My head crashed hard against that cold, unforgiving locker. I was weightless now. Or so it seemed. My feet hung there, a foot off the ground. I looked up, feeling a meaty fist tucked tightly just below my chin. In front of me stood a monster. Not one of myths and fairytales. This was a real monster. The kind only the world as we know it, can possibly produce. The kind of monster that didn’t hide under your bed, but instead hid behind your each and every thought. And at the slightest glance of a hope, there it was – crouching off in the corner, waiting to pounce. Perhaps it was merely the pain in the back of my head that let me give off the slightest of grins. That sort of grin you can’t help but find yourself dawning when lost in a deeper recollection. Obviously, the beginning of the memory that led to this point began with only me. This was before my life took a turn for better or for worse. This was a time before anyone else became involved in my life. Truth be told, I never felt as if I needed others to shape my future. I believed I could do that sort of thing all on my own. And while I did have a few ‘friends’, such as Tye or Random Kid, we never actually hung out. The year was 2008, and I was only twelve years old. Despite my young age, hardly ever did I think of myself as weak. Here in Toparsburg, hardly anyone was weak. This town, or perhaps more specifically – this school, were breeding grounds for strength. Either you toughened up, or you’d be crushed. Some 12-year-olds in Toparsburg had the strength of kids five years older than them, and that was not a rumor. That was a true statistic carried out only a couple months ago, by a small team of fitness instructors that paid our poor town a visit. Age truly was just a number. It didn’t always have to be that way. From time to time, I’d hear stories from the kids preparing to graduate. Stories of the days before THEM held an iron fist above our heads. Kids could be kids, teens could be teens, young adults could be young adults. But now as I stayed pinned up against that locker that didn’t even belong to me, all I could do was play the part of someone much stronger than they truly were. For the first time in my life, I really did feel weak. I really did feel as if I was standing out from the crowd, bowing my head towards that iron fist. It had all happened so fast. What would soon become my entire world, started out as any other normal day. I was walking down the flooded hallway of our oversized school, attempting to access the stairwell at the far end of the premises before it’d become chaotically packed with every grade of student imaginable. This place contained all grades from elementary to high school, and everyone had a different place to be. Some choosing to speak with friends in a constant idle chattering, while the younger ones who had yet to sober up to the dark reality behind the scenes of our school; ran playfully around us, cackling for whatever reason. Every turn you’d make in those halls was a risk. A risk of running into someone you really didn’t want to tick off. The constant drone of voices was difficult to pierce, however. If anyone was upset with how slow you moved or how clumsily you staggered into ‘traffic’, their curses would be lost in that mighty sound of everything. But sometimes any great noise can still be broken. And on this day, that mighty sound was shattered by cries – shouts to be more clear. A loud crash emanated from the direction I was heading and I soon found Random Kid himself dashing through the waves of kids, using his height and superior strength to shove them all out of his path. A look of horror was planted upon his usually grinning face. I’d known Random Kid practically forever since I’d started school. He almost seemed obsessed with me. Constantly doing anything for a cheap laugh from me or his entourage of friends. There were even rumors that he had been held back several times on purpose, just so he could keep us all laughing. In my mind, I immediately assumed him to be pulling off some elaborate ruse. A ruse in which I did not want to take part of today. "Machine is coming!” his voice shivered as he vanished behind the crowds. “Get out of here!" Some students; immediately recognizing that name, turned on their heels and headed away from that direction. But I knew better. I refused to believe Random Kid was afraid of Machine. Especially since he never got attacked by THEM, thanks to his popularity. And so, in sheer defiance, I made the choice to keep walking. To walk faster than anyone else who had now slowed down to a snail’s pace. I had been the butt of many of Random Kid’s jokes in the past, and I refused to become one again. And that was my mistake. Just as I reached that seemingly empty stairwell and turned a corner, I found myself staring at the monster they called Machine. This monstrosity’s height and girth was rivaled by practically no one. Stories said that he did a hundred pushups every morning, and constantly bench-pressed his own weight just for the fun of it. On a more serious day, he’d accomplish even greater feats of strength. He was a machine. And that’s how his namesake began. While his size certainly struck me with a great pang of fear, I think what affected me to an even stronger degree, was his face. Machine’s face seemed sunken-in compared to the rest of his body. It was as if his own head didn’t even belong to him. His cheeks were so dried out, you could practically see the underlying skeletal structure. He looked like death on steroids. And his gaze was dark and piercing. That kind of glance that made your entire soul grow cold. And I did grow very cold in that moment. Too cold to move – in fact. A small grin etched itself in his dried-out mug, and his eyebrows narrowed. He must’ve been having a bad day, and beating me up was his solution. Machine wasted no time at all and grabbed my collar; forcing me back into someone’s icy locker door. His forearm remained tightly planted against my chest, holding me up in the air with effortless strength. I didn't even attempt to scream, it would be useless. No-one ever stood up to Machine or his people. Not anymore at least. Before I could think any deeper on this fact, his booming voice kicked in. "Well, Blakley," he uttered; addressing me by my last name. "This is the second time we've met like this. If I recall, last time we ran into each other, you sprinted for the hills. Remember that?” I slowly nodded, but in actuality, we had never been in this close proximity before. Machine bullied so many of us, it didn’t surprise me that he confused me with someone else. “Are ya afraid, runt?" he laughed as he tilted his head to the side, cracking it. To be honest, I was completely freaked out. I was alone now with Machine. Alone in the sense that nobody would ever try and stand up for me. Kids slowly passed the two of us. Some much younger, some even older than Machine himself. But not one of them dared to turn a head. Machine had gotten his prey, no need to sacrifice yourself. I attempted to calm myself a bit as I reasoned that no matter how I responded to Machine’s question, I would get beat up anyways. And so, with all my courage, I gathered up my thoughts and responded. "In your dreams, freak." Machine's mug swelled up like I had just hit him in the gut. And for a moment… just for a moment… Machine didn't seem so scary. But that feeling changed immediately as the beast lunged forward, headbutting me in the face. The back of my head struck the wall and everything seemed to be a dream. My nose stung with a burning sensation; no doubt beginning to ooze blood out from within. Machine's face seemed blurred and so did the floor. Then, as my vision continued to grow feeble, a sudden blur of royal blue tackled Machine to the floor. I was released from the monster’s iron grip, sending me sliding down that locker to the ground along with them. I blinked a few times in pure disbelief, my vision returning some as I watched my unknown hero smash a book against Machine’s bony head. I practically had to rub my eyes now, believing I was merely seeing things. Nobody ever stood up to Machine. Maybe to other bullies, but not him. Perhaps it was the shock of everything that was happening around me that made time fly by so fast, but when I next came to my senses, Machine had vanished, and in his place now stood my hero, reaching a hand out to me. I carefully grabbed on, and was hauled back to my feet. I looked at my savior for a while, unsure what to do or say. He looked similar to me, but his eyes seemed slightly bigger. They were a cool blue; contrasting only slightly with my lighter tone of the same coloration. In many ways, his eyes matched his shirt perfectly. He also bolstered short and smooth dark hair; opposing my own, which was only slightly longer and distinctly brown. A smile rose up on my hero’s face. The real kind of smile. He finally spoke up. "Hey, my name is Tim,” he professed; shaking my hand. “Tim Allender." I hardly had room for words. Could I just thank a person who saved me from the most feared person in the entire school? Nevertheless, I raised my voice and finally replied in awe. "Well,” I nodded. “I appreciate the help. I wish every kid had as much courage as you.” I looked down the hall for a second, the other kids had cleared out when the fighting began; clogging up the far end of the premises. Machine was still nowhere to be seen. “I'm surprised Machine left without putting up a big fight,” I pointed out. “You must be tough, Tim." The smile suddenly dropped from my savior’s face. A sudden glare arose over all of it. A tinge of fear echoed through me now. Who should I fear more? The Machine? Or the guy who broke it? "You call me sir," he practically ordered. "And this is far from over." Just as my heart began to race again, a small grin gradually manifested on the left side of Tim’s mouth. Very similar to my own. It seemed like he wanted me to know he wasn't as serious as he gave off. However, I abided by his wishes regardless of this hunch. It was the best way of showing respect towards what appeared to be a hero in a school of savages. I slowly nodded again, and put up my own smile. “My name is Brett.”
The Next Day:
Real life wasn’t like a storybook. Perhaps in such a thing, Tim and I would’ve become best friends from the start. But that was hardly the case. After Tim saved me on that fateful day, we separated quite quickly, as neither of us wanted to be late for class. Also, my bleeding nose was a bit of an issue. Any additional words I said to him, or that he said to me; were lost. Despite this, the memory of Tim still remained fresh in my head throughout my classes. I wondered if we’d ever run into each other again, after that. When you went to a school as big as ours, finding the same face was never easy. I recalled the time my friend Tye moved to Toparsburg. He nearly went insane upon realizing just how packed a school could really be. He said he’d never seen anything like ours. I don’t think it was a compliment. Furthermore, Tim seemed older than me. About two years older, if I had to make a guess. This would make spotting him again, around my classes, nearly impossible. But I did spot him again. The very next day – in fact. The moment we were about to pass each other in the hall, Tim stopped and pulled me to the side. I knew immediately that this couldn’t have been mere coincidence. He had planned this. I had conjured up a few theories regarding what Tim was a part of, but I kept them to myself. "Hey," he exclaimed to me over the chatter nearby. "How’s that nose?" I smiled at him. "It's fine,” I spoke. “I just don't want to run into Machine again. I can’t stand blood." Tim laughed, seemingly in agreement. “Ya know,” he replied. “After you get hit in the nose so many times, eventually it just stops bleeding. Or at least, not nearly as bad.” I think Tim was trying to ease my nerves regarding Machine, but this statement hardly helped anything. Tim seemed to notice my feelings on this matter as he took up a more serious face. “Back in the day,” Tim continued. “Students didn’t have to worry about Machine. He hadn’t moved here yet. I speak of it like it was a long time ago… I suppose it hasn’t been. But Machine has that effect about him. Time just seems to slow down and he makes you feel stuck in place.” “Agreed,” I replied; checking the area to make sure he wasn’t in earshot. Tim also looked around, but likely for different reasons. Finally, he turned back to me; his serious face now having completely taken over. “You’ve probably figured by now,” he began. “I’m not just your average student.” This statement reaffirmed some of my thoughts, but I still refrained from saying anything out loud. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. “I figured,” was all I replied with. Tim silently nodded. “We’re both thinking the same thing, ya know?” he asked. “The S.S.C,” I finally found myself uttering. Just saying that name brought back some bad memories. I felt almost breathless for a moment, lost in thought. Tim finally shook his head in agreement. “Take this,” he said; handing me a small slip of paper. “It’s my address. Try coming by tomorrow. I’ll tell you how I was able to take down Machine. Who knows, maybe some of it will rub off on you.” I slowly reached out and took the paper from his hand. “Listen,” I began. “I’m not a fighte-“Tim stopped me; holding his hand up. “I know,” he replied. “But Machine might not be so sure anymore. Not after seeing me stand up for you.” Only now did I truly understand why Tim bothered to see me again. If Machine really thought I was in the S.S.C, then I was in for a world of hurt on a scale I had never before imagined. “Alright,” I conceded, my voice shaking a bit. Tim seemed to be able to feel my stress. “Show up around 4,” he told me as he began walking back down the hall. “We’ll get things sorted out. I swear.” And then he was gone. I should have felt safer, knowing who Tim was. What he was a part of. But now it seemed as if I was more vulnerable than ever. I spent the rest of that day looking behind me.
The next day was Saturday, and I traveled to Tim’s house as he had requested. We didn’t live too far apart actually. His house was within about a 15-minute walking time within mine. In the past, I’d ride my bike down his street of Franklin Blvd. But I had never seen him outside. If what Tim had told me yesterday was actually true though, then it would make more sense that he was hardly ever at home. After affirming to myself that it was indeed his place, I neared the front door and prepared to knock, only to hear a sudden shout from the backyard. "Hey, Brett!” came Tim’s voice. “Back here!” I circled around the premises, which was admittedly in pretty poor shape, only slightly worse than my own home. I didn’t make much of this though. Nice looking houses were a difficult sight to come by in Toparsburg. At last, I spotted Tim, curling some weights which he had strewn about the grass. “Come on,” he said; as if it were the thousandth time we had done this. “We're going to do a workout." I was about to argue with him, but decided against it. I needed to hear him out. Without speaking, I drew over to a barbell with 20 pounds of weight, and curled it in a similar fashion as Tim. My arms grew sore after only a dozen cycles of this activity. I tried to hide the mounting strain on my arms, but soon they grew shaky with each rise and fall. You could see it from a mile away. Tim had stopped doing his curls and now approached me. There was something about Tim that made it so that you never wanted to mess up in front of him. His eyes were like those of a hawk. It could spot any and all mistakes you made. I looked away from his eyes for a moment, staring down to the ground as I pitifully pulled off a twentieth curl with all my strength. My shoulders were growing tense and my face was becoming a bright red coloration. My neck felt as if it might implode due to my mounting heavy grimaces. Tim was in shorts now, and I couldn’t help but notice a prominent scar running across his right shin. It didn’t look recent, but was certainly not old enough to fade into nothing more than a dark mark. To escape the pain, I nearly asked Tim how he got it, but noticed that he seemed to be eyeing the whole area, as if making sure someone hadn’t followed me to his house. I couldn’t blame him for being paranoid. I would have been the same way, had I fought bullies like Machine on a regular basis. Soon, once I grew too tired to lift the barbells anymore, we moved on to other routines. Pushups seemed to be one of Tim’s favorites, but we did some sit-ups as well. I wouldn’t call it back-breaking, but at the same time, I desperately wanted to ask him what we were doing all this for. I assumed that if I met Tim’s standards, he’d eventually offer me some sort of continued protection from Machine. I wouldn’t take that for granted. But Tim didn't speak too much. However, when he did, he always had constructive things to say. He commented on how I had started lifting the barbell too quickly at the beginning, thereby using up all my energy at the start. He would then laugh and tell me that he used to do the exact same thing for weeks; not sure what the problem was. The more he spoke, the more I understood how ‘attackers’ at our school might not like him. There was no inkling of fear in his entire body. He looked at everything as if it were a challenge. A challenge he could overcome. Whereas Machine had the ability to make it feel like time was standing still; Tim had the power of speeding up everything around him. The words we shared, the workouts we completed, the short stories he told me, they all went by so fast that I wasn’t able to recall half of them. To make a long story short, I left Tim’s house a few hours later, with Tim offering me some water to take home. He didn’t explicitly say that he would be looking out for me just yet. But I felt I was one step closer to protection from the monster called Machine. In the end, our little meeting that day wasn’t about serious talk. Nor was it about all those burning questions in my head about THEM and the S.S.C. This was something so much simpler. It was about the growth of trust between us.
“How long can you run?” Tim asked me, one frigid morning when I met him at the old park. “I’m not sure,” I admitted. “When we have to run the mile in gym, I can hardly keep my lunch down.” “If you could make a realistic goal for yourself,” Tim continued. “How far would you like to be able to run?” I thought about this for a moment. His question clearly wasn’t meaningless. Whatever number I would reply with, Tim would at least attempt to make into reality. The knowledge of this fact did not keep me from responding honestly, though. “Three miles,” I answered at last. “That’s the distance between my house and Marinay River.” Tim gave a wide grin at this remark. “You ever gone fishing at Marinay?” he asked. “No,” I replied solemnly. “My parents aren’t around a whole lot. And I don’t think they’d waste time taking me down there. I just enjoy looking at the water.” Tim pursed his lips for a moment, clearly restraining himself from saying something. His silence was all I need to hear though. It was clear he had a similar family life. Sadly, we were not in the minority when it came to distant families. Or at least it certainly didn’t seem like we were. That was life in Toparsburg for you. No wonder the kids grew up so strong. “Tell ya what,” Tim finally said. “If you can run three miles around this park today; me at your side, we’ll head over there and I’ll bring my fishing gear.” “I’d like that,” I replied honestly. “But you’re insane if you think I can run three miles just cause you told me to.” Tim merely took out a stopwatch; his grin still firmly planted upon his face. “Well, I am insane,” he admitted. “But I think this is more likely than you’d think.” I just shrugged my shoulders at this remark and tightened up my shoelaces. Thankfully, Tim had picked a warmer day of winter to give me this challenge. Tim soon walked to my side and pointed out the general path for us to run on. “Ready when you are,” he told me, getting into a running stance. I inadvertently found myself copying his posture. My eyes narrowed on the somewhat circular path ahead. I thought that if I approached things just as Tim had; with conviction and strength, I could succeed at anything. Now was my chance to prove that theory. And so, I ran.
I knew not to go too fast, but also refrained from keeping my pace set to a speed much lower than Tim would allow to be acceptable. I had to find the mid-point. “Pump your arms a bit more,” Tim ordered between breaths as he effortlessly kept up with me. The wind quickly became a problem; pushing us back upon every third turn around the park. Then there were the hills, which had started out so completely unassuming and harmless, only to seemingly grow several inches upon every rotation. “Running is a sport of repetition,” Tim yelled; still at my side. “You start to become aware of every little hill, rock, and pebble. It’s all a part of taking in your surroundings!” “Tell me about i-“ I began, but Tim cut me off before I could say more. “Don’t talk!” he continued. “Save your air. I’m the insane one, remember?” Only Tim had access to the stopwatch, and his other devices for measuring distance. And he refused to reveal how close or far away we were from our target of three miles. In this particular scenario, I wasn’t a fan of his secrecy, but respected the decision nevertheless. The pain started to flare up in my ankles first. Just a slight sense of numbness I wasn’t well accustomed to. I started to worry about this pain though, realizing it was much too soon to be feeling this way. I attempted to slow down some, but Tim kept at our previous pace. “Hey,” he called back. “You’re the one that set this speed. Don’t quit on it now!” And so, I dashed forward once more; back at Tim’s side. “Keep your eyes in front of you,” Tim now ordered. “You don’t wanna trip. And trying to distract yourself from pain by looking around, doesn’t always work. I’ll tell you that, from experience.” The numbness soon reached up into the back of my upper legs. There was a tightness to it now; feeling as if a muscle might snap at any moment. Occasionally my arms would tire as well, forcing me to drop them to my sides for a brief moment to let the blood flow more freely throughout them. I so desperately wanted Tim to tell me how close we were, but he didn’t seem to be considering it in the slightest. For all we knew, it had been three miles already. It was when the tightness rose up to my right shoulder that I truly started to struggle. I felt like my entire body was giving out on me. Growing rusted. Even a slight headache began to erupt upon each uphill battle. I briefly looked over at Tim. He was breathing hard, but not nearly as much as me. I sounded as if I was about to cough up my own lungs. My hand crept up to my shoulder, squeezing at the pained muscle near my back; hoping for that to quell some of the rigidness. Although not completely effective, I was certainly better-off having done so. “Head down,” Tim ordered; noticing that my eyes were lingering towards the sky. “How are you supposed to keep me from tripping you, if you’re not looking where you are going?” This brought about a small laugh from me, but it was ultimately just wasted air that should have been spent on a stronger stride. Against all odds, we did grow faster in pace as that timeless run went on. Perhaps it was Tim; steadily growing in speed without me catching on. Or maybe some deep portion of my mind was telling me to go faster. To try harder. To show Tim that I wasn’t some nobody. Our footsteps were practically in unison now. There was a beat to it all. Like a constant drumming. Constant on the straightaways, chaotically fast and unpredictable at the turns, spacious at the hills. My heart followed this rhythm. My breathing did the same. “Music to my ears!” panted Tim, as we went down a hill. The guy could practically read my mind. But he couldn’t read the rest of me; not while going this fast. Despite all my effort and all my strength, a mounting pain in my side and the reoccurring one in my shoulder truly began to wear away at me in the next few laps. I clutched my shoulder with my right hand, and my side with the other. My breathing grew more and more chaotic. Not even Tim had any words to ease my pain or to make my pace any better. Maybe he knew that it was over. For all that effort I had put into keeping myself going; it took so very little to slow to a halt. I dropped to my knees now; panting uncontrollably. It felt as if I could throw up at any moment. I wrapped my hands around my waste and stayed there for the longest time. Eventually Tim joined me and helped me stand up. I looked up at Tim, wanting to ask if we’d made it, but I couldn’t find the strength to speak. Tim seemed to read my eyes, and pulled out the stopwatch, looking at it for a few moments as he switched over to another device; allowing him to see how far we’d gone. “23 minutes,” Tim began. I almost thought he was lying, for it had felt so very much longer than that. I squeezed my eyes shut; desperately trying to sate the pain. “My calculations are showing that we made it a little over two miles,” Tim admitted at last. I was heartbroken. For all that I had done to prove myself, I still ended up a failure. Somewhere along the line, I simply had messed up my chances. Or maybe I really was just not strong enough. I didn’t reply to Tim. Or even look at him. I knew he’d be disappointed. It was because of people like me that the S.S.C existed. People like me, who couldn’t do anything for themselves, and instead relied upon others to help them. Tim had already caught his breath by now, but I was feeling increasingly dizzy. It was as if I could fall asleep right then, right there. I didn’t have the slightest clue what stopped me from doing so. “I guess you have a choice now,” Tim said as he bent down at my side. “You give up after your first try. Or you learn from your mistakes and live by your successes.” I slowly opened my eyes again, looking out at the blurry world before me. “What do you wanna choose?” Tim asked.
What Comes Next:
I woke up for the next few days feeling far more sore than I ever had in my entire life. My legs had practically lost half their strength, and there was an occasional splintering discomfort every time I bent my left leg too fast. Despite all this, I didn’t really care. Something was changing inside of me. My ordinary life was disrupted by something so much more interesting. Something I had to work towards. Not because of grades, not out of fear, not because I was told to do so, but instead out of respect for Tim and respect for myself. Now each day after school, I’d drop by the weight room for a short period of time. I certainly didn’t pull off any incredible feats, but it was a good way of setting goals for myself. Tim made it clear to me that he couldn’t always be around to give me instructions. Every night, before I’d shower, I’d also do several pushups; adding one extra pushup for each day. In a week’s time, I was nearly reaching 48. They weren’t the best in form, but I still felt like I got some use out of it. I was a new me. A me that was much more kind and understanding of the school and its students. I felt like I better understood their struggle to stay out of the way of people like Machine. It wasn’t always out of fear, but rather out of uncertainty. Two or three well-trained individuals would surely be more than enough to bring Machine crashing down. But the number of souls willing to try such a thing, was incredibly low. I couldn’t really blame them. Training was not easy, but it had many advantages. Following the mile in gym class, a week later, I came to learn that I had the best time out of all the other classes of my age group. It was a proud moment, but still very short of my desired three miles. Tim was equally proud. We’d met nearly every day since Machine attacked me. Sometimes to train, sometimes to talk, and occasionally just to hang out. We’d grown into actual friends. In many ways, Tim was my first real friend… or perhaps my second, but the first was not someone I liked to think about much anymore. Eventually, on a Friday evening of school, I heard shouts down the hall. More kids screaming about Machine. For just a fleeting moment, I almost headed into the danger zone; ready to do anything that was necessary to show Machine that he was vulnerable. But my uncertainty got the better of me, and I fled along with the rest. It was in this moment that I realized Tim had never given me the protection I assumed he was training me to receive. I had always just assumed our practices’ purposes were to show him that I deserved people to watch my back. But now I started thinking differently. Tim was teaching me to watch my own back. And as hard as I tried to be angry at him for this deception, I simply couldn’t manage it. I was all the better for it.
It was a Saturday morning that I heard a knock at my front door. Not used to visitors; I peered out my bedroom window, finding a black car parked just out in the road; the passenger door – open. Hesitantly, I headed to the entrance of my house and drew the door open. Tim stood before me, holding some fishing rods in his hands. “No way!” I exclaimed; a sudden excitement washing over me. “I figure, you’ve earned it,” Tim replied happily. “We have a car ready, if you wanna go now.” I didn’t make him ask twice. In no time at all, I found myself dressed warmly for an afternoon of fishing. Tim had apparently caught a ride from an older friend of his. I couldn’t help but notice they both wore that same royal blue coloring. Once again, I kept my thoughts to myself. Marinay River ran vertically through Toparsburg, passing through the northern and southern districts. A majority of the water lied behind some housing editions to the west of the town square. Behind these homes, Marinay broke off into several smaller streams. But the best location of the river existed just at the boundary between Toparsburg and Foner County. In this area, the river was punctuated by several small ‘islands’ of sorts. Really, they were just muddy hills that stretched above the waters. Fisherman would often either boat or swim out to these natural platforms; utilizing them as a way to catch fish with a full 360-degree lookout. The water at Marinay was almost crystal clear, and the bed of the river was lined with countless smooth stones; worn away by time, to a nearly mirror-sheen. The place was like heaven to someone like me, who didn’t get to stray far from home very often. Strangely, our driver did not leave us after stopping at the bank of the water. He didn’t fish either; choosing instead to merely watch as we set up our gear and cast out. He seemed to be guarding us. With the weather, still quite cold around Toparsburg, the portion of the lake we stopped upon was entirely devoid of other people. I tried to relax; listening to the birds chirping somewhere overhead and eyeing a patch of trees, at which the branches had parted just right for beams of sunlight to stretch through. But the knowledge that our driver was still standing only a few meters behind us; not talking, not moving - it started to bother me. I casually looked back a couple times, finding him to be eyeing the brush downstream. Tim suddenly interrupted my thoughts. “Like webs, aren’t they?” I returned my gaze to him. He was staring out over those complicatedly branching waterways. Truly, they did seem just as intricately crafted, and beautiful as a web. “They start in one place,” Tim continued. “Then break apart, go about their own journeys or paths… but then… they all inevitably reach the same place. The speeds and the voyages may differ, but they’re all the same at their core, and made better in their unison. A family of webs.” Tim took in the view a bit longer. “I know you’d like to keep things simple,” he stated; finally getting some more bait from his backpack. “But I did bring you down here so we could talk about something that you’ve been slightly aware of for some time now.” “The S.S.C,” I wagered in reply. “I assume our driver is a partner of yours? That blue color gives it away.” Tim smiled and cast out his line again. “You’d be correct,” he stated. “How much do you know about the S.S.C?” I looked away from him for a moment; gathering my thoughts. The S.S.C wasn’t an easy subject to pin down. “Not a whole lot,” I replied honestly. “I mostly just heard about them from stories. Kids and teens that dress in blue – working together to fight off attackers and THEM. I was never actually told that Machine worked for THEM, but I sorta figured it out on my own. It would explain why nobody ever even remotely attempts to take him down. And I’ve never known anyone from the S.S.C, until I met you.” “That’s all?” Tim questioned. A few painful memories of the S.S.C and THEM rushed back into my mind. Memories of an old friend. But that was a story I didn’t want to tell. Not yet, anyways. “That’s really about it,” I replied; not looking at him, so that he couldn’t tell I was hiding anything. “I understand,” Tim answered; resting the fishing pole on his leg. “Then we’ll start off with the simple things.” I lowered my fishing rod for a second to look over at him; and then back at our guard. “You really trust me?” I asked; perhaps more stupefied than I should have been. “Do you deserve trust?” Tim asked with pure seriousness upon his face. I nodded. Tim gave a short sigh and looked back out at the water. “Right now,” he began. “We’re in THEM territory.” My eyes became wide and darted anxiously around the river. Suddenly our guard wasn’t so annoying to me. “Don’t worry,” Tim continued; sensing my sudden fear. “It’s nothing either side takes too seriously. It’s just allows for outposts to be set up on different sides, not allowing for an S.S.C base and a THEM base to exist within view of one another.” “You have bases?” I responded; admittedly a bit loud. Tim brought the tone of our chat back to a mere whisper. “More than you’d think,” he replied. “Old warehouses, foreclosed houses, outposts in the woods, old sheds, barns, fields, shacks, occasionally even the home of one of our own members if they’ll allow for it. Toparsburg is a big place, and it’s seen rough times. There are so many empty sites around this town, a new base could probably be set up every couple days, without fail.” “That’s incredible,” I interjected; almost not believing that the S.S.C could have existed so profoundly outside of the school walls. “It used to be,” Tim said with a short sigh. “The S.S.C isn’t in great shape. It’s been in worse shape, but this is far from our healthiest point. Battles between THEM and the S.S.C have skyrocketed in the last several weeks. Normally our troops would hang in there, but as soon as they finish up healing from one battle, they’re immediately thrown into another one.” I thought I felt a tug at my line for a moment, only to find nothing upon reeling it in. Tim didn’t speak for a while. He seemed nearly lost in thought. “I’ve heard people call THEM, ‘THEY’ before,” I mentioned; trying to ease the silence a bit. It seemed to work, as Tim merely chuckled at how stupid it sounded to say both ‘THEM’ and ‘THEY’ right after one another. “It makes it sound like you really need some help with grammar,” Tim laughed. I laughed with him. “That’s the idea,” he eventually elaborated. “The true origin of the name ‘THEM’ is unknown. However, ‘THEY’ was created to a small degree, by us. This way, we could talk about them without running into confusing sentences that didn’t get their meanings across. They’re interchangeable, really. Even THEM members occasionally say ‘THEY’, if the conversation calls for it.” Tim now placed his fishing pole on the ground for a moment and removed a blue patch from his backpack. It consisted of two blue triangles. The couple were placed together; forming a diamond with black boundaries and a single dark line running down the center, horizontally. “A symbol of unison,” Tim elaborated. “We may know what the diamond represents, but the name ‘S.S.C’, and what it means, has been debated for a long time. Similar to the origins of our enemy’s namesake; the information has simply struggled to stand the test of time. It’s why we don’t usually place a period after the letter ‘C’. It’s literally left open-ended, because we really just don’t know. Nor do we want to pretend to know.” “You have to have some opinion on what it means,” I questioned. Tim rubbed his chin for a moment. “There is one,” he pondered. “I heard once, that it stood for Spark, Sustain, Combustion. The steps of creating a fire. And believe me, when the S.S.C is really in it’s prime, it burns brighter than the sun. It’s because we stand together. We’re more than a team. We’re family.” Tim picked back up his fishing rod for a moment; wanting to say something else, but holding himself back a bit. I didn’t bother trying to speak. Whatever he was debating to say, it was a choice that lied completely with him. Finally, after a little while longer of that silence, Tim turned to me once more. “How’d you like to join our family?”
Breaking the Machine
Ever since I had met Tim, I always felt that my life was getting better. I was growing stronger, faster, even smarter. I had believed that things couldn’t possibly reach any other level of interest. But now here I was, on a rainy Sunday evening, standing inside some drippy little ‘shack’ I’d never even spotted amongst the cornfields. What sort of person would notice it? To the outside world, it was nothing more than a dilapidated old hut. Society was more than willing to sit back and let it rot apart from the inside. The S.S.C thought differently. And I thought along with the S.S.C. “Your reward,” Tim stated proudly; handing me a royal blue long-sleeved shirt with the S.S.C logo embroidered upon it. The battered roof allowed a few drops of rain to shed down onto the clothing. I held it tightly in my hands; almost certain that I’d wake up at any moment, and find myself in a dream. “Don’t be getting that all torn apart in the first few days,” Tim stated. “You have to pay for other ones out of your own pocket.” I smiled broadly and put the shirt on. “I was hoping to train with you today,” Tim admitted as he looked out at the pouring rain. “But that thunder I keep hearing, is telling me otherwise.” He finally stepped away from the door of the ‘shack’ and leaned against a wall. “This place used to be for storing small bits of farm equipment back in the 1970’s, I think,” He stated; trying to pass the time. “It’s a bit bigger than it appears, but the debris to your left take up quite a bit of space.” I looked over to my side, seeing old worn-out sofa cushions, broken chairs, soggy pieces of wood, and food wrappers coated in layers upon layers of dirt. Truly this place had seen quite a bit of action; as this was only a mere fraction of the rest of the trash that took up so much of the space. “The S.S.C’s been around that long,” I asked; surprised that I’d never considered this before. “You bet,” Tim responded. “About since the early 1960’s. You might find this tough to believe, but while I was meeting with some file coordinators to get you entered into our system, we found that your father actually joined the S.S.C in 1975. He quit the same year. Guess he wasn’t all that interested in us.” “You have to be joking,” I responded with a raised eyebrow. “How could you possibly know that?” “The S.S.C keeps a ton of records on its members,” Tim stated. “It started out as just jotting down details on paper. But now with the internet, we have databases full of information on new and old troopers, leaders, and battles. That being said, we still hang on to those old original files just for the sake of nostalgia. I’ll have to take you to a filing warehouse sometime for you to see it. It’s amazing how much data we’ve collected over the years.” I still couldn’t quite believe everything I was hearing. My dad certainly didn’t seem like the fighting type. “Over the ages,” Tim continued; sensing that I was overwhelmed by everything. “The S.S.C has risen and fell in popularity. Back in ’75, I’d wager we were a pretty big deal. A lot of guys just ended up joining willy-nilly, not knowing what they were getting involved with.” A hard crash of thunder pounded over our heads. Tim angrily kicked the wall with the back of his heel while still leaning up against a butchered window. “And now we aren’t popular anymore?” I questioned. Tim thought on this for a moment. “Truthfully,” he admitted. “Our war against THEM is pretty recent. Our two sides went years without fighting each other. The S.S.C would spend it’s time training new recruits, fighting off bullies, discovering and fixing up new bases, and even setting up a variety of other small programs to help out students. We even had a messaging service for some time. Meanwhile, THEM would spend its days largely doing the same thing, minus the parts about helping out students and fighting attackers. Instead, THEM would also work with THEY units from different districts and states. They’re so militant that they often get into trouble and have to run to the aid of other THEM groups in need. They only look out for themselves.” “You’re telling me there are THEM units in other districts?” I exclaimed. “Other states?” Tim smiled for a moment; despite another crash of thunder. “We can discuss that another time,” he stated. “My point is that students were happy to join us when we kept fighting to a minimum. But now since we’re practically in an all-out ‘war’ less and less people are willing to step up to THEY. Machine is the leader of THEM, or so we’ve been told. I’d imagine that THEM is having the same struggles we are right now when it comes to recruiting. Machine makes for a bad leader. It must be hard for them to get anyone to join without using a certain degree of fear tactics or flat-out threatening. And the leader of the S.S.C… well… he’s had a rough past to deal with. Probably hasn’t gotten over it all. Tough to lead when your head is in seven different places.” “When will I get to meet some other members?” I asked. “In a few days,” Tim promised. “Don’t give your hopes up though. It isn’t some entire armada. We’re small in numbers compared to the old days.” I nodded; accepting this fact. Some more bitterly cold drops of water dripped down upon my shoulders. This rain wasn’t letting up any time soon. Tim just stared out the window-less window some more. There was an air of sadness about him now. I don’t think he liked the rain. “What about the leader?” I now questioned. “Huh?” Tim replied; not quite hearing me. “The leader,” I reiterated. “When do I meet him?” Finally, Tim drew away from the window entirely and crossed his arms; dawning that familiar grin once more. “You’re looking at him.”
Two days later, as students eagerly awaited the final bell to let them out of class, I began to catch quite a few people looking at me from time-to-time. I wasn’t sure if perhaps I was merely imagining all the attention, or if they truly seemed to know something I didn’t. I ultimately decided to look away from the staring glances and instead continue my work. Getting practice done with Tim and balancing homework was a tough mix. Tim made it clear to me that my grades should remain most important, but I was still struggling. When the final bell finally went off and I descended downstairs; heading outside, I was caught by Random Kid, who came sprinting down the hallway to meet me along with his huge pack of friends. Before I knew it, three other students had congregated behind me. Soon everyone began launching questions and comments my way. Their words got all jumbled up until I had a serious headache. "Is it true that you are fighting Tim?" one shouted; succumbing to a baseless rumor. "Aren't you scared?" "Can I come along and watch you get crushed?" “Did you fight Machine?” “I saw you running around the old park!” “Does Machine really carry a knife?” “Are you an S.S.C?” Random Kid seemed to be enjoying all of the confusion. Now becoming overcome with so many questions that I could never find the time to answer; I began to back away from them, trying to get fresh air. Luckily for me, Tim eventually came over and broke up the crowd. “Sorry guys,” he stated with a hint of frustration; pulling me away. "Just a whole lot of rumors is all.” The kids eventually dispersed after hurling a few more comments our way. “I didn’t tell anybody about our training,” I whispered to Tim; defending myself. “I swear.” “I believe you,” Tim quickly replied. “Rumors just spread so fast around here. It’s like a virus. One guy sees you doing pushups by the old park, and suddenly the story warps into you fighting off a hoard of attackers with one arm tied behind your back. The S.S.C tries it’s best to stay hidden, but at the first sign of someone putting in a ton of extra work to stay fit, well everyone starts losing their minds with theories.” Tim stopped for a moment; as if playing back the words he had just said repeatedly in his head. “Because of our current predicament with THEM, the S.S.C has been focusing all its effort on the war. We haven’t had time to fight off a lot of attackers. So, trust me, if people really do think you’re in the S.S.C, you’re gonna end up receiving just as much love as you will hatred. Some people just think we abandoned them. And they know we won’t fight back if all they do is yell at us. A lot of people take advantage of our passiveness.” “Is that why people join THEM?” I asked; keeping my voice down. Tim merely shrugged his shoulders and looked up into the sky to check if there would be rain again today. “THEM has one huge benefit for people that like to feel in control,” Tim admitted. “If you end up getting in some sort of trouble, and you want to exact revenge on somebody or stay protected from somebody, well you have all those THEY members to back you up. It’s cowardly, but there is certainly strength in numbers. That’s why it’s so tough for us to get rid of Machine. The moment one of our guys knocks him out and sends him to some place for questioning, it’ll only be a matter of time until he has several THEM units knocking on our front door with some awfully sharp sticks in hand. We can’t just take him by surprise. It has to be an organized event, if that makes any sense.” My thoughts hung on the word ‘sharp’ for a few moments. “One of those kids back there,” I stated; pointing back into the hall where a couple still watched us. “One asked me if Machine carried a knife. I could have sworn I’ve heard that rumor in the past as well… is it true?” Tim’s eyes darted away from me. I think he didn’t want to be asked that question. My mind flashed back to that scar running across his shin. “It’s alright,” I made clear. “I just wanna know the truth.” Tim nodded. “You deserve the truth,” he spoke while still looking away from me. “The rumors are true.” My stomach twisted around for a few moments. I nearly felt that I’d get sick. “It’s a scare tactic more than anything,” Tim made clear. “He wouldn’t use it on just some nobody, especially with a crowd nearby. But if he’s really put in a tight spot… against the right foe… well you never know.” Tim’s voice lost a bit of his strength as he attempted to finish that sentence. “I had a good friend,” he said softly under his breath. “And Machine took him from me. I can’t be sure of it but…” His voice now trailed off completely. I couldn’t stand to see him like this. Tim was always filled with such energy and determination, that it inadvertently brought me some of the same qualities. Seeing him here, looking so downtrodden; only made feel the exact same way. “I’ll take him down, Tim,” I suddenly found myself saying. Tim’s head suddenly swung around to face me. He didn’t have tears in his eyes, but they certainly held quite a bit of emotion within them. “No Brett,” he uttered immediately. “I can’t ask that of you. This is my fight. I’m the leader of the S.S.C. I’m the one that fights Machine.” “But if you lose, the entire S.S.C will suffer!” I shot back; standing my ground. “The S.S.C,” Tim’s voice grew faint once more. “It will survive without me.” I opened my mouth to say more, but Tim was immediately called over by some other S.S.C troopers dressed in blue. Their conversation seemed to be on a serious basis, and I didn’t want to get in the way. And so, we departed. But as I was leaving that nearly empty hallway, I couldn’t help but turn back to look at all of them. Tim standing before the rest; pointing to a sheet of paper and then back at the various troopers; laying out some sort of strategy that I was certain I wasn’t nearly ready to comprehend. The troopers looked upon him with nothing but respect. They nodded at every word he said. They smiled when he smiled, and frowned when he frowned. They needed him. The S.S.C needed him. I knew that it was up to me to stop Tim from thinking otherwise.
