A Most Perfect Plan
The group traveled in silence through the forest. It was obvious to everyone that the one taking the loss of Jaycee the hardest was James. They knew he was intent on bringing her back, and they feared what measures he would take to do so.
Though Aiko was just as concerned for Jaycee as anyone, she was unable to keep her thoughts from straying to Sage. The feelings she experienced every time she was around him made it seem to Aiko as if her inner most thoughts were trying to tell her something, but just what that something was continued to elude her.
Jaycee had woken from a deep sleep. “Where am I?” she asked, getting to her feet. Jaycee took a few looks in each direction before cautiously proceeding.
A brief area of light surrounding Jaycee followed her every move. It seemed strange, but she appreciated being separated from the darkness.
Much to Jaycee’s surprise, the darkness began to fade away. All around Jaycee appeared a lush forest. And in the distance ahead appeared a modest house. It took no time at all for Jaycee to recognize it. “Home,” she said.
Aiko decided to ask a question that had been pressing on her mind for some time. “So, where exactly are we going?” she asked.
James came to an immediate halt after hearing the question, and when he did, the others did the same. Rather than turn to face the others, James kept his attention focused forward. “I don’t know,” he replied. The tone of his voice showed how hopeless James was.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“You had every right to ask,” said James. “Just like for everything else, I don’t have an answer.” James then faced the others. “I don’t know what I’m doing. That’s why Jaycee’s gone. Because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“Don’t say that,” said Archer. “It’s not your fault.”
“If I had just given Shadow Kahn what he wanted from the start,” said James, “then this wouldn’t have happened.”
Hearing such a thing made Sage recall a not too distant memory.
* * *
Sage was following his master up a stairway.
“You seem troubled, my loyal Sage,” said Shadow Kahn, stopping his ascent. “What is it that has you so concerned?”
“Things will not always be this easy,” said Sage. “Those who tried to defend this castle were ill prepared. I fear there will be far greater forces when we seek to achieve our ultimate goal. We should be prepared for the worst.”
“Your worries are unwarranted,” said Shadow Kahn.
“How can you be so confident?”
Being on a higher step made Shadow Kahn seem all the more imposing as he loomed over his follower. “I am confident because of one thing, my loyal Sage,” he said. “My plan can not possibly fail. For my plan is a most perfect plan.”
* * *
Sage broke out of his trance-like state when he heard Aiko begin speaking.
“Don’t worry, James,” said Aiko. “We’ll find Jaycee.”
Before James could give Aiko a reply, a sickle-shaped blade of blue light slammed into the ground near the group. The explosion it created was so great that it took James and the others off their feet.
Having been left relatively unharmed by the attack, the group collectively got back to their feet and in unison turned toward Shadow Kahn, who was standing only feet away.
“Damn you,” said James through clenched teeth.
“Truth be told,” said Shadow Kahn, “I had to do something to shut you up. The things you were saying were making me sick. Just the thought that someone like you could play such a vital role in my plans is almost too much for me to bear.”
James immediately summoned the Sword of Heaven. “This is what you came here for, isn’t it?” asked James.
“Indeed, it is,” replied Shadow Kahn. “And for once in your miserable little life, you actually did something right. Now, hand over that sword, and I promise you that your dear little Jaycee will be returned to you.”
“Make this fair and fight us for it,” said Aiko.
“Four against one,” said Shadow Kahn. “Those are quite unfavorable odds, for you, that is. For I would have no problem defeating all of you.”
“Why am I not fully convinced that you want to take us up on that offer?” asked Archer. “Don’t tell me someone as powerful as you is afraid.”
“Very well,” said a now grinning Shadow Kahn. “If a fight is what you desire, then a fight is what you will get.”
Four reanimated skeletons brandishing swords emerged from the woods.
“It looks like you’ve lost your touch,” remarked Sage, who was confident he could vanquish the skeletons on his own.
“I would beg to differ with you on that,” said Shadow Kahn. At that moment, dozens more of the creatures began emerging from the woods.
“This isn’t good,” said Aiko.
“We can’t fight this many,” said James. “We have to retreat.”
The forest became only a passing blur to the group as they ran as fast as they could from the pursuing army. With the skeletons being so slow of foot, it looked as if the group had a very good chance of escaping. But just when it seemed the group was out of danger, they found their route had been cut off by a surging river.
“A dead end,” said Archer.
“You couldn’t have chosen a different way of saying that?” asked Aiko.
“It’s moving too fast to cross,” said James. “We need to find a bridge.”
“There is no bridge,” said Shadow Kahn, who was standing only yards behind the group. “I hope this little episode has taught you something. There is no escaping me. No matter how fast you run or how well you hide, I will always find you.”
The horde of skeletons emerged from the woods.
