Ch 15 Inferno

The scent and taste of each other, the thrill of touching while being touched, the sweet cries of shared pleasure, the mingling of sweat and the softness of kisses seemed like a dream that would drive away the memory of the nightmare that came before and threatened to follow after. Yet the nightmare had to be confronted in the end.

Pressing her brow close to the side of the Wind Priestess's head, while continuing to stroke her sensuously, Taki whispered, "Talim, listen!"

Her voice already breathy with passion, Talim murmured, "Why are you whispering? The only - person who can overhear us is in your head!"

"I don't think the demon can hear us directly when it's not in control. But it still has some awareness through the swords, even though that understanding is very limited. I believe it feels rather than thinks most of the time. Without the knowledge of its host, it's little more than a savage beast, driven by its base appetites and passions."

Talim squirmed, "Its not nice to be reminded of that. Can we maybe talk about this afterwards?"

"No! We need to divert its attention. There are some important things I have to tell you, things I've learned about Soul Edge."

With a sigh, Talim said, "Ok, though its hard not to get distracted myself. Mmm, can you do that again?"

Tickling Talim's ear with her tongue, Taki said softly, "I believe not only is it able to borrow the abilities of its host, it can use those of anyone its killed or defeated, adopting their form and weapons. If so, it will certainly do so when it fights you."

"Ohh, that feels so good! Sorry, I'm listening. That doesn't sound so bad. You've only killed a few ordinary soldiers, haven't you?"

"Wrong! I'm pretty sure I – I mean it – killed a highly ranked fighter called Hwang Seung Kyung."

"Oh, Hwang. I already beat him. He wasn't so tough – in fact he was a kon ngoh."

"A what? Never mind, that's excellent if Soul Edge doesn't realise. But I was thinking that maybe even a fragment of it could retain memories. And that would mean it could imitate Geki, or even worse, Sophitia."

"Mmmm, lovely!" Talim found it hard to be alarmed when Taki was making her feel so wonderful. "But you defeated them, didn't you, so …"

"It's true that Geki is of little account. Sophitia is a different matter. I used her trust in me to overcome her because I knew that she was one of the few fighters in the world who could best me. Certainly she's the bravest I've ever met."

"Then you'd better tell me all about her. But first I need you to … oh, god, oh god yes!"

The afterglow of passion remained, like the setting of the sun which had never shone upon that lonely beach. Hands clasped, they breathed softly, at ease, with thoughts that dwelt contentedly on the recent ecstatic coupling of their bodies.

"I like it when we sit and hold one another."

"So do I. Lean against my shoulder, and I'll play for you." Talim snuggled closer to the ninja. Taki took out her pipes and blew softy into them. The music she sent floating into the barren wasteland was no powerful enchantment but a simple tune such as would come into one's head during the long, peaceful days of summer in the forest. Talim closed her eyes, feeling the gentleness of a warm body, the warmth of a secure love.

The notes of the piping lingered, like tears …

Colours of black and grey. Ebony the moonless night sky, the deep shadows cast by torches. Ashen the castle walls, the sombre cloaks of guards who mutter passwords. The hard stone presses, the silences are long. Waiting, always waiting and watching. For an instant when movement can be made, a rush of tabi socked feet that make no sound. Beneath the dark robes, the ninjato hilt is cold, cold as the heart that kills. Sadness of the executioner, somewhere, sometime, a better life beckons.

Colours of blue and white. Fleecy clouds drift in the vault of heaven. Sitting with Mina and Sophitia on mountain thrones carved of sapphire, dressed in snow-white linen. Watching the toiling of the world below, careless and at ease. Soul Calibur lies idly by. Laughing between themselves because they made Yunsung bring the moon home on his back.

Colours of green and brown. The water drips from the forest trees, a hand trails against the rough bark, the fallen leaves are stirred by the passage of small feet. Running and sometimes falling in the soft mud, always to get up again; the bird song is loud, each bush and fern different, welcoming, every day born anew. The wooden door swings, Mother is there, and her eyes are bright.

Talim woke with a start. The different elements of her dream muddled her thoughts. The reassuring firmness of Taki's shoulder still pressed against her; their gentle breathing and the ebb and flow of the tide were the only sounds in the vast land.

From whence came the visions? The past? Or the future?

"How long have I slept? I didn't mean to doze off when we're running out of time."