An Unexpected Challenge:
That Thursday, Tim and I continued to train outdoors despite the cold. I had secretly been working out on my own, both before and after our practices together. My goal was to take down Machine and show Tim that he mattered to the S.S.C. Maybe without Machine around, the school would even be able to breath with a bit more confidence. It was a large weight upon my shoulders, but a necessary one. I was going to do what no one else was willing to. "Brett, you wimp!" Tim shouted as he rose to his feet. "Get down on the ground and give me 300 pushups!” A smile formed on his face. "If you say so," I conceded. By the time I reached about fifty, Tim corrected himself. "Just kidding man, just give me 100 if you can. You look exhausted as all hell." I merely grunted in the place of a ‘thank you’. We were training in a hilly valley of sorts that existed close to Toparsburg’s town square. Truly, it was a huge expanse of dead grass for almost as far as the eye could see. Toparsburg didn’t have the funds to set up any businesses here, and the ground apparently was in bad shape for crops. A distance away from us, another S.S.C master and apprentice trained some sparring. The entire expanse of this area did not belong to THEM or the Fighters. It was more a neutral spot. Tim had told me once that should a grand final battle between the S.S.C and THEM ever take place, this area would be the finest of spots. When I finally got up from my pushups; clinging to by weakened arms, Tim quickly threw a 10-pound weight at my chest. The impact nearly took the breath out of me. I was about to speak, when Tim hovered over me. "Be ready, slowpoke!” he exclaimed. “Always be alert!" He took a second weight from his backpack and tossed it at me as well. This one, I narrowly avoided in a sloppy manner. "You think THEM will go this easy on you?" Tim questioned. Tim picked up one of the downed weights and hurled it my way once more, this one being blocked by my forearm with a bit more precision. The strike still hurt terribly though. "THEM members are often slow, but their punches are quick and painful!” Tim made clear. “You get hit too many times by one of those arms, and you won't be standing up much longer!" Suddenly, a rock was tossed down from one of the upper hills, above me. Thankfully, I saw the incoming strike out of my peripheral and ducked just in time to avoid it. The sunlight made things hard to see, but there was somebody else standing at the top of that hill. And it didn’t seem to be one of the S.S.C. With just as much precision as before, another rock came speeding towards me, forcing me to leap to my right. “Who is that?” I shouted over to Tim, not taking my eyes off the hilltop; fearing yet another strike. Tim stepped in front of me and focused up for a little while. Suddenly, there came a familiar laugh; Random Kid’s laugh. “R.K. is fooling around again,” Tim sighed. “He must’ve followed us here. I swear, his friends leave him for just a few minutes and he starts bothering people.” “It’s fun!" R.K. shouted down to us, with yet another fit of laughter. He chucked yet another stone our way, this one landing near the other master and apprentice, who did not seem very happy about the distraction. “Hey, boss!” the master shouted as he kept his distance. “Mind kicking this guy’s ass for us?” Tim nodded at the trooper and prepared to start advancing up the hill, only to suddenly look back at me. "Hey,” he stated. “Now that I think of it, I guess this is your first time really standing up for yourself, right?" I thought on the matter, Tim was correct. I may have smack-talked Machine, but never had I truly defended myself from another person. I supposed Random Kid would be the best place to start. He may have been a friend of mine, but he still caused a whole lot of trouble. And if he thought he could start chucking rocks at the S.S.C and get away with it, he had another thing coming. Somebody had to set him straight. "I’ll figure out what his problem is," I stated; with Tim offering no protest. Another stone rushed past me; aggravating me even further as I turned to the hillside and rushed towards Random Kid; narrowly dodging a stone thrown near my head. "Could you hold still?" Random Kid yelled. "I'm having trouble hitting you with these rocks." The hill grew steeper and R.K. backed up; scooping up some extra stones from the grass. He must have brought them with him. It wouldn’t surprise me. My weeks of running miles upon miles were not to be squandered here. This hill was nothing compared to those infinite sets of smaller mounds down at the old park. Another rock was chucked my way, leaving me to dive out of its path and roll into another sprint. With me growing dangerously close, R.K. turned to his final remaining option, removing a much larger rock from a backpack at his side, and strenuously rolling it downhill; straight at me. With the rock quickly gaining momentum, I took advantage of the situation; leaping into the air, and using the rock as a foothold to bound over it and gain speed while heading up. Finally, the steep incline began to fade into nothingness; I had reached the top. Random Kid; now mere feet away, began sprinting out of the danger-zone with much more speed than I thought he had in him. "Hit ya later!" he called back, as he made his way towards the town. I was going to follow the guy, but catching him would just be a waste of time and energy. Random Kid had nothing to offer me. He had no reasons for what he did, he only acted on instinct. That's the kind of guy he was. "You'll get another chance," Tim called up from behind. I knew he was right.
Weeks upon weeks of constant training went by. There was never a slow moment. Before I knew it, 2009 was upon us. My birthday was quite early in the year, and I spent it primarily sore from pull-up exercises the evening prior. Tim had secretly met with Tye for the first time, and the two of them pitched in to buy me a small cake. For the first time in quite a long time, I was able to sit back and relax. Tim had advised against me eating junk food a while back, so the sugary taste of cake seemed a bit distracting for me, but it was the thought that counted. In addition to the cake, Tye had bought me a pair of nun chucks. He may have been two years younger than me, but he still had a decent idea that I was in the S.S.C. Of course, what he did not know was that we could never utilize a tool like that. It’d bring too much harm to combatants. The S.S.C and THEM both had a mutual understanding of leaving no trace. If too many kids left a fray with black eyes, busted lips, missing teeth, or otherwise; it’d make hiding the two factions from the public eye, much harder. It was reasons such as those that resulted in both the S.S.C and THEM abandoning the use of BB-guns a while back. This is also why body shots were far more common to down an opponent. Despite all this, I gave Tye my greatest thanks. I was a bit surprised to see that Tim had brought no gifts for me on that special day, other than the cake. However, upon opening my locker the next day, I found three new S.S.C uniforms; including a jacket, short-sleeve shirt, and another long-sleeved one. It felt good to have people in my life that cared about me and wanted to see me happy. Those were some of the best days I’d ever had.
After school that day, Tim had advised for me to visit him at his place. It would come to be a meeting I’d never forget. We utilized his backyard as usual for our regular practices. I expressed my thanks at his gifts, to which he quickly dismissed as ‘nothing’. Throughout the whole of our time spent training that afternoon, something seemed to be bothering my friend. He wasn’t exactly good at hiding it, though I doubt he was trying. During our simplistic sparing session, his strikes were noticeably weaker, and his dodges far slower. “Better wake up,” I called out at one point. “I don’t wanna end up actually hitting you.” Tim straightened up a bit. “Well, that is the idea,” he shot back. We worked on a few more kicks, but he was still far from better. Eventually, Tim seemed to notice his draining skills, and called the spar off - early. “Why don’t we just take a break for a moment?” Tim stated solemnly. I nodded in acceptance and sat under a nearby tree to shield myself from some of the bitterly cool breezes. The warmer days were coming, but Toparsburg had a bad habit of clinging to the cold for as long as it could manage. Tim went to sit under an adjacent tree, resting his head back against it for a while; not speaking a word. After a few minutes had passed, and Tim had still yet to move, I began to wonder if he had dozed off. Slowly, I rose to my feet; the dead grass and leaves crumbling beneath my feet. That slightest of sounds made Tim’s eyes snap back open in an instant. He feverishly looked left to right for a few moments; thinking that someone else was near. “Sorry,” I called over. “It was me. You have a headache or something?” Tim paused for a minute; considering the possibility. “Not exactly,” he replied at last; still remaining at the tree. "It’s sort of a technique I honed into a while ago." “Meditating?” I suggested with a laugh. Tim’s eyes grew serious at the remark. “No,” he quickly dismissed. “Just a moment to clear my head… look inside myself.” I raised an eyebrow at the remark, but Tim continued. “Whenever I'm worried, I simply let go and clear out all other things; focusing only on what needs fixed. The world fades away and sometimes you’re left with only darkness… yet other times, I can almost reach a state of mind where everything becomes concise and within my power to deal with.” I just smiled warmly and returned to sitting at my tree. “Yeah,” I said at last. “That’s meditating.” Tim just sighed and closed his eyes again. “It just sounds even more stupid when you say it like that,” he replied. “Listen, I can’t really explain it, but there is so much information we take in every day that just sits in the back of our cluttered heads. We never have a chance to realize what it is, because we’re too busy dealing with the rest. Being the leader of the S.S.C, my mind is always swamped. So, it helps to be able to hone in on some distinct few thoughts, and put them together in ways you never could have before. Even the slightest and most tiny – insignificant little things, begin to grow clear.” I had no doubt Tim was always under quite a bit of stress, so I didn’t argue with his points any longer. Instead; without replying, I too began sitting still in an attempt to clear my mind. Ultimately, it was of no use. Machine loomed over my thoughts, and that was not about to change. At least not until I could beat him. After a few more minutes, reality finally returned to Tim. However, instead of looking at peace, Tim seemed more disturbed than ever. "What is it, exactly?" I finally found myself asking. "Well," Tim replied with some hesitation. "There has been some talk around the S.S.C community... some-" Tim's voice trailed off. "Ya know what," he interjected. "No need to worry about that now. All we need to worry about is continuing that training.” I didn’t argue with him any further.
The Workouts Continue:
Tim claimed to be busy for the next few days, so I continued to partake in my secretive training exercises. Occasionally, I’d meet up with other masters and apprentices and join them in their workouts. One thing that always stood out to me when I did things like that, was the fact that many masters and their students, weren’t friends. There was a mutual respect – to be sure, but otherwise they’d never hang out like Tim and I did. One day, I approached a fellow apprentice about these thoughts. I came to find his reply, quite enlightening. “Tim always goes the extra mile,” the apprentice had told me. “A lot of masters come from other schools, from different counties. That way they don’t run into their apprentices while at school or hanging out with friends. It’s also a good way to fight THEM forces. No way is some brute gonna come looking for you in a completely different county, after all. THEM does the same thing. Often times, whenever you fight a THEM soldier, he’s from another school entirely. Adds the benefit of surprise as well. But… Tim doesn’t bother with all that. His allegiance is to this school, and this school alone.” Statements like that made me wonder if other masters saw their apprentices as a burden; someone they had to drive or walk miles to see. Or someone who was often a few years younger than them. I think mindsets like that can make for some very botched training. It was the fact that I considered Tim my friend, that helped me want to work harder at becoming a better trooper. And I certainly was noticing changes in myself. I would wake up much earlier, I was far more kind to others, and I paid a lot more attention to my surroundings. Physically, I could run much faster and further than I ever could have hoped, before. And speed was a necessary attribute towards facing Machine. In addition to all this, my arms had filled out significantly. My shirts no longer hung loosely around my forearms, like it had a mere year ago. I was far from reaching Machine’s level of girth, but I certainly wasn’t that same stick figure he’d shoved up against that locker. Tim was like a hero in more ways than one. Making for a better S.S.C. And making for a better me.
The following night, after the end of a late practice, I began heading home with the moon acting as my guide. The sky had become draped with stars now, causing me to often stumble over myself upon gazing up at those twinkling lights. Just as I neared the corner of my road, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand on edge. Someone was there. I stopped dead in my tracks; looking forward in the darkness; trying to make as little noise as humanly possible. Suddenly, footsteps crept towards me from my left. Instinctively, I turned; battle position ready; expecting the absolute worst. Had Machine tracked me down? Was tonight the night he’d get his revenge? These thoughts rang out all around my head. I was shaking. My footing began to degrade. My breathing was speeding up. If it weren’t for the cool air, I might have broken into sweat. Finally, the figure stepped close enough for me to distinguish my watcher. Random Kid now stood before me. I breathed a sudden sigh of relief; lowing my fighting stance and holding my head for a second. When I looked back up, R.K.’s eyes narrowed and he brought his fists out in front of him as if he were boxing. “What do you think you’re doing?” I asked; more annoyed than anything else. "Come now," he spoke with a British accent of sorts. "Let us do battle... for the queen!" I was very quickly becoming tired of this. R.K. had probably heard about my continued workouts, and wanted to pit himself against me to prove to his friends that he was a tough guy. Being that he was several years older than me, it shouldn’t have been a fair fight, but R.K. was certainly not on my level of fitness. Not wanting to put up with his games, I turned around and began to continue my trek home. However, some part of me began to sense he was still there; growing close. I quickly spun around, but I was far too late to dodge what was coming. R.K. had jumped high in the air and tackled me against the cold, wet ground. I effortlessly pushed him off, rose to my feet, and delivered a swift kick to his back. R.K. rolled with my kick with enough momentum to return to a standing posture. As quick as a flash, he dashed up to me and threw several punches at my stomach. The strikes were not too hard, but still hurt, and sent me stumbling back a bit. R.K. backed up for a moment before swinging his left fist outwards; attempting to jab my shoulder. Unfortunately for him, I was waiting for a slow-striking mistake like this. With a simple raised right palm, I caught his incoming fist and twisted it with fluid precision. R.K. grunted in a fit of sudden pain as I prepared to end this pointless spar. In one final swooping motion, I swung my leg out from beneath me; striking R.K. off his balance and allowing for me to effortlessly push him to the ground and pin him with a knee to the chest. Despite how tired, confused, and annoyed I was, a little part of me almost wanted to cry out with joy. I had just taken down my first opponent ever. Not that R.K. was worth much in this category, but it eased my nerves to some degree about facing Machine. There was an awkward silence for a moment, as I wasn’t sure what to do with him from there. "Let me go,” R.K. suddenly bellowed from beneath my knee, as if he were some sort of wounded animal. “Please!" I could tell by that familiar thin-lipped smirk planted on his face, that he still was not taking the situation seriously. I refused let him go so easily though. "Not till you tell me why you attacked me," I retorted; trying to keep a serious face that mirrored Tim’s. "Twice," Random Kid reminded me. “Why I attacked you, twice.” Now my glaring grew quite real. “I just thought you should know,” R.K. panted breathlessly. “Know what?” I replied through my teeth. There was a silence. Just as I prepared to question him again, R.K. spoke up a final time. "The three counties are coming together,” he said; almost serious. “THEM, are preparing a final strike."
As promised, I let Random Kid go with no further questions. For a while, I considered not telling Tim what happened. After all, Random Kid was hardly a trustworthy source on any matter regarding the S.S.C or THEM. However, in this strange instance, R.K. didn’t seem to be joking around anymore. I figured it couldn’t hurt to at least warn Tim of the odd statement. And so, the very next morning, I made my way straight to Tim's house to give him the news. “Three counties,” Tim repeated after I had told him everything. “I’d assume he meant Foner County, Blue Point County, and Toparsburg County.” He seemed an odd mixture of both relieved and simultaneously quite worried. “It’s odd thinking of Toparsburg as a county,” I replied; trying to keep him in relatively good spirits. “I usually just refer to it as a town since it seems so small.” Tim drew a few files and paperwork from his bedside drawer and flipped through the pages in an almost frantic manner. “I do the same thing,” he replied; his mind clearly elsewhere. “Just a simple mistake. A result of the both of us being pent up in our own little neighborhoods for so long.” Tim’s fingers finally stopped flipping through the sheets; eventually stopping at one page in particular, which he eyed closely for some time. “But,” he continued; still reading. “I think you’ll slowly begin to find that it’s quite a big world out there. Not just Toparsburg… but so many other places housing their own factions of the S.S.C or THEM.” “You once told me that the S.S.C and THEY existed in different states as well,” I reminded him. Tim nodded and finally put the files back away. “The thing is,” he began. “The S.S.C and THEM both started out right here, in Toparsburg. This is the birthplace of the two rivals. We don’t have time to go into detail right now, but I can tell you that as members moved away to other towns or states, they often-times brought with them the spark of their respective club. Soon enough, groups of the S.S.C and THEM sprouted up all over America. Who knows, I’d bet good money they’re in other countries too. But no matter how powerful any of them become, they all still look up to this S.S.C and this THEM. We’re the originals. What happens to us has a direct impact on what happens to them, at least most of the time. As leader, I often-times get into lengthy phone calls with leaders from other domains. We keep each other updated and provide support to them if they are nearby. Just before I had joined the S.S.C, war erupted between the Fighters and THEM. When the S.S.C and THEY from other locations around the country heard about this; well they just started fighting as well.” Tim paused for a while and continued to ponder what Random Kid had to say. The news that the S.S.C existed in so many locations around America had me reeling with questions of all kinds. “Why?” I breathed. “Why bother fighting? If they were already at peace then-“ “The S.S.C and THEM are never truly at peace,” Tim made clear. “We were designed to be different. It’s at the core of each of our groups. THEM used to have a noble cause. At least somewhat. They’ve developed into more of a gang now, but they still retain that primal goal to wipe us out. So long as there is an S.S.C… there is a THEM.” I silently nodded, though I couldn’t begin to imagine how desperate for power one must be to join THEM and refuse to see the error in their ways. “R.K.’s statement concerns me a lot,” Tim revealed; interrupting my thoughts. “If THEM is putting together some grand team that’ll unite Toparsburg, Foner County, and Blue Point County; they’re more than ready to end the war before it grows anymore tiresome. Knock us off the map in one-fell swoop. As skeptical as you might be, R.K.’s story does match up with some rumors I’ve been told as of late from the spy units.” “Is it possible R.K. somehow overheard one of these conversations?” I inquired. “I suppose that must be the case,” Tim replied; shaking his head. “Random Kid is no fighter. He’s just got so many friends that I guess news just kinda circulates back to him. If he seemed that serious and desperate, then I doubt he knows any more than what he already told you. And the S.S.C could get a pretty bad rep if we go interrogating one of the most beloved guys in the school.” There was a quick silence as I let Tim gather his thoughts up for a while. The situation was clearly growing more and more critical. Had I not been there with him, I was certain he would have acted out much of his rage on this matter upon his punching bag, downstairs. “What do we do?” I asked at last. Tim merely shook his head once more, as if relenting to an unseen foe. “Well,” he said; his voice slightly weakened. “We’ll just have to fight back.”
The Time for Battle:
Everything began changing after that day. Tim no longer had the time to train me personally, as he was constantly in the process of speaking with other leaders, gathering information, or giving out orders to the elite soldiers. Other elites worked with us, apprentices at some of our larger base locations. I saw more S.S.C troopers in the next couple weeks than I had ever seen prior. Many were of unfamiliar faces, as they had come from Foner or Blue Point. I trained day-in and day-out with legions of fellow S.S.C members, preparing for a war that was being scheduled behind closed doors. I imagined only Tim and the other leaders knew the exact time and place. For many of the other apprentices, it was a very scary and uncertain time. But I had faith in Tim’s ability to make the right call, which helped me to overcome my fear to the best of my ability during these quite trying times. There had been two scheduled meetings at various locations, wherein Tim was supposed to give some sort of sweeping speech to put us all in the fighting spirit, but they never actually took place. Tim was simply up to his knees trying to figure out how to schedule an entire war without the public becoming aware, or with as few injuries as possible. He didn’t have the time to speak with us. Not yet. His mind had to have been akin to that of a raging storm. As for me, I knew better than to hide the truth from myself any longer. I knew Machine would be in this grand battle. How could he resist? I had no doubt that THEM was plotting the exact same maneuvers as the S.S.C, though with a higher taste towards brutality. If ever there was a time to take down Machine, it would be now. Ultimately, the grand war between the S.S.C and THEM came upon us like a thief in the night. It was half-way through a typical mass training session in an old file warehouse, when the news came. A bitterly cold, yet snow-less afternoon. The clouds thickly enveloped the sun’s rays from above, bringing about a grand gloominess to all of Toparsburg. Just as I was in the process of doing pushups with other recruits, three elites darted through a set of doors in the back of the building; sprinting over to the other elites and engaging in quick chatter. I knew it was coming, but I simply couldn’t grasp the fact that the time had finally arrived. I don’t think any of us really could. In a matter of minutes, the elites – now barking orders at us like wild dogs, called for everyone to exit the facility and pour into a variety of cars, trucks, and vans parked just outside. I was herded into one of the vans as if I were mere cattle, with the engine revving up almost immediately after I had taken my seat. “Where are we going?” shouted one apprentice from the back, as the van took a sharp left turn. One of the elites stood up and steadied himself against the interior. “Listen up!” he shouted; driving us all to silence. “Orders are in! The battle is taking place to the west of Marinay River; between the districts of Foner and Toparsburg. We have about 12 miles to cover, as well as a couple bridges to cross! When you feel the van pass over that second bridge, I expect all of you to get ready to pour out of this ride and head into the warzone! Don’t make me tell you twice! Got that?” The apprentices replied with silent salutes; placing their right arms across their chests until their fists came into contact with their left shoulders. My stomach churned. We were moving fast. Very fast. The bumpiness of the road below us was able to mask my shaking hands. From time-to-time, we’d strike a pothole, sending the entire van bounding down and up, sending us along with it. Each dive only strengthened the adrenaline surging through us. There was a sudden clatter beneath our feet; the sound of the first bridge. Troopers nervously tapped their feet against the floor while others avoided all eye-contact. There was no talking from then-on. We took in every sound now. I wondered what a grand battle between the S.S.C and THEM would be like. Would it be loud? Would there be shouting from every direction? Would I be able to hear myself think or distinguish friend from foe? Could I even begin to stand up against THEM – an enemy I’d never faced before? These thoughts obsessed me. I cursed to myself for every missed opportunity in which I could have prepared harder. I had spared with Tim many times now, but this was something so much different. This was the real thing. People wanted to see me bleed and fall. I had to accept that fact, but not be controlled by it. Eventually, there was a second loud rattling beneath our feet. The sound of the last bridge just beneath us. The apprentices quickly adjusted themselves; readying to exit that van, running as fast as their legs could carry them. Our elite dawned a sort of belt around his waist, placing some tools within it. Amongst the many items, I noticed a chuck-tie; a sort of small rope with weighted sides, that could be tossed at an enemy’s legs; wrapping around them and causing attackers to quickly fall over themselves in the process. He also carried a long tree branch, a simple blunt tool for a truly dangerous situation. We, apprentices did not have the luxury of such tools. We had only each other. When that van finally stopped, my heart accelerated beyond anything I’d ever experienced before in my life. It was as if my chest was ready to burst. But despite this throbbing of my entire soul, I still found the strength to run from the back of that van, into the heart of something so much bigger than myself. I ran into that gloomy battlefield. And I didn’t look back.
Before I knew it, my surroundings became enveloped with dozens upon dozens of guys from all age-groups. Young adult elites exchanging brutal knockouts to others of the same designation, several kids ganging up on a tight cluster of teens, others choosing a lone wolf approach; plowing through the enemy forces until stumbling across a worthy foe of a matched strength, and even those who utilized guerilla warfare; darting in and out of various sections of battle, only to deliver a few strikes to the back of an enemy’s head when they weren’t paying attention, or perhaps tripping an incoming barrage of soldiers, causing an immense pileup. Everyone had their own strategy. There was no controlling a battle of this immensity. Three apprentices that had ridden in the exact same van as myself, broke into a small cluster and darted into the heart of the conflict. I knew better than to follow them. If I truly wanted to last in this battle and track down Machine amongst the chaos, I’d have to make a constant sweep around the edges. Trying not to draw attention to myself, I veered off to the left; hoping to avoid getting pushed into that deadly eye of the storm, where troopers of both sides clashed and fell at a whim. “Hey, you!” a sudden voice called out amongst the many other cries. I turned, only to find one of the S.S.C elites staring me down. “You trying to ditch us?” he shouted once more. “You turn back and fi-“. Before he could finish his sentence, he was tackled by an elite THEM soldier. The two began an intense wrestling match upon the ground as I used the opportunity to distance myself further from the condensed battlegrounds. As I dashed through the crowds; pushing both allies and enemies to the wayside, I couldn’t help but be overcome by the screams of the S.S.C and THEM. It wasn’t so much in terms of fear, but rather a tactical maneuver to make one side feel more threatened than the other. Fear was an ally of THEM, but the Fighters knew how to use it just the same. Twice I felt an enemy try to snag me by my shirt collar, but I was moving far too quickly for them to get any leverage on me. I must have saw at least twelve of our own troops lying wounded throughout the storm of punches and kicks. Everything was dispersing a bit now, taking advantage of just about the entire battlefield, but I knew I could go further. If I could reach that elusive edge and sneak across the sidelines, I was certain I could reach the very back of THEM’s wave. I had no doubt Machine would await me there. From time-to-time; when close to fellow soldiers, I stopped for a brief second to look around for Tim, but I could never spot him. I was enveloped with an intense feeling of dread; worrying that he had already went up against the likes of Machine; not caring what happened to himself. I couldn’t let Tim sacrifice everything he’d help to build. Machine was my problem now. After a few more daring strides through the jungle of purple and blue, at last I faced clear ground. I had reached the edge. If fate had allowed me to get this far, then I realized I had the potential to go further. And so, I did.
As I circled that intense battle, I couldn’t help but notice the multitude of S.S.C troopers that now laid dormant upon the unforgiving ground. THEM consisted of a higher percentage of older troopers, and it was showing now. Only about seven minutes had passed since I had arrived in this battle zone, and now it seemed only our best troopers remained standing. Those who no longer had the strength to fight were dragged from the crowds to their respective caring stations, wherein they’d be kept safe till the battle’s end. There was crying now. Real crying. The younger ones who had not had the pleasure of a quick knockout, laid; bloody, beneath the feet of advancing and retreating soldiers of both sides. Some of the injured tried to hobble away, only to be pushed back down, or even tripping over nothing but themselves. It was hard to look at. I clearly had a quite rare perspective. The perspective of an outsider, looking in on the cruelty of it all. I doubt any of those who still remained within that storm could be bothered to see what I was seeing. Nevertheless, I had a mission of my own. A task for the greater good of the S.S.C. As much as I wanted to help those of which I had trained alongside, it simply couldn’t be allowed. I had to fight for them in a different sort of way. I quickly performed a single rotation around the entire battle; not spotting Tim or Machine in the process. I was preparing for a second rotation when two THEM soldiers suddenly tore off from their group, and began heading my way. A master and his apprentice. The apprentice looked about my age; the purple circle of THEM displayed prominently about his chest and shoulder. His master slowed down, allowing his student to take things over from here. “Mop the floor with him!” the master called out. Without so much as a word, the apprentice lunged at me; grabbing me by the throat and forcing me down to my knees. I’d never known this feeling before. The sensation of air suddenly cutting itself off from reaching my lungs. I gasped there for a moment; helpless. The apprentice; not wanting to waste any more time on me, struck me directly in the forehead before releasing me to fall to the ground. I took heavy breaths for a second, the pain was overshadowed by a sudden rage within me. I slowly looked up at my opponent, finding him smiling down on me. His eyes were so cold and lifeless, like that of a shark. About his face were scattered a variety of bruises and small cuts. He’d seen battle before. But he’d never seen me before. Without even recognizing my own speed or strength, my legs suddenly sprang back to life; shooting my entire body forward and head-butting my foe in the jaw. He now staggered back; a look of shock upon his face. He didn’t expect a challenge. I refused to fall in this fight, and perhaps he now had a sense of that, for now there was a flicker of fear within those dead eyes. Just for the briefest of moments. He was just like Machine. Just like all the others. He was human no matter how hard he tried to hide it. I stepped forward now; slugging the apprentice across the face and then kneeing him in his stomach as he bent over to take in all the pain. The master noticed the shift in this battle and quickly rushed over to us, leaping between me and his apprentice, and delivering a sharp kick to my side. I clenched my fists tighter than any training session I’d ever known, and in one-fell swoop, socked the master with a powerful uppercut. The apprentice; now regaining some strength; leapt from his master’s side and tackled me to the ground; his arms wrapped about my waste. Thinking fast, I pried off his right arm and attempted to elbow him in the chest, but he ultimately rolled out of my way before I could manage the strike. He had let go of me now, and was in the process of standing back up, perhaps readying himself to perform a body-slam upon me. Not willing to let that happen, and still very-much upon the ground, I pivoted my body clock-wise; my right leg outstretched. Before the apprentice knew what was happening, he was tripped back to the ground with my sudden kick to his calves. With my opponent now lying by my side, I finished him off quickly; slamming down my right fist to the side of his head, as if I were bringing down a mighty gavel. The apprentice went out like a light. Unfortunately, I had no time to enjoy my victory, as the master now angrily lifted me up by my collar to face him. The master was a couple years older than myself, quite fit as well. Normally, such an enemy would have been nearly impossible to take down in an instance like this. But I saw pain around this master’s face. He’d already been struck many times in raging storm of fists not far from us. “I’m gonna tear your head off,” the master growled through his yellow teeth; lifting me higher. I didn’t give him the luxury of a reply, instead allowing my left arm to shoot forward; striking him in his temple, causing my new opponent to drop me in shock. I wasted no time standing back up again, but the master was faster than I had anticipated, with him throwing a punch to my chest that nearly caused me to lose my balance once more. With my arms growing quite weak, I was beginning to lose hope, when suddenly a wild idea crossed my mind. The master stood in a fighting stance near me; awaiting my next attack. What he did not anticipate was my fleeing of the area entirely. With not even so much as a glance, I turned my back to this foe and began running away. The master was certainly not willing to allow for this escape, as he began to hobble after me; growing faster and faster in his pursuit. He had moved right into my trap. Just as the master reached a full speed behind me; practically only two feet away from grabbing at my shirt, I dropped like a dead fly upon the ground; landing on my stomach. Noticing this, the master attempted to slow his pursuit, but it was far too late, he was moving too fast. His legs came passing in front of me, allowing me to quickly grab on to his feet while they were still in a mighty forward stride. The master was brought to an unexpected, screeching halt; his body contorting backwards as he tumbled to the ground; striking the back of his head against the dirt. He didn’t get back up. I was beginning to feel all that pain catching up with me, but I couldn’t allow myself to fall victim to it as my opponents had. With all my strength, I hauled myself back up, and continued my second rotation. My right leg was throbbing most of all; a side-effect of my sudden fall at the hands of the dead-eyed apprentice. I wasn’t nearly as fast as I wanted to be. But this battle wasn’t finished with me yet. Just as I neared the end of my second rotation; fearing I’d never find Machine, my eyes were suddenly drawn to a gathering separate to that of the main battle. This congregation consisted of elites from both THEM and the S.S.C, though none of them were fighting, only watching something that persisted in the center of all of them. I utilized all of my remaining strength to dart their way; hearing chanting calls from both sides. They were cheering at something. When I approached this audience at last, hardly anyone took note of me. For in-between this collective of THEM and S.S.C elites, fought Machine and Tim Allender. Their battle had already begun.
The elites were pumping their fists; calling out to Machine or Tim as if they were wild animals. Words became indistinguishable amongst the cries. I desperately tried to get closer to the action, but the group was far too tightly packed for me to venture further. Clouds had emerged overhead now; seemingly appearing from nowhere. The sunlight was quickly becoming blotted out. Now peering through the pack of elites, I watched as Tim was struck hard in the face with one of Machine’s giant, meaty fists. Tim stumbled back for a moment, only to be hit once more in the chest, then the stomach, and then forehead. Tim staggered back once more; desperately trying to put distance between himself and Machine, but he only succeeded in backing off into the elite THEM soldiers, who quickly shoved him into that gladiatorial center again. Tim wasn’t cut-out for fighting in quarters this close. Dodging Machine’s attacks became practically impossible. Speed wasn’t an option. My master’s nose was bleeding slightly, but he didn’t bother to take the time wiping it from himself. Before Machine could strike once more or stop to gloat, Tim dashed into his foe; pushing the mighty beast down to the ground. Tim attempted a swift kick, but Machine arose with a surprising amount of speed; dodging the strike entirely and back-handing Tim without any effort. “No luck on your side this time?” asked Machine with a smile; his voice piercing through the surrounding noise. “Ya know you still try too hard thou-“ Tim suddenly sent an unexpected kick hurtling into Machine’s stomach; sending him stumbling back. “You still talk too much,” Tim breathed; still weary. The S.S.C elites began to laugh at Machine’s expense. The monster steadied himself once more; no longer grinning. Everyone’s eyes seemed to be on Tim now; waiting to see what he’d try to do. But my eyes remained upon Machine, and with good reason. For just then, in a smooth and inconspicuous motion, Machine reached his hand down into his left pocket; grabbing for something. I recalled the stories I’d heard about Machine’s elusive knife. And the tale Tim had told me of some unfortunate soul that Machine had used that knife to make a demonstration out of. I wouldn’t let Tim become the next loss of this battle. With all my strength, I plowed through the elite S.S.C troopers, sending some falling to the ground as others staggered to their sides. Before anyone even realized what was happening; I was now standing between Tim and Machine; who’s hand had yet to even leave his pocket. Machine now smiled again, taking his hand out; revealing it to be empty. Three THEY elites stepped into the circle; ready to pull me out by force, but Machine held his hand up to them; freezing them in their tracks. “It’s fine,” he spoke as the crowd grew eerily quiet. “I’ve been wanting to get at this one for a while.” I stood my ground; not showing any sign of fear. “Brett,” Tim whispered in a daze from behind me. “What are you doing?” I didn’t even bother to turn, for I knew that Machine would use any distraction to his advantage. “I’m here to end this for you,” I replied with a steady voice. Machine just laughed once more alongside his THEM troopers. “Last I recall,” he began. “I was shoving you up against a locker. You almost wet yourself. You poor thing. Did I give you brain damage?” I didn’t reply; instead remaining in fighting stance; my feet spread, but still quite sturdy. And my arms outstretched before me, allowing for a fast strike at any time, from nearly any direction. It was what Tim had taught me. Machine seemed to notice the similarity in our fighting styles, as he glanced over at my master. “So,” he boomed while Tim dropped down to his knees in a sudden fit of exhaustion. “This another one of yours?” Tim didn’t reply. I’m not sure he could. The world was most likely spinning around him now. “You gonna fight or just stand there and talk?” I asked at last. The THEM elites gave exaggerated ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ in response, but Machine seemed to have had enough getting talked back to. The S.S.C elites quickly dragged Tim away from the circle; taking him to receive some care nearby. I was on my own. No Tim to back me up with advice anymore. “Let’s just get this over with,” Machine said at last. And he ran at me.
Pride Before the Fall:
With his speed gaining, Machine drew back his right arm to his side; ready to deliver a harsh punch to my gut. But the brute underestimated my reaction time, as I noted his fist and quickly stepped to my right as if dodging from a rampaging bull; even managing to strike the monster in his chest with a quick punch. Machine lumbered forward; having not expected to miss me, and suddenly feeling short of breath at the force of my strike. He reached the elite S.S.C’s side of the circle, who were quick to push him back into the fray. They were cheering for me now, though with admittedly less hope than that of which Tim had received. I think they knew I couldn’t last long. And now my right hand remained in a constant state of throbbing pain; prompting me to cling to it for a while as Machine adjusted himself in an enraged manner. The brute took a few steps closer to me; appearing to get in his own sort of fighting stance; one which favored fast strikes over proper protection. Using the opportunity to its fullest, I shot my right hand from my side, only for Machine to catch it and twist my wrist slowly before my eyes. I cried out in pain, giving Machine time to lunge forward and grab me by the throat; detaining me in a similar fashion as he had when we first crossed paths. Now having no locker to pin me against, Machine instead opted to fling me to the ground; his hand still tightly wrapped around my neck. My left foot shot up in protest; nailing Machine in his ribcage; allowing him to release me as he took a few steps back. I could hit hard too. He was seeing that now. I rose to my feet; feeling a sudden pang of light-headedness. I was now struggling to hear those familiar chants from the soldiers around us. It was almost as if it was just me and the machine. The world could wait. Now struggling to maintain my balance, Machine used the opportunity to dash into me once more; running me over with the speed and force of a truck. My body once again fell like a rag-doll upon the earth. There was an echoed laughter somewhere around me, but it was quickly cut off as Machine circled around to kick me in the side while I was still down. He was playing with his food now; trying to show the S.S.C how pathetic they really looked. From the blurred sky above me, Machine’s face came into focus; looking down upon my beaten body. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “You out already?” I blinked a few times; a brief frame of blackness momentarily crossing me, but I wouldn’t allow it to stay. Slowly, I regained my posture; feeling my left side practically tearing in two under the strain of my own weight. I shook my head back and forth a couple times; shaking off the pain as if it were acid upon my face. Machine stood close to me now and noticed my body beginning to waver. He leaned forward slightly and turned his head to the side before pointing to his cheek. “Go ahead,” he insisted. “Free shot. You deserve it.” Slowly, my throbbing right hand began a slow ascension towards Machine’s open face. The THEM elites were laughing like madmen now, at the sight of this comically slow punch. Machine smiled broadly for the next couple of seconds; my shaky hand still having not reached his face. He was certain that it was over. He’d reduced me to nothing. Of course, those thoughts were his downfall. My left hand suddenly tore away from holding my side, and pounded in Machine’s face with more power than I had ever exerted before. My wrist made an audible cracking sound as it struck Machine’s sweaty maw. The attack threw everyone off-guard, as they had all been looking at my right arm; not expecting an attack from anywhere else. Their pride in themselves was their fall. Machine spun around in a circle at the sheer impact of the strike as I straightened myself up. Now the S.S.C was cheering. Really cheering. THEM’s smiles were replaced with a sudden collective look of uneasiness. Nobody had ever pulled off a strike like that against Machine. And their leader was feeling it now. He held tightly to his jaw; grunting and cursing under his breath as his eyes squeezed shut and his posture completely diminished. Still in a daze; Machine twisted around and attempted to elbow me in the face, only for me to catch his entire arm in the nick of time, and my other hand grabbing onto the brute’s shoulder. With all this leverage on him now, I began to spin in a circle; forcing Machine to stumble along with me as I swirled around like a tornado. It didn’t take long for my foe to trip over his own two feet and come crashing down; scraping up his knees and elbows as he unsuccessfully tried to cushion his descent. Machine was disoriented beyond belief; looking as if he might throw up. He tried to lift his right arm, only for my leg to step down upon it; my opposite knee simultaneously descending onto his chest; firmly planting Machine into the ground. The brute’s head lurched back and forth as he tried to use his spare arm to nail me in the jaw, only for me to take hold of it and twist his wrist around, just as he had done to me. Machine finally let out a loud cry of pain; his body shaking more than ever. It felt as if I was resting atop an entire earthquake. THEM was dead silent now; watching in horror as the ‘undefeatable’ Machine repeatedly drew back his mouth into a series of pained grimaces. He had wasted all his energy fighting me and trying to free himself. Now he was merely a husk upon that unforgiving ground. "It's over!" I shouted; the S.S.C elites now drawing closer and the THEM elites beginning to back off. "You're not hurting anyone anymore!" Machine’s tired eyes stared up at me. There was still a raging fire veiled beneath that blackness, but it was fast-extinguishing. His face suddenly drooped to the left, as he watched his own elites flee from the battleground entirely; returning to their cars parked out in the distance. He watched them abandon him. I reached out to one of the S.S.C troopers, who hesitantly pulled me up; looking upon me as if I was some sort of super human. We all surrounded Machine now. The beast slowly tried to rise from the ground, but the moment he reached a standing posture, his legs folded beneath him; sending him hurtling back into the dirt. “We’ll take things from here,” an elite whispered to me as they closed in on Machine. I nodded and broke away from the group. I was feeling almost suffocated. A persistent pull in my side only increased my exhaustion, as did the heavy throbbing within both of my wrists. I can’t remember much else after that, for my eyes were growing quite heavy. I only recalled looking out at the battlefield, seeing only the S.S.C still standing. Then I knelt down beside a small tree. And then I slept.
