The Balance of Power
Morning came and the group continued with their journey. The air was crisp and the green of the forest looked much more vibrant, making it seem as if the world had been given a much needed cleansing the night before.
James led the way, with Jaycee on one side and Archer on the other. A less jovial than usual Aiko lagged behind. The mixed feelings she had about what had happened to Sage were still weighing heavily on her mind.
“How long until we reach the next town?” Jaycee asked Archer.
“If we don’t run into any problems, I’m sure we can make it there well before nightfall,” he replied. “I know a man who owns an inn there, so we’ll get something to eat and have a place to stay for the night.”
“James,” said Aiko, whose tone of voice was so out of character that everyone felt compelled to turn their attention to her. “What do you think happened to Sage? Do you think he’s alright, or do you think . . .”
“I don’t know,” said James. “His wound was quite serious. I don’t think anyone could have survived something like that.”
A stabbing pain began inflicting itself upon Aiko’s already unsettled stomach. All she could think of was how she had tried to go to Sage after he had incurred his injury. But it was uncharacteristic of her to forgive so easily, so Aiko was curious as to why she would attempt to do such a thing for someone who was clearly no friend.
During this early part of the day, Sage was standing atop a small hill and staring off into the distance. Never before had he been given the opportunity to stop and appreciate the beauty the world had to offer. For as far back as he could recall, Sage’s life had been devoted to obeying his master’s orders. But now that he had broken away from Shadow Kahn, Sage wondered what purpose his life now served.
A breeze blew a thin layer of dirt across Sage’s feet, leaving behind a fine dust. “Will that be my fate?” he asked himself. “Are those whose existence has become meaningless blow away with the wind, or are they destined to merely disappear?”
Raspheet stood atop the tallest mountain in purgatory. A feeling of utter contempt festered within him as he stared at the barren wasteland he had been condemned to rule over. The sky was a faded shade of red and the landscape was an empty, lifeless brown, unfit and unwilling to support any kind of life.
The image of himself commanding the most powerful weapon in all creation had ingrained itself into Raspheet’s mind. He had tasted the most unadulterated of power and was eager to sample its flavor again, no matter what it was going to take.
Having had time to think about his situation, Raspheet realized it would be far too difficult to make another attempt at claiming James’ sword as he was always accompanied by his allies. But it occurred to him that there would be no such advantage for someone whose numbers were equal to his.
“I may have failed in my attempt to reclaim one of my stray sheep,” said Raspheet, raising the Sword of Purgatory before his face, “but I will succeed in claiming the other. So let there be no doubt. No one will ever again escape me again!”
The group had begun to feel a collective apprehension as they continued through the forest. There were no birds chirping in the trees nor were there any creatures roaming the forest floor. It was as if everything had come to a stand-still.
“The air’s getting thick,” said Archer.
“This doesn’t feel right,” said Jaycee.
James heard a noise and immediately began looking for its source. His eyes bulged wide after finding what it was. “Get down!” he shouted. Everyone threw themselves to the ground, narrowly evading a blue streak of light. The light tore through trees like they were nothing more than mere blades of grass.
Everyone scrambled to their feet to face Shadow Kahn. They were expecting a battle, so they prepared themselves for one.
“I tried asking you nicely to hand over your sword,” said Shadow Kahn, approaching the group, “but for some reason, you just had to make this as difficult as you possibly could. And for that, you must be taught a very painful lesson.”
Shadow Kahn stopped short of the group, then extended his arm and clenched his hand into a fist. The instant he closed his eyes, the ominous black light in the shape of a blade appeared and from it emerged the Sword of Hell.
James showed no fear, for this was the moment he knew would eventually come to pass. He extended his arm, clenched his hand into a fist and closed his eyes. The stunning white light appeared and from it emerged the Sword of Heaven.
Shadow Kahn stared intently at James for a moment before looking at the others. “With so many of you, I would hate to think what would happen if you chose to attack me all at once,” he said. “I would expect James to fight a more noble fight than that.”
“This is between you and me,” said James. “They won’t get involved.”
“I have no doubt about that,” said Shadow Kahn. “But just to be on the safe side.” Streaks of electricity suddenly appeared from out of nowhere and wrapped around Jaycee, Aiko and Archer. They screamed in agony from the pain being inflicted upon them, then crumbled to the ground.
Having witnessed such a horrible event created a feeling of panic within James. He could do nothing but stare in disbelief at his motionless friends. And seeing how ferocious the attack was had James fearing the worst.
“Fear not,” said Shadow Kahn. “They still have their lives. But once I have what I came for, they will not feel so fortunate.”