"Long enough. You needed to rest so you did. It's as well when the greatest task lies ahead. Anyway, I like watching you sleep."

"How can we be sure how much time we have left? How can Soul Edge, for that matter?"

"Ninja are aware of the passing of each heart beat; the demon, my doppelganger self, will have the same faculty. There's less than an hour to go."

"So little? The time has passed so quickly!"

"It often does, especially as you get older. Perhaps we treasure moments like these more because they fly so fast."

"Perhaps. But I can hardly bear the thought of losing you again."

"I know. I wish the exorcism had succeeded. While you slept, I've been turning the problem over and over in my mind, and all the solutions bring us back to the same thing. You have to destroy the final form of the demon.

Talim said, "Yes, but what will happen to you then?"

Looking straight at her, Taki said, "My soul will be freed from hell."

The girl sighed with relief. "Well that's all right then. I just have to beat it, and everything will be fine again."

Taki said, "Talim, I don't want to discourage you, but it's going to be one of the hardest fights ever."

"I know. I'll remember that your soul is the prize, and I will battle all the more fiercely. Since we've been together, this has become far more to me than completing the quest. I will do everything I can to save you, and if I die in the attempt, then that will be better than living without you."

A catch in her voice, Taki said, "I have not always treated you well. I wish I could be worthy of such devotion."

"It wouldn't make any difference to the way I feel. If for you I had to risk the fate of the world, I would do it time and time over without number."

Taki embraced her. "Your soul shines like a precious jewel, yet has the lightness of a feather. When my heart is dragged down by the cares of the world, you raise me up. An hour with you is worth more to me than an ocean of time spent alone."

"Talim, its almost time."

"Hold me once more." Talim was drawn, sobbing, to the ninja's bosom. Taki held her tight, then gently raised her chin.

"Come, let me see you smile again, as though the victory were won."

And Talim, looking into her eyes, felt in a moment of time an upwelling of joy that no darkness could cloud. Together they smiled, as though the universe were their own.

Finally releasing Talim, Taki stepped backwards. She drew a deep breath.

"Never forget me!" Then clenching, her fists, she shouted, "Now, come, demon, with my body I will drag you to hell!"

Taki shuddered, and fell to her knees, clawing at her face as if to tear her own eyes out, a strangled moaning issuing from her lips. She began to struggle and writhe as though in agony. Talim watched her convulsions with horror, but remembering her duty, held Syi Salika and Loka Luha in readiness.

Taki's body gave a final twitch, then seemed to relax. She leapt lithely to her feet and drawing her weapons, faced Talim with a sardonic smile on her face.

"The sweet embracings are over and done with? I was beginning to think they would never end!" She gave a coarse laugh. "But do not mourn the loss of your delectable companion. Your souls will soon be reunited – in torment. Now, are you ready to keep your vow?"

Talim had no words. She kept her eyes on Rekki-maru and Mekki-maru and away from the horrid distortion evil had wrought on Taki's visage. Stepping aside, she pointed with Loka Luha towards the path leading upwards. She could feel the rage of Soul Calibur, but knew like her, it was helpless, bound by her oath.

With a shout of glee, Taki bounded forward towards the rocky heights. She began to scale the cliff face with remarkable speed and agility, reckless of the bleeding of her fingers and bare toes, as they unerringly sought for footholds in the rough stone. Seeing that she would soon reach the top, Talim made haste to ascend by the path the ninja had declined to take.

Approaching the summit, the Wind Priestess saw Taki standing on the stone plinth she had lately occupied. Her arms and blades were stretched towards the heavens and she seemed in the throes of ecstasy, chanting words in an unknown tongue. Rain fell and steamed off her body. Again jagged thunderbolts arced down to strike the upheld weapons. But the lightning was a fierce red, and red flames ran down the blades so struck.

As before the swords began to change, becoming even darker and fleshier. On the blade of Mekki-maru, a strange protuberance emerged, like a vile pustule. The priestess was at first unable to apprehend its nature; then she perceived it resembled an eyelid.

It flickered open.

The eye unveiled was as yellow and malicious as that of a diseased soul, bulging from its socket to cast upon its enemy a look of utter madness and hatred. So Talim finally gazed upon the living embodiment of Soul Edge.

Taki gave a crow of triumph. "Free! I am free at last!"

