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Rash Promise

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"Now, we gave you a promise, and we are bound by that promise. And damn you for asking for it, and damn me for agreeing to it! And damn us all to Hell because that's exactly where we're going!"
President John Sheridan, Babylon 5, "And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder"

A binding oath, promise, or vow made with much haste and little consideration, usually in the heat of emotion. The promise then causes conflict to happen.

What type of conflict? Well, the character may break the vow just as rashly and face dire consequences or hold to the vow beyond all sense with more dire consequences. In the former case, consequences come in the form of supernatural punishment in older and more mythological takes on this trope, legal punishment if the vow was made in the context of a court, or merely social consequences if the vow was more of an informal promise. If the character chooses to hold to their rash vow, well, the consequences are particular to the contents of the vow, so you might just have to wear something embarrassing or kill your children, depending on the tone of the tale.

This type of conflict can often lead to Downer Endings, both to deliver An Aesop and for the catharsis of a Break the Haughty storyline. The character is killed for breaking the vow or dies following through on their foolishness or ends up similarly miserable in either situation. Happier resolutions include having the vow dismissed by a greater authority than whoever made the vow and uh, not much else.

The reason why the promise is made so rashly often varies. Often the oath-taker is making a promise to someone they love and so promise to fulfill any wish of there's before actually hearing what they want. The character may also be in dire need of something and make the promise in exchange for some boon. They may also just be emotional, often overly angry or joyous.

This is much more prominent in ancient works, created when Blood Oaths, Heroic Vows, and the odd Geas were believed to be enforced by supernatural powers. Expect more examples in the sections on ancient mediums like literature, mythology, and religion as a result. Plenty of modern examples still exist, though many of them are doing so in tribute to old folk tales and myths.

This almost always goes hand-in-hand with The Promise, since why have a character make a rash promise if it won't come into play later? Those who make these risk becoming The Oathbreaker, falling victim to a Frequently-Broken Unbreakable Vow, and have a higher than average frequency to say something like I Gave My Word. This can be a vehicle for morals like the Honesty Aesop or Treachery Is a Special Kind of Evil. This can overlap with a Deal with the Devil, if the Devil gets the character to make an Exact Words promise without thinking too much about it. On that note, compare Sold His Soul for a Donut (which can overlap with this trope where an oath is required in exchange for the figurative donut).


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Doraemon:
    • Doraemon: Nobita's Dinosaur have Nobita, after finding a live dinosaur, deciding to raise it as a pet (naming the dinosaur Piisuke) and show it off to his friends when Piisuke reaches adulthood. When Suneo and Gian taunts Nobita over his claims, an enraged Nobita rashly said he'll "eat spaghetti with his nose for lying". This ends up biting Nobita in the butt when he's forced to give up Piisuke before showing off his dinosaur, with Gian and Suneo later coming to Nobita's house with a plate of spaghetti to personally "remind" him of the bet.
    • Doraemon: Nobita's New Dinosaur, a remake of the above, repeats the promise again, but this time with Nobita saying he'd eat peanuts with his eyes if he fail to procure a living dinosaur. This time however he managed to get two, a pair of dinosaur twins from an egg.
    • Doraemon: The Record of Nobita's Parallel Visit to the West have Nobita randomly promising his friends he'd let them use Doraemon's gadgets however they want for two weeks.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Ling swears to obtain the key to immortality while competing with the other heirs for the crown. When he's captured by Father, Ling willingly accepts Greed into him, a promise that's so shortsighted and impulsive it even confuses Greed himself. Unsurprisingly, this results in a Grand Theft Me and Ling is stuck with precious few moments of control over his body. Despite the rashness and immediate regret regarding his promise, Ling eventually comes to an understanding with Greed and the prince is even sad when the homunculus is forcibly removed and killed.

