The beautiful mansion that was now in front of Ian with its maze like gardens and fleet of specialty automobiles was not able to hold his attention long for his sights fell on a single figure waiting for him at the main house’s entrance. He doesn’t believe his eyes. “Tessa,” he calls as he steadily walks closer. She smiles at him and offers a wave while calling back, “Is that Ian the champion I see? They told me you were coming but I laughed at the thought of seeing you here. I told them you were too busy saving the world to hang out with us at the spa and get pampered.” Ian shrugs before saying, “You know I keep hearing about this spa they just added and a golf course too. Seems to me like the Keepers of the blade are expanding to the resort business now that we bought them some peace of mind.” Now that they are close to one another they share a long overdue embrace. “How long has it been since this nightmare started?” Asks Tessa. “Like, a damn long while. That’s for sure. Are you okay? How is Deacon holding up?” The mention of the name wipes any joy from Tessa’s face. “He’s a lot worse,” she begins, “Like all the progress made has been lost and then some. I thought bringing him here would be a positive change but it seems like me and Alex just sit and wait for them all to get better.” Ian responds with: “Maybe you’ve been spending too much time at this new spa thing to notice better or worse.” She doesn’t buy in to his attempt at cheer. The topic was on Deacon and there her thoughts would remain. “Alex is practicing out back; they built the most impressive obstacle course. Before we go out there though, Tatia wants to see you.” And with that there were no need for further words instead Tessa led Ian through the gargantuan hallways to a separate wing where the young sister of the Blade Master expects them. There was no need to wait for Ian to respond or try and talk him into it, no one turned down Tatia when she wanted to see them, no one had the heart to.
For the most part no security was needed within the mansion, Alex could handle things if they ever got that far, but outside a pink doorway, house attendants attended to the house, and more importantly they tended to the little girl of eight years who sat just behind the rather glamorous entryway. Ian half expected to see unicorns and ponies inside but alas he was met with the face of a very ill child accompanied by machines and her own medical staff. “Ian!” She exclaims with all the fervor of youth as you would expect from a healthy child. The doctors are not pleased. One doesn’t hesitate to voice his disapproval, “I’m sorry, Miss Tessa and friend, but I can’t let you stay here if you excite her this much.” Ian ignores him. “Hey there you spoiled little brat, how have you been?” The remark from Ian is met with a series of confounding stares and dead silence, the hushed room is quiet enough that you can even hear a shocked whimper from outside. Tatia laughs, signaling the rest of the onlookers to breathe a sigh of relief. For a moment even Tessa is smiling again, only for a moment though. Now Tatia is beaming with joy; none of the medical personnel bother to protest, not that it would do them any good. Tatia’s positive streak is halted by a very serious tone she adopts suddenly, saying: “I wanted to see you. When I heard you were coming I knew you would know. How is Rebecca in my dreams? I never have dreams about dead people.” Ian, not wanting to drag her mood lower attempted to be cheerful and honest at the same time. This is not something easily done. “She is alive, but we can’t see her right now.”
“Is she in trouble?” Ian quickly desired to abandon the patronizing version of the story and just be honest with the girl so he answers, “Yes.” Tatia nods, she is exceptionally bright for her age. “Can we help her?” Ian shakes his head, “No.” Tatia smiles despite this. “Don’t be like that! I can see her remember. Anyone I can dream about we can help. There’s still a chance.” Ian is not soothed despite her appraisal, but he smiles all the same for her sake. Through the course of the conversation her hands tremble without warning and her skin turns a visible shade paler. “I know you don’t think so Ian, but we’ll help her…” It was a nice sentiment from the young girl, but with all their resources they couldn’t even help Tatia. Her eyes roll far back into her head, and she screams, a terrible scream if ever there was one. Ian and Tessa are forced out by the doctors hurrying to calm her; they look to their instruments in vain. Tatia is cursed. There is no medicine that will do here.
Back in the hallway the attendants show a brave face, but the horror in their eyes is real. They long to help the girl, pray that something will work to get her out of the grips of this affliction. Ian takes note of them. Every village he burns, every monster he kills, all he sees is the afflicted. Those that suffer and those that are made to watch suffering. He hopes beyond hope that any day now he would find the origin of the curse that seared Tatia’s every last nerve and made her live through being burned alive each day. “I didn’t know,” begins Ian, “That her dreams were still reliable after the curse.” Tessa nods. “It’s strange to see a curse this precise. I thought that might lead us to the source for both her and Deacon… There’s nothing in it Ian. I can just sit here with Alex and the staff. All of us are powerless. Even you and Marko can’t do anything for her and the power you two have is unmatched.” Ian shakes his head moving it from the extreme right and left saying, “It doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Not that I would read it if it did, well Marko might, but I definitely wouldn’t waste the time. He and I are still figuring out how this all works and until we do, who knows, maybe the cure for Tatia and Deacon is within our reach.” Tessa had long since given up on false hope so for now she couldn’t accept Ian’s enthusiasm wholly. “Thank you,” she says. “It means a lot to them that you try.”