I spent the rest of that day and the early portions of the following morning under the constant care of the S.S.C. I was originally stationed at a small barn complex where I was treated for two sprained wrists and one sprained leg, as well as a great many bruises and a few cuts on my nose and lips. The tight feeling of bandages wrapped around my wrists and the constant supply of cold ice upon my wounds, became relaxing after a while. Ultimately, I was moved to a larger file warehouse after some fears began to surface of THEM soldiers coming after me for revenge. For about 24 hours, I was the most well-protected person within the S.S.C, with all three counties taking shifts looking out for me. Even Machine, who had been taken into a temporary custody that would go on to last for a week, had fewer guards than I did. I almost felt bad at receiving all this attention; knowing that the S.S.C still had a lot of work to do following a battle of that magnitude. I had no doubt that there were plenty of others who were being treated in a separate location, hopefully with their needs met just as well as mine were. It was early on my second day that I awoke to find a figure sitting in a corner of the room I was kept in for safety. I thought for a moment that I was going to be asked more questions regarding my victory over Machine, but very quickly I realized this was something far different. For now, it was Tim sitting before me, looking equally battered; a large bruise stemming all the way down from his forehead to under his right eye. His forearm bolstered similar bruising and scratches. Despite this appearance, it was still nice to see him. Tim gave a warm smile as he allowed me to fully wake up and take a seat across from him. Despite his smile, there seemed to be a great sadness behind his eyes. Not fear. Not worry. Just a great sadness. "Something wrong?" I asked, my voice surprisingly quite hoarse. "Not for you," Tim replied. I gave him a look of confusion as I felt at the bruise on my face. “You really shouldn’t have helped me back there,” Tim said; eyeing my injuries. “You could’ve been killed. If Machine knew how much training you had, he would’ve taken out that knife.” “It was a risk worth taking,” I replied in seriousness. Tim nodded; respecting my opinion. His eyes suddenly darted down at his watch. I noticed his hand shaking for a brief second or two. “Brett,” he continued; his eyes not meeting mine. “I don’t have a lot of time.” His voice trailed off for a while. I sat in silence; not wanting to waste any imperative moments. “I’m afraid,” he began again. “This is the last time you’re gonna see me." My arms fell to my sides again and my mouth dropped open. "No, that isn't true," I argued in disbelief. "We're just getting started! I defeated Machine! I’ve earned the respect of the S.S.C and students! I couldn't have done it all without you! If this is about me fighting Machine without your permission, then I’m sorry!" Tim was quick to shake his head. “It’s not that, believe me,” he dispelled. His eyes drifted back down to his watch again. “Brett,” he said in a quivering voice that I’d never heard from him before. “I have so much to tell you… but I suppose you’ll need learn it on your own. You’re a smart guy. And you don’t need me as much as you think.” “I do need you!” I shouted now. “The S.S.C needs you!” Tim held up his hand; silently motioning for me to calm down so that I didn’t strain my voice anymore. “It’s like I said before,” Tim replied. “The S.S.C can go on without me. It’ll struggle for a little while, but trust me when I say that I am leaving for the greater good. There are just… some things that a guy like me has to handle. It’s all on me. Not on you.” Tim's eyes began to water, as did my own. “You stay tough, bud,” he smiled. “Don’t let anybody stand in your way. Got that?” I shook my head some more; still not fulling grasping what was happening. “Tim,” my voice croaked weakly. “Stay here.” My emotions were getting the better of me; as my eyes burned with tears and my nose started to sting. Tim just kept giving that sad smile, before looking down at his watch a final time. “You’re the master now, Brett,” he said. “But let this be my final order to you. Don’t follow me. I have my own things to handle. And I think you have plenty ahead of you as well. Don’t take any of it for granted. Understand?” I finally relented; staring down at my legs as a few tears rolled down my cheeks. Tim was my best friend. He had made me into everything I was now. He’d been there for me so often, it was hard to imagine coming times without his presence. But his orders were still clear. And I refused to deny those orders. “Yes s-sir,” I replied at last. Despite the pain still shooting through my shoulder and wrist, I crossed my forearm to touch my shoulder, giving off the S.S.C salute to the Fighter that deserved it the most. Tim did the same. And before I knew it, Tim walked away towards his next big adventure, somewhere out there. An adventure that lied beyond me. More tears filled my eyes as the future became uncertain. I sulked for a long while, but deep down inside, I knew the truth of it. Tim would have his destiny and I would have mine. If I couldn’t come to terms with that, then I’d never be the fighter Tim saw in me. Weeks later, after my sprained leg and wrists had all healed up, I walked home with the lonely night sky above me. Then I stopped. It was as if some voice had reached out to my mind. A voice telling me to turn. And so, I did turn, only to find the school track not far behind me; lit only by the moon itself. It was in that moment that I gave off a smile. And in Tim's honor, I finally ran the complete three miles on my own. I remembered Tim’s advice from what seemed like forever ago. “Eyes down,” he had told me. But now I had the entire future lying ahead, and a bright one at that. “Eyes up,” I told myself.
New Age of Heroes
"I’m never going to be able to train this kid," I thought to myself. Not even Tim could have handled him. Sometimes I thought that if George were Tim's apprentice, the former would have quit on the first day. Once again, I realized that the thought of Tim was still drifting inside my head like a ghost that couldn't rest. "H-how’s about we go home and take a break," George gasped as he clung to his knees; approaching me. "If you think that'll help," I replied; rolling my eyes. The two of us walked together back to our housing editions. Over a year had passed since the last time I’d saw Tim. It was 2010 now and I of course, was a year older. My most recent goal was to pass on Tim’s legacy to a younger generation. All initial efforts in finding an apprentice were brutal failures. I had attempted to employ the help of a kid about half my age, who I saved from a few bullies in a similar manner as Tim had saved me. But this kid was as unruly as could be. I knew that I simply didn’t have the patience to deal with someone so young. After only two days, I never bothered to meet that kid again. Later, I considered asking Tye if he’d be interested, but ultimately decided against it. Despite being at a proper age, Tye lived awfully far from me, and I knew he wouldn’t want to walk that great of a distance to train. Also, it burdened me quite a bit to picture a friend of mine getting hurt. I needed someone who I had never met before. Someone of proper age. Someone who was open to the idea of fighting for others. That’s when George came around. George was slightly shorter than myself and just one year younger. He had mostly blonde hair of which he cut to about the same short length as my own. His eyes were a distinctly light shade of blue, also similar to mine. But our similarities pretty much ended there. For starters, George was a bit more filled out than I was. He was naturally muscular but didn’t have the slightest sense on how to use his strength effectively. George’s highly expressive face was perhaps his most unique aspect. The guy was a bit of clown from the very moment I met him. Initially I figured that after some time of training, I’d get him to settle down a bit. This turned out to be a mistake though. Now almost two weeks had passed since he had accepted my apprenticeship offer, and he still behaved much the same. His broad smiles and excitable eyes made for some good moral boosting when he interacted with other troopers, but I still wondered from time-to-time if I’d made the right choice picking him. It simply wasn’t normal to see someone of such consistently high spirits in Toparsburg. “So,” George said with some newfound pep in his voice. “We gonna do that sparing session that you’ve been talking about?” I thought on the matter for a moment. “Well since we’re already heading home,” I replied. “I’m going to at least get a bit of sleep.” George quickly nodded in agreement. “Okay,” he shot back. “If you think that’ll help you win! I’ll wait for the word.” I just sighed at the remark and headed home, wherein I quickly dozed off.
Dreams and Beliefs:
I’m not one to often recall my dreams, but that evening was different. If I remember correctly, I was climbing a giant tree; the exact length of which eluded me. Its immensity stretched up into the clouds like the beanstalk of fairy tales. Of course, I didn’t question its existence in any way; merely continuing my upwards pursuit with great ease. Eventually I came upon a tree branch riddled with bright orange leaves enveloping most all of its form. I found the location quite beautiful, and carefully eased myself upon the branch so that I could sit atop it and look down to the Earth far beneath me. There was a town visible now. It looked almost exactly like Toparsburg, but with its grass much greener and its buildings better-kept. It was a Toparsburg of hope rather than one of poverty and turmoil. And as I continued to look upon that small town below me, a thought came about my head, telling me that even with Tim gone, I could still have my good times. I felt a cool breeze hit my face. So soothing and peaceful. Then, to my surprise, another gust of wind blew my way. This time much harder. It was followed by yet another gust, then another, then two more. My sense of balance seemed to diminish by the second, until eventually I found myself hanging on to that tree branch for dear life. Suddenly I’d lost the ability to pull myself back up, or to move my legs. I was stuck there, at the mercy of the breeze. I began to scream. Scream for help. Among my cries, there came a distant call of reply. A voice that seemed lost in time. My own pounding heart and the unbearable sensation of wind pouring into my eardrums made the voice difficult to decipher. Nevertheless, the sound ultimately became clearer until I decidedly recognized the cries as shouting a name. Shouting my name. "Brett... Brett," was all it echoed. For a moment, it sounded almost like Tim's voice. Even through this mighty wind and the pained sensation rushing through my aching fingers, I somehow managed to work up the courage and energy to reply. "Tim!” I shouted now. “Tim, is that you?" There was no time for response. My eyes began to flicker open and I awoke to find George poking at my head. "Sir,” he said almost sarcastically. “I can do it; really! But it’s getting late!" I blinked a few more times and looked over at my clock, finding it to be seven at night. I sat up now; realizing I’d overslept by a shocking margin. I began to recollect the memories of my dream, and became frustrated that George had intervened before I could see how it ended. "You just letting yourself in my house now?” I growled. George seemed embarrassed at the realization. “Well,” he began. “I mean, it’s just… your parents weren’t home so I just assum-“ “You really want to do this sparing session,” I interrupted as I put on my shoes. “Yet you’ve fallen short of just about all my other tests and trials. What makes you think you can even begin to fight me? Jeez, aren’t you tired?” George just smiled and quickly shook his head left-to-right. “Nope,” he dismissed. I just sighed and started to yawn. Eventually I spoke again, "Guess I’ll just have to start training you harder, then!" "No!" George quickly protested; his eyebrows shooting upwards and his pupils shrinking. "Sir,” he continued. “If I can impress you, then I’ll be more than ready to fight THEY!" George's heart was in the right place, but I knew all too well that my new apprentice wasn't strong enough for that yet. "If that’s what you think,” I replied. “You'll certainly lose. THEM can’t be taken down by some apprentice that just learned a few tricks." George didn't respond. I knew he was trying to understand the whole situation. Some of the other fighters thought that George had a mental impairment or was simply stupid because of his lack of thinking things through before he spoke. I knew better, though. Where George came from, kids didn’t need to behave like soldiers or gang members. George hadn’t needed to adapt to the world around him, like the rest of us. It was this fact that scared me the most. I feared that even the best of training might still leave him soft. Yet despite these negatives, one thing I could say about Geroge was that he never gave up, at least not in the long-run. The both of us walked outside now. "You know what?” I sighed. “Fine. I'll get a fight for you. A fight with a bully, not THEM. But you need to prove yourself first." George nodded in attentive agreement. "Okay,” I continued. “The first thing you always need to know is what kind of moves you're good at. Tim Allender told me that there were certain tiers of fighting, each with their own sets of advantages and disadvantages. Tim and I worked primarily in tier three, which balances most everything relatively well, leaving no room for a clear weakness, but rather more subtle ones that most enemies won’t notice. But no matter what tier you learn or what tiers you come up against when fighting, there will always be certain things you can expect to see and copy.” I distanced myself from George a bit before turning once more to face him. It looked as if we were about to start some sort of old western duel. “Always have good balance,” I instructed; planting my feet firmly into the ground and slightly bending my knees to absorb any sudden incoming shock. “And be sure to move your feet along with your fists to keep your attack one smooth motion. Like this." Now in my favorite stance, I gave a sudden outwards lunge at George; my hands moving forward in tandem before punching my unsuspecting apprentice in the chest. George staggered back, almost tripping over his own two feet. "Be ready, George!" I scolded. "I could betray you any minute and you would just be standing there with your head in the clouds!" George looked down at the ground like a sad puppy. "I was taught by Tim Allender," I reiterated. "A hero that proved age didn’t matter and that anyone could be a great fighter if they worked hard enough and believed enough in the cause! And I have to pass down what he’s taught me, to someone else... and that someone else, is you! Don’t you get that? If you don’t pay attention at all times, Tim’s legacy is as good as dead!" “But sir,” George suddenly interrupted. “I’ll get it. It’ll just take time. I can’t learn everything right away!” His sentiments were fair, but I still felt quite angry. "Why do you want to fight, George?" I asked; throwing my hands up in the air. “What makes you wanna learn any of this if you’re not gonna pay attention?” George paused for a second, taking a rare moment to think his words through. "I just… believe," was all he could reply with. I should have known better than to think he’d come up with anything more detailed. "Wow," I replied sarcastically. "I didn't know people like you, could believe."
I hoped for my epic dream to return to me when I went back to sleep, this time without George messing it up again, but there was no such luck. Just another evening with no dreams. I woke up sporadically over the course of the night, which I hated with a passion. These premature awakenings always left me feeling sapped of energy in the morning. They also affected how I trained George. I wasn't always so mean to the guy, but it was just frustrating to deal with. For a moment, I wondered if Tim had been as frustrated when training me and watching me fail time and time again. The very thought of Tim would always put me down in the dumps, so I attempted to push it out of my head as I began walking to school. Tim’s final words to me were difficult to ever ignore or overlook. I recalled how his final orders were for me to not follow him or try to figure out where he’d gone. Despite how much I respected my master and friend, I still must admit that I did attempt to shed some light on the situation a few times. I had some sort of hope that simply by me knowing why he left, the knowledge could somehow fill an oddly indistinguishable void inside me. All three of my efforts at learning why Tim departed, made it clear to me that my master was involved in a situation of some sort that was much more complicated than I’d known. Some older S.S.C members confided to me that Tim and his family had moved away to a county up north. This was clearly the most likely of outcomes, as Tim’s house now remained in a state of emptiness; up for sale. But I also learned that moving to another county was only part of the disappearance. Apparently, Tim had learned of some other situation that he had to handle on his own. No member would tell me more than that. The ones who knew the full story had sworn to Tim not to tell me anything else. I finally walked through the front doors of the school; my eyes feeling droopier than usual. As I got to the lockers, I saw Random Kid being bullied by an attacker by the name of Jack. It was a particularly odd sight to behold. R.K. was never targeted by THEM or attackers. He was simply to popular. Not only that, but R.K. was obviously older than Jack thanks to all those times the former had been held back. And yet here he was, completely incapable of defending himself as he cowered by his locker; his right arm shielding his face as Jack stood over his prey. A girl was standing beside Jack; his girlfriend I presumed. She watched the whole situation and merely snickered at the show. I had heard of Jack through some other S.S.C members. Jack was no THEM trooper, just an average, ordinary bully with anger issues. He was similar to George in that he possessed a natural muscularity to him, with some added height to boot. His hair was light brown and uncontrollably filled with curls. Jack’s eyes were a stale brown color, and his eyebrows were thicker than any I’d ever seen before, allowing for him to demonstrate a particularly intense glare of anger when trying to intimidate. Ever since I had taken down Machine, dealing with school issues was becoming relatively simple. THEM had crawled back into whatever dark void it came from, in order to nurse its wounds. And without THEY at the forefront, bullies were my biggest problems these days. And certainly, none of these simple attackers could compare to Machine. I would almost always try the same routine on bullies. I would walk up, ask them kindly to stop hurting someone, and when that didn't work I would go to plan B. And so; following through with this mindset, I casually approached Jack as he shoved R.K. back into his locker and laughed hysterically along with his girlfriend. "Hey,” I spoke calmly as I stopped a few feet away from the scene. “Don't bully him, man. He didn't do anything." R.K. continued to hide his face as Jack turned to me with a smile that I’d come to expect from most dim-witted attackers. "I’m the victim here,” Jack smirked. “R.K. just lost his marbles and hit me upside the head right before you came in.” “It was an accident!” Random Kid called from the floor; still hiding his face. I didn’t back off. Jack’s smile faded a bit as he turned towards me completely and began to size me up. “There something you gonna do about it?" he now asked. Once again, it was quite a normal attacker response. "Well,” I spoke up. “I'm going to give you one last chance to back off before I kick your ass." Jack and his girlfriend laughed some more. I could only assume they weren’t aware of who I was or what I’d accomplished in taking down THEM. "Okay tough guy,” Jack replied; taking a step closer to me. “Let’s go.” I made an audible sigh of dissatisfaction before dashing into Jack with a completely unexpected burst of speed. I delivered a strike to his chest, sending him staggering back, just as George had done only yesterday. This ‘tough guy’ attacker practically screamed like a little girl as he desperately fought to regain his footing, only to eventually steady himself against the lockers. R.K. immediately used the opportunity to run away from the scene. Other kids gathered to watch the fray; already knowing who was going to win. Jack eventually steadied himself and threw a quick punch in my direction; attempting to strike me in the head. This was a common maneuver amongst all bullies. While THEM members would try to slowly wear you down through light and creative move sets, attackers were only interested in finishing a fight with pure brute strength and blows to the head. This predictability allowed me to easily catch Jack’s incoming fist and twist it around until the sheer pain sent my foe down to his knees. Now clutching his arm and practically whimpering, Jack soon found me pulling at the front of his shirt so I could look him straight in the eyes. “Let’s not do this again,” I made clear. Jack’s eyebrows narrowed and he opened his mouth to undoubtedly hurl more insults my way. I didn’t even bother giving him the time of day for it, instead opting to simply deliver a swift kick to his side; sending him hurtling over into the same locker he’d pinned R.K. against. Slowly, I turned away from my downed foe and continued about my business. Jack’s girlfriend had completely vanished from the scene, most likely embarrassed by her boyfriend’s pitiful loss. I’d assume Jack didn’t wish to test me anymore than that, but even if he did, the hoard of kids soon swallowed me up once more, practically causing any trace of my presence there to vanish. It almost felt like I was some sort of superhero disappearing into the night. Only my ‘night’ was living and dynamic; a good way to stop fights from escalating any further than they already had. I suppose George was near the scene that whole time, as he quickly rushed through the waves of students to walk by my side. "Wow!” George expressed in legitimate awe. “How’d you do that? Isn’t Jack like a football player?" "Trust me,” I replied. “When you’ve faced over a dozen attackers at this school, you’ll start to see plenty of patterns. Jack posed no threat to me, no matter what sport he plays.” I thought about what I’d just said. It almost seemed like there was a hint of disappointment to it all. I’d gone from facing trained THEY fighters with an agenda, to simple faceless bullies throughout the halls. I guess it really was a step backwards, but I certainly was not longing for THEM to return any time soon. “Think I can take on the next one?” George questioned. “Give it more time,” I answered. George offered no objections.
Later that day, I was training George at my house. In particular, we had planned to stay up all night. Since Tim had left, I had been tasked a couple times at watching over some S.S.C outposts through the dead of night. This was done in case some sort of surprise THEM raid were to take place. I suspected George would eventually be pushed into taking over the same guard duty from time to time. And so, our main goal for now was simply to keep our eyes wide open till the sun peaked back over the hilltops. George seemed confident in his abilities to make it through the whole afternoon, but it very quickly became evident to the both of us that there simply wasn’t much to do. In order to pass some time and try to keep things interesting, I decided to tell George a little more about the return of THEM. I knew he wouldn’t object to that idea. George had practically developed an obsession with both the S.S.C and its enemies. He was stunned at even the slightest of details and tended to hang to every word I said on the matter. "Okay George," I stated with a loud yawn. "Story time?" George’s eyes lit up and he quickly took a seat over by the sofa. I stayed on my feet in order to keep myself a bit more active. "I forgot to bring popcorn!" George exclaimed with a smile. He was talking quite loud, but I didn’t have to worry about anyone overhearing us. I had no siblings, and my parents weren’t home, as usual. "Alright," I began; organizing my thoughts. "THEM was formed years ago, back in 1959. It was a group created for the soul purpose of wiping the S.S.C off the face of the Earth. Among their ranks were the worst of the worst, no doubt. These were people willing to sacrifice everything to see our power fade away. I suppose much hasn't changed now. They rely much more on fear tactics these days. The idea of utilizing fear sort of popped up several years ago in a THEM down in North Dakota. It was so effective at driving away Fighters, the ideology sort of spread. All things considered, this plague of fear is a rarity. Usually only the original S.S.C and THEM can leave shockwaves so large, but this was a special instance.” George leaned forward and stopped me for a moment. “I suppose we can’t just get the police involved in getting rid of them?” he asked; showing a surprising level of logic. I was quick to dismiss the idea. “The moment the police figure out about THEM, they’ll find out about us too. It would be seen as a cowardly move as well. No group would want to come out on top, simply because they squealed to the cops about everything. To be honest, I’m not sure the police would do much about it anyways. They’d either dismiss the whole thing as rumors, or simply leave us be. You gotta remember that a lot of adults in this town used to be S.S.C members themselves. Even my dad was, for a super short time. I’d imagine there are a few cops that have ties to the S.S.C, as well as those who may have been involved with THEM. Everything is sorta connected in that way.” George slowly nodded, though I wasn’t sure he was able to take in all that info at once. I decided to continue. “Their leader,” I regaled. “Was a monster by the name of Machine.” “I’ve heard other guys talk about him,” George interrupted. “They said you took him down.” I just smiled and finally took a seat at another sofa. “True enough,” I replied. “Though Tim and the S.S.C surely weakened him quite a bit before I got to him. The Fighters later had a stern chat with the guy and greatly diminished his will to keep leading. Not sure THEM would even want to see him giving orders anymore. After all, he was beaten by a mere apprentice; a nobody. Without stable leadership, THEM has diminished a fair degree, but that doesn’t stop some from stirring up trouble.” “Like bullying kids?” George now asked. “Certainly,” I sighed. “It’s their way of showing us we can’t always be there to help. And it turns a lot of kids away from ever wanting to join us, as they believe we simply abandoned them. THEM has all sorts of tricks up its sleeves at getting to us, and there honestly isn’t much we can do about it. We make one wrong move and suddenly the whole school can see us as mindless fighters, no better than THEM.” George rubbed his eyes for a moment and sat back. "Pretty sure you've told me half of this before," he remarked. "Besides, some kids are saying..." George stopped; suddenly wishing not to say more. "What is it?" I pressed. "Well… I've heard rumors about some guy called ‘Eliminator’,” George said; not looking at me; as if embarrassed at the possibility of the rumor being completely false. “I heard he was working to rebuild THEM back to its former glory. The apprentices are really freaked out… they told me not to make a big deal of it to you, though.” I just nodded my head slowly and looked down at my feet for a while. The rumors of Eliminator were nothing new to me. The higher-ups had advised the masters to not make a big deal out of it until more information came out, but apparently apprentices had still caught on to the issue. Truly it seemed as if Machine was returning. Now with a new name to strike fear into the hearts of the Fighters. Only this was someone different. Someone who had appeared seemingly out of thin air. I had tried to convince myself many times that the stories were not true and that THEM had merely started some sort of false story to get our hearts racing, but even I had to admit to myself that the name ‘Eliminator’ bared an eerie parallel to some bad memories from my past. George wasn't ready to hear any of this though. "I'm sure it's nothing to worry about," I stated plainly; though I’m not sure either of us believed that remark. "When Tim Allender first encountered THEY, he was weak and in horrible shape for fighting. He told me so, himself. However, after enough training, Tim managed to rise above all the rest and help sculpt the S.S.C into what it is today." I knew I had told George most of this before, but I simply wanted to change the subject to something a bit lighter. Thankfully, it seemed to work. "I still don't understand why you didn't try to become leader after Tim left," George said with some dramatic hand gestures. "You would have been a shoo-in." "I certainly thought about it," I replied; truthfully. "But there's better people out there to lead the S.S.C. Tim's replacement has done a decent job. Besides, I'm busy whipping you into shape." George nodded his head in a sleepy agreement. "There were a lot more things that he did," I continued; referring to Tim. "But I think he might've just not had time to tell me the rest. The point is that I learned to listen to Tim, and follow his instructions to better myself. Had I not, Machine would still be ruling the school and THEM would be in a much healthier state.” My heart sank for a moment upon mentioning Tim further. I fought through the bad memories of his departure and lifted my head up with a fake look of pride on my face. "So,” I finished. “Those are just a few stories out of the thousands that made the S.S.C what it is today." "Not bad," yawned George. "But maybe next time you can tell me one that doesn’t involve Tim for once?"
George and I talked for a couple hours afterwards, before ultimately falling asleep around the same time. Despite the strength that I had built up over my time within the S.S.C, I was still quite the rookie when it came to long expanses of staying awake and alert. Interestingly enough, another dream came to me that night. I found myself standing at my front porch, thinking about whether or not I should attempt to gather up the falling leaves from the trees surrounding my home. I was much younger within this vision. My worries of the S.S.C and THEM no longer floated about my head. I was care-free again. I don’t recall ever stepping off that balcony, but I did eventually find myself picking up giant armfuls of the orange and yellow leaves from the ground. Suddenly, a voice rang out from behind me. A familiar voice that nearly shook me out of the dream with its mere presence. "Hey, Brett!" it called out. "Nice day, right?" With lightning speed, I turned around to find Jeff approaching me. Inside, I felt like running away, but instead my mouth uttered words which I had no intention of saying. "Well, well, well, if it isn't the Eliminator!” With no control in my arms, I dropped the leaves back upon the Earth and watched them scatter away in the breeze. “Here for another battle?” my young voice challenged. Everything was happening against my will now. I was no more than a spectator within a nightmare. “This time I shall triumph!” my shrill voice bolstered. “And the kingdom shall be mine!" "Slow down there," Jeff replied with a smile that made my blood run cold. "I'll fight the Destructor in just a minute. Lemme stretch first." Unlike my dream from last night, it seemed now that all I wanted to do was wake up. I began to recall in my head how these events had actually taken place, and how they'd eventually end. With great concentration, I moved my foot to the left, but my dreamscape body refused to budge another inch. I was powerless to stop what would happen. I was at the mercy of a memory. "You'll never guess what I stumbled across last night," Jeff exclaimed as he reached into his pocket. My head began to ache as my body uncontrollably approached Jeff and gazed upon his hand as it moved a small paper-clipping into the light. "What’s so special about this?" I was forced to state. Suddenly, my vision grew dark. I now found myself sitting up in my own blackened living room; George snoring loudly from the opposite sofa. I didn’t move for a while. I just sat there; my eyes darting around the darkness of that room for quite some time. I kept telling myself that the visions I’d just encountered were only a dream, but there seemed to be more to it than that. My mind felt different. It was as if everything around me was shifted somehow, like I was out of place. I still felt incredibly sleepy and I couldn't help but feel as if I had not dozed off whatsoever. All at once, I realized that I had cleared my mind just as Tim had done, long before. This wasn’t merely a dream. My mind was trying to tell me something. Warn me of something that I knew to be true, but didn’t have the strength to face while in a normal state. Not wanting to think any deeper on the matter, I slowly laid my head back down and forced myself to go back to sleep. Thankfully, no more memories plagued me that night.
About a week passed without much to note in terms of my apparent vision or more stories regarding the ‘Eliminator’. It was later in the afternoon and George and I had headed over to Marinay River to do some fishing. I thought it would be a nice way to honor Tim and his choices when he was leading me. However, since Marinay was deeply tucked away within THEM territory, I made sure to station us between that of the river as well as some dense decretive bushes and trees; all of it just a small portion of the large forested area of Mellow Falls. No normal enemy could ever hope to catch a glimpse of us here. Nevertheless, I did keep my eyes and ears open as much as I could whenever George would bother to speak loudly. We both sat upon a steeply-sloped hill and casted our lines out. This portion of Marinay river was not known for having many fish, but it would suffice. Besides, I had actually taken George here so I could get a few more words in, regarding his training. “This stream makes for a good lesson,” I pointed out; keeping my voice down. “Always remember that whenever you’re fighting, it’s always best to keep a calm fluid motion. It allows for some of the greatest speeds." George gave an audible laugh and looked over at me with his brow raised. “You know that’s cheesy, right?” he chuckled. I wasted no time to shake my head in agreement. “Yeah,” I replied; truthfully. “It would probably be easier just to show you. So just keep an eye out and make sure I don’t tackle you into the water.” George’s smile faded into a cartoonish, frightened glance and his attention drew back to the stream as I just smiled. For a brief moment, I felt a tug on my line, but found nothing on the other end upon reeling it in. Just like old times. Had the water been clearer in this portion of the river, we might have been able to see if there was anything swimming by, but there was no such luck. About an hour passed with George and I taking the time to make a couple more comments on the S.S.C and related news. I was about to open my mouth to mention a recent move of files from one base to another, when suddenly George stiffened up. I looked over at him; noticing his eyes seemed wide open now, nearly resembling that of a deer caught in the headlights. “What?” I asked. George immediately got up and looked to the thick bushes settled behind us. “You hear that?” George questioned. I remained silent for a moment and took the time to listen, but couldn’t hear a thing except for the gentle rush of water and the calls of birds; overhead. “Just your nerves,” I remarked; returning to my glance at the water. “Just because I told you to keep an eye out for me, doesn’t mean you have to jump at every little noise.” “Yeah,” George replied; trailing off a bit. “I guess.” My apprentice slowly turned his back to the bushes and began to sit down once more, when there was a sudden rustle from the bushes behind us. “There it was again!” George exclaimed; rushing to my side as I quickly stood as well. The noise didn’t sound like that of a mere rabbit or squirrel, this was something different. Something bigger. I raised my hand up, motioning for George to quiet himself as I stared at the bushes for a while longer. It seemed as if entire minutes had passed before I even thought to take a step forward. As soon as my left leg made the slightest of motions, a rock suddenly threw itself from the depths of a bush to my right; striking George hard in the temple. George dropped like a fly; clinging to his wound and crying out in agony. Just as my attention drew back to the bush; I found myself tackled to the ground with enough force to knock some of the wind out of me. The figure quickly rose at my side; allowing me to stand. Wasting no time, I picked myself up and faced this unforeseen opponent; expecting it to be some lowly THEM trooper or perhaps even an attacker who I had bested prior. This however, was not the case. Only once I saw the face of this enemy did I truly feel any fear. It shot through my heart and transfixed itself upon my entire body. My muscles froze up and I could do nothing but stare in shock. Jeff was standing before me. "It's been a while, Brett," Jeff remarked; as if we were sitting down for a pleasant dinner. I almost had no room for words, but some small part of me slowly worked up the confidence to say his name out loud. “J-Jeff?” I breathed. The name seemed to wipe the smug grin off his face. “He’s dead, Brett,” Jeff articulated. “Eliminator has taken his place. I would have thought you’d like the title. You’re the one that came up with it.” “I don’t know what THEM has told you,” I interrupted; finding the strength to move my body and put some space between us. “But I’m not your enemy. THEM is using you as just another puppet to spread fear into the hearts of the S.S.C. And when you fail that purpose, they’re going to get rid of you.” Jeff’s mouth transformed itself into an intense scowl as he slowly shook his head. “Don’t pretend like you’re above me,” Jeff ordered; now taking some steps closer. “I’ve found my place. And you’ve found yours. It just so happens that our paths tend to intervene with each other. It’s nothing personal… not completely.” “I don’t want to fight you, Jeff!” I yelled now. Jeff only smiled at the remark. “Then you’ve made it all too easy,” was all he said before his right fist shot outwards towards my nose. With luck; I dodged to my right and delivered a sharp uppercut to Jeff’s stomach. “That’s better!” Jeff yelled now as he drew back and attempted a strong kick. I quickly leapt backwards; avoiding the attack, causing Jeff’s leg to strike nothing but the air and throwing him slightly off-balance. I used this opportunity to lunge forward now; punching Jeff in the jaw with a fair amount of force. Under normal circumstances, I would have the upper hand, but the ‘Eliminator’ was not just your average attacker. Jeff held tightly to his chin and dropped down to one knee before me; seemingly submitting to a quick defeat, but before I could put some distance between us, his left leg sprung outwards; hitting me in the shin hard enough for me to lose my balance and topple over to my right. I hadn’t experienced strikes this brutal in what seemed like forever. My body had not even hit the ground when Jeff caught me by my collar and flung me head-first into the stream. My body was practically a ragdoll in his wake. For the briefest of moments, all I could hear, feel, and see was that of the water enveloping my surroundings. Now getting angry, I ripped my head out of the stream’s depths just before Jeff could try to get to me in any other way. My right hand wiped the grimy water from my eyes as my left fist rocketed straight into Eliminator’s forehead. There was a loud cracking sound and my entire wrist suddenly flared up with intense pain. Jeff was slightly dazed, but otherwise fine. “You’ve gone a bit soft since the Machine days, huh?” he remarked; kicking me in my side and sending me rolling back into the stream. The muddy depths made it hard for me to stand, and as soon as I rose above the water’s surface once more, I was met by Jeff’s fist slamming down on my chest. I floundered back underneath the waters again; splashing wildly as I struggled to get any sort of footing. It was only now that a thought rushed over me. A new thought. Not one of victory, but one of loss. The was a battle I now believed I couldn’t win. I’d forgotten the feeling.
My clothes now soaking wet and my eyes now caked with mud, Jeff effortlessly dodged all of my blind punches before grabbing me by the throat and dragging me forward, out of the water. My arms were useless now, merely clinging to Jeff’s hands as I desperately struggled to pry them off. Perhaps I succeeded, or perhaps Jeff merely released me with a sudden push, for soon I found myself staggering backwards; spinning around blindly as I wiped some dirt from my eyes. As I spun another half-blind rotation; Jeff’s leg pounded into my back with the force of a hammer. I dropped to my knees; my vision returning, but my spine feeling as if it were no more than that of a twisted tree branch; ready to snap at even the slightest of movements. The pain began to compound upon me now. My wrist ached terribly and my throat and eyes burned without mercy. I was growing dizzy and the glare of the setting sun made it difficult for my eyes to focus upon anything. Desperately, I tried to regain my balance, but it was no use. Jeff appeared seemingly out of nowhere and gripped me by my left shoulder; forcing me back down to the ground with sheer unbridled strength at his side. I stared at my foe through my burning eyes; looking upon a face I had tried so hard to forget. There was almost a peacefulness to everything now. It wasn’t so much that I was lost in a memory, but it was rather due to my dizziness only growing more potent by the second. Jeff seemed to be able to read my every ailment, and jutted his head forward; striking me harshly in the forehead. I sobbed out in pain just as Jeff released my shoulder; allowing me to fall completely to the ground, one final time; my right leg twisting awkwardly below me and my bad wrist unable to properly cushion my descent. Jeff stood before my mangled body now as I tried to stand. It was with all of my strength that I tried to find the power to lift myself from that unforgiving earth. I owed it to George. I owed it to the S.S.C. I owed it to myself. However, my body no longer seemed to have the power. It was as if my batteries had been completely removed; rendering me almost entirely stationary as I gazed up to the darkening sky. Jeff sighed and pulled my head up by my hair; drawing his other hand backwards into a fist, ready to strike. “Consider this a message to all the S.S.C,” the Eliminator remarked. “The friendliest message they’re going to receive from here on out.” And with those final words, Jeff’s fist shot forward; bashing in my nose and crashing into my brow. My thoughts shattered and my mind went still. The light vanished. I was gone.
I must have remained knocked out for several hours before finally awakening within the darkness of Mellow Falls. It was raining now, and George was lying unconscious near the stream. Still dazed, I rose to my feet and felt a splintering pain flare up around my right leg. I carefully grabbed George under his arms, remaining mindful of my weakened wrist, and dragged him beneath the cover of the nearby trees. While still in my grasp, George twisted his body slightly to the side; regaining some of his consciousness. However, the unexpected shift in weight made it difficult for me to keep hold of him, and only succeeded in highlighting the aching discomfort in my lower back, where I’d been kicked. By the time I managed to sit George upright against the base of an oak, he was almost awake, but certainly not alert. Apparently, my movement had at least stirred him enough to bring some life back into his eyes. “W-who? Was that?” George asked in a whisper, still battling the fine line between consciousness and unconsciousness. “An old friend,” was all I dared to reply. Now wasn’t the time for stories. The two of us sat under that oak tree for the longest time; not speaking another word. Neither of us were in any shape to walk all the way back home, so we remained there, overnight. Thankfully the temperature was kind to us, but it was an otherwise very uncomfortable stay. I could hardly bring myself to close my eyes before that familiar taring sensation in my back managed to snap me back awake. When morning finally came, I was able to get into contact with some S.S.C troopers, who quickly picked us up from that lakeside and drove us to an S.S.C filing outpost to the far south. I didn’t breathe a single sigh of relief until we were within the doors of that building. Initially, I didn’t want the S.S.C to know about any of this. I wanted to keep the entirety of this loss, a secret. The last thing I needed now was for people to start digging into my past, or to look down upon me for losing a fight, but the decision was practically out of my hands. George was still far too unresponsive when I had awoken by the tree, and I feared perhaps, that he’d been hit hard enough by that rock to knock out whatever wits he had left. Thankfully, after hours of care by some of the S.S.C’s finest overseers, I was told George was fine, and would be looked after quite closely for several more hours until they were certain he was in proper condition. As for me, I was given ice to quell some inflammation around my nose and upper lip. My wrist and back were also outfitted with a couple of tight braces, free of charge, but in all honesty, these topical pains were the least of my concern. There was a new sort of emptiness within me now. Not a hollowness akin to that which I came to feel by fighting simple bullies rather than THEM soldiers. That was bad enough, but this new feeling was far worse. A feeling of defeat. A feeling of helplessness. Defeat and helplessness. Those two words floated around my head for some time. I began to internally resent every bit of kind advice the overseers would give me. Not long after, before I could be released, I found myself being approached by a great many troopers of which I’d never seen before. All asking me questions about who had attacked me and what they had looked like. I knew better than to lie to my superiors, so I ended up telling the truth. All of the truth. However, the fine details of my little spiel made little impact on those who approached me. To them, it was all like a business. There was no ‘story’. There was no ‘past’. There was no ‘Jeff’. There was only Eliminator.
I called to check on George’s condition persistently throughout the afternoon. With any luck, the S.S.C was hoping to have him released on Sunday. I couldn’t help but feel entirely responsible for his injuries. It was my own carelessness that had brought us to Marinay River without any guards. And it was my lack of skill which resulted in Eliminator getting the drop on us. I promised myself that I’d treat George with more care from then on. Of course, I’d never tell him that directly though, I didn’t want him to grow softer than he already was. There was a new fear in the back of my head when I received a call saying that George wanted to speak with me in person at the base. I worried that perhaps this encounter with Eliminator had shown him just how ruthless an attacker could be. I feared that maybe George no longer wanted anything to do with the S.S.C, or with me, and today would be the day he’d make that clear. Despite these doubts, I took no time at all to head down to where George was being looked after. When I entered my apprentice’s temporary room, I found him laying atop an old worn-out mattress. There was a large bruise on the left side of his head, where he had fallen after the strike. And there was still some decent swelling upon his temple, where the rock struck him. I finally calmed down a bit when I saw him smile at my presence. “I thought I was dead for a while,” George spoke; still from the mattress. “You feeling any better?” I asked. George felt at his bruises for a little bit. “Still a bit dazed,” he replied at last. “But otherwise fine. I’ll be out in no time. I wanted to see you so that I could ask some questions about this Eliminator guy. None of the other guys here seem to know the story quite like you do.” I sighed for a moment and sat down in a chair by the wall. I suppose I knew that I’d have to tell George eventually, but I had already told this story so many times in the past several hours, that it pained me with each retelling. However, I couldn’t say no. I owed George an explanation. “’Eliminator’,” I began. “Was my best friend when we were young. His real name is Jeff… though I suppose he doesn’t like the sound of it anymore.” George straightened up a bit, listening intently. “He… well…” I began to trail off. I had never even bothered to tell Tim this story. It was too personal to me, and I would’ve hated to burden Tim with any more problems to worry about. I breathed for a bit and continued. “Jeff had a rough life,” I stammered. “He was a year older than me when I met him. His original parents died in a car accident in 2003. He had no other family to be given to, so he was taken into the adoptive agency up in Blue Point. He was adopted that same year, but his foster parents turned out to be abusive towards him. With no other options left… he ran away from home. When he met me in late 2004, I would’ve never thought he was without a home or a family. To me, he seemed just like anyone else.” I stopped for a while and let some of the memories flood back to me. I don’t believe I had given this much detail to those who had questioned me, but now I just wanted to get some things off my mind. George didn’t interrupt. I think perhaps, that he could see some of the emotion on my battered face. “He’d show up to my house every few days,” I continued. “I’d give him some food from my kitchen and we’d spend the afternoon doing some friendly spars in the front yard. It was like something out of the movies. I called him the ‘Eliminator’, and he called me the ‘Destructor’. The time I spent hanging around Jeff made me forget about some of the problems I had with my own family, and the school. He seemed to always be there when I was down.” I stared at the floor for a while; not wanting George to see my eyes. “Now that I think of it,” I said, softly. “I suppose it was Jeff who really introduced me to the prospect of standing up for myself. Had it not been for him, I never would’ve even thought to back-talk Machine when I later encountered the beast. I guess I can always thank Jeff for that spark of bravery. He was tough, and for good reason. He knew how unforgiving the world could be. One day… he showed up to my house with some newspaper clippings. His original parents had apparently been a big part of a community charity effort in the 90’s, and he had somehow stumbled across this clipping with photos of them.” My voice began to crack a bit, as if straining under the weight of what I knew was coming. I was reliving that vision I’d endured. “It was the first time he’d seen what his parents looked like, in years,” I recalled. “And he started to get pretty emotional while talking about them. It was only when I realized just how much Jeff needed a family, that I thought to tell him to approach the S.S.C about it. I… I told him that the S.S.C would open their arms up to someone willing to join their ranks, and with any luck, they’d allow him to stay in places like the room you’re in right now. Especially during the cold days of winter.” “They turned him down?” George asked; sounding more serious than ever before. I paused. “Yeah,” came my eventual whisper. “I guess there was an event that happened in the S.S.C several years prior, wherein some individuals staying at one of the housing bases ended up being spies. So… the S.S.C decided to end the program entirely, to prevent this issue from ever turning up again. I think Jeff and I were too young to understand all of this. While I was only disappointed and confused, Jeff turned to anger. He was sick of being denied a family. That was the day that something changed in my friend. He became violent with me and anyone else that would approach him. He just didn’t seem to be the same person. One day, I guess I started asking him too many questions, and he nearly punched me right across my face. He stopped himself… and he left. I never saw him since then, but I always had a hunch that if the S.S.C wouldn’t accept him, then THEM just might. Sure enough… I guess they eventually got to him… and here we are.” The room grew quiet, with only the sounds of chatter from the other rooms now present. I rubbed my eyes a few times and George sank down in the mattress. “Why do you think he still goes by Eliminator?” George asked. “I’m not sure,” I replied; honestly. “Maybe it’s his way of remembering the past. Or maybe it’s just his method of stirring up all these memories for me. To make me lose focus.” George nodded and I finally rose out of my chair. “One thing is for certain,” I spoke with displeasure. “This won’t be the last we see of him. Jeff is the living embodiment of survival against the odds. I’m worried that he’s a problem the S.S.C can’t afford to ignore.”