    Comic Books 
  • In Adventure Time: Beginning of the End, Finn is being threatened with being wiped from an existence for a promise he made so casually he can't remember making or breaking it.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Promise, the main character is so overjoyed by having saved the world in the series finale of the source material that he casually agrees to do any favor for his friend Zuko. Then Zuko makes him promise to kill him if he ends up turning evil, and the rest of the comic is all about Aang juggling his pacifism, Zuko's increasing resemblance to his evil father, and the promise he wished he never made.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Bruce Wayne cries at his parents' grave begging them to forget the vow he made to avenge their death. The swelling of the music and Dramatic Lightning makes it clear that his oath still must be honored.
    Bruce Wayne: I know I made a promise, but I didn't see this coming. I didn't count on being happy.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Avengers: Infinity War, Peter Quill is guilted by his lover Gamora into swearing on his mother's grave to kill her if she ever is captured by Thanos. Such a situation does arise and Peter nearly has a breakdown as Gamora begs him to kill her and Thanos taunts him for lack of courage. Eventually, he forces himself to pull the trigger... only to reveal Thanos sabotaged the gun. Quill is wracked by guilt, anger, and confusion for the rest of the movie, so much so that he ruins the Avengers plan to stop Thanos and dooms half the universe.
  • In Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Yusuf Kama was forced into an Unbreakable Vow by his father on his deathbed to take revenge against the man who brainwashed and kidnapped Yusuf's mother, or else Yusuf would die. In it, Yusuf swore to kill the person Corvus Lestrange IV loved the most - Corvus's long-lost son, rumored to be Credence Barebone. This causes Yusuf a lot of grief for decades, only for it to turn out Corvus's son died many years ago, meaning Yusuf's vow had been null and void all along.
  • In Love and Death, Sonya vows to marry her cowardly cousin Boris, because he's facing a duel the next morning and expects to be killed. Much to everyone's shock, his opponent misses and Boris lives, and Sonya finds herself forced to go through with the wedding.
    "He missed."
  • Tales from the Darkside the Movie had a segment called "Lover's Vow" where a man and his friend are assailed by a gargoyle. The man's friend is killed and he expects the same fate to befall him when the gargoyle speaks and offers to let him go if he promises to never speak of their encounter again. The man agrees. On the same night, he meets a woman and falls in love. Ten years later, they're married with kids and life is pretty good, except the man is still guilty about lying to his wife about how they met. He breaks down one day and tells his wife the story of the gargoyle. She seems disturbed, only to condemn him for breaking his promise and turn into the gargoyle. Her children turn into baby gargoyles when she transforms. She kills him, breaks through the skylight of their apartment, and flies away with her young.