She leapt from the pedestal, and raced towards the precipice on the far side of the mountain. With a shrill cry, she threw herself off and, as she did so, her body ignited, the flames from the swords roaring up to consume it in an inferno of fire. Horror struck, Talim rushed to the edge and looked over. In silence the burning body fell down and down, achieving final immolation as it submerged beneath a heaving pool of lava far below.

As long moments passed, Talim remained frozen in shock, unable to believe what had happened. Her reason told her that such a fall was impossible to survive. Her inner voice was certain that her enemy still lived. Gathering her wits, she considered how she might descend to the smoking plain. She noticed that a second path led downwards, but after some thought, she took out the rope Taki had left her, made it fast to a projecting rock, and quickly abseiled to the bottom.

Reaching the barren steppe without incident, she looked around her. She stood amidst a phantasmagoria of twisted boulders, distorted into fantastical shapes by flows of lava from the bubbling lakes of fire. The oven dry heat parched the back of her throat, and slicked her skin with perspiration.

Following the guidance of Soul Calibur, Talim stole forward, the amber glow of hell fire reflecting in her eyes, as she approached the nearest lava pool. The molten rock steamed and swirled as though in a titanic forge. The priestess waited, her breath coming in fast pants.

The inferno exhaled a great bubble of gas. From its midst, the lava swelled upwards into a hummock, then extended further into a cylindrical shape about two metres high. The mass of white hot liquid began to move towards Talim, and as it did so, it began to take on a definite form, its outlines dissolving and changing to evolve arms and legs, a human-like torso and head. As the glowing apparition stepped free of the pool, the lava seemed to ooze away to reveal a dark figure beneath. The smooth cranium was skull-like beneath a winged helm, the chest a skeletal cage of bones, the limbs stick thin. Flame suffused and surrounded its frame, gouts of fire spurting even from the darkness of the eye sockets. Incongruously the creature wore a pair of long boots on its spiderous legs, and it carried a sword and buckler.

The Wind Priestess gave a shudder of recognition. A flesh-like growth marred the surface of the leaf-shaped blade, but the device on the azure shield was unmistakable. With sadness, Talim brought to mind the corn-haired swordswomen she had healed, whose lovely form was now hideously parodied by the demonic entity. She recalled Taki's words concerning Sophitia and the approaching battle.

Her renown as a shield fighter is unmatched save by that of her sister, and she is able to use her buckler in attack as well as defence. Athleticism is also her forte, and she delights in jumps and somersaults. But take courage: Soul Edge may plunder the skills of her body; it cannot steal the steadfast determination of her mind. In that lies your greatest advantage.

The demon is a coward. In this incarnation, it is accustomed to attacking with reckless abandon, for no one has yet opposed it with weapons that can harm it. But, as an older child bullying a younger is reproved by its peer, so it hates and fears the bearer of Soul Calibur above all. You must attack boldly, thereby forcing the fiend into a defensive stance where the dread of defeat by its greatest foe surpasses its hatred. Thus will it be undone.

The creature of fire lifted high its sword, the eye of Soul Edge opening in the hideously deformed blade to cast its malign gaze upon the priestess. From it came an incoherent roaring sound, the baying of a wild beast without the power of speech.

Remember you are the demon hunter now.

And though she faced her enemy on alien ground where no wind blew, Talim was not afraid. In her heart was a song to match the rhythm of the wind dance, a battle hymn that the shrill voice of Soul Calibur took up, and Syi Salika and Loka Luha glittered like spars of ice as she raised her war cry and charged. With a howl of rage, the demon did likewise, and at the meeting of the swords sparks flew and the ground beneath them trembled. White fire clashed with red, the smaller figure circling the larger, a tiny, furious dust devil swirling around a raging inferno. Back and forth they fought, and the cerulean shield rang with the fury of Talim's attack. No longer needing the guidance of the wind, she moved with the same sweeping power and fluid grace, her mind joined with Soul Calibur to direct her leaps, slashes and thrusts with precision and speed. Whenever the burning form drew too close, cool waves of energy from the crystal blades repelled the heat.

I will be like the wind.

Armed with the abilities it had sucked vampire-like from Sophitia, Soul Edge matched her stroke for stroke with its xithos sword, turning aside her blows with its rounded shield. Talim noticed that, contrary to Taki's description of the Athenian's fighting style, her doppelganger had not yet attempted to jump or tumble.

Is it unable or does it fear to expose itself to a counter?

