Of course, he was not really Walden, but the creature Devin had created to look like their dead friend.
There he was, not looking a day older than that moment ten years ago when he had been stabbed and killed. There was no sinister gleam in his eye, and nothing particularly threatening about his stance. For all intents and purposes, this beast could have easily passed as the real thing, if things had never gone wrong.
James knew this was not Walden, though, as did the rest of the group. Despite this, it was still painful to see him standing there.
Before he spoke, James drew his sword and took a step towards him. Walden stood up a bit straighter and then drew his weapon as well.
"It looks just like him…" Baylor stuttered a little at the sight. James didn't even realize it was Baylor's first time seeing Walden in such a state.
"It's not him," James said.
"To think Devin would do something like this," Baylor said, his glare intensifying. "It's disgusting. It's his most hideous creation."
"Will you kill it this time?" Louisa whispered to James.
"That's my intention," James replied.
"It looks to me like we're almost at the end of our journey!" Walden called, sounding supremely cheerful at the prospect. "Who would have thought it would take so long to do? I remember a time once when I thought we were finished. If only we had been then, so I wouldn't have had to die."
His expression hardened as he spoke and he pointed the sword at the group.
"All of you are to blame for that," he said.
"Of course we are," James declared. "We're at fault for Walden's death, but that has nothing to do with you. We know you're not our friend, so don't bother pretending any longer."
"How can you be sure that at least a little piece of him is not in me?" Walden asked, placing his hand on his chest where his heart would have been if he were a real man.
"There's nothing of him in you!" Johanna shouted angrily. James turned and looked at her with surprise, as did most people in the group. "I knew Walden—my father—and if any piece of him, no matter how little, was in you then you wouldn't be trying to hurt us!"
Johanna put a hand over her eyes and paused a moment, swallowing hard as her lip quivered slightly. Louisa put an arm around her and shook her reassuringly, as if to tell her silently that she was proud. She nodded to show she understood.
There was distinct silence from the creature. He lowered his weapon and, for a few seconds, it almost looked as though he was contemplating something very interesting. There was almost astonishment in his expression.
And, for those brief seconds, he really did seem like Walden again.
Then he spoke: "I suppose only you can be so sure."
The words were simple and few. James watched Johanna as she shuddered involuntarily at the sound of his voice.
Baylor took a few steps forward so he was standing next to James. "I'm actually eager to destroy this thing," he said quietly, as if keeping a secret. "Or is this something you need to do?"
"I'm really not so sure," James admitted.
"What reason could Devin even have for sending him here?" Abina wondered as she and the others who didn't have very much context for the situation stood aside. "He doesn't intend to have us killed so it doesn't make sense for him to send someone only to delay us."
"He doesn't expect this thing to be able to kill us," Cyrus suggested. "He probably wants us to kill it, actually. Just so he doesn't have to take the time to do it himself."
"There's no other use for a creature like that," Iris added. "There isn't anyone else it would bother."
"He just wants to shake us up so we'll be careless later," decided Luke.
"I don't think it will affect us the way he wants it to," Raven concluded, crossing her arms.
"What makes you say that?" asked Luke.
"It's supposed to shake us up and make us careless?" Raven questioned. "I think it'll have the opposite effect. I mean, look at those guys. They're more focused than ever."
James was only barely listening to the conversation taking place behind him because most of his attention was focused on Walden, even though he hadn't moved yet. Louisa was standing next to Johanna, just a little behind James, though she clearly planned on contributing to what was about to happen as well. Baylor was fully prepared to destroy the offensive Forces.
If Cyrus was right about Devin wanting them to kill the creature, then it probably wasn't going to be that much of a challenge. And James did agree with Luke that it was Devin's intention to upset them by showing their friend as a Forces, but he also agreed with Raven when she said it was fueling something.
James could feel himself almost excited, revved up to take care of business. Staring down the Forces was having a unifying effect on them.
Even though things had gone wrong all those years ago, this time James could feel they were going to go right.
"So start," Walden urged.
"Fine," James said, raising his hand to the others. "This is going to happen."
"Kill it," Johanna practically pleaded.
James took his sword and began to advance towards Walden.
Walden finally raised his sword again and prepared for the first contact. James decided not to waste any time and didn't even bother with a stare down, immediately throwing the blade at Walden and forcing him to block.
"Should we help?" Iris asked, directing her question to Louisa.
"Just wait," Louisa said.
Walden pushed James away and swiped at him with the sword, but James jumped back and avoided the blow. Everything about Walden's attacks felt utterly half-hearted. It was actually a little depressing that James was able to reflect on the various encounters they had with the fake Walden while he was in the midst of fighting him because there was absolutely no threat.
He was only there to remind them of what Devin could do.
