The door to the building opened, and a familiar figure walked in. It was Takuya Imai.
Dead silence greeted his appearance. A blast of smoke and heat entered through the door with Takuya, announcing his presence far more effectively than any spoken word. Everyone looked up, stared at him, and said nothing. Several orcs entered the building with Takuya, and then shut the door.
“Gideon,” Takuya called, spotting him in Dan’s cell and walking to the door. “Good. I was wondering if you would make it.”
Dan couldn’t help but notice that Takuya wasn’t bound, and that the orcs walked behind him with their weapons sheathed. He was no prisoner. Gideon seemed to notice this too.
“You traitorous rat!” he bellowed, flinging himself at Takuya. The bars stopped his progress.
Takuya laughed. “Guilty as charged,” he said lightly. “Once I knew that Utgar meant to take Hyleran, and that the city stood no chance, I had a choice to make: I could either close the gates and die in a fire, or join Utgar and profit from his victory. I chose the latter.”
“Yes, yes,” Takuya said, interrupting Francois. “I know. I have no honor. Pause for a moment, though, and note that I stand here before you, alive and free. Note also that you are the ones stuck in a cell. Who was smarter?”
Dan glared at Takuya. How could he have once thought the old samurai had a point?
“I’ve come to make you all an offer,” Takuya said. “Utgar himself gave me authority to offer this to you, so listen well. I’ll only say it once.
“Utgar is perfectly willing to send home any who wish it. If you join him now, you will receive a full pardon, and be sent back once all of the amulets are secured. If you wish to remain in Valhalla, Utgar will gladly provide you with land, and summon any family or loved ones you want to join you.”
There was a pause. How many times would Dan be offered his horizon?
“If you do not join Utgar,” Takuya continued, seeming to relish every word, “then every last one of you will be slain without mercy. You must choose now. If you refuse, and then decide that the offer sounds better than you originally thought, you will be too late.”
There was silence. Caela continued to cry quietly.
“What about her?” Dan asked, pointing to Caela.
“She had her chance,” Takuya said without sympathy. “She served Vydar, and then showed her true colors when he attacked the alliance. She is a traitor, and Utgar will deal with all traitors accordingly.”
“A traitor? What’s Vydar then?”
“Your answer, Dan,” Takuya said. “This offer expires when I leave.”
“Let me add a little incentive,” Takuya said. “Utgar’s armies are vast, and his commanders stretched thin. If you refuse to join him, he may not be able to control his soldiers. He won’t be responsible for any misfortunes which may befall you at their hands.”
A few of the prisoners looked like they were considering Takuya’s offer. Others merely glared at him, their answer clear. Dan glared at Takuya as well, but not for the same reason. He had just realized something about the old samurai.
Takuya was content. No, that was the wrong word. He was complacent. He didn’t want anything else. He was happy to side with whoever happened to be winning, perfectly happy to stay put in Hyleran. He was the complete opposite of Dan, who could never be confined, and always needed something new. In fact, now that he thought of it, the person Takuya was most like… was actually Heleer.
It sounded ridiculous, but it was true. They were both complacent, both happy to stay put and pass up any opportunity which would change things. Takuya didn’t care what happened in the war as long as he got to stay in Hyleran and grow fat off of its food.
This realization only confused Dan further. He wanted Heleer. No, he needed Heleer. This was the last chance he would get to see her again. But it would mean forsaking his friends. It would mean abandoning them to Vydar. It would mean simply walking away, and leaving them to die.
Ana wouldn’t have done that. Dan had sworn he would be like Ana. But still, he needed Heleer.
Ana or Heleer? Ana or Heleer?
“No.” It was Jaseff who spoke. Everyone, including Dan, looked at him in surprise. “No,” Jaseff repeated, his voice quiet. “You’ve forgotten one thing, Takuya.”
“And what’s that?” Takuya asked, a false smile on his face.
