Until We Meet Again
Sage walked across the darkened room as quietly as he could. Had he made a sound and woken the others, then his plan surely would have failed. Reaching the door, Sage took a quick look back at the slumbering group, then departed.
Aiko, who was presumed to have still been asleep, opened her eyes. She had seen Sage leave and could only imagine where he was going.
Daybreak made its arrival as Sage stood atop a small hill. Despite how brilliant the setting sun looked, Sage was far more impressed with how it looked as it was being born anew into the world. To Sage, it signified new beginnings, opportunities that were waiting to be grasped onto and chances to make right that which had been made wrong.
“How many more of these will fate allow me to watch?” Sage asked himself. A soothing breeze then blew through his hair. “If this is my last sunrise, will anyone care?”
Sage returned before the others had woken.
When they did wake, the group returned to their journey. James and Sage led the way through the forest, while Jaycee, Aiko and Archer followed closely behind.
Every now and then Aiko would catch herself staring at Sage. The uncertain feelings she had about him refused to go away. She wondered if the group could really trust Sage, or if this was nothing more than an elaborate plot that would lead her and the others to their demise. But even though her concerns were severe, Aiko kept them to herself.
“So, how long before we reach Shadow Kahn’s castle?” James asked Sage.
“If we don’t run into any problems,” said Sage, “I don’t see why it should take us more than a couple of days. But you must remember what I told you before we left. Shadow Kahn rarely remains in the same place for very long. If we don’t find him in the places we look, then there’s no telling where he might be. Then again,” added Sage, “we might not have to find him at all. He might find us.”
A feeling of anger swelled within Aiko after hearing what Sage had said. It felt to her as if he was openly mocking the group.
A short time later, the travelers stopped at a clearing to rest. There was a river nearby, so they were given the much needed opportunity to bathe. The group split in two, according to gender, and went to different parts of the river.
After Jaycee and Aiko had finished washing up, they returned to the clearing to find only James and Archer waiting for them.
“Hey, where’s Sage?” asked Aiko.
“He’s still washing up,” replied James.
“What?” gasped Aiko. “You left him alone? How could you do that? Don’t either of you have any sense at all?”
“What’s your problem?” asked Archer.
Believing she wasn’t being taken seriously, Aiko folded her arms and turned away from the others. “Just forget that I said anything.”
“No, you’re right,” said Archer. “If you’re that concerned about this, then maybe you should go check on him. What harm could come from it? If there’s a problem, you’ll come back and tell us and we’ll all take care of it together.”
“But . . .” said James, who was immediately interrupted by Archer.
“You won’t have any problem finding him,” said Archer.
“I’m sure I won’t,” said Aiko.
Wasting little time, Aiko rushed toward the tallest tree in sight. With cat-like agility, she made her way onto one of the branches, then began leaping from tree to tree.
“Why didn’t you do anything to stop her?” James asked Archer.
Archer patted James on the shoulder. “Well, James, it’s because there are some lessons that need to be learned the hard way.”
It wasn’t long before Aiko could hear the sound of splashing water. This brought her advance to an immediate halt. But from where she had stopped, Aiko was unable to see the river, so she took one final leap and landed on a crooked branch. After crouching down and spreading apart a few leafy branches, Aiko was able to see everything.
Sage was standing in the waist high river and wearing not a stitch of clothing.
Aiko’s face immediately blushed bright red. As hard as she tried, she could do nothing to stop herself from watching. In all her life, Aiko had never witnessed such a thing. It was almost like a dream to her as she gazed at the beads of water glistening on Sage.
“This isn’t right,” thought Aiko, shutting her eyes and turning away. “A lady is never to look at such things.” After a short time, Aiko opened her eyes and turned her gaze back to Sage. “Then again, I am still just a girl.”
Sage sunk into the water briefly before rushing up amidst a cascade of sparkling droplets of water. Each one of them looked like a diamond dancing in the air.