In a perfect world, my defeat at the hands of Eliminator would have been a short-lived memory amongst those around the school, but this was far from the case. I had already begun to hear the occasional whisper behind my back as I passed through the halls. Other times, I’d catch people staring at my bruised face, and then turning away as soon as I’d take notice of them. I was somewhat of a hero amongst kids after I bested Machine. People looked up to me, and my prior connection with Tim had made me even more popular. But now, here I was; grasping my aching back every time I needed to bend down or sit, and struggling to write on paper or chalkboards without my wrist growing sore. I blamed myself for these injuries. Eliminator was a good fighter, but only slightly better than what I dealt with when fighting Machine. I lost this battle simply because I’d lost my sense of passion for fighting. To me, a hero was someone who never gave up; never surrendered. While Tim had given his all to fight for the S.S.C, I tied myself down by wasting time dealing with simple bullies. There were bigger problems to be dealt with, and I turned my back on them. I didn't need to exact revenge on Eliminator, but I did need answers. I needed to know what THEM was really up to, but I was no use to anyone while in this condition. And so, to relax both my body and mind of all this chaos, I decided to sit at my front porch and merely take in my surroundings. I figured I deserved a few final days of peace before trudging back into the line of action. Suddenly, there was a soft noise to my right; the faintest of footsteps growing ever closer. I quickly spun around, only for George to give me a light kick to my side, sending me toppling over the small step I was sitting upon. Now downed and confused, George hopped atop me and pinned me down with a knee to my chest. I was taken so off-guard, I could hardly find room for words. I simply looked up at George in surprise now. His smile broadened, and his eyes remained wide with excitement. "What was that?" I questioned; pushing his knee off me, and rising back up. "That was me sneaking up on you!” George stated with pride. “I told you that I could do it! I've been doing some training of my own!" For a moment, I nearly shouted at him for taking the risk of injuring my spine or wrist any further, but then I looked back at his face again; finding nothing but pure joy and satisfaction upon it. His smile was infectious, and soon I found myself copying its likeness. "George," I spoke; dusting myself off. "I think you're ready for the next step in your training."
A Test of Strength:
"George you've come a long way," I proudly remarked as the two of us walked out to the hilly valley, southwest of town. “It was in this very spot, that Tim and I trained in a variety of move-sets to utilize in battle against tougher foes. Thanks to the nice weather today, I consider it a better time than any other to engage in a real spar with you.” George looked up, beyond one of the hills, where a couple of the taller buildings of the town barely managed to peak over. “What if someone sees us?” he asked; sounding embarrassed. "I’ve gotten used to working out on my own. There’s no eyes on me, there’s no judgement, and I feel more at peace… ya know… like concentration and stuff.” “S.S.C troopers used to train here all the time,” I assured. “Nobody’s gonna care, even if they do see you.” George hesitated, but eventually submitted to getting into his preferred fighting stance as I put down my pack and stretched a bit. This brief lull in our conversation made my mind sort of linger on the fact that George was training more and more on his own now. We’d still meet quite often, but occasionally I’d wonder if he truly thought that self-training was a better use of his time than working with me. About two weeks had nearly passed since Eliminator had attacked us, and although I was all healed up, sometimes I still felt that George and other S.S.C soldiers only remembered me by those several few excruciating days of suffering and weakness. Did George only think of me now, as a loser? A fighter whose magnified pride only harshened the fall? These thoughts came to me more and more these days, but I’d never even think to approach my apprentice about them. In my mind, the best way to prove to George that I was still a valuable resource of information, was to show him just how much he had yet to learn in fighting. "I should warn you,” I now spoke. “My lessons today will be demonstrated more through actions than words, and I expect you to pay close attention to both your mistakes, and mine. With Eliminator on the loose and THEM threatening to rise back to its former glory, it’s very likely that they might try to attack you, in order to get to me.” George shuttered at the thought. "I'll... keep an eye out," was all he could say now. I finished my stretches and got into my own battle pose, which differed from George’s only by the fact that he preferred to keep both his arms bent out in front of him, as if ready to get into a boxing match. "I wasn’t ready, the last time you attacked me,” I recalled, as we began to circle each other. “So, don’t you expect this to be quite so easy.” “I’m counting on it,” George replied strongly, though I could still hear some uncertainty in his voice. We circled each other for about half a minute without anyone choosing to lunge forward and strike. "I'm not gonna to make the first move!" shouted George; shaking his head. "You do it!" I just smiled and nodded before quickly springing into action. With speed that George may not have thought I had in me, I sprinted forward at my apprentice as he threw a restrained punch out at me. Without losing any of my speed, I dropped down to my knees; sliding upon the wet grass directly beneath George’s outstretched arm. Before George could react, I reached both arms around his legs, bound them tightly, and rose to my feet while still holding him, sending George toppling onto his back at the sudden loss of his support. George wasn’t expecting this maneuver, and before he could even attempt to stand back up, he found my knee pinning down his chest; just as he had done to mine, weeks prior. "Round two!" yelled George with a smile, though I could sense some frustration in his voice. I stuck by my words and did not provide any advice on what he could be doing better. George needed to learn that by himself. The second round began with George deciding to make the first move; running at me with his fists practically sprawling all over the place like a panicked chicken; flapping its wings. Had he even listened to my old instructions? I effortlessly dodged the fists and attempted to elbow him in the back as his momentum carried him past me, but George quickly ducked; dodging the strike that he didn’t even know was coming. I was admittedly impressed. One of the biggest aspects of fighting in the S.S.C, was the ability to predict movements that had yet to happen. It was the best way of keeping an edge over your opponent. Now turning on his heel, George began to run at me again; correcting his previous mistake by keeping his fists steadier. This time I decided to stand directly in his path, but with a different intention that merely blocking his strikes. Just as George closed in on me by no more than a couple feet, I lunged forward and bent down in one simultaneous movement. George; not anticipating this countermeasure, was unable to stop himself as he ran directly into my slumped over form; toppling over me in the process, and landing square on his back, just behind me. George had the wind knocked out of him, but still managed to roll out of the way before I could pin him with my knee again. With my kneecap still planted in the dirt, George wasted no time leaping at me, sending the two of us into a crazed roll across the field. Unfortunately for George, I hadn’t even begun to teach him the basics of wrestling, and before long, I managed to take hold of both of his arms and stop our roll with a spare leg. When the two of us finally came to a halt, George found himself firmly pinned to the ground. “Dang it!” George exclaimed as I rose off of him. “How’d you do that so quickly? I’ve been training so hard! I swear!” George brushed some of the dirt out of his hair as I tossed him some water and sat down to rest. “I can tell you’ve gotten better,” I remarked. “But I guess there are just some things you can’t learn from a punching bag.” “Great lesson,” George remarked sarcastically. In the grand scheme of things, George had beaten me once, and now I had bested him on this occasion. There appeared to be a tie between us now. Someday we would break it.
It was the following Monday morning, when things began to take a turn for the worse. I was getting my stuff together; ready to head to my next class, when I began to notice some kids looking at me strangely from across the hall. As I had previously noted, this was nothing new to me. Ever since Eliminator had attacked and bested George and I, it seemed as if half the school’s students acted odd when I was near, but today was different. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it, but it seemed as if the news of my defeat had practically reached the ears of every last person in the building. Groups of guys and girls of all ages seemed to be snickering at me as I passed them. I didn’t like the feeling one bit. I eventually met up with George and discovered he had been dealing with similar responses. It was completely nerve-racking to the both of us, to be in a place where everyone around you seems to know something that you don’t. Seeking a peaceful approach to all of this, I tried as hard as I could to turn the other cheek and ignore this behavior, but around the end of the day, just when I was ready to pack up my things and head home, I finally heard the sound of outright laughter just behind me. “Woah!” one exclaimed; my back still turned to the onlookers. “You were right, that Eliminator guy really did bust up his face, huh?” I now turned myself to face these voices; finding three kids about one year younger than myself, staring right at me. My sudden attention towards the trio seemed to catch them off-guard, as if they thought their voices wouldn’t be heard over the rest of the droning noise around the halls. “What did you just say?” I asked; trying to stay calm. Two of the kids took a couple steps back and avoided eye contact with me, but the third seemed to be completely oblivious to my frustration. “Random Kid was telling everybody around here this morning that some guy calling himself ‘Eliminator’ beat you up,” the kid replied. “I guess he wasn’t lying for once.” The other two kids started to hide their smiles as they laughed a bit more. “Why is that funny?” I asked; leaving my stuff on the floor as I approached them. Once again, the two laughing kids cowered down a bit, but the third stood his ground. “You had everyone around here thinking that you were invincible,” the kid remarked. “I don’t blame you for hiding the truth, but jeez. Maybe if you hadn’t talked yourself up so much, it wouldn’t have happened. Maybe hit the weight room or somethin’.” I shook my head; a look of confusion coming over me. “I have no idea what you’re getting at,” I stated truthfully. “This happened almost two weeks ago, my wounds have almost all healed up, some people knew about this ordeal right after it happened! It’s old news! It looks like R.K. is just dredging it up again and adding more or less details! There’s way more to it that tha-“ “Sure,” the kid interrupted as a smile broke upon his face. The other two kids seemed to follow suit. At that very moment, I felt as if my blood was boiling. I didn’t deserve to be treated like this, not after everything I’d done to protect the kids of this school. Tim would never let this happen to him, would he? If I failed to stand up to these clowns now, this new trend of looking down upon me and my apprentice would only grow by the day. So, I decided it was time for me to teach them a lesson. Without saying a single word, I shoved two of them into the darkened computer lab they had been standing in front of, with the third individual scurrying away before I could get ahold of him. Like bowling pins, the two others toppled inside; unsure of what was happening. Only the light from the outside hall now illuminated part of the room as the two kids scrambled to the far-side of the space; hoping to get farther away from me. I now found myself slowly approaching them; my face surely red with a piercing anger as my left and right fists closed tightly shut and my mouth drew itself into a taut scowl. My entire mind seemed numb to it all. This wasn’t the same feeling I had when facing bullies, Machine, or even Eliminator; this was something different. Just before my fist rose up, the light from the hall behind me managed to peak over my right shoulder and throw itself upon the faces of the two kids. Now I finally got a good look at their eyes. They were scared. No, not scared; terrified. Their pupils seemed dilated beyond belief and their skin grew white and pasty. One clung to a desk as if his life depended on it, while the other; the one who had previously been so unaffected by my attitude, now began to shrink down to the floor, almost in a fetal position. My mind suddenly returned to me, and my fists slowly unclenched themselves. Only then did I truly realize what I was doing, or at least, what I had attempted to do. Still without speaking a word, I turned my back on the two of them, and I left. Just outside of the doorway, now stood George; looking almost as terrified as the kids inside the darkened room. “Sir,” he spoke slowly. “What was that?” My head was spinning now, and I lightly pushed George to the side, grabbed my things, and began to rush down the hall. “Hey,” George called after me. “Wait up!” I couldn’t think straight now. Everything seemed blurred and those remaining in the halls now turned to stare at me. All I could focus on was getting outside and breathing some fresh air before my stomach could decide whether or not to spill itself. Finally, I shoved my way through the front doors of the school and took a seat at one of the benches out at the courtyard. I hardly had any time to myself before George ran over to my side; looking increasingly worried. “What just happened?” he questioned. I breathed a few more times and blinked rapidly. "I'll tell you what happened!" I shouted; my voice sounding weaker than I’d ever heard it before. “I'm tired of these kids! Aren’t you? After all we’ve done for them, they go and treat us like this! All because of rumors and old information, made new again!" "Well,” George replied; slowly taking a seat beside me. “You need to calm down." George’s sympathetic tone only increased my rage as I turned to him. "They were laughing at me and you!” I exclaimed. “Don't you get it? You’re their second target!" George nodded slowly and looked back at the school for a second. "I’m used to being picked on," he said; distantly. I nearly shouted again, but stopped myself. I took the time to listen to George and to understand his way of looking at things. It was only then that I realized just how poorly I’d treated him on occasion. What made me any better than those laughing kids? I wasn’t above George, and he wasn’t above me. It was time I started treating him more like a person, rather than just an apprentice to pass on Tim’s legacy too. We didn’t speak much for the rest of the day. I think we both had a lot of things to think about. I didn't want to remember what I had nearly done to those kids, but something deep down inside of me made me feel as if I should. It was a lesson.
An Unseen Hand:
Throughout all of the following school morning, everyone was pretending that yesterday’s events never happened. Though I was quite certain almost everyone knew now. News of Brett Blakley nearly harming innocent kids was bound to turn heads, and it didn’t make the S.S.C look good. Had it not been for my previous victory against Machine and my legendary mentor, I probably would have been fired within hours of the event. How could I win everyone over again? Could such a thing even be possible? I looked around for George for a while, but couldn’t find him. Thus, I spent the majority of that day in a quiet seclusion. To ease my nerves, I drifted off a couple times during class. In these daydreams, I found George was still working with me all the time, Tim was still around and offering his support, and I had beaten Eliminator without breaking a sweat, but when I opened my eyes, I was still that same old fallen and battered ‘hero’ as before. These negative thoughts only grew stronger as the day went on, but thankfully lunch at least allowed for me to focus on other things... or at least that was the intention. I found myself sitting alone on this day. Never before had I been so estranged from my fellow classmates. Around ten minutes passed without interruption, until a figure finally sat across from me. I looked up, finding an S.S.C trooper before me. He was an older teen, boasting the beginnings of a light brown beard upon his jaw, and hair of a darker variant, gelled backwards, revealing all of his scalp. A long cut ran down the left side of his neck, and his dark green eyes seemed to take in every last detail surrounding us. It took me a moment, but I eventually recognized his face as being that of an elite, which initially scared me to death, as I presumed this was the moment I’d be ejected from the S.S.C forever. What would become of George? Or Eliminator? Or THEM? I couldn’t miss it all! My mind filled with so many various thoughts and fears, I was unable to speak a single word to my visitor. “Don’t worry,” the trooper said calmly; sensing some of my worry. “You’re not in trouble. We have bigger things to worry about right now.” I breathed a sigh of relief and rubbed my forehead. “Eliminator shown himself again?” I wagered. The S.S.C elite shook his head. “No,” came a whispered reply. “This is something much bigger than that. I’m Trevor Sykes, part of the elite guard.” “I know who you are,” I replied. “I fail to see how I can help you if this doesn’t have anything to do with Eliminator.” Trevor held up his hand to stop me before I said more. “Just listen,” he spoke. “Monday afternoon, we received a message from THEM. It was the first bit of unplanned correspondence we’ve had in a long time. In this message, they revealed to us that THEM is currently under the leadership of a figurehead calling himself ‘Corruption’.” The elite stopped so that I could take all of this in. “Corruption?” I repeated. “Looks like THEM is sticking to their tendency to use fearmongering in order to get to us. The name doesn’t make the man.” “Agreed,” Trevor replied; nodding. “However, this ‘Corruption’ apparently has a deeper connection with THEM than we had ever known before. If you recall, we never did figure out who Machine’s master was. Nor did we ever truly understand how a brute like him could possibly lead all of THEY.” “Don’t tell me what I think you’re about to tell me,” I pleaded. Trevor just shook his head and looked back and forth for a while, to ensure that nobody was listening. “We’re likely thinking the same thing, Brett,” he admitted. “Corruption is claiming that he trained Machine, Eliminator, and many other powerful THEM soldiers since the fall of Talon at the hands of your master. He’s been behind the scenes all along. Only now does a lot of our special intel begin to add up. Machine was no more than a red herring. He never had any real control.” My heart began to sink, and my foot started tapping uneasily with each sentence. This wasn’t news that I needed to be hearing right now. “Why are you telling me this?” I finally questioned. Trevor hesitated for a moment. Despite being a hardened elite, I could’ve sworn I saw a hint of fear in his eyes. “Because,” he stated at last. “Two weeks ago, Corruption wanted Eliminator to beat you, in hopes that it would make you leave the S.S.C. But since then, you’ve shown no wavering stance. Corruption now realizes you’re not going to budge. So, he’s willing to force you out. He wants the legacy of Tim to fall into nothingness.” Trevor stopped himself and ran his hand through his beard. “He’s practically put a price on your head, Brett,” the elite finally affirmed. “And Eliminator intends to finish what he started.”
Trevor’s news weighed on me more and more throughout the rest of that day. To some extent, I felt almost ill to think about the ramifications involved in this hidden leader rising to the surface. When I awoke the next morning, I felt sick to my stomach and decided not to go to school. I spent most of the day in deep thought over Corruption, Eliminator, THEM, and myself. Trevor had advised me to meet with him in a couple days so we could discuss the matter in more detail. I just hoped that I’d be feeling better around that time. I was almost certain that a good chunk of the school had to have known I was practically being hunted like a wild animal now. To the average student, I’d lost all my credibility when it came to fighting and protecting kids. Eliminator’s attack was now only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to that defeat on my part, it also seemed as if all my training with Tim had become absolutely pointless. I didn’t defeat Machine; leader of THEM. I defeated a simple pawn in a much larger game. Tim had left me, thinking I was a hero. I wondered what he’d think of me now. However, despite all of these negative feelings rolling around in my head, I still found enough strength to call George after school had ended. Apparently, his day hadn’t been much better than mine. If anything, it was far worse. “People seem to be ignoring me now,” he’d say over the phone; trying to hide how hurt that made him feel. “The only exceptions are Random Kid’s friends. They’re constantly hurling comments my way.” “Like what?” I asked; feeling my anger mounting. “’Aren't you hungry?’” George impersonated. “’Or did Eliminator's knuckle sandwich already fill you up?’ That one was one of my favorites. They’re really milking this for all its worth.” George laughed the reiterated comment off, but I could still detect some frustration in his tone. “When I had to hear all that at lunch,” George admitted. “Oh man, I almost lost my composure for a second. Kinda like you.” George suddenly stopped himself; realizing that it wasn’t something I wanted to be reminded of. “Right,” I finally responded. “Well, you’re just fortunate not to have a short temper.” “I suppose you’re right,” George replied; trailing off a bit. Despite how poorly people had been treating George, I was slightly relieved he hadn’t done anything rash. I told myself that perhaps I had done some good by attacking those kids with George around. It showed him just what we were capable of, and how such recklessness reflected on an S.S.C member. That thought helped me sleep a bit better.
A couple days later, George and I traveled to an abandoned house to the east of my residence. I’d never seen the building before, as it was heavily shielded by various hills and trees. It was a two-story building; most of the roof now stripped away along with various side panels. The place had certainly seen better days, but I knew the S.S.C didn’t care. Safe havens this far away from THEM territory were always secure places to meet. I almost didn’t take George to this meeting, or even tell him of the entire situation, but I suppose I was feeling sorry for the guy. He had just as much a right to hear about the news as I did. For clarity’s sake, I told George everything Trevor had already alerted me to, the few days prior. He seemed almost as shocked as I had been, but with far more questions that I simply didn’t know the answers to. Trevor and another S.S.C elite awaited us at the door and welcomed us inside. The interior of the building was in shockingly decent shape. Most of the windowsills had been boarded up, leading me to predict that the rooms would be bathed in darkness. The exact opposite was true, with the house being just as well-lit as my own. In addition to this, floors had been swept clean, walls and doors had been refurbished, and a fully stocked kitchen sat in one of the far corners. Trevor seemed to notice my surprise as we sat at a table covered in papers. “This is a training facility for younger troops,” he elaborated. “They keep this place in top condition. And we get electricity from a generator out back.” I nodded; still taking in the sight. I wished that the S.S.C still allowed people to live or stay in places like this. It was all Jeff had ever wanted. Maybe if the S.S.C hadn’t been so strict with him; this entire situation never would have happened. I kept these opinions to myself. When George finally took a seat alongside me, the other elite next to Trevor leaned forward and shook my hand. “Brett Blakley,” he observed. “We haven’t met before. I’m a commander from Modewood.” I raised an eyebrow at the mention of that county. “Modewood,” I repeated. “That’s a far ways off. You’ve heard of me?” The elite smiled at my statement. “You’d be surprised how many people have heard of you,” he assured me. “It’s not every day a kid your age takes down a heavy-hitter like Machine. And then there’s the fact that you were trained by Tim Allender.” I tried to speak, but he interrupted me with another sudden thought. “This is the original S.S.C, ya know? When guys hear that someone like you is rising to prominence in Toparsburg; the town that started it all… well they see it as a sign…” “A sign of what?” I inquired. “Well,” the elite seemed almost embarrassed to say more on the matter. “It’s just… if there’s ever gonna be an S.S.C that manages to get rid of THEM for good… it’s gonna be the original bunch. Only then will the domino effect be powerful enough to spread into other counties and states. Everyone’s eyes are on Toparsburg, waiting for the next big move that’ll shift everything. In the minds of a lot of my subordinates, they’re waiting for this ‘war’ to end before things get out of control.” The elite leaned back in his chair as Trevor simply gave a long sigh. “It’s funny,” Trevor interjected. “Ever since the S.S.C started in 1964, the amount of time we’ve actually spent fighting THEM is incredibly low. In fact, you can really only say we’ve ever been at war with THEY twice. And yet, here; in the midst of the second one, after so much time spent avoiding conflict, now everyone just wants to tuck their tails beneath their legs and head home. That’s why the S.S.C is dying. Everyone’s just looking for somebody else to do all the heavy lifting.” The other elite nodded silently as George suddenly leaned in; a look of confusion upon his face. “Wait,” my apprentice interrupted. “You said the S.S.C started in 1964?” Trevor nodded his head slowly; unsure where George was going with this, and perhaps slightly annoyed at the change in subject. “Sir,” George began; turning towards me. “Didn’t you tell me it started in 1959?” I thought back on the conversation I’d had with George some time ago about the origins of the S.S.C; vaguely remembering myself indeed saying that. “I suppose I had my time wrong…” I admitted, though I could have sworn Tim had told me the same date. The other elite raised an eyebrow for a second as he looked over at Trevor. “I always heard it started around 1958,” he wagered. We all sat there for a while; trying to understand these odd discrepancies. “Well,” Trevor finally exclaimed; folding his arms. “It’s stuff like that, which just proves my point. There’s no respect these days for the S.S.C’s past. No respect for it’s time as a group dedicated to fighting. All the guys care about now is the occasional bully. THEM has become a boogeyman in the night to nearly everyone. No wonder THEM is so infatuated with you, Brett. You’re one of the few people that doesn’t shrink away from a fight.” I nodded, but offered no reply at the observation. “Can’t say I disagree,” the commander admitted. “It’s thanks to people like Brett, that good soldiers have something to look up to. A figurehead.” The commander looked over to me now; expecting to see pride in my eyes. He seemed almost disappointed at my lack of a substantial reaction. I simply remained quiet; my mind drifting back and forth between this conversation and the looming threat of Eliminator and his master. “Well…” Trevor continued at last. “We called you here for a couple reasons. Firstly, you need to be aware that most any THEM member could be after you at this point. I can’t stress that enough. Eliminator is simply the top-dog when it comes to hunting you down. From the reports we’ve been receiving, he’s very likely to strike any day now. If a THEM member tries to get to you first, he’ll have Eliminator breathing down his neck afterwards.” “What’s in it for them?” I asked. “Money?” “That’s definitely part of it,” Trevor replied. “Corruption’s exact figures on the matter are unclear, but it’s certainly quite a bit. And it’s not just that. In Corruption’s mind, anyone that’s strong enough to beat you and bring you to him, is then firmly in the running to become the next leader of THEY. Of course, it’s not set in stone, but Corruption is getting older. He can’t keep on leading forever.” “Corruption sorta has a special method of conditioning his best soldiers,” the commander stated. “He takes on a multitude of apprentices and tasks them with exceptionally hard tasks. Those who succeed are given more power and more money. Those who fail end up almost always being kicked out of THEM… with other various misfortunes to occur if they ever step out of line and try to join the S.S.C or give them any detailed information. As such, only the strongest still remain at Corruption’s side; each of them just waiting for the next chance to prove themselves and get the edge over their peers.” “How do you know all this?” I questioned. “A few weeks ago, we had pretty much no idea Corruption even existed.” “We only know it, because Corruption wants us to know it.” Trevor confessed; shaking his head. “He’s been releasing a ton of information like this. It’s awful cocky of him, but this overconfidence is making the S.S.C feel pretty threatened, as if THEY has an ace in the hole that warrants them now being so forthcoming.” “A bunch of mind games,” the commander chimed in. “That’s all this is.” “What can we do?” asked George; who was remaining surprisingly alert throughout the entirety of the meeting. “There is something that could do the Fighters a lot of good,” Trevor replied immediately; grabbing a thick folder from the corner of the desk. “This is a file containing some spy reports on Corruption. We just got it a couple hours ago. It wasn’t our intention to have you do this… but now that you’re here, it could work in our favor.” “You want us to read up on it?” I guessed. “Quite the opposite,” Trevor responded. “This file is for the eyes of elites only. We have a stubborn general up in Blue Point that’s refusing to help us out with this Corruption fiasco. If you can bring him this file, he might finally be willing to step up.” “Why do I have to deliver it?” I asked; feeling frustrated at this simplistic busywork. “Blue Point is a pretty long walk from here.” “It’s like we’ve said,” Trevor responded. “You’re a figurehead amongst the S.S.C. If this general sees you knocking on his front door, he’ll truly understand just how serious all this is. All of our other attempts at reaching out to him and the units he commands have been failures, but the moment we get him firmly on our side, that is the moment the S.S.C can stand a fighting chance against the likes of THEY.” Trevor leaned over and firmly stapled the file closed so that nobody could read anything inside without ripping it all open. I felt almost insulted at his lack of trust in me. Not noticing my displeasure at this job; Trevor held out the folder to me; motioning for me to take it from him. For a brief moment, I nearly refused the request. I didn’t feel the same as Trevor and the rest of the S.S.C. I was no ‘figurehead’. I was just an apprentice to a famous S.S.C leader. An apprentice that got lucky and took down a puppet named Machine. Accepting this mission seemed like nothing more than a vain attempt by the Fighters to boost the spirits of the withering S.S.C; trying to instill hope in places that it simply wasn’t spreading. George looked over at me for a moment; noticing I wasn’t reaching out to grab the file from Trevor. “Well?” the Commander prodded. “Do you wanna help stop THEM or what?” I did want to stop THEM, but it was the thought of stopping Eliminator that ate away at my confidence. “C’mon sir,” George whispered to me. “They need you. I can help. It’s better than just sitting around and doing nothing.” I shook my head for a moment and gave a long sigh before finally taking the file from Trevor’s hand. A smirk crossed his face now as he rose from the table and shook George’s hand. “You two be careful,” he urged; taking a glance at his watch and suddenly seeming quite pressed for time. “The address and additional information is written on the back of the folder. If he’s not home when you arrive, we’ll just have to wait for another time. We need you on this Brett. The S.S.C needs you.”
My distaste for Blue Point stemmed beyond the fact that it simply was a long walk away from the abandoned house. Blue Point’s S.S.C was known for being particularly stubborn. In their county, they’d been experiencing a steady stream of THEM attacks for several years. It toughened them up quite a bit, but also instilled a variety of harsh feelings towards the Fighters stationed in Toparsburg. After all, we couldn’t always be there to back them up, and we were the county that started up this ‘war’ back in 2003. A part of me wanted to call the mission a lost cause, but I knew George wouldn’t allow for it. “They couldn’t have been bothered to give us a ride?” my apprentice panted as we ascended a particularly steep hill. “You’d think they’d have treated you with more respect, seeing as you’re apparently such a big ‘figurehead’ now.” I glared at the mere mentioning of that word. “How come they haven’t made you an elite?” George now questioned. It was clear he was trying to change the subject, but this topic was also a sore spot for me. “Hard to say,” I replied earnestly. “Maybe they’re just waiting for me to prove myself some more.” George seemed satisfied with this answer as we headed past town; halfway to our destination. “We’ll be entering THEM territory soon,” I warned. “This path should take us through the smallest portion of their land; straight into the Blue Point S.S.C space.” A slightly cold breeze fanned over the next hill; making George shiver a bit. Toparsburg certainly wasn’t known for its good weather. Here soon, I was almost certain that everyone would already be bundled up in thick coats and scarves as if it were already winter. I looked down at the folder clasped in my hands; still tightly stapled shut. My eyes then drifted up towards the skies; spotting some dark clouds drifting overhead. “If it rains,” I stated. “We’re doing this another time.” “There are some trees over there,” George pointed out; referring to a tightly clustered area of woods that remained surrounded on all sides by four long stretches of road. I looked back up at the sky for a moment; considering if George’s idea was even worth our time. When my eyes drifted back to the woods, an odd feeling of dread came over me. My body grew cold; as if the wind had swept within my very lungs. It took me a moment, but I soon realized the feeling to be akin to that which I had felt when Eliminator attacked the two of us. It occurred to me now that I hadn’t been in THEM territory or a wooded area since the encounter. “No,” I breathed at last. “We’ll get to Blue Point faster if we just cut through the old field.” George offered no objections, and we went about our way. The field I spoke of went by many names throughout Toparsburg. In many ways, it was perhaps the biggest eyesore of our entire county. I didn’t care to know all the details, but apparently, there had once been a cornfield in Toparsburg, which eventually ended up losing its fertility and becoming nothing more than an expansive field of dead crops for as far as the eye could see. Truly, this field took about one-fifth of the county as a whole. There were multiple reasons our township couldn’t do anything about it. Firstly, despite being completely abandoned, the land was apparently still owned by a family, who considered it private property and refused to allow roads to be built over it. Also, due to the sheer size of the field, the money required to make such renovations simply wasn’t in the books at the moment. THEM thrived on the field’s seclusion. So much so, that they took up residence in a large barn built to the far-west side of the land. Thankfully, a few various hills around the area helped to shield us from any prying eyes as we began to cut through – or so I had thought. While my mind was largely preoccupied with how I was going to convince a general to fight in a war he had no intention of joining, George busied himself by eyeing the area. While there wasn’t much to see in the large expanse of dead land, the road to our far-right remained active with a single car headed northward. While I paid no mind to the sound of the vehicle’s wheels slowing down, George nearly jumped right out of his skin. My apprentice’s body swung around in a quick jolt; eyeing the car as it came to a complete stop on the side of the empty road. “Don’t bring attention to us,” I spoke; still walking forward and not bothering to look over my shoulder. George stood his ground as the sound of an opening car door met my ears. “I think it’s too late for that now,” my apprentice said through his teeth. It was only when I heard the sharp noise of a slamming door followed by the screeching of tires that I knew it was time to turn around and face what was coming. A large black van with tinted windows sped away from the proximity, leaving one lone figure in tattered jeans and a soil-ridden jacket behind it. The Eliminator was back.
My heartrate increased dramatically and I remained frozen in place for a moment. What were the odds that Eliminator could have found us so quickly? The hunter slowly walked in our direction and circled around the two of us like a bird of prey. George remained vigil in his fighting stance; ready to leap into action at any time. “You look pale,” Eliminator pointed out; in regard to my unmoving body. “If I’d known that you were this fearful of us, perhaps I would’ve brought backup to make it all the more effective. “I’m not afraid of THEM,” I spoke; my body slowly regaining some of its composure. “I’m worried for you. Worried that you’ve been dragged into this mess. All you wanted was a home, Jeff. THEM might have given you one, but at what cost?” Eliminator’s glare tightened for a brief moment. He didn’t like to be reminded of the past, and certainly didn’t want to hear me insinuate that he was being used. “Corruption’s mantle as leader is only available to a very select-few,” Eliminator pointed out. “If I take you down… and your slave here, the position will most certainly be mine. The role of leader pays well. In a few years, with the right amount of saving, I can finally make a life for myself. A life outside of THEM. If that’s what you want for me, then make this easy and don’t bother fighting a battle you know you’re going to lose.” George opened his mouth to speak for me, but I interrupted him before he could make matters any worse. “If you really wanted to change, Jeff,” I called out. “Then you would’ve figured it out a long time ago. I don’t owe you anything.” Eliminator smiled and took a few steps closer to George, prompting my apprentice to suddenly deliver a sharp uppercut with his clenched right fist. Eliminator expected the maneuver, easily grabbing hold of George’s arm and twisting it around with ease. “Then there’s no more reason to talk,” Eliminator sighed. With effortless strength, the hunter twisted George’s arm a final time; sending my apprentice down on his knees as he cried out in pain. I quickly sprinted forwards, but could only watch as George’s cries were cut short by a swift kick to the temple. George fell to the side; already knocked out. Eliminator wasn’t playing around, he wanted this fight to end as quickly as possible. While still sprinting, I rolled up the file I was transporting and stuffed it into my left pocket. If I lost this fight, the information within the file would almost certainly fall into the hands of THEM. That was something a simply couldn’t let happen.
Now leaping away from George, Eliminator flung himself directly into my path; grabbing hold of my raised right arm and pinning it down as he bashed me twice in the jaw and forehead respectively. Before I could even hope to react, Eliminator tackled me to the ground; attempting to easily finish me off with a few final strikes. While dodging my head left to right, avoiding the incoming storm of fists; I briefly caught a glimpse of George’s body, still lying dormant upon the ground, a bruise already forming on his brow. This site filled me with a newfound sense of anger. I wasn’t willing to be bested again. I had to win this fight, if not for the S.S.C, then for George. Ignoring any of the pain surrounding my body; my right leg quickly bent beneath the attacker’s chest before springing forward; launching Eliminator off of me and sending the back of his head crashing into the ground as he fell. Eliminator’s eyes lit up with a similar rage as my own; his face turning red and his fists ripping out the dead grass from the dirt beneath him. I stood back up and began backing away, hoping to take the fight to the other side of the hill, where no passing cars would be able to see us. Now rising back to his feet, Eliminator shot forward in my direction; his teeth barred like a wild animal. My left fist launched itself from my side as the right remained vigil in front of my face; blocking an attempted uppercut. My strike was a success; with my fist burying itself in Eliminator’s stomach, only for the hunter to grab hold of my forearm before I could manage to pull away. Eliminator tried to twist my arm just as he had done to George, but I saw it all coming. Before my foe could even manage to rotate his wrists, my spare hand bashed him several times in the stomach before a final kick to the chest forced him to release me. There was a brief pause as Eliminator held to his gut; eyeing me from a few mere feet away. “You’ve been practicing,” he breathed. I stood tall and got back into my fighting stance; not giving him the luxury of a reply. I didn't know what it was, but I had somehow regained my fighting spirit, and Eliminator didn't seem so tough anymore. Noticing my silence, Eliminator merely growled and lunged forward, throwing a punch at my unguarded left shoulder, but I could hardly feel it. With ease, I dodged the next incoming first, grabbed it, and twisted it around; giving Eliminator a taste of his own medicine. There was a quick shout of pain from my foe as he hobbled backwards and kicked my chest with his right leg; causing me to release him. With a sudden surprising leap, Eliminator now threw himself at me. Despite my best efforts to back out of his reach, my attacker’s hands still managed to clasp around my throat. Attempting to drive him off me, I attempted a few strikes to his side, but Eliminator seemingly had me in a death-grip now; refusing to let go. With no other options left, and my lungs already stinging for air, I allowed my body to go limp; letting my full weight drag the both of us back to the ground. Eliminator released me as expected, but still attempted to grab at me as his hands slid away. Against all odds, his flailing hands managed to catch hold of the file sticking out of my pocket. My foe attempted to steal it away from me, but a swift kick to his knuckles sent the folder flying out of his hands. The two of us rose to our feet one final time, each of us now breathing heavily and growing slow in our actions. Eliminator was the first to step forward; jabbing me in the side with his right fist and then kicking at my shins with his opposite leg. I stumbled backwards for a moment, but remained standing as I delivered a powerful strike to his throat. Eliminator gagged and held onto his neck with his bright red hands. His eyes seemed droopy now and his chin was dripping blood upon his jacket. A pang of regret struck me for a moment. I hated to see an old friend wind up like this, but if Eliminator’s words were anything to go by, the real Jeff had died a long time ago. Thinking him to finally be near defeat; I barreled towards the hunter; ready to knock him to the ground. In one last-ditch effort to stop me, Eliminator also dashed my way a split second before I could strike him; planting his knee into my ribcage and knocking all the air out of me. Now dazed, I found myself in a tight headlock, with Eliminator’s left arm crossed in front of my throat, slowly tightening around me like a snake squeezing the life out of its prey. Only now did the pain set in more than ever. I was losing my focus and my absence of breath made it hard for me to think rationally. Panic began to set in again as Eliminator started squeezing tighter. My eyes briefly flashed blackness, I knew the end was approaching. Eliminator snarled from behind me; as if fully taken over by the animal within him. He was about to get everything he’d ever wanted. Money, power, and revenge. It was only a few second away; the moment that would define him for the better, and define me for the worse. My eyes slowly drifted shut and soon it seemed that only the cold gusts of air could be registered by my mind. The panting had stopped, the growling had stopped, now there was only the wind. Just as I prepared to lose the rest of these senses and return to that unforgiving darkness, a new sound met my ears. A loud crack followed by a pained shout in my right ear. Eliminator’s arm fell away from me now; releasing my body to fall upon the dead grass below. My eyes began to flicker open, just in time to see Eliminator’s body fall limply to my side. A shadowy figure stood before me now. I held on to my throbbing head and squinted through the remaining light of day, finding the figure to be none other than George; holding on to his fist in agony. With my head still lying upon the ground, my eyes trailed over to Eliminator as he clasped the back of his head as if its entirety would fall off otherwise. And then, with no more than a few whimpers and incoherent mumbles, the great hunter called Eliminator finally gave in to the impending sleep of defeat.
I could hardly stand on my own two feet, let alone walk with any amount of control. George attempted to lift me up and walk me home, but after a few mere steps, I could tell that my weight was already too much for him. As if things couldn’t get any worse, rain began to pour down from the dusty clouds overhead, turning the ground beneath us into a pasty mush while I drifted in and out of consciousness. Suddenly, there came a screeching noise from the other side of the hill. Georg’s pupils dilated and his mouth drew back into a distinct glance of terror. For a while, I felt the same way. We both sat at the opposite end of the hill, awaiting to be discovered by a THEM backup crew. My heart practically froze within my chest and my hands began to shake more and more with every passing second. George wouldn’t be able to take on all of them, and Corruption wouldn’t stay down forever. Then came four silhouettes upon the hillside. Each of them gazing down upon us as the sun set beneath the murky clouds behind them. George staggered back to his fighting stance as I attempted the same, only for a sharp throbbing in my head to send me stumbling back down into the pulp of dead grass and mud. The figures began to descend the hill as George braced for the worst and I fought to keep my eyes open. It was only when the figures reached the base of the hill that our eyes finally adjusted on their appearance. The silhouettes now began to give-way to the color of royal blue, with a diamond insignia stamped upon each of them. This was not the appearance of an enemy, but rather that of the S.S.C. We were saved. George gave a long sigh of relief and dropped down on one knee; rubbing the bruise on his forehead and laughing at the mix-up. Before long, the four troopers had taken us to a parked car positioned not far off from the field. While George and I were loaded inside, my head turned slowly to my left; spotting Eliminator as he was carried from the ground and thrown into the back of an adjacent vehicle. The rain was beading up on the glass now, making it difficult to see. Had I not been so drowsy, I might have bothered to request one last look at my old friend. Or maybe I would have written him a note or joined him in his transport to an S.S.C detention center, but I was in no position to manage such things. I found it difficult to grasp anything for a few hours following the fight, or at least what I assumed to be a few hours. My mind was a jumbled mess of mixed senses and twinges of discomfort.
