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A Normal Day?

Destiny was never a thing I believed in. Nor did I ever find myself thinking much about it, to be quite honest. In fact, I'd rather blame the misfortunes in my life on myself rather than some unseen hand pulling the strings. But for those around me, destiny seemed to be everything. I was born into a family that, in truth, was hardly ever around and hardly ever cared what actions I'd take so long as it would not proceed to get them into any sort of trouble. This is not to say I ever got into trouble to begin with though. To claim that my life was humble would still somehow manage to be an overstatement. Our town of Toparsburg had been in bad shape well before I was born. Crime was common in our streets and an absolutely pitiful amount of money was left available to stop it. Derelict houses and shops were a common sight in Toparsburg, relics of the past. Most of my early school years were spent with my best friend James or simply involved me trying to find my own way in the 'world'. I use the word 'world' because that truly described my school, it was quite possibly one of the largest I had ever heard of. An oddity of excess in a town otherwise deprived of everything else. It contained grades kindergarten to high school and as you can imagine, this plethora of students truly made an individual feel quite small. Quite insignificant. I was at least granted with some good friends and some relatively easy-going classes. To the naked eye, and not taking its size into account, it would appear as if our humble little school was just as simple as it was large, but this would be incorrect. Many things happened around the school that most people didn't know about... or at least didn't want to know about. While other schools worried about drug dealing or graffiti, ours was more concerned with one thing; money. This money blinded our school from the true inner workings beyond the happy smiles and idle chattering emanating from classrooms and the halls. Here in Toparsburg, there were two organizations which shaped students' attitudes and lives for years, if not their entire lives. Assuming that the school even did know of such activities, there would be nothing they'd think to do about it. Basically, what I'm trying to get at is that there were many bullies in our school. While some were simply run of the mill sociopaths, there were others who were much more... dangerous. They were part of a secret organization called THEM, which had reached back to the earliest days of our school's very founding. However, as time had passed, the club was often called THEY for security reasons, so as to keep the uninformed that much more in the dark. In either case, if ever you wanted to speak about the group to someone else, which would be quite ill-advised, the utterance of its various names always sounded stupid and fake. Maybe that’s why they chose it. This organization of THEY would pick on kids all the time, showing no mercy towards anyone, regardless of their age or gender. I suppose that when you have trained bullies to back you up, you won't hesitate to corner a 5th grader and steal his lunch money. Then again, there was one thing; one group which had also existed for decades, reaching back generations. A group dedicated to protecting those who could not protect themselves. This group was called the S.S.C. The name of S.S.C was occasionally whispered about the halls, and on even rarer occasions, a high schooler claiming to be recently retired, would tell us stories about the S.S.C and its inner workings. It should be noted however, that most kids stuck to just calling them: the Fighters, for that is all that was really known about them. They appeared, they fought, and they disappeared back into the average crowds of average students... that was the way of the Fighters. Anybody could be a member and you’d hardly ever know just by looking. A school as massive as ours could manage to hide anyone so long as they wanted to remain hidden. Anyone who joined the S.S.C was required to take a vow of secrecy. Not even the closest of friends could know truly what happened behind closed doors. However, from the stories I had heard, a basic theme had emerged when people spoke of the group. It was said that they were a friendly bunch and even though there were only a few handfuls of them, they were still unbelievably strong and dedicated to fighting for our safety. If you have not yet caught on, I had never seen them in action, but I could only imagine what they were capable of. My name is Tim Allender... and this is my story.

Just a Normal Day:

I think it all really began the morning I was talking to my friend James in the hallway about the increasing attacks of THEY. It was a few months into 2006, James and I were only 11. However, in a matter of merely one week, we'd both be celebrating our 12th birthdays on October 13th. It was the fact that we shared the same birthdays that had drawn us together years ago when we both met as a result of joining the school basketball team. James was tall for our age and pretty strong, which kept any THEY members from ever coming our way. But this was not why I was friends with him, to be honest, I looked up to the guy. To me, he was the living embodiment of what the Fighters were all about, even though he wasn't a member. Not to mention the fact that he was the kind of guy who I knew I could always confide in if I ever had problems. However, all the increasing rumors about THEY had us both stressed I suppose. "Did you hear about what happened to Ron last night?" asked James as we wandered the halls. "No, what happened?" I asked in my usual boisterous voice. "He was in the locker room by himself, when he was attacked by some THEY members who wanted his money."  I was honestly shocked by this. THEY members had never attacked a kid I knew personally, like Ron. "Are you sure it was him?" I asked. "Pretty sure," James replied. "R.K. told me, and he didn't sound like he was joking... for once." I was acquainted with R.K, he was pretty much the class clown of the school, and was better known as Random Kid by those who met him. The fact of the matter was that if he was becoming serious about THEY, then I knew there was trouble brewing. "Did they get the money?" I asked, looking down at my feet, almost not wanting to know the answer. James paused for a moment, "They almost did, but the fighters stopped them just before they could." "Thank goodness," I responded in relief. "It's weird that they'd come our way don't ya think? Usually they just target the really young kids." "Perhaps," replied James as we neared our respective classrooms, "But there's really no reason to worry, I'm sure nothing will happen to you." I was relieved to hear this and began to walk to my room before the bell sounded. "See ya later, Tim!" shouted James as I walked away. I waved back and integrated myself back into that vast ocean of students.

Tall Tales:

For the last two classes of the day, I had been hearing whispers of the retired S.S.C trooper holding a small gathering at the park just after school. These gatherings where he'd relinquish old tales of the S.S.C were few and far between. I knew immediately that if I didn't show up to this meeting, it'd be weeks until the next. Therefore, just after the final bell had rung and we were freed from our classes, I headed straight for the park, not stopping to say goodbye to anyone I knew or spread the word any more than it needed to be spread. After all, if too many kids showed up to the meeting, then it'd be undoubtedly too loud to hear. I considered for a brief moment to ask James to come along, but ultimately decided against it. He had accompanied me once to a gathering, but apparently was not as interested as me in what the trooper had to say. "Seeing is believing," I recall James lecturing me just afterwards. But for me, a good story was a far better alternative than actually witnessing the S.S.C in action. When I arrived at the park, I found the trooper to already be sat down in a bench with a few kids bunched up in front of him, tossing questions his way. "One at a time now," the trooper laughed. "What's the weirdest thing that ever happened to you in the S.S.C?" asked a kid a couple years younger than myself. The trooper put his hand to his chin and thought on this for a while. Finally he snapped back to life with a response just as I sat down behind the others. "Five years ago," he began, gesticulating with his hands as if to signal some sort of flashback only he could see. "When I was 13, we encountered the remains of a THEM base in the middle of Mellow Falls. Dead flashlights, a long-since extinguished fire, and drops of blood were scattered all around the site." The children leaned in eagerly as more people joined the meeting, some younger than myself, and a few who were a couple years older. "My crew and I immediately tried to radio for help from our leader, only to find out that the dense foliage of the woods prevented a clear message from being sent back and forth. So there we were, alone. Seemingly stranded with these creepy memorabilia from the past. Now it was growing late out, so I suggested we rekindle the fire and sleep outside that night and wait to get in touch with our leader in the morning rather than risking getting stuck out in the woods." The kids nodded attentively, all of them far too invested in the story to care about the heavy looking clouds coming our way. "Sure enough," the trooper continued. "I rekindled the fire and we all slept soundly on the ground, no need for sleeping bags. We were pros at passing out just about anywhere we could rest our heads." This prompted a few uneasy laughs from the crowd. "Suddenly," the trooper said with an eerie tone to his voice. "I was awoken by the sounds of strained shouting from the darkened woods. 'Help!' I heard someone cry from the darkness. 'Is anyone out there? Help us, please!' Other voices were present as well. All of them were shouting for help now. An entire crew of what must have been over 30 kids and teens were all shouting from the top of their lungs just to the east of us." Everyone leaned in, drawn like a moth to a flame towards the trooper as he continued. "I quickly woke my team up and alerted them to the shouts. Knowing full well we couldn't allow for a group so large to remain stuck in those woods all night, we quickly descended into the darkness, desperately trying to track down the shouts. I immediately could tell something was wrong, for despite me running as fast as I could towards all the yelling, the cries never grew louder, only fainter, as if they were moving away from us at an unnatural speed." The clouds above us grew darker, and I feared the story would be cut short by a sudden blast of rain. "Then came a final sound," the trooper whispered. "The soft sounds of tears. Silence permeated by the occasional sniffing or pained moans. And the strangest thing... it was coming just from my left. I stopped dead in my tracks and pushed by way through the tall weeds and grass, only to find a small clearing... the sounds of crying stopped immediately. And I found myself surrounded with only the emptiness of that clearing... and the tattered patch of a THEM member, covered by dirt and dead grass, one which had to have been sitting there for years without being touched. Only then did I realize that the noises we'd heard... were never there to begin with... at least... not created by the living." The younger kids were practically shaking in their boots as the trooper leaned back and looked up at the sky. "When we eventually met with our leader the next morning and showed him the patch. He revealed to us that four years prior, a THEM unit was tasked with tracking down an S.S.C outpost at Mellow Falls and taking them hostage. What they didn't realize was that they had gotten the location of the S.S.C's base wrong by about four miles. And thus this unit of THEM soldiers, led by a well-known THEM leader called Commander Diacate, became hopelessly lost within Mellow Falls, their flashlights going dead half an hour into their mission due to having old and unchecked batteries on-hand." I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, trying to imagine myself in the same situation. Imagining how terrifying it had to have been. "That unit of THEM members slowly became separated from one another in the vast reaches of Mellow Falls,” the soldier continued. “And when morning came... the unit never returned to base... except for one lone soldier who escaped to tell the tale. As for the rest of Diacate's unit... they were never found or heard from again." All the listeners now turned to each other and the trooper, all throwing new questions his way or talking to their friends about the creepiness of the tale. The trooper gave a broad smile and let them continue their chatter. Then came a deeper voice, one which certainly had not emanated from the younger kids of the group. "Hey," said the voice, clear and crisp over the rest, who immediately quieted down as a result. I turned back to find Random Kid leaning up against one of the monkey bars of the playground. He was far taller than most anyone else of our school. And I'd heard rumors of him getting held back on multiple occasions. His striking curly red hair made him easy to spot amongst any crowd. And his humorous attitude was apparently appreciated so much by THEM, that they never bothered coming after him. Another thing I tended to notice about him were his jet-black eyes, wherein the pupil was completely shrouded by the dark tone. I'd heard him joke about his eyes in the past, comparing them to the eyes of some 'retarded yak'. Yet despite his apparent stupidity and desire to never take anything too seriously, he was always heard out, and this situation was no different. "R.K, what do you want?" the trooper asked, slightly annoyed, yet surprised to see Random Kid somewhere by himself rather than surrounded by friends like usual. "I just had a question," Random Kid smiled. "Make it fast," the trooper responded. “I wanted to get on to the story of Mark Trayson. There's a creepy story about how he ended u-" "I was just curious," Random Kid interrupted. "You said Diacate and his unit were looking for the S.S.C a few years prior to when your story took place. Which would make it around... say... nine years ago... that'd be 1997." The trooper gave a short laugh. "Uh yeah... that's math for ya R.K, maybe you should be working on that instead of coming down here." Random Kid nodded slowly in agreement. "It's just that..." Random Kid continued. "The S.S.C and THEM weren't fighting at all back in 1997. It was a stalemate situation at the time. It's my understanding that they didn't start fighting again until 2003." Everyone looked curiously now at the trooper, who's smile softly dropped from his face. "You think you're some kind of S.S.C historian now, Random Kid?" the trooper shot back. "Well no," R.K replied. "But I've been held back enough to remember that four years ago, THEM and the S.S.C wanted nothing to do with each other." The trooper looked away from all of us for a moment, a fleeting look of uncertainty in his eyes. We all waited for a response, which the trooper seemed slow to give. Just as he began to open his mouth in reply, there was finally a harsh crash of thunder over our heads, and it began to pour down rain almost immediately. "It's been fun guys,” the trooper said, quickly gathering his things and standing up. “But let's not get drenched. More stories sometime next week, huh?" Most everyone sighed in frustration, but were quick to agree, and soon all of them began to run their own separate ways back home. It took me a while to move, for I still felt that I had not fully grasped the oddity of the time discrepancy Random Kid had brought up. I turned my head, seeing Random Kid heading away from me, back towards the road. "Hey!" I shouted. "R.K!" Random Kid stopped and looked back at me. "I thought the S.S.C and THEM were always enemies." Random Kid merely shielded his face from the rain and shrugged his shoulders to me, before spinning back around and continuing his trek back home.

A Walk:

The next morning, James and I met at the sidewalk as we began traversing our way to the school, not much caring if we missed the morning announcements. "You end up going to the prissy little meetup again?" James asked me with a laugh. "I wish you'd give it another chance," I responded earnestly. James just grinned and brushed his hair back up so that it remained slicked up in the front, with a central spine of spiky hair trailing behind it to the back of his head, with all the other hair on his head remaining undisturbed. His pure black hair reminded me of the darkness of Random Kid's eyes to some degree. "Randy came by the other night and told me about the Bears winning the basketball game last night," James said. "I completely forgot about it," I responded earnestly. "Maybe next year we should both join again? We're pretty good!" James gave a small nod, but seemed put off by the idea. "You not a fan of basketball anymore?" I asked. "It's not that," James replied. "It's just... not sure my parents can afford for me to go back into it... not really sure they'd care enough to get everything signed up again either. It's always booze with them, ya know?" I avoided eye contact and silently grunted in acknowledgment. Whenever James brought up his parents, it always made me thankful for mine. For despite the fact that my parents didn't care much for what I did, they'd still listen to me when I had something to say. And they'd treat me like a human being. James had a different situation, one which we didn't talk about much at all because of how awkward it made things. Sometimes I'd worry that he'd run away. He'd never mentioned that he'd do it, but there was something about the stories he'd tell of how his father would come home drunk and smash up the house, or how his mother would sometimes lie in bed for days on end in a fit of depression that made me think he wanted to. It was a good thing neither of us ever had experienced bullying at our school, otherwise I feared he'd sink into a depression that I could never pull him out from. I could always tell that behind every smile and joke James would make, that there was a deep sadness behind it. Perhaps I was one of the only things keeping him tied down to Toparsburg. "Well," I finally said. "It's okay. With enough work, I'm sure we can get the other guys to just meet up with us at the park. Shoot some hoops over there." "Now you're talking," James said. "I'd like that." Soon thereafter, we reached the courtyard and went our separate ways to our classes.

Discovery:

School was slow that day. Perhaps I was still so intrigued by the S.S.C trooper's story that everything else just seemed incredibly boring by comparison. I found myself imagining James and I dashing through the dark brush of Mellow Falls, darting around trees and leaping over bushes as we chased down a sound that we could never reach. I imagined that excitement and thrill of stumbling across mysteries that remained hidden deep within the woods surrounding our town, just waiting to be found. Yup, it's definitely tough to concentrate on long division when supplied with thoughts like that. I spent most of my day in this mystified state, all the way up until the final bell. However this time, there was nothing for me to rush and see. In fact, on this day, I had been told by my mother to wait outside the school for her to pick me up and drive me down to our Aunt's house to see her new baby. However, my mother had warned me that she may be an hour late or so due to her having to get some shopping done first. Therefore I was left to slowly walk down the halls of that ancient school, watching as kids slowly began to pour out, being taken home by bus, car, or merely walking back. After about half an hour, the sounds of my footsteps echoing through the long halls of the first floor were all that could be heard. I had gotten in trouble for hanging around the school this long in the past, but I enjoyed looking at all the old photographs and dusty trophies stored behind glass displays in the corridors. And since most of the instructors worked up on the second floor, it was unlikely anyone would call me out this time. As I approached the glass cases, I noted some of the oldest trophies and ribbons on display dated back to the 1940's. I wondered for a moment if the S.S.C had been around so long ago, walking these very same halls and getting distracted from their classes with other incredible stories of members that came before them. Just as I began to get lost in thought once more, there was a sudden hard clang, followed by muffled yells coming from a hall which connected the school to the gym. I gazed down the darkened hall for a minute, hearing another harsh banging noise and the sounds of rapid footsteps. I was suddenly living the story that S.S.C trooper had told us. Finding myself faced with the darkness, hearing noises that could be coming from anyone... or anything. My heart sped up and my legs seemed numb, but against all odds I was drawn to the noise, and as if I were under some sort of spell, I found myself walking towards the source of the struggle. As I grew closer, the noise and shouts grew louder and more strained until at last I reached of set of double doors that opened up to the old wrestling room. Ever since the school was renovated several years ago, this wrestling area was only sparingly used when no other indoor workout locations could be provided. To ears that may not have known better, it would appear as if the wrestling team were just beyond those doors, getting their practice in, but I could tell this was something different. Something about the occasional shout or muffled clang. This was not wrestling. Hesitantly, I slightly pushed open the left door, and to my amazement, gazed upon what must've been a dozen or so teenagers, much older than myself, fighting one another. Two figures with a purple patch loosely stitched to their sleeves ganged up on a fighter in blue, one hitting him upside the head as the other gave two strong blows to the stomach. And just as quickly as the fighter in blue fell, two more came to take his place, tackling the purple-patched fighters to the floor and punching them repeatedly in the jaw. There was no doubt about it, this was a fight between the S.S.C and THEM. I was awestruck. To witness a fight of such scale, during the school day was practically unheard of as far as I knew. It was everything I had heard of and more, as both sides clashed and frantically tried to subdue an enemy without causing too much damage or leaving behind too much evidence. Aside from the occasional whack to the face, most everyone tried to keep blood down to a minimum, lest any janitors become suspicious I presumed. Though everyone seemed scattered, there was a force behind it all that I can only describe as being that of a well-oiled machine, working quickly and effectively. Just as I thought it wise to back out of the door, I found myself pulled forward by a bruised-up hand on my shoulder. Behind me was a sour looking THEM member, a bandage pressed tightly against the ridge of his nose, and a missing tooth to his bottom jaw. His purple patch gave him away. Only THEM members were associated with this simplistic symbol. The brute stared at me in absolute contempt, as if merely looking at him were enough a reason to knock my lights out. Without thought, I tried to get away, but his grip was too strong. With little to no options left, and my mind racing, I turned around and punched him straight in the arm with all my might. My fist lit up with a surging pain as the THEM member hardly moved an inch. He hadn't felt a thing. Now terrified, I continued my barrages of hits, but the brute only laughed. "You punch like a girl!" he yelled. Immediately I was struck hard in my stomach, causing me to stagger back in sudden pain, the brute letting go of me, allowing my backwards momentum to send me floundering to the ground. The fighter was far from finished with me though. Seeing me down now, and pinned against a wall with no escape, he casually walked my way, smiling a crooked grin as he prepared to finish me off. I closed my eyes and waited to be knocked out. I could tell that it was going to hurt.

