Always Will Be

    The hot crimson light of Talpa’s power had taken them all by surprise. It shot down from the dark clouds above and blinded all five of the valiant young warriors, and before they could ready their weapons for a counterstrike, the silhouettes of the three Dark Warlords, along with the badly wounded Anubis, had disappeared. The sky was split by a bolt of red lightning and a ground-shaking crack of thunder — then the light faded, and the Ronin Warriors were left blinking at one another in confusion. The silence they shared in the aftermath of that brief battle was one of dejected defeat.

    Rowen was the first to speak, and his bitter tone echoed what they all felt: “We failed. They got ‘im.”

    All eyes turned to the ground, partly in sadness at losing a new comrade, partly in shame of their inability to save him.

    The jangle of shakujo rings drew their attention to the darkness of the trees, where the Ancient One slowly appeared. He paused as he reached the five samurai and leaned heavily on his staff, as if tired and weary. His mouth, usually a stoic, neutral curve, was pulled into a grim line.

    “It was as I feared,” he said gravely to the young faces before him. “Talpa will stop at nothing to obtain the armors — even yours.” He sighed quietly, and behind the gathered warriors appeared Mia and Yuli, who had been watching the battle from a safe distance, as well as White Blaze, their protector. They approached the group timidly and didn’t speak — they’d never seen the Ronins so sullen before.

    Ryo’s head suddenly lifted. “If Talpa wants our armors so badly, them we’ll bring them to him. Let him try to take them from us.”

    “Woah, woah,” Sage, ever level-headed, interrupted, “what are you saying? That we launch an attack on the castle?”

    “That’s exactly what I’m saying.” Ryo stared urgently at the Ancient One. “We’re strong enough now. Let’s take him out, once and for all.”

    The monk lowered his head, casting even more of his face into shadow. “Talpa’s castle is saturated with the power of the Netherworld,” he admonished. “You cannot underestimate it, even for a moment.”

    “The Netherworld?” Ryo repeated.

    “Netherworld, Schmetherworld,” Kento declared brazenly, “whatever it is, we’re gonna have to go through it sooner or later, right? I’m with Ryo. I say we do this now.”

    And then Yuli, surprisingly, asked the question that none of them had yet thought of: “Ancient One,” he said meekly, “do you know a way into Talpa’s castle?”

    A dry wind rustled the leaves of the trees, as if the earth were reminding all of its pain and suffering. The monk answered the boy with a slight nod. “I will be the bridge to Talpa’s domain.”

    Kento, oblivious to the tremor in the Ancient’s voice, was already planning his battle strategy. “Aw man, once we get in there, it’s gonna be party time. We’ll blow their friggin’ doors off and-”

    “And save all those trapped people,” Sage testily reminded him.

    “Yeah, that too.” The Ronin of Hardrock gave Yuli an encouraging grin. “You can count on me personally to bring your folks back, kiddo. You’ll be together again in no time!”

    The boy’s eyes gleamed with hope. “Really?”

    “Sure! Just as soon as we get something to eat.”

    “I guess you fight better on a full stomach, huh?”

    “Not all the time!” Kento protested, but everyone else was already snickering at the jab. Kento never got a break, it seemed.

    Ryo’s laughter faded before the others’ as he saw the Ancient One turn away and gaze up at the dark castle hanging in the clouds. He watched the man’s face for any sign that would betray his feelings, but the monk’s eyes remained cast in shadow and his lips were rigidly set into their sober expression. Ryo opened himself, his heart and his mind, and though he was unable to read the Ancient’s thoughts, he could feel the aura of sadness and resignation as clearly as if it had been described to him.

    The rest of the Ronins also seemed to detect something amiss, and one by one their mirth disappeared as they regarded their mysterious benefactor. As if sensing their eyes on him, the Ancient One turned back and gave them a thin smile.

    “It would be wise for you all to get some rest,” he said gently. “Tired warriors are dead warriors, and you’ll need all the strength you have to fight Talpa’s forces.” He began to walk away. “Rest well tonight, Ronin Warriors. In the morning, the gates to Talpa’s castle will be open to receive you.”

When I turn to the east, I see no dawn
But after darkness comes the light.
When I turn to the west, the silent night hides all —
Where is the light that shines so bright?