When at last I became aware of myself again, I found my hands and feet dunked in an ice bath by various medical staff at one of the nicest S.S.C bases in Toparsburg. I was in a real building, with real heaters, real doors, windows, and floors. I looked around a bit longer before noticing George standing at the opposite end of the room, speaking with an elite before noticing my activeness. “Still all there?” my apprentice asked as he took a seat at my side. I couldn’t help but be reminded of how our roles were reversed the first time the two of us had fought Eliminator. “Yeah,” I replied at last; flinching as one of the medical staffers bent my arm too much. “How long have we been here?” “Only a couple hours,” George assured me. “Eliminator was taken down to a holding center. I’ve been told he’s gonna get questioned by the leader himself. We’ll be able to learn a ton from the info he gives us.” I smiled for a moment and motioned for the medical unit to release me. “You almost sound like you’re taking this seriously,” I said; drying off my hands and gazing down at my bright red and slightly torn knuckles. “Hey,” George replied. “I’m just repeating what they told me.” “That being said,” I interrupted. “It was you that took down Eliminator. That’s nothing a mere rookie could manage.” George grinned and looked at his own hand, which was now tightly bandaged and braced. “I snuck up on him,” George admitted. “I wouldn’t call that an honorable way to win.” The medical staff grabbed my right arm and began applying some rubbing alcohol to one of my scrapes, but I largely ignored the pain; still impressed by my apprentice’s quick save. “Whatever the case,” I replied. “You’ve done the both of us a lot of good. And you stopped Eliminator from making some very bad moves. I’d like to think we’ve seen the last of him… at least we can hope.” George rubbed his head and got up from his chair. "If this was our last time dealing with him,” my apprentice began. “What do you think he'll do now? After his interrogation is complete, he might just come after us again." I acknowledged George’s point, but ultimately didn’t fear such a return. “Whoever this Corruption guy is,” I answered. “I don’t think he’s gonna stand for another defeat. Eliminator sold his soul to THEM, and now he’s gonna find out that they don’t need him as much as he thought. That’s the trouble with placing all your faith in a group like THEY. One moment they’re your best friend, but once you fail them; they’re nothing short of your worst enemy. Maybe if Jeff is still alive somewhere within Eliminator’s heart, he’ll realize that what he has been doing is wrong. He may still be crazed with anger, but I’m not. Now that I've gotten him out of my life, maybe I will be more at ease. I can only pray that he’ll come to feel the same." George nodded and went back to speaking with an elite as one of the medical staffers pointed over to a pile of wet clothes lying in the corner. “Your apprentice brought a file when the two of you arrived,” she observed. “Would you like to keep it, or send it to be dried off?” I glanced over at the soaking wet folder. “Let me see it for a second,” I asked. One of the girls grabbed the file and shook some of the water off it before handing it to me. The folder was torn down its side now; a result of Eliminator’s failed attempt to yank it away from me. I sighed for a moment; realizing the papers inside were likely ruined in the water. Wanting to see the damage for myself; I slowly reached inside and ripped out the papers. I brought the documents before my eyes and my mouth abruptly shifted into a scowl. The papers were blank. Every one of them.
A New Threat
The sun had hardly the chance to peak over the horizon the next morning before I was already up and about. I wanted nothing more than to get a nice rest after my harrowing experience with Eliminator the night prior, but now there was something new nagging at my mind. It was that familiar sense of anger and betrayal I’d felt when the school turned on me. Though this was an unprecedented change of pace. I put on some boots and a thick jacket; seeing the sky already spitting rain down upon my driveway. The storm hadn’t let up for the entirety of the night, every flash of lightning and gong of thunder only served to make me angrier it seemed. Wasting no time; I bolted outside and began sprinting towards central Toparsburg. My journey was meant to take me to an abandoned shack that sat a distance away from a small wooded division, but the harsh rain and soggy ground made the traversal a battle in of itself. Tim and I had visited the location once before, but that seemed almost like a lifetime ago. After several minutes had passed, I finally came upon a congregation of S.S.C elites; each of them holding on to black umbrellas as they pointed to various portions of the field around the shack; exchanging information. Among them stood Trevor Sykes; who noticed me almost right away. Soon all the eyes of elites were drawn to me as my pace slowed down and my eyes narrowed with irritation. Not caring for what the others thought of me; I pushed my way through the elites until I came face-to-face with Trevor himself. “Something wrong?” Trevor asked; changing his posture a bit to look bigger than me. “You know damn well there’s a problem!” I shot back. Before Trevor could say anymore, I took out the classified file George and I had been tasked with delivering to the general from Blue Point. “This folder was empty!” I cried; holding harsh eye contact with Trevor as if he were nothing more than a green apprentice. “The pages were all blank! You used us as bait! You knew Eliminator would find us!” Trevor smiled a bit as some of the elites moved away to continue their chat. Others remained near us in case I tried anything too rash. “Calm down, kid,” Trevor replied. “You want the truth? Yes. I knew Eliminator would find the two of you. In fact, we practically leaked to him exactly where you’d be.” “Give me one good reason not to beat the crap out of you for endangering George and I!” I shouted back. The surrounding elites closed in on me a bit, but I didn’t care. “I think you already know why that wouldn’t be a good choice,” Trevor retorted. “You guys were hardly bait. We knew that if Eliminator struck again, the two of you would take him out. It was the only way to bring him into the light and without backup.” “And what if you were wrong?” I shot back; my fists tightening. “We had spies around the area,” Trevor explained. “If anything went too far, you can be sure that they would’ve stepped in. We’re on your side you know?” My anger was turning to confusion now. “So, all this was just a plan to capture Eliminator and to cement my place as a figurehead of the S.S.C?” I scolded. “Has it occurred to you that maybe I don’t want to be the guy everyone looks up to? Do you have any idea what kind of burden that is?” Trevor briefly considered my point but ultimately shrugged his shoulders. “Actions speak louder than words,” he lectured now as if he were my master. “And the fact is that no matter what you say or think, you’re still a damn good fighter, Brett.” Trevor stopped for a moment to look at his watch and then gaze back at the elites in the distance. “I have to get back to work,” he stated. “If I can put your mind at ease, just know that you won’t have all the burden of the S.S.C upon your shoulders for much longer.” My frustration clouded my mind from making a comeback, so instead I could do nothing but watch him walk away as all but one of the remaining elites followed behind him. The final elite was the same one George and I had met when we’d visited Trevor at the S.S.C training base. “Look,” he said; putting a hand on my shoulder. “I wasn’t a fan of our little trick either, but at the end of the day, we’re still standing here as champions instead of losers.” I merely pulled my shoulder away from his grasp and shook my head. “What did Trevor mean?” I demanded. “About how the burden wouldn’t be mine for much longer?” The elite smiled and gestured back over to Trevor and the others as they continued to survey the property. “Trevor is the next in line to hold the title of ‘Mask’,” he breathed. I raised an eyebrow at the remark. The title seemed familiar to me. I believe Tim had mentioned it at one point, but never made a big deal out of it. “What does it entail?” I now questioned. “’Mask’ is a title that’s been passed down through the S.S.C for ages,” the elite revealed. “It’s considered a mantle held only by the most distinguished elites of the S.S.C. A role that requires the individual to dawn a mask that hides their identity. They become a symbol amongst the Fighters. Trevor is gonna be accepting the role in a few days. So, I guess that’s why he’s not afraid to get his hands a little dirty in order to bring some new victories our way. He’ll be the fifteenth Mask of Toparsburg… which is the only district that even uses it as a title.” “My master didn’t speak highly of the Masks,” I replied; venting some of my frustration. The mentioning of Tim seemed to startle the elite a bit. He looked around a brief moment before leaning in for a whisper. “Listen man,” he murmured. “Best not to bring up your master around the elites. To a lot of them, he’s the reason we’re struggling so much in this war.” “What are you talking about?” I rebuked; my anger growing again. The elite was already taking steps away from me now, as if I had the plague. “Gotta go, man,” he dismissed. And with that, I was alone in the rain once more.
A few weeks went by before any common S.S.C troopers were told of the information Eliminator divulged while captured. Even then, most of the purely confidential aspects were still covered up. I didn’t care for most of the news anyways, my mind only lingered on what became of Eliminator afterwards. The S.S.C knew he didn’t have a family waiting for him, so they wouldn’t have to abide by any holding rules. Thankfully, after asking around a bit, I was told that he had been released on the basis that he’d leave Toparsburg entirely. Apparently, he didn’t refuse. I think he was well-aware that THEM wasn’t holding out for him to return, and that an attempt at a second round with me would only lead to more pointless violence. Despite my relief at his departure, a part of my heart couldn’t help but sink at the loss of yet another old friend. These days, Tye was often too busy running track to hang out with me; leaving George as really the only person I’d be able to talk to. I was advised by other masters that becoming close friends with your apprentices was a bad idea, as it could tend to make the training softer, but I didn’t attach much credence to these warnings. As I saw it, George was getting stronger every day, both thanks to his personal workouts and occasional spars with me. I had no doubt that soon enough he would be ready to take on any enemy; both attacker or THEM. I ultimately decided against telling him about Trevor’s fake delivery mission. It’d make for an unnecessary distraction to his training. Thinking about Trevor only served to remind me of the cautionary words of the other elite. Did the higherups of the Fighters really think so lowly of Tim that the mere mention of his name would drive them to anger? I had always suspected such a thing could be the case, but it was never outright confirmed to me. The more I thought about it, the more I began to understand why they might feel that way. Tim had left us like a thief in the night, with almost nobody knowing the true specifics of his leaving. He left behind no clear successor to lead the Fighters, no list of tactics to trump THEM, and certainly no apologies. Since I wasn’t a high-ranking member, I suppose it didn’t bother me much. Nobody knew Tim as well as I did, and I was quite certain that he wouldn’t have left unless the situation was of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, I was alone in this belief. It irritated me that the S.S.C could once look up to somebody so much, only to cast them to the side when they failed to appease the Fighter’s needs. In some dark corner of my mind, I wondered if my fate was destined to turn out the same. Trevor was already deemed ‘Mask 15’ at this point, and much of the S.S.C’s attention and respect flowed around him and his various endeavors now. These were all the thoughts flowing through my head as I walked down the school hallway, only to bump into a large figure blocking my path. At first I thought it to be no more than an accident and tried to circle around the muscular student, only for his large, meaty hand to hang tightly to my shoulder and prevent me from continuing. I sighed and tossed my thoughts away. My immediate thought was that I had just ran into a new trap placed by the elusive Corruption, but as soon as I focused on the behemoth’s face, I knew exactly who I was dealing with. "Jack," I recalled; thinking back to our encounter such a long time ago when he was picking on Random Kid. "What do you think you’re doing?" Jack sneered at my remark and drew his hand away while students around us began to sense a fight brewing. Most of them either scattered away, or hung around to watch from afar. "I think you know exactly what I’m doing," he responded. "You humiliated me in front of everyone at this school! My girlfriend left me after your little stunt! I became a laughingstock among kids! Even THEM wouldn't accept me!" I just chuckled. "Oh yeah,” I responded; trying to make him angry. “That was funny. So, let me guess; you’ve spent the time since then, working out day and night just to beat me up? Cause you think that will solve your problems?" Jack's face became red, but out of rage rather than embarrassment. “I'm more than capable of wiping the floor with you, asshole!” he shouted. I merely backed up a few paces and removed my backpack; not showing a single hint of fear. Jack did look much bigger, but this changed nothing for me. He was still the same mindless bully that not even THEM showed any interest in. Just before Jack could utter another word, a female teacher stormed into the hall; shooing away any onlookers at the scene. "What's going on here?" she reprimanded. Neither of us gave a response, I doubt Jack even heard her. He was much too filled with rage to think this through. So, I decided to do the thinking for him. "You really want to do this here?" I whispered to the brute as the instructor grew closer. "She'd really spoil your moment before things could get to good." Jack’s eyes quickly loosened up and his scowl faded back into a smile. "Nothing!" he yelled back to the teacher; putting on his backpack and turning the other way. The instructor hesitantly looked up at a wall clock and hurried back to her classroom before the bell sounded. Jack looked back at me now; smiling broadly like the lunatic he was. “If I were you,” he threatened. “I’d watch my back.” I smiled and waved him goodbye.
It was a Saturday evening when George came over to my house for some training. Ever since our victory over Eliminator, he seemed determined to make me realize he was getting stronger and far more prepared to start going on his own missions. In the old days of our sparring, it’ be quite easy for me to anticipate what moves George was going to use, simply because I taught him all of them. But now, since he started working out on his own more often, my ability to foresee his maneuvers was growing increasingly stunted. I had no idea what he had in store for me. After a while of warming up, George put on some padded gloves and faced me; ready to start. “People around school were saying that you had a little run-in with Jack,” George commented as he got into his stance. “You really wanna hold a conversation while we do this?” I questioned. George thought for a moment before finally shaking his head; knowing it wasn’t a good idea. Before I could get another word in, George leaped in my direction; attempting to tackle me to the ground, only for me to easily back out of the way. Moving quickly; I circled around George as he tried to rise to his feet; wrapping my forearm around his neck while holding his head in place with my spare arm. George struggled to stand the rest of the way, but I wouldn’t let him. George’s body and head went limp for a moment and just when I thought I had won, my apprentice suddenly sprang back to life; using his free arm to elbow me in my side. This motion caught me off guard and caused my grip to considerably loosen. Wasting no time; George broke free of my headlock, spun around, grabbed hold of my arm, and lightly twisted it; attempting to bring me to my knees with the increasing pain. Unfortunately for George, he simply couldn’t find it in him to carry out such a slow means of attack on a friend. As such; seeing my window of opportunity to win this battle, I slowly began to bend my knees; pretending to be weakened by the twist. George didn’t even have a chance to react as I suddenly used this bent leverage to launch myself into him; body-slamming my apprentice onto the ground. George fought under my weight for a while, but ultimately found me taking hold of both his arms and pinning them down while keeping my knee weighed down upon his legs. We remained like that for a few seconds before I finally released him; indicating the match had come to an end. George didn’t rise to his feet alongside me; instead remaining upon the ground. I looked down at his face; finding him to be scowling as he ripped some of the grass up from the earth beneath him in frustration. It was off-putting to see him so serious for once. “How could I have lost even sooner?” George shouted; upset with himself more than he was with me. “It’s nothing to be angry about,” I replied; helping him to his feet. “You tried out some new moves today. You couldn’t have known how they’d work on a real person until you actually gave it a try. You’ve been working on your own long enough for me to know you have more up your sleeves than just that. It’s all about finding the right combination of attacks. Add in the right levels of speed and strength, and you’ll eventually crack the code when it comes to beating me.” George’s face relaxed a bit as he sat against a tree to breathe a bit; rubbing the pain out of his right arm. “Yes sir,” he replied. “So, about this Jack problem… you think I can take him on?” I paused at the question. I knew how much something like this would mean to George, but I simply couldn’t allow for it. “I’m sorry,” I replied; George immediately rolling his eyes at my statement. “Jack is out for revenge. If you fight him and take him down, it’s not gonna matter. He wants to face me.” “Alright,” George replied after a while; dismissing any more talk on the matter. “I guess that makes sense… I’m just glad people are starting to speak to me a bit more now that Eliminator is gone.” I slowly nodded in agreement, but in truth, I was still being avoided by plenty of individuals who still hated my guts for opposing those kids in the hall. “Random Kid is still trying to get some mileage out of our original defeat,” George continued. “I’m not sure why he’s so obsessed over that. He really won’t let it go, those who follow him closely don’t seem to be letting up either.” I wanted to tell George to turn the other cheek when it came to the words of R.K. and his followers, but ultimately I found myself equally annoyed by these actions. “We’ll give it some more time,” I replied at last. “But eventually… maybe we’ll have a word with him.”
With the day growing late and both George and I quite tired from our long day of training, I allowed him to stay the night at my house. While I had initially wanted to get plenty of sleep so we could train early on Sunday, George seemed to be more interested in playing some of my various games or watching movies. On any other occasion, I probably would have denied his requests to remain active, but I felt like I owed it to my apprentice to have some fun from time to time. We didn’t always have to be soldiers. And so, the next several hours of that day were largely spent on various activities of cards, table tennis, and video games. It was around three in the morning when it seemed that we’d finally exhausted all our remaining energy. I went to my room and removed a spare blanket and pillow for George while he waited downstairs; already drifting in and out of consciousness – or so I had thought. In actuality; upon returning to the living room with the various sheets, I found George standing over by my computer table, looking at a photograph he’d pulled from a bottom drawer. “Hey!” I exclaimed; snatching the photo from his grasp. “Don’t you know it’s rude to look through other people’s stuff?” George smiled weakly and closed the drawer. “Who’s the other guy in that picture?” he now asked me. I looked down at the small slip of paper within my hands; finding a faded image of Tim and I standing out in front of an old S.S.C warehouse that stood just south of central Toparsburg. Looking at the picture filled me with a great sense of nostalgia. My mind began to drift back to the same day the photo had been taken. Tim and I had just finished a sparring session very similar to the one George and I had just participated in a few hours prior. Tim had bested me without breaking a sweat. I recalled being incredibly frustrated, but still not showing the slightest bit of these feelings on the outside. Instead I was nothing but smiles as an S.S.C trooper snapped a photo of us; presumably for his own usage in an S.S.C documentation booklet. I’d nearly forgotten about that day, and my memory of how I’d even obtained this photograph afterwards was the haziest factor of all. Still, I couldn’t help but smile at the memories; no matter how cloudy. “It’s Tim, isn’t it?” George wagered. “I think you’ve shown me pictures before, but I always forget.” “Yeah,” I replied; placing the picture on top of the desk. “He was the pinnacle at which every S.S.C soldier should have strived to be. Not only in strength, but in caring for the Fighter’s cause. Nobody believed in the S.S.C more than him.” George nodded at my remarks. “I wish I could’ve met him,” he murmured. “I’m sure he would’ve loved to meet you as well,” I replied honestly; tossing George a pillow. “But right now, you’re stuck with me.” George took his sheets and made a place for himself on the couch. “You’re not gonna vanish on me one day, are you?” George mused before I could leave. “I’d end up getting eaten up alive without having orders to follow.” “Don’t sell yourself short,” I replied. “You’re about as strong as Machine was when I took him down. Probably even stronger. You’d get along just fine without me. That being said, don’t worry; I’m not going anywhere… except to sleep.”
About an hour passed by following my conversation with George. Despite him being on the first floor and me being upon the second; I swore I could still hear him snoring. However, it wasn’t George’s wheezing that kept me from falling asleep. It was something else. Perhaps a part of my restlessness had come from the reemergence of that long-forgotten photograph, but it felt as if there was more to it than that. In some hazy corner of my mind; I couldn’t help but feel a sense of trepidation. In many ways, it reminded me of the mind-clearing sensation Tim had taught me, but try as I might; I couldn’t manage to clear my head enough to get a sharper picture of what was bothering my subconscious so very much. And so, for the next several minutes I remained lying in bed; staring out my window. Just as I tried to force my eyes shut, the faintest sounds of footsteps came to meet my ears. My entire body shot upwards; launching my blanket off me as I rolled off the mattress and planted my ear against my window. Sure enough, the footsteps persisted; though now even more quiet than before. I almost believed myself to be dreaming, experiencing some sort of nightmare, but this seemed all too real at this point. My heart began to race and my hands shook slightly as I dashed away from my window and ran downstairs. The only other person in the house was George; as my parents had still not returned home; hardly a surprise. Now entering the living room; I quickly switched on the lights and shook my apprentice awake. Only now did I truly understand that this would be a sleepless night.
The last thing I wanted was to freak George out or make him think I was getting paranoid. So, to cover my fear a bit, I chose to play the whole situation off as if the entire thing were part of some mission. "How is staying up all night a training method?" asked George as he rubbed his eyes. "It... makes you more alert," I lied. George didn’t argue my point and before he could think over the situation any further, I began to fetch some snacks and set the ping pong table up again. The minutes felt like hours now and I hated every moment of it. Once or twice, we thought we heard a noise from outside. "It's just the wind," I assured George on the third occasion, though these lies were meant more to quell my own mounting fear. “The wind sure does sound like footsteps,” George replied; slowly becoming more aware of himself. “You sure you woke me up just as a test?” We stopped playing ping pong for a moment so I could listen a bit closer. When no more outside noise occurred, I slowly walked into the kitchen and looked out one of the windows; into the dense emptiness of the night. I kept one eye on George, making sure he didn’t try something stupid like sneak outside on his own. As I stared out the window a bit longer, the corner of my eye suddenly witnessed George’s body as it jolted upwards and swung around to face the back door. His motion nearly gave me a heart attack and I was no longer afraid to let him know it. "Why did you do that?" I whispered frantically. "Didn't you hear it?" George shot back. "The door just creaked!" I carefully advanced to the back door, finding it slightly ajar. "Didn't I tell you to lock this door?" I scolded. "I thought you did it!" retorted George; advancing to the door along with me. My apprentice gave a long sigh and put his hand on the knob; ready to open the door and step outside. “Don’t be an idiot,” I hissed. “Stay in here. It really might be nothing.” “Well neither of us are gonna get any sleep if we keep hiding from nothing,” George replied. “Seriously, just watch my back as I step outside for a while, look around, and hopefully give the all-clear. I thought about continuing my rejections, but ultimately decided that my apprentice was right. We were both exhausted and the last thing we needed to deal with right now was baseless sleep deprivation. “Fine,” I replied at last. “Make it quick. George nodded and we slowly opened the back door; allowing the bitterly cold air to seep inside. George crossed his arms around himself for warmth and stepped out into the night. My mind didn’t know what to think of our situation and soon I found myself nervously tapping on the doorframe, counting every second that passed. George was wearing a black shirt and thus was difficult to pinpoint amongst the darkness. “Don’t go too far,” I called. “I can’t see you.” My heart suddenly stopped as no reply reached back to me. “George?” I shouted; beginning to step outside. “Don’t play games. Where are you?” My only response was that of a frigid breeze. “Damn it,” I said to myself. I was now regretting the choice to wear my bright red sweatshirt. If there was someone out here, they’d likely see me before I could see them. Trying to keep my wits about me, I backed up against the side of my house and slowly crept to my right. Nobody could even hope to sneak up on me now. Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. “Stop hiding!” I yelled into the night. “I know you’re out there!” The sound of a snapping branch emanated from several feet in front of me now. My fear was beginning to mix with anger at this point. If George really was messing with me like this, then I wasn’t gonna hold back and let him continue any more. I feigned turning around so that I was facing the opposite direction. Immediately the familiar footsteps from before began to advance. The paces lasted only a fraction of a second as I swiftly turned back around and jumped forward into the nothingness; tackling a previously unseen figure to the ground. Almost immediately I realized this to not be George, for the figure was much too big. With my eyes still not fully adjusted to seeing in the dark, I could do nothing but flail mindlessly at the figure beneath me; striking one fist at his chest but landing the next throw on solid ground. My stalker wasted no time grabbing me by my wrists and using his superior strength to throw me off. I stood back up and got into a fighting stance as my eyes were able to just barely spot the opposing attacker rising to his feet as well. Although I couldn’t distinguish a face, there was something about the way he stood that seemed familiar to me. His stance was not that of a fighter, but rather that of someone inexperienced and trying to look even bigger than they already were. Finally, I understood. “Jack,” I breathed. “Now this is a shame,” Jack’s voice replied as he began to circle me. “I was really hoping to get this over with nice and quick before you realized it was me. Oh well. That look of fear in your eyes and the sound of terror in your voice was prize enough… but I’m still gonna beat you to a pulp.” “It was scarier before I knew it was you,” I shot back. “If you really think you’re any threat to me, then you’re kidding yourself. Where’s George?” “Your apprentice seems to have a knack for getting taken out early in a fight,” Jack replied. “Though the last thing I want is for him to wake up and spoil this moment like he did when you took down that Eliminator guy… so ya know what… I think it’s time for a change of tactics.” I nearly leapt at Jack again, but I didn’t want to risk falling into a trap of some kind. Jack had grown crazy enough that he may have tried to bring a knife to a fistfight, just like Machine did. “What are you talking about?” I responded; my eyes finally able to see Jack’s smiling face. “You took away the only thing that mattered to me,” Jack replied; referring to his old girlfriend. “So now I’m gonna hurt somebody you care about.” “Good luck,” I retorted; buying myself a bit of time so I could see better, and also hoping for George to wake up from whatever knockout Jack had brought on him. “I don’t have anyone close to me. In case you haven’t noticed, the whole school kinda hates my guts.” “That’s not entirely true,” Jack pointed out. “I’ve seen you with at least one other person… that friend of yours… Tye wasn’t it?” My fists tightened and my face began to burn with a familiar anger. “Yup!” Jack continued; snapping his fingers. “That’s the guy! An old buddy of mine used to go to his house… I’d bet I can remember the address.” “Whatever you plan on doing to Tye,” I responded. “You can be sure I’ll make it twice as bad when I take you down.” “Now you’re talking!” Jack replied. “Time you start acting more like a fighter and less like a baby afraid of a few footsteps. However, actions do speak louder than words… don’t they?” Throughout the whole of this conversation, Jack had been slightly backing up while circling me, and now I fully grasped as to why. For now - displaying speed that I couldn’t have ever begun to anticipate, my attacker fled my backyard and dashed out into the streets. I wasted no time chasing after him. This battle wasn’t about me anymore. Now an innocent was getting involved. I refused to let that continue.
I ran faster that night than any other in my life. I could hear Jack’s heavy breathing as he darted through various yards and patches of tall grass in any attempt to throw me off his trail. One of us had to submit to exhaustion eventually, and I wasn’t about to be the first. Eventually we both left my district of houses and entered some more open territory where it was more difficult for Jack to try and lose me. The school would be fast-approaching now, with yet another long stretch of land between that and Tye’s neighborhood. "You're insane!" I called out to Jack as he used the last of his energy to speed up a few feet. "Tye's parents will be home! You're going to get yourself killed!" "Does it look like I care what happens to me anymore?" Jack called back; a hint of regret in his voice. We were passing the school now and entering a bumpy terrain with various, unforgiving hills. We both managed to cross the first several meters of this property without too much difficulty, but by the time the hills became more concentrated and the grass – more unkempt, we were soon both wheezing for oxygen; only receiving that of the chilly winter air washing down into our lungs. Jack’s speed decreased significantly as he hobbled over one of the final mounds. My ascension was just about equally slow; truly it seemed as if we were matched when it came to speed. When I at last reached the peak of this hill; I noted Jack racing near the remnants of a mostly dried-up creek; lined with a variety of jagged rocks. If these stones didn’t slow Jack down, then surely the freezing water would; he couldn’t risk running around it. If there was ever a time to use the rest of my strength; it was now. And so, using the downward sloping hill to my advantage, I broke into a final sprint; ignoring the mounting taring pain in my side and weakness of my forearms. My sprint advanced into strides so unbridled that I nearly became airborne upon hitting various bumps. I cleared my head of these minor distractions as best as I could. My breathing became an odd combination of erratic, yet with a certain pattern to it all. Every quick inhale and exhale served to saturate my entire body to the cold and better ignore its outside presence. There was no more thinking. No more acknowledgement of pain. No more holding back. Jack dashed into the bed of the stream; bending one of his ankles uncomfortably on a rock, with his other foot splashing powerfully into the frigid water; splashing it up his pantleg. Unlike that of my opponent, it seemed that my speed didn’t budge for an instant. Before Jack could even bother clearing the reach of the stream, I used the rest of my power to leap at him; tackling him to the other side with hardly any water getting on me. Jack tried to smile through his pain and make a remark, but I didn’t give him the time of day; merely punching him square in the face. Blood dripped from my opponent’s nose now. He truly must have understood at this moment that I meant business. My exhaustion was beginning to resurface as my lungs felt as if they’d turn inside out. Jack used my brief pause of recuperation to jab me in the throat; briefly dispelling more air from entering my system. I froze up and began choking while Jack kept a slight distance; his hand lingering by his left side. He was obviously feeling a similar strain as me after the intense chase. I couldn’t risk pausing for any longer. Now seizing the moment, I delivered a sharp kick to his pained side. Jack kept his balance, but cried out in pain. My foe lunged forward; directing his hatred towards me with an attempted uppercut. I barely managed to avoid the strike; grabbing his outstretched arm and holding it in place as I popped him twice more in the jaw. The beast finally fell; beginning to succumb to all the pain circulating through his body. For a brief moment, it seemed as if he might throw up or cry. I couldn’t help but almost feel sorry for him. He went through such lengths to get back at me, only to wind up just as we’d started back at school. Jack wiped more blood from his nose and struggled to balance himself on his knees. I stood before him; allowing him the opportunity to apologize for all the trouble he was willing to cause. Jack stared at the blood on his knuckles; which had already frozen up considerably; making the broken skin look far worse. I nearly spoke to him, but decided against it. He needed to reach the conclusion of forgiveness on his own. Unfortunately, my foe seemed to have other thoughts in mind. Jack suddenly shouted a final cry of attack; springing back up and wrapping his hands around my throat. "I'm done playing games!" Jack shouted; his eyes burning with unparalleled hatred and his arms shaking with adrenaline. “You hear me? I’m done!” I tried to yell for some kind of help, but no words or air could seem to escape from Jack’s death grip. Just as my head began to throb and my arms started to become numb, some bit of life within me just barely managed to resurface. My foot shot out from below; nailing Jack harshly in the stomach. The giant gave a heavy whimper; losing his grip on me and falling back down to the ground as he held to his gut. At first, I wasn’t certain if he was faking his pain or not, but soon he began to gag in the cold air; finally spilling out the contents of his stomach upon the dirt around him. I felt at my throat and backed away. The more my head cleared and the discomfort of the chase and fight washed over me, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of anger again. I had won the fight, but hardly felt sated by it. Jack wasn’t a trained fighter. He never should have brought about this much trouble to begin with. The thought of Tim rushed back into my head for a second. He wouldn’t want me feeling this way. I was above something as simplistic as revenge. At the end of the day, I needed to be the bigger man and walk away. No more witty remarks or petty threats. It was over now and that was that. And so, I left him.
A couple days following Jack’s defeat, I was scheduled to meet with a few high-ranking soldiers at the warehouse base of operations. On my way there, while passing through a training area, several young recruits stopped to salute me and exchange a few words of admiration for another one of my victories. The words felt empty to me though, I couldn’t quite pinpoint why. I had initially attempted to take the best measures at keeping Jack’s failed revenge attack a secret, but the S.S.C still figured it out somehow and wanted to see me about it. Though I was well aware of the fact that there must have been more to this meeting than met the eye. What Jack tried to do was crazy, but certainly not strange enough for the S.S.C to take interest unless there was more at stake. George met me at the front door of the warehouse and we were both escorted to a large backroom that was usually reserved for significant leaders. “I could get used to this,” George whispered to me as we took a seat. “Are you two feeling alright?” asked an older elite as he entered the room with is comrades. He passed George and I some cold bottles of water while George merely pointed to his busted lip and black eye. “I got the worst of it,” he admitted. “That’s what I get for letting my guard down.” A couple other elites entered the room; one of them the second-in-command of all S.S.C fighting operations. Now I knew this meeting was serious. At his side stood a tall figure cloaked in black garb. His form was made more imposing by a football vest beneath his primary shirt; stretching out his shoulder and chest width. His elbows and knees were strapped with high-quality padding; which had clearly seen a fair amount of action. His shoes were those of runner’s cleats and the knuckles of his gloves were lined with a thick rubber; allowing for unbelievably harsh punches. This super soldier’s final attribute was the mask; a simple black cloth tied tightly around the jaw and wrapping around into a large knot towards the back. Only the soldier’s eyes were visible; appearing as cold black orbs with a downtrodden brow and several small cuts upon the forehead. George looked at the soldier as if he was something of a ghost or mythological beast, but I was all too aware of who’s face existed beneath that cloth. It was none other than Trevor Sykes; the elite who had set George and I up on that fateful battle with Eliminator. His nonstop work as Mask 15 had made it so we hadn’t crossed paths since I’d confronted him that rainy morning following Eliminator’s defeat. I certainly didn’t mind the absence though. I didn’t hate Trevor, but sometimes I liked to imagine the idea of giving away his identity to the younger S.S.C soldiers who were so easily manipulated by looking up to his figure. The existence of a ‘Mask’ felt manipulative to me. As if the S.S.C decided that recruits had to look up to someone specific, rather than looking up to those around them. The incredibly minute amount of respect I had left in Trevor was all which prompted me to keep his true identity from others such as George. The second-in-command approached the two of us and shook our hands. George seemed honored by the gesture. “This Jack fellow has caused quite a bit of trouble,” the elite went on to say. “The S.S.C will be sure to keep a close eye on him… assuming he even bothers coming to school any time soon. Which I doubt after your encounter.” “It’s fine,” I replied; brushing off the comment. “He’s just a pest. No ties to THEM. He claimed they wouldn’t let him join.” “I’d imagine that THEM knew exactly what they were doing when they made that call,” an elite responded. “They knew he’d go after you regardless. And the last thing THEM wants is for yet another one of their soldiers to lose to you. You can be sure that they’re breathing a sigh of relief right about now at the bullet they managed to dodge by not bringing him in.” “If you don’t mind me asking,” George butted in. “Is there any news on Corruption? Or is that why you brought us here?” I mentally thanked George for trying to push them to reach their main point of this meeting. “Yes,” the second-in-command replied as he grabbed a folder from Mask’s hands. “We received a note several days ago. It was apparently written by Corruption himself. The message speaks primarily of more threats towards the S.S.C as a whole, but there is one section that involves Brett. We originally didn’t want to bother you with this information until we knew more, but once we heard you’d been attacked, it sort of woke us up a bit.” I merely nodded as the second-in-command plucked a paper from the file and began to read one of the excerpts. “As for Brett Blakley,” he began. “Your champion runs on thinner ice each and every day. I have countless soldiers at my whim, who are more than ready to bring he and his legacy crashing down. I’d advice not putting so much hope into this boy. Your reliance on his image will only serve to bring about greater disappointment when his final loss occurs. And believe me; it will occur.” “Not very comforting,” George responded as the paper was brought before me so I could analyze it myself. “THEM wouldn’t dare to send multiple soldiers after you,” one of the elites assured the two of us. “They wouldn’t consider that a fair fight. If they truly want to take you down, it will be a one-on-one match. That’s a fact.” “If you’re at all concerned about getting ambushed,” the second-in-command stated. “I’d be more than willing to allow for Mask to serve as your temporary bodyguard.” This statement allowed me to smile for a moment; realizing that despite all of Mask’s influence; he was still a puppet to people of greater power. I wondered if the position was everything Trevor had hoped for. Mask’s eyes narrowed at me; as if he was reading my every thought. “It won’t be necessary,” I said at last. “If THEM wants to direct this much attention towards me, then I suppose that makes for less attention pointed towards the rest of you. I’ll handle myself.” The elites looked at each other for a while and ultimately nodded in agreement. “One of our departments sent you a letter in the mail detailing some small bits of info we have on Corruption,” an elite said as others began to rise from the table; ready to leave. “Look out for that… and look out for yourself. I know you might not think of yourself as a hero, but the S.S.C sees you differently.” His words made my jaw clench. “It’s a shame they see Tim differently too,” I replied under my breath. George shot me an uncomfortable glance as the elites all looked at each other; none of them wanting to reply. “Let’s be honest,” I continued. “You all hate Tim’s guts because he did something that didn’t directly benefit the Fighters. None of you seem to understand that his disappearance was more than simple abandonment.” George; sensing the growing tension; rose from the table and left. The second-in-command and Mask followed behind him, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t sure where these sudden feelings of anger were coming from. Perhaps they were remnants of my frustration with Jack, but nevertheless I wasn’t afraid to let them know what I thought. “As much as I hate to admit it,” I continued. “Corruption is absolutely right about one thing. If you keep raising me up as some sort of shining example of the S.S.C and its values; then you’re bound to end up disappointed!” “Your opinion is understood,” an elite interjected; likely wishing to cut me off before I said anything I’d regret. “But surely you can understand that your popularity exists more within THEM than it does around here. THEM has made you into a figurehead – not us. They’re using you as someone to direct their hatred onto.” “I can understand that,” I replied; rising from the table and preparing to leave. “I just worry as to what’ll happen when the S.S.C starts directing it’s hate at me as well. The problem with trying to make everybody happy all of the time, is that nobody ends up sated any of the time.”
“You just can’t seem to get along with the guys,” George observed as we walked home from school. “They didn’t even bring up Tim!” “I know,” I responded flatly. “But I see where this is going. Don’t let the big bases and large territory fool you; the S.S.C is hardly one forth of its original size, back when I joined. Mask and I aren’t gonna be able to turn enough heads to save it.” “You’re saying the S.S.C is a lost cause?” George asked; sounding exceptionally worried at the prospect. “I… don’t know,” was all I could respond with. “It’d help if the school treated us with more respect. Maybe then I could actually talk to people again.” “There’s a rumor now that you’re scared to fight Corruption,” George relented. I bit my tongue and let him continue. “I tried telling people that we didn’t even know who the guy was, but that didn’t do much.” “Don’t even bother,” I responded sourly. I nearly said more, but my heart was beginning to sink. Everything was really beginning to feel like an uphill battle. As we approached my front yard, George suddenly brightened up with a sudden idea. “I know what’ll help!” he remarked. “How’s about some practice fighting? I’ve worked on some new moves and feel that I’m ready to win for once!” There was a short pause. “Yeah, okay," I replied. "You know that if you hit me hard enough, maybe the amnesia will prevent me from remembering any of this mess." George merely laughed while removing his backpack and getting into a new fighting stance. “I wouldn’t count on that.” He replied. I slipped off my pack as well and faced him. George wasted no time putting his superior jumping skills to work; launching across the yard and nailing me in the chest. I fell to the ground almost instantaneously; the wind completely knocked from my lungs. George landed without breaking form in the slightest. I couldn’t help but look at him in surprise. “Jump attacks are pretty risky!” I noted; buying some time for the air to fill my chest again. “How’d you master that?” “Because I'm awesome,” George boasted with a cheesy grin across his face. “Right,” I responded quickly; using the brief pause to roll beneath him, grab his feet, and tug him down to the ground along with me. George; now slightly panicked; rolled to his left; forcing me to release his ankles. There was something different about George during this fight. Almost as if the core of his very fighting style had slightly shifted. Not so much that it could be noticed by an onlooker, but just enough to make a huge difference in a battle. It felt as if I were sparing with a real trooper now, not just an apprentice. We both stood back up, with me trying to back away and put some distance between us. My move was in vain however, with George hurling himself into the air again for yet another kick. Unfortunately, he misjudged my distance and just as his arc began to droop I was able to move to my right and stick out my arm in front of him; successfully clotheslining my apprentice before he even knew what was happening. George promptly lost his balance and fell backwards onto the lawn; with me easily keeping him down with my knee. I’d won again. “Using the same move so soon was your downfall,” I explained to George; still holding him down while he glared. “I was able to anticipate it pretty easily.” There was a short pause as I nearly removed my knee from George’s chest, until his eyes suddenly lit up once more. “Anticipate this!” he shouted. Without breaking a sweat, George’s hands bolted away from his side and latched onto my collar; yanking me downwards while simultaneously lifting his head. Soon I found my face in direct contact with his scalp as he delivered a powerful and completely unexpected headbutt. The force of the strike left me just dazed enough for George to push me off of him. Instinctively; I rose to standing position, guarded my face, and tried moving backwards. However, as my foggy vision began to clear, I found myself bumping into George; who was already standing behind me; anticipating my space-making maneuver. Now in complete and utter shock; I could do nothing as George wrapped his arm around my throat while simultaneously constricting my arms down by my side with a second grip across my torso. I desperately tried moving for a moment, but my apprentice’s hold was inescapable. I’d turned to stone. George; perhaps thinking I was upset by the headbutt – released me. We both stood for a few seconds; neither of us quite sure what to say. Finally, a few words came to me. “George,” I began. “You’re ready.”