A Hero:

I sat there waiting for blackness. I wondered what it was truly like. To be awake and frightened one moment, and then to all have it rush to a sudden halt. I pictured it to be like falling asleep. Only this would be a forced rest, and an unwelcomed one at that. But then, to my absolute amazement, as I continued to sit rigidly against that icy cold brick wall, nothing happened. Slowly, I opened my eyes and found that the brute had been stopped by a tall, lightly brown-haired kid, the likes of which I had never seen before. This S.S.C fighter had saved me from that forced sleep. The brown-haired hero suddenly spun around to look at me as he held my former attacker in a strong headlock. "Get out of here, kid!" the trooper shouted. My head now spinning, I almost didn't comprehend his words. Yet slowly my mind caught up with the rest of me, as I shakingly stood to my feet and sprinted back to the double doors. I could've kept running. Kept running all the way back home. But something stopped my legs from moving far beyond those doors. Something that told me to stay. Something that told me this was where I belonged. And so, now just on the other side of the doors, I peeked through the crack by the hinge, observing the battle between my attacker and savior. The two were quick and agile. It was true that they were experts in the craft. There was a choreography to it all, as they each took turns throwing barrages of punches and kicks, avoiding as many as possible amongst the chaos around them. By my count, there were about twenty-four kids in that room in-all, but each and every person within that wrestling room remained diligent and paid close attention to the moves of their enemies. The world must have been like a blur to them. They were only focused on one thing. And that one thing was the fight. Anything else could wait. My hero jabbed the attacker in the shoulder and tripped him with a quick spin on the floor. The brute, not to be outdone, leapt up from the floor and began to kick my savior in his sides. Eventually my hero was cornered by these fearsome attacks, and it seemed as if he was going to lose, when all of a sudden, the hero broke free from his imprisonment in the corner and proceeded to quickly tackle the brute into a pile of rolled-up wrestling mats. I was silently cheering the whole time, pleading to any unseen force to allow for my hero to come out on top. The S.S.C soldier finally got the brute into yet another headlock and used all of his remaining energy to spin him around until finally letting go, sending disoriented attacker spiraling into a wall. The attacker held tightly to his nose now as it lightly dripped with blood. Now swearing under his breath, the attacker sprang back into action and attempted to grab my hero and flip him over his shoulder. But the S.S.C fighter was all to prepared for this and countered the attack with ease by elbowing him in the chest and delivering a sharp uppercut to the brute's head as it jutted outwards. Finding himself more and more vulnerable, the attacker rolled out of the way of any more incoming strikes, darting to another set of double doors leading outside. He didn't even look back as he fled. My heart could finally stop pounding as I dropped to my knees on the other side of the doors and gave a sigh of relief. The battle had seemed to take half an hour in its complexity, but my watch had hardly budged an inch. I wondered for a moment if such time anomalies occurred to the fighters as well, and not just to a humble onlooker. I sat on the other end of that door for a while, my back pressed firmly against it just in case any THEM soldier attempted to get out that way. After two minutes had passed, the sounds of punches and grunts of pain subsided just as quickly as they had begun. I slowly rose back to my feet, poking my head once more into the right position to see what was happening through the small crack. Only the S.S.C remained now. Some of them tending to their wounds with bandages whilst others talked in quiet solemnness to their fellow comrades. I couldn't quite make out any of the words, but it was clear that the S.S.C had come out on top in this battle. Despite my pleasure at their victory, I felt a tinge of sadness for a moment. Feeling as if I'd never have the luck to witness such a fray ever again. This was the closest I'd ever came to the actual S.S.C, and I'd squandered it with my puny strikes. After a few more minutes of tending to any remaining injuries, the troopers shook hands and began pouring out of the other set of double doors. I pressed my head firmly against my hiding spot, finally zeroing in on at least one conversation. "Lemme guess," I heard one say in an annoyed tone. "He got away again?" "You'd be right," another one replied. "Ran off before the battle even ended. The coward. How he is still leader is beyond me." "I hear he pays good," came a third voice. "But that's hardly an excuse. I'd rather have a chief with a backbone rather than one with a fat wallet." I drew my head away and peaked once more through the crack, now confused, but nevertheless interested. I continued to watch as they all finally departed. All but one. That same trooper with the light brown hair who had saved me. My rescuer now stood eerily quiet in the center of the room, as if expecting something. I was going to walk in and thank him, but decided against it, for I assumed he did such tasks on a daily basis. I wasn't special. I was just a roadblock that made his job even tougher. I watched him stand there for a bit longer until he suddenly stiffened up and turned to look in my direction. He knew I was there.

My Master:

My eyes widened as I immediately drew my face away from the door and stood up, ready to move away, when suddenly came the trooper's shout. "Wait!" I heard him yell, as his footsteps grew close to the doors. I now couldn't move. His words alone were enough to freeze me. The trooper opened the set of doors and looked at me for a while, like I was some kind of alien. His eyebrows were long and thin, stretching out to the sides of his head in a calm and relaxed manner. His eyes were a mix of brown and green, and looked calmly upon me now as if I were a close friend he'd known for years. Finally he spoke up in an unexpected scornful tone. "Why did you walk into the middle of a battle like that? You could have been hurt! Bad! I've seen it happen." "I was d-dragged in there by one of those THEM soldiers!" I protested in a shaky voice. The trooper raised an eyebrow at me. "You know what a THEY member is?" "Y-yes," came my slow reply. "Then you should know that they are trained to fight... trained to win... Kid, you were a horrible fighter out there. Don't you know how to throw a punch?" I paused for a moment but I finally stated what I knew to be true. "No... I'm no fighter. It's just... I've heard stories about you guys and well... you are clearly better than me." I looked down at my feet, stuttering for more words. The soldier sighed. "No," he said adamantly. In my opinion, everyone has the ability to become a great fighter. All they need is a little help." I shook my head like I understood, but I could not disagree more. I wasn't built to be a fighter, and I never would be. The trooper spoke again, "My name is Eric... what is your name?" "I'm Tim," I slowly replied. "Uh, Tim Allender." Eric looked at me some more and after some deep thought, leaned down slightly so he could look me eye-to-eye. "There was one thing about you though, Tim," he said. "One thing I noticed about you that I don't believe I've seen in another fellow in quite some time... your curiosity." I could only stand confused as Eric continued. "You looked in on the danger that lies behind these closed doors and didn't wince once. You feared the danger, but your intrigue outweighed your fear. That's a special thing." Eric brought his hand to his mouth, pondering something for a moment as he looked up at the ceiling. "With some proper training, you could become one of us... you could come to the aid of those who are in need help... perhaps it's destiny that we met... what I'm trying to say is... how would you like to be my apprentice, Tim?" My jaw dropped and my eyes widened once more. I honestly don't recall much after that, except for two things really. One was shaking Eric's hand. And the second was the fact that I now believed in destiny.

A Talk With James:

I was told by Eric to meet him at recess the following day, and I could hardly wait. The prospect of meeting him there was admittedly confusing however. He was far too old to still have recess. This was my final year of it, after all. Upon further thought, I couldn't recall ever seeing him around the school either. I could only assume he came from a different school nearby. After all, ours was surrounded by several others of different districts. The hours leading up to recess seemed to move at a snail's pace, and I'm sure my classmates could notice my constant jitteriness. They must've at least had a vague concept that something was going on, after all, recess had always been a bit of a bore to me. Nevertheless, I had assured myself that this time within the S.S.C would indeed change everything. That being said, it became increasingly difficult for me to keep this information secret. It began to eat away at me as I longed to tell someone, anyone, of what I had just gotten into. I knew better than to tell all my friends, so I eventually came to the conclusion that James would be my best bet. And so, on our way to recess later that day, I met up with him and prepared to state the good news. "You seem excited today," James observed with a laugh. "Figure out how to cheat on that history test I presume?" I laughed along with him, but it was less about the joke and more about my mounting excitement. "Afraid not," I replied eagerly. "You're gonna have to figure that one out for yourself." "What is it then?" James asked. "Don't keep me guessing." "You know how you once told me I'd make a good fighter some day?" I said, referencing a past conversation I was sure James had long forgotten about. James hesitantly nodded. "Looks like you were right," I continued. "I witnessed a fight between the S.S.C and THEM... I saw it all, James!" James stopped walking at looked at me with shock. "I nearly got myself beaten to a pulp!" I said with a crazed smile. "But... I was saved by an S.S.C member... his name is Eric... he needed an apprentice... and now… well... you're looking at'em!" I'd practically ran out of breath just trying to explain it all, but no words could ever truly recap the events that had only transpired yesterday. James seemed taken aback at the news, which I had expected. "You can be sure that if any of those THEM members come our way, I'll be right there to kick their butts!" I assured him with a pat to the back. James seemed at a loss for words, and could only give me a lopsided grin. "Fighting?" he uttered. "Tim, I'm not really sure that's your speed. No matter what I said some time ago... I mean... c'mon." This was an unexpected response as the smile faded slightly from my face. "I saw you get into a fight once," I recalled. "With that Randy guy at the bus stop." "I'm a year older than you," James said defensively, reminding me of the fact that he'd gotten held back years ago. "That's your excuse?" I argued. "I thought you'd be happy for me!" James brushed back his hair with his hand and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "It's... really something, dude," he stated. "You've got some big things ahead of you I guess..." I was about to say more, when James turned his back and began walking over to the basketball court. "Listen," he called back. "I gotta go... R.K wanted to play a game of tether ball... If you want... you could brush off the meeting with that Eric guy and join us. R.K gathered a bunch of the older guys." I pretended to think it over, but the option flew right over my head as far as I was concerned. "No thanks," I said at last. "You guys have fun!" James frowned for a moment before turning back completely and walking through the crowds of kids. I was disappointed that he didn't seem thrilled by my presence in the S.S.C, but I brushed it off as him being worried that THEM would start going after him to get to me. I hoped that wouldn't be the case, so I made a mental note to ask Eric about it after our first day of training. I now spotted Eric, who was standing next to an old tree stump out in the courtyard. I ran his way and eagerly slapped my hands together upon reaching him. "So!" I shouted. "What do we do first?" Eric looked up at me and froze me in my tracks once more, only this time it was without words. Now his mere glance was enough. "First," he said. "We change your attitude."

Training:

I was admittedly quite confused at first at Eric's remark. "What do you mean?"  I asked with a raised eyebrow. Eric calmly walked to my side and strolled with me to the center of the courtyard. "Tim," he began. "You're a good kid, but there is no room in the S.S.C for those who can't learn to take things a little slow. Get a sense of the situation. Understand the enemy and yourself. I used to be quite similar to you… every S.S.C member is, at least to some degree. And there is a time and place for being a kid again... but in the S.S.C, being a fighter means you have to think before you act. Only then ca-" "What about strong?" I interjected. Eric looked at me strictly now. "Knowledge is far more important than brute strength... it always was, it always will be." "I don't understand," I admitted. "You will someday," said Eric in his usual, calm voice. "So from now on I want you to be calm, diligent, and understanding. Because only then can you be a true hero." I nodded and put on an understanding face, but deep down, I was annoyed by this sudden change in my expectations, as well as Eric's calm demeanor. Perhaps Eric saw through my fake mask, or maybe it was his plan all along to aggravate me. Either way, it wasn't long until he turned to me and bluntly stated, "Now give me 100 push-ups." At first I thought he was just kidding, but when I looked at his eyes, I could tell this was no simple joke. I could also tell that no amount of arguing could get me out of this situation. It was my decision to join the S.S.C, and thus I had to live up to my side of the deal in doing what Eric asked of me. Taking my time now, I got down on the ground and began the push-ups. I kept each one slow and precise. I had heard a couple years ago that this was the best way to conserve energy, and Eric held no objections to it. A part of me hoped that by the time I hit thirty, the bell would go off and I'd be forced to cut this grueling task short. But as I reached twenty-four, it became apparent that no mere bell could save me now. Beginning to breath heavily and worry about my form, I stopped, waiting for Eric to perhaps tell me only a few more were necessary. But instead I got quite a different message. "What are you doing?" asked Eric from above, an urgency to his voice. "Don't give up now!" And so I kept going, quickly losing count after surpassing thirty. Luckily, I could tell Eric was silently counting to himself above me. Though I could hardly make out each individual number over my strained breaths. Thankfully, I was a lightweight, so lifting myself up and down from the Earth was not quite a problem at first, but soon I began to notice each pushup to become extended in time by several seconds. "Keep going!" Eric yelled as he adjusted my crooked feet. My mid-section was burning now, as were the back of my legs. I was quickly working up a heavy sweat. "I-I can't do it!" I shouted through my teeth as I lifted myself once more and balanced my weight backwards, trying to release some strain on my arms. "Don't give up!" Eric yelled once more. My arms regaining some feeling from this brief break allowed for me to break into faster pushups, which depleted my energy far more than I ever could have anticipated. My heart was beating unbelievably hard at this point... could I really make it? "Keep going, don't give up!" Eric yelled some more. His repetition annoyed me. I was thirsty for some other words of encouragement, but they were always the same. Each resurrection from the ground became slower than the last as the knot in my mid-section only worsened and seemed to grow larger. I could tell people were beginning to crowd around to watch me now. They chanted for me to keep going. "You can do it! You can do it!" Eric shouted, breaking from his usually calm voice. This prompted similar responses from the group of kids. I began to gasp in pain as my head jerked violently left and right without reason upon every rise and fall. I was sweating more than I ever had before and my arms were more than ready to give out. Eric told me to hurry, prompting me to increase my speed slightly, but I certainly began to wish I had not lost track of the numbers. Every pushup had seemingly lost its meaning. There was no difference between the fortieth or the eightieth. As far as I knew, I hadn't even broken past the halfway point, and my brain certainly did not have the energy to do the math on the matter. More people started to gather and watch, drawn in by my pained grunts like hungry lions searching for a wounded meal. I shouted in pain now, trying to relinquish the knot from my core to no avail. With no more chanting from Eric, I was nearly ready to allow myself to fall flat to the Earth and prevent myself from vomiting. But then I strenuously looked up at the crowds surrounding me. Staring at me in a way I was not accustomed to. I wasn't sure what it was... what kept me from falling... but deep down inside, I felt as if I was finally somebody... I realized that they were counting on me to do this, and to do it right.