  • In Atala by Chateaubriand, the titular character wants to stay a virgin because of a vow her mother made because she was barren. After meeting a man, she poisons herself just before she was told the bishop of Québec could have relieved her of this vow of celibacy.
  • The Canterbury Tales:
    • "Franklin's Tale" is all about a promise the beautiful Dorigen makes to Aurelius, a suitor who confesses his love for her while her husband is away performing his knightly duty. She vows to be his if he can perform the impossible task of getting rid of every stone along the coastline. Unfortunately for her, Aurelius finds a wizard who can perform the deed for a hefty price. Dorigen is distraught, but when her husband returns, Aurelius is so impressed by the knight's virtue that he voids the oath, providing a rare Happy Ending for this type of tale.
    • In "The Wife of Bath's Tale", a lustful man charged for rape is given one year to find out what women want most in the world or else he will be executed. Unable to find a common answer in a year, the man grows desperate and swears to give a wise old hag any reward she can think of if she can give him a true, universal answer. She travels to the court and publicly gives the answer, but also publicly asks the rapist to marry her. He begs her not to do this, but she insists, and the lustful youth is married to a hideous old woman. He is karmically miserable at first, but in time, he grows to appreciate his wife for who she is.
  • In The Divine Comedy, Beatrice makes reference to rash vows made in stories like the biblical tale of Jephthah or the myth of Agamemnon to give An Aesop about how bad to jokingly or lightly swear an oath.
  • In Elminster: The Making of a Mage, after his mentor/lover Myrjala Darkeyes is incinerated by a dragon, Elminster swears he'll never work magic again because all it's brought him is misery. Myrjala's body then reforms, and since she's really an avatar of the goddess of magic Mystra, she gently chides him for hurting her feelings. Elminster goes on to become one of the greatest wizards in the history of magic.
  • In the Gail Carson Levine book Ever, similar to the story of Jephthah, narrator Kezi's father vows to his god that if his wife survives her illness he will sacrifice the first person who congratulates him on her recovery. After the wife recovers, the family attempts to isolate themselves until the "statute of limitations" on vows runs out, but Kezi's aunt shows up unexpectedly. She is about to offer congratulations when Kezi, who knew about the vow, does so instead. Her father does end up keeping his vow.
  • In Girls Kingdom, in the spur of the moment, Himeko makes a Seraph contract with Misaki to last for one year, both to keep Misaki from being expelled and to keep other students from asking to be Himeko's maid. The problem is, Seraph contracts are supposed to last until High School graduation, followed by employment in their mistress's home, and having one of the most important and popular girls break her seraph contract, for seemingly no reason would make almost everyone wonder about the permanency of these contracts. It takes her until the beginning of summer vacation (about six months) to realize this.
  • Gotrek & Felix: The series starts when Felix (an unsuccessful poet) starts a protest against the Empire's latest tax (on windows), which is broken up by heavy cavalry. He's yanked out in the nick of time by the dwarf Gotrek (a Slayer looking for a heroic death), and drunkenly agrees to become Gotrek's rememberer (a chronicler accompanying a Slayer so their death can be immortalized). He's repeatedly tempted to give up once sober (and indeed throughout the series) since his oath leads to him being in near-constant mortal danger, but never does, despite Gotrek never managing to die in battle. In the end it's Gotrek who releases Felix from his oath so Felix can get a friend home safely.
  • Harry Potter: An Unbreakable Vow is a magical oath made from one person to another and sealed by the wand of a witness; add the consideration that the penalty for breaking the promise is death and it seems unlikely that it would overlap with this trope. However, we get one near-instance when Ron is explaining the spell: Fred and George tried to get him to participate in an Unbreakable Vow years earlier, when none of them really knew what they were getting into. Fortunately, their father arrived in time to prevent it, though it's implied (only half-jokingly) that Fred's punishment left permanent damage on his buttocks.
  • Pact: As a child, Rose Thorburn Sr. made a rash declaration never to teach her children about magic. As a practitioner her words are binding, on pain of becoming forsworn if she breaks her promise, and so the following two generations of Thorburns know nothing about magic until after she dies.
  • In The Silmarillion, we have the Oath of Fëanor, where he swears with his sons that they will retrieve the Silmarils, no matter what. After three Kinslayings, hundreds of years of war and ruin, sacking of other Elven kingdoms because they held a Silmaril, and the Valar themselves declaring the oath void, the last two sons of Fëanor—Maedhros and Maglor—still seize the last two Silmarils left on Middle-Earth. They discover the hard way that their claim is indeed void when the holy Jewels torment them, driving Maedhros to suicide and Maglor to chuck his into the sea.
  • "The Tale of Einar Sokkason": Arnald will only go to Greenland as a bishop if Einar swears in front of King Sigurd to always defend the rights and the property of the bishop and "to punish those who transgress against it". Years later, Bishop Arnald's selfish and ungenerous behavior leads to crisis when, after claiming the ship of the dead Arnbjorn as stranded goods, he first denies Arnbjorn's heir Ozur a share of Arnbjorn's goods; then, when Ozur in frustration damages Arnbjorn's ship, demands of Einar to have Ozur killed in retribution. Einar makes clear that he disapproves of Arnald's course of action, but nevertheless fulfills Arnald's wish because of the oath he swore. Ozur's death leads to further escalation of the feud and eventually Einar's own death.
  • In the first book of The Trials of Apollo, Apollo - er, Lester Papadoupolous - swears on the River Styx that he will not use a bow or a musical instrument until he's a god again (and it is extremely bad for you if you break a swear on the River Styx). He made this vow in a moment of anger and broke it later.
  • Warrior Cats: In "Crookedstar's Promise", Crookedkit agrees to promise Mapleshade that he will always put RiverClan first. As a kit, this just seemed like something obvious, and the issues with such a promise didn't become apparent until later... when his loyalty to RiverClan meant he'd lose everyone and everything he loved in the process.
  • A Wizard in Rhyme: In a heated argument with his Queen, Matthew impulsively shouts that he swears to God he'll depose a nearby Sorcerous Overlord or die trying, only to find out that such oaths are irrevocably binding in their Magical Land. His next attempt to cast a spell teleports him deep into the overlord's realm to make good on his word.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Babylon 5, when Captain Sheridan promises the new Interstellar Alliance he's creating that the White Star fleet (a Badass Army and navy loyal to Sheridan's wife Delenn) will only be used at the discretion of the Alliance, it allays a lot of fears about Sheridan looking to set himself up as a dictator. Later, however, the Alliance chooses to use the fleet in a way Sheridan knows will be counterproductive, and he's bound by his word to go through on his agreement. He curses the Alliance for invoking his promise, and himself for having given it in the first place.
  • In season 5 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Amy is approached by mob boss Seamus Murphy to exchange information on the set-up against Jake and Rosa for a favor. She refuses, and later Holt shows up with proof to free Jake and Rosa, saving the day. It turns out Holt took the offer, and later Seamus asks them to throw a block party so a truck will be rerouted and his men can rob it. However, when the detectives manage to outwit Murphy, he proves how dangerous he can be by threatening Kevin's life.
  • House of Anubis: Played for Laughs. At the end of season 1, Alfie seems to be dying from Rufus's immortality ceremony, so Amber frantically promises that if he survives, she'll do anything... including be his girlfriend. At the start of season 2, he holds her to that promise, and the other Sibuna members all agree that she did, in fact, promise him they would date.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power: In an emotional moment, Elrond promises to Durin that he won't tell anyone about the existence of the mythril. Later, Elrond is caught in an ethical conflict where he has to choose between keeping his promise to his best friend and risking his own people dying, or reveal the existence of mythril to be exploited by his people in order to save themselves, but betray the trust of his friend.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Hide and Q", Picard asks the Q-empowered Riker to promise not to use these new powers, and he does. It doesn't take long before he regrets it, as on an away mission he finds a recently deceased child that he could save if it weren't for this vow.