Trying to take advantage of this apparent lack of mobility, Talim leapt high above the demon to attack it from the rear. At once the salamander-like being responded with its own twisting jump, flames roaring from the upwards thrust of its sword, and Talim was forced to spin in mid-air to avoid a scorching fire which not even Soul Calibur was proof against.

Landing on her feet after the corkscrew flip, Talim was caught leaning slightly forward with her weapons lowered, and could do nothing to protect herself as the demon, returning to the ground an instant before, swept its buckler sideways to smash her to the ground. Talim immediately began to roll aside, but the creature had already sprung forward to chop downwards with its blade, the stroke opening up a long gash in Talim's left arm.

The Wind Priestess screamed. The searing agony of the wound was pain beyond anything she had experienced. At the same time, she could feel the darkness of Soul Edge sucking at her strength, and though the crystal power of Soul Calibur resisted, it could not prevent her arm falling slack and weak. Only with the greatest effort could she hold onto Loka Luha.

Gasping and gritting her teeth, she recovered her feet and backed desperately away. She could feel the heat of a lava pool behind her, and realised she was trapped against it.

No, it can't end like this! I will endure any pain to save Taki!

Grimly Talim braced herself against the expected follow up attack. But it did not come. Instead the demon withdrew slightly, drawing its conflagration into itself as if conserving energy. The priestess could feel an emanation of gloating malice in the glare of its infernal eye.

It thinks it's got me where it wants, that I'm finished. It's savouring and prolonging the enjoyment of its victory. Sophitia would never be so cruel or so arrogant.

The flames in the dark skull flared remorselessly. Raising its arms like wings of fire, the creature began to rush roaring towards its weakened victim. As it did so, it leapt into the air and began to spin forwards in a final somersaulting attack.

At last it's exposed its shielded side!

Talim called on all her remaining strength, and jumped. Almost straight in front of her she leapt, passing the demon in the air as it spun towards her, and with her good right arm drove Syi Salika into the heart of the blazing pinwheel. She landed rolling but too exhausted to keep her feet.

She looked back to see what had happened to the demon. The wheel of fire had continued spinning through the air until it hung above the infernal pit. Then it seemed to dissipate, and Sophitia's sword and shield dropped and sunk into the molten lake. For a moment their imprint remained on the surface: an image of a curving blade and a shape like a ram's horns; then both vanished.

Talim decided it would be better not to move immediately. Blood was still flowing from the wound in her arm: the diabolic gash was resistant to Soul Calibur's efforts to heal it. Talim turned to more traditional methods, and removing her wimple, used it to put pressure on the cut, successfully stanching it. Meanwhile life was returning to her arm, supplied by the flood of energy drained from Soul Edge as she had struck it. As soon as she felt herself able, she got to her feet, and started to stagger towards the lake into which her enemy had seemingly dissolved. An instinct was warning her the battle was far from over.

A huge eructation of gas suddenly broke the smooth surface of the pool. In the centre, another shape was rising as though from a mould. Wearily, Talim remembered Taki's speculations about the demon's powers. It may be able to use the life force of warriors it has slain to renew itself, consuming their souls in exchange for a fresh existence. How many times it can do this, I cannot say. Not many, I hope.

I hope so as well, thought Talim. I'm not as strong or fresh as before. Maybe the demon will be weaker too.

This last hope already seemed forlorn, as the being confronting Talim looked new grown from the vat of fire, and was to all appearances identical to the first. With one exception: it carried a long curved broadsword and no shield. Recognising Blue Storm, Talim realised that, as Taki had predicted, the demon had resurrected the skills of Hwang Seung Kyung along with the blade she herself had shattered.

If it doesn't realise I've defeated him … and hopes to take me by surprise …

Talim decided to gamble with her guess – and was immediately rewarded, for Hwang's revenant began with the opening thrust favoured by both Hong and himself, using the full length of the huge weapon. Effortlessly avoiding the outstretched blade, Talim rapidly closed the distance between them, her anticipation giving the demon no opportunity to retreat. Once inside the sweep of the heavy sword, Talim's elbow blades were almost impossible to defend against. The demon made a desperate grab with its claw-like hands before Sri Salika and Loka Luha tore into its substance with lightning speed. Hit after hit struck home, and the blue crystal heart of Soul Calibur gleamed with delight as it drunk deep of its despised enemy's vitality. As quickly as it had arisen, the second incarnation of Soul Edge was returned to the lake of fire, and its stolen life energy used to restore Talim's strength and vigour.