In the S.S.C, many masters subscribed to the belief that once your apprentice was able to best you in a fight and additionally show advancing skill in terms of technique and knowledge, then they were prepared to become a master themselves and truly take on any attacker or THEM threat that they saw fit. I knew George was well aware of this fact, but in a strange way I hoped he wouldn’t mention it. I’d known George for nearly a full year now. And with the substantial amount of time we spent practicing or just chatting; it felt more like three years. We were close friends and I disliked the idea of letting him run off on his own. I was also not entirely convinced that George could hold his own against above average foes. His victory over me stemmed from mere overconfidence on my part. And while plenty of enemies also displayed such a trait, the threat of Corruption and his top tier soldiers attacking George to get to me was a very real threat. And so, bearing all this in mind, I chose to keep George as my apprentice, but allow for him to deal with the occasional attacker; so long as I was in the vicinity or warned ahead of time. George seemed admittedly disappointed at the lack of freedom, but even he could respect the fact that I wanted to keep him safe from anything Corruption could throw at us. Together, George and I truly could be an unstoppable team, but apart, things could go wrong very fast. Two days later, when the school day let out, George noted a smaller kid – likely one of the third grade, being pushed around by boys of our age. The distance between us made it impossible to hear what was being said, but George and I could easily recognize petty bullying when we saw it. Pure muscle memory provoked me to nearly step forward and begin talking to the two, but George was fast to step in my way and remind me of his new rights. I offered no protest and was soon left to sit at a distant bench and discreetly watch as George approached the kids from across the courtyard. A few words were exchanged, with the third grader standing back; too afraid to run from the scene. Suddenly, one of the two older boys grabbed George by the front of his shirt; attempting to pull him closer and exchange threats. George; not willing to put up with this; sent an unforeseen uppercut to the attacker’s jaw; immediately releasing him from the grip. As the other boy backed up; unsure of what to do, George proceeded to kick his original opponent to the ground and deliver a final strike to the head. The third grader immediately fled from the area as George spun around to deal with the second boy. At first this new opponent stood his ground; puffing out his chest a bit, in order to appear bigger. However, George was not fazed by this motion in the slightest; merely speaking a few more words to the boy. After a brief few seconds of tension, the attacker submitted to defeat and shrunk away from my apprentice; instead choosing to approach his downed friend and check his status. George briefly glanced my way; a small grin on his face. I smiled too. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one watching George during the majority of his first true fight, as soon a few other apprentices walked his way and began chatting with him. I nearly brought myself to stand from the bench, when a sudden figure sat beside me. I looked to my right; finding an older boy than myself. He dawned a black hood; speckled with dark red threads throughout it. He really didn’t stand out by any means, as nearly everyone in the courtyard was also wearing hoods to shield themselves from the light flecks of snow raining down from above. A dark gray scarf remained wrapped about the lower section of his face; giving off a similar vibe to that of Mask. However, there was something more profoundly different about this individual. Something imposing and off. My mysterious guest didn’t bother looking at me, instead choosing to observe the school for some time. “Do I know you?” I found myself saying. There was a short pause as the cloaked figure continued to stare off. “Not necessarily,” the visitor replied at last; speaking in a far deeper voice than that of anyone I was familiar with. “But I know everything about you.”
Tension only mounted as my gaze shifted back over to George, who was now busying himself talking to the kid he rescued along with some more apprentices. “Who are you?” I breathed; not looking in my guest’s direction. “I think you might have an idea,” the figure replied. I stuffed my hands into my pockets and thought for a moment. There was a name drifting around my head, but I wouldn’t dare speak it aloud. Somehow, some way, I knew I was in the presence of Corruption. “We need to talk, Brett,” the deep voice persisted. “About you and your place within the Fighters.” “I have nothing to say to you,” I shot back. “If you’re looking to pick a fight, I’d wait till there’s less people around. The S.S.C is surrounding the place.” “I didn’t come to fight,” my visitor detested; sounding amused by my hotheadedness. “Here’s the thing. Back before you and your master were around, the S.S.C and THEM existed without figureheads or knights in shining armor. Everyone was equal and treated as such. Then, after your young boss took down our previous leader, I suppose the S.S.C saw an opportunity capitalize on the premise of ‘heroes’.” “Why are you telling me this?” I interrupted. Corruption finally turned towards me; his harsh glare nearly boring holes through my forehead. It reminded me of Machine and Eliminator, but Corruption didn’t even seem to be trying. “I’m telling you that you’re being used,” he finally made clear. “From what I hear, you think in a similar way.” I curled my hands into tight fists within my pockets; growing impatient. “If your plan is to talk me into joining THEM or leaving the S.S.C, then you’re an idiot,” I shot back. “What’s stopping me from taking you down right here?” Corruption held his gaze on me; seeming slightly more entertained. “If you honestly think I’d approach you without backup,” he began. “Then you are the fool.” My eyes briefly darted around the courtyard. There were plenty of kids all around us. Some of them I knew, others I wasn’t sure I’d seen before. It felt like no one was looking at us. We were like ghosts to the world, only visible to each other. Finally, I snapped out of this brief period of uneasiness. “My master taught me not to cower in the face of people like you,” I replied; finally meeting Corruption’s glare with that of my own. “I know,” Corruption replied. “Your boss made that very clear when he left the S.S.C to try and stop me… and you can imagine how that ended up for him.” My glare immediately fell to the wayside, instead replaced by panicked eyes and pale skin. “He… what?” I muttered; already feeling as if my stomach was tying itself in knots. Corruption’s eyes narrowed with a wicked form of delight. I could only imagine what sort of sinister grin persisted below his mask. “That was a very long time ago,” Corruption dismissed. “It really doesn’t matter anymore.” I opened my mouth to offer a retort, but it seemed as if my body was shutting down with every passing second. My throat tightened and my eyes blinked almost uncontrollably now as Corruption stood from the bench; still holding eye contact. “So, I think it’s time you listened to me,” he ordered. “My name is Corruption for a reason. I corrupt the minds of my opponents. I make them realize just how pitiful they really are. You think you're brave, boy? If you choose not to leave the S.S.C, then I can guarantee you’ll find yourself quivering with fear when I arrive on your doorstep. Shaking with fear just as Tim did.” I found my teeth grinding together, my hands feeling deprived of blood. The entirety of my mind told me to get up and fight, to deliver a sudden right hook across Corruption’s smirking jawline. I imagined pinning him down and beating him nearly senseless while demanding to know where Tim was. I relished the thought of besting all his reinforcements, knocking their teeth down their throats before they could get a single punch in. However, by body thought differently. My legs were too weak to stand and my voice had lost all of its strength. It seemed I could do nothing but sit there and remain paralyzed with this unshakable sense of terror. “Machine, Eliminator, and all the other THEM members you’ve taken down will very soon be avenged,” Corruption stated as he turned around and began to walk away. “THEM’s wishes - are my wishes.” I was left to tremble.
I didn’t tell the S.S.C about my encounter with Corruption. I could no longer trust them with information such as that. It was obvious that the moment they’d find out, I’d end up getting shoved into another setup fight, just as was the case with Eliminator. Despite my best efforts at hiding the truth from George, he was able to read my face and detect something was very wrong. In the end, I opted to tell him what happened, so long as he swore to keep it between the two of us. For the time being, I was desperately attempting to push Corruption’s words about Tim out of my head. Even George was well-aware of the fact that if I dwelled on it too much, Corruption would have an immense upper hand when the fight came around. I’d learned quite a bit from my encounters with THEM and the stories I’d hear of other fighters. Those lessons taught me that whenever THEM gave a threat, especially in such a direct manner – an attack would be coming soon. Corruption couldn’t risk giving me enough time to train or garner support. I spent the next three days getting only about four hours of sleep. If it wasn’t the thought of Tim’s fate haunting my dreams, then it would be the thought of Jack attacking someone I cared about or Corruption breaking into my house to settle the score. If a simple bully like Jack was crazy enough to attack me while I was home, then I was certain Corruption would do the same. Locking all the doors and windows did little to put me at ease. My lack of sleep was also having negative repercussions at school; with me falling asleep during lectures and having difficulty concentrating on group projects. I think everyone must’ve noticed this shift in my personality, but they either were too scared to approach me about it or didn’t take me seriously enough to care. George had developed a slight cold from being outside too much, and ended up staying home from school during this time. Thankfully, it was Tye who managed to lift my spirits a bit before I could completely crack under so much pressure. “You been sleeping alright?” he asked while I was at my locker towards the end of the day. “Not particularly,” I answered flatly. “I was gonna invite you to a basketball match some friends and I were gonna start up at that new indoor rec center,” Tye continued. “But I guess you’re probably not up to it.” I sighed and simply held in a yawn. “Yeah,” I replied at last. “I doubt I’d be of much help… S.S.C business just sorta has me tied up right now.” Tye nodded in acceptance of this fact, but still seemed slightly disappointed. Before he could speak again, Random Kid and his pack of followers rounded the corner and noted my dreary complexion. R.K. leapt back several feet; feigning sheer terror. “A monster!” he shouted. Most of his friends laughed at the remark, while others avoided eye contact and kept walking. I ignored them and turned my attention back to Tye, who seemed even more upset than I was. “Hey,” Tye started; looking back at me. “Don’t pay attention to guys like that. He’s just trying to make you angry so you’ll freak out and hurt somebody. He lives for chaos like that.” I nodded, but Tye could still tell I felt utterly downtrodden. “Lots of kids respect you for how much you’ve helped them out,” Tye continued. “Especially me! You remember that Jack incident.” “He hasn’t bother you, right?” I asked; trying to change the subject. “Nope,” Tye replied in a relived manner. “He hasn’t even been at school in quite some time now. Ever since you called me about his attempt and breaking in, I’ve kept the whole house locked down. Do you really think he would’ve gone through with it?” “I’m not sure,” I was all I could stomach to reply with. A bell suddenly rang; signaling only one minute left to get to class. Tye quickly packed up his stuff and started to walk away. I could tell he was still dissatisfied with my bleak behavior. I hated to let him down. “Tye,” I called just before he could walk any farther. “What time is that basketball match?”
My head was throbbing. I found myself gasping for air where there was none. My eyes desperately flickered; shooting back and forth, darting to every bleak and distorted visual surrounding me. Tim was calling me – no; shouting for me. There were other cries to; one of them was female. My chest tightened as my heart only increased its frantic pulsations. There came another call. Then another one. Another. “Brett!” George cried; suddenly shaking me awake. I sat up from the couch and scanned the entire area. I was home. “What… what happened?” I stated; still shook by the fleeting memories of the visions. “You fell asleep while I tried to find that punching bag,” George explained in a hoarse tone. He was still somewhat sickly. “Oh,” was all I bothered to reply with. I held onto my head and squeezed my eyes shut a few times; now fighting off a sudden headache. “What happened?” George asked; remaining by my side as if I might keel over any minute. “Nothing,” came my growled response. “You’re lying,” George quickly rejected. “I know you’ve been losing out on a lot of sleep lately, but this was different than any other little nap. You were talking in your sleep… mumbling actually.” I merely scowled at my apprentice; hoping that would be enough to quell him from asking any further questions, but he seemed to see through my tired eyes to the thoughts within. “It’s Tim,” George wagered at last. “That’s what it is. Isn’t it.” My headache seemed to grow fiercer simply by hearing the name aloud. I snakingly stood from the couch and walked over to my front door. “Get out,” I mumbled. “I don’t have time for this.” “And what do you have time for?” George shot back. “Letting your mind tear itself apart as you wallow in pity for an old friend? There was nothing you could have done, Brett! I know you’ve tried to ignore my questions, but I know that you think it’s your fault!” “Of course it’s my fault!” I finally shouted in reply. My right fist buried itself in the doorframe. “I should have tracked him down! I should have protected him!” George tried to speak, but I refused to let up. “It’s eating away at me! I should have been busy questioning the people who knew, not playing games with Eliminator! I should have followed his trail, not become distracted by petty rumors and teasing!” My eyes started to well up with tears. I quickly turned away from George and brushed them away. I was hardly ever this emotional, but my heart seemed to be sinking with every word. “Tim knew the risks,” George replied in a cautious manner. “Just like you do and just like I do. THEM has never permanently put someone out of commission… at least not on record. We just need to think this out… maybe call up the elites and tell them what’s going o-”. “No!” I bellowed. “We’re not.” My voice now trailed off as I allowed myself to slowly slide down the wall and come to a sitting position on the floor. My head only continued to throb. Both George and I looked out the closest window, where the sun finally managed to set over the neighboring snow-garnished rooftops. “I’m sorry George,” I sighed. “You can stay the night if you want. Your cold is just gonna get worse if you keep going outdoors.” “Thanks Brett,” George replied lightly. He’d clearly hurt his throat from our shouting match. Neither of us could sleep that evening. Maybe we both knew that tonight was the beginning of the end.
A Score to Settle:
I opened my eyes from time to time in order to look at the clock hanging above my door. At around two in the morning, I got thirsty and went downstairs for a drink. Rain was lightly descending onto the windows, and some distant sounds of stirring thunder made me realize a storm was fast approaching. The calm before the storm always seemed to relax me a bit. I enjoyed gazing out the windows and watching the fleeting droplets disappear in an instant from my view; flying off into the night. I took a few sips of water and pulled a chair out from the living room so I could sit and observe the showers for a bit. The streetlights across the road were just bright enough for me to spot the large clearing between two nearby houses. Every building on this road was practically ancient, and apparently the household that had once existed diagonally from my own, was torn down several years before I was born, due to health concerns. Any signs of the building’s existence were quickly scrubbed away by the forces of time. All that really remained was this open sector of grass, claimed by no one. I thought back to the time Tim and I used the spot to perform various warmups. I’d worked myself a bit too hard one day and ended up nearly collapsing from sheer exhaustion. I recalled how I’d tried to laugh off this falter, only for Tim to see the fatigue in my eyes and give me the rest of the day off. I snapped out of this flashback; now spotting the grounds to be littered with various bundles of wood and boxes. The neighbors had recently taken to using the space as a temporary dumping ground. It was depressing to see the spot in this current state. Ignoring the dreariness of the situation was nearly impossible. Nevertheless, I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off it. Abruptly, one of the wooden piles shifted slightly to the right. I put down my glass and rubbed my eyes for a moment; trying to see it better in the darkness. There came another movement in the same spot, hardly notable in the darkness, but just enough to speed up my heartrate. Suddenly I began to realize the shadowy shapes of that clearing couldn’t be trusted. Something or someone was hiding behind the debris. Quickly, I backed away from the window and shut off all the lights in the house before approaching George on the downstairs sofa. Of course, he was still awake when I approached him. “Somebody’s out there,” I told my apprentice as I fetched a flashlight from a drawer. George was fast to rise to his feet, kneel down by a windowsill, and briefly look out front. “I don’t see anything,” he replied in a whisper. I didn’t bother telling him where to draw his attention. I feared that every word I’d say could somehow be heard from the outside. Just as I fumbled through a second drawer to get a flashlight for George, the sound of a creaking door made both our hearts stop. “I thought we locked that,” George pondered. He was right - we had, but that could hardly stop someone who really wanted me out of the way. “This is crazy,” George whispered; crawling over to me. “How could he know your parents aren’t home?” “Don’t underestimate THEM,” I lectured while handing him the second flashlight. “If we’re gonna do this, then we’re gonna have to have the element of surprise on our side.” George nodded and let me continue. “There’s two ways to the backdoor. You loop around through the kitchen while I take the hallway. If you see someone, turn the flashlight on directly in their face. Should be just enough to freak them out and temporarily blind’em.” “Do you think it’s really him?” George asked before we separated; a hint of fear building in his voice. My thoughts stirred for a moment. “He’s only human,” I assured. “Now go.” George slowly crept into the kitchen while I took to the hallway; careful not to brush up against doors or the wall. Suddenly, a light blinked on to the far-left side of the hall, to the doorway that led into my dining room. It certainly couldn’t have been George already. My hands started to shake and I found myself biting at my tongue with every step. I wasn’t breathing now. Finally, I got within two feet of the doorframe. There were no noises anymore. Not the slightest sound of breathing or footsteps. I slowly set my flashlight onto the floor; realizing it’d do no good if our guest had already grown accustomed to the light. The storm began to grow worse outside, with a nearby flash of lightning making my skin crawl. I slowly composed myself and peaked around the open door, finding a figure standing dead center in the dining room. The familiar black jacket; speckled with weaves of blood red silk was all too engrained in my memories. Corruption was here. He was facing away from me, instead looking towards the doorway in which George would soon be approaching. I had to act fast, lest George find himself walking straight into Corruption’s line of sight. I balled up my sweaty hands and finally gave a shallow breath. It was now or never. Acting fast, I leapt into the room and prepared to lunge at my unmoving target, when all of a sudden, I found two large arms wrapping around my waste from behind, forcing me away with immense strength. I was hurled straight into a wall as Corruption remained motionless. My gaze shifted back to my unseen attacker and my jaw dropped open. Now standing above me and giving a crooked grin of busted teeth, was none other than Machine. “We’ve got a score to settle,” my old foe stated gruffly; his sunken eyes – wide with madness. Now too stunned to even pick myself back up, I was struck twice in the head. My body fell limply forward as my consciousness fled away in an instant. The last sounds I heard were that of George as he sprang from his spot to attack Corruption. The floor shook and the cabinet behind me tumbled to the ground. I blacked out.
My eyes steadily began to blink open. Cold drops of water paraded around my face, and newfound frigid air started to sting at my hands. Finally, I lurched forward; shaking the pain out of my head and stuffing my hands into my pockets. I was outside now, in the middle of the storm. George and I had both been dragged to the old park; not far from my home. It’d be the perfect location to face us without attracting attention. Before me stood Machine – the monster himself. The brute was quick to weigh his foot down on my chest; preventing me from rising any further. “Haven’t you got the smarts to leave THEM already?” I mocked; attempting to get Machine angry enough to strike at me and loosen his foothold. “If you think that Corruption’s gonna consider making you his heir, then you’ve got another thing coming! You were out of his sights the moment you lost to me.” Despite these stinging words, my old foe didn’t seem to care. He ignored me and gazed off to his left, where Corruption bent down by George and hit him upside the head with the back of his hand; somewhat awakening my downed apprentice. “You really know how to make me angry, Brett,” Corruption mused as he turned to look at me. His face was no longer masked, though the entirety of his mug was nearly impossible to closely inspect. His neck was tightly wrapped with a black scarf within his jacket, making it appear as if his head were floating in the dark space inside his hood. Corruption – it seemed, was bathed in the shadows. He manipulated them in any way possible to frighten me. ‘He’s only human’, I repeated back to myself. If I was really going to face the leader of THEM, then all this fear I’d been harboring would have to go. I couldn’t let my nerves get the better of me. Corruption walked past me and looked up at the rainy sky. “You couldn’t have put up a decent fight at your home. So now you force us to drag you all the way out here. If I’m going to beat you, then I want to do it fairly. No surprise attacks. Surely you of all people can understand that?” “I’m surprised you have enough of a heart to even consider it,” I replied bitterly. Machine stepped down harder upon my chest to silence me. Corruption knelt by my side as George held to his head and tried to stand, only for his crippling dizziness to send him hurtling back down. I could just barely make out Corruption’s slender face now; riddled with old scars and scrapes. “Once that buffoon of yours wakes back up,” Corruption continued; almost in a whisper. “We’re going to finish things right here. Don’t worry. You can avoid Tim’s fate so long as you fall when it’s time to fall. It didn’t have to be this way at all though. You know that… don’t you? I gave you a chance to leave the S.S.C and prevent this from ever happening. I look into your eyes and I see terror and emptiness. You’ve deprived yourself of sleep and sanity for no good reason. Didn’t you even consider my deal?” I steadily lifted Machine’s foot from my chest a bit more so I could talk. “Not even for a moment,” I grunted. Corruption scowled and Machine’s foot came down harder upon me, but I refused to be silent. “Unlike you,” I spoke through clenched teeth. “I’m no coward. I don’t need lackeys to follow me around and to do my work for me.” Corruption’s shadowy eyes began to light up with a spark of annoyance. There was something else in his eyes as well - a look of uncertainty. It flashed for only a moment, but just enough for me to take note of it. Had my words really hit him so hard? Or was there more at play that I simply didn’t understand? Corruption finally stood back up and faced his old apprentice. "Your job here is done," he ordered. "Leave us now." Machine's face turned red with built-up anger. The raindrops upon his face practically turned to steam. He desperately wanted to disobey, become his own person, make his own rules, but with THEM; these dreams were impossible. He was at the mercy of another, and there was nothing he could do about it. “Yes sir,” the old giant replied at last. His foot finally released its hold on me and Machine left us in that rainy park without another word. “Stand,” Corruption ordered at last. I slowly rose to my feet and stood facing the shadowy beast. He was taller than I’d expected, burlier too. His fighting stance was one I’d never seen before; preferring to keep his hands clasped behind his back as he circled me. It made him vulnerable to strike, but prevented me from predicting what his first move may be. George tried to stand once more, but I held my hand up to him. “This is my fight,” I ordered to my apprentice. “You can stay, but you can’t join in.” I couldn’t risk taking my eyes off Corruption to see George’s face, but I could imagine he was equally upset at being told to stand down. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a good fight,” Corruption acknowledged. “I’ll try and make this quick.” “That’s a shame,” I responded; my anger starting to mount as I truly took in the situation. “Because I’m gonna make this very, very slow.” Corruption laughed at my threat and shook his head. “You have great loyalty to the S.S.C, my boy,” he admitted. “That poor withered crew. You live to avenge them.” “Not for them,” I replied coldly. Corruption stopped circling me and slowly smiled as he acknowledged who I was truly fighting for. “I see,” he replied at last. Corruption may have said more, but I couldn’t hear it. I was running at him now.
I dashed into Corruption at full speed; knocking him off his feet with a powerful kick. In my anger, this maneuver slightly threw off my balance, allowing Corruption to stand back up and sock me in the forehead. Briefly I became overcome by this nausea, giving Corruption just enough time to kick my legs out from underneath me and send me tumbling down a small nearby hill. With my head still pounding and my vision significantly blurrier, I was barely able to get a foothold on the ground and rise back up. The constant stream of rain running down my brow was of no help either. With sight now seemingly useless, I relied only on sound to give me a leg up in this match. As such, I remained in a kneeling position, my eyes closed, listening for incoming footsteps or breathing. Sure enough, amongst the prattling of rain and thunder, there came short, quick bounding noises from my left. Not to be taken down so easily, I waited until the steps were within several feet of me before I jerked my body sideways and blindly struck at the distorted darkness. Although my fists met with nothing but air at first, my third punch struck at Corruption’s stomach while the next few focused on his arms and ribcage. My foe shouted in a brief spurt of agony before fleeing backwards. Steadily my vision returned to me and I adjusted my stance. “Not bad,” Corruption observed as he adjusted one of his shoulders. “I can see how my subordinates might have struggled with you, but make no mistake, I’ve been doing this sort of thing long enough to pick up on my enemies’ move sets. The longer we fight, the more I’ll be capable of anticipating you. Hell, I’ll know your fighting style even better than you do!” I didn’t bother offering a reply, instead briefly circling Corruption before lunging at his left side. I threw a sharp punch towards his jaw, but my fist was effortlessly swept away by my attentive opponent. With his hands now a blur in the night, Corruption unleashed a wild barrage of fists at my stomach and chest, driving me backwards and leaving me open for a final bash to the head. The pulsating of my heart began to overtake my senses, and my vision became blurred once more. Not to be outdone, I leapt just out of Corruption’s range of attack before delivering a harsh kick to his side. There was a cry of pain, but I couldn’t tell if it was Corruption or my imagination. It seemed my consciousness was steadily failing me, with brief flashes of nonexistent light occasionally popping into focus when I least expected them. There were voices too. Rapid chattering with no clear message or intent. I held tightly to my head and barely managed to catch Corruption’s incoming foot amongst the visions. Before I could even bother to use this leverage to my advantage, Corruption leaned in and sent his elbow crashing into my temple. My limbs seemed to be growing heavier with every passing moment. I was no longer fast enough to keep up with him. If I truly wanted to have any hope of winning this fight, I had to buy myself some time to recover. Hurriedly, I spun my body around towards the park and forced my aching legs to climb the small hill Corruption and I had both descended earlier. To my horror, my legs could hardly seem to lift themselves. Every step felt as if it might collapse below my weight and my head’s throbbing made balance nearly impossible to manage. Before I could even hope to regain some concentration, Corruption tackled my feet out from beneath me, sending my face careening straight to the soggy ground. Thick clumps of mud latched onto my face and wedged beneath my fingernails with every movement. I was growing desperate now and began to kick madly at my pursuer, thankfully scoring a square strike to his face; prompting Corruption to release me. For the briefest of moments, my vision went completely black and my body fell limply back upon the ground. However, somewhere inside of me there must’ve still been some voice in my head - screaming for me to rise again. And so, with all the strength I could gather, and moan-laced breaths as my only voice, I crawled uphill towards that park.
With my entire body swaying with each and every mighty gust of wind, I managed to rise from my crawling position and steadily limp towards some form of cover. Corruption was wise to my attempt however, and upon wiping at his bloodied nose, he quickly mounted the hill and dashed towards me. My mind was a whirlwind of thought and fear, my muscles no longer had the strength to prepare themselves to fight back. It seemed as if my entire personality had been swept away by Corruption’s fearsome attacks, and all that remained was a weak, pitiful coward; hobbling away from the fight. However, as I gazed over my shoulder at my approaching foe, all hope of fleeing the battle seemed to extinguish. I closed my eyes and let my arms fall to my side. If it was meant to end here, then what was left of my conscious self seemed to embrace it. I squeezed my eyes tighter and bit my lip, but after a few moments, my anticipated pain was suddenly interrupted by an aggrieved cry. My eyes shot back open, finding George and Corruption now lying nearby, with my apprentice wailing away a volley of punches towards the pinned shadowy beast. “You little punk!” Corruption cried out as he grabbed hold of one of my apprentice’s throws and twisted the wrist clockwise. “Your master told you not to interfere!” “You’re not laying another hand on him!” George cried; striking Corruption across the face with his free arm. I’d never seen my apprentice so serious before; his lips pulled back to reveal such an enraged grimace and his eyes sparking with unbridled determination. Corruption attempted to catch another one of George’s strokes, but was too slow to save himself. With all my heart, I so desperately wished to jump in and help George, for despite his current upper hand, I knew he couldn’t fend off Corruption forever. My body refused to budge any closer to the fight, as if repelled by its intensity. Carefully, I leaned back against one of the old rusted poles at the park; finally relaxing my muscles and allowing my head to clear itself. If George was willing to buy me some time, then I had to make the most of it. Corruption shouted furiously over the storm, with each of his cries momentarily breaking me from my focus. I tuned him out to the best of my ability, but it didn’t take long for new sounds to arise. There was a loud clatter a few feet to my right; indicating Corruption had made a failed attempt at reaching me, only to be stopped once more by George. ‘Just a bit longer,’ I kept telling myself. ‘Only a bit longer.’ Every passing second seemed to slow to a halt. The only thing preventing me from passing out was my fear for George. In the end, this really was my fight; the culmination of everything I’d gotten myself into. I deserved to finish this fight because I was the one who dared to start it. There was yet another loud crash from nearby, with George suddenly choking in pain. My eyes lifted themselves once more; finding my apprentice curled up in a ball and clinging to his gut; having been clearly kicked with intense force. Corruption stood over his beaten foe and spat at him. “There’s no room for people like you,” Corruption lectured as the rain flooded into George’s flinching eyes. “People who aren’t willing to follow orders. It wasn’t enough for me to hunt down you master – no. Now it appears as if you’ll be our next target. You’ll see what’s it like to live every day in fear of our arrival. That is what you have earned here today, speck.” Slowly, I began to push myself from the pole. “I… I’m not a puppet,” George whimpered through his teeth. “Not to the S.S.C… and certainly not to people like you.” Corruption growled and kicked my apprentice in his right arm. George cried out in pain; feeling it go limp instantaneously. My feet began to shuffle forward and my vision started to clear. “You rule,” George persisted through the pain. “Through intimidation and fear. It works now… but… at the end of the day you’re just another bully… trying to make himself look big… trying to-”. “Shut up!” Corruption shouted; whacking George in the throat. My fists tightened and my blood turned hot. The rain and thunder faded into nothingness as my eyes transfixed only on Corruption’s turned back. George lifted his head up to face his aggressor one final time. “When we beat you today,” George coughed. “I think you’ll see what THEM really thinks of you… and believe me… it won’t be pretty. You’re only as tough as they imagine you to be.” With that, George smiled with bloody teeth and remained in place as Corruption roared once more. The shadowy figure drew back his fist for a final strike. George merely shut his eyes; still smiling.
Just before Corruption’s arm could sweep down, he found me grappling on to his wrist. My foe could hardly manage to turn his head while I yanked his arm backwards; sending Corruption’s entire body doubling over as he attempted to release himself. George remained laying in place, he knew it was all up to me now. Just as Corruption managed to pull his twisted arm from my grasp, my other hand met his throat; stunning him as I used my newfound power to force him back to the ground. I think it was only now that Corruption truly understood how much anger had been festering inside of me, for I briefly caught a glimpse of fear in his blackened eyes while I towered over him. Yes – there was a hint of humanity in there somewhere, but my goal was never to redeem him. Thinking fast, Corruption performed a leg sweep; knocking me off-balance just enough for him to stand back up and begin unleashing a volley of kicks and punches to any part of me he could manage to catch. It felt as if I were fighting his madman side now, and it didn’t take long for the pain to catch up with me. My arms grew numb and my left ankle had become almost useless. All my weight – it seemed, was now upon my right leg, but Corruption’s constant attacks forced me to dedicate all my energy towards blocking his throws. Corruption soon took up a boxing stature; rapidly upper-cutting my jaw or chest with one arm while the opposite served to aim for my chest. My vision blurred for a few brief seconds as I felt Corruption’s fist smashing into my raised arms; desperately breaking away at my defenses with every ounce of his strength. With no other options, I began backing up in order to cushion or avoid more incoming blows. Unfortunately, Corruption seemed to have planned this, as I found myself backing straight towards the park again, where I’d undoubtedly be cornered if I wasn’t careful. Corruption’s foot now lodged itself in my stomach; knocking me back even further. With the rusted park only several feet behind me now, I opted to throw a wrench in the beast’s plans. Just as Corruption leaned forward to strike at me again, I leapt back and used this sudden break from action to climb on one of the upper platforms. “Running won’t help you!” Corruption shouted from below me as he jumped up to yet another rusted level. The aged equipment practically shook with our every step, but this didn’t stop Corruption from dashing at me once more and nailing my side with his arm. I fell back for a moment; barely managing to catch myself upon the railings. If I lost focus for even a moment, then a step or fall in the wrong direction would certainly send me plummeting to the ground. With no easy escape in sight, I maneuvered my way to the left and climbed up to the tallest platform the park had to offer. Corruption attempted to leap after me, only for my foot to strike his head as he grew close. At last, my shadowy foe submitted to his multitude of injures, now screeching as he limply fell back against the corroded bars and with the back part of his jacket snagging on a pillar and tearing itself off. An incredibly loud crash of thunder sounded overhead; muffling Corruption’s moans of pain as he snakingly rose to his feet once more. I remained standing in my position; awaiting another attempt. Corruption merely shook his head and grinned as he looked back at his torn jacket. “I think I get it now!” he bellowed over the wind and rain. “I wasn’t sure before… but I see the problem with you now!” Corruption tried to wipe more blood away from his nose, but found his hands coated in the same gore; a result of hastily grasping the rotten bars. “You’re too prissy for THEM!” he continued with a jaded smile. “You’re too disobedient for the S.S.C! And you’re too much of an outsider to be a student!” I held my ground; refusing to be moved by his taunting. “Don’t you get it?” he shouted; almost throwing himself off-balance with the ferocity of his own words. “You’re all alone! Just some guy who’s in way over his head! You don’t belong anywhere! You’re an outcast! Maybe you don’t get it now, but you will. You’ll see what road you’re walking down! It’s never-ending disappointment and regret which awaits you! No one will accept it, no matter how hard you try!” Corruption tried to stride forward, but struggled to move in a straight path. I continued standing above him; trying to force his words from my head, but somehow, they seemed to latch on to my mind and refuse to let go. In this momentary loss of focus, Corruption managed to leap up on the highest platform alongside me as thunder once again roared above us. I was promptly jabbed in the chest and then in the throat. My concentration suddenly shattered before me and I found my knees weakly folding in beneath my weight. Corruption laughed and sprang his foot outwards; whacking me in the chin. My entire body collapsed along the railing and remained sprawled as Corruption shook the nausea from his head and attempted to step back a bit to avoid me catching his feet. Suddenly, as my eyes stared towards my opponent’s legs, I found him unknowingly stepping off the edge of the platform. Corruption’s face instantaneously shifted from pride to horror as he tumbled backwards. Thunder resounded one final time as the beast’s head flew back into a pole. His arm stretched out for the safety of a lower platform, only for the slipperiness of his hands to avert his efforts. Instead his arm now crashed into the railing; breaking it upon impact. There was a loud scream of terror, then a final, sickening thump as his body landed harshly on the wet mulch below.
“You should have told us,” an elite reprimanded as cold ice was applied to my aching legs. George was nearby, getting a special sleeve fitted onto his right arm to reduce soreness. His left eye was puffy, but thankfully no other ailments stood out, even though the fight had only taken place hours earlier. “Are you paying attention?” the elite growled as he stepped closer. I didn’t even bother looking at him, or any of the other officers he’d brought along with him. “I can handle myself,” I finally replied. A member of the medical team dabbed a warm rag at a persistent wound to my forehead. “The S.S.C fights together,” the elite was quick to reply. “We could’ve helped you… at least had backup ready if things got out of hand.” I didn’t bother playing ‘what-if’ games with him. “What was his status when you and George took him to the hospital?” a trooper asked me as he pulled out a sheet of paper. I wanted so badly to not tell them anything about what had occurred, but that was not an option in the slightest. The S.S.C had practically dragged us to this base against our will. Even I wasn’t sure where we were, and I was familiar with almost every Fighter outpost in Toparsburg. “Please, Brett,” the elite prodded. “This is the leader of THEM we are talking about. His defeat could signal the end of all this fighting, but we need to know everything.” “He had a broken arm,” I finally regaled as the medic sewed up a gash on my hand. “He hit his head really hard as well. The fall could’ve broken other things on account of how inelegantly he hit the ground.” The soldier jotted down my every word as the elites whispered to each other. “George and I saw what rough shape he was in,” I continued. “We carried him to the hospital and snuck out before they could ask questions. If you’re worried about us leaving a trace, I’m pretty sure the rain washed away most of the blood and the darkness kept our identities covered.” George was listening in on our conversation. I noted a brief flash of uncertainty in his face as he pondered if we’d made the right decision. I was filled with nothing but contempt for Corruption and everything he’d stood for. After all he’d done to the S.S.C, to George, and to Tim, I wanted so badly to leave him at that park to suffer through the storm. However, when I really thought of it, I knew Tim would never condone such an action. The S.S.C was above that sort of torture. Corruption may have deserved it, but somebody had to be the bigger man. Nevertheless, I’d spent the last few hours constantly replaying the events in my head; wondering if I was wrong to save him. There was something else drifting through my mind as well, they were Corruption’s words. As I gazed around at this base; surrounded by elites who did nothing but judge and control others, and soldiers who blindly followed their every whim, I found myself more disconnected than ever. Maybe Corruption was right. Maybe I didn’t belong here.
I looked around me. It had been a long time since I’d seen so many S.S.C members in one place. Five days had passed since Corruption’s defeat, and there had been talk from all around the school at what this really meant for the future of the Fighters and THEM. Some claimed the fighting would continue regardless of Corruption’s loss, while others persisted that it had been a fatal blow to THEY’s heart, which would almost certainly spread to all the other various fighting sects around the country. I knew I should’ve felt proud of my actions, but Corruption’s taunting had managed to leave a black pit in my soul. I still could hardly sleep, and George’s humor no longer had any effect on me. Every time I thought of what Corruption had told me, I could almost feel my wounds stinging again. While so many other S.S.C members crowded into the base and talked wildly amongst themselves; I remained seated in the back of the room, alone. We’d all been called here today upon the leader’s request. Everyone knew that a meeting of this magnitude had to be in service of unprecedented news. After half an hour, the soldiers finally took their seats and began to quiet down. The elites were permitted to sit in the front of the space, while everyone else herded to the back, without qualms. George was here somewhere, but since we hadn’t arrived together, it was doubtful we’d see each other, even if we had, I wasn’t sure I’d have much to say. Finally, Mask and the second-in-command walked to the front of the room and saluted the crowds. Everyone around me briefly rose to their feet to salute in return, but my legs were still much too weak to copy them. “Thank you all for showing up,” the second-in-command beamed. “After the events of days prior, we know you have all amassed a variety of great questions concerning what this unexpected loss means for us. Well it’s time for the silence to end and for the future of the S.S.C to be detailed by your very own commander-in-chief!” The crowds clapped as the second-in-command and Mask both stepped to the front corners of the room while. Immediately, Zach; the leader of the S.S.C, took centerstage and waved to us. He was shorter than most other S.S.C members, but had a powerful voice, with a hint of a southern accent. His face was flooded with freckles, rather than wounds from old fights. He’d never known what it was like to face another person. Money and popularity was all one needed to be a leader, and Zach had both in droves. Nevertheless, practically everyone but me seemed to be cheering now. Tim had done more for the S.S.C in one month than Zach had ever come close to accomplishing in a year. He wasn’t a hero. He didn’t even know what it meant to be one. “Thank you,” Zach cried over the hollering as he smiled ear-to-ear. “This is the happiest I’ve seen the S.S.C in a long time. I look at everyone here, and I see not only those of you Fighters from Toparsburg, but some from Blue Point, Foner County, Winchester, Harrison, and more! As we speak, my message of good news is being recorded, and is soon to be sent out to S.S.C outposts far and wide!” Zach closed his eyes and exhaled with excitement. “And that message is this…” he spoke. “As of this morning, THEM has not only declared its official surrender to this tribulating war, but also its complete termination as a group! In other words… THEM is no more!” Everyone immediately began to stand once again, with the elites clapping wildly and various soldiers high fiving or slapping each other on the backs. “You have every right to cheer!” Zach shouted over the celebration. “Cheer louder, S.S.C! Let THEY know of our victory!” Troopers began tossing their hats into the air, allowing them to rain back down in all directions like confetti. I sat amongst it all; unsure what to feel. When at last the crowds began to settle a bit more, Zach clasped his hands and continued his speech. “I won’t take much more of your time,” he admitted. “Because I am all too aware of just what this means for so many of you. Those of you who braved the storm of doubt and stuck by our side for so long… your efforts were not in vain. However, now a new age must arise. An age dedicated towards rebuilding the S.S.C and returning it to its former glory! After so many years of fear and abhorrence… I’m happier than ever to tell you that peace’s shining smile is upon us!” And so, it ended. Ended without a single mention of Brett Blakley and his hand in making it all a possibility. It was no accident - it was a message; the S.S.C frowned upon keeping secrets. They were so obsessed with order and control, that the moment I stepped out of line, my name was nothing. The time I had been dreading for so very long, had come. I was the next Tim Allender; destined to vanish amongst a wave of suppression. The elites applauded and the soldiers pumped their fists. Everyone seemed relieved at this new opportunity to start again. For them, there wasn’t even the slightest hint of sadness. Why would there be? They hadn’t lost a thing. No, they hadn’t lost a thing.