    Myths & Religion 
  • The Bible:
    • Genesis:
      • When Esau returns from a hunt and is famished, he foolishly oaths away his birthright as the eldest son in exchange for his younger brother Jacob cooking him soup.
      • After Jacob's wife Rachel steals her father Laban's household idols, Laban catches up to them and demands them back. Not knowing who stole them, Jacob vows that whoever the thief is will be put to death. Fortunately for he and Rachel, Laban doesn't find them.
    • In the Book of Judges, the Israelite general Jephthah vows, if he defeats the Ammonites, to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he gets home. It turns out to be his daughter. (Jewish scholars disagree about whether the story implies that he kills her.)
    • The Book of Proverbs says, "It is a snare for a man to pledge a sacred gift rashly and to give thought to his vows only after they have been made." (Proverbs 20:25)
    • Per the Gospels, King Herod was so enticed by the dancing girl Salome he told her to ask him for anything she wanted. The queen told Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, which the king was particularly reluctant to give as he appreciated John's teachings. Nevertheless, he gave the order for the execution.
  • Classical Mythology:
    • Helios' son Phaeton asked his father for help proving his divine parentage, getting him to swear on the Styx. Helios, amused, did so but was very much taken aback when Phaeton asked to drive the sun (a flying chariot) for a day. Helios did his best to persuade him otherwise, but in the end was forced to let Phaeton drive. The result was that Phaeton lost control of the chariot, burning some parts of the earth and freezing others, and had to be shot down by Zeus to prevent further damage (other versions have him fall off).
    • Semele, one of Zeus' paramours, was convinced by Hera to get Zeus to promise her anything on the Styx. Zeus did so, but when Semele asked to see him in his true divine glory (another of Hera's suggestions), also tried to get her to change her mind. When she would not relent, he revealed himself, Semele burning up in an instant. He managed to save their unborn son Dyonisus by sewing up the fetus in his thigh (or scrotum, depending on the version). This is most famously depicted in The Metamorphoses of Ovid.
    • In order to prevent a war between every Greek city-state over the hand of Helen, Odysseus suggested that every suitor swear an oath to take up arms against any who would try to take her from the husband she chose. This caused everyone to calm down and agree but bit Odysseus in the ass years later when he was called upon to fulfill his vow, having no desire to leave his wife and kingdom behind.
  • There's a story in Japanese Mythology that goes like this: A man nearly freezes to death in a blizzard, only to be saved by a winter animal. It only asks in return that the man swear an oath to never tell anyone what has transpired here. The man agrees and keeps this oath until after he has fallen in love and gotten married. He experiences a blizzard nearly identical to the first time and he is so spooked he can't tell but tell his wife about his first experience. As soon as he finishes telling the story, his wife backs away and wails, "you PROMISED not to TELL ANYONE! YOU PROMISED!" and transforms into the very animal that rescued him so long ago. Not only does she leave him, weeping, she freezes him to death on the way out.
  • The English legend of the Lambton Worm holds that John Lambton promised the witch who helped him slay it that he would then kill the first thing to reach him when he returned home. He prepared ahead of time by telling his dad to let a dog out, but his father forgot and ran out to greet his victorious son, getting there ahead of the dog. John figured nobody would know the difference and killed the dog, resulting in the family being cursed for several generations.
  • There's also a folktale where the man falls in love with a woman who wears a choker. In addition to their wedding vows, the bride has asked the man she loves to never ask her to remove the choker as it is important to her and she will never take it off. He assures her he'll never ask. But on their wedding night, as things heat up, in his excitement he undoes the choker. To his horror, her head falls off and rolls away as she accusingly wails "You PROMISED you'd never ask me to take it off!"