James directed a crazed glare at Shadow Kahn.
“You were unable to defeat either Sage or Raspheet,” said Shadow Kahn. “Combined, their powers are nothing compared to mine. So tell me, how is it that you plan to stop me? Are you going to hope for a miracle?”
James was in no mood to give his enemy a reply.
“Boy, you have just thrown your life away,” said Shadow Kahn, who then disappeared within a swirl of black smoke.
“Show yourself,” said James. Just feet from him, Shadow Kahn reappeared, already in mid-swing. James ducked the attack, then followed with one of his own. To James’ amazement, Shadow Kahn was forced stumbling back from the impact. “Is this sword really that powerful?” he thought as he watched Shadow Kahn regain his footing.
Shadow Kahn distanced himself from James. “I should have foreseen his strength being nearly equal to my own,” he whispered.
Knowing it would be wise to keep Shadow Kahn on the defensive, James charged. The combatants clashed weapons with tremendous force. But with neither fighter having a clear advantage, the two quickly became locked in a struggle to overpower the other.
“With this sword, I’m your equal,” said James.
“Arrogant little fool,” exclaimed Shadow Kahn. “How dare you compare yourself to me. You will never be my equal!”
As the two continued to stare each other down from behind their locked swords, James noticed from the corner of his eye someone standing on the path next to his fallen friends. He took a quick peek over, and when he did, Shadow Kahn did the same.
Standing next to James’ fallen comrades was Sage. After looking the group over, Sage turned his attention to James and Shadow Kahn.
James was shocked to find Sage still alive after sustaining such a serious wound. It made him wonder if Sage was more than what he appeared to be.
Aiko’s weary eyes opened and Sage was the first person she saw. “Sage,” she mumbled in a voice too silent to be heard. There was a haze around everything, making Aiko believe what she was witnessing was nothing but a dream.
Sage drew his sword, prompting a grin to grow on Shadow Kahn’s face. “Come, my loyal Sage,” he said. “Dispose of this fool, and I promise your punishment will be far less severe than you had been anticipating.”
Sage tightened his grip on his sword, then charged.
A grinning Shadow Kahn turned his attention to James, who was in an obvious state of horror as he watched the distance between he and Sage quickly diminishing. James knew he couldn’t separate from his foe to defend against Sage, because Shadow Kahn would surely strike. But James knew if he remained in his current position, then Sage would have no trouble cutting him down right where he stood.
Before Sage could reach striking distance, James pulled away from Shadow Kahn but fell to the ground, leaving him extremely vulnerable.
Even with James on the ground, Sage still followed through with an attack. His blade cut deep into Shadow Kahn’s forearm. It found itself there only because Shadow Kahn had used his arm to shield his throat.
James was in utter disbelief of what he had just seen.
“You fool,” said Shadow Kahn. “How dare you turn your weapon against me.” His blood then began to trickle from his wound and down the blade of Sage’s sword, where it spilled onto his one time follower’s hands.
Sage gave his former master no reply. Instead, he attempted with every ounce of strength to force his sword deeper into Shadow Kahn’s arm.
As James watched the combatants, he began to feel like an unwanted intruder who had stumbled upon a private feud. Neither fighter was paying him any attention, making it seem as if they had completely forgotten about him.
With his free arm, Shadow Kahn lifted his Sword of Hell and took a swing at Sage. Much like Shadow Kahn had done just moments ago, Sage lifted his free arm and blocked the attack with his forearm.
James was left in awe as he watched harrowing event after harrowing event unfold. But a thought was running through his mind. He believed Sage’s animosity for Shadow Kahn had to be beyond the human limit for him to ignore such pain.
“I suppose I should thank you for this,” said Shadow Kahn. “You helped me to see things much more clearly. I now know that your creation was a mistake.” Shadow Kahn then turned his attention to James briefly before returning his focus back to Sage. “In a way, you two are very much alike. Because neither of you should be here.”
Having shaken off most of the effects of Shadow Kahn’s attack, Jaycee, Aiko and Archer got back to their feet. The pain they had been forced to endure left them eager to take their anger out on the one who had harmed them.
With the others revived, Shadow Kahn was left with far less desire to continue fighting. He released a surge of energy that sent Sage staggering back.
“Since you have chosen to side with the enemy, then you will suffer the same fate as them,” Shadow Kahn told Sage. “You will all perish together.” With that said, a swirl of black smoke consumed Shadow Kahn and took him away.
Sage calmly sheathed his sword. Having no further reason for being there, he made his way past James and began his trek down the forest path. The way he was acting made it seem as if Sage was oblivious to the presence of the others.
