I stared down in shock at the pile of ashes that, until a moment ago, had been Black Hood. My assailant’s shattered katana lay in two pieces to the side, both halves still glowing molten red where my blade had cleaved it.
I gingerly prodded the discarded jumpsuit with my foot, scattering ashes as they were caught up and borne away by the wind. As incredible as it looked, it seemed that Black Hood had simply disintegrated upon death.
Of course, that didn’t normally happen to your average human. So what exactly had he – or it – been?
Just then, I became acutely aware of a painful, burning sensation on the palm of my right hand. I glanced down at it and winced. The entire outer layer of skin had been singed, leaving behind a raw and blistered patch. The gladius itself was still warm, and I recalled how the blade had burned red-hot during the battle, just before the moment of contact. At the same time, Black Hood’s words came back to me: you do not yet know the true value of that which you hold.
It seemed that things were getting more and more complicated by the day, and if I was going to plan my next move, I would need some answers, fast. Fortunately, I knew just the right person to go to. I picked up the severed katana and headed off.
I hobbled into Dylan’s Duplicates, clutching my gladius and the broken katana in my uninjured hand. As usual, the man himself was hard at work on some otaku’s replica sword, and the ring of steel on steel filled the little shop. I made a beeline for the back room, and found Dylan pounding on a strip of metal with his mallet, measured, powerful blows gradually shaping the steel. Sweat ran down his face in rivulets, and his cheeks were flushed beet red with the effort of wielding the mallet.
As I watched, he heated the blade in the furnace until it glowed red-hot. Then, he quenched it in a tub of water, before setting it down on a nearby workbench. Spying me at the doorway, he nodded in greeting and gestured for me to enter the forge.
Eyeing my hand, he arched an eyebrow but said nothing of it. He got out a bottle of disinfectant and some bandages, and then handed them to me.
“I heard about what happened, boy,” he said, in a kinder-than-usual tone. “You dealing with it okay?”
I nodded wearily, and was relieved to see that he didn’t probe any further. I appreciated the unspoken offer of help that his tone conveyed, though. While Dylan could appear gruff and irritable at times, his heart was squarely in the right place, which was more than could be said for most people these days.
“I can deal,” I replied quietly, as I tended to the burns on my hand. “But I’ve got a few important questions that need answering, and I think that you might be able to help me out there.”
Dylan produced a couple of folding chairs from behind the workbench and handed me one, then nodded for me to continue.
So I sat and told him all about what had happened over the past few days – how the sword had come into my possession, the mysterious appearance and subsequent involvement of Black Hood, what he’d said about the gladius and the Lord of Darkness, and finally, the mind-boggling way in which my skirmish with Black Hood had ended.
Throughout my account of events, Dylan sat and listened quietly. Then, he gestured for me to hand him the gladius, and stated, “Seems to me that this sword lies at the center of everything that’s happened. Perhaps it is not the ordinary ornament that I’d thought it to be.”
“You actually believe me?” I asked, incredulously. I had half-expected Dylan to brush me off as an attention-seeking fraud, or maybe even a mentally unbalanced youth; but for him to actually take me seriously was more than I could have hoped for.
“Well, your story certainly seems to fit, at any rate,” he muttered.
“That katana there – it’s top-grade steel, and finely crafted too – clearly the work of a master smith,” he began. “No two-bit gladius would have been able to slice it in two so cleanly. And those burns on your hand were obviously inflicted by the pommel of your own sword. At risk of sounding like a gullible old man, I’d say, yes, I actually do believe your story,” finished Dylan, scowling at me.
“So, this gladius – what’s so special about it?” I asked. “No matter how I look at it, it seems like just an ordinary blade to me.”
“You ever heard of the Sword of Balance, son?” asked Dylan. I shook my head blankly.
Dylan sighed irritably. “All right, boy. Listen up. Every blacksmith worth his salt has heard the tale of Aequivalere in one form or another. As the story goes, it is the name of a legendary blade that was forged for the Roman god of war, Mars, himself. But Mars didn’t want a sword that embodied balance – he wanted something that would rival the power of Ares, his counterpart on the Greek Pantheon. And so it was cast off into the world of men, where it has changed hands countless times since, more often than not through violent means.
“Of course, there is good reason for men to have coveted this blade. It is rumored that it acts as a focus for mystical and psychic energies, and can bring out the latent potential in the select few that do possess such talent. Some say that a sufficiently powerful practitioner can even control the elements. Mankind has ever been tempted by power and prestige – given the chance, who wouldn’t want to be a giant among men, have the ability to make others do his bidding?
“Therefore,” concluded Dylan, “I suspect that you have somehow stumbled upon this sword, and are now being pursued by someone who would wrest it from you. From the look of things, this person wants it very badly indeed – enough to hire a professional hit man for the job.”
I stared at him in stunned silence. Then I cleared my throat and stammered through dry lips, “B-but, if that’s the case, couldn’t I simply give up the sword to this person? Then, I could just walk away from this, right?”
“It’s not that simple,” growled Dylan. “Haven’t you wondered why the transition from one owner to the next is almost always violent? This sword chooses its owner, boy. You either inherit the sword from someone of the same bloodline, or prove yourself worthy of it by slaying its current owner. That’s why Black Hood was sent to capture you – no doubt, this Lord of Darkness person intended to kill you and claim the sword for himself.”
“In short, your fate is inextricably tied to that of the sword – until your death,” stated Dylan, matter-of-factly.
My fingers found the business card that Detective Harris had given me earlier, nestled in the pocket of my trousers. “I’ll call the police,” I said, desperately.
“And tell them what, exactly?” demanded Dylan, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “That you saw a black-clothed man and suspect that he burned down your house because he couldn’t find a battered old sword? Or that someone tried to kidnap you because he wanted the mystical powers that said sword would grant him? Incidentally, that black-clothed man is now a pile of ashes, thanks to your little skirmish earlier today, so I don’t think there’s anyone for the police to arrest, is there?”
I slumped back in my seat, defeated, and considered the implications of what Dylan had told me. It seemed that I didn’t have much of a choice, really. I could either wait for the Lord of Darkness to come for me, or I could make a fight of it and stand a chance of survival, however small it was. I came to a decision and stood up abruptly.
“All right, I’ve made up my mind,” I said. “There’s no way I’m going to lounge around and wait for death to claim me. I’ll be damned if I go down without a fight. Besides, that creep murdered my parents, and I’ve got a score to settle with him. I’m going to muster what powers I can and take the fight to him.”
“Easier said than done,” Dylan shot back. “What do you know of swordplay, boy? You were very nearly bested by that man in the black hood, and it seems to me that you only won by a stroke of luck. The Lord of Darkness is certainly going to send more agents after you, and if you want to survive long enough to master your powers, you’re going to need my help, kid.”
I arched an eyebrow at him. “You, help me? Just how do you intend to do that?”
“I happen to be a 6th-dan Kendo practitioner. And you’re forgetting that I served in the military with your dad. I reckon I can teach you a thing or two about combat techniques,” drawled Dylan.
“Besides,” he added, more somberly, “Your dad would have wanted me to keep an eye on you. Wouldn’t want his only son to get himself killed would we?”
“Gee, thanks,” I said, scratching my head. “So, when do we start training?”
“First, go get a good night’s rest. You look beat. We’ll get the ball rolling tomorrow,” replied Dylan. “You’d best be prepared; it ain’t easy training with me, kid.”
At that time, I had no idea of just what I was in for.