The Wind Priestess watched the bubbling surface warily, wondering in what guise the demon might reappear. She hadn't long to wait. For the third time, the diabolic creation rose from the depths of the inferno. Talim's heart missed a beat, as she saw it was once again armed with Rekki-maru and Mekki-maru. She thought of the vast experience and cunning of the fighter whose mantle Soul Edge had assumed. Even past the vigour of her youth, Taki retained great speed of thought and action, and perhaps the demon, reaching into her soul, could restore those characteristics to their peak. Her twin blades were a match for Talim's, and her feet were also deadly weapons.

Why didn't she tell me how to defeat herself? We never practiced together, but I suppose if we had, Soul Edge would have learned how to fight me. Maybe there's something I already know that will help …

Talim had no further time to reflect, for the demon, following Taki's natural inclination, was already swiftly attacking. Springing upwards, it launched into a dive, feet first, towards the priestess. Talim evaded the first attack easily enough, but the blindingly fast spinning kick which followed it struck beneath her guard, and knocked her sideways, jolting her whole body with its impact. The slash of Mekki-maru just passed over her head.

I won't run away. I must fight!

Talim turned her movement rearwards into a roll, then kicked upwards and backwards at the advancing creature. There was a horrible sizzling as her feet impacted, but the double kick seemed to stun and surprise it. Immediately Talim regained her feet and launched that attack known to her as Twin Espadas. The demon parried and withdrew.

It fears me.

Talim sensed that the overmastering desire of Soul Edge was to preserve its newfound life; and this contradicted the most favourable strategy of its host. It needed to take the offensive, but was reluctant to do so when it could be exposed to a counter. Can this be the only life remaining to it? I must try to lure it in, then punish it.

Deliberately Talim lowered her guard. Seizing the apparent advantage, the demon rushed forwards, executing the double thrust Taki had used to save the Wind Priestess at their first meeting. Talim was ready, and sidestepping, slashed back at her attacker. Then, as it recoiled, she stretched out Syi Salika and Loka Luha like the pincers of a scorpion to cross cut the creature between them.

The fire beast emitted a cry somewhere between a bellow and a howl. As before, it sucked fire back into itself and retreated. This time Talim was sure that it was impelled to do so by fear rather than swaggering anticipation of victory. Blade clashed on blade, as the demon deployed its weapons mainly to parry, offering little by way of counters, while Talim pressed harder and harder in attack.

And as a picture in a puzzle suddenly becomes clear, Talim saw that her opponent's moves were forming a pattern. She recalled the sharp morning air, watching Taki practice her seemingly impenetrable defence, and her own rehearsal of the way to expose its flaws. In desperation, Soul Edge had turned to that imperfect barricade of steel to preserve its one treasured life.

Could Taki have known? Yet, how could she, except with the power of prophecy?

The only battle Talim had fought with Taki had been in her mind. Now she created it again in reality, the steps of the Wind Dance clear in her mind, and Soul Calibur sang to her a song of triumph. Her blades wove a shining pattern of light around the demon, as it was driven back and back, all means of escape gradually cut off, until it stood like a wild animal at bay beneath the dark cliffs.

Take care! The moment of victory is at hand, but the demon will try one last, desperate attack. Overconfidence is the greatest enemy!

The words were in Talim's mind, but she could not tell from where they came or who spoke them. Seung Mina? Taki? Yoshimitsu? Or all three? She only knew that the next instant Soul Edge had broken from the pattern to spring high into the air, descending towards her with swords ready to impale, to crush and burn her with its body.

Talim leapt too. As the demon fell to earth, she soared over and above it, and Syi Salika and Loka Luha stabbed downwards and backwards like the tusks of a sabre tooth. The blades bearing the full force of Soul Calibur penetrated to the very heart of the framework of bones, where was preserved the essence of a soul in fiery torment.

The release of force sent the priestess tumbling. Looking backwards she saw for a moment the outline of the fire creature, its arms stretched heavenwards as if to invoke its own damnation. Then there was an eruption of flame, and all blew apart, pieces of the empty skeleton flying hither and thither, as though scattered by the wind that had at last began to blow. Rekki-maru and Mekki-maru clattered to the ground. Across the land the thunder rolled once, and was silent.