James could remember that the Walden he fought in Gislan had been super charged and almost strong, somehow. At the time, Walden had a certain job to accomplish, but without that job, there was no need for the extra strength. Devin had certainly taken it away.
With only a few well placed dodges, James was able to connect his elbow with Walden's face and knock him to the ground. Once he hit the dirt, James put the sword right up against his neck, and then everyone waited.
The fake Walden sucked in a few deep breaths, staring up the blade until he met eyes with James. "Are they really dead?" Walden breathed rather unexpectedly.
James turned his head slightly and waited for Walden to elaborate. When he didn't, James asked, "Who?"
"Don't pay attention to it, James," Baylor warned. "It's going to try to talk its way out of this. Just kill it."
James did know this. Still, he wanted to know what Walden meant, so he moved the tip of the sword a little closer. "Who?" he repeated.
"Your parents," Walden said.
James felt his jaw clench.
"You don't cry about it ever?" Walden's voice sounded oddly curious. James didn't answer. "Even now, it still bothers you."
"James," Baylor said with caution in his voice.
James glanced back at Baylor and then faced Walden again. "Of course it does," he said.
Walden's eyes narrowed ever further. "Did you say goodbye to them?" James's grip tightened so significantly that the sword began to tremble. "Did you want to say goodbye to them?"
"Of course I did!" James shouted all at once. "Why would you ask questions like this?"
"Sometimes it helps."
"Helps with what?"
Walden propped himself up on his elbows. "Misery loves company. That's the phrase, isn't it?" Oddly, he began to smile.
"How can you smile?" James demanded.
"What do you mean?"
"You're about to die. And you're smiling."
Walden sighed casually and pointed his eyes at the dirt. "I won't die. I'll still be alive somewhere." He raised one hand and touched the side of his head. "In your head someplace." He lowered his hand and sighed again. "I just won't be doing so well out here. Do you see?"
James couldn't believe how easy it was to think this thing really was Walden in those moments.
"Besides, I can't ever really die. Not when every piece of me is still following you around, critiquing you, watching you and sometimes even giving you advice. So I don't think there's really a difference between being alive or dead."
James swallowed hard. "Why would you say that?"
"Because all that doesn't matter. Because it's your life so it's not up to me how you're living it. Don't you want to be in charge of how you live your life?"
Walden leaned slightly and stared over at the others only a few paces away.
"You do have a choice," he said plainly.
James was afraid of himself. He remembered Walden speaking these words to him ten years ago, and he was terrified that he would allow himself to believe them. So, before the Forces could utter another syllable, James thrust the sword forward, driving it into the neck of the creature and then swiping it across it.
First, it bled. Then it crumbled to dust. And with that, it was gone.
Though, James couldn't help but feel that everything it had just said was entirely true.
Baylor moved forward to James who didn't move for a long while after destroying the Forces that resembled Walden. "Are you all right?" Baylor questioned finally.
James bit his lip and frowned deeply at the pile of ash that remained. "Walden said all that to me once," he said quietly.
"It had Walden's memories. It wasn't him."
"I know. But…I think it was still right."
"Come on. We have to go."
Clearly Baylor did not want to discuss that notion any further.
James looked back at the others who were approaching him as well, ready to continue their way into the palace.
"It's over now," Louisa remarked.
"That was the easy part," James reported. Nothing about that had been easy, but he also knew it was just going to get worse the further they got into the palace and the closer they got to Devin.
James felt almost as if he had already failed in a way, and he was absolutely positive that Devin intended that to happen when he sent Walden to face them as they entered. Walden presented almost no challenge at all to defeat, but the aftermath was damaging.
As soon as they crossed the threshold of the front gates, Baylor suddenly let out a low grunt, put a hand to his hand and crouched down. James recognized his abrupt stance from when they were just outside the Soul Shrine. As they all ran to his side, James knew it was a vision.
"Keep watch for anyone coming, everyone," Louisa commanded, waving her hand for the others to spread out while Baylor shook in place. She placed both her hands on his shoulders and even shooed Johanna away when she lingered.
James reluctantly drew his weapon and took a few steps towards the interior of the palace, looking around intently. He made brief eye contact with Cyrus who was obvious frustrated for being delayed again. He tried not to continuously look back at Baylor, but he was anxious. Whatever was going to come from the vision was going to be important, he just hoped it didn't result in another disaster like last time.
Once Baylor finished, he almost fell over backwards but Louisa held him in place. Everyone took it upon themselves to run back over as he struggled to catch his breath and speak at the same time.
"Put yourself together first," Louisa interrupted.
Baylor shook his head and calmed himself quickly. "We have to retreat—" he stuttered. "—Now."
"It's James. He's going to die."
A/N: I live in Japan and am currently extremely affected by the chaos currently occurring. Everything will be on hiatus for a bit. Thank you and I'm sorry!