    Ryo stared at the cracking concrete roof above him and listened to the sounds of his friends breathing evenly around him. Kento was on the brink of snoring, sleeping with his mouth open and sucking air into his throat noisily. Yuli lay snuggled against his side like a teddy bear, oblivious to the older boy’s snuffles and snorts.

    Across the station floor, between the columns that read Westbound, Rowen and Sage lay side-by-side in their sleeping bags, asleep but only just; even though they had all traded their subarmors for civvies, Sage was adamant about arming himself in case of a midnight attack — he slept with a No. 18 two-and-a-quarter inch rebar held to his chest. Nobody was fucking with him tonight. Despite the danger, Rowen has spooned himself against Sage’s back, probably more for warmth than affection.

    Cye, ever the perfect British gentlemen, had given Mia the bench as well as his pillow; he slept below her in his sleeping bag, using his sweater as a pillow. His eyebrows were pinched together fretfully, as if he had fallen asleep worrying or was having troubling dreams.

    Ryo sighed heavily, wishing sleep would find him. It was too quiet without White Blaze, who had left a few hours ago to prowl around like most cats are wont to do. Without that reassuring purr and warm body, Ryo found himself tossing and turning in his sleeping bag, restless and burdened by a feeling of dread that he couldn’t quite shake. After another half hour of fruitless sheep-counting, Ryo quietly abandoned his bed and padded up the subway stairs.

    The streets above were dark and cold. The chill of spring was still in the air, either that or Talpa’s darkness had affected the temperature as well. Ryo buttoned his denim jacket and flipped up the collar to ward off the night breeze. Then he began walking.

    He wandered and he thought. About tomorrow. About the castle. About what he might have to do to rid the earth of this scourge called Talpa. In the back of his mind Ryo was aware that it was very unwise to be out in the city at night all alone, unprotected and vulnerable to attack. But he had a feeling, indescribable but certain, that nothing was going to get him tonight. This was the eye of the hurricane, the tail of the tiger — the calm before the storm. Safety in the midst of great and terrible danger. And perhaps the last glimpse of the human world he might ever see.

    Ryo gave his head a shake, banishing the gloomy thoughts from his mind. He became aware of his surroundings, and was a little surprised to discover that he had found his way back to the park where they had fought to save Anubis from Talpa’s evil grasp. His sneakers made no sound on the path as he walked through the trees and over still pools of water. He was so lost in thought that he nearly walked past a familiar-looking shadow without even realizing it.

    “Ancient One?” he asked, squinting into the darkness.

    The silhouette moved, and the monk’s hat was illuminated in the dim light. “Ryo,” he said, sounding slightly surprised. Then his tone hardened. “You ought to be resting. It isn’t safe to wander the city without your armor.”

    “Can’t sleep,” the teen shrugged, sitting cross-legged on the grass before the low stone bench on which the Ancient sat.

    The monk leaned his staff against the bench and rested his hands in his lap. “Is something troubling you?”

    Ryo occupied himself with plucking out blades of grass. “I dunno . . . just anxious about tomorrow, I guess.” He raised his head and flashed a bashful smile, and was surprised to see the man return it.

    A silence fell between them, comfortable and unhurried, and Ryo could almost pretend that he was just enjoying a peaceful night in some nameless garden, in the company of a man he had trusted all his life and never doubted once. He could almost pretend that Talpa had never existed, and that he and his friends and the Ancient One were all just a part of some otherworldly ceremony of heroes, ornamental and unthreatened by the evil of reality. How Ryo wished that were the truth.

    “The last time you and I spoke alone, you were barely ten years old,” said the Ancient One, his tone soft and nostalgic, no longer formal. “How quickly time passes in this world.”

    “I’ll be sixteen this August,” said Ryo, then added jokingly, “If I live to see it.”

    The monk did not join him in his amusement. “Wildfire has no worthier wearer than you, Ryo,” he murmured seriously. “But if I could put another in that suit, I would.”

    Ryo frowned, confused. “I don’t understand.”

    The Ancient One bowed his head. “Ryo,” he said, “tomorrow you and the rest of the Ronin Warriors shall challenge Talpa’s dynasty. I do not doubt your spirits or your hearts, but I worry for you all the same.”