Pain:

My face was fiercely dripping with sweat, and pain echoed through my body. Breathing became more erratic as I continued to groan. "Don't give up, you can do it!" Eric repeated once more. Most kids were cheering at this point, others just looked at me; astounded. In a last ditch effort to ignore the pain, I tried to look around at my surroundings. In the distance, I noted that James was standing far away from the crowd. The sweat seeping into my eyes made me almost completely blind as to his expression, though I could tell he was not cheering. He stood with his arms crossed and watched in what I could only imagine to be amazement. After all, the old Tim would have never been able to accomplish such a feat. Yet it still irked me that I had yet to reach 100. I began praying that each and every lift would be my last. That Eric would stop me and tell me I had succeeded in something tremendous. They were only dreams though. I couldn't feel my arms anymore and every motion upwards was only followed by shaking arms and a bobbing head. But I kept going. I continually thought to myself I can do it, I can do it. Sometimes I had faith in my silent beliefs. Other times they frustrated me and made me dig my nails into the soft dirt below. My pace, for a moment anyways, had grown faster as more cheering ensued. I cannot honestly say that I was doing true pushups anymore. In fact I had stopped traditional pushups some time ago. My torso no longer came even close to the ground, and my arms bent only half of what they had when I had first begun this challenge. But Eric did not call me out on this. I wasn't cheating as far as I was concerned. The pain was still very real, even if the pushups were not. I looked up at James again, but he was busy talking to an older guy at the corner of the playground - one who certainly seemed too old for recess. They kept looking over at me and then they started to argue. For what reasons I had not the mindset to figure out. "Almost!" shouted Eric, breaking away from his typical words of encouragement. I shouted out once again in anguish. My entire body felt flimsy. My two arms felt like toothpicks and my spine began to droop inwards, hurting my lower back. But despite the failings of my body, my mind was ready to finish this. My heart was beating so loud I could almost swear that others could hear it. I wondered what the expression on Eric's face was. Was he smiling? Proud of me? Or perhaps disgraced? The thought ached away at me almost as much as the pushups themselves. Could all of this been for nothing? At last, I reached my breaking point. My arms could no longer bare to support my body’s weight, and all I could do was writhe my body back and forth, attempting to ascend, but it was of no use. At last, my arms folded in and my feet lost their leverage to the ground. I fell face-first into the disturbed dirt and laid there on my stomach, attempting to regain the consciousness that was eluding me. I buried my face in the grass as it dawned on me that I just didn't have what it took to be a real fighter. The crowds gave their final words of encouragement and started to walk off. Had Eric not been with me, I would've likely remained there on that sweat-stained piece of land for as long as recess would allow. But Eric was there. And he expected me to speak. And so, my face now a blistering red color and my arms throbbing, I turned myself over and looked up at the sky. My breathing settled slightly, but the pain lingered on. After a while, Eric took my hand and helped me up. I looked at him for a moment and felt light headed. If given the opportunity, I might've been able to fall asleep standing up. I desperately tried to speak but it felt like I'd puke. "I... sorry... I f-failed you... Eric," I stuttered through pained breaths. "I couldn't do 100 push-ups... I can't do 100 pushups!" Eric looked at me as small smirk appeared upon his face. "You're right," he told me. "You couldn't do 100 pushups... you did 137." There was long silence now. I was beyond shocked at what Eric claimed. But he was not lying. At least not as far as I could tell. I gave a strained smile. Even the muscles in my face hadn't the energy to lift themselves. I looked over at the spot where James and the other kid were standing. They were both gone. "You have done a great job today Tim. You deserve a rest." said Eric. "I know you still have a lot of questions. But we can deal with all of that tomorrow. You've done a lot of good for yourself. More than you might realize." And with that, he left me to rest.

The New Me:

The next day I woke up feeling sore all over. I could barely get out of bed to be honest. But the hope to make a better me was now a thought that burned ever-stronger in my head. After school that day, I spoke with Eric about the battle I had witnessed. The same one which had caused our destined meeting. "We were going on a mission to find a missing fighters member," recalled Eric solemnly as we walked side-by-side along the road leading back to my house. "He was taken by THEY's leader; Talon." "His name is Talon?" I asked with a laugh. "No," replied Eric. "Not really. THEY members and S.S.C fighters often use code names to protect their identities from being spilled to any... unwanted outside attention. It's mostly optional. I've never had one. Personally, I'm not afraid to let my name fly about. In any case, we found our missing member, but as we retreated with him we were cornered by that unit of THEY soldiers, led by Talon himself." Eric stopped for a moment to better get a point across. "Talon is a hands-on leader. He accompanies his troops on multiple fights, but always gets away. His cowardice works well to his advantage. It's easy to run when you have a shield of meat in your way. In any case, we began to fight. That is about the time you came in. Talon of course got away again during the fray. That's his skill I guess. Running away." We continued walking up the road again. "You said he's leader,” I began again. “How many leaders has THEY had? And what about the S.S.C?" "Hard to keep count, Tim." Eric admitted. "THEM and the S.S.C have been around since the 1960's. A leader called 'Moral' brought the whole thing into motion. Of course, his real name was Albert. 'Spark, Sustain, Combustion' that is what the S.S.C stands for. All the stages needed to light a fire." I stopped in my tracks and gave Eric an odd glance. "That's not what I heard," I argued. Eric raised an eyebrow at this. "Me and some other students have met with an old S.S.C trooper at the park. He said it stood for 'Super Secret Club'." "A trooper?" Eric repeated skeptically. "Tim, I believe I know of the guy you're talking about. He's no S.S.C member. He joined when he was about your age and quite in a week. He thinks he understands the S.S.C, but really he just scratched the surface." I tried to hide my shock about this revelation. "Why haven't you stopped him?" I asked. "We fight to protect students from physical harm," Eric said with a sigh. "The spoken word is outside of our jurisdiction. We're not an empire." We continued to walk as Eric spoke a bit quieter. "Our leader believes in a simple system. One where troopers take on apprentices when they are old enough and spread the legacy. Our legacy is that we fight for others. Not for ourselves or for our individual beliefs." "Who trained you?" I asked. Eric gave a chuckle as he spoke up again. "I trained myself. A friend of mine was involved with the S.S.C and was able to get me in. It was all I ever wanted. To save those who couldn't save themselves." Eric stopped and looked down at his feet for a moment. "THEM have been attacking innocent kids more and more here lately," he said under his breath. "The other guys see some hope, but I think I see where this is all going. Things are going to get worse before they get better. It wasn't always like this you know. The S.S.C and THEM existed for almost forty years without fighting." This number completely took me by surprise. "B-But... you're enemies!" I shouted. "How can two enemies prevent a fight for forty years?" "It's not easy, as you can imagine," Eric assured me. "But THEM wasn't always like this. In the old days, THEM had stronger moral codes. They were saviors to... just in their own ways. But as the years went by, misconceptions and poor leadership led to THEM becoming something it was never supposed to be. Tensions grew and grew as the years rolled on until it all blew up in our faces three years ago. A war spurred by differing views and misconceptions." Eric brought his hand to his mouth, thinking back to an obviously brighter age. "We went from peace to our current situation of ongoing turf wars. If the situation mounts anymore, it'll be like the dark ages all over again." "Dark ages?" I repeated. "Best we save that conversation for another time," Eric said, brushing off the question. "All you really need to know is that we do not negotiate with THEM like we used to. All human-like behavior and courtesy has just been tossed out the window. Neither side wants to look weak by offering alternatives to fighting or ratting out the other side to the school or the police." "Don't worry," I proclaimed, trying to cheer my master up a bit. "With me on your side, there is no-way you can lose." Eric looked up with a smile on his face. "You never know...” he said, hope restored to his voice. “Maybe someday THEM will turn to the light and become our allies. After all... those born by darkness can bring new light." I didn't quite understand what Eric meant again. At least not in the broadest sense. But the quote seemed to put him at ease. Eric was a great teacher and I knew it was only a matter of time before I could truly prove myself to him and the S.S.C as a whole. "Now then, Tim," said Eric as he ducked his head beneath the underbrush of a tree and walked me out to the old park. "Give me 100 sit-ups!" The old me would have totally said no to a request like that. But I wasn't the old me anymore... I was a member of the Fighters and I would never give up. So I began those sit-ups. And to me, it was the beginning of so much more than just another training exercise. This was the beginning of me. This was Tim Allender as he was meant to be.

A Bad Move

And so time went on. Five months-worth to be exact. And a lot had changed in my life. The dawn of 2007 was upon me. I took more pride in this passage of time than I normally would in years past. In my mind, this new year was sort of a benchmark. An entire era of an entirely new me was welcomed with open arms... at least to some extent. In truth, not everything had been going my way both before and after the start of the new year. Firstly, I had grown slightly annoyed with Eric in recent months. My qualms with his presence started out simplistic to say the least. His occasional spouting of influential quotes and proverbs constantly made me believe he was trying to prove his intelligence over mine; bordering on even rubbing it in my face. I don't believe he was aware of how I felt about this, for I tried hard not to show my frustration every time he'd repeat the same old lines I had been hearing for weeks now. Many of them were practically stitched inside my brain, but I had little meaning to attached to them. Eric had made it clear to me that fighting wasn't everything, but that did not make up for the fact that he hadn't sent me on a single real mission since my joining the S.S.C. Every day started to feel the same, even training sessions both outside and indoors utilizing the school's weight room failed to sate me. Occasionally we'd skip practice and Eric would spend the day relaying more information on the S.S.C to me, answering the few questions I still held. In many ways, I began to feel so well-versed on how the S.S.C operated, I figured I could become a tremendous commander of some sort. But what use was a commander if he couldn't fight? Perhaps most frustrating was the ‘mission’ he had assigned me to only three days ago, in which I was tasked with standing at an apparent turf separation ground between the S.S.C and THEM. This job lasted hours, leaving me exhausted from the sheer boredom. I'd later learn from another S.S.C trooper that the area in which I stood was not a separation ground at all, rendering my entire purpose there null and void. I never told Eric that I found out about this ruse he had laid out, but I believe that in some manner he knew I would. Furthermore, if I were to confront him on this matter, I had no doubt he’d claim it to be a test of patience above all else. I simply couldn't understand how someone who constantly mentioned how bad things were getting between the S.S.C and THEM could possibly keep me away from the action for so long. Even younger recruits had been sent on more daunting tasks than I had, as well as within a shorter period of time. Yes, I was growing more and more anxious by the day to prove myself as a trooper.

Dawn:

“Left kick,” Eric spoke as a harsh breeze swept down the hillside. Instinctively, my right leg pivoted slightly and my waist rotated to the recommended angle before shooting my left leg outwards, striking Eric’s gloved hand. Eric grabbed it and held it there for a while to determine my balance. “Right kick,” he now ordered, releasing my left leg and allowing for me to reverse the previous motions with similar effectiveness. We were doing some common light training in an open hilly valley of sorts located dangerously close to the heart of Toparsburg. Had we been on a true S.S.C exploit, being this close to civilization would be entirely frowned upon and quite dangerous. Of course, this was nowhere close to being some vital mission. Just an ordinary day of training in which Eric would get a benchmark of my growing skill. The first couple times I had done one of these, I’d given it my all, suspecting that a proper session of training would prove to Eric I was ready to become a true member, but in the end, these meetings ended up becoming pointless. And so now I treated them as such. “Your left kick is a little weak,” Eric remarked emotionlessly as he stepped aside for a moment to fiddle with something within his backpack nearby. “You also are swinging your arms out too much when you strike,” he continued. “Try and hold them closer to your center, otherwise you’ll be open for attack.” “Alright,” I replied with the same lacking enthusiasm. “Let’s try some punches real quick,” Eric now spoke as he continued to dig through his pack. “Show me some basic flows.” I stepped into an appropriate fighting stance and kept my arms positioned closely near my jaw, one bent arm slightly farther out so as to deliver a strike faster than the other. Now leaning forward ever-so-slightly, I twisted to the right a carried through with a solid punch to the thin air. I wasn’t sure Eric had even looked up from the pack to see it. Knowing he wouldn’t want me to stop until another order was given, I switched arms and carried through with yet another strike. I continued these motions for about forty seconds or so, somewhat embarrassed at the thought of people in the town overhead seeing me punch at nothing. “Some S.S.C soldiers believe in the concept of individual techniques,” Eric said as he stood up for a moment and approached me. “They believe that some forms of fighting work better against others, and the mastery of as many techniques as possible allows for a truly well-rounded soldier.” I couldn’t find it in my heart to even bother questioning him any farther on this subject. “Your form strikes me as being third tier,” Eric said as he observed more of my empty punches. “That tier is about as all-encompassing as they come. Your punches are fast, but not too fast. They strike hard, but not too hard. You focus on defense, but not too much.” “A compliment?” I said with some surprise. “It is,” Eric nodded. “You’d be well-suited against nearly all forms of combat. Your struggle would come with facing someone else with a similar fighting style. Though if you want to know the truth, I’m not sure I believe in those theories of fighting tiers. I think that’s just a method the S.S.C uses to keep people interested and willing to grow. At the end of the day, when you’re truly backed against a wall, I believe any person can suddenly adopt any fighting style. Putting labels on things doesn’t interest me.” I acknowledged this opinion, but had nothing to add to it. “You can stop,” Eric finally said as he approached his backpack once more. “I have something for you.” For a brief moment, I suspected that this was going to be the instant in which Eric would reveal to me some sort of special mission plan. Really anything more interesting than this current training exercise. But instead, he only removed a royal blue short-sleeved shirt from one of the pouches, unfolding it to reveal the S.S.C symbol tightly stitched to the right side of the chest as well as one on the right shoulder. “These aren’t as cheap to make as they may appear,” Eric made clear as he handed the shirt to me. “So, don’t get it too dirtied up just yet.” I tried to find room to thank him, but still no words could leave my mouth. I still expected more. I carefully put the shirt on over my current garb, it fit me perfectly. “Those patches symbolize teamwork,” Eric made clear as he gestured to the two blue triangles, both resting on one another to form a diamond. “The ability for two halves to make a better whole. Wear them with pride.” “What’s the THEM symbol mean?” I questioned at last, recalling the simplistic purple circle I’d noted the THEM soldiers to have worn during the battle I witnessed. “There’s all sorts of theories,” Eric stated as he silently motioned for me to begin some pushups. “THEM has strayed so far from their past selves, I don’t even know if they know what it means.” I kept my breathing steady as I rose and dropped with far more ease than I had weeks prior. I wanted to hear all that Eric had to say on this matter. “I’ve always assumed it was meant to look like a bruise,” he continued. “After all, THEM is always trying to intimidate through threats of pain. Their leader, Talon is known for having three prominent scars over his left eye. Nobody’s really sure if they are real or just painted on, but it makes him appear far more formidable than he truly is.” A silence now fell between the two of us as Eric’s watch started beeping, signaling the training to be over for the day. “Keep working on that left kick,” he reminded me. “You should also start practicing some speed trials on your own time. You’d be surprised how often we have to run in the S.S.C.” I opened my mouth for a brief moment, wanting to ask Eric if I’d gotten any better, but I stopped myself. I doubted he’d give me any special response. The new shirt was nice, but nothing else was changing in my training as far as I could tell. Everything was just the same. “There’s some rumors drifting around,” Eric said as he put on his pack and began to walk away. “If they turn out to be true, you’ll be getting a call from me late tonight or very early tomorrow. Seems important from what I’ve heard.” Eric now turned his back away from me completely and began walking back uphill, to whatever place he called home. I rolled his final words around my head a few times and began to smile. Now that was something new.

The Call:

It was about 4:00 in the morning when my phone rang. Being as dreary as I was after being woken up, I nearly hung up the phone instinctively, forgetting everything Eric had told me the day prior. I moreover believed it to be James who was calling, but then my brain finally caught up with itself just in time. I finally recalled that James only called on relatively rare occasions these days, and never at this ungodly hour. I irritably answered the phone before it could wake my parents. "Hello?" I breathed quietly. "Hello Tim," came Eric's voice on the other end. "Can you meet me at the park?" he interrupted before I could offer any sort of greeting. That familiar smile from hours ago, now slowly crept up on my face again. It occurred to me that perhaps I would finally be given a real mission. After all, we had never met at this time before, and Eric seemed quite serious about this matter. "Sure," I finally replied, stuffing my questions back down my throat. "I'll be right down." I quickly hung up as to prevent Eric from suddenly changing his mind on the matter. Realizing it to be getting quite cold during these early portions of the new year, I dawned my red jacket and gloves before slipping outside without anyone hearing me. I assumed Eric had meant for me to meet him at the old park; a rickety old playground practically abandoned by the whole town for years. Toparsburg simply didn't have enough money to warrant tearing it down. And so it stood against the test of time. Gradually growing more dilapidated and vandalized until any bit of its original luster had been long-since lost. The Fighters used it as a safe-haven occasionally. Or even a base of operations from time to time when the weather was nice. I winced to myself as I caught on to how useless that information really was to someone like me. Nevertheless, Eric had cemented the knowledge into my head. In addition to this old park, Eric had told me of bases spread throughout the entire southern portion of town. Some sat near what was considered enemy territory to the north. These bases were far more likely to come under attack by THEY. Only the best of the best were stationed at these locations, so as to prevent any breach in the territorial divide. Though Eric had told me this split was practically a joke, and was violated almost always without the S.S.C being any the wiser. I liked to imagine myself on these front lines regardless of their danger. I wondered what it would be like to truly see THEM at its strongest, as well as the S.S.C. Eric was a fine instructor, but not exceptionally strong, at least not when compared against the elite figures of the group. These thoughts aided me in ignoring the cold, and I soon found myself arriving at the park. At first I didn't see anyone, and the darkness only made things more difficult to distinguish. At last my eyes adjusted to the night, alerting me to Eric who sat quietly under an ancient maple tree at the far corner of the park. I slowly sat down with him without talking, hoping that my courtesy would further the odds of being assigned some sort of mission. We both stared into the sky for what seemed like eternity, the sun had not yet peaked over the horizon. We sat there for about three minutes before I finally spoke. "Eric," I finally blurted out. "I want to have a real mission. One that will make me into a hero." Eric spoke up now. "Good things come to those who wait," he insisted. Eric might as well of spat right in my face, because that's certainly what it felt like. For months on end, Eric had put me through absolute misery, and now here he was telling me to wait even longer? Anger burned inside of me and I could not bear to hold a smile any longer. The only look that remained on my face was disdain. "I called you here to tell you something important," said Eric at last. "Today during lunch, all fighters are needed to report to room R6 for a meeting in the wrestling courters where you first stumbled across us." My eyes suddenly lit up. This single sentence changed my whole perspective of the situation, as I could only imagine that waiting for me in that meeting was my very first official mission. My waiting really had paid off, Eric just didn't want to make a big deal of it. I almost leapt into the air to shout with glee. "I'll be there!" I exclaimed happily. Eric had no response. He merely handed me a fake lunch pass and returned to staring at the departing clouds. We sat there at the foot of that maple tree for a few more minutes before I realized that he had nothing more to say. So I left.

