own good.
From the corner of his eye, Sage saw what looked like a boy standing a few yards from him. When he turned to look, the boy was gone. Sage was unsure if what he had seen was real or just his imagination as the boy he had gotten a glimpse of looked like a younger version of himself. Sage thought it was strange as he had no memories of his youth.
The hour Raspheet had promised James passed in what felt like only a few minutes. Though James had no experience using the Sword of Heaven, he felt at ease when he thought about his new weapon. He believed the sword had been bestowed upon him for a reason, and if that was so, then victory would be possible.
“I can’t say that I’m surprised to find you waited for me,” said Raspheet, who was now behind the group. In unison, everyone turned to face the opposite end of the clearing. “I could tell from the start that you had just as much courage as even the most veteran fighter.” Raspheet then summoned the Sword of Purgatory.
James wasted no time in calling upon the Sword of Heaven.
Having no part in the coming battle, the others stood clear.
The gleam of the sun off Raspheet’s blade caught James’ attention. But before he had time to react, Raspheet had already begun his charge. With the gap between the two quickly narrowing, James stood his ground and braced himself for impact. When he had reached striking distance, Raspheet unleashed an attack so powerful that it nearly knocked James off his feet when he blocked it with the Sword of Heaven.
“What power,” thought James, staring wide-eyed at Raspheet from behind their locked weapons. “So, this is what the swords are capable of.”
For some reason, Raspheet began laughing hysterically. “Oh, how easily you fell into my trap,” he exclaimed. “Now, my beautiful swords, I order you to combine!”
“Combine?” gasped James.
The swords were immediately engulfed within a red light. James attempted to pull the Sword of Heaven free but was unable.
“Can you feel it?” asked Raspheet. “The swords are communicating. They want to be together. They want to become one!”
James knew if the swords became one and Raspheet gained control of them, then he would be unstoppable. “I won’t let you have my sword,” said James. He was then able to muster the strength to pull his sword free from Raspheet’s.
Having had his plan thwarted, Raspheet retaliated with a number of attacks. James was able to defend himself, but having been in such an intense battle with Sage and now in one with Raspheet, he was rapidly losing strength.
Knowing he would have only limited opportunities to counter, James waited for Raspheet to pull his sword back to begin another swing. When Raspheet did so, James thrust his blade forward. The attack was one Raspheet had seemingly been anticipating. He turned his body, eluding James’ sword, then drove his knee into James’ stomach. Raspheet then followed with a blow to the back of James’ head, sending his stunned foe to the ground.
“James,” shouted Jaycee.
Having to protect his student, Archer fired an arrow at Raspheet. Immediately after it left the bow, the arrow looked as if it had hit a wall as it came to an abrupt halt, then fell harmlessly to the ground.
Raspheet began laughing. “You fools,” he exclaimed. “Did you really think I would fail to take the suitable precautions? I was expecting you to come to your friend’s aid. So that’s why you had to be kept from interfering.”
With arms stretched before her body, Jaycee moved forward. She stopped abruptly, looking as if she had just walked into a wall. “We’re trapped behind some kind of barrier,” she said, moving her hands around to feel other parts of the invisible prison.
“If only your foolish pride hadn’t kept you from escaping. Then perhaps your friend’s destruction could have been avoided.”
Raspheet then took the Sword of Heaven from James’ weakened grasp. “Now, bear witness to the true power of these swords!” he exclaimed. Raspheet placed the hilts together so that the blades pointed in opposite directions. When he did this, the swords once again became consumed by a red light. After the light faded, a new weapon remained. Its handle was in the middle and two blades much larger than the originals extended from each end.
“We have to do something,” said Aiko.
“With this barrier up, there’s nothing we can do,” said Archer.
“James, get up,” exclaimed Jaycee.
“I’m going to make you regret ever escaping from me,” said Raspheet. He then lifted his weapon high above his head, but when he did, the sound of rustling leaves captured his attention. Standing only a few yards away was Sage. “Well, look who’s back.”
Sage said nothing as he glared at the man who now had in his possession a weapon he planned to take for his master. Sage calmly drew his sword and stood ready for battle. Raspheet left James and readied himself for Sage.
Eager to redeem himself, Sage charged. Raspheet charged as well and met weapons with his opponent with incredible ferocity.