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer Fantasy: Every time a dwarf is slighted, insulted, wounded, or killed, it gets written down in the ginormous Book of Grudges and used as a Pretext for War. Naturally, the avenging of a grudge incurs the loss of dwarven lives, which leads to further grudges, which... Unfortunately, what dwarves consider an insult is something even allies are often clueless about (one castle builder declared war on his human client because the barges of gold sent as payment were three pieces short, thought to be a deliberate insult).

  • A Very Potter Musical: Played for laughs. Draco and Voldemort in this parody seal Draco's promise to kill Dumbledore with an Unbreakable Vow. Draco takes the opportunity to add a last-minute provision that Voldemort has to be his slave for a whole day. To add insult to injury, this is apparently NOT the first time someone has done that to Voldemort.
  • Mamma Mia!: Act 1 ends with all three of Sophie's potential fathers realizing they might in fact be her father... without realizing there are two other candidates and that Sophie has no idea which one it is. They each separately promise to walk her down the aisle at her wedding in the heat of the bachelorette party, without giving Sophie time to explain. This leads to Sophie freaking out over having to choose and deciding to instead ask her mother to walk her down the aisle. The men initially get embarrassed when they realize they may not be Sophie's dad (and that Donna had sex with all three of them so closely together), but decide to graciously split the duties of being Sophie's dad.

    Video Game 
  • Drawn to Life: In the second game, Watersong's main conflict stems from the fact that Mayor Rose foolishly gave up her voice in a bet with Salem, against her son's wishes. She made the deal to the promise conch, which cannot be unbroken without the conch's magic, so when she lost the bet, her voice was gone as a result of her impulsiveness and pride... which isn't great for a village that requires music to exist.
  • The whole reason Kratos spirals into a god-killing spree in God of War is because he made an oath to serve Ares that the god used to force Kratos into killing his family. He only did so in the heat of battle, but an oath is an oath and he could only break it by killing the god of war. The terrible repercussions of breaking such a vow would be seen in God of War: Ascension, when the Furies tortured Kratos for his betrayal.
  • Heroes of Might and Magic: After being trapped in a bottle for millennia, Solmyr was so overjoyed that he swore to serve the man who freed him for as long as he walked this earth. Unfortunately, that man turned out to be an immortal and Nigh-Invulnerable wizard, essentially forcing Solmyr into servitude for all eternity. He's finally freed of his vow in the fourth game thanks to a bit of Loophole Abuse - both of them happen to end up on another planet.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY: Ozpin mentions in Volume 1 that he has made more mistakes than anyone else on the planet. One of those includes a promise he made in the heat of the moment, which has come to define his entire existence, for both good and ill. A rash acceptance of the God of Light's offer to reincarnate to redeem humanity, allows Ozma to reunite with his lover, Salem, in defiance of the god's warning that she's changed for the worse. It takes him too long to recognise the truth, and their tragic falling out locks them into a cycle of pain and violence; the pair have been fighting over the fate of humanity for millennia, both lying to their allies for different reasons: heroes tend to turn on Oz when they learn Salem's an Invincible Villain, and villains tend to turn on Salem when they learn she's trying to destroy the world instead of creating a new world order.