School:

It was hard trying to make it through the school day, harder than it had ever been before. Just like on my very first day, I once again felt inclined to tell someone about the great honor that would be bestowed upon me at the big meeting tonight. Though I had already spoken to James that morning, I decided to meet him by his locker before we departed to third period. "You'll never guess what Eric told me this morning!" I began, desperately trying to keep a low profile despite my loudness. "Do you really want me to guess, or are you just going to tell me?" asked James with a smile. "How's about I just tell you," I answered. "During lunch, tonight, the Fighters are having a big meeting! This could really be my chance to be a hero... to..." I became lost in my own thoughts for a bit, until James interjected. "Listen man," he said almost sympathetically. "Even if you do get a mission tonight, even if you do succeed, and even if you do end up a 'hero'... what then?" I could only reply with a confused look. "I'm just saying," James continued. "The Fighters go up against some dangerous people... what happens when you meet your match? It's dangerous Tim." James put his books down to the floor so as to better gesticulate his opinions with his hands. "Why do you think I hardly call you anymore?" he asked rhetorically. "I'm afraid that every time we talk I'll just accidentally push you towards some sorta crazy stunt that's gonna get you hurt. You are not invincible." James paused and looked upon my downtrodden face. "I know you've been at this for a while dude, but this... Have you ever thought that perhaps this is a bit too much for you?" "Not a chance," I protested instantly. "I haven't trained all these months for nothin’ am I right?" There was a pause. "Yeah... yeah I guess you're right," James replied with a hint of disappointment. "Ya know, I've always wondered," James now asked. "How does the S.S.C even meet without getting caught by teachers? Do you meet outside or something? I can’t sneak away from classes for the life of me." "No," I replied, happy to change the subject a bit. "We're meeting in room R6, teachers never head down that wing of the school. It’s pretty much just dedicated to lockers after all. Plus I think the older guys rigged something to make it look like just a club meeting." "I see," said James, slightly happier. "Listen man, I gotta get going to class, catch ya later alright?" "Sure thing," I replied. And with a pat on the back, we separated. For the rest of that day, I spent my time dreaming up what awaited me. My first step into a larger world was drawing unbearably close.

The Argument:

When the time finally came for lunch, I was beyond nervous. It felt as if I had been waiting months for this moment. Quite honestly, my grades were beginning to drop significantly due to my increased day-dreaming. I realized it to be a problem, but told myself that I'd deal with the situation when the time was right. As the other students herded into the lunchroom like cattle, I slipped out of sight and narrowly avoided detection from any teachers or janitors. At last, I reached my destination and breathed a sigh of utter relief. The door opened with ease and I entered the room, quickly closing the entrance shut behind me. The last time I had been here, the S.S.C and THEM were having that epic confrontation. Eric had saved me from what must have been the most frightening moment of my life. The nostalgia was strong, and very little had changed about the room since all those months ago. The wrestling mats had been removed most likely so more people could find places to sit or stand during the meeting. On the far side of the room, two doors led outside. The very same ones that THEM had utilized to escape from that previous clash. Near these doors, a large whiteboard hung to the wall. I could only imagine that it was used time and time again to jot out plans of attack or outline upcoming missions. Somehow I had arrived before everyone else. Perhaps my eagerness allowed for me to move much faster than usual. And as I stood there alone in that cold, empty room, I became fearful that I'd been tricked. That this had been yet another meaningless task set by Eric. Suddenly, the door behind me eased open, the noise alone sent me flying to the corner of the room, hiding in admittedly plain sight. "Relax Tim, it's me," came Eric's familiar voice. Now embarrassed, I stood and avoided eye contact. "Where are the others?" I asked. "They are on their way," Eric said calmly. "Older kids get released later for lunch. And this isn’t even my school. For now, just sit down and relax." I pulled a stackable chair from a small closet and took a seat in the center of the room. I sat there for a while as quiet as I could, but finally, unable to prevent myself from asking the burning question inside of my head, I quickly blurted out. "What is the meeting about anyways?" Eric pulled a chair from the closet as well, while I continued. "What mission will they put me on?" Eric turned back to me with a confused look planted on his face. "You aren't going on a mission. I told you before. Good things come to those who wait. The way I see it, you are not ready for a mission, but someday, after plenty of training, you will be." My heart sunk. Not once had I legitimately thought that this meeting was pointless. The entire time I had repeatedly told myself this was it. I bit on my tongue; hard, as an air of embarrassment flooded back over me. Thoughts rushed forward of how I had talked so big of myself to James about this upcoming mission, but it was all a lie. I felt worthless at the bluntness of Eric's words. In no time at all, my mourning turned to rage. "Would you stop it already?" I yelled at the top of my lungs, not caring if an instructor heard me. Eric drew back in surprise at this outburst. "I'm tired of this! I'm tired of you! I'm tired of you telling me your retarded little sayings...  sayings that make no sense!" I stood from my chair and walked over to Eric, looking up at him, straight in the eyes. "I'm tired of you giving me missions that make no sense! What kind of hero are you? One that can only spend his time touting how smart he is to a kid half his age? All you care about is yourself! You don't care what happens to me, or what I do! Is that what it is? Am I just some sort of mistake to you? Is your plan to get rid of me? Well it worked! I don't want this! This isn't the S.S.C, this is just a pack of cowards!" I drew back now, breathless from my rant. I wasn’t sure how much of what I had just said was actually true in my mind. I didn't say anything else. All I could do now was stand there, giving Eric the dirtiest look I could muster. This was no stare of respect. I looked upon Eric for the first time since I met him; as an enemy. But I'll never forget the look he gave me in response. It was not one of calmness, nor was it one of rage. Eric looked at me as if he had no clue who I was anymore. In many ways, it was a worse look than any death stare I could give. Nevertheless, I didn't care what he would say. I was tired of him and I wasn't afraid to show it. And then... it happened. I was so upset, so angry, so hateful, that I had no-time to see it coming... neither of us saw it coming. It is just amazing how something can turn from bad to worse in mere seconds. Both doors leading from outside burst open in unison, spilling cold air into the entirety of the room. This was no teacher coming our way. These were boys. All of whom wore the purple circle of THEM upon their shoulders as they came trampling in alongside the breeze. Soon came more, then even more, filing into the room in groups of two. This was no longer a meeting... this was an ambush.

Taken by Surprise:

Before Eric and I could even hope to react, we were pummeled by the incoming attackers. Instantaneously, I felt a sharp pain in my side and dropped to my knees. I tried to stand up but it was no use, I was being pushed down now. I frantically looked up, trying to find Eric... but he was gone. This was the real deal, and I was far from ready. This time there was no-one there to save me. I was on my own. In the confusion, I managed to finally stand up and get out of the large crowd, but as soon as I did, tons of the attackers broke out of the group and started coming towards me as the rest focused their attention towards the other side of the room where I imagined Eric was holding his own. I quickly ducked and missed being hit by a fist. Two of the kids tried to drag me back into the large crowd, but I was too quick for them. I punched an attacker in the stomach just as another raced to my side and managed to twist my arm behind my back and throw me onto the floor. My face was the first thing to strike the ground, sending me into a terrible dizziness. There appeared to be two of him now as he prepared to do a finishing body-slam on me, his teammates goading him on in echo-ridden voices. Without thinking, I twisted my legs around his feet, sending the distracted attacker hurtling into another THEY member as he attempted to cushion his fall. More attention was starting to be focused on me as several other attackers came my way to subdue my retaliation. I kicked one in his chest and threw another kid into a wall, using their confusion against them as each one struggled to know when the right time was to run in for the attack and not impede another fighter in the process. As I began to make my way towards a door, I was caught by my shoulder and dragged back into the fray. It seemed as if escape was entirely impossible. Eight more THEY members came my way and although I tried my best to get away from them, it was no good. They cornered me in the back of the room and began taking turns punching me in my stomach and shoulders. Just as the kids started to go for my face, my guardian angels arrived. The S.S.C poured into the room like a mighty ocean wave. The attackers were caught by surprise in this instance and were quickly pushed back. This distraction gave me enough time to knock out one of my pursuers and thankfully two guys from my side were able to drive the remaining THEY soldiers away from me. I placed my back against the wall and started to work my way towards an opening where I could rest. This however, was not to be. Once again, another THEY member jumped at me and elbowed me in the side of my face. I started to wobble backwards as he kept on striking me. After a while of taking this beating, I was able to counter-attack one of his punches by catching his incoming fist and then tripping him with a quick kick to the shins. My victory was short-lived however, as three more THEY members tackled me to the ground and once again, started to strike me. I had been able to ignore most of the pain up to this point, but now in a completely defenseless situation, I was beginning to feel every little cut and bruise bestowed upon my face and arms. I was short of breath and my hands convulsed almost uncontrollably from a dangerous mixture of fear and adrenaline. Two S.S.C members tackled the attackers off me, but by then, the damage was done. I could not find it in my heart to stand. I could barely talk either as I made vain attempts to shout for some sort of assistance. The world around me went dark and soon this cold blackness was replaced with a humid Monday morning, where I ran laps for practice. "You did great!" Eric shouted proudly. "Feeling alright?" "Sure am," I replied distantly. "I'd like to see someone else run two miles that fast!" Eric laughed. "Better not say that to loud, the cross country team is right around the corner." Suddenly, the track faded away, as did Eric. This scene was replaced only with that of mindless fighting and pain. I was hurting all over and I started to call for Eric, but there was no reply. After a while, someone from my side ran from the crowds and picked me up before dragging me out the back doors into the cold air of the outside world. I looked up at him, but it wasn't Eric, it was just another fighter from the S.S.C. I tried to find a voice to thank him, but no words could leave my puffy jaw. The fighter looked at me with a glance of pity for a brief moment before dashing back inside to continue the battle. I heard soft groaning to my right, and I soon found several other injured fighters lying not far from me. How did it come to this? I thought to myself as I let my head finally drop to the grass. I was surrounded by pain and so many unanswered questions. As I lied there, unable to fight, speak, or even stand, all I had left to myself were my thoughts. It was in this moment of self-reflection that I began to understand what Eric had meant in his training of me. He knew about these moments. These moments in which our bodies failed us. But a body is a dispensable commodity compared to the brain. In these moments where you only had yourself, you had to make the choice as to whether or not you'd let your mind be dictated by your physical form, or if you'd let your physical form be dictated by your mind. I chose the latter. And as I laid there, blocking out those horrid sounds of thrown punches and shouts of pain, I started to piece together the situation. At last, it hit me. I came to a conclusion so unbelievable, I had to think it over several more times. But on each and every occasion, the result remained the same... I figured it out.

A Bad Move:

THEM had no business attacking us here on this day. They could not have known about our meeting, and certainly could not have been aware of the exact time and location. Nor would they have gathered such a large team if they were merely attacking on a hunch. It seemed to me that they were fully aware of the conference. Fully aware of when it was. Fully aware of where it was. Finally it all made sense to me. There was only one outside person that would have known about this meeting. A person I had trusted for years. And that person was James. His words came rushing back to me now like ghosts from my past. His warnings for me to leave the S.S.C, his hesitance towards becoming excited for my training, his suspicious behavior in asking me details on this get-together. Suddenly everything became clear. As a Fighter, one of your primary requirements was to use your head when making decisions. And now as I laid broken on the ground, I had to come to terms with the fact that I hadn't used my head since day one. I may have grown in strength, but deep down inside I was still a foolish little kid... just as weak as before. Tim Allender had put on a suit or armor and thought himself fit for it. It was no-wonder Eric didn't trust me with any real missions. I was so ignorant, I couldn't see the enemy even when it was right in front of me. I had failed everyone. Myself, the Fighters, and even Eric; who had always been there for me when it really counted. "What kind of hero am I?" I whimpered softly. Now my mind began to grow blank and my eyes grew heavy again. I began to feel myself drifting away. But then, just before my eyes could completely close, and before I could hide myself behind that curtain of regret, I began thinking the way Eric would have wanted me to think. There were two options now. Either I could lay there and bury myself in my shame, or I could do what Eric would want me to do, and keep on fighting as best as I could. The choice was clear. Slowly, I began to stand up, my head immediately ringing with a throbbing headache and my legs almost too weak to support me. But I fought through the pain and straightened myself up, now taking steps towards those doors, ready to do whatever it took to right the wrong I had instigated. As my hand reached out to the knob, the double doors suddenly flung open as a THEM member rushed outside, running into me, and falling to the ground. Thrown off-guard by this surprise, I staggered to my right and barely managed to catch myself by hanging on to the seemingly spinning wall. The downed THEY member shrieked with a sudden pain as he held on to his left leg; apparently having sprained it in his fall. I looked upon his pained face, noticing his dark brown hair, small, beady eyes, and three thin - yet prominent red scars over his left eye. The scars immediately rang out a certain familiarity in my brain. I recalled the description Eric had given to me only yesterday of the THEM leader called Talon. Slowly I called upon every story and every description Eric had ever divulged to me about the nefarious leader. This downed trooper fit every one of them. Shocked by this sudden discovery, the two of us locked eyes for a moment; Talon unsure if I was going to attack him or not, and me unsure if I could ever manage to take on a foe of so much more experience than myself. Noticing my confliction, Talon shakenly rose to his feet and dashed away from the battle, leaving me in his dust. It was clear to me that if Talon got away again, all hopes of avoiding any more conflicts would be crushed for who knew how long. And even if the S.S.C won this battle, which I knew they could, without the capture of Talon, what difference would it make? All this fighting and all this pain would have been for nothing. I refused to let that happen. I had to stop him.

A Race With Talon:

Even though I was limping slightly at this point, I ran after Talon as fast as I could, overcoming my pained muscles and dizzy head with this quick burst of speed. At first, due to Talon's sprained leg, I was gaining ground on him quite quickly. But a sudden step on some dead branches shattered my cover, alerting Talon to my pursuit as he whipped his head around to stare at me. His speed increased and I could only assume that we were moving too fast for him to notice how much younger I was than him, or how much pain I was feeling. As far as he knew, he was being chased by an elite, and I was fine with this ruse for the time being. For a brief moment, I had a plan to circle around the school and catch him in the west parking lot, but a sudden change of direction revealed that Talon was not planning on returning to the school. It was clear now that he was starting to leave school boundaries entirely. I shook the pain from my body and continued my pursuit as Talon jumped over the outer fence and ran through a swampy patch of grass, severely slowing down his speed and concentration. With no easy way around this mush, I was also forced to trudge through it. The mud took no time at all to start clinging to my feet, making every step more exaggerated and awkward. Luckily, through big enough strides, I was able to clear this miniature swamp in only a few steps, allowing me to gain on Talon slightly. From our course, I was noticing now that Talon was heading for some large housing editions that weren't very far away. If he got there, he'd have practically limitless places to hide, not to mention the fact that two kids skipping school and running after each other through the neighborhood might attract unwanted attention. Pushing the negative thoughts from my mind, I started forcing myself to run faster. At this point, Talon had reached a creek lined with jagged rocks of all shapes and sizes. Using nature to his advantage, Talon scooped up two rocks without breaking stride and chucked the first one back in my direction. I managed to dodge the first, but soon the second came barreling in front of me, first knocking into the ground before bouncing up into my right shin. A sharp pain rose up my leg into the rest of my body as I hobbled forward, driven unbalanced now by the combined forces of my speed and the downward-sloping terrain. Not to be outdone, I grabbed a rock as well when crossing the creek and chucked it back at him. Thankfully, my previous years of playing basketball with James had paid off. The shot hit Talon square in the back, sending his shoulders folding backwards and his head jutting out in front of him, severely throwing him off-balance. Now with me practically directly behind my fleeing foe, I nearly managed to catch Talon by his collar, but he quickly jerked away, leaving me stumbling forward as I grasped nothing but the air. I started to slow down, getting much too tired for my own good and feeling as if the whole race was hopeless. We were within a quarter of a mile to the housing editions, and catching him now seemed like nothing more than a fool's dream. Just as I was prepared to give up on the pursuit, a memory flew my way. This memory was a happy one. I suddenly recalled the day I had done 137 push-ups. I remembered the pain, the confusion, the strive to be better. If I could work through all of that, then I could certainly run faster than the coward called Talon. And so I started to dash wilder than ever before, letting my legs go numb beneath me and feeling the wind comb through my hair and bury itself in my ears and eyes. My strides became longer and my arms pumped up and down like a steady machine, my breaths coming in shorter and shorter rasps with each and every bound forward. Each footstep I now made upon the earth seemed to shake my very existence, these large, pounding steps able to be heard even by my fleeing opponent, who I was gaining on now more than ever. Taken off-guard by the loudness of my intense footsteps, Talon swiveled his head around to see how close I was getting to him. This would be his downfall, as in his distraction, he failed to notice a small hole just downhill that had been dug by what I'd imagine to be some dog. Still not paying attention, Talon's right leg became quickly wedged inside of the rut, and he fell hard upon his stomach, knocking the wind out of him. Talon slowly rose to his feet, realizing now that the race was over. I stopped as well, ready for anything he had to throw at me. Now with me looking down upon him, I could see more than ever the pained look in his eyes. Breathing heavily, Talon regained his posture and stood facing me, a smile running across his face as he now realized how young I was. My foe reeled back in a fit of laughter now as I clutched my aching side. "This whole time," the leader said through his laughter. "I've been running from a green!" I slowly circled around him, cutting off his path towards the housing division for good. "I might be green," I remarked. "But at least I'm no coward." Talon stopped laughing and raised an eyebrow at the remark. "You think I'm gonna waste time arguing my tactics with a smooth-faced infant like you?" Talon cracked his neck from side to side and loosened his shoulders to make himself look even bigger than me. But I held my ground. "If running is your tactic, then I've beaten you there as well," I shot back. Talon no longer bothered to offer up an argument, now drawing his hands into tight fists at his side. "We're not in school anymore kid," he spoke through his teeth. "Which means I don't have to hold back. We'll see if you're still talking smack after I've knocked all your teeth down your throat." I hid my fear and stopped myself from shaking. Talon was only human. My race against him showed just how limited he really was. "Bring it on," I muttered back at him. And so the fight began.