    “What’s to worry about? You’ll be right there with us.” After a long unresponsive pause, Ryo narrowed his eyes. “You’ll be going with us tomorrow, won’t you?”

    The Ancient raised his head. “No, Ryo. I’m afraid you will be on your own this time.”

    “On our own? Wh-b-but I thought you were coming with us! What if we need your help?”

    “You do not need my help any longer, Ryo. You and your friends have become one with your armors. You understand their power and potential more completely than I ever could. You know each other’s strengths and limits. You understand that the whole is greater than merely the sum of its parts, that the Ronin Warriors together can withstand the wrath of Talpa. In this, my one purpose has at last been rendered.”

    Ryo’s expression was lost somewhere between tears and anger. “But-! Don’t you wanna be there when we defeat Talpa?”

    “I would want nothing more.”

    “So come with us!” Ryo cried. “Fight with us! This is your battle as much as ours. It wouldn’t be right without you.”

    “You must do it without me, Ryo, and you will.”

    That sick feeling of dread came back, settling into the pit of Ryo’s stomach. He frowned, his heart beginning to hear the unspoken. “You’re not telling me something.”

    The Ancient One leaned back, surprised. “Have I become that transparent?”

    “No, I . . . I just have a feeling.” Ryo gulped. “So what is it? What’s going on? You’re not . . . gonna abandon us, are you?”

    The monk sighed heavily and allowed his shoulders to slump into a posture of grief that Ryo had never seen before. “I am not abandoning you, Ryo, nor will I ever; I simply do not have the power to follow you. When the bridge is forged, the power that keeps me anchored to this world will be spent forever, and I will not be returning to you.”

    Ryo drew back slowly, his blue eyes becoming large as horror seized him like a giant hand, steadily applying its crushing force. “Wh-what do you mean?”

    “Death, Ryo. We must all face it one day. I am no exception.”

    Ryo’s mouth fell open and he began to shake his head in denial. “No. No.” He rose to his feet. “You can’t do this!”

    “I must, Ryo. There is no other w-”

    “Stop it! S-stop it!” He clapped his hands over his ears, as if shutting out the words would make the promise go away. “There has to be another way! I’m not gonna let you die for us! There h-has to be somethi-” A sob rose up in his throat and shattered the rest of his sentence. Tears followed, hot blinding rivers unleashed all at once that burned their way down Ryo’s cheeks.

    The Ancient One stood and took the boy’s hands in his cool, strong grasp, pulling them away from Ryo’s head. “Look at me,” he commanded, and the young man raised his red-rimmed eyes, sniffing wetly. “There is no other way.”

    At those words, those five irrefutable and awful words, the rest of Ryo’s self-control dissolved and he wept, openly and shamelessly. The monk gently released his hold on the boy’s hands, brushing back the dark fringe of ebony hair that was obscuring his heart-broken eyes. “I should not have told you,” he murmured. “Now you’re going to carry the weight of my sacrifice with you to Talpa’s castle. I pray that my foolishness will not result in your failure.”

    “Y-you can’t d-die,” Ryo stammered, choking, his voice cracking. “I st-still owe you so much. All those years you guided me and . . . and Wh-White Blaze, when I h-had nobody. I love you. You’re the closest thing to a f-family I’ve ever had.”

    He threw himself into the Ancient’s arms. “Kaosu, please,” he begged, using the man’s true name for the first time in six years. “Please don’t go. You’re all I h-have left.”

    The Ancient One hesitated, then wrapped his arms around the boy’s trembling shoulders. “You’re wrong, Ryo,” he whispered. “You have four brothers who love you and would die for you, the same as I.”

    Ryo tightened his embrace and shut his eyes tight. “But I don’t want you to die! I don’t want anyone to die!”

    With a weary sigh, Kaosu sat down on the bench and guided Ryo to the ground, where the young man kneeled, a shambling wreck, and wiped the tears from his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket. He stared up at the shadowed face of the monk above him, and then forgot his grief as his hat was slowly, deliberately removed.