“Now give me your sword,” said Shadow Kahn, arm outstretched and hand open. “Since you made this so difficult for me, I now have to reconsider keeping my promise of returning your precious Jaycee to you.”
“If you want it, then you’ll have to take it from me!” said James.
“How many times am I going to have to hear that challenge?”
“Well, what are you waiting for?” asked James. “Come and get it!”
“Very well. But never say that I refused to give you the chance to make things easy for yourself.” That was the cue for the skeletons to advance.
James and Sage charged and were able to fend off a number of enemies. Aiko stayed back to fight off any aggressors who tried to attack from behind, while Archer fired arrow after arrow at the oncoming forces.
As the skeletons fell, more began emerging from the woods.
“There’s no end to them,” said James, who was immediately attacked by another skeleton. James locked swords with his adversary but soon found another skeleton charging from ahead. Sage stood before James and fought off the aggressor but was immediately attacked by another. Sage was slashed across the hip and sent crashing into James. The collision forced the Sword of Heaven out of James’ grasp.
Everyone came to an immediate halt as the Sword of Heaven flipped end over end through the air. Time seemed almost to be standing still for that moment. Eventually, the Sword of Heaven’s flight came to an end when it plunged into the river.
“No!” shouted James.
“How unexpected,” said Shadow Kahn.
Aiko pushed through the horde of skeletons. “We can’t let him get his hands on that sword!” she shouted before diving into the water.
“Aiko, no!” shouted Archer. Sage looked at him, unsure as to why Archer would fear Aiko retrieving the sword. “She doesn’t know how to swim.”
As Aiko struggled through the water, the current pulled her under.
Sage made no hesitation. He sheathed his sword, then dove into the river. Once in, Sage was immediately confronted with a dilemma. The Sword of Heaven and Aiko were growing further apart. And with the current so powerful, Sage would only be able to recover one before his strength gave way. The decision was one made swiftly. Sage swam to Aiko and wrapped an arm around her.
The intensity of the fighting she had done and the struggle to keep from drowning proved too much for Aiko, who passed out once Sage reached her.
James and Archer pushed through their enemies and followed Sage and Aiko. Both grew frantic when they found the two nearing a waterfall.
“Sage!” shouted Archer, pointing up ahead.
Sage, who had been so focused on the Sword of Heaven, looked ahead and was presented with the waterfall. He tried swimming to shore but the current was far too strong to get through with only one free arm.
The Sword of Heaven reached the waterfall and fell over the edge.
“You have to swim to shore!” shouted James.
“He can’t make it,” said Archer.
“Then we have to find a way to help him.”
A tree covered in vines caught Archer’s attention. He drew an arrow and immediately took aim. With stellar precision, he sent an arrow slashing through one of the vines, leaving it hanging over the river for Sage to grab.
With the waterfall looming like a drop into the mouth of some horrible beast, Sage made a desperate lunge for the vine and succeeded in grabbing it.
“You did it,” James told Archer. “Hold on,” he then shouted to Sage. “We’ll find a way to pull you two in!”
With so much weight pulling on it, the vine was unable to maintain its integrity and snapped, sending Sage and Aiko plummeting over the waterfall.
“Aiko, Sage!” shouted James. He and Archer hurried to the edge but neither could find a trace of either in the foamy water below.
“What a pleasant turn of events,” said Shadow Kahn, who now stood alone. “Never could I have imagined things would turn out so well. Not only are you without the Sword of Heaven, but you have lost two more allies.”
James drew his sword from its sheath.
“Please,” said Shadow Kahn, “we both know that sword will do you no good. Besides, I no longer need waste my time on you. Now that the Sword of Heaven no longer belongs to you, you have nothing to exchange for your dear Jaycee, which means she belongs to me.”
“You bastard,” said James.
“Fear not. We will meet again. For whether you possess one of the swords or not, you still play a vital role in all this.” A familiar swirl of black smoke then appeared around Shadow Kahn. “And what a surprise fate has in store for you when you find what your part is.” With that said, Shadow Kahn was taken away.
Jaycee was unable to believe what she was seeing as she stood next to a younger version of herself sleeping peacefully in her bed. There were no doubts in Jaycee’s mind as to who the girl was. Her features were all the same and she even slept with the doll Jaycee’s mother had made for her. Jaycee was about to touch her but quickly pulled back.
“What is this?” asked Jaycee.
Unbeknownst to Jaycee, a cloud of black smoke was entering the room from under the door. It slithered along the floor with the same intent of a sneaking predator. The younger Jaycee let out a cough when the smoke reached her, but it was only after a much thicker sheet covered her when she awoke.
“No, this can’t be happening,” said Jaycee.
“Momma,” said the young Jaycee through a series of coughs. With doll in hand, she climbed out of bed and made her way to the door.
“No. Don’t open the door.”
Seemingly unable to hear the warning, the young Jaycee grabbed the knob.