    Web Comics 
  • El Goonish Shive: Abraham vowed to destroy every creature created by the Dewitchery Diamond, an object that he created to break curses that accidentally split them off into their own monsters. He never considered that it would be used to break a harmless gender-bending curse and force him to try to kill the resulting innocent Opposite-Sex Clone Ellen.
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • In the prequel Start of Darkness, it's revealed that Eugene Greenhilt, after witnessing the murder of his teacher Fyron by Xykon, got incredibly drunk and swore a magical Blood Oath that he would not rest until Xykon was destroyed. Since he later casually decided to ignore the vow and then died with it unfulfilled, he's now Barred from the Afterlife and must rely on his son Roy to fulfill it in his stead. In contrast, since Roy did actively work to fulfill the oath, the angels let him into the Lawful Good heaven after Xykon kills him.
    • When Dvalin, the God-king of the dwarves, was still mortal, he swore an oath that he would always consult the Dwarven Council of Clans before making any decision that affects all the dwarves, and to obey their will no matter what. As a god, he considers himself still bound by that oath, and won't even vote to prevent the destruction of the planet without first checking it's OK with them. When such a vote is convened by the gods, the Arc Villain plans to mind-control the dwarves into supporting the world's destruction, which would mean Dvalin would have no choice but to go along with it.

    Western Animation 
  • Gravity Falls: Dipper and Mabel try to crack the passcode to the Author's laptop. However, Mabel gets busy working on a puppet show and Dipper is left to figure it out alone. Eventually, sleep-deprived and frustrated by his constant failures, he is visited by Bill Cipher, who offers him the password if Dipper promises to give him something. Initially, Dipper refuses but eventually accepts when Bill claims to want a puppet and appeals to the boy's anger with Mabel. Unfortunately, Bill uses Exact Words to possess Dipper as his 'puppet'.
  • Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness: The episode "Royal Pain" has Po agreeing to train the emperor's grandson Lu Kang in kung fu as part of his journey into manhood, which turns out to be easier said than done due to the former's lackluster teaching methods and the latter's extreme clumsiness. When asked by the royal emissary for a status update, Po lies about Lu's progress and decides to personally swear by the emperor's throne that Lu will have fully mastered his training. Cue an Oh, Crap! from Shifu, who alongside the emissary informs Po that making a promise to the emperor's throne will end in everyone in the Jade Palace being beheaded if he fails to uphold it.
  • The Owl House: At the end of "Yesterday's Lie", a character is pressured to make a promise which puts them into some pretty bad Conflicting Loyalty. As Luz is getting dragged back to the Boiling Isles, her mother Camila forces Luz to promise that once Luz finds a way back, she has to remain on Earth. Luz agrees in the heat of the moment, but once she's back with her friends, it's made clear that she wishes that she hadn't said it. All of Luz's friends, as well as her Love Interest Amity, are on the Boiling Isles. The only reason that Luz wants to go back at all is that she loves her mother with all her heart. Camila, to her credit, releases her from it almost instantly when she finds out just how much Luz would be giving up.
  • In the The Simpsons episode, "Kidney Trouble", Homer asks Marge to make him a promise if he should die during an operation. After Marge replied, "Oh, anything, sweetheart," Homer asks her to blow up the hospital. Marge then comments to herself, "Hmm... Well, I said I'd do it."
  • Done by Shere Khan in TaleSpin after Baloo saves his life and he promises to repay Baloo's act under his personal code to "Always repay your debts, and never go back on a deal." Unfortunately Baloo begins milking Khan's generosity for all its worth and demands all sorts of exorbitant favors from Khan. Khan ends up having to manipulate events to have Baloo kidnapped so would willingly ask Khan to return things to normal and demand no further favors.