Aiko’s heart began to beat rapidly and her breathing became sporadic. Being in such an enthralled state, Aiko failed to hear the branch she was standing on begin to crack under her weight. Shortly after the initial splintering, the branch snapped, sending Aiko plummeting to the unforgiving forest floor.
The commotion caught Sage’s attention.
Sprawled out on the ground was Aiko, who was in obvious pain as she rubbed her backside. “That hurt,” she moaned. When Aiko looked at Sage, she found he was staring at her. It seemed odd to Aiko that there was no anger in Sage’s expression. It was as if he cared not that Aiko had been watching him.
Laughing nervously, Aiko got to her feet. “I was just . . . what I mean is . . .” Not having a valid reason for being there, Aiko made a quick escape.
Back at the clearing, James, Archer and Jaycee were discussing the joke that had been played on Aiko.
“I think you made a big mistake,” said Jaycee. “You don’t know how angry Aiko can get when she’s made to look like a fool.”
“This was for Aiko’s own good,” said Archer. “She needs to learn how to trust people. Besides, haven’t either of you noticed the way she’s always staring at him?”
“I’ve noticed it,” said James. “But don’t you think Aiko has the right to be suspicious of Sage? After all, their first few encounters didn’t end very well.”
“Every time those two get together, one of them ends up getting hurt,” said Jaycee. “I hate to think what might be happening between them right now.”
“What you two are saying is true,” said Archer. “But I notice more when I find Aiko staring at Sage, much more.”
James and Jaycee looked at each other, hoping the other might be able to shed some light on what Archer was talking about.
“Why should I have expected either of you to understand?” remarked Archer.
The three were so engrossed in their conversation that none of them noticed the leaves of a nearby tree begin to rustle. With an enraged shout, Aiko sprung from her hiding spot in the tree and landed behind James and Archer. She wasted no time in executing a sweep kick that took Archer’s feet out from under him. She then clutched onto James’ ankle and jerked his leg, taking him to the ground, as well.
“I take it, you didn’t care much for our joke,” said Archer.
“Speak for yourself,” said James. “I had nothing to do with it.”
“You think what you did was funny?” asked Aiko, who looked more irate than anyone had ever before seen her.
“Not anymore,” replied Archer, getting back to his feet.
“Do you think this is some kind of game? Do you think we don’t have to take this seriously? Well, think again!”
Jaycee was the first to see Sage arrive at the far end of the clearing. “Aiko, please,” she said. “That’s enough.”
“No, Jaycee,” said Aiko, “this has to be said. What were you two thinking when you left Sage all alone back there? You know we can’t trust him. Just because he helped us once doesn’t make him one of us.”
“Aiko,” said Archer, who was now looking at Sage.
“Quiet!” exclaimed Aiko. “I’m not finished! Do I really have to remind you to whom his allegiance was once pledged? For all you know, he could have just been with Shadow Kahn plotting against us. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?”
Noticing the others looking beyond her, Aiko turned and found Sage.
“How you feel about me is irrelevant,” said Sage. “I could care less what any of you thinks of me. It was never my intention to join you to become your friend.” Sage then walked past the group. “The only reason I’m here is because we have the same objective. Aside from that, we have nothing in common.”
A feeling of remorse filled Aiko. It was fleeting, though, as Aiko’s stubborn nature made her believe everything she had just said about Sage needed to be said.
In the shadows of his darkened room sat Shadow Kahn. “How close I am to obtaining the most cherished of prizes,” he said. “I may have failed to claim you in the past, but I will not allow another opportunity to slip through my fingers. You will belong to me. After all, with me is where you truly want to be.”
Something lying in wait within the shadows beside Shadow Kahn’s throne captured his attention. Despite the smothering darkness, Shadow Kahn could see clearly what it was that was making its presence known.
“Patience,” said Shadow Kahn. “Your time has not yet come. But you can rest assured, it will. So very soon . . . it will.”