Trying to Adjust:
I hadn’t talked much since the grand S.S.C meeting. It seemed as if I’d relegated myself to a mere witness of what was to come. No longer was I heralded as a figurehead of fighting spirit; the S.S.C had made sure to scrub that from the records. I recalled how George had told Corruption he was only as tough as THEM imagined him to be. Now I found myself in quite a similar position. I was only as useful as the S.S.C deemed me to be, and now my use had run out. For a short while, I attempted to embrace this new life; a life without the burden of the S.S.C’s fate upon my shoulders, but truthfully – I missed the feeling. Only one week of school remained until winter break, and the added excitement of THEM’s defeat resulted in a vast array of parties popping up around Toparsburg and its surrounding territories. Of course, George and I were never invited to any of them. As if hearing his name within my thoughts, George rounded the corner of the hall and joined me as I walked to class. “Got some more details today,” he immediately began. “Over thirty-five other THEM sects are all shutting down across the country, with probably quite a few others to follow suit. It’s crazy. After more than forty years of activity, THEM can finally be put to rest.” I grunted a weak sigh of content; not in the mood to speak. I was certain George could tell how upset I was by the S.S.C’s aversion towards telling the full truth of THEY’s demise, but he refused to change the topic. “It’s amazing just how pivotal Toparsburg is,” George continued. “That the actions we make here can spread to those who look up to us. Obviously not everybody is gonna fall in line. I’m sure some counties will have war between the S.S.C and THEM for ages to come; regardless of what we tell them, but you can’t save everyone.” “Are you trying to make me feel better?” I finally asked. “I’m trying to be real with you,” George quickly shot back. “The S.S.C can hide the truth for as long as they want, but I know the facts. And the reality of all this is that you’re a hero. I’ve always known that. It’s why I’ve always trusted you and believed in what you were trying to do.” I nodded for a moment; sated by these words. Even though it seemed as if everyone else had turned their backs on me, I always had George to stand by my side. “Maybe one day we can tell everyone the truth,” George continued. “And then they’ll fina-”. “Hey, Mr. S!” called a voice from behind the two of us. I grit my teeth and clutched my books tighter. ‘Not now,’ I said to myself. ‘Not him.’ George tried to keep talking, but soon the voice called again, this time growing closer to us as we walked. “Hey!” came R.K.’s voice. “Don’t tell me you can’t hear me, Mr. S!” I knew that if I kept walking, his interruptions would only worsen, so I chose to turn and face my redhaired jester. George could tell I was steaming with built-up aggression, and tried to pull me back by my shoulder, but I ignored his silent pleadings. “What do you want?” I stated bluntly. Random Kid brought his hand up to his face to momentarily hide a growing smile. His hoard of friends stood a few feet behind him, also holding back laughter. “What’s the ‘S’ stand for?” I asked; my pupils piercing into his skull; attempting to intimidate him before he could say anything stupid. R.K. was completely resistant to my glares, however. His eyes squinted with anticipation as he raised his arms up in the air to gesticulate his words. “It stands for ‘stalker’!” he finally shouted. “Because that's what you are!” George gave a confused look of disgust as Random Kid and all his friends broke into a relentless fit of laughter. ‘Did I miss something?’ I thought. ‘How was that funny? How could they still be heckling me after all this time?’ The laughter grew louder while nearby kids began to smile as they peered over at my red face. George tugged on my shoulder again. “It’s almost winter break,” George reminded me over the laughter. “Let all this go - for now.” I refused to budge. ‘R.K. does this all the time," I said to myself; trying to calm down. ‘It's no big deal. It’s no big deal.’ I tried to block it out, but the laughter cut into me; refusing to let up. "Stop," I ordered under my breath. No one paused for a single moment. R.K. clung to his stomach with one arm while childishly pointing to me with the other. I bit down on my tongue. ‘Why am I talking so quietly?’ I questioned myself. ‘Is it because deep-down inside, I felt inferior to these people? Inferior to the kids that mocked me for no reason and ignored my efforts at making Toparsburg a better place? No! I’m not afraid of them! I should be the one they are afraid of!’ I threw my books down to the floor; allowing them to scatter about my feet. “Stop!” I shouted again. Random Kid’s friends immediately ceased their laughter and backed away, but R.K. refused to quit; still chuckling as he pointed to me. My anger only served to fuel his sick sense of humor, and I was done with it. George couldn’t even begin to quell the situation as I grabbed Random Kid by the collar of his jacket and shoved him harshly into the wall. Before my own mind could catch up with what I was doing, I found my fist rocketing straight into Random Kid’s face; sending his head crashing back into the metal. The vociferous clang sent chills down the spines of all R.K.’s followers; with each of them immediately turning back and bolting down the hallway. My crazed glare focused back on Random Kid as his right eye grew immediately swollen. The laughter ceased and now only stunned whispers from the crowds around us could be heard. As I stood there, unsure of what to do, R.K. slowly raised his head to look me in the eyes. For the first time ever, there was a different appearance about him; an icy stare of earnestness. He somehow freed his right arm and slowly pushed me away; not breaking eye contact. I offered no retaliation; my hands were shaking. Before I could speak another word, he left. George forcefully spun me around; a look of mortification upon his face. “Why did you do that?” my apprentice questioned. Despite being shaken, I refused to back down from my thoughts. “It’s about time these idiots were taught a lesson,” I breathed. George tried to talk again, but I refused to hear him out. “Don’t look down on me because I stood up for myself! It’s what you should be doing too! These people don’t understand what we did! They don’t deserve this ‘peace’!” George stared at me in disbelief as I turned back to pick up my books and head down the hall. There was nothing left to say.
I chose to stay home the following day. School had little to offer me anymore. The S.S.C, bullies, friends, grades; all if it no longer clicked. Instead I chose to barricade myself indoors, avoiding any phone calls in the process. Although the seclusion felt good at first, it wasn’t long before I found my mind slowly assessing yesterday’s events. The S.S.C would undoubtedly scold me for stirring things up again. I loathed the idea of having to listen to their incessant qualms over my behavior. I realized in that moment that despite how much I disliked THEY, the fact that people chose to join them instead of the Fighters was somewhat understandable. THEM wouldn’t have cared if you chose to pick a fight with a common student. If anything, they’d back your efforts up. Meanwhile, those of us who chose the S.S.C’s path were forced to keep everything hidden, to tuck away all feelings of anger towards the ingrates we fought to protect. I found it funny how people seemed so brave and powerful when they were in a group, but once they are alone, they shrink away from anything that might set themselves in harm’s way. No longer was I sure which was worse; THEY or those students who used and manipulated the S.S.C into standing up for them. Maybe the true enemy had been right under our nose the whole time. We fought, bled, cried, and clawed our way towards stopping THEM, all that effort was on us – on me. All that exertion; just to save those who weren’t worth saving. I clenched my fists and bit my tongue while sitting up in bed. It was as if I was the only one who bothered to realize this truth. The truth that Toparsburg was filled to the brim with manipulative cowards. The Fighters had brainwashed us into thinking otherwise, but now I was freed from the spell. I only wished George would understand, but it was doubtful. The S.S.C had already planted the seed of hope in his mind; THEM was gone, and we were victorious. What none of them realized was that we didn’t truly win anything at all, at least nothing of substance. All we’d achieve now was that of the next generation. A generation of kids who’d never known our blood, sweat, and tears. They wouldn’t join to fight, they’d join to share in victory - an empty victory. And so, I continued to question myself, what good was triumph if we didn’t win anything at all? I became aware of my racing heartbeat and tried to calm myself. I felt an increasingly strange sensation that I was being watched. What if THEM was planning one final strike against me? What if R.K. and his friends decided to come back for revenge? What if the S.S.C was truly fed up with my behavior? Variations of these thoughts came rushing at me with every passing minute. I could practically hear laughing in my head; the same laughter I had been exposed to before turning on Random Kid and his friends. These memories refused to be put to rest any time soon. I turned on my television, still laughter. I turned it up louder, still laughter. I turned it up all the way, the laughter only grew. I was at the mercy of my mind.
Sickness and Health:
Realizing that I couldn’t stay home forever, I forced myself into walking over to school the next day. However, the moment I stepped through the front doors, an almost feverish sickness came over me. My legs and arms seemed to tremble and my stomach boiled with every turn. The air appeared saturated with body heat and the loud noises of chatter and movement. The stimuli were practically suffocating me. A few kids stopped their conversations when I passed, while others flashed a quick gaze in my direction. Things were different than before, nobody was laughing at me now. Normally I would have preferred this change, but the silence only seemed to amplify my sense of discomfort. I finally reached my locker and bent down to grab some books, almost immediately I started to sweat and my forehead seemed to burn and ache. My teeth grit together as I slowly balanced myself back up and went to class. Thankfully, no one stood in my way. Even George didn’t bother to make an appearance. My mood and conditions only became worse as the day progressed. My pounding head served to blot out almost all of our instructor’s words. I didn’t feel like moving a muscle now, my heart seemed to sink whenever I’d be forced to grab a paper with my clammy hands. It was once I realized that the day hadn’t even reached its halfway point that I truly began to panic. During our third passing period, I fled to the restroom and spent the next few minutes hanging my head over the toilet in preparation to vomit. Blood rushed to the front of my face and tears built up in my eyes as I remained standing there. When at last I realized nothing was going to happen, I slowly backed away from the stall. Just as I did, a muffled bang came emanating from the hallway. There were some distant gasps of surprise as yet another noise rang out. I hardly even wished to step into the hall, I knew the sound of a fight when I heard one, but I didn’t have much of a choice, my next class was starting soon. I kept one arm positioned on my stomach as I exited the restroom. A trash bin was immediately knocked over to my left; spilling its contents out into the crowded passageway. I turned, finding George kicking a downed foe, only for his foot to be caught and pushed away. He was fighting an attacker I’d ran into a couple times before. My current state of unease forced me to stand back and simply watch the fight progress, with the foe standing up just as George shot forward with an uppercut to his stomach. The attacker punched George in the chest; knocking him back into a wall. Now thinking himself the victor, the bully dashed at George, only for my apprentice to raise his knee out in front of him just in time to nail his aggressor in the stomach once again. The attacker gave out a pained sob as he staggered backwards; clumsily falling to the ground while grasping his gut similarly to me. Various students around the scene started to either clap or break into shouts of awe. George remained leaning against the wall while the tormentor was dragged away by one of his friends. The crowds quickly began to disperse, but one girl seemed unwilling to leave the scene; instead carefully approaching George and pointing to a developing bruise on his forehead. “Are you alright?” she asked sheepishly. George felt at the bruise for a moment before smiling. “Yeah,” he replied at last. A subtle look of bashfulness upon his face. “I think I’ll live to see another day.” The girl gave a short laugh. “I’m Samantha,” she introduced. “You just stood up for my younger brother. I’m sure he would’ve thanked you, but classes are starting soon a-”. “Oh, it’s fine,” George interrupted; somewhat stuttering. “I’m just happy to help… uh… I’m George by the way.” The girl broke into laughter as George blushed. “I know who you are,” she said through the chuckles. “Believe me, a lot of people have heard of you.” George looked away, feigning that he needed a drink of water, when in actuality he seemed to only be blushing even harder now. He rose a water bottle up to his mouth, but didn’t foresee that his hands would be shaking. George hadn’t the slightest clue how to talk to a girl. As his eyes briefly fled away from her, George finally spotted me across the hall. A brief look of worry passed over his eyes as he noticed my saccharine complexion. Not wanting to spoil his moment or embarrass him further, I turned away and continued my path towards class. Although I was happy for George to be meeting people, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat downtrodden. It seemed as if everyone was moving on now. Everyone but me.
As the day neared its end, my unexpected symptoms barely managed to control themselves. I wondered for a while if it was all just in my head. I knew the power of the placebo effect all too well. Tim had once tricked me into believing I could run faster if I drank a special mineral solution he’d bring along during our training sessions. It was only after I’d managed to beat three of my own records that he revealed it to just be ordinary water. This thought managed to make me smile for a moment, albeit briefly. Our final class was nearly over when suddenly our instructor received a call. There was a brief pause in the lecture before the teacher turned his attention towards me. “Mr. Blakley,” he called out. “You apparently have an emergency call from your father. Go ahead and walk down to the office to talk.” I steadily rose from my chair and grabbed my things. Although the pain in my stomach was still quite present, I pushed the discomfort aside as it was instead replaced by confusion. My dad hardly ever bothered talking to me anymore. The business of his own life as well as our multiple arguments in the past worked to insure this separation. I couldn’t imagine what emergency it must’ve been for such sudden contact. When I reached the office, I was quickly handed the phone and told to stand in an adjacent room so as to keep the conversation completely private. “Hello?” I spoke in an uncharacteristically shaky voice. “Hi son,” came an eventual reply. My skin instantly turned pale. The voice on the other end was not my father at all. It was Jack. “Noticed anything missing today?” Jack asked in a casual tone. I clutched the phone as hard as I could; trying to find words to threaten him with. “Give up?” Jack finally interrupted. “Well we don’t have a lot of time. So, let’s make this brief and to the point.” My head panged with new flashes of anguish. “I’m here with your buddy, Tye,” Jack revealed at last. There was a brief pause before the sounds of stifled cries radiated from the background. I instantly dropped all of my supplies and bared my teeth. “What have you done to him?” I shouted; not caring if anyone else heard. “Nothing yet,” Jack replied. “And that’s the point. I’m gonna give you some time to come and save him. If my math checks out, you could probably run from the school to his place in about ten minutes… so I’ll be giving you five.” I brought my mouth closer to the receiver as sweat began to trail down my face. “If you lay a hand on him I’m gon-”. “Clock’s ticking,” Jack interjected before I could finish my threat. “Best not waste precious time trying to intimidate me.” I instantly let go of the phone and bolted from the room. Anyone in the office that attempted to call me back was quickly left in the dust. My headache subsided as if it were never there and my stomach began to settle with every passing step. Hills, snow, or cavities within the ground meant nothing to me now, I hadn’t even put on a jacket. None of it mattered. My burning rage kept me warmer than ever as I leapt over various stones or hidden stumps. Tye was one of the only people left who still respected me, who still comprehended my struggles. As I barreled my way through the icy snow on that Friday afternoon, I realized that if I couldn’t save Tye, then there would never be a way for me to save myself. My pace grew fiercer.
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed once I’d reached Tye’s street, but I knew there couldn’t be much remaining. I sprinted down the road and made a sharp turn through a few yards. When I bounded back into the road, a deafening horn sounded in my right ear. I turned just in time to spot a speeding vehicle headed straight for me. Thinking fast, I dove forward into the sidewalk, scraping my hands and wrists upon making the harsh landing. The driver of the car rolled down his windows and began shouting at me, but I didn’t bother hearing a word of it. Before he could manage to step out of his vehicle, I rose back to my feet and continued to dash through several yards. The entire time I hadn't even broken a sweat. It seemed as if when I was angry, I tended to handle things with much more speed and strength than usual. A chained-up dog with saliva wildly flying from its open maw began to lunge and bark at me as I ran past it. Although I had attempted to keep some distance, the mutt still managed to grab hold of the cuffs to my pants and attempted to hold me back. I nearly fell face first at the sudden jolt, but managed to keep my balance as I spun around and harshly tore myself loose from the beast’s iron clasp. My surroundings started to blur as the noises of barking hounds and honking cars became a muddled conglomerate of distant rackets. My eyes darted in every direction; desperately searching for Tye’s home. In this state of fear and anger, I couldn’t seem to quite grasp what it looked like. Finally, I stopped in my tracks and gathered myself a bit as I desperately searched my mind for an answer. At last it hit me. I took a few more turns around the block; cutting past various other cars in the process, before finally facing Tye’s house at the other end of the street. The door was shut, but the fence leading to the backyard remained blatantly hung open. Jack wasn’t hiding anymore. He wanted me to race here, wanted me to run out of energy so the fight would be all the easier for him. I knew I was walking into a trap, but there was no other way around it. Time wasn’t on my side anymore.
The snow reached up to my ankles now as I rushed to Tye’s backyard. My eyes immediately fixated on a patch of disturbed snow, where it appeared as if some previous skirmish had occurred. I had no doubt that Tye was on his way outside when Jack attacked him in this very spot. My heart skipped a beat as I saw several drops of blood resting atop more sections of irritated slush. “Jack!” I called out; smoke barreling from my mouth. “You shouldn’t shout,” a nearby voice replied. I spun around, finding Jack shuffling around the corner of the house, holding Tye in a fervent headlock. Tye was without a jacket, and visibly shivered as his nose ran with a steady stream of blood. His left eye was swollen and his upper lip seemed to be busted. I was too late. I began trudging through the deep snow, a look of horror now frozen across my face. Jack released Tye and allowed him to fall to the ground. I knelt by my friend’s side as Jack stood over us. Tye tried to speak, but his voice was so shaky that it couldn’t be understood. “No,” I whispered as Tye shed a few icy tears. “No, no, no.” “I tried calling for your apprentice on his phone,” Jack spoke as I dragged Tye underneath a nearby tree, where the snow wasn’t as high. “Apparently, he must not have received the message yet, but he will. Once I’m done with you, he’ll rush over here and find a similar fate waiting for him.” I gave one last look at Tye before spinning around to face Jack. “Nobody messes with my friends," I scolded. Jack didn’t bother smiling or laughing at the comment, instead choosing to earnestly shake his head in indifference. “I'll do whatever I want, Brett,” he replied. “You want truth? Today is one of my last days in Toparsburg. Soon I’ll be moving somewhere else. Somewhere where I no longer have to take crap from people like you. I figure I may as well make my going away gift as memorable as possible.” My mind struggled to remain clear as Tye groaned behind me. Any attempts at keeping my composure quickly began to diminish as Jack smirked at Tye’s stilted suffering. Before Jack could speak another word, I found myself sprinting straight at him, moving at speeds which made the deep snow seem nonexistent. Jack; anticipating this burst of rage, dodged my incoming fist before throwing one of his own straight at my jawline. The strike threw me off-balance as the snow started gripping at my feet. The back of my attacker’s hand swung straight into my face, finally planting me back-first into the snow. “Oh, I've been waiting for this,” Jack muttered as he pinned my torso down with his right knee. I lifted my head, only to find Jack’s fist soaring at me once more and striking at my brow. With every punch, my rage only grew stronger and my thoughts - cloudier. My left arm finally shot up from the ground; nailing Jack hard in his ribcage as my right hand intercepted his next throw. With all my strength, I barely managed to push Jack off me and rise from the snow. The beast attempted to stand with just as much vitality, but was far too slow to stop me from approaching him once more. With my eyes now lit with anger, I grabbed Jack by the backside of his jacket, swung him around to face me, and thrust my elbow downwards, into his nose. My attacker briefly attempted to raise his fists, only for me to throw him backwards. The deep snow prevented Jack from stopping the descent as he instead found himself tumbling into a chain-link fence. Jack’s weight bent the barrier inwards; making it all the more difficult for him to regain his footing. He hardly had the chance to look up before already finding me standing in front of him. “No!” Jack shouted bitterly as he lunged my way; attempting to slug at me. I effortlessly leapt out of his path; allowing my attacker’s own momentum to send him stumbling into the same tree I’d dragged Tye beneath. Jack tried steadying himself again, but now his nose was bleeding and his face had been covered in icy slush that stung at his eyes and ears. I no longer ran at him; instead choosing to walk forward and let him writhe in this newfound pain. He deserved every moment of it. Jack desperately wept the freezing water and frigid blood from his face while his hands shook involuntarily. Beginning to realize where this fight was going, he desperately turned his attention back towards Tye. My walk quickly evolved back into one final burst of speed as I yanked a brittle tree branch from the plant’s snowy innards. Just before Jack could reach out to his downed target, I brought the branch crashing down over his head before then slashing him across the face. The second strike was delivered with such ferocity, the entire stick shattered apart; imbedding various splinters into Jack’s pale face. The beast tumbled back into the tree, trying to raise his arm again, only for me to suddenly clasp my hands around his throat and pin him against the bark. “I tried to give you a chance last time!” I yelled through my teeth. Jack tried to scream, but my hold only grew tighter. “And you wasted it!” I clutched his throat tighter – still, and watched his pupils dilate in sheer terror. There was a pleasing silence to it all. No more threats or shouts of pain and anger. The silence infatuated me. It was as if I could hear the world for the first time and take in the extent at which I conquered. Finally, I released my foe; allowing his limp body to fall forward while I took to lifting my right knee so as to jab him in the stomach during his arc. Jack now laid before me; breathing heavily as his eyes struggled to stay open. For a while, I wanted him to get back up. I wanted him to feel the pain he’d earned, but his body now seemed numb to the world. A final kick to his head was all it took to finish the job. I had won the fight, but found myself still steaming with anger. I almost liked the way it felt.
I approached Tye once again and bent down beside him. He was still conscious, but unable to speak clearly. “Listen to me,” I ordered. “When you’re able to talk again, you need to call the authorities. Jack isn’t leaving this town. Not this easily.” Tye slowly nodded while I finally took in the fullest extent of his injuries. His eye had now fully developed a puffy, black aura about it, and his face was scattered with a multitude of various bruises and deep cuts. My heart sank. “I'm sorry,” I whispered. “I was too late… too slow.” I picked Tye up from beneath his arms and quickly attempted to drag him indoors. That’s when a new noise caught my attention. There was a sudden crunching of snow as George now ran into the backyard and immediately spotted me pulling Tye across the premises. Jack was hidden behind a dune of snow, making him nearly impossible to spot from my apprentice’s perspective. I stopped dragging Tye for a moment as I looked over to George; trying to put the situation into words. “Brett,” George chided with a growing look of horror across his face. “What happened? Wha-”. He cut himself off; now running closer to Tye in order to inspect him. I was still steaming with frustration and guilt, the likes of which made it hard to form a complete thought. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words could come out. George slowly looked up from Tye and stared at me for a moment. Then came the question. “Did... did you do this?” my apprentice questioned; immediately pulling Tye from my grasp and standing between us. That did it. That one sentence set me off. I finally understood what everyone thought of me now. George truly believed I was crazy enough to attack a friend. He truly believed I was no better than THEM. He truly believed that this was the real person I was. In was only in this moment that I understood he was never on my side to begin with. George saw me as everyone else did – a mistake. My apprentice thought so little of me that he really thought I’d hurt another innocent individual out of spite. However, in this moment, I refused to make the same mistakes as I did in the past. There wasn’t any running from it this time. There was no more cowering in fear or regret. I wouldn't stand for it any longer. It was time to fight back. “You're not my apprentice anymore,” I spoke whilst rising back to my full stature and stepping closer to George. “What am I then?” George shot back; trying to appear unaffected. “You’re just like all the rest now,” I said distantly. My hands balled back into fists as I stepped forward once again. “You’re an enemy.” Without a second thought, my fist launched straight into George’s chest. The wind was immediately knocked from his lungs as he rolled onto the ground in pain and shock. His legs briefly folded back up to stand, but my foot came crashing down over them as my free leg nailed George in his side. My former apprentice cried out in anguish; his body now rocking back and forth while he clung to his wound. His eyes began to build up with tears as I bent down and grabbed him by his collar. “It’s all done,” I spoke; my face growing red and my teeth gnashing together. “You follow me, and this only gets worse.” George let tears drop from his eyes as I turned away and fled the yard. I was running again, but this time with no destination. My mind was so cluttered with emotions, that concentration became nearly impossible. My entire psyche was a storm of feelings. Time became meaningless as I found myself slipping in and out of attention. One moment I found myself at home, walking in endless circles around my room. Then I appeared in an abandoned S.S.C shack, punching at the dead boards and rotting crates until my knuckled bled and my wrists ached. Then there was a final place; the place where I at last broke down. It was an alleyway in central Toparsburg; one of many. The sky had grown dark and the tight walls of the alley only served to amplify the sounds of racing cars. My heartbeat sped along with them. I found myself crouched against a wall and holding my head in my hands. What had I done? Why did I do it? How had it all come to this – ended like this? I couldn’t bear to keep up with it all. Everything had happened so fast, all in a blur. Tears streamed down from my eyes as the cold finally sunk in. My skin stung with every piercing breeze and my teeth chattered uncontrollably when flecks of snow rained down. There was something else there too; a feeling that I wasn’t alone in my torment. Slowly, I turned my head; finding a figure now standing behind me behind me, standing as motionless as a statue while the snow built up upon it. It was as if the figure had been here all along. I spun my entire body around and cowered against the wall. All the fight left within me had vanished. My mind was begging now. Begging for all this to stop. “P-Please,” I began to stutter in the freezing cold. The figure held up his hand to me; immediately bringing my words to a standstill. “Don’t worry, Brett,” came a deep voice. “I’m not here to fight you. I’m here to help you. They call me Dusk.”
My body remained glued to the wall as I attempted to get a better look at the figure, but truly it seemed as if my eyes could not fully grasp his form. His dark jacket was similar to that of Corruption's, with the hood drawn up and the addition of murky jeans and blackened gloves. A worn-out ski mask covered my guest’s face; revealing only his shadowy eyes and thin-lipped scowl. It seemed as if I was staring into a blackhole; cutting through the reality around it and warping my perception. For a brief moment, upon observing his superior height and form, I wondered if this figure could actually be Mask 15 - attempting to talk to me about what I’d done. This theory immediately fled from my mind as my visitor spoke once more; his voice far deeper than that of Trevor’s. “You look upset,” Dusk spoke in almost a whisper. “What’s troubling you?” I tried to answer him, but my voice was nowhere to be found. The figure seemed to understand my silence and merely nodded as he finally moved from his position and began to walk around me. In this light, I could not deduce an age, but he seemed much older than myself. My brain kept calling for me to run, but in spite of this, my body remained frozen. “I’m going to be honest with you, Brett,” Dusk began; his very words urging me to shiver. “I can be honest with you – can’t I?” I slowly nodded my head. “I’ve been watching you for some time now,” Dusk pointed out; briefly ceasing his amble. “We all have.” “I d-don’t understand,” I finally managed to answer. “I won’t expect you to,” Dusk assured. “But if you listen to me for a while, I guarantee everything will start to make sense. Dusk steadily bent down and picked a thick winter jacket from the ground. Had it been there before? He slowly reached it out, allowing me to take it from him and dawn the comforting balminess. I stuffed my hands down into the deep pockets and nestled my face into the jacket’s robust collar, taking it every bit of warmth I could. My mind seemed to shout at me again, telling me to turn and leave, to ignore what this figure had to say, but then there came another voice within me. A voice which reminded me the truth of the situation. What good would leaving this alley really do? I couldn’t go home - not for long anyways. I’d injured an S.S.C apprentice in cold blood. The S.S.C would be done with me now… even after all I had done for them. There was no turning back. This was the path I chose, and it had led me here. All for this. “I’m listening,” I finally promised as another strong breeze struck me. “What if I told you there was a fighting force that existed outside of the S.S.C?” Dusk questioned. My head immediately sprang back up and my eyes narrowed. “You’re with THEY,” I accused; feeling my blood beginning to boil once more. Dusk didn’t seem amused by the remark. “I would never stoop so low,” he retorted. “The truth of the matter is that the capabilities of THEM and the Fighters are both quite insignificant when compared to the offer I’m about to give you.” I blinked for a few moments; calming myself slightly while Dusk at last finished his circling and instead chose to stand across from me; allowing gusts of snow to pass between us like a curtain of white. “We call ourselves ‘The Darkness’,” Dusk went on to say. “It symbolizes our quiet life and purpose. We aren’t like the S.S.C and we aren’t like THEM. We don’t obsess over power or fame. We exist in order to help ourselves. Can you understand that? We choose not to step into the limelight, because we know what absolute effects it has on a person.” “What would that be?” I questioned; my head started to ache. “You of all people should know,” Dusk pointed out. “You’ve seen what the S.S.C is fast becoming. They want the limelight. They crave it. If only for the briefest of moments they’ll fight to step into glory’s shine. And if that light comes at the price of hurting others, distrusting them, or using them… well, they jump right to the occasion.” “They’re better than that,” I found myself stating, but truly I wasn’t sure of my own words. Dusk seemed aware of my confliction and allowed me to think it out for myself. “I suppose,” I continued at last. “They… might be growing towards that.” A great burden on my mind seemed to finally disappear upon admitting this truth. The relief allowed me to breathe again – albeit momentarily. “With THEM out of the way,” Dusk wagered. “It will only be a matter of time until they rule with an iron fist over Toparsburg… and every other city that the Fighters call home.” “The Darkness wants to destroy the S.S.C?” I now questioned. “I can’t help you with that… I don’t want to help you.” Dusk shook his head and briefly looked up at the crescent moon above us. “It’s like I said,” Dusk continued. “We fight for ourselves. Not to grow stronger like the S.S.C, but to be fulfilled by victory, and then move on. Our goal isn’t to destroy the S.S.C, but if you were to wish such a thing… then we’d help you achieve it. Consider it freedom as you’ve never had it before. The freedom to really think and act for yourself. No more orders or rules. You can be your own person with your own goals. Isn’t that what you wanted?” My eyes widened at the remark and my heartbeat seemed to speed up. They truly had been watching my struggles. It was what I wanted. “Why me?” I breathed at last; feeling another ache upon my head. “Why would you want somebody like me? I let hate and anger dictate what kind of fighter I was – what kind of person I was.” My thoughts rushed back to George as my eyes welled up with tears again. Nothing between us could ever be the same. I’d lost my apprentice and best friend all at once, with no effort at all. “Unlike the S.S.C,” Dusk replied. “I’m not here to judge your actions or tell you which way is right or wrong. If anger makes you stronger, then you are all the better for it. We have other members who have chosen other emotions to feel, and they prosper as such.” “And w-what do y-you feel?” I asked quietly; my heartrate growing inexplicably lurid. Dusk stared at me for a moment; an almost robotic look about him. “At the moment,” he revealed. “I feel a great deal of sorrow for you. Sorrow that it’s taken us this long to approach you, sorrow that the S.S.C’s influence has infected your senses to such a powerful degree, sorrow that you don’t realize these emotions allow you to reach your fullest potential. I know all too well that it’s not just the S.S.C that’s holding you back… it’s Tim Allender. Isn’t it?” “Tim?” I repeated; hearing the name echo around the alleyway; reverberating into my very soul. “We knew about him as well,” Dusk disclosed. “I know that although he is gone now, your memories of him still hold you back, still tell you to fight alongside the S.S.C. If it weren’t for him, you’d have left a long time ago. Could you believe that he was using you from the start?” A flame of rage erupted within me now as I finally moved forward towards Dusk. “What lies!” I shouted. “How could you know? He was my friend! He was different from the others! He didn’t crave power!” Darkness stayed calm; not budging as I grew closer to him. “As much as I hate to say it,” Dusk replied. “The Darkness seemed to know Tim Allender even better than you did. Hear me out wont you? While he was busy lying to you and concocting excuses to leave you behind, we could only watch. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that he told you everything about Machine? Do you really think it’s a mere accident that he taught you how to fight someone of Machine’s power and girth? And do you truly believe it was only by chance that he managed to vanish the moment you’d finished the job?” “You’re saying he used me to take down Machine for him?” I threatened; my eyes still wide with irritation. “What better way to install a figurehead into a dying club with no backbone?” Dusk quizzed. “The S.S.C needed a figure to look up to. It needed a pawn in order to distract THEM from the Fighter’s bigger plans. And it sure worked out… didn’t it?” I shoved Dusk against the wall of the alley and gripped his shoulders tightly. I could feel my strength returning and my abhorrence growing more intense. “He had you pegged as a puppet the moment he found you,” Dusk told me; his voice still unchanged. You were a target. He saved countless kids during his time as leader, you really believe he suddenly chose to take a random one in? It’s all been planned out. The S.S.C wants you to keep coming back to them, only so they can use you to accomplish more and more feats of victory. It’s all for them, never for you.” My breaths grew faster as I slowly released Dusk from my hold and backed up against the wall once more. My head was flooding with memories and my heart sank deeper into my chest with each recollection. “I’m here to free you, Brett,” Darkness spoke over my inner turmoil. His strong voice seemed to pin me back in place. Despite the jacket, I was trembling again. It felt as if my insides were churning now as I choked with every frigid breeze of air. I saw images flash before my eyes. One was of George. He was staring down at me in disgust. “Did you do this?” his voice echoed, then faded away. I tried to blink, but the images wouldn't stop. I saw Tim leaving me once my use had run out. I saw Tye’s battered and bloodied face – the friend I could have protected had I been stronger, had I been faster. I saw shadows of the S.S.C; all judging me behind my back; preparing to use my abilities for their own sick gains. I saw the disrespect that the school had placed upon my shoulders, what a joke I had become to everyone. And now there was a final image. It was Dusk still standing before me; offering me a deal like no other. A deal that could finally benefit me. I could earn strength, I could earn respect, I could earn freedom. It was all right here. All in this moment. I no longer had to be a symbol for the S.S.C. I could become something far simpler, yet so much freer; a symbol for myself. I felt tears run down my cheeks and freeze themselves to my face. It was time to put these memories to rest, to dispose of them. Tim didn’t matter and neither did George. The S.S.C, THEM, and the school didn’t matter either. I was free now, I could shape them however I saw fit. There was a long silence, not the sound of a single footstep or car. There was no honking, no breathing, no shouting. Everything was silent again. Everything was at peace. “We can help you feel this freedom wherever you go,” Dusk whispered. “But you have to join us now… this offer begins tonight and it ends tonight. It’s time for you to make that choice.” Dusk outstretched his hand to me; unwavering in the cold air. “I understand now,” I slowly spoke. My hand met his and we shook. “I now have a new question for you,” Dusk replied as we parted. “Where do you want to begin?”
The End of a Hero:
Everything changed that night. The Brett Blakley which had walked into that alleyway was an all-new person upon exiting it. Now it felt as if the shackles which had once held me down, were at last removed from both my body and my mind. I was something better than Brett Blakley, and there was still so much left to be done. What was coming would be by my design only. Dusk promised that once I had proven myself to The Darkness, they’d back me up wherever I’d go. Dusk – it seemed, was my master now. It felt as if I was an apprentice again, but not in a subduing way. It was the only method at which I could hope to strengthen myself further. There were a lot of changes ahead, and I wanted to make sure I had the power to carry it out. Loyalty to George, to the school, or to the S.S.C – it was all pointless. The only loyalty left within me, favored The Darkness and no other. I was a part of it now. Dusk had told me something interesting before I’d left that night. He’d explained to me that anyone within the group was of equal footing. There were no true ranks or differing codenames. He told me to call him Darkness, just as he’d call me. All of us were Darkness – equal despite our differences. Time passed, I spent the dawn of 2011 watching the fireworks from Marinay River. I laid alongside the still waters, tucked my arms behind my head, and watched their brilliant explosive sheen streak against the night sky. I smiled and closed my eyes. This would be my year to conquer.
With every passing day, I learned more about myself – more than any of my years within the S.S.C had ever come close to teaching me. Dusk – or ‘Darkness’ as I now respectfully referred to him, met me all around Toparsburg during nightfall. While his bleak appearance and hidden identity always remained the same, I noticed that my own appearance was vastly altering. Darkness’s strict training pushed me to my absolute limits, and my musculature became far more notable when compared to my previous frame. I kept my hair cut much shorter than before; keeping it shaved closely to my scalp. My old S.S.C garb was tucked away and Darkness instead supplied me with new articles of clothing; most of them black or dark gray in nature; so as to keep us better camouflaged in the night. Following one training exercise, Darkness provided me with various coats, gloves, and even a ski mask which closely mirrored his own. For a brief second, I nearly felt compelled to take it all from him in order to show my unwavering loyalty, but then I recalled that the S.S.C’s tiers of respect nolonger applied here. I accepted the warm clothing, but refused the mask, and Darkness was fine with it. He was fine with it because unlike everyone else, he respected my decisions and allowed me the freedom to make my own choices. Besides, I had no intention of hiding my face from the world. I wanted everyone to see how I was changing. I wanted them to know who I was and understand what I wanted. Dark bags hung around my eyes as I sacrificed sleep for either personal training or meetings with my master. Darkness was blunt and always to the point, he never shied away from telling me when I wasn’t working hard enough. “It’s only once you’ve reached your full potential that I’ll let you meet the rest of our group,” Darkness told me months ago. “It will take time and patience, but rest assured that they look upon you with great favor. They see your efforts and approve.” Although I deeply desired to meet with the rest of The Darkness, I nevertheless refused to complain. I could get a decent amount of my plans done on my own. I remained indoors quite often during the early morning hours. As such, hardly any of my classmates were even marginally aware of my new personality. School would be starting up in only a week, then I’d show them. Tye was the only person who I vowed not to hurt, but in order for my training to truly set in, I chose to cut off all contact with him. There simply wasn’t enough time for friends anymore. George had attempted several calls or visits to my premises, but all of these approaches were swiftly ignored. Despite my festering anger towards him, some part of me still clung to the idea that I could perhaps avoid teaching him another lesson. I’d start with the school, make them realize that I refused to be pushed around anymore. Only after my piers understood this fact and accepted it, would I move on to dealing with the S.S.C. What laid beyond that? I didn’t care to think any further.
The sun was setting on a rather chilly Thursday afternoon. Although my warm gear helped a great deal in shielding me from the elements, Darkness had been occasionally instructing me on how to acclimate to the cold without these wares. “Coats, jackets, and gloves only get in the way during a fight,” he had explained. “Their usefulness must be postponed if you’re to best an enemy.” I was heading to see Darkness now, as he had told me to meet him in the abandoned cornfield around midnight. He’d also instructed me to bring my old S.S.C shirts. The walk would be long and bitterly frigid as the hours passed, but this didn’t slow me down for even a moment. Not wanting to attract much attention to myself while the sun was still out, I chose to cut through a small wooded area which lied between my house and central Toparsburg. Several small S.S.C outposts encircled the area, but most of them were either abandoned or severely understaffed – or so I had thought. Although I had originally felt quite safe within the shadowy canopy of trees, there soon came a persistent feeling that I was being watched. I stopped in my tracks and looked around for a while; finding myself surrounded only by dead, tall weeds and bushes. Nonetheless, the feeling that I wasn’t alone still endured. I began walking slower and quieter as I passed though. If it were only a bit darker then I’d stand a fighting chance at merely blending in with the shade. The moment I realized myself to be thinking like this, I felt sickened by my lacking courage. I’d been training with Darkness for months now, and was more than capable of defending myself against any sort of foe. I didn’t need to run or hide. I was in control here, and it was time my observer realized it. My pace suddenly quickened to a near sprint as I dodged around trees and leapt over rocks or fallen branches. After clearing a few meters, I stopped dead in my tracks and listened. Sure enough, there came the rustling of footsteps not far behind me. My trick had paid off, someone truly was following me. I spun around and gazed out at the trees again. This time I was just fast enough to spot a person’s shoulder pass behind a bush. I smiled and slowly began to walk that way. The closer I got, the more I began to hear whispers. My watcher wasn’t alone. When I’d finally gotten within arm’s reach of the bush, an S.S.C soldier sprang up and backed away from me. Before I could say a single word, other S.S.C soldiers began appearing from behind trees and bushes. I slowly turned myself to look upon each of them. There were four total; all of them elites. “What’s this about?” I questioned while shrugging my shoulders. There was a brief silence amongst the elites as an unseen fifth figure approached my side. I turned and found it to be none other than Mask himself. “I think you know perfectly well what this is about,” he spoke in a deepened voice. “I haven’t done anything,” I was quick to respond; a smile crossing my face. The elites seemed confused by my behavior. Had they expected me to be so weak before them? “It’s not so much about what you’ve done,” Mask replied while stepping away from me a bit. “It’s more about what you will be doing.” I offered no remark and allowed Mask to loop around me once before stopping to look me straight in the face. Although his piercing dark stare attempted to exude power, I could detect some uncertainty behind it. His jawline; which remained tightly wrapped with a black cloth, did not appear to be in an outline of a smile nor scowl. Instead his mouth’s outline revealed a downtrodden frown. He hoped to keep this fear a secret, but in the end, I could practically see right through his mask as if it were transparent. “We’ve been trying to reach you for some time now,” Mask continued. “You’ve refused to answer any calls or visits. You’ve even skipped out on some very important meetings in which everyone was to attend. The suspicion attracted from this disappearance led to us approaching your apprentice.” Finally, my smile faded. “He told us everything Brett,” Mask revealed. “He tried to tell us that it was a simple misunderstanding and that you were just blowing off some steam. Maybe we would have believed that if it wasn’t for you more recent activities.” I raised an eyebrow and saw some of the elites closing in around me. My head started to grow heated with anger, but I refused to act on it just yet. “What activities?” I answered at last; legitimately unaware as to what he was speaking of. Mask took a step closer; now only a couple feet in front of me. His height was greater than my own, but our breadth seemed quite evenly matched. “We have reports,” Mask spoke in an irritated tone. “Reports of you beating up on one of your old hecklers from the school. The reports stated how you followed him away from home, only to ambush him on the outskirts of the town square. He lost two teeth and ended up with a shattered collarbone.” My eyes narrowed with a sudden confusion. I had no memory of such an attack. “That’s impossible,” I stated in honesty. Mask didn’t look at all amused. “There’s also a report of you meeting with a cloaked individual in the old park,” Mask brought up. “Are you going to deny that as well?” The elites took another step closer. I wasn’t about to tell them anything regarding Darkness or his group, so I remained silent. “Nothing to say, huh?” Mask doubted; his confidence was beginning to develop. “I’ll make this short and to the point. We’re not here to hurt you, Brett. We’re here to get answers. My superiors now believe you are working with THEY; trying to build them back from the ground up. Obviously, the Fighters cannot allow that to happen.” His words struck me like a bullet. I was above THEY, and certainly above the likes of these cowards. I remembered Darkness’s teaching and dispelled my fear; allowing my rage to take control once more. “You’re all liars,” I finally spat. The elites refrained from stepping forward again as they instead looked towards Mask for guidance. “You make up these stories and these threats. That’s what it is, isn’t it? You want the conflict. Or maybe you just want to control me again, stuff me in a cage while you bark orders.” “Don’t do anything you’re going to regret, Brett,” Mask interrupted. I refused to be hushed now. “I have news for you, Trevor!” I shouted. “I’m not a puppet of the S.S.C’s anymore! And nothing you say or do here is going to stop what’s coming! The S.S.C and THEM – they’ve both had their time. Now it’s up! You and your team here – fighting alongside each other because you’re too spineless to face me alone – you all fear that end more than anything.” Mask’s brow drew downwards and his eyes flickered away for a second. He wouldn’t dare own up to any of it. “That’s why you hope to take care of me just before the school year starts, isn’t it?” I realized. “You’re hoping to sweep all the S.S.C’s demons under the rug in order to give yourself a better image. That’s all the S.S.C is to you people – an image that’s warped with the times. You have no real personality, no real code! It’s all a front! You might have the others fooled, but not me!” “I’m giving you one last chance to cooperate,” Mask ordered; that indeterminate frown returning across his mug. My face was turning red and my knuckles – white. For a brief moment, the memories of my time within the S.S.C came flooding back – those fleeting sights and sounds of my past. I used to owe the S.S.C a great debt. They’d accepted me, taught me, watched me grow, but now that time had come to pass. My memories faded back into the recesses of my mind as I looked down at my feet. I used to owe the S.S.C, but now it owed me. And the price would be great. My fist swung out.