Fighting Talon:

Talon raced towards me and threw a harsh punch at my stomach followed by a knee in my side. His strikes were slightly less powerful than I had assumed, each of them knocking me only slightly off-balance. I presumed he was feeling too weak to waste all his energy on just a few strong punches. Not to mention the fact that a leader like him was certainly not well-versed when it came to combat. Of course, I was trying to distance myself from any of the pain at the moment, I'd certainly be feeling these strikes in the morning. I could only assume that it if were not for his possibly two sprained legs and exhaustion from the chase, he would have dropped me in seconds, despite his lack of training. But he was weak now, and I had to use that against him. Not allowing him any more shots at me, I quickly got Talon in a strong choke-hold and kneed him in the back in last-second retaliation. Talon let out a howl of despair as he broke free from the hold I had on him and fell to the ground. The dizziness in my head began to resurface itself as I felt the world shaking around me and my vision growing faint. I stood like a statue above the fallen Talon, desperately trying not to sway around and show him that the world was spinning before me. However Talon knew better than to let this distraction go to waste. He now managed to trip me with the same type of leg swipe I had been accustomed to using. Taken off-guard by this skill, I fell to the ground with ease, landing face-first into the icy grass. Talon now rose with great speed and stepped on my back, digging his heel into my spine as hard as he could. This rocketing pain through my system left me with no other option but to cry out in terror. "That's the best you've got?" I heard Talon gloat above me as he stomped hard again on my back, preventing me from even attempting to stand. "What kind of fighter are you?" Not listening, I plunged my hand into the pliable dirt before me, scooping up an entire fistful in a last-ditch effort to free myself. Before Talon had a chance to react, I barely managed to turn myself around under his foot and toss the soil straight into his face and eyes. Talon stumbled backwards in surprise, clinging to his face and wiping the debris away, giving me time to rise to my feet, ignoring that splintering pain in my back, and punch him hard in the chest. "You damned little cheater!" Talon shouted through his watery eyes as he caught my next incoming punch. He held tightly to my fist and in one fluid motion, twisted my arm clockwise, sending me dropping to my knees. Talon held on to my arm for that brief moment, unsure what to follow it up with, and still having trouble seeing through his grimy eyes. In this moment of hesitation, I quickly shot back up from my squatting position, driving my head and shoulders into Talon's torso. Talon now released my arm stumbled backwards, cursing under his breath. My strike was a success, but at the cost of sending my head into even more of a throbbing frenzy the likes of which I could hardly withstand. It felt like even the tiniest of breezes could bring with it enough strength to knock me down for good. But this was it, Talon was open for attack and if I could finish him now, I might still be able to right my series of wrongs. Falling now would mean losing this battle and losing everything the S.S.C held dear. And so I dashed towards my weakened foe, kicking him in his stomach and sending him flat on his back. Talon gave what appeared to me as a war cry and attempted to kick me in the gut as I stood over him, but I stepped back before he could manage it, sending his foot rocketing into thin air with tremendous force, straining his injured leg even more than it already had been. These were the cons of attempting to strike with hard blows. With his remaining energy, Talon hopped up to his feet and in one final display of rage, sprinted towards me as fast as he could. With my head aching more than ever and the world a blur around me, I could do nothing but stand and await his attack. Time seemed to slow down now as Talon leapt from his strides and tackled me to the ground, knocking the air from my lungs and sending us both hurtling to the ground once more. Now trying to get me in a wrestling headlock, Talon began to laugh and talk some more through his dizzied voice. "You've got guts, kid!" he wheezed as he forced one of my arms behind my back and plunged my head into the dirt. "But we're not even on the same level!" He grabbed now for my final free arm, trying to subdue it as well before finishing me off, but just before he could do so, I moved my legs wildly behind him as he sat atop me, making him believe for a brief moment that I was trying to stand. Talon looked behind himself to eye my legs, giving me the brief window of opportunity to send my free hand rocketing backwards behind me, curled up into the tightest fist I could muster. With one mighty whack to the back of his head, Talon immediately let me go from his hold, falling to the wayside as he twitched upon the ground for a few brief seconds. The back of my hand, now throbbing with pain, was so excruciating in its sting that it was perhaps the only thing keeping me from passing out alongside my fallen enemy. For a while we both laid there; Talon and I. Two broken souls. But only one that could still find the strength to stand. And so I stood.

Recovered:

Perhaps it was my adrenaline wearing down and the headache within my skull growing fiercer that made the rest of that day a blur for me. In many ways, I could only recall the aftermath of the battle in small pieces. Nevertheless, those pieces managed to fill in most any blank following our duel. I could briefly recall dragging Talon across the ground with all of my strength back towards the school. I recalled using my strained voice to shout for assistance time and time again. Everything seemed so dark, the clouds overhead offering no rays of sunlight. Eventually I heard the shouts of other troopers as they ran my way. Whether they were enemies or friends did not seem to matter to me. My brain could no longer fully process the extent at which everything was occurring. In that brief moment before I passed out, there was no S.S.C. Nor was there a THEM. There was no battle, no war, no Eric. All my brain could process was that I had to transport Talon from point A to point B. And then it told me to sleep. To fall back upon the soft cool grass and sleep away the pain. I awoke sometime later now feeling the marks of every single punch and kick offered up by Talon. Twice I felt as if I'd throw up, but ultimately prevented myself from doing so by holding tightly to my stomach. As the world around me became clearer, I found myself sat against the old shed out behind the school, somewhat close to the playground. My hand shaking, I brought up my arm to check my watch for the time. It was unsurprisingly busted. Three S.S.C soldiers stood not far away from me, one of them noticing my awakening and motioning for the others to speak to me while he kept watch over the area. "You okay, kid?" the older one asked as he knelt down to my side. I wished he was Eric. I wanted so badly to apologize. Any other words seemed pointless. "What time is it?" I muttered in a weakened tone. "It's been nearly an hour," the trooper replied. "School is letting out soon." I let my head fall back and rest against the shed. "We have a question for you," the trooper said a bit louder, perhaps trying to keep me awake. "We found you lying not far from here next to the leader of THEM. Talon himself." I opened my eyes and desperately tried to find words to speak, but I felt so weak, and everything seemed like it was no more than a dream. I felt muted, as if talking or speaking a single word would take all the energy in the world. So I stayed quiet. "Did you beat Talon?" the trooper asked flatly. Once more I tried with all my might to speak. The words just were not there. But despite this, I carefully pivoted my head up and down, giving the slowest of nods I could muster. It felt like each movement of my head sapped more and more strength away from me. The trooper noticed my nods and glanced up at the soldier behind him. "Get a car started," he ordered. "We're driving this hero to a safer place." Hero. There was that word. I had always dreamed of being called a hero. But now it held no meaning to me. All I could think of now was the same word over and over again. Sorry.

Blamed:

Two days passed following my victory against Talon. Two days was also enough time for me to mostly recover from my injuries of that fateful day. My muscles still ached of course. And a few bruises were to be expected, but I was otherwise okay. Over the course of these two days I was constantly being asked questions from so many troopers I did not know. I was approached by elites who asked for every detail on my battle as if I could even muster up thoughts so precise. Younger troopers approached me as well, asking me personal questions about myself and showing great interest in my path leading up to this point. I didn't terribly mind the attention, but in the back of my mind I could only think about James and Eric. James had been missing from school ever since the attack. Eric had not appeared at any of my questionings. Nor had he called me, and he never had given me his number. So now I was out of contact with both of them and left to myself with all these new faces and new questions. There was one scary aspect to all of this. Apparently sometime before I had made myself fully conscious, I had revealed to several S.S.C troopers that it was my fault the attack happened. I didn't mind them knowing the truth, but now I felt as if every person who came to question me was passing a silent judgement. They were talking to a savior as well as a rat. I was as forthcoming as I could be in detailing to them how I'd told James about the attack, believing the information was safe with him. Sometimes I wondered if they believed me, or if they perhaps thought I was a traitor deep down inside. My biggest fear was that they'd fire me from the S.S.C. Discharge me for all the trouble I'd caused. Putting myself in their shoes, I believe I would have fired me without a doubt. And so I held on to these silent fears as best I could. Later that week, I got word from one of my teammates that there was going to be a very serious meeting during lunch to discuss the ambush. It was said to occur in a different room now. A computer lab downstairs. The fact that it was labeled as 'serious' left me more fearful than ever that my days within the S.S.C were numbered. To make matters more frightening, the leader of the S.S.C was slated to make an appearance. His name was Brad, though others called him Brian. Yet another bit of name trickery to throw curious eyes off the trail of the S.S.C. I had never met the leader personally, only seeing photos of him or hearing discussions between troopers about his leadership. Brad was looked up to by most everyone, and feared just the same. His iron-clad policies gave little room for forgiveness, favoring the precise and correct above all else. Leaders of the S.S.C primarily relegated themselves to sitting in a room all day looking over battle plans and passing rules, so an open meeting of this kind was practically unheard of. Some troopers feared that they were in trouble for some past transgression, though I knew the truth. Brad was going to oust me to the whole S.S.C. He was here to reveal my success as well as my tremendous failure. I kept these thoughts to myself. When the day came for the meeting to take place and I found myself walking those halls alone, down to the computer lab, I kept thinking to myself, Why did I have to open my big, fat mouth? Why did it have to be me? But there was no changing the past or the future now. I was going to be fired and that was that. Not showing up to the meeting would just be an act of cowardice. I slowly and quietly opened the door to the lab, finding it to be just as quiet as that empty wrestling room where I had yelled at Eric. Except this time, all the troopers were there. They were just so afraid that they would be blamed, that they were much too afraid to talk or even move. Following their lead, I quietly sat down and just kept staring at my feet. Finally, after a few moments had passed, two elite troopers approached the instructors podium at the front of the room. One was the very same soldier who had recovered Talon and I following the battle. He was a respected elite called Clocker, who undoubtedly was the first person to know of my remarks to James. The other one was the esteemed trooper called Specter, who was in charge of setting up many meetings such as this one, as well as involving himself in setting up outposts for the S.S.C. Specter's face was very telling as he prepared to speak. He looked increasingly sad. This was hardly a meeting of successes. "May I have your attention," Specter boomed. "We appreciate your patience here tonight. The rumors are true. Talon is within S.S.C custody and is being dealt with in settling things between the S.S.C and THEM. When there is more information to report on this matter, you will all be made clear of things. But for the time being, I humbly welcome our leader to the stand for a few additional words." Specter and Clocker removed themselves from the podium, standing on opposite ends of the room in a guarding fashion as Brad entered through a side door. Brad was short in stature compared to other soldiers, but brandished a much older face than the rest. He was decked out in dark blue attire, baring multiple patches of the S.S.C insignia upon his shoulder, collar, and chest. His curly dark hair stretched far up on his forehead, giving him some added height. The other troopers around the room offered up salutes by raising their right fists to their left shoulders in a V shape. Brad wasted no time to get to speaking. "Boys," he began in a serious tone that not a single soul dared to speak over. "I'll get straight to the point. As you all know... the attack on Wednesday has brought about some good in our battle against Talon and his THEM. But it has also come with a great many grievances that must not be overlooked. Whenever soldiers are injured or their safety is put at an unreasonable risk, I take it upon myself to speak against the measures that led up to these unfortunate events so as to make it clear that they cannot and will not be tolerated." I was shaking now. I had to plunge my hands deep within my pockets to hide this shame. "So now," Brad continued. "After utilizing spy input as well as feedback from multiple trooper sources, we now know precisely who is responsible for the ambush." I was starting to sweat now. Some eyes were drawn in my direction, they obviously knew it was me by now. Brad began to talk to us again, but right before he could speak, a voice from behind me shouted "Stop!" I quickly turned around to see who dared to speak above our leader, finding it to be none other than Eric, standing from his seat defiantly. He looked okay, besides a few bruises and cuts around his face. I had no idea what he was about to say. I wondered if he'd criticize me even more, offering every single type of verbal punishment imaginable for the way I had treated him. I deserved it. Now was the moment he'd finally make it clear to the S.S.C that I was a bad apple from the start. A small stain upon his legacy and the S.S.C's legacy. After pausing a moment, and receiving no chastising from Brad, Eric continued. "I take full responsibility for this attack," Eric stated, cutting into the silence. "It was no one's fault but my own." My jaw dropped. Eric knew that it was my fault that the attack occurred, yet here he was taking the blame for me. Everyone was thrown into wild discussion now as Brad looked in shock back at his elites, who could offer up no counter-argument. "Everyone quiet down!" Specter shouted over the dozens of discussions, driving them to immediate silence. "Are you sure about that, Eric?" Brad now asked. "I was about to call on Tim." All eyes shifted back to me. I could tell that they were all upset. Every one of them. Eric did not even falter. "I am sure," he replied. "I told him it was okay to tell friends about the meeting. It's my own fault. Not his." This was a direct lie. Eric had told me just the opposite. But no S.S.C trooper but myself could prove this statement of his to be false. Suddenly the entire room seemed to turn against Eric, some members booing him as other cursed to themselves or each other. Eric ignored their angered voices and shouts, only staring up at the leader, showing not even the slightest hint of lying in his eyes. I readied myself to stand now, to yell out that it was all my fault, but Eric's eyes quickly dropped down and seized me in place. That was not the way he wanted it. The room grew even quieter than before as Specter yelled for order. I think Brad was much too smart to truly believe what was Eric was saying was true. But how could he ever prove otherwise? At last, Brad spoke up again. "Very well then Eric... if what you say is true, then you have failed our S.S.C code of secrecy and indirectly made yourself responsible for the bloodshed. Eric, I'm afraid we are going to have to ask you to leave." Eric gave a long salute, looking briefly around the room at all the scowling faces upon him. His salute slowly faded as nobody but myself offered one back at him. I felt tears welling up in my eyes now as he slowly worked his way out of his aisle, leaving the space and the S.S.C behind. He sacrificed everything for me. He gave me his time as my master, gave me his trust, taught me everything he knew, and now he was throwing away his entire reputation, just to keep me afloat. A few more words regarding helping those affected by the attack were spoken for a short while, as well as basic information supplied by the captured Talon, and just like that it was over. Everyone left and the room grew empty. Not a single soul bothered to speak to me on their way out. I was an outcast, but at least I was still one of them. I sat there in my seat. I had no reason to move anymore. I was still stunned by what Eric had just done. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was clearly that of Eric's. "Why?" I breathed as more tears built up at my cheeks. "Why did you do that for me?" I didn't bother looking up at him. My shame burdened me now. Eric sat next to me. "Tim," he began. "I've been at this for a long time. I've went on my missions, I've fought some good fights, I've been looked up to by many. But Tim, you are just beginning this journey. It's too early for you to give up... promise me... that you will never give up Tim... Can you promise me that?" A tear finally ran down my face. "I promise," I said quietly. "I promise to never give up..." As hard as I tried to fight them, the tears continued to flow and covered my eyes, blinding me to my surroundings. I brought my hands up to my face and laid my head in my palms for a long while. All the emotions I had been hiding behind closed lips finally broke free, spilling out into that lonely little room. Finally, when I was done crying, I looked up to say sorry to Eric... but he was gone.