After the unfortunate incident between Aiko and Sage, Archer decided it would be best to give Aiko some time to compose herself. He insisted she stay behind while the others ventured out to gather what they needed for their next meal.
Aiko passed the time by fantasizing about her favorite fairy tale. She always imagined herself as the beautiful princess dressed in pink. But every time Aiko brought the story to life in her mind, she never saw what her savior looked like. Despite this, Aiko knew it was her destiny to one day find a man who would be her hero.
The sound of sticks hitting the ground shook Aiko from her daydream. What she found once coming back to reality was Sage, who had just dropped the bundle of sticks he had gathered for the fire. He was standing a few yards from Aiko and staring at her.
“W, what?” asked Aiko.
“I was just making sure there was nothing wrong with you,” replied Sage. “You had an odd look on your face. I thought you might have been sick.”
Aiko was somewhat flattered that Sage would show concern for her. “No, I was just thinking about a story I know,” replied Aiko, looking off to the side to avoid making eye contact with Sage.
“A story?” asked Sage.
“It’s about a princess. She’s captured by an evil army and held prisoner in their castle. Just when all hope seems lost, a heroic knight swoops in and rescues her. The two fall in love and get married. It’s my favorite story.”
“Is that one of those fairy tales where the animals can speak?”
“Some of them do,” said Aiko. “But that helps move the story along. It’s not like they don’t have a good reason for being able to speak.”
“Stories like that are pointless. Everyone knows animals can’t speak.”
Aiko was utterly insulted by how Sage felt about her tale. “If animals could talk, they would have more to say than you,” she mumbled.
“Did you say something?”
“What?” gasped Aiko, who was sure she had whispered her insult quietly enough to not be heard. “I didn’t say anything.”
When she turned her attention back to Sage, Aiko found him staring off into the distance. She couldn’t help but gaze longingly at Sage’s green eyes. “Those eyes,” she thought. “They look so sad. What could be hiding behind those eyes?”
Having noticed Aiko staring at him, Sage looked back at her. There was an immediate pain in the pit of Aiko’s stomach when Sage’s eyes met hers. She wanted badly to look away but couldn’t bring herself to do so.
Jaycee arrived. Flung over her shoulder was a net filled with fish.
Aiko quickly turned her attention to Jaycee. “That was quick,” she said.
Jaycee set her fish down next to Sage’s pile of sticks. “I know how irritable you can get when you haven’t eaten,” said Jaycee, wiping her brow. “And you were already upset, so I worked as fast as I could.” Jaycee then noticed the look on Aiko’s face. It was the look of someone who was hiding something. “Is something going on here?”
“What do you mean?” asked Aiko.
Sage made no reply on his own behalf when Jaycee turned her attention to him.
“If you want, I can leave you two alone.”
Aiko’s face turned a bright red. “Honestly, Jaycee,” she said, turning her blushed face away in a vain attempt to hide her embarrassment. “Sometimes I worry about you and that overactive imagination of yours. One of these days, it’s going to get you into trouble.”
“Overactive imagination?” asked Jaycee. “Me?”
Shadow Kahn stood at the mouth of a cave the group would soon be passing. In his hand was the sword created from the Sword of Hell and Sword of Purgatory. Shadow Kahn held it before his face and closed his eyes. The weapon was then consumed by a brilliant red light. After opening his eyes, Shadow Kahn separated the swords.
After the group finished their meal, they continued with their journey. Not being familiar with their new surroundings, the others relied on Sage to lead the way.
“So, Sage, does this area look familiar?” asked James.
“Yes,” replied Sage. “I’ve been through these parts many times.”
The group stopped when a cave in the distance became visible.
“Is there anything we should know about that cave?” asked Archer.
“Not to my knowledge,” said Sage.
James began experiencing the same feeling he encountered whenever he was in possession of the Sword of Heaven. It was also the same sensation brought about when confronted by the Sword of Hell. James knew immediately that the source of this feeling was coming from somewhere inside the cave.
“We have to go inside,” said James.