The sensation Sage had felt the first time he clashed swords with Raspheet was nothing compared to what he felt this time. His body was on the brink of going completely numb after making contact with his opponent’s new weapon.
“You’re an even bigger fool than the others,” said Raspheet. “I’ve already defeated you once. And now that I have two of the swords, you dare to challenge me again?”
“I didn’t come here to talk,” said Sage.
“Very well,” said Raspheet. And with that, he pulled his weapon back and unleashed as powerful an attack as he could. Sage blocked the strike but soon found Raspheet on the attack again, this time with the other blade. Only barely was Sage able to defend.
Sage’s skills were then pushed to their very limit as every time he blocked an attack, he was faced with an equally powerful strike from the weapon’s opposite blade.
“You’re not better than me,” said Sage.
“I don’t have to be better than you,” said Raspheet. “I just have to be faster!” Raspheet then began attacking at an even quicker pace.
Even with his strength, Sage was growing extremely weak. The task of fending off two blades at once was becoming too much for him to handle, so he leapt back and attempted to catch his breath.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past thousand years,” said Raspheet, “it’s that the only thing worse than death . . . is waiting for death. So allow me the pleasure of being the one who ends your suffering!” Raspheet then charged, weapon already in mid-swing. Sage blocked the attack but was nearly knocked to the ground.
“I will not fail the master,” said Sage.
“Try not to take this too personally,” said Raspheet from behind their locked weapons. “I’m doing this only because you got in my way one too many times.” Raspheet then thrust the bottom blade of his weapon into his foe’s stomach.
Jaycee, Aiko and Archer couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed. They were all in a state of shock, but Aiko was particularly affected by it. She had grown to loathe Sage, but seeing such a horrible thing happen to him left her feeling confused. Aiko was neither distraught by what she had just seen nor relieved to witness the end of her enemy.
James had come back to his senses and stared wide-eyed at Sage, who looked more enraged than in a state of pain. He wondered if the attack had produced the desired effect Raspheet had been expecting.
Sage’s sword slipped from his grasp and fell to the ground. This prompted Raspheet to remove his blade from Sage’s stomach, allowing his vanquished foe to drop to his knees. It was shortly thereafter when a trickle of blood began to seep out from between Sage’s lips. The once mighty warrior then toppled over onto his side.
Raspheet directed his weapon at Jaycee, Aiko and Archer to make sure they could see the blood now dripping from his blade. He then turned his attention back to Sage. “And to make sure you never interfere with me again,” he said, raising his weapon.
Even in his weakened state, James was able to get back to his feet and grab hold of the handle of Raspheet’s weapon.
“No, you fool,” shouted Raspheet.
The red light appeared once again and the swords began to separate. There was then an explosion of energy that sent James and Raspheet flying through the air. When they landed, they were in possession of their original swords.
The barrier then disappeared, allowing the others to hurry to James.
“How can this be?” said Raspheet, getting back to his feet. “So close. I was so close!” Raspheet then directed his crazed glare at James. “All you did was buy yourself a little more time. You’ll see me again.” Raspheet then sprinted off into the forest.
To the utter shock of the others, Sage got back to his feet. It was unknown if he could stay up for long, but just attempting such a feat was astonishing.
“How can you still be standing?” asked James.
Sage held his sword before his body, looking ready to continue the fight. “If you don’t attack, then I will,” he said. Before he could begin his advance, though, Sage fell to his knees. Even a warrior as strong as he was unable overcome such injuries. Clearly accepting his fate, Sage lowered his head. “What are you waiting for? Finish me.”
“Would you look at yourself!” exclaimed Aiko. “Your only concern is fighting! What you should be doing is asking for help!”
“I don’t need anyone’s help, especially not yours.” Sage then took a moment to catch his breath. “I was given the task of obtaining those swords for the master, and I failed him. I’m nothing but a disgrace. I don’t deserve to live.”
“Who cares! That’s no reason to throw your life away!”
“Why would you want to help me? I’m your enemy.”
Aiko was unsure herself as to why she wanted to help. “Because you’re a human being,” she replied. “And human beings help each other.”
“Pity from you,” said Sage. “I really have lost the right to live.”
“I don’t care what you say,” said Aiko, cautiously making her way to Sage, whose sword was still dangerously close to him. “I’m going to help you whether you want me to or not.” A swirl of black smoke immediately engulfed Sage and took him away.