Tim Allender:

I never did see Eric again. In many ways it seemed as if he'd managed to drop off the Earth completely, but I knew better. As Eric had mentioned, he never had gone to my school. The S.S.C existed far and wide, not just to different schools, but different states as well. It wasn't uncommon for masters to find apprentices from other schools, allowing for them to meet new faces without making themselves readily available every school day. But the idea of one vanishing entirely was certainly a new prospect. I envied Eric in a way. Envied how he could sacrifice everything that he stood for and vanish without ever having to deal with constant angry glares. I on the other hand was still on center stage. Some troopers hated me purely because of my 'poor' training. Others who were more intelligent were all too aware that Eric purposefully took the blame for me, and they hated me for it. But no one could ever truly approach me on the matter. For despite my shortcomings, it was still me who managed to capture Talon that fateful night. I'd always have a glimmer of respect for that achievement, no matter what I did wrong. But it was clear to me that the name ‘Eric’ arose nothing but hard feelings by those who respected him and those who now hated him. His mere name alone drew heated debates and talks over more or less security surrounding the Fighters. I hated to see his name dragged through the dirt like this, and so I vowed to myself to never speak of Eric again. I vowed to let Eric's name vanish through time just as the man himself had done. He would have wanted it that way, I think. The S.S.C had to move on. Eric was gone but his words and stories would always be with me, no-matter what. After that day I realized that I really needed to shape-up not only as a fighter, but as a person. Because this time Eric wouldn't be there to catch me. I was on my own. After that day, I made it a goal of mine to act more like Eric would have wanted me to. And I knew by now that once I’d set a goal for myself... I’d always accomplish it.

Starting Over

After Eric had left, I felt lost in many ways. My knowledge on the S.S.C was admirable, but being my own master and benefiting the S.S.C as a whole was a different set of problems. How could I start over after all that had happened? But like all decisions I would make from then-on, I had to think like Eric would have wanted me to think, and that is what led me to my next big move. Something that would start over all that had happened and create a new story for myself and for others. My first move was to get an apprentice of my own. Doing so was not prohibited, despite my still quite young age. But even before I could do that, I had to tie up some loose ends. And knew that would require having a talk with James about that fateful attack weeks prior. There had to be an understanding between us that from here on out, everything would be different. James and I hadn't spoken since the time I told him about the secret meeting. I’d done some research into the matter and to my great sadness, learned he had joined THEM all the way back in 2002, a year before I had ever even met him. I suppose the S.S.C and myself didn’t know about his involvement within the group because he was not a full-time fighter. Instead he busied himself in small acts of gathering intel and working as a backup unit that was only utilized twice ever. I think James was well aware of my knowledge of him working for THEM, he was not stupid. Perhaps in his mind, not talking about it would somehow make me forget what had happened. Perhaps even allowing me to forgive him. But it was far too late for that. To be honest, I was afraid to confront James. We'd been friends for such a long time. Four long years. And now, after all we had been through, confronting him would be one of my toughest challenges yet, harder than any number of pushups I could imagine. But that would not deter me from this mission. So the next day just as school ended, I made my move. James appeared sparsely at school now, seemingly in completely random intervals. Perhaps that was yet another strategy to avoid me for as long as possible. However, on this day, I spotted James walking home by himself, taking extra precaution to look around for S.S.C members as he moved. Without giving myself the luxury of second thoughts, I immediately sped up my pace, soon being the only person behind James as he walked that lonely sidewalk home. It didn't take him long to hear me, nor was I trying to be silent. James turned his head around, seeing me now for the first time in what seemed like forever. He stopped dead in his tracks, turning towards me and trying to hide his surprise with a smile. "Hey James," I started simply, baring no emotions of anger or fear, but rather of just simplicity. "Hey there, Tim," Jams replied as I walked closer. "How have you been?" It was clear he was playing dumb and this quickly upset me, but I continued the chat nonetheless. "Not too good, James," I replied. "There was an attack on the secret meeting we were planning." James gave a shocked expression as I continued. "Then again... you already know that don't you?" I started to close in on him now. Every heated step I took towards my old friend made my legs feel weaker. I didn't expect to fight James, but I was ready to do so if it was needed. "I don't know what you are talking about," James replied as he lightly shook his head. "You're lying!" I threw back as I pointed across the sidewalk at him accusingly. "I know that you were the one that told THEY about the meeting! You almost got me fired, you got my master fired, and you injured dozens of guys by opening your mouth!" James finally stopped pretending to be surprised as he removed his backpack and dropped it to his side. He now spoke in a very annoyed tone. "In my opinion the S.S.C are the bad guys here, not us!" he argued vehemently. "And I will continue to fight for what I believe in until everyone of those idiotic Fighters are snuffed out!" So it was true. James really was a THEY member. It didn't shock me, but there was small portion of my mind that still had clung to some misguided hope that I was wrong. I wanted so badly for things to go back to the way things were. Maybe he did to, but I wouldn't back down now. I started to speak in as calm of a voice as I could manage. "No you won't," I articulated. "If you ever try to send another attack our way again, I will beat you down just like Talon." James finally seemed disturbed by some of my words. "You?" James stuttered, almost speechless. "It was you who defeated Talon?" I silently nodded. James now walked closer to me, staring me straight into the yes. "Because of you, our attacks have been pushed back weeks, maybe even months! And now you dare come here to threaten me? I protected you Tim! All those years of school, I was protecting you from ever coming face-to-face with THEM! Into this dirty little conflict of ours! And then I warned you! Warned you about what you were getting into! And now you stand before me and threaten me?" I had no response to these words, still staring him in the eyes, refusing to budge. "I did it because you were my friend!" he steamed. "THEM can be your best friend or your worst nightmare! We bring an equalization to this school that the S.S.C it too cowardly to admit! Sure, there's some bad seeds in our bunch, but you're blind if you don't see the S.S.C has the same problems! Don't you get it? The S.S.C only fights and protects those that support it, or those that they wish to tempt to join them! The S.S.C puts on happy smiles to make everyone think they're the second coming of Christ when really all they care about is sustaining themselves for another day and wiping out anyone and anything that stands against it!" I continued to stand my ground as James continued to shout. "THEM is here to show the S.S.C how pathetic it looks. Trying to stay relevant in the world by forcing itself upon schools across the country! Your whole lot is just a giant plague that wants to spread all over. THEM is the cure for that plague. And we will not rest until the school can see that!" James's face was red now, his teeth practically grinding together as he looked upon my emotionless face and balled his hands up into tight fists. He seemed ready to take me down, show he didn't need me anymore, but I wasn't sure he could go through with it. I think he was unsure to. But like Eric once said; ‘He who fights in anger, always loses.’ And we were both angry. So very angry at each other and the world. So realizing this, all I could do was walk away. "Stop!" screamed James from behind me. "Come back here and fight me if you want me to stop!" My strides continued. "Are you even listening to me?" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "Turn and fight!" But I didn't turn. I kept walking. The past was behind me now. It was time for the future. I turned a corner and James's voice stopped immediately. I think he realized just as well that he didn't want to fight me. Not yet at least. That night, I removed anything from my possession that alluded to James. Phone numbers, pictures, even basketball awards - all into the trash. Looking at them now filled me with nothing but regret. Regret and a great sense of pity. One week later, James was reported to have ran away from home. Weeks of search went by. On one occasion, I even aided in the hunts for any sign of him, but it was of no use. To say that I felt sorry for James, would be a dramatic understatement. I blamed myself for around a month or so. What did James really have left without his best friend? A family that didn't care about him, that’s what. And a school he felt distanced to. Not to mention the entire unit of S.S.C troopers after his head. That's nothing to live for. And so he took what he thought was the logical approach... and he ran from it all. Maybe I would have to. It would have been easy to run when Eric left me, or when the S.S.C so much despised me, but a Fighters member has to always be strong, even when emotions were at their weakest. Eric hadn't told me that, I figured it out on my own.

The Right Decision:

Choosing an apprentice was daunting to all members of the S.S.C. You had to find someone open-minded enough to listen to your every order without question, yet still have enough personality to carry on and make something of themselves after your eventual departure. The task was long and arduous, taking up a majority of a master's day, let alone their entire career within the group. And as tensions between the S.S.C and THEM grew to new all-time highs, the fighters of our organization had grown towards a mindset of putting themselves before all-else. They truly believed that they couldn't take the time to choose an apprentice and pass on their teachings. For them it was all about the fight. All about winning now so that the future generation wouldn't have to. I suppose that mindset was admirable, but I still couldn't help but feel that it cheated our school out of some very skilled troopers hailing from a strong lineage of fighters. Even Commander Specter; or ‘Henry’ as I had come to know him, chose to retire without passing on his teachings. To think that an individual could dedicate so much of their lives to a cause only to pack up everything they had to offer and leave, baffled me to some extent. I didn't want to end up like them. I wanted to get an apprentice now in my early stages as an S.S.C member, so as to achieve a greater expanse of time in which to train them. The decision was maddening. Nearly any time I got to thinking about it, I still believed Eric made a bad decision picking me as his successor. I may have had personality, but sometimes I just couldn't stand to follow the orders of another person. Henry had once joked to me before his retirement that those were the words of a leader. I agreed with him, but couldn't help but feel that they were also the words of a coward. Or someone so obsessed with their own opinions that they failed to see the good in listening to those around them. I thought like this quite often. About how unqualified I was for this role. Many of the kids I knew were very much like me, most of them worse. All of them in their own little universes. They thought that they should always be the center of attention. The world revolved around them. Even I was never that vain. I needed someone who was open-minded, not shut up like a clam. Briefly, I thought of R.K. being the one, as his muscular build was rivaled by practically nobody else, even though I never saw him work out a day in his life. But the thought was short-lived. Random Kid was far older than myself due to his constant getting held back. Nor was his attitude suitable for any serious fighter. There was only one person I knew that fit the perfect model of an S.S.C member. And his name was Nick Anderson. I had met Nick the previous year, and talked to him at lunch on occasion. But it was more than my familiarity with him that drove me to this conclusion. Nick was a friendly and honest guy. More than once had he demonstrated his ingenuity from the stories he'd tell. Stories of how in group work, he'd be the one to run the show, even when everything seemed to be working against them. His talks never seemed like bragging, in fact Nick would be much faster in discrediting himself and praising those around him, when in all actuality he of course had to have known it was he who had done all the heavy lifting. He was humble in a way that I knew I never could be. The only problem was that he was not big on fighting. In our few discussions regarding the Fighters, Nick had often-times taken the stance that he despised the fact that the S.S.C and THEM couldn't just settle their differences and focus their intentions on the greater good. Nick was almost mechanical in his logic and reasoning. If there was a more refined way to get things done, he'd go for it. The constant fighting between THEM and the S.S.C was far from logical in his mind. I can't say I blamed him for thinking that way, but the relationship between the two sects had always been cruel, and recent injuries just fanned the flames of hate between us. However, with some training, I was certain that I could make Nick unbelievably strong. It would all begin with getting him into the right mindset. And so Nick became my new target. The question was, would he be up for it? The only way to find out was by asking him. That day at lunch, I made my way through the crowds of kids to find Nick. He wasn't necessarily hard to spot. He was tall, with black hair rivaling my own, though slightly curlier despite his best efforts at subduing it. His eyes were a striking blue color, and his mouth was nearly always seen to be parted in a welcoming smile. Nick was quite popular amongst most guys at our school. Or particularly the crowds of kids with families that were not around a lot or simply didn't care what sort of trouble their children got into. It eerily reminded me of James, though Nick was far more extroverted. He was by no means a trouble-maker, but his lack of parental guidance certainly allowed him freedoms that some kids could only dream of. ‘Both a blessing and a curse’, I'd imagine James would say. At last I spotted Nick sitting at a round lunch table by the wall, talking to some friends. I walked over to him and sat down in the last open seat. I gave a brief glance around the table, recognizing a few S.S.C members, who smiled softly at me. "Hey Tim," Nick said warmly as he bit into his sandwich. "Haven't talked to you in a while. Guess it's hard to speak with you when you're busy doing pushups and laps around the track every day." I laughed at this. "You know about that?" I asked, only slightly embarrassed. "I think everybody does by now," Nick replied. "But hey, it's your last year of recess am I right? You might as well enjoy it. I still got one left. We should consider ourselves lucky, most schools stop providing recess two years earlier than ours. That’s about the most positive thing I can say about Toparsburg." "Well… the pushups go a bit deeper than that," I replied, getting to the point. The other S.S.C troopers seemed to know where I was going with this, and distracted the other kids at the table with another conversation. Finally when nobody was listening but Nick, I continued. "Listen Nick," I whispered. "Can I meet with you after lunch, there's something I'd like to ask you." "Sure thing," he replied with a bit of skepticism. "I know how you like to be all secretive." I laughed again at the truthful statement and proceeded to talk freely at the table for the rest of the lunch period. When the time came to leave, and Nick's friends were herded out of the area by my S.S.C friends, I began my talk. "Alright Nick," I began, taking on a bit more of a serious demeanor. "The thing is, I have not been completely straight with you about what I am involve-" "You want me to join the S.S.C don't you?" Nick interrupted, casually drinking some water with a slight grin as my mouth dropped open. "How could you possibly have known that?" I stuttered, drawing closer. Nick just shook his head. "I sorta had a feeling,” he responded. “Based off those chats we had in the past. You'd always take the S.S.C's side. And nobody else is gonna work out as much as you just for fun." I grinned a bit. "Well there is a bit more to it than that," I said. "I don't just want you to join... I want you to be my apprentice. Learn from me just like I learned from my master. Help us fight against THEM." Nick had not completely foreseen this aspect, and began to grow a bit more serious. "I don't fight, Tim." Nick made clear. "My parents could care less what I get into, but I still gotta think for myself." "I won't disagree with you," I replied. "But out of all the people I know, you're the perfect fit to become something bigger than you already are." Nick looked down at the table and began to shake his head, ready to fully brush off the idea. "Please Nick," I continued. "You want me to go looking for an apprentice in 3rd grade or something? I can't put up with kids that little! You don't want to doom me to that do you?" Nick gave a short laugh at my expense, but still said nothing. "Listen," I whispered. "There's so much more I can tell you about the S.S.C and THEM... so much more that you don't know from our basic chats. Things I can only tell to an actual member. I know how much you care about the kids around this school. You've told me about it. All the times you've helped around with homework, sports, and projects, and-" "What are you getting at?" Nick interrupted. "I know how much you care about knowledge," I finally elaborated. "Joining us is a way to get to know this school on a deeper level. To understand things that you never could have otherwise known about how and why we operate." "I only care about knowledge so much because it's something my folks lack," Nick pointed out. Indeed despite his age, Nick was far older than he appeared. "I want a better future for myself so I don't end up like them. Joining the S.S.C doesn't bring me any real knowledge." I sighed for a minute, knowing that arguing with someone as logical as Nick was nearly impossible. I turned to the only option I had left. "Nick," I began. He looked up from the table as I spoke. "You remember how I acted last year. Back when we first met?" Nick nodded slowly. "You won't say it," I began. "But I will. Back then I was loud, obnoxious, and obsessed over myself." Nick did not respond, but I continued. "You turned to knowledge because your parents didn't pay attention to you. I turned inwards. It made me something that I despise these days. The S.S.C is something that can change you mentally for the better. Teaching you the value of teamwork and care over your fellow students. I'm not that same guy anymore. The S.S.C changed me, Nick. I'm different now." Nick offered no objections, for I believe he realized I was right. "The least you could do is join us and see where it takes you," I said. "See what directions it can lead you in. At least consider it." With the late bell ready to ring, Nick finally nodded his head. "Alright Tim, I'll give it some thought." And with that, Nick departed, leaving me only to hope that I had made the right choice.

A Machine:

For the past few weeks, a new threat calling himself 'Machine' began to emerge. Meeting after meeting was dedicated towards speaking about this new addition to the THEM ranks. Machine's entire existence was subject to controversy, as some claimed he carried knives into battle while other stories stated that he was just a rumor spread by THEM to frighten the Fighters. However, recent meetings seemed to prove his existence as it was revealed that after Talon was beat up and captured by me, Machine took leadership over THEM. We had no background on him, as he had apparently just moved from a school down south into Toparsburg. A few photographs taken by troopers brave enough to go near him showed off his buff physique and piercing eyes that surpassed his predecessor on every level. Many troopers believed he couldn't be stopped by the S.S.C without there being severe consequences. Some of the more rational members tried to ease a bit of the fear in the air by pointing out that Machine wasn't all too bright based off some leaked test results. His brawn so far exceeded his brain that it seemed quite unlikely THEM would appoint him as a leader. In any case, one of our elite S.S.C officers named Zach was the first of us to step forward and vow to take on Machine mono-e-mono. This brought about a collective sigh of relief from just about everyone, including myself. For the next few days, Zach relayed to us that he had messaged Machine on multiple occasions and met with him once to discuss a time and place for their fight. Zach described Machine as a brute who lacked any sort of common generosity or understanding. "His single-minded devotion towards THEM must be one of the most blatant examples of brain-washing I have ever had the displeasure of witnessing," he'd go on to write. Zach further relayed that in each message and meeting, between the two of them, Machine was more than ready to fight at any time, not caring much for our more scheduled approach to things. Nevertheless, the two had managed to avoid a fight and come to the conclusion that the battle would take place one week before the end of the second semester, which was about a couple months away. It would give them the maximum amount of time to train for the confrontation. We had all been given some papers to take home with us, detailing the current state of THEM and how Machine's possible leadership factored into things. Thankfully we did not have to worry about Talon whatsoever anymore, as the S.S.C had apparently been very persuasive in offering him the opportunity to leave THEM for good. Without Talon, surely THEM would have taken an unbelievable dip in the strategic field of things. The more I read, the more thankful I was that it was not up to me this time to take out the new big guy on top. Much to my shame, I gave a brief jump of fear when my phone began to ring from across the room. I quickly answered it and to my great surprise, found Nick on the other line. He wasted no time, getting straight to the point of things. "Tim," he began, with a slightly shaky voice. "I've been thinking about what you said. And I've decided that I am willing to become your apprentice. I may not be in peak physical condition though." "I wasn't either," I replied cheerfully. "It all comes in time. Thankfully, you shouldn't have to worry too much about fighting anyone dangerous yet." I tried to hold back my excitement as best I could while Nick spoke again. "That's another thing," he stated. "Honestly, I was going to say no to you. Heck, I probably would have just avoided you for the rest of the school year. But... then a friend of mine got beat up in the school parking lot the other day... it was bad. It wasn't THEY, just some group of attackers... but after hearing that, I decided then and there to get over my fears and learn how to protect others. I couldn't stand to see something like that happen again. Not to somebody I care about." "I think you've made the right choice," I replied. "I know what it's like to feel helpless... even useless. Or to feel like you have more to offer but no way to show it... It's tough. But with training, you'll be able to shine. I promise you that. And I'd never lie to you." "Glad to hear it," Nick replied with some new-found hope in his voice. "Meet me at recess in the courtyard alright?" I asked. "We will practice tomorrow." "I'll be looking forward to it," Nick replied. And with that, we hung up. Our new future had begun.