“Are you sure?” asked Jaycee.
James nodded, then led the way to the cave.
Upon entering, the group was stunned to find a sword planted firmly in the back wall. The lack of sufficient light made it difficult to make out just which sword it was, but there was no doubt that it held a great significance.
“Is that it?” asked Aiko.
“It has to be,” said James, cautiously approaching the sword. “There’s no other way I could have sensed its presence. This has to be the third sword.”
“Be very careful, James,” said Archer.
As James neared the sword, the crack the weapon had been thrust into began to emit a bright blue light. The light illuminated the sword for James, prompting him to come to an immediate halt. “This is Raspheet’s sword,” he exclaimed.
“Correction,” said Shadow Kahn. “That sword belongs to me now.”
Everyone began scanning the cave, but their foe was nowhere to be found.
A swirl of black smoke then appeared between James and the sword, prompting the young swordsman to take a few cautious steps back.
“It was a trap,” said Archer.
“Yes,” said Shadow Kahn, appearing from the smoke. “And like the fools that you are, you walked right into it.” He then extended his arm to the side. The Sword of Purgatory dislodged from the wall and flew into his grasp.
“You defeated Raspheet,” said Sage. “I can’t say that surprises me.”
“He posed no real threat,” said Shadow Kahn before turning his attention to James. “As for you, I assume you would like to know why you were able to sense the power of this sword when in the past you were unable to.”
“How do you know that?” asked James.
“Hmph, how quickly we forget with whom we are dealing,” said Shadow Kahn. He then held the Sword of Purgatory before his face. “The truth is, this sword was rather powerless before it merged with both of our weapons.”
“You merged the swords?”
“Yes,” replied Shadow Kahn. “And now that this sword has tasted true power, it has gained substantially from it. It truly has earned its place in the trinity.”
James would hear no more and extended his arm. Before James could focus his energy into the summoning, Sage grabbed his wrist, forcing him to halt his action. “Don’t do it,” he said. “That’s what he wants. Now that he possesses two of the swords, he’s nearly unstoppable. You can’t risk losing your sword to him now.”
“Don’t listen to him,” exclaimed Aiko. “You have to call your sword. If you don’t, then we won’t stand a chance against him.”
“You always were the cautious one, Sage,” remarked Shadow Kahn. “But the real reason I drew you here was not to claim something. Rather, I have brought you all here so that I might claim someone. The one of you who rightfully belongs to me.”
“Sage,” whispered Aiko.
Shadow Kahn made no advance after revealing his plan. He did nothing more than stand his ground and stare at his foes.
A high-pitched sound then filled the cave, creating a feeling of immense pain to everyone who heard it. James, Archer, Sage and Aiko covered their ears, hoping to reduce the intensity of the attack against which they were powerless to defend.
For some reason, Jaycee was spared from the assault. “What are you doing to them?” she asked, helplessly watching the others writhe in pain.
So intense was the pain the others were enduring that they dropped to their knees. Not being nearly as strong as the men, Aiko let out a pained cry.
“Please stop,” exclaimed Jaycee.
With a flick of his wrist, the Sword of Purgatory disappeared from Shadow Kahn’s grasp. He then approached Jaycee, who immediately began backing away.
“It was me?” asked Jaycee. “You came for me?”
Not at all willing to go anywhere with Shadow Kahn, Jaycee readied herself for a battle. “I don’t know what makes you think that I belong to you,” she said, “but if you want me, then you’ll have to fight me.”
“My dear Jaycee,” said Shadow Kahn. “It was never my intention to fight you. I hoped we could do this peacefully. After all, you are the last person I would want to hurt.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Now, Jaycee,” said Shadow Kahn in the tone a father would use with a child, “we both know that you hate fighting, so lower your weapon.”
Unbeknownst to Jaycee, the crack in the wall was beginning to grow. It wasn’t before long when the cave became flooded with the bright blue light.