“Don’t open the door!” shouted Jaycee, lunging at her younger self. Jaycee’s hand flowed through her young counterpart like a specter’s.
When the young Jaycee opened the door, the glow from the flames in the hall filled her room. She screamed as the sudden blistering heat stung her face. “Momma, papa, where are you?” she shouted, timidly walking into the hall.
“I told you not to open the door. Why didn’t you listen to me?”
The door to Jaycee’s parents’ room opened and out exited a heinous looking man with a thick black beard and long black hair. In his hand was a sword whose blade gleamed with fresh blood in the radiance of the fire.
A terrified young Jaycee began backing away. As she did, she dropped her doll, where it was soon under the man’s foot.
Jaycee could do nothing to help the girl. And there was no need for her to watch as she already knew what was going to happen. For Jaycee was being forced to relive the night her parents were taken away from her.
When the man was within a few feet of the young Jaycee, a beam gave way, dropping a portion of the roof into the house and blocking his progress. The man grinned a fiendish grin at the young Jaycee before rushing out through a nearby window.
A group of villagers broke through the front door and took the young Jaycee before the flames could.
Jaycee crashed to her knees. “I can’t take this,” she muttered. After uttering those few words, Jaycee toppled over onto her side and lost consciousness.
Sage mustered what little strength he had left and pulled Aiko through the now calm water and onto dry land. Earlier events had proven too much for Aiko to recover from, making Sage’s task of rescuing her all the more difficult.
Sage carried Aiko to a nearby tree and set her against it. Needing to rest just as badly, Sage sat down beside her. “We’re not safe out in the open like this,” he said. “We’ll have to move on before nightfall.”
Aiko slid from her resting spot and fell face first into Sage’s lap. Not wanting Aiko in that area, Sage attempted to move her but was far too weak to do so. It was shortly thereafter when Sage succumbed to his fatigue and fell into a deep sleep.
Sage woke a few hours later to find Aiko standing against a tree. The expression on her face made Aiko look more annoyed than anything else. “It’s about time you woke up,” she said, not bothering to look at Sage. “You’ve been asleep for hours. I’ve had enough time to build a fire, find food and do some training.”
Sage found two apples beside him.
“I assumed you would be hungry, so I picked those for you. But don’t go thinking that I’m gonna start doing things for you.”
Sage took the apples, then turned his back on Aiko so he could eat in private. He did this mostly to keep from showing Aiko that he was benefiting from something she had done for him. But Sage felt he was justified in doing such a thing as he had done a far greater service for Aiko without receiving a shred of gratitude.
“That ungrateful little . . .” whispered Aiko. She then turned her back on Sage, but when she did, any anger she had quickly dissipated. “Why do I feel this way about him?” she thought. “He risked his life to save me. Shouldn’t that mean I can trust him?” A feeling of anger once again filled Aiko. “Then why did I wake up with my face in his lap? What did he do to me while I was passed out?”
Sage had finished eating and was already prepared to continue the journey. “We don’t have much time before the sun sets,” he told Aiko. “We should get going now.”
“You want me to go with you?”
“You’re free to continue on your own, if that’s what you want,” said Sage. “But I know these woods quite well. I also know what happens when it gets dark.” Sage then began his trek into the forest without Aiko.
“I don’t need his help to find the others,” thought Aiko. A gathering of bushes began to rustle, followed by an owl hooting and a twig snapping. That was all it took to convince Aiko that it would be best to follow Sage.
“I thought you didn’t want to go with me.”
“Uh, well, I have to follow you to make sure you don’t do anything sneaky,” said Aiko. “So you’d better not try anything.”
Sage was surprised by the fact that he was pleased Aiko had decided to join him. Never would he admit it, but Sage was just as afraid as anyone of being alone.
James and Archer had found a quiet place to collect themselves. The whole time, though, James could do nothing but continue to blame himself for recent events, putting added strain on his already fatigued body and mind.
Archer wanted to say something to reassure James, but it seemed that no words could make his student feel better.
“I knew I couldn’t do this,” said James. “Why was I chosen for this? Why does this have to be my burden? Why not someone else?”
“That’s all you have to say for yourself?” asked Archer. “At a time like this, all you can do is feel sorry for yourself? How is an attitude like that going to help us find the others?”
“But I did my best.” Archer’s remarks quickly turned James from feeling self pity to defensive as the criticism was now coming from someone else. “There was nothing I could have done to change what happened.”
“Yes, there was. You believed from the very beginning that you weren’t capable of being a leader, and we all suffered because of it. Don’t you know that an army is only as strong as its weakest link. And if that weakest link is the leader, then the battle is lost before it even begins. Everyone believed in you, but you couldn’t believe in yourself.”
“But I didn’t ask for this.”
“And neither did your brother,” exclaimed Archer.