Training Nick:

When it came to teaching my new apprentice, I wanted to utilize some of the same training methods, Eric tried with me. But at the same time, I also thought it necessary to add in some moves of my own. On the first day Nick and I were to meet for practice, I was admittedly nervous, unsure that I'd ever be as good of a master as Eric. He had years of experience before adopting me into the S.S.C and training me in his ways. I on the other hand could really only teach the things I could remember, or move-sets I had picked up from watching over other fighters. Very few of the techniques I had in mind were purely my own. When Nick finally arrived that day at the courtyard, I got straight to the point. "Alright Nick," I began as soon as he approached, not even bothering to say hello. "Give me 50 push-ups!" Nick stopped in his tracks, a look of shock frozen on his face. "W-what?" he stuttered. "Don't you think that's a little extreme for the first day?" I just chuckled to myself. "You don't know how lucky you are," I responded. Unable to argue, and not wanting to disappoint me and the S.S.C on his first day, Nick dropped to the ground and began to do the push-ups faster than I had expected. It wasn't long before he was already at thirty. It helped of course that he was skinny, so lifting his own weight wasn't much of a problem, nor did I protest when his form became slightly lazy. I couldn't help but think back to myself in the same situation months ago. Arms weak and mind clouded with pain and adrenaline. Eric's steady gaze on me and his constant support. Unlike Eric however, I chose not encourage Nick to go on. I just kept watching, hoping that he could make it. As Nick got into the forties, he began to slow down significantly, constantly reeling backwards somewhat to ease the intense pain in his abdomen and arms. I still kept quiet though. A fighters member needed to be aware that the master wouldn't always be there to encourage them to do better. They had to be there for themselves. Unlike me, Nick never lost his count. He remained ever-vigil over each individual push up, stating the number in a pain-ridden tone through his teeth upon every rise. Nick kept going, eventually reaching 45. Some kids - some young, some old, from around the courtyard, began to gather around us and clap for him. The support seemed appreciated by Nick, whose face was now completely red and his eyes squeezed shut, as if the simplest gaze at the world around him might cause his arms to snap. Nick was almost there as two more shaky pushups brought him to 47. Now Nick began to stop counting, instead giving way to the heavy panting and groaning that I had exhibited for much of my first day of training as well. I wanted so badly to shout for him to keep trying, but I stuck to my method and kept quiet. Wobbly arms and sweat met him on the 49th push up, but some clapping from the crowd gave him courage to continue. Finally, with one last downwards arch and upwards stroke, Nick achieved one of the most wobbly push-ups I had ever seen, but it was good enough considering the situation. Nick gave out a soft whimper before finally allowing his arms to go limp and his body to crash against the cool grass. I didn't bother speaking to him, for I knew the last thing he wanted to do afterwards was talk. A light peppering of snow began to descend from the clouds now, driving most everyone away from us. I took to explaining to anyone remaining that Nick had lost a bet with me, and this was his punishment. This excuse seemed to sate anyone curious to our actions. When finally the crowd had completely dissipated, I leaned down to Nick and helped him to his feet, throwing his hood over his head so as to be shielded from the flakes. "How do you feel?" I asked. "I don't feel anything," Nick panted, grasping his right arm as tightly as he could. He was clearly all numb. "If you're worried that every day of training will be like this, don't be," I proclaimed as we headed for shelter. "This just gave me a benchmark for how tough you really are. And I gotta say I'm impressed. You know on my first day, my master made me do 100 of those things." Nick turned to me with a raised eyebrow. "No way!" he shouted. "You won't get me to believe that!" I merely smiled and dawned my own hood as well while the snow began to sting at my neck. "Well," I elaborated. "I never kept count the whole time like you did. My master told me I exceeded 100... but I'll never know if he was telling the truth, or just telling me what I wanted to hear." Nick nodded, not wanting to speak as he continued to try and catch his breath. "But ya know," I continued. "I look at it like this. I certainly believe that I got over 100 push-ups that day... and since I believe it, it might as well be true." Nick smiled and sat down at a bench, holding on to his waist for a moment. "I'd like to see some proof before I can pass judgement," he pointed out. "Maybe another time," I responded. "Seriously though. You've done great Nick. I can tell your heart is in the right place... but... according to my watch, you still have just enough time to run a few laps around the track am I right?" Nick straightened up as his pained grin broadened. "The old me would have walked away," Nick replied. "And the new one?" I asked. Nick just smiled. "The new one is changing into his running shoes."

A Change of Plans:

The good times can so often turn bad before you have the chance to appreciate them. I was beyond satisfied with my training of Nick that day. For the first time in a while I actually felt like I was assisting the S.S.C in a big way again. I couldn't help but think of Eric a bit. Think of what he'd say about Nick. I'd like to imagine they'd get along. And I'd like to imagine that Eric would be proud of me. I had everything planned out in my mind, the upcoming meeting places, workout schedules, routines, you name it. Had the plans not changed that day, Nick's training would have gone uninterrupted and carried out slowly, with precision and grace. However, the plans did change that day, and they changed in the form of a phone call. Thinking it to be Nick, I answered cheerfully, already prepared to hear how sore his legs were from running so much. Unlike Eric, I wanted to be close friends with my apprentice. My presumption turned out to be incorrect, as I was instead met by the voice of Brad himself. "Sir!" I exclaimed over the line, as if that counted as some kind of salute. "Tim, listen." Brad stuttered frantically. "There's been a problem." "What's going on, sir?" I replied quickly, taking a seat at my bed. "It's Zach," Brad continued. "He foolishly met with Machine again... and this time things didn't go according to plan. Zach was beaten up on the outskirts of the old park. It's bad Tim. Even Zach's parents are getting involved. If it were not for the fact that Zach's dad used to be in the S.S.C, we'd all be in trouble." I cleared my throat. "Why tell me this?" I asked, all-too aware of what his reply would be. "Because Tim... you're the only member who I believe to be right for the job," Brad admitted. "And that job is to defeat Machine before the school year ends." I clenched the phone tightly in my left hand and buried my face in the other one. "Why me?" I exclaimed in a tone I never thought appropriate to utter towards a member of such higher authority. "I just got an apprentice! There is no way I could take a guy like this! I have work to do elsewhere!" "You're fast Tim," Brad replied. "My records and the documents left behind by Eric, show that you're one of the fastest troops we've got. And one thing Zach told us about Machine, is that he is slow. If we're gonna take this guy out, we have to provide the fastest guy we've got. That's you." I was practically speechless. Brad could sense my displeasure and kept speaking. "It's not just that," he admitted. "Believe it or not, Tim, but you stand for something here in the S.S.C. You're a rookie that defied the odds and in his very first confrontation with the enemy, managed not only to fight admirably, but also succeed in beating up and capturing the leader of THEM! That's simply unheard of here! Tim, you showed THEM that age doesn't matter. You showed them that it's the will and strength that counts." Brad paused for a moment to let this sink in. "I'm not trying to give you a big head," he continued solemnly. "But THEM is afraid of you. Afraid of what you can do. What you can grow into. Add in your incredible speed to that attribute and you're practically a legend to those guys now." "A legend with an apprentice that needs to be taught," I argued, my head still hanging low. Brad sighed on the other end of the line. "I'm getting old, Tim," he said at last. "At least too old to keep running this show forever. It takes a lot out of a guy you know? But I got here because when I was a young guy like you, I also pulled off some incredible feats against the bullies of our day. The previous leader looked past my age and saw me for what was inside. He saw that I had potential beyond anyone else in the S.S.C at that time. And Tim... I'm seeing that in you already." I lifted up my head now in astonishment, unable to speak. "Henry saw it to," Brad continued. "I've already been talking around with some elites. When I'm gone, they'll briefly run the show for a short while... but after that... I want you to at least consider stepping up to take my place. And you defeating Machine is a sure-fire way to prove to the whole S.S.C that Talon's defeat was no mere mistake. Tim... this is your chance to become something a whole lot bigger than just a master of one kid. You can be the master of the whole S.S.C." I sat there, taking all this in, thinking about the immense offer I had just been given. "I... I'm not saying that I don't accept your offer," I responded slowly. "But my apprentice means a lot to me. I'd hate to abandon his training now at the beginning. Isn't there another way?" "The school year is starting to come to an end," Brad replied gravely. "If you don't defeat Machine before then, it is possible that he could just grow in strength over the Summer. Not to mention the fact that THEM will almost certainly grow in size with a leader around that is as fearsome as he is. THEM operates on fear these days. And since THEM fears you, I say we fight fire with fire. Or fear with fear. I'm not asking you to leave your apprentice, but can I count on you to take this guy down before we run out of time?" I thought for a long while on it. Thinking about Eric, and Nick, and what they'd want me to choose. I had come so far within the S.S.C, and now I was being offered the chance to go farther than most members could ever dream of. But at what cost? I weighed all my options, and beliefs within my head for what seemed like an eternity. And then I chose.

Training:

Two months had passed since my agreement to fight Machine. To prepare myself to the fullest, I agreed that the fight needed to take place about a week before the end of the school year, similar to Zach's plan. To avoid the same fate as my predecessor, I was told not to risk meeting Machine face to face until the fight. Instead we relied upon our messaging unit and spies to get our new plans across. The fight was scheduled to take place at the old park late at night to avoid unwanted attention. Despite my efforts to not hear any of what Machine had to say, I still got word from time to time that he'd tell our messengers that I feared him, which is why I refused to meet him man-to-man. The stories of Machine were hardly a joke to me anymore. Maybe I did fear him to some extent, but I'd never show it. Only seven days remained now until the fight, and Machine had been missing from school for the last couple weeks, presumably training on his own time. Brad was right, this battle meant something in the hearts of both sides. THEM and the S.S.C, sending their finest warriors onto the field of battle. Despite the immensity of this entire operation, it was still top secret to anyone below the ranking of elite. To my shame, even Nick could not know of my upcoming battle. I trusted him with all my heart, even going as far as to mention Eric to him, something I had promised to never bring up to anyone. But I knew that even the slightest and most unintentional leak of information on how I was training myself or who I was training with could have massive repercussions. Rules were rules. My training with Nick had grown more and more sparse as time went on. His training, while still quite difficult, was admittedly a few levels below me. I knew that if I actually wanted to better myself, I'd have to start working with elites, sparing day and night, learning every move in the book they could teach me. Many times I would have to leave practice with Nick early so as to catch my next training session. Nick would then be forced to work on his own, which pained me to a great degree. With such little time until my battle with Machine was to take place, I decided to tell Nick to show up to the open – yet hilly field just to the south of the town square for a sparring session. It was in this exact same location that Eric and I had worked on a variety of training exercises. This would be the first true sparring session between Nick and me. When I arrived at the open field that day, already exhausted from workouts prior, I found Nick had already beaten me there. "You're getting slow!" Nick shouted across the hillside. "Maybe you're just getting fast!" I called back. "I'm surprised it took us this long to get to a spar," Nick replied as he walked over to me. "Yeah well," I began. "I wanted to make sure you were well-versed in just about everything else. I've seen everything you can do. Now I need to see what you can't." "Is that you're way of saying I'm gonna lose this match?" Nick laughed. I merely smiled and rubbed my eyes a bit. "Hey, I suppose you can surprise me," I shot back. "You ready?" "As ready as I'll ever be," Nick replied, getting into a proper fighting stance of which I had taught him a week prior. "Just try not to knock out my front teeth, do what you want with the back ones." I smiled at the remark and got into my own position, which was quite similar to Nick's. Feet spread out, ready to leap in any direction at the blink of an eye, yet with the feet still planted firmly so as to avoid being knocked off your balance. One arm protruding forward slightly and the other kept wavering at your side, allowing for surprise strikes. In my experience, it was the most effective form of preparation in a battle. But Nick was still new and still made mistakes, as I noted his feet to be slightly too parted from one another. This was a mistake that he had to learn to avoid. In a swift motion, I managed to lunge forward and knock Nick off his balance, giving me time to land some cushioned blows at his rib cage while he staggered back. "Be careful," I told him as I withdrew some. "An enemy that knocks you off balance this early is an enemy you don't want to make any more mistakes around." Nick dropped down and attempted a leg swipe, but I quickly hopped over the incoming foot and proceeded to use this time to my advantage as I careened forward and tackled his left side; sending us both down. While on the ground, Nick managed to swiftly knee me in my side and push me off. "Not bad," I remarked. Nick had no time to react, soon I had gotten him into a headlock there on the ground, which I had thought to be inescapable. Suddenly, in a total turn of events, Nick grabbed hold of my elbow; prying my right arm downwards which made contact with my other arm's placement. Such pressure soon took full effect and both my arms were forced away from his throat. "How'd you do that?" I asked. "Maybe I have some more tricks up my sleeves than you thought," Nick replied. In no time, before I could even stand, Nick dove at me, sending me down on my back and nearly pinning me. Though Nick's shoulder prevented me from looking around, I knew that if I were to roll to my right, our entanglement would be untied. I proceeded as such and sent Nick down on his side. The unexpectedness of this motion caused Nick to slam his head into the dirt before the rest of his body. It didn't look fun. "You're not the only one with tricks, my friend," I laughed. With that, I reproached Nick as he dazingly attempted to stand and pinned his arms down. It was over. "I'll get you someday," Nick said with hope as I freed him and he clung to his forehead. "At your rate," I replied. "It'll be sooner than you think."

Chatting With Nick:

Seven days later, the snow had thankfully begun to clear out for a while. However, it was growing dark outside and I knew that Machine would be expecting me in a few hours. The day had come. My previous sparing match with Nick ended up being our last for a while. In fact, I tried to avoid most contact with him for the last several days, fearing that I might say something and accidentally let information slip. Most of the elites who had been training me had no more to offer either. I was left now with only myself and my thoughts. As I stretched and practiced some basic strikes against a punching bag graciously provided by the S.S.C, there was a knock at my door. My heart nearly skipped a beat as I pondered what it would be like to answer the door and get tackled by an impatient; cheating Machine. I almost decided not to answer, fearing the worst, when suddenly there was a call from behind the door. "Tim it's me!" shouted Nick. I looked at my watch, finding it to be 9:00. I approached the door and allowed Nick entry from the darkness outside. "Nick," I said, shaking my head slightly. "It's getting awfully late. What are you doing here?" Nick just stood by the door, not wanting to move. "You've been acting a little strange lately," Nick pointed out. "We haven't had practice in a while and you don't return my calls. I just wanted to ask you if everything was alright." I turned my back to him for a moment, trying to think up some sort of excuse. "It's nothing," I replied at last. "I've just had a bit of a cold is all. Didn't want to get anyone sick." Nick nodded for a moment, when suddenly his vision snapped to my hands, which were promptly wrapped in boxing gauze. "You been practicing this late?" Nick asked; curious. "Y-yeah.” I stuttered, removing the gauze immediately. As soon as I peeled off the strips at my left hand, I began to shake a bit. The motion was subtle, but I knew Nick could tell. The fear of Machine was creeping up on me, and there was nothing I could do about it. Now Nick looked up at my face again, raising an eyebrow in confusion. "C'mon Tim," Nick said at last. "You know you can't trick me. I can see it in your eyes. There is something wrong." I offered no response. "Alright," Nick said at last, throwing his hands in the air. "At least tell me where you are going so late at night." Nick had obviously noticed that I was wearing my shoes and jacket, he was perceptive like that. Knowing that he would only continue his questioning, I decided to tell him the truth. After all, with battle being so close, it would be impossible for Nick to accidentally release vital information. And if all didn't go well between Machine and I, this could be last time I'd talk to my apprentice with all my teeth still in place. "Nick," I began, sitting at my couch. "I'm sure you've heard of Machine by now." "Sure have," Nick replied. "Since the Zach incident." I shuttered at the mere mention of the event. "Well," I continued. "The truth is... I'm meeting with Machine tonight to fight him at the old park. I've gotta make sure he never bothers another kid again." Nick's jaw dropped for a moment as his mind flooded with questions that I knew I'd never have the time to answer. Then his eyes lit up with a sudden joy. "I'll come with you!" he exclaimed. "Two fighters are better than one." Nick meant well, but it was just too dangerous to bring him along to fight. I broke it to him as gently as I could. "Sorry Nick," I replied, rubbing my neck and removing the gauze from my other hand so that I didn't have to look at him. "This is just too big of a situation. You haven't been trained enough." "Haven't been trained enough?" Nick exclaimed. "Have you already forgotten how I got out of that headlock of yours? Did you forget all those weeks of pushups, races, and obstacle courses? I'm more than ready!" "I haven’t forgot," I replied. "But the S.S.C has made things clear with me. This isn't just your normal fight... it's more than that. I can become a symbol of hope in the S.S.C... and I even have a shot at becoming leader if I pull this off." Nick drew back some from me, his smile faded away completely. "The S.S.C knows you are doing this?" Nick asked. "How many people know? Why didn't anyone tell me? I could have practiced longer! Practiced harder! You can't just think of yourself!" "I'm not," I replied irritably. "Nick, you're smarter than this. I'm not just doing this because it'll let me rise in rank. I'm doing it so nobody else has to risk getting hurt. I only trust myself with this mission. No one else. That's how it has to be." Nick shook his head, a look of disgust and fear growing upon it. "Please," Nick said at last. "It's time I proved myself. Time I-" "No," I interrupted at last. Time was running short, and I couldn't afford to beat around the bush any longer. Nick finally held his tongue now, turning back and opening up the door to let himself out. I almost didn't say anything to him, but at the last second, I rose to my feet and placed my hand on his shoulder. "Another day," I said lightly. Nick refused to look me in the eyes now as he drew outside. "I understand," he said over his shoulder as he walked into the night. For a moment I thought to follow him, but ultimately I decided against it. This conversation could wait till tomorrow. I had to think about today. With that, I practiced outside in the dark for the remaining couple hours, getting accustomed to the icy air while simultaneously getting lost in thought. I started to think some more about Nick's surprising reaction to my revelations. But somehow I still thought it wasn't anything to worry about... If I had only known how wrong I was...