The swirl of black smoke that had taken Sage reappeared within the brief area of light in Shadow Kahn’s darkened room. When the smoke cleared, Sage was left lying motionless on the floor. The turbulent journey had only worsened his condition.
The sound of footsteps echoed loudly off the thick stone walls. And it wasn’t before long when Shadow Kahn arrived at the rim of the light. He stared intently at his follower’s wound before reaching for it.
“No,” groaned Sage, “stay back.”
“But, loyal Sage,” said Shadow Kahn. “How can I allow you to die?” He then placed his hand on Sage’s wound. “When you have yet to complete your mission?”
Sage was then engulfed by a blinding blue light. The pain it was inflicting was far worse than what he was already experiencing. Fortunately for Sage, it lasted only shortly, and when it was over, his wound had been healed.
Though he had just been restored, there were no feelings of gratitude in Sage. Instead, he felt he had just been deprived of the chance to finally have his misery ended.
Shadow Kahn turned his back on Sage. “Now that you have been healed, I suggest you return to your mission. You know where one of the swords is at this very moment, so leave now before the boy can make his escape from the woods.”
“But,” gasped Sage.
“What happened to you is something you should never fear,” said Shadow Kahn. “Your life is mine, and as long as that is so, you will never be in any real danger.”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you really that big of a fool?” asked Shadow Kahn. He then turned back around to face Sage. “What I mean is, your life will come to an end only when it is time for it to end. To say it more directly, you will die only when I say you can.”
After hearing such a thing, all the breath escaped from Sage’s lungs.
“Now do as I say,” said Shadow Kahn. “Find the boy and take his sword. Do not test my patience further than you already have.”
“No,” said Sage. Never before had Sage refused to do what his master ordered, leaving him unsure of the consequences.
“How dare you,” said Shadow Kahn. “After all that I have done for you, you would dare to defy me? You have to obey me. You have no choice.”
“And why is that?”
“Because a creation is obligated to do as it is told.”
Nothing could have prepared Sage for what Shadow Kahn had just told him. He thought he had already heard the worst, but this was something so awful that Sage was sure it had to be some sort of a trick. “That’s a lie!” he exclaimed.
“Is it?” asked Shadow Kahn. “Then explain to me why you are unable to recall any of the memories that precede your servitude to me.” Shadow Kahn then paused to allow Sage to fully ponder his question. “You are nothing. You always were nothing, you will always be nothing. You need me more than you could ever know.”
“If you really have such power, then why bother creating me?” asked Sage. “You could have claimed the swords yourself.”
“Such tasks are beneath me,” said Shadow Kahn. “Why waste my time when I can create someone to do these things for me? A puppet, if you will, at my command to do whatever I tell it to do. And that is you, Sage. You are my puppet.”
“Why should I believe a word of what you’re saying?”
“It matters not what you believe,” replied Shadow Kahn. “This is the truth, whether you choose to accept it or not. Your opinion in this matter is of no relevance to me.”
Sage turned his back on his master. “If what you speak is the truth, then what you need to do next time is create a puppet incapable of cutting its own strings.”
“I see. So this is the end of our partnership.”
“One could hardly call what we had a partnership,” said Sage.
“Very well,” said Shadow Kahn. “Then leave.”
Without saying another word, Sage began his trek out of the room.
“But know this,” said Shadow Kahn, prompting Sage to come to a stop. “The moment that we are separated by those doors, we will be enemies, and I will stop at nothing to ensure your destruction.”
“That’s funny. I was about to say the same to you.” And with that, Sage departed.
“You will return to me, Sage,” whispered Shadow Kahn. “This life is the only life that you know. You are incapable of fending for yourself, my loyal puppet.”
Day had given way to night, and with it came a terrible storm. Powerful gusts of wind blew drops of rain as sharp as needles into the ground with such ferocity that it seemed as if the earth was being punished by the heavens.
The group had found lodging for the night at a modest inn. They were all exhausted from the day’s tumultuous events and had little trouble falling asleep. James and Archer spent the night on the floor, while Jaycee and Aiko slept in the room’s only bed.
So ferocious was the wind that the shutters unlatched, leaving the window open, though everyone was too deep in sleep to be woken.
A streak of lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the scene and making Sage visible. He was standing outside, looking in through the now open window. As he tightened his grip on his sword, Sage could think of nothing other than taking his revenge on all of those who had wronged him.