When Sage was completely out of sight, James followed. “Wait here,” he told the others, who did as were told.
It wasn’t before long when James found Sage. He was standing near the edge of a cliff staring at the mountains in the distance. Sage made no acknowledgment of James’ presence, even when James took his place beside him.
“What happens now?” asked James.
“If you’re worried about me still being your enemy, you have no reason to be,” said Sage, still looking straight ahead. “I was merely following orders before. With no one to command me to be your enemy, I no longer have reason to be.”
James had more to say but was apprehensive of doing so.
“He was right when he said we were alike,” said Sage. “We both seek the same thing, the destruction of our enemy. But that’s where our similarities come to an end. You do this because you’re driven to do what is right. I do this simply for revenge. It almost makes me feel selfish to compare myself to someone like you.”
“Join us,” blurted out James.
Sage looked at James but said not a word.
“I don’t know what I can say that will convince you to come with us,” said James. “All I can say is that I believe in you. And I know if you asked the others, they would say the same thing. You showed who you really are back there.”
Sage remained silent.
“I know you want to do what’s right,” said James. “And I know you want to do it for all the right reasons. You’re nothing like Shadow Kahn. You’re not evil. But no matter how strong you are, you can’t win a fight like this on your own. You should know that better than any of us.”
As Sage continued to stare off into the distance, a warm breeze blew through his long, black hair. For the first time Sage could recall, someone wanted him to be more than just a tool for destruction. “Very well,” he said. “I will join you.”
“You will?” asked James, who was more than a bit surprised to find how easy it was to sway Sage over to his side.
“It’s beneficial to have allies on your side.”
“Yes,” said James. “But it’s even better when you have friends.”
Perched on a branch high in a tree not far behind James and Sage was Aiko, who had seen and heard everything.
Shadow Kahn sat on the edge of his throne in his darkened room. “Damn you, Sage,” he whispered, staring angrily at the still bleeding wound on his forearm. “I should have taken your life for what you did to me.”
Levity then filled Shadow Kahn. “But I let you live in spite of that,” he said. “Perhaps that shows that I am not all evil.”
Sage turning his weapon on him began playing itself over and over in Shadow Kahn’s mind, prompting his disdain to return. “But the sins that you have committed against me are ones that I can never forgive.”
The torches on the walls lit, illuminating the entire room and presenting Raspheet, who was standing in the middle of the room. He was bowing, in a mock show of respect to the man who was sitting upon the throne.
“Raspheet,” said Shadow Kahn. “What took you so long?”
“Did I come at a bad time?”
Shadow Kahn removed himself from his throne. “There really is no such thing as a bad time when one has the opportunity to further their plans,” he said. Shadow Kahn then extended his arm. Raspheet wasted no time in doing the same. Both men’s swords were summoned simultaneously.
“This is the way it should have been from the beginning,” said Raspheet. “I should have come for your sword first.”
“And why is that?”
“Because victory is far more difficult to achieve when one finds himself outnumbered,” replied Raspheet. “But the odds are far more favorable this time. And now that your second in command has deserted you, the odds are even more to my liking.”
Shadow Kahn agreed completely with Raspheet when he said victory would be easier to claim when the numbers played no factor. But he had to disagree with the idea that the odds were somehow in his opponent’s favor.
Raspheet wasted no more time conversing and charged. Shadow Kahn chose to stand his ground. With incredible ferocity, Raspheet’s sword clashed with Shadow Kahn’s. The force of the impact caused Shadow Kahn to stumble back a few steps.
Being the superior swordsman, Raspheet let loose a barrage of attacks. Shadow Kahn could do nothing but block each strike and brace himself for the next.
A resounding laugh erupted from Raspheet. “You really are no better than the other one, are you?” he asked from behind locked swords. “If only I had known how weak you were. I would have done this long ago.”
“I may not be the most skilled swordsman,” said Shadow Kahn, “but I possess a far greater power than any of my enemies.” At that moment, the torches went out, and when they did, Shadow Kahn disappeared.
Raspheet began scanning the room, but darkness was the only thing that could be seen. The only light in the room was the brief area Raspheet was now standing within. “So, you’ve decided to play by your own rules,” he said.
“Of course,” said Shadow Kahn from somewhere within the darkness. “After all, I do most of my best work in the dark.”
“Perhaps this will brighten things up,” exclaimed Raspheet. Orbs of blue light then began swirling around the room, sure to tear apart anything in which they came into contact. Unfortunately for Raspheet, they flickered away without finding their target.