The Lost:

It was a little past 12:00 in the morning when I made my way to the old park, but I was still more than wide awake. I had miscalculated how much time it would take me to walk there, and thus I arrived a bit later than expected. When finally I could see the wreck of rusted swing-sets and monkey bars, I knew I'd arrived. I circled the park a couple times, my footsteps hardly audible thanks to the wet mulch beneath my feet. Everything was bathed in darkness, with the nearest streetlight still at far too much of a distance away to shed any of its light upon our battleground. I saw no-one, but could simply feel that I wasn't alone. Finally a deep voice called through the darkness, one which sounded much older than my own. My attention was immediately drawn to one of the crumbling platforms to the park, where a large, bulky figure now stood, cracking his knuckles. My eyes focused in on the figure, spotting his wicked smile and dried out face. His hair was covered by a beanie cap, but he had little else on to keep warm. His short-sleeve shirt showed off the full extent of his muscles. He looked slow alright, but a single strike from him would feel like getting hit by a car. "So, you made it, Tim," Machine called out. "I thought you might chicken-out. You hear my name every day. I've heard yours once. I know you've been told this is some sorta special event. That you're some sort of special snowflake and all that crap. But it's all just lies they told you so you'd have the guts to show up here. Had they not done that... well... we wouldn't be having this little get-together." I didn't bother to reply, merely standing in place, in my battling position. I wouldn't let his words strike fear into me, though in some deep recess of my mind, it shook me slightly to hear that Machine knew so much about why I'd ended up here. Was he right? Would I have even arrived at this park if the S.S.C hadn't offered me the position of leader? Those were questions I had to push to the side. "I mean look at us," Machine laughed as he jumped from the platform and started to walk towards me. "I'm bigger than you, taller than you, better trained than you. And we're the same damn age! I bet they didn't tell you that either, did they? Wouldn't want you to realize that THEM trains it's soldiers to be the best. Imagine how tough I'll be in a year or two? THEM is safe in my hands, and there of plenty of guys just like me who grow stronger by the day. Meanwhile your S.S.C busies itself saving kids who get what they deserve. The age of fighting for others is long over. Kids need to learn to fight for themselves!" Machine stopped in his tracks only a few feet in front of me. Truly he did stand a few inches taller. My face showed no fear. "Otherwise they become cowards!” he continued. “They shy away at the slightest inkling of danger! They don't live! They expect there to be someone right by their side who will help them out, but it won't last forever!" Machine threw his hands up in the air, making me flinch a bit, though I wasn't sure if he could see it. "Everyone has their reason to join THEM," Machine continued. "But that is my reason. And I'm not wrong." I still refused to reply, only backing up some so that he couldn't surprise me with a sudden left hook. Machine just laughed again. "I will give the S.S.C some credit though," he admitted. "At least those who join the S.S.C have got some backbone. Your apprentice showed me that much." I froze. "What are you talking about?" I questioned. Machine grinned even wider now. "What did you do?" I said through my teeth. My hands were shaking now; even through the darkness, I knew Machine could see it. "It was only a couple of hours ago," laughed Machine. "You should have seen the little wimp. Coming in here like he was something bigger than himself." I bit down on my tongue, my hands clenching harder. "He was a pretty good fighter," Machine mentioned as he nodded his head. "But not nearly good enough." He stopped laughing now, letting the fear take full effect. I was burning with anger now, ready to leap at Machine at the drop of a pin. I had nearly forgotten everything I'd learned. "Let's just say... you won't be hearing from him any time soon," Machine whispered. In one smooth and menacing motion, Machine pulled a switchblade knife from his back pocket and held it to the light of the moon. A substance clung to the blade. I could guess what it was. My heart dropped. Something seemed out of balance, but I couldn't tell what it was. I had no room for words, all I could do now was fight. Machine took a few steps closer to me now. "This is what happens when you take on a force bigger than yourself," he breathed. "You're gonna end up learning that the hard way I suppose. Just like he did."

Battling Machine:

With all the speed and force I could muster, my right arm tore away from my side, striking Machine in the stomach as I lunged forward. The force of the strike sent Machine doubling forward, allowing me to harshly knee him in his chin. I drew away for a moment, allowing myself to regain some energy while Machine chuckled to himself and felt as his face. "Gonna have to do better than that," he laughed. With a crazed look now in his eyes, Machine ran at me, swinging his knife at my chest. I was able to dodge it and swiftly kick the weapon out of his hands, sending the blade flying into the night. Machine lumbered forwards and got me in a choke hold before I could react, twisting my arm in the process. It was hardly a successful hold however, as I broke away, spun 180 degrees, and kicked him hard in the gut. Machine started to get angry now. "You're finished!" he bellowed. I steadied myself back in fighting position, but with an unforeseen level of speed, Machine rushed over to me and drop-kicked me to the ground. Machine got up first and kicked me in my side. Training had taught me to roll when being kicked while down, so as to avoid further strikes and to reduce damage. My anger began to get the better of me as I rolled blindly behind myself, striking the back of my head against the twisted metal of a downed platform. The world began to spin now as I eyed Machine, ready to clock me in the face. Clinging to reality as best I could, I rolled out of his way just in time, causing Machine's hand to strike against the rusted metal, giving off a piercing clang as Machine staggered back, holding onto his hand and cursing. I arose again with wobbly legs and rushed at my distracted enemy as fast as I could, kicking him in the back. But Machine refused to fall this time, taking me by surprise as he twisted around, achieving a grazing shot at my side. I wobbled backwards a bit towards the park again, giving Machine the opportunity to corner me. The wind was knocked out of me almost instantaneously as Machine delivered a barrage of harsh strikes to my abdomen and chest. A numbness was sent through my upper body and began to bleed over into my arms now, making them difficult to lift and even more difficult to use for blocking more incoming hits. I cried out in pain, but it wasn't like anyone could hear me. The soreness of my stomach became apparent now as Machine struck me there once more. My defenses lowered, Machine finally managed to pull off his first mighty punch against my head. My mind seemed to shatter at the force of the strike. The only thing that kept me from falling was the memory of Brad's words of advice regarding my speed. Then came the thoughts of Eric's training, and what he expected of me. I thought about Nick, who had given the ultimate sacrifice to make me proud of him. I thought about the S.S.C and what this meant to them. And I stood. While the world still swirled around me, I leaped to the right, outside of Machine's range of strikes, allowing me to climb up the battered slide of the park, up to one of the higher platforms. Machine soon grasped onto the side of a nearby bar and hauled himself up to meet me. I tried to punch him in the throat, but my attack was far too slow, allowing Machine to grab hold of my hand and shove me into what remained of the playground's upper railing. Machine; now giving fully into his rage, twisted my arm behind my back and proceeded to lift me by my mid-section, tossing me over the rails, onto the ground below. My dazed mind couldn't keep up with Machine's strength. My legs crumbled beneath me as I struck the ground below, feeling the mulch stabbing into my hands and shoulders. It seemed all I could do now was stare at the blackened sky, as the sounds of Machine slowly descending from the park's platform drifted through the air. I blacked out for a couple seconds, before fighting my way back to reality. Machine now stood over me, ready to gloat. "It's a shame you didn't join THEM," he boomed. "You would've made for a fine trooper here. But there in the S.S.C. You'll just find yourself here. Lying on your ba-" With one strong motion I didn't know I even had in me, my foot rocketed forward, impacting Machine in his stomach. Machine bent over just as he had done at the start of the fight, allowing me to slug him across the face with my left arm. Machine cried out in a sudden pain, covering his face from being attacked again, allowing me to slowly rise to my feet. My anger was building up, but I remembered to calm myself. Eric would not want me to fight this way. Still clinging to his cheek, Machine limped forward and attempted to jab at my chest. All he found was his hand caught within my own. Now taken completely by surprise, Machine could only watch in a daze as I twisted his arms around my own, bringing us shoulder-to-shoulder before I then unleashed a volley of strikes with my free hand against his face continuously. Machine could do little to block the incoming strikes with his only free hand, finding himself finally feeling the same pain as my own. Finally, Machine's weight began to weigh down on me, and I released him, only to watch as the behemoth toppled to his knees, and then down to the ground entirely. "Okay!" Machine cried out, hiding his face. "Okay you win! I give up!" For the briefest of moments, I nearly believed him. But then my eyes focused in on his face. Despite his attempts to hide it, I could see that same grin plastered upon him. Only then did I realize his other hand had grabbed hold of something laying in the darkness. The only thing that could be lying there. The knife. My mind pushed aside all the remaining pain in my body as more adrenaline surged through me. I leapt back as fast as I could, but not fast enough as Machine swung the blade around, slicing my right shin. I staggered backwards now, unable to let go of the fear long enough to think to turn around. I backed into the very same old tree that Eric and I had sat under in our final meeting. Only now it was anything but calm. I clung to my bleeding shin as various low-hanging branches scraped at my face from every angle imaginable. My eyes drifted back up from my wound, spotting Machine closing in on me, knife still in hand. It would only take a single motion to finish me off. When finally Machine was within a few feet of me, I lingered all the way into the tree, my back striking against the center shaft. Only then did the miracle occur. From the innards of the tree, a sudden crashing was heard. Machine and myself both looked up at the noise. Before either of us could fully grasp what was going on, a large broken tree branch tumbled out from the darkness overhead, smashing directly over Machine's temple as he was looking up. The sudden impact sent Machine falling to his knees. Only this time, it was for good. For the next several seconds, I stood there beneath that tree, crouched down almost like a ball so the branches couldn't scrape at me anymore. The only sounds left of the night were those of my beating heart and Machine's soft groans as his consciousness slowly began to fade. Carefully, I removed my jacket and wrapped it around my shin to stop the bleeding. I slowly exited the tree and looked down at my defeated foe. I thought about how easy it would be to make Machine suffer for what he did to Nick. I thought about indulging in the dark corner of my mind that craved revenge. But I stepped back from it. For had I done something, I would have been no better than Machine or any other THEM member. I bent down now besides Machine and tore off his circular THEM patch. The symbol of his authority and proof of my victory. His switchblade knife as well; I confiscated. And so I stood once more, not bothering to look upon Machine's beaten face any further. And I left as I had come. Though with much more pain in my heart.

Dawn of a New Age:

A lot happened for the next few weeks. The school year wrapped up and all major confrontations between the Fighters and THEY slowed down significantly. Machine would come to deliver a multitude of statements to both his troops as well as the troops of the S.S.C that he had been beaten through sheer luck, rather than by skill. Though that still struggled to explain the many bruises his face housed after that day. Sometimes I'd entertain myself to the idea that Eric was somehow up in the tree that fateful day and kicked down a branch in just the right manner to save my life. I would never know for sure of course, but I'd like to think my victory came about through more than just luck. My wounded leg, though quite badly damaged, was quickly fixed up by the S.S.C medical team. Nothing was infected thankfully, and though the stitches hurt, I believe things could've gone much worse. Brad retired not long afterwards, bidding the S.S.C farewell and urging it to continue to make large strides in helping kids all across the county. As per usual in instances of a leader retiring, the elites took up control for some time, as the process of electing a new leader came into question. It was in these days that I found my greatest hope to become my greatest fear. For in about a week's time, I found a few elites knocking at my door, telling me that above all other candidates, the S.S.C was looking for someone like me to take up the helm. It was everything I had wanted, but now it seemed so bitter-sweet. I accepted the offer, knowing that doing otherwise would disappoint so many, but my head wasn't in the game anymore. And I wasn't sure it ever would be again. On my day to be instated as leader, a small speech was expected of me. I had taken a great length of time in writing down what I was to say, wanting it to reach out to members of all ages. It had to be short, yet strong. That evening, through matters as shady as one can imagine, seeing as the school was closed, the S.S.C got access to the very same room where Eric had once stood up for me when nobody else would've. And now I no longer sat among the crowd, but stood above them, their hopeful eyes planted upon me. Oddly enough, I wasn't afraid to speak. Perhaps I had already been through the fullest extent of fear. Or perhaps my mind was simply in another place. "I don't deserve this," I spoke to the crowds as the elites stood to my side, most likely of equal surprise as the audience regarding what I had to say. "I am no better than you. Or at least no better than what you can become. My strength lies in you, S.S.C. And I except this title because of you. But let us not forget ourselves in this mess of a war on our hands. Lest we become animals like THEM. Let us remember what we lost... and become stronger because of it." The crowds rose and clapped for me. I put on a smile and waved to them, but it was all for show. The face I cared most to see in that crowd wasn't there. And that was the face of Nick. As leader, I did everything in my power for the first few weeks to figure out what happened to him, but every road led to nowhere. Machine wasn't about to talk anytime soon. And though Nick's parents did put up some effort to find their lost boy, it was all useless. It was James all over again, and I refused to ignore that fact. Every night I'd think about what I could've done differently. I thought about everything I'd had to lose to get this far. Losing my best friend, losing my master, losing my apprentice. The only thing I hadn't lost was the S.S.C. And so I tried my best to be sated by this fact, but the thoughts of the lost persisted ever-more. Now the leader of so many individuals; my weaknesses became their weaknesses. Only through my strength could they also find the strength to carry on. I think the only thing that stopped me from quitting it all was the realization that we'd all lost something. Toparsburg took more than it gave away. So many of us here were without caring families, a caring school, or a caring community. I had to be there for those who'd lost as much as I did, so as to prevent another James or another Nick from occurring. Yes, from the darkness of this town, new light could still be born.

The End of the Beginning:

It wasn't long before school started up again. Just another year of bullies, THEM, and more battles. I was a year older now, so much older than I had been not so long ago - mentally at least. THEM's activity over Summer had been weak thanks to my actions against Machine early-on, but a new school year only meant that more kids would end up joining THEM's cause, as well as our own. The fire had reignited again and now the only difference was that I was the one in charge of driving us towards a better tomorrow. This was the light I'd often think about, born from the darkness of times. I was helping others find their light. Months later, my light found me while I was walking towards my next class. Crazed shouts and cries emanated from just down the hall as R.K. bolted through the various kids in the vicinity, alerting us to an incoming presence. "Run away!" he exclaimed, going so far as to push me to the side in order to get farther from whatever had startled him. "It's Machine!" While other kids turned on their heels and began to walk another direction, I found my curiosity peaked for whatever reason, and found myself heading the opposite way of the fleeing crowd. There; just around the corner, stood Machine. He looked as brutish as ever before, pushing some kid about a year younger than myself against his locker. At first glance, I suppose all I saw was another kid who needed saving. But then I looked closer. There was something about that kid's eyes that I didn't understand at first. The eyes seemed familiar to me, but I had never seen this boy in my entire life. Finally, it hit me. The kid's eyes reminded me of my own. They were scared, but hopeful. In those eyes, I saw potential. I saw a younger me. Eric had once told me, "When you can't find what you're looking for, let what you're looking for find you." This was just the beginning of a new adventure.

THE END

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