The demon was gone. Talim felt the free blowing of the winds of time, dispersing the evil soul to the four quarters of the universe. The Wind Priestess had prevailed, and the power was granted to her to decide the fate of the world. She sensed the presence of someone behind her, and turned, her heart full of hope.

Sorrow and joy were almost equally mixed. Disappointment was greater. It was Seung Mina standing there, and not Taki.

Trying to suppress her fears, Talim said, "Thank goodness, you're alive! But how have you come to be here?"

Seung Mina said tensely, "I remembered the way. Even so, the defeat of the demon has set the world at the point of balance. Many of the normal rules are suspended. I suppose I'm here because I was meant to be."

Talim nodded. She already knew the question she wanted to ask. "Why did you destroy Soul Calibur when you possessed it before?"

Seung Mina considered, then smiled, "I don't really know. I guess I got tired of it nagging me when I refused to do what it wanted."

"It wanted you to change the world?"

"Yes. And I thought that was too big a decision for one person. We've had to solve our own problems since history began. Maybe that's still the best way. Or perhaps I was wrong to trust people to work things out for themselves."

Talim said, "No, I don't think you were wrong. How did you destroy it?"

"It wasn't so difficult. The really hard thing is to will yourself to do it."

Talim asked, "Will you help me now?"

"In whatever way I can."

"I need you to hold Soul Edge, just for a moment. Do you think you can do that? It must be much weaker now."

Mina grimaced, then nodded. "I know what you have in mind. But be quick." She braced herself, then picked up first Rekki-maru, then Mekki-maru. The swords glowed with the last flames of a dying fire.

Talim heard the cold voice of Soul Calibur, crying, "No, you cannot! Think of the good you can achieve! I offer you the world, it is yours to purify! Only spare me!"

Talim said sadly, "No, I cannot purify the world alone. That is for all of us to do."

"You little fool, that will never happen!"

Seung Mina gasped, "Talim, hurry; Soul Edge, its trying to come back!"

The Last Priestess of the Winds held Syi Salika and Loka Luha aloft, the pure radiance pouring from them like molten steel. "The Time of the Swords is over! Let there be an end!" As she pronounced these words, she brought the blades downwards, crossing them, as Mina did likewise, the four of them meeting at a nexus point with a clash that shook the universe.

There was a rush of wind and a blinding light. And as the swords shattered in bright fragments, Talim knew that she was the Maiden, and Victory stood at her right hand. She had completed the task for which she had been sent to earth and was herself at last. Together with Mina she raised a great shout of triumph, knowing, here, and out of the very depths of hell, the fulfilment of all the wisdom, power and divine majesty she had dreamed of possessing.

Yet even at the moment of victory there was sorrow, for she felt the fading presence of the Mother Goddess, drawing away from her across a sea of stars.

"Come back!" she cried. "Must I yearn for you once more down the centuries?"

In a failing voice, the Goddess replied, "Death is my domain as well as Birth, the clatter of bones together with the cooing of babies. I must obey its laws. You still have much time in the mortal world, but mine is over."

"No, our moments together were too brief. Do not leave me again, I beg you!"

"Not even the gods can deny Fate. The Winged Goddess of Victory must comfort you. In some other world or time we will meet, and the dance will continue. Farewell!"

And then there was nothing but coldness and emptiness and darkness.

"Look, she's coming round."

Talim awoke. She was lying on a cold slab of stone. A deep blue sky was above her, and the blessed wind on her cheek. Two faces looked anxiously down. Seung Mina and …

"Hong! You're … alive? How can you be? Have I …?" He accepted her leap into his arms, hugging her.

"No, you haven't been dreaming. You did kill me." Smiling at her confusion, he explained. "You see the Gatekeeper is god of the turn of the year, the time of rebirth. It seems in certain circumstances his avatar can return from death. The destruction of Soul Edge and Soul Calibur was one of those exceptional events. So here I am." He took Mina's hand. "And I'm glad to see my friends once again." Seung Mina said nothing, but her eyes spoke for her.

"That's wonderful! Where are we … and where is Taki?" Talim examined her surroundings. They appeared to be within an ancient stone structure, open to the sky, the south side looking on nothing but white clouds. From the thinness of the chill air, she concluded it was set atop a mountain of immense height. The courtyard was overlooked by a many-tiered fountain and a tall statue of a beautiful woman with a sorrowful expression.