“How pathetic,” said Shadow Kahn. “Allow me to show you how to get things done.” Chains then thrust from the darkness and wrapped themselves around Raspheet’s arms, legs and throat, forcing him to his knees. “Rule number one when going into battle,” said Shadow Kahn, appearing before Raspheet, “know your opponent.”
“Your power,” said Raspheet in a voice strained by the chain wrapped around his throat. “How did you gain such power?”
“Did you really think I was still that confused little boy you once knew?” asked Shadow Kahn. “Where I come from, we stop at nothing to ensure victory. And if that means breaking some kind of rule of fair play, then so be it.”
Raspheet began laughing.
“Do you find this amusing?” asked Shadow Kahn.
“If you’re so powerful,” said Raspheet, “then why do you allow your enemies to live? Is it because you would rather no harm come to them?” He then began laughing again. “Could it be you still have a soft spot in your heart for them?”
“How I conduct my affairs is of no concern to you.”
“But you still need James to die, right?” asked Raspheet.
“Silence!” exclaimed Shadow Kahn, placing the tip of his blade near Raspheet’s throat. “If you think for one second that you still have some kind of control over me, then you are sadly mistaken. I never answered to you, and I never will.” Shadow Kahn then directed his attention to the sword still in Raspheet’s hand. He reached for it, prompting the Sword of Purgatory to fly out of Raspheet’s hand and into his.
“Strange,” said Shadow Kahn. “I would have thought obtaining one of the swords would have been far more difficult than this.”
“I doubt you can defeat them, even with those swords,” said Raspheet.
“Perhaps,” said Shadow Kahn, “but you will not be around to find out.”
Shadow Kahn then placed the swords together. After he did, a blinding red light engulfed them. When the light faded away, a sword with a much thicker hilt and a blade extending much further than the original remained.
After taking some time to admire his new weapon, Shadow Kahn turned his attention back to Raspheet. “As for you,” he said, lifting his new sword above his head. Before delivering a lethal blow, Shadow Kahn stopped himself. “Then again . . . I can still use you.”
The group arrived at the inn owned by Archer’s friend just as the last traces of day had given way to night. The room they were given was identical to the one they had spent the previous night in as there was once again only one bed.
Aiko’s attention was focused squarely on Sage, who was having his wound tended to by Archer. When Sage looked back at her, Aiko immediately turned away and focused on Jaycee, who was sitting on the bed.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep on the bed tonight?” Jaycee asked James. “Aiko and I can sleep on the floor. It’s only fair, seeing as we got the bed last night.”
“Stop trying to give our bed away,” said Aiko, making her way to the window. She then opened the shutter so that she could admire the night.
“No, the bed is for you girls,” said James.
Archer finished bandaging up Sage’s wound. “There you go,” he said. “It wasn’t all that serious of a wound, if you can believe it. You’ll be better in no time.”
Sage flexed his arm to get a feel for the bandage’s constriction on his arm. “Thank you,” he said, keeping himself from making eye contact with Archer.
“I hope you don’t mind sleeping on the floor,” James told Sage. “I know it won’t make the most comfortable bed, but it’s the best that we can offer.”
“The floor will suffice,” said Sage.
The group didn’t know it but the room’s wooden floor was nearly as acceptable as a bed to Sage. During his servitude to Shadow Kahn, Sage had to sleep in the corner of his former master’s cold, stone-floored throne room.
“We have a long day ahead of us,” said Jaycee. “We should get to bed now.”
As the group prepared for sleep, the sound of raindrops hitting the roof captured their attention. No one would have given the arrival of another storm a second thought if not for Aiko’s reaction. “This can’t be,” she said, backing away from the window.
The others went to the window. Sage, however, stayed where he was. The rest of the group was just as shocked as Aiko to find black rain falling from the sky.
The downpour of black rain lasted only shortly. And after it had stopped, a large puddle across the way became the gathering place for every drop that had fallen. The way the water moved made it look as if each drop was alive. This, however, was a mere prelude to a far more horrible event about to transpire.
Before their very eyes, the group watched as the puddle of black water began to swell and take on a human form. After its gruesome transformation, the creature directed its featureless face toward the horrified group.
Having made its presence known, the creature sunk back into the puddle. It was immediately after the creature had returned to its original state when it was sucked into the sky, leaving behind no traces that it had ever existed.
Unbeknownst to the others, Sage was watching them intently. He had been anticipating Shadow Kahn sending a sign to show them that he was still the one in control. “He’s planning something big,” thought Sage. “And they won’t be able to stop him.”
From his throne, Shadow Kahn stared at the brief area of light that used to contain his loyal Sage. “Let it be known,” he said. “There has been no shift in the balance of power.”