“My brother?” asked James.
“Your brother never wanted to be a leader. But someone saw something in him that made them believe that he could be one. And do you know how difficult it was for him? All he ever did at first was fail. But your brother never felt sorry for himself. William’s failures made him work twice as hard. You could learn a thing from him.”
James lowered his head and gave his teacher no reply, prompting Archer to walk away. “I’ll never be as good as my brother,” thought James. “So why even try?”
Sage and Aiko had been trekking through the forest for about an hour. And since the beginning of their excursion, neither had said a word to the other. Sage was used to these prolonged silences from being around Shadow Kahn for so long, but for some reason, he was unable to further bear the silence he was currently enduring.
“I understand you like stories,” said Sage.
“Uh, I guess you could say that,” said Aiko, who was more than a bit surprised to find that Sage would choose to talk to her.
“Have you heard the one about the king and the lazy servant?”
“No, I’ve never heard that story.”
“Then I’ll tell it to you,” said Sage. “There once was a king who wanted to build a castle. But the area he had chosen to build it on was in the middle of the forest. The king ordered his servants to cut down every tree in the way. It took months to accomplish the task, but eventually the job was nearing completion. Just as the last tree was falling, two of the king’s knights arrived with a man who had just been arrested. The knights told the king that the man was one of his servants and that they had found him sleeping in the forest.”
“What did the king do?” asked Aiko.
“May I continue?” asked Sage.
“Sorry,” replied Aiko before letting out a nervous chuckle.
“The king couldn’t recall ever seeing the servant at work in the forest. When the knights informed him that the servant had confessed to sneaking off every day, the king became enraged. He ordered the servant to be thrown in prison, and when morning came, was to be taken back to the forest to clear away every stick that he saw. The servant knew the king had in mind to not only make him clear away every stick, but every fallen tree, as well. And if he wasn’t able to do so, then he would most certainly be put to death.”
“Talk about getting the short end of the stick,” said Aiko.
“When morning came, the king visited the servant’s cell and found him sitting in a dark corner. The king ordered him to stand. The servant did nothing but continue to sit in the corner. This angered the king and he told his servant that he would be put to death on the spot if he didn’t explain himself. The servant told the king that he would be unable to perform the task given to him. The king replied by saying that if a convincing reason was not given, the servant would be executed immediately. The servant stood and walked to the light to show that he had gouged his own eyes out. Knowing it would be impossible for anyone to pick up what they couldn’t see, the king had no choice but to set the servant free.”
Aiko was at a loss for words.
“Was my story not to your liking?” asked Sage.
“Well, the stories I know don’t usually have such grim endings.”
“Not all stories have happy endings,” replied Sage. “Anyone who’s seen the things I have can attest to that,” he added in a voice Aiko was unable to hear.
James approached Archer. Before James could speak, Archer relieved a burden that was weighing heavily on him. “About what I told you earlier,” he said. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said those things, especially not at a time like this.”
“No, you were right,” said James. “I haven’t been acting very much like a leader. The things you told me had to be said. I have to stop doubting myself.”
“It sounds like you’ve been doing a lot of thinking.”
“I’d like the chance to once again lead this mission.”
“I take it you’re ready to continue,” said Archer.
James nodded. “I won’t doubt myself again,” he said. “I swear to you. I was chosen to do this for a reason, and I won’t stop until I find out what that reason is.”
With so many strange noises around them, Aiko made sure to walk as closely behind Sage as she could. She was so involved with looking around for the source of the noises that Aiko failed to notice Sage had come to a stop and crashed face first into his back. Rubbing her now sore nose, Aiko looked into the distance and at the same thing that Sage was watching. A castle had become visible in the distance.
“Is he in there?” asked Aiko.
“This is one of the castles his forces have occupied,” replied Sage. “I can’t guarantee he’s in there, but there is a chance he is.”
“Then there’s no time to waste.”
Jaycee awoke to find herself once again lying in a brief area of light surrounded by total darkness. But this time, she found Shadow Kahn watching her.
“You look just like an angel when you sleep,” he said.
Jaycee tried to retreat but stumbled and fell back to the ground, leaving her at the mercy of her captor.
Sage and Aiko had encountered no problems in entering the castle, but things became far more difficult once they were inside. They found themselves blocked at both ends of a stairway by groups of soldiers, all brandishing weapons.
Knowing a battle was inevitable, Aiko took to a readied stance. Sage reached for his sword but inexplicably drew his arm back.
“What are you doing?” asked Aiko. “You can’t give up.”
“I am confident because of one thing,” whispered Sage. “My plan will not fail.”
“Master Sage?” asked one of the soldiers.
Aiko gasped after hearing what had just been said. “Then that means you’re still . . .” Before Aiko could finish her thought, Sage executed a precise blow to her neck, dazing her and sending her falling into his chest.