“We can still win this,” Jaseff said. He hadn’t stood up, but spoke to Takuya from the floor of his cell. There was something in his voice, something which made Dan turn and look in his direction. It wasn’t confidence. It was almost as if he was realizing something, and speaking as he did so.
“The alliance isn’t gone, not yet.” The words came slowly, but with each sentence, Jaseff sounded more sure of himself, more sure that he was right. “As long as Einar still draws breath, as long as there is a single soldier who is loyal to the alliance and what it stands for, as long as there are those who still believe in a free Valhalla… there is still hope.” Dan saw him look up at Takuya.
“You had a choice, Takuya,” Jaseff said. “When you found out Utgar was coming, you had a choice.”
Takuya said nothing.
“You could do nothing. You could let Utgar win, and hope that he pardoned you. Or you could fight.”
“Fight for what?” Takuya laughed. “Some false sense of honor? A foolish hope that we would win? The battle was lost before it began, Jaseff.”
Jaseff shook his head. “No, it wasn’t,” he said quietly. “No battle is lost before it begins.”
“When, then?” Takuya asked, his voice mocking. “When your lifeless bodies lie on the ground?”
Jaseff stood. “Not even then. A battle isn’t lost when the odds are against you, or even with defeat. A battle is lost when only one thing happens.”
“And what’s that?” Takuya asked, a satisfied smile on his face.
Jaseff turned and looked at Dan. “You lose,” he said, “when you have to choose between waiting for something to happen, and making it happen.” Dan recognized his own words.
Jaseff turned back to Takuya. “That’s why you should have fought, Takuya. That’s why your men did fight: because they knew that the war rested not with Utgar, or how many were in his army, but the choice that they made. Every fight rests on a single choice. And I’ve made mine.” Jaseff glared at Takuya.
“I’m tired of waiting. I want to defeat Utgar, and I will.”
There was a moment of silence as Takuya and Jaseff stared at each other. And then a samurai in Jaseff’s cell got to his feet. And then another at the far wall. And then another. Soon nearly everyone was standing, echoing Jaseff’s response. They shouted their anger to Takuya’s face, determination burning in their eyes.
Dan was not among them. He had heard Jaseff’s words, and felt his longing for Heleer increase. Victory was still possible. He could still see Heleer, if he chose to. All he had to do was say yes.
But then he looked at Jaseff, and saw a determination there he had never seen before. In his face a light burned, and Dan realized Jaseff had changed. He was still afraid, he was still cowardly, but he had chosen to be brave.
And Dan had inspired him to make that choice. He had. He had given Jaseff hope that he could still be brave, even without Trela.
Dan glanced behind him, to where Caela still sat, head bowed, knees drawn up to her chest, no longer crying, but now silent. She had no hope. She was defeated, seeing no way out. He had been like that once, a very long time ago: trapped, not even knowing that he was a prisoner. There had been no hope for him. No hope for a better future. Until… Darren had come.
Darren had opened his eyes. Darren had shown Dan a glimpse of what awaited him, and what could be his, if he but fought for it. Dan looked at Caela with pity. No one deserved that. No one deserved to be devoid of hope, to be lost with no chance of a better future. It was there. The better future was just waiting for someone to claim it. Dan knew it was. Caela just couldn’t see it, just as he hadn’t been able to see it. Well, Darren had opened Dan’s eyes, but he wasn’t here. Dan was. And right now, Caela was him, and he was Darren. She needed to see her horizon. They all did. Only then could they choose to fight for it.
“And you?” Takuya said quietly, causing Dan to quickly look back at him. “You haven’t spoken. What is your choice, Dan?”
Dan looked into Takuya’s eyes. This would be his last chance to see Heleer. This would be his last chance to achieve his horizon. But if he had learned anything on this world, it was to live for others, not yourself. Caela needed him. His friends needed him. The whole alliance needed him. He wouldn’t leave them blinded, surrounded by walls of despair, unable to get out.
He looked Takuya full in the eyes, and then said one word: “No.”
Then he raised his gloves, and unleashed a blast of energy straight into Takuya’s smug face.