The effects of the attack Shadow Kahn had levied against the others was starting to wear. But that was done only to make way for an even greater threat. A force from within the now gaping hole in the wall began pulling Jaycee toward it. She immediately planted her staff into the ground and attempted to fight the pull.
“There really is no fighting it,” said Shadow Kahn. “You will be mine.”
Jaycee’s effort was doing little more than delaying the inevitable as she was sliding closer to the glowing hole with each passing second.
Just when it seemed Jaycee was about to lose the struggle, James grabbed her by the wrist. He had mustered what little strength he had left and taken hold of Jaycee with one hand and the jagged cave wall with the other.
Seeing such a thing only fueled Shadow Kahn’s rage, and as it grew, so did the intensity of the force pulling on Jaycee. It became so great that Jaycee’s feet lifted off the ground, leaving her dangling in mid-air. Her staff then flew from her grasp and was consumed by the vortex. “No!” she shouted, reaching vainly for it.
James was beginning to lose his grip on Jaycee. “Jaycee!” he exclaimed. “Give me your other hand! I’m losing you!”
Jaycee tried to reach her other hand toward James but the force pulling on her made it impossible for Jaycee to move her arm. “I can’t! Please don’t let go!” she pleaded.
“I’ll never let you go.”
“Enough of this,” exclaimed Shadow Kahn.
The force pulling on Jaycee grew to its strongest, becoming far too powerful to fight. And because of the increase in power, Jaycee was ripped from James’ grasp.
“Jaycee!” shouted James.
“James!” screamed Jaycee, who was sucked into the blue light.
Thinking only of Jaycee, James let go of the wall. His crusade would come to an abrupt halt, however, as Archer grabbed him by the arm. Now holding his student the way James had been holding onto Jaycee, Archer battled the force as best he could. “James, give me your other hand!” shouted Archer.
“Let go!” exclaimed James, trying to pull free.
Archer’s hand began to slide along the cave wall. “James, I’m losing my grip on the wall! So stop trying to pull away from me and give me your other hand!”
“No! I have to help Jaycee!”
Just before Archer lost his grip on the wall, Aiko grabbed onto him. “Hold on!” she shouted. Not having enough strength to hold onto two men, Aiko quickly lost her grip on the wall. Fortunately for the others, Sage grabbed Aiko by the wrist and saved all three, in a show of near superhuman strength.
The once gaping hole in the wall began to close, gradually lessening the effect of the force and diminishing the strain on the group.
James broke free from Archer and rushed to the closing hole. When he reached it, James tried with all his might to force it open. The effort was for naught, however, as the hole shut, leaving behind not as much as a crack.
“I really should thank you for this, Sage,” said Shadow Kahn. “Without you to do my bidding, I have been forced to do many things for myself. And what satisfaction one can gain from a job well done.”
“Arrogant bastard,” said Sage.
“Bastard,” said James, whose back was turned to everyone. When he turned around, there was a look on his face that Aiko and Archer had never before seen on him. The usually docile James looked to be in a crazed state. “You’re going to pay for this!”
“I doubt that,” said Shadow Kahn.
“Bring her back now,” exclaimed James. “Because if you don’t . . .”
“How badly do you want her back?” asked Shadow Kahn. “Do you want her back so badly that you would be willing to consider a trade? Is this girl worth your sword and the soul of every person in this world? Does she mean that much to you?”
James was unable to answer.
“Think long and hard before you answer,” said Shadow Kahn. “Something this substantial deserves time.” A swirl of black smoke then appeared around Shadow Kahn. “I expect you to have an answer the next time our paths cross. And I hope the choice you make is the correct one.” With that said, Shadow Kahn disappeared.
James turned his back on the others to hide the tears now falling from his eyes. “I will find you, Jaycee,” he thought. “I swear it. So please wait for me.”
Lying motionless within a small area of light was Jaycee. All around her was a cold and empty darkness. The only positive aspect about the situation Jaycee was in was the fact that in her current state she was unaware of the disturbing reality of where she was.