A quickened pace sends a resounding air throughout the halls. Ian could feel a strong presence rushing to his location well in advance. Then they see Alex all but gliding as she enters Tatia’s room. The staff quickly makes way, some to get clear of the Blade Master others to open the doors leading to Tatia. Neither Ian nor Tessa intrude on them. In fact Tessa sees this as her chance to go back, she had left Deacon alone for long enough. “Ian, give my best to everyone, yeah?” She leaves, not waiting for Ian to say anything.
When Alex finally emerges from the room, Ian thinks back on Tessa’s comment about the obstacle course and wonders if she understood what it was they were building. Alex wore bruises on arm, leg and neck alike. How it is that a person could come by such torment willingly would have been lost to anyone else but Ian knew the value of strength and that it is often paid for in blood (by the gallons, if necessary). Anger fills the eyes of the Blade Master. Ian speaks, “Not easy being the best swordsman alive is it?”
“The house often fools people. They don’t know how we come by these fortunes.” Now Ian is curious. “How is that exactly?” Alex replies: “Blood and sweat, though not always ours. If we do our job right someone else fits the bill for the bleeding.” Ian points to the contusions, “So you’re not doing your job right.” Alex, although still very angry, pushes to the side the bulk of her frustration, especially since she is mad at no one person in particular. “I still don’t know why you’re here Ian.” Ian nods his head towards the pink hall to indicate that it wasn’t a matter for discussion within ear shot of Tatia. Alex understands the idea and to show concurrence, Alex leads them away from the room to a complete separate wing.
Unlike those pervious, where there were minimum interactions with the security teams, this corridor was teaming with men in every direction. “We are in the battle wing,” explains Alex. “This is where we meet to discuss more private matters with important people; before you say anything, no you’re not that kind of important person. You’re only here because we have a few magic shielding articles in place. We can talk about your line of work more freely.” Ian has no problem with this. He gives a nod here, a wave there, all to the onlookers who were undoubtedly wondering who was so special that they would be led around headquarters by the head of their order without them knowing he was coming beforehand. “You know Alex, we have a place like this too,” Ian says omitting the fact that their command center was a single room in a significantly smaller home rather than an entire wing of a multi-million dollar mansion. As they continue the long journey through the wing Ian takes note that they pass a handful of offices on either end of the hall. There are message boards mounted on nearly every wall. Some computers could be seen in the open on what looked like receptionist desks outside the larger offices, and then they came to a halt. Where they stand now is by a single office, not particularly noteworthy from the outside but a significant distance away from the others. Alex places a hand on the door, and the other on a wall. The palm reader is quite invisible, had Alex not done the gesture just now, Ian would have no idea that it was required for entry, nor would he think anything of the door from just looking. When the handle gives way and the room is open they stand not in a typical office, but an octagon shaped room. Weapons littered the walls on all sides. They varied in size, length, era, and just name what else. The only common denominator was the edge of a blade had something to do on each of them, and Alex knew how to wield every last item as if born for that task alone. “Do you know every person on these grounds to include my sister has some degree of knowledge on at least one set of weapons in here?” begins Alex. “I guess that part is common knowledge, well for people in our circles at least. Yeah, we each come from a family very well versed in one style or another so it’s in our blood, waiting for us to unlock it. We start very young, and we practice for a long time. Some of us even get really good. There is this one thing they don’t tell us though; we’ll never be good enough. On our own we can’t get at all of the hidden truths in our blood line, only the Blade Master can know all of the secrets we possess. It happens in this room. They bring in the newest hopefuls, we’re all still young when this happens, and on the other side sits the current Blade Master. He watches you fight with the others, seeing if you are ready, and after you’ve killed your friends, you earn the right to kill him, if you can. When we spill the blood of every family in this room it awakens something within the Master. It is the only time his lineage can be passed to a successor. Since there were pharaohs in Egypt, that’s how it’s been done. The ritual fortifies the walls, no way to hear what happens inside without being in here.” Ian finds it hard to sympathize at first. “That’s intense. At what point do they hold a gun to your head and make you kill everyone?” Alex, for a moment, loses grip on the anger that had been swelling since Tatia’s last outburst. “If I rejected the rite someone else would be slain in my place. We’re not here to judge me. I brought you here because the word I got said you needed me at the peril of the world. Don’t think I invited you to the room, where I murdered all those kids, lightly.” Ian shrugs. “Alright, but just so we’re clear you know you owe us one right?” Alex snarled, “Do you know how long the Blade has waited? We spent centuries in seclusion so that the day the contest was open we could win it for all mankind!” Ian interrupts here, “Yeah and a lot of good that did for you. I’m sorry about Tatia, I really am. But you put your sister before the world. When we found out about you was about the same time we had just found out about the eternals and their coming judgment. And what did you say to us Alex?” There is no response. “It’s ok I’ll remind you. You told us your sister had been hexed and that the Blade Master would not be fighting for the humans. You sat out the most important fight in our history on the hope that it would save Tatia, and we barely got through without you. I don’t care if you get angry or hurt that you can’t help her right now, but you owe us, so you’re going to indulge me, judgment and all.” After digesting his words, Alex offers an ireful look to Ian since for all that anger, the Blade Master knows, he is right.