    Ryo uttered a shocked gasp as he gazed upon the handsome face of a middle aged man. Fine lines were etched into his skin, ageless skin that seemed so thin and yet looked so youthful. His eyes, perhaps blue at one time, had faded to a color so ghostly pale that they seemed almost white. Thin, colorless eyebrows gave emotion to his face, now knitted together to form a mask of sadness. With the hat gone, long tendrils of silver hair now fell over his forehead like strands of spider web.

    Ryo could only stare with awed wonder. “K . . . Kaosu?” he whispered.

    The monk leaned forward. “I would rather be honored than mourned, Ryo. The world does not end with one man’s death. My heart is with you, and it always will be.” He took Wildfire’s face in his hands, and immortal white met living blue for the first, and last, time. “Honor me, Ryo, as the father I wish I was, and I will honor you as the son you always were.” And he placed a kiss upon Ryo’s brow.

    Ryo stared back for as long as he could before it became too much to bear. Then he buried his face into Kaosu’s robes, dampening them with his silent tears. The monk combed his fingers through Ryo’s hair, talking quietly to him, soothing him, until the young warrior fell into an exhausted slumber.

    A clap of thunder sent Sage rocketing out of a sound sleep, both hands in a white-knuckled grip on his precious rebar. Beside him, Rowen blundered and thrashed and finally made it out of his sleeping bag, eyes wide and hair sticking everywhere. “What’n the hell was that!”

    Ryo snapped awake and became instantly confused. When had he fallen asleep? Had he been dreaming?

    Cye darted past him running full tilt toward the stairs, everyone shouting with confusion. Ryo jumped to his feet and pounded up the steps with the rest of the team. Moments later the entire group, Mia and Yuli among them, burst out onto the deserted street in time to see a blazing band of light rip from earth to sky with a deafening roar. Lightning exploded from clouds to street as gales of howling wind threatened to sweep them all off their feet.

    Then the storm subsided, leaving a glowing beam of pale light, haloed by flares of lightning, stretching up into the heavens to Talpa’s castle.

    In the street ahead stood White Blaze, staring toward the shimmering gateway and yowling his woe for his missing master. In an instant, they all realized what had happened.

    “Kaosu!” Ryo tried to scream, but his strangled cry remained a whisper. The events of the night before flooded back to him, bringing with them an empty ache in his heart and a flood of tears that threatened to pour from his eyes.

    I would rather be honored than mourned, Ryo.

    Had it been a dream? It couldn’t have been. It was too real . . . Was his mind even capable of dreaming like that? What if it was some kind of horrible nightmare sent by Talpa himself? Was any of this real, or was he still dreaming? Was this what it felt like to go mad with grief?

    The world does not end with one man’s death. My heart is with you, and it always will be.

    Clenching his teeth, Ryo swallowed the knot in his throat and took a deep breath. Snap out of it, Ryo, the stronger side of his heart told him. You can’t be cracking up now. They all need you. They’re counting on you to lead them. You’ve gotta be strong . . . even though he’s gone.

    “My God,” Cye uttered, stepping forward to stand beside Ryo. “This was what he was talking about. The bridge . . .”

    “Ya mean,” Rowen murmured, “he’s gone? Just like that?”

    “No wonder he was so secretive,” Sage whispered. “He knew he would have to sacrifice himself to get us to Talpa.”

    “The Ancient sacrificed himself for a bridge?” Kento asked, his mouth ajar with shock.

    “For us,” Ryo corrected hoarsely, turning to face his comrades. “Let’s win this war for him.”

    The others heartily agreed, their grief turning to anger as they called their subarmors back to them. As Ryo prepared to call his own, he felt something tug at his neck. Reaching up, he pulled back a long cord of woven fabric that at first he didn’t recognize . . . until he recalled seeing the same cords tied beneath Kaosu’s chin. The cords of his hat.

    Ryo clenched his fist around the strings and closed his eyes.

    Honor me, Ryo, as the father I wish I was, and I will honor you as the son you always were.

    With a flourish of red, the subarmor of Wildfire gleamed on Ryo’s body. The cords, still held within his fist, described a few loops around Ryo’s wrist before being tightly secured.

    I won’t forget, he vowed silently, gazing down at all that remained of the only father he’d ever known. I will never forget.


A/N: Lyrics from “Always Will Be” by Hammerfall.