Seung Mina and Yunsung exchanged glances. After a pause, Hong answered, "This is the Shrine of Eurydice. Sophitia lives near here. You'll see her and Cassandra soon and …" He broke off, avoiding her eyes.

Talim said, "And Taki …?"

After some hesitation, Hong brought out a small, gold object, and handed it to Talim.

He said, "Mina searched, but there was only this."

Talim at first held the thing without comprehension. Then she realised it was the choker Taki had always worn around her throat. Why was it here?

She said, "I don't understand."

Seung Mina said gently, "Talim, Taki has … gone. She won't be coming back."

Talim said, "Not coming back? But she told me destroying Soul Edge would free her!"

Again the look of anguish between the two friends. Hong said in a low voice, "She spoke the truth … after a fashion. You did free her soul. Its just that her body was already … consumed by fire."

Her eyes widening and brimming with tears, Talim cried, "No, no that can't be true!" She looked from one to the other like a frightened child.

Seung Mina threw her arms around her. "Oh, Talim, I'm sorry! I know it's hard for you to accept. The demon possessed her body but, thanks to you, it did not claim her soul as well. And because of her sacrifice, and your courage, we have been delivered once more from evil."

Talim exclaimed hysterically. "But I destroyed Soul Edge. And that means I killed her! I loved her and I have killed her! Ah, I cannot bear it!" She buried her head in Mina's chest, weeping bitterly.

Mina held her tightly and Hong put a tender hand on her shoulder. He waited for her grief to subside a little, then said with sympathy, "You didn't really kill her. When Soul Edge had no further use for her body, it shed it like a husk. There was nothing more you could have done then to save her life."

Talim wept, "It amounts to the same thing in the end. She's dead!"

Mina hugged her, consolingly. "It's true that she's gone … dead, if you like. But don't think that she's destroyed."

"What do you mean?" Talim spoke in between sobs.

"What is eternal cannot die. Soul Calibur, and the demon too. The day will come when they will return to plague us. But then she will stand with us again."

Talim said, choking back her tears, "You say 'us'. Who are 'we'?"

Yunsung replied, "We the heroes, of whom you are one. We are the guardians of the balance of light and dark, of good and evil. Because we exist in this world, we are half-mortal, born of one mortal parent. In our life here, we can die through war, mischance or old age. But our spirits live on, to return when we are needed."

Talim said, "I'm beginning to remember … there was a goddess … and it was Taki … and she said we'd see each other once again."

Seung Mina said, "Remember also the words of Yoshimitsu. 'The blood of heroes continues throughout the ages.' One day, Taki will return. Here, or beyond the borders of this existence, you will meet again, friends forever. Transcending history, and the world, a tale of swords and souls, eternally retold."


I realise not everyone will like this way of finishing the story, as it's a (kinda) sad one. To anticipate one obvious question: why bring the ever popular (cough!) Yunsung back from death and not our favourite ninja. The simple answer is that I thought almost from the beginning it would make for a more dramatic/poignant ending and, despite some misgivings, I never changed that opinion. Yunsung, however improbably, returned in order to reduce the level of negativity (remember otherwise Mina would be mourning his death). Talim then had both her close friends to give her comfort. Whether the prospect of meeting Taki/Kali again in another life would be a real consolation … well, you decide.

For those interested in mythological parallels, I refer you to the speculations of my reviewers but will add some myself. The Gatekeeper/Yunsung was an amalgam of Janus, Anubis and Horus (great value with three gods for the price of one!). Seung Mina was Nike (goddess of victory - the people who make trainers etc pinched the name). And Talim followed the Greek tradition of blurring distinctions between deities. Kore (Persephone) means Maiden, Artemis (the Huntress) was notable for protecting her virginity, and Athena (goddess of wisdom) had both owls and Nike as her companions.

For my future projects, take a look at my profile. Allow me, however, to make one shameless plug for Roses that Bloom in the Dark, a story put on hold while I wrote Demon Hunter. It has a central female pairing and a ninja. Sound familiar?

Finally I'd like to give heart-felt thanks to ALL my reviewers, but especially the regular ones (they know who they are). You have given me invaluable encouragement, advice and moral support (and in some cases, ideas). Without you the story might have been poorer, shorter, perhaps even incomplete. And most importantly, you've made writing this so much more enjoyable. Once again, THANK YOU!