“I’ll give you the shorter version of things Alex. There is another judgment coming it will be here in days, and the only shows in town will be the humans and the demons. Now I don’t know how close you are to getting over yourself for not lifting a finger to help us, but we could really use your help.” Scowling, Alex replies with: “We gave you every bit of information we had.” Ian shakes his head, “That was nothing we didn’t already know or weren’t about to come by on our own. It may have even cost us to listen to you; we never did have a lot of time to prepare. Hell we don’t have time now. You have got some power tucked away, I respect that, and I think you ought to use it this time.” Alex shakes her head. “I can’t compete for you, or with you.”
“Not asking you to. I don’t care what you do when this thing starts, but before that, I need you to get your boys out and about and see how many demons you can get rid of.”
“No! There is nothing we can do to them now that’s going to change the outcome of events. All that matters is what you do in the ring with those devils. I won’t risk Tatia on a fool’s errand.”
“Then enjoy what the demons do when they find a seer left on Earth. She’s pretty rare, Tatia is. I say you get rid of any demon that could make use of her before this thing is said and done.”
“Every demon can make use of her you jack—,” Ian interrupts again, “My point exactly. You don’t lose more one way or the other. You only stand a chance at being useful to us.”
“I can’t risk Tatia without risking Deacon too. Have you talked to Tessa?”
“You can go ahead. I knew her though; have since we were both children, just like with Deacon. They’re on the same page. You need to hurry up and get there. We have a whole world depending on you not being selfish this one time.” Alex moves over to a three piece set of Japanese swords. “Ian, there was something I found out, very recently, that I think you should know. The title that I hold, the ritual of the Blade Master never required a sacrifice past the first one carried out all those years ago. They just wanted us to spill blood so when the time came we wouldn’t hesitate. If we fail to take the life of the presiding Master, the line will fail. There would be no more Blade Master, or the Keepers.”
“So what? You can always do the whole ritual again, restart the lineage. Maybe even set up a new set of rules where only those willing do the whole murdering their friends part.”
“The thing about these rituals is that they come at a cost, like all magics, and sometimes the price is too steep to pay once, let alone twice. You won’t find too many people willing to repeat the first steps of this process.” Ian half smiles, “Yeah, I appreciate the lessons but would you just hurry up and give me a firm answer?”
“The only thing I have to offer you is this,” Alex says while tossing a katana over to Ian. “The room is the key. As long as I’m in here anyone who kills me gets my power, no blood lines required, that’s just another fallacy used to keep us a secret. I can’t help you directly or indirectly because they’ll kill Tatia. So if you need the Blade Master in this, become him.”
“I’m not going to do this Alex.” As Ian says this Alex removes a band from her pocket and ties her hair into a pony tail. She reaches for her own sword, an heirloom from the previous Master. It is a long sword that may have been inspired by Excalibur, or been its inspiration considering the age of the order. She unsheathed the instrument. “You can’t stop once we start Ian. Only one of us gets to walk away.” Ian removes blade from scabbard. It is a fine specimen of craftsmanship. “When did we begin?” Alex smiles, “The moment you draw your blade against me, the tournament begins. If you beat me in honest combat, you will have my strength and my resources. There is always one Master and many Keepers of the Blade. Now, Ian, steel yourself!”
She streaks across the cage with inhuman speed, sword at the ready. Ian has just enough time to react to the first blow meeting her blade for blade in a full contact swing. Sparks fly and the two remain deadlocked with each sword pressing against the other. For now Ian had spared his neck, yet despite his riposte, he felt the blood trickle slowly down his throat. Her edge never touched him, it doesn’t have to.