Bedlam erupted instantaneously upon my landing strikes. Mask – not suspecting such a sudden attack; was knocked straight in his temple as my opposite arm bowed outwards to pound one of the nearby elite’s throats. Trevor and the soldier immediately tumbled to the ground; with the remaining three troopers immediately leaping back to avoid any further attacks. Mask rolled upon the ground for a short while before slowly blacking out, while his counterpart gagged for air nearby. One of the elites lunged forward at me; extending his arm out towards my chest, only for me to catch hold of it and slam his entire limb over my rising knee. The elite shouted in agony as I released my grip on him; allowing his body to tumble over his fallen friend. Only two elites remained now, with both of them starting to circle around me; careful not to get too close. Although taller and quite older than myself, I still saw flaws in the eyes of these troopers. They were scared, uncertain, alone – just as I used to be. The only difference was that I chose to act against these feelings. I chose the path of freedom, while they couldn’t even begin to imagine what they’d lost. I felt no pity towards these elites – those who sat upon their high horse and watched the pawns do all the work. In time, I’d be the one to free these hostages of rank. I’d show them what The Darkness had to offer and they’d share my liberty, but these ‘leaders’ would never know the feeling. Their time was over. I dashed forward; kicking one elites in the stomach while attempting to jab my foot back at the trooper behind me. While my first target stumbled back into a tree, my second managed to avoid my foot, grab it, and yank it out from under me; sending my body falling face first to the ground. Both the elites immediately tackled me as I attempted to stand; weighing me down with their combined heaviness and occasional blind strikes. A fist glanced the side of my face for a brief moment, crashing into the side of my left eye. The pain and struggle surging through my body only helped to develop my anger. Instead of trying to push myself back up, I allowed my arms to fold beneath me; crashing the three of us back into the ground as I barely managed to free my right arm. Now reaching behind me; my hand latched on to one of my suppressor’s head of hair. Immediately my fist caught hold of his scalp before jerking his head wildly back and forth until it crashed into the nearby face of my second attacker. This forced headbutt instantly dazed my opponents; allowing me the time to free my other hand and one of my legs; which promptly lashed out at one of the elite’s guts, sending him rolling off me. With the weight on my back now reduced; I found the strength to shove the remaining elite away from me before rising back to a standing posture and stomping his head into the ground. The trooper who’s arm I had badly injured from before, now rose from the ground along with the one which had dared to first tackle me. Without saying a word, both began racing towards me as I stood over a downed soldier. Without a moment of hesitation, I stepped backwards several feet; causing my attackers to trample over their own fallen friend – unable to slow down in time to avoid him. As both looked down in terror at the damage they’d done; I rushed onward – grabbing one elite by the collar and slamming him into a nearby tree. The back of his skull made a sickening thump as it struck the base, immediately knocking him out cold. The remaining elite attempted to run up from behind me, only for my reflexes to kick in just in time to duck. The elite’s arm came soaring overhead, allowing me to grab it and use my superior leverage to toss him over my shoulder. The soldier tumbled to the ground; whacking his head on yet another tree. I breathed heavily for the next few moments; my teeth barred and my eyes wide with adrenaline. I desperately tried to soak up the muteness of the scene, but the concentration was quickly broken as two of the fallen elites groaned to themselves or cursed under their rapid breaths – frantically trying to stand despite their pain. Every noise they dared utter only served to fuel my fury. With my body now acting on instinct; I found myself rushing to each and every remaining trooper, nailing each and every one of them with several harsh kicks to the chest, side, and head. It didn’t seem as if I was awake anymore. Everything was a daydream as the sounds steadily dissipated. While the air stilled, I stepped past my fallen enemies and stared out at the distant glowing lights of central Toparsburg. I wondered if The Darkness was watching me now. I wondered if I’d impressed them. Despite my victory, I still felt weakness in my attacks, a sense of doubt. I obviously hadn’t reached my full potential yet; the swelling in my left eye helped make that clear, but I was getting stronger each day. Just as I began to limp out of the woods, there was the sudden sound of crashing leaves and branches from just behind me. My body whirled around to face the approaching noise; only to find a reawakened Mask rushing towards me at full speed. Feeling my muscles tense up one last time; I threw out a punch to stop him dead in his tracks, but my attacker was too quick-witted; able to effortlessly grab hold of my arm and pull me into a tight headlock. My feet desperately kicked out from beneath us; trying to throw Mask off-balance, but he soon began to slowly crouch down with me still very much within his grasp. His hold remained tight and steady while I could only grunt in pain. “It’s over!” Mask breathed through clenched teeth as I rocked us back and forth even more; exhausting more of my energy, as well as his. Trevor’s hold constricted my throat even further. “You’ve let us all down, Brett!” he continued. “You were supposed to be the one everyone looked up to! I might not have seen it, but the younger generation did! You were their hero, Brett! The hero even a Mask couldn’t live up to! And now look at you!” “Shut up!” I interrupted; arching myself backwards to wildly headbutt him. His hold strengthened once more. I couldn’t breathe now, my eyes madly blinked and my heart skipped a beat. Fear was setting in; the fear that I was wrong. What if Mask was telling the truth? What if the S.S.C really did care for me more than they let on? What if everything I was fighting for was useless? The thoughts rushed through my head like a mad storm. My hands began to feel numb and my mouth grew dry. A brief flash of blackness came upon me, then another, and another. For just a second; I closed my eyes entirely and began to embrace the bleakness of it all. I was no more than an insignificant bug to the likes of the S.S.C. No single person could ever hope to stop them. It was all over. “No,” I caught myself presently murmuring. The voice didn’t sound as if it was my own. It was grizzled and without feeling. As if in a trance, my eyes sprung back open and my mouth unlocked; prompting me to shout into the night like a wild, wounded animal. With all my remaining strength, I lurched forward; allowing all of my weight to topple both Mask and myself to the ground. Mask’s hold on me immediately loosened; allowing my numb arms to tear him off me and my shaky legs to support a standing posture. Mask tried to rise along with me, but my foot immediately came crashing down upon his hand; bringing with it an audible snap. Mask cried out in grief as my right arm reached down and clung to his throat. I was shaking all over now – overloaded with conflicting emotions and aching pain throughout my body. My free arm reached down and ripped the mask from Trevor’s face; revealing a frightened grimace and blood running down from his nostrils, into his beard. My foe’s piercing gaze seemed to vanish entirely as now my own look of determination shined down upon him. Trevor’s eyes squeezed shut as he clawed madly at my hand; while his other limb hung limply at his side. He tried to speak, but couldn’t manage anything beyond mere whimpers. “Let me tell you something,” I found myself speaking again over Trevor’s anguish. “If the S.S.C tries sending anyone else after me, there will be consequences. You and your team got off easy here, today.” Trevor attempted to open his eyes, but couldn’t seem to muster the strength. He reached out a gripped my forearm. I felt his strength as it slowly began to dissipate. “Do you hear me?” I repeated. “I say when it’s over! Not you! Not the S.S.C! I’m my own person and nothing you say or do will ever change that!” I was shouting at the top of my lungs now; not caring if the pitch hurt my throat. I had to send a message, and that message was dominance. Trevor held his grasp of my arm a bit longer before his head finally swung limply forward. I released him and allowed his body to fall to the ground. I stared around the woods again; spotting each of my attackers still lying in the dirt. If they knew what was best for them, they wouldn’t return. I left.
Although significantly late, I managed to make my way to the abandoned cornfield where Darkness awaited me. His black form was difficult to distinguish during such late hours, so I had to rely on gut instincts to sufficiently track him down. At last I spotted something moving just over a large hill. Sure enough, upon closer inspection, I found a strange portion of land where no weeds or scattered grass seemed to grow. It appeared as a large circle; distinctly dim amidst the surrounding property. My master sat near the circle; setting up a few twigs and leaves into a single, large pile. “I’m sorry,” I admitted as I drew closer. “I tried to arrive sooner, but the S.S.C ambushed me on the way.” I hung my head low and prepared to be reprimanded, but instead Darkness only motioned for me to take a seat across from him. “We know,” he replied at last. “The Darkness oversaw some of your fray.” “Were they satisfied?” I asked; growing worried by his somber tone. “I can’t be sure just yet,” my master replied. “I worry that they might believe you still hold some allegiance to your old unit.” “I don’t,” I quickly dismissed. “I see how they operate. They want to suppress me as much as they can. It won’t happen.” Darkness nodded for a moment and pulled a lighter from his pocket. “Be that as it may,” Darkness continued. “I believe there is only one way to prove to them that you are really on our side.” My master bent down and ignited the pile of debris between us. “You brought your old S.S.C uniforms, correct?” I paused a moment, finally realizing why he’d ordered me to take them along. I carefully removed my backpack and pulled out several blue shirts I’d obtained over the years. The fire burned brighter between us; it’s embers illuminating Darkness’s masked face as he stared at me with his impossibly black eyes and waited. I gazed at the bundles of shirts within my hands; rubbing my fingers through the fibers. Quickly, the fire began to die down, with the debris not serving as great enough fuel to last very long. “I’ll only be lighting this fire once,” Darkness made clear. I looked back at the shirts again; spotting an S.S.C patch dimly lit by the dying flames. Soon the fire quelled itself, leaving nothing but crackling cinders; riddled with brilliant orange spots of heat. My heart pounded within my chest as I looked back to Darkness; noticing a look of disappointment growing across him. Steadily, the orange lights began to fade. I bit my tongue and grabbed two shirts from the top of the pile; holding them gingerly over the ashes. My heart skipped a beat, as the heat was not enough to reignite a flame. Instantaneously, I dropped down to my hands and knees; blowing into the smoking remains. Finally, the fire spurred back to life for just an instant; catching on to the shirts and devouring them without prejudice. I looked back; finding three other uniforms still within my possession. Trying not to look weak, I grabbed one and effortlessly tossed it within the growing flames. I took hold of the next – a summer shirt with the S.S.C patch sewn haphazardly onto the right shoulder and chest. I’d received this uniform not long before meeting George. I was likely wearing it the first time we ever trained together. I swallowed for a moment; feeling my hands starting to shake again. The fire began to dwindle. I closed my eyes and bunched the shirt up in my hands – holding it out over the fire as if it were some sort of grand sacrifice. At last, the shirt was released into the blazes below. My fingers felt around to the final remaining suit. Unlike the rest, this winter shirt was heavily faded; no longer exhibiting its previously brilliant blue luster. One patch towards the arm had long-since fallen off, and stains of dirt heavily clouded the remaining insignia as well as various joint regions. The cotton had clumped up in some areas, appearing as small orbs of grimy, torn silk. I stared at this shirt the longest of all. It was one of the first outfits I’d ever been given. Tim had offered it to me himself. I became mystified at the size; which now seemed much too small for me. It was like gazing back into another era, looking upon my past. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the fire growing dangerously low while Darkness tapped his foot, impatiently. My nails dug into the thin strands; I couldn’t seem to let go of it. I felt tears growing in my eyes, and quickly rose my sleeve up to my face to wipe them away before Darkness could notice. I tried to turn back towards the flames, but everything seemed still now. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move. I could only sit there and wait as the fires finally died out once more. Only this time, I shut my eyes and waited for the crackling to end. When my vision eventually returned, I found the light to be completely stamped out. Without saying a word, Darkness slowly rose from the ground and turned away from me; beginning to walk back into the night. I bit down harder on my tongue and clasped the shirt tighter within my palms. It was time to make a choice. The choice between nostalgia or the future. “Wait!” I called out. Darkness stopped and turned back towards me. With my hands still shaking; I held the shirt out in front of me; grasping it by both sides of the collar. In one grand motion, I pulled my hands in opposite directions; tearing the shirt straight down the middle, before tossing into the blackness behind me. “Your reminiscence worries me,” my master stated bleakly. He seemed as if he might turn around once more, but I held up my hand to him; begging for a second chance. “I can prove my loyalty,” I swore as my head pounded. “When school starts up again, my first target… will be George.”
Although I’d made no contact with George since our falling-out, I’d picked up several bits of information on him via osmosis. He and Samantha had apparently become a couple. George still fiercely served the S.S.C as a master, but did not take in any apprentices just yet. Maybe he didn’t think himself worthy of it, or perhaps his girlfriend was holding him back. I’d never admit it to Darkness, but I still did not wish to confront my old friend. I may have disagreed with his choices, but perhaps one day he could join us… if only I could make him see. Unfortunately, this course of action was simply no longer an option. I’d offered to put George in his proper place, and that’s exactly what I’d do. I didn’t explicitly tell my new master that I’d hurt George, but instead make it clear to him that my allegiance lied outside of the S.S.C. If I was ever going to truly dissuade any further attacks, George would be a good place to start. He could warn them of what I was capable of. The matter wasn’t as simple as merely approaching him at his home. I wanted him to feel threated. So, I chose to wait till school came back in session. Over the course of the night, I ran several ideas through my head; trying to find the right balance of intimidation and respect. If George were smart, he wouldn’t challenge me, and everything could persist smoothly, but this seemed unlikely in the end. School didn’t feel like a death sentence as it had prior to my sudden disappearance. Instead, as I walked through the front doors and stared out over the masses of each and every age group, I felt a sense of superiority take hold of my soul. There was a glimmer of fear somewhere behind my smile. There was so much work to be done, so much that needed to be changed; it was quite overwhelming, but in a visceral and exciting way. I had hardly advanced past the first set of lockers when I noted various S.S.C troopers looking over to me, dropping their current conversations or activities. I didn’t bother ignoring their judgmental glares, instead choosing to gaze back at them and nod. Regular students seemed to also be aware of my confrontation with Mask and the elites, as many opted to dash out of my path and avoid getting too close. I recognized some of my hecklers; now completely silent, almost stunned by my mere existence. What little fear had spurred within my head, was now very much extinguished. I didn’t have to do nearly as much work as I’d thought. The thing about Toparsburg, was that word spread fast. This fact had used to be one of my greatest grievances against both the town and its school, but now I couldn’t be made happier. I was a force to be reckoned with, and everyone was starting to understand that. The day went on with similar results. It was only when lunch came around, that things began to heat up. Despite the lingering cold, students were given the option to eat outdoors, with many obliging out of sheer desperation to get some fresh air. I also chose to go outside, and spotted a place to sit. It was a newly installed bench, placed just next to a memorial which had been constructed ages ago for a student who’d died. Tim had met me here once to talk S.S.C politics. I bit my tongue, as if such a maneuver could possibly cease the memory. In my brief moment of reflection, a student and one of his friends had quickly grabbed the table and were now busying themselves by unloading their meals. My approach did not halt. Very soon, I recognized one of these kids as being a close friend of R.K. As soon as my shadow fell upon them, their heads twisted around, only to become bleached in white, after recognizing me. “Don’t tell me,” R.K.’s friend mumbled; trying to keep his composure. “You want this table?” “You’d be right,” I replied in a straightforward manner; stopping just at the cusp of the seats. Both immediately began to rise and walk away, but not before the same kid could turn to me and try to get in the last word. “I guess you better enjoy it,” he spoke. “I heard about what h-happened. The S.S.C is gonna rain down on you, any day.” I steadily turned to face the kid; freezing him in place as his friend scattered away like a frightened mouse. “W-woah! Calm down, man!” the kid conceded; throwing his hands up in the air. I hadn’t even realized it, but a scowl had crossed my face. I didn’t fight it. “I think I’ve been calm enough,” I spat. “With both you and you’re ringleader.” The kid tried to move, but still found himself glued to the ground before me. “Random Kid and the rest of us, haven’t done anything,” he stuttered. “R.K. never even brings you up anymore! Honestly.” I took a step forward as the kid took a step back; finding himself pinned against the memorial. “I don’t buy it,” I at last expressed while cracking my knuckles. “But I guess I can always find out the truth with some different measures.” Just as I prepared to take another step, a voice called out from behind me. I gazed at the terrified student; visibly shaking as he closed his eyes and dropped his food onto the pavement. “Leave him alone, Brett,” the new voiced ordered. I sighed and turned away from the kid; allowing him to run away. George now stood across from me; Samantha not far behind him; looking worried for her boyfriend’s safety. George carefully walked closer to me. He seemed taller than I’d remembered him, and his physical form had grown far more intimidating; hardly a tier below my own. His blue eyes focused in on my every feature as well. His movements became more rigid, the closer he got; preparing to break into a fighting stance at the drop of a pin. “I know you’re upset,” George continued. “But leave your protests to the S.S.C, not to innocent students.” “I wouldn’t call them ‘innocent’,” I was quick to correct. “He’s part of the problem. The problem of ungrateful students. The Fighters are responsible for lulling them into this state of weakness. I intent to correct that.” George finally stopped about five feet out in front of me. “I won’t deny the S.S.C has problems,” George granted. “But they’re still dealing with their big victory. You’re stirring things up, and I’m the only one holding their leash. If it weren’t for me, they’d all be after you.” “Is that what they’ve told you?” I questioned; my eyebrows drooping. “You honestly think they give a damn about your opinion? You aren’t doing a thing. They’re afraid of me.” “They’re afraid of what you might do!” George shouted. Some students looked over at us, but tried not to show too much interest. “Listen,” my old apprentice stated with a sigh. “Let’s talk about this. You and me, nobody else. We can sort this out, but you have to be rationa-”. “I have nothing to debate,” I intervened. Samantha seemed to be backing farther away from the scene. Her face was stricken with a greater fear than even that of the student who’d been previously cornered. “So, don’t attempt to fight me,” I lectured. “Because I will make your life and your girl’s life, a living hell.” George’s blue eyes finally ignited with a stroke of anger. “You’re mad,” I pointed out. “Now you’re beginning to understand how I feel. So, come on. Why don’t you come a bit closer and make me eat my words?” “You’d like that, huh?” George growled as he bunched up his fists. “I think we both know somebodies gotta fall,” I explained. “So, I’ll give you till the count of three to make a move.” George seemed almost overwhelmed by the sudden ticking clock. Silence fell over the entire courtyard. “One,” I breathed. George remained standing across from me. He briefly shot a glance at Samantha; motioning for her to go inside. “Two,” I counted through my teeth; feeling my own fury boiling just beneath the surface. George scrunched his face up, as if the mere choice of the situation had left a sour taste in his mouth. I thought he might cry. “Three,” I snarled at last. George didn’t move an inch. With flawless speed, I lunged forward; kicking George hard in his ribs. He’d attempted to block the move, but his hand was effortlessly smashed against his stomach, with the remainder of the blow knocking him down onto the concrete. George sat up as I prepared another strike, when out of nowhere, Samantha threw herself between the two of us; clinging to George’s shoulder, preventing him from standing. “Stop!” she cried in a shrill tone. “Please don’t!” George tried to brush her arm away, but she only held to him tighter. Her eyes stared desperately back up to me. “Please,” she pled once more; almost in a whisper. George’s eyes shifted downwards; no longer able to look at me. I steadily allowed my adrenaline to fade away. An understanding smile crossed my face again; as if the entire conflict had never occurred. “Does he get the message?” I asked. “He gets it!” Samantha shouted before George could say a word. “Then I’ll be on my way,” I replied. I slowly walked past Samantha and George; with neither saying a word or inhaling a single breath of air. Now only a foot away from them, my body spun back around; with my leg nailing George in his side; sending him curling into a pitiful ball of grief. Samantha let out a fearful cry, while I simply turned away again. “Just thought I’d doublecheck,” I added. Samantha’s sobs disappeared over the messy sounds of indoor chatter.
Loss Before Loss:
Darkness waited for me in the same abandoned cornfield, that night. I was beginning to favor the high hills, which blocked any distant cars from spotting us. There was also the fact that if the S.S.C attempted to send any spies our way, we’d be able to spot them with relative ease amongst the nothingness. “It’s done,” I quickly assured upon approaching him. Darkness didn’t speak; perhaps signaling for me to explain more. “I confronted George,” I continued. “He tried to stand up to me and it didn’t work out for him.” “Do you lie on purpose?” Darkness finally replied with a hint of malice. “Or have you truly fooled yourself?” My mouth drew open to speak, but I couldn’t seem to find any words amidst my confusion. “You didn’t approach him,” Darkness finally elaborated. “He approached you. He hardly challenged you at all, and you believe a couple of mere kicks will halt his loyalty towards the S.S.C?” My eyes widened as I realized he – or someone else from The Darkness, had been watching the whole confrontation. “His girlfriend caught me off-guard,” I admitted. Darkness grew closer to me as a powerful glare came over what little pieces of his face I could spot. I instinctively cowered downwards at his approach. “I’m trying to help you make a way for yourself,” Darkness addressed; bitterly. “And instead of reaching your full potential, you let a girl stand in your way?” “What was I supposed to do?” I defended. “Attack her as well?” “That’s your decision to make,” Darkness reminded me; keeping his invisible hold over my body. “Distractions can’t be tolerated. George may have fallen, but he let you walk away. You and I both know he’s not going to change until he realizes you can’t fall.” I offered no reply; briefly looking away at the surrounding blackness. Suddenly, Darkness’s fist hurtled out from my blind spot; striking me squarely in the chest and knocking me back with almost superhuman force. “Never look away from an opponent!” he shouted. “The moment you do that, you’ve already lost! Do you understand me?” “Yes, sir!” I replied impulsively as I picked myself back up. Darkness dashed at me the moment I regained my balance; attempting to strike my chest again. I narrowly caught hold of his fist with both my hands, only for him to effortlessly knee me in the stomach. The resulting shock passing through my body caused my hold on him to weaken. In no time at all, Darkness freed his arm from my grasp and pushed me backwards before I could lash out with a kick of my own. “You’re slow,” my master called. I could no longer see him. His form had once again blended in with the night. The moon had vanished behind a herd of thick clouds; and now I could hardly spot my own hand before my face. I heard footsteps around me now. One to my left, then to my right. Suddenly there came one from just a couple feet behind me. I turned with a powerful roundhouse kick; my leg striking nothing but air. I hadn’t even the time to plant my foot back on the ground when Darkness appeared to my left and shoved me to the ground once more. His form vanished the moment my face winced from impact. “I understand!” I shouted into the nothingness. “I’m sorry! I’ll do better!” My heart began pulsating rapidly. I was feeling sick again. “I swear!” I called once more; my voice breaking under its own volume. “Next time I will make sure I approach him first! Element of surprise and everything! I’ll make sure he understands!” My master finally emanated from the dark shroud before me. He extended his hand to my collapsed form. I cautiously took hold; expecting the worst, but to my thankful surprise, the gesture was genuine. “I only do these things because I hate to see you lying to yourself,” my master disclosed. “I see your full potential, but you don’t. Not yet. It’s a terrible thing to waste.” “I understand,” I replied with an immediate truthfulness. “You’re getting better,” Darkness continued; stepping away from me and giving me a chance to breathe again. “I saw you had a few brief conflicts after school had ended. The memory had strangely almost left my mind, but he was right. I recalled exiting the school later in the day, hoping to track down some stragglers such as R.K.’s friends. Sure enough, I’d spotted a couple who’d once casually knocked the books from my hands as I was on my way to class. They’d found it hysterical at the time, but now the memory of their old wrongdoings seemed to haunt them. They begged for me to leave them alone, with that common mixture of terror and false hope in their voices, but I’d told them it simply wasn’t possible. I couldn’t quite remember exactly what I’d done to them. All I could picture were various states of me tossing them into walls or bending one’s arm around his back until he cried out for mercy. “It may seem harsh now,” Darkness interrupted my thoughts. “But eventually they’ll understand that all you want is respect.” “What if they never understand?” I spoke under my breath; ignoring the urge to look down at my feet. There was a quiet pause again. “Well,” Darkness replied. “Then I suppose they’ll just need to be taught a bit harder.” I began to feel uncomfortable by this vague talk, and attempted to briefly change the subject. “I think I know I good place to continue,” I offered. “I didn’t see R.K. at school the other day… but if I spot him the next time around, it’d be great to put him in his proper place.” I expected Darkness to immediately agree with me, but instead he remained strangely quiet. “Something wrong?” I asked. My master’s eyes seemed to be looking right through me. “I know that seems like a good idea,” Darkness finally replied. “However, once he’s down; all of his friends will back off entirely. Then you really will struggle to feel sated upon taking revenge on them. All their malice towards you will instantly dissipate. I think the best thing to do right now… is to go after the smaller fish first.” His answer seemed slightly underdeveloped – certainly not an attribute Darkness ever demonstrated before. I knew it was an argument I could not win, so I merely nodded. My master easily saw through my disappointment and spoke once more. “Look at it this way,” he said in almost a whisper. “You’ll be able to focus more on how you’re going to deal with your old apprentice. That is something to strive for. It’s something to take in. Live in the moment of his defeat as best as you can. There will be many fights to come, but the feeling will never be sweeter.”
I let a few days pass after Darkness’s lecture. I realized that George would be anticipating a strike from me, and therefore may stand fighting chance. He knew my moves – my old ones anyways. My training with Darkness had certainly made me more difficult to anticipate, but George was no fool, he could adapt. The element of surprise meant everything for me now. In order to keep George and the S.S.C off my scent a bit, I chose to approach many of my former aggressors after school days had concluded. Three of which I had found at the old park, another two – loitering outside a movie theatre in central Toparsburg, and a single one – hiking through Mellow Falls. I had no limiting jurisdiction anymore. I was free to go anywhere I wanted, and deliver justice in whatever ways I saw fit. I didn’t fight every one of my old enemies, but each of them were slowly becoming more and more aware of the fact that things were changing, and there was nothing they could do about it. Those who thought it wise to speak up to me, were very swiftly reasoned with, in slightly harsher manners than simple threats. Meanwhile, the S.S.C was stuck between a rock and a hard place on the trouble of my behavior. They truly now believed I was working with a surviving sect of THEM, and that any attempt at attacking me directly would only lead to the hidden group springing some great, elaborate trap. I gave them no indication that this theory was right or wrong. The old S.S.C wouldn’t have remotely cared about this scenario, and boldly charged headfirst to deal with me, but times were different now. The Fighters weren’t led by warriors anymore, they were led by namby-pamby officials who’d debate endlessly on each and every call to action. They’d obtained their victory, and now even the slightest, most remote chance of a new issue arising, was simply too much to bare. If the S.S.C was destined to tare itself apart through paranoia and fear, then I was fine with that. My former tormentors had very few options as well. The S.S.C would refuse to assist them on any matters concerning me, and reporting the issue to parents or school staff would only dig the students a deeper hole for themselves, as they also firmly believed I had people backing me up. If I went down, then all of my backers would make sure to avenge me. Nobody wanted that. I truly had obtained free reign over Toparsburg, and things were just getting started. Once I actually got to meet with the rest of The Darkness, I could only dream of what the future held. There was one reoccurring dream I’d been experiencing for some time, actually. I’d be standing outside a small shack; similar to one which I’d visited many times as an S.S.C trooper. The sky glowed a brilliant blue and the leaves of the nearby trees would change colors into striking shades of orange, red, and yellow. Birds could be heard singing together as they perched upon the tattered rooftop and gazed down at the spectacle below. I’d suddenly become aware of myself, and find various members of The Darkness all standing around me and smiling. Though I could never discern a single face, I could almost feel as if I’d known each of them for my entire life. There were those who’d used anger to reach their full potential – like me. There were others like my master, who focused more on the sadness which a lost fight could bring. Some chose love or passion as their driving force; keeping those whom they cared for, as close as possible, and always willing to stand up for them. Emotions came in all sorts of creeds, and each of them were equally respected. My master would approach me now; giving a slight smirk as he gestured out towards the expansive hills before us. An S.S.C flag could be seen in the distance; it’s quivering blue diamond fading into an approaching fog. Without a single spoken word or alteration of form; we’d all remain standing as the haze devoured the flag and churned upon itself for several seconds. My stomach would grow unsettled and my heart would race, but just as I’d nearly break from the spell of the moment, the fog would recede. What remained afterwards would often change. Sometimes the flag would be missing entirely. In other dreams, it would still be flying, but the pole would be heavily rusted and bent terribly out of shape. On one occasion, the flag blatantly remained in a state at which it had been torn to shreds; the individual fibers being beaten around by the wind before eventually relenting to the strength, and snapping off, blowing into the distant sky. The outcome might have been different, but the message was very clear. I’d wake from each of these dreams with a great smile planted upon my face.
A Final Message:
Almost two weeks had gone by, and now I finally felt assured that George wasn’t expecting any moves from me. I’d even swallowed some of my pride, and stepped down from dealing with persistent kids who refused to heed my previous warnings. As far as the S.S.C or my old apprentice were concerned, I’d once again vanished from the radar. It wasn’t so much that I was hiding, as I still often went to school and then straight back home. It had more to do with the fact that I permitted myself to briefly fade back into the menial masses of students. I’d been collaborating with Darkness on how this ‘final message’ towards George should be handled. My master suggested I wait until George was alone; as having Samantha nearby could lead to her trying to run for help. I explained to my master that I’d observed George for about a week as he’d exit the school and head towards an S.S.C training outpost which existed to the east of my neighborhood. George and I had gone to this building on the fateful day in which Trevor Sykes arranged our surprise duel with Eliminator. What business George had at this base now – I couldn’t be certain, but I suspected he was beginning to work with younger recruits, getting an idea of what it was like to have an apprentice. Darkness seemed familiar with the headquarters’ location; recognizing that various hills in the area could be used for substantial cover. So, it was settled, following a dreary Wednesday afternoon of school, I’d rush to the hills a lay in wait for my apprentice’s arrival. Once I had a visual on him, I’d strike. Darkness left all additional details up to me. “If you do this,” my master told me before I parted. “And do it right. Our organization will finally trust you once again. We’ll know you’re truly serious.” “I won’t fail you,” I promised. Those final words would echo throughout my mind for the entirety of the school day. ‘I won’t fail you.’ It was a promise I knew I couldn’t afford to break. When the day let out, I sprinted from the halls and made my way into the outskirts of the S.S.C training base. Incredibly tall grass and thick weeds had conquered a majority of the landscape; allowing for me to lay prone to the ground with little worry of being spotted. I waited for a substantial time, but never felt bored for even a single fleeting second. Every light gust of wind or distant snapping tree branch would only serve to put me more on edge. Eventually, I detected footsteps and light gossip from not too far away. I carefully spread my arms out in front of me; clearing some weeds so as to better see the commotion. Some kids – a few years younger than myself – were walking in a tight group formation, with an elite leading them. George was nowhere to be spotted, but I realized now that if I took too long fighting him, we’d almost certainly be caught by other passing groups of apprentices and masters. I’d have to make this fray a quick one, whether I liked it or not. An indiscernible amount of time passed before I finally heard footsteps again, and the familiar noise of a backpack being trifled through. I once again peered out from my hiding spot and looked upon George as he ambled towards the base; digging through his pack for something, and certainly not paying attention to his surroundings. He was farther away than I’d expected, meaning I’d have to rush at him with all the speed my body could muster before he could note me. When George’s head bowed forward to get a closer look within his backpack, I stood from my post and hurried downhill at him. My footsteps were loud, but my old apprentice must had assumed them to be that of a young trooper, rather than an approaching enemy, for he did not bother to look around. As my pace quickened and George grew closer towards my arm’s reach, I almost felt guilty. I’d never truly attacked someone like this – so suddenly, so unfairly – at least not that I could remember. Wasn’t I better than this? Had I been reduced to a guerilla fighter with no sense of honor or bravery? I buried these doubts deep within my mind. None of that mattered now. George was an enemy, and didn’t hold the right to be treated honorably. Maybe if the S.S.C and THEM hadn’t been so obsessed with integrity, one could have triumphed over the other a long time ago. I intended to succeed where they had failed. My thoughts returned to me just as I found myself tackling George to the ground; burying us both within the dense foliage below. My target had been so terribly caught off-guard, he’d clung to his bookbag as he toppled over; and thus, was incapable of properly cushioning his fall. George’s head crashed into the ground along with his right shoulder; immediately sending him into a temporary state of stunned shock. I carefully maneuvered myself atop him; placing my knee on his chest while using my spare leg to weigh down his sprawling feet. I quickly placed my left hand around his throat and hovered my right just overhead – balled into a rock-hard fist. George’s hands were free, but my position over him made it clear that any attempt to move would result in his teeth being flung down his throat. George’s eyes transfixed upon me, and his face radiated an odd mixture of terror and sickness. I wanted him to speak first. I wanted to hear him beg or plea to be released – maybe even attempt to reason with me. I wanted him to speak so that I could shut down his hope, just as he and the Fighters had shut down my own, but George didn’t say a word. His legs relaxed underneath me, and his head fell limply backwards, so that he now stared past me, up into the cloudy sky. This served to only boost my frustration. “Silence won’t save you,” I hissed at last. George’s eyes shifted back to me and then briefly fled away again. I could tell he was filled with his own internal conflicts. He wasn’t sure whether to fight back, speak to me, or just play dead. The continued silence weighed on my nerves. “I thought I’d taught you better,” I spoke once more; drawing my fist further back. “It’s not wise to pause during a fight.” “This isn’t a fight,” George finally responded dourly. “It’s just a powerplay for you. Just a petty attempt at making yourself look stronger and more intimidating.” I narrowed my eyes and felt my face heating up. “Am I wrong?” George asked. “You have to learn,” I finally managed to answer. “Teach me then,” George commanded at last. “Because I’m not going to fight you.” I caught my hand trembling in the air now. Even my jaw seemed to shiver all on its own, as if the air around me had turned to ice. “Perhaps you’d rather I pay Samantha a visit instead?” I threatened, hoping this would bring about a reaction. George only rolled his eyes; once again completely unaffected. “We broke up a while ago,” my old apprentice admitted. “She just couldn’t deal with all this. I heard she already found a new guy… I’m on my own now.” George’s eyes now narrowed on me. “So,” he continued. “How’s about you either finish what you came here to do, or leave me the hell alone, to lament.” With that, George closed his eyes and held his arms firmly down at his sides. He’d shut me out. Against all odds, he had shut the whole world out. I stared down at my target as if I hardly recognized him. He wasn’t the George I’d remembered. He wasn’t the mighty target I’d been preparing to bring down. The meagre body underneath me had dark bags hanging under his eyes; mirroring my own, but while mine had been brought about due to endless nights of training, his were clearly those of which only pure stress could induce. He was bitter, worn out, and done fighting. I’d broken him without throwing a single punch. “Someday,” I said at last. “I hope you’ll see that what I’m doing – it’s all for the greater good.” George said nothing. “I have to show this school how to exhibit respect again! They won’t learn through the S.S.C! They’ll only learn by force!” George remained silent. In this moment of noiselessness between the two of us, I was able to barely overhear the incoming sounds of another apprentice group. My time was up. “Goodbye, George,” I said distantly. I believed that this would be the last we’d really see of each other. For now, he’d learned his lesson, and I had to move on. We were both different people now. My fist finally plummeted; striking my target evenly in his temple. My knuckles felt as if they might shatter on impact, but the deed was done, and the strike had knocked George out cold without him making a single sound. I clung to my aching hand, stood back up, and turned to leave. I left George there – in that field. I may not have looked back at him physically, but mentally, I wasn’t so certain. Something changed in my head that night. Urgency fled from my thoughts and the world seemed to fly by. My former fears had lifted.
I could never truly explain the feeling of what it was like to lose track of time. It wasn’t as simple as merely dozing off, but nor was it as complicated as being so busy; your internal clock couldn’t keep its mark. It was something in-between – a state of clarity. Time flew by because I’d lost the need to keep track of it. I’d occasionally snap out of this foggy mindset; finding myself in places which I couldn’t recall the names of. I’d find bruises on my arms and cuts around my knuckles, but nothing to indicate how I’d received them. I’d attempt to concentrate, remember what had happened or how it had led to this, but oftentimes it would yield nothing but brief flashes of fuzzy memory. Just as I’d begin to panic and worry for my safety, my mind would fade away again. It was as if it was protecting me from something, shielding me from detecting the events which had transpired as the months went on. I’d clearly been getting into fights, but with who? Evidently, my brain didn’t seem to deem them incredibly important. Eventually, I stopped going to school. It wasn’t the S.S.C or George which kept me away, I simply didn’t wish to go. My time – that of which I could remember, became dedicated to training. Darkness would order me to sprint around the entirety of Toparsburg’s boarders, followed by an intense session or two of pushups, sit-ups, and punching or kicking maneuvers. I still hadn’t met with any members of The Darkness, but even that fact didn’t weigh on me or break my consciousness much at all. After all, I’d dealt with nearly every former attacker of mine. Only R.K. and several other miscellaneous foes were able to escape my grasp, by simply never crossing paths with me during my time at school. The S.S.C was also falling into disarray. Zach had done a poor job organizing various movements within the group, resulting in a vast array of experienced troopers leaving the Fighters behind. They were equally unhappy with the fact that Zach and the elites appeared to fear me. People were finally seeing the S.S.C as I had saw it all along – a weak, pathetic group of bureaucrats, that didn’t at all know how to handle themselves now that there was no visible enemy force to point their fingers at. Even Trevor ended up leaving, giving up the title of Mask, and fading into common student obscurity. The S.S.C was without a competent leader, a Mask, proper elites, a motivation, or a figurehead. It seemed comical actually – that after generations of fighting attackers or quarrelling with THEM, the S.S.C’s greatest enemy, were themselves. It was also quite incongruous that I knew more about the S.S.C’s troubles than my own. How had I received this information? I couldn’t begin to remember. I was quite certain that once The Darkness had agreed to back me up, we could wipe Toparsburg’s puny S.S.C off the map. Of course, there would be other groups scattered throughout the country, but Toparsburg was the lynchpin in hundreds of these operations. We were the original. We were the first and final word. My master had also assured me that The Darkness was just as widespread as the Fighters, and more than capable of cutting every last thread of hope the remaining S.S.C’s could cling to. “They’ve had it coming,” Darkness had told me in one of the few conversations I could wrap my head around. “There are thousands of people across America, who are just like you – they want to see the S.S.C fall for its crimes. The fall will come, but my superiors want to take in every last detail before they make their move. It will take time and patience, but it will come.” Sometimes I’d worry that in this odd state of hypnosis, I’d miss the uprising. What good would my exploits have been, if I couldn’t wake up to experience the crumbling of a mighty empire? In late October, on a frigid Saturday afternoon, I received my wakeup call.
It grew especially windy, this evening. Toparsburg was known to experience dramatic shifts in weather – often favoring the cold, but it seemed as if nature had grown especially sick of the mind, lately. Temperatures would alternate from lukewarm to ice-cold in a matter of single hour timeframes – if not sooner. We’d already begun to see the return of snow, as well as rain, and the current flooding of wind into our streets. I was home on this particular night, staring out my window, looking to the trees and streetlights as they shook with each powerful osculation of air. Dead leaves laid spattered across my lawn, with one tree in my backyard even losing an entire limb. There was something I enjoyed about windy days such as this one. The gusts were so silent, yet incredibly impactful with each wave. Maybe I liked to picture myself in a similar light. I wanted to be so swift, so invisible, and still maintain my influence. The wind budged where it needed to budge, and still returned all the same, with biting intensity. I must have dozed off for a brief time, for when I became somewhat attentive once more, the sun had almost completely dipped beneath the horizon. I looked out the windows a bit longer and eventually thought to take a shower. Just as I prepared to turn and leave, a sudden urge to look out upon the world, once more came over me. I was compelled to return to the windowsill, and to look for something which I hadn’t the faintest indication of. My attention turned towards the sky – swirling with dusty, orange clouds. When nothing of interest crossed my sight, I looked down at my driveway, finding it to still be in a similar state of disarray after the gusts had carried leaves, twigs, and discarded wrappers onto the property. Then I noticed something else. The wind had carried one more thing. George stood across the road; his jacket madly fluttering about him, but his physical form remaining quite stationary. My eyes narrowed, and the numbing sensation within my head, started to leave me. George continued to stare, not noticing the presence of my eyes peering out from the settled blinds. I focused in on his face as best as I could, but the escaping sun proved to make this more and more of a challenge. All I could manage to decipher from his unwavering expression, was the existence of a firm determination. I couldn’t seem to tare myself from the window. I was far too taken aback by this reawakening of my mind. Suddenly, George removed his right arm from his pockets; pulling out a watch and observing its face. Was he waiting for me? Had the spark of hope I’d thought to be long extinguished, now returned to him? Before I could ask myself any further questions, a dark, red jeep with tinted windows pulled itself to the side of the road, a few feet away from George’s statue. My old apprentice looked away from his watch, back to my house, and then to the car. His lips moved, but I had no way of deciphering his words. George looked at my house one final time and pointed towards the left side, where a large wooden fence segregated my front yard from the back. My eyes were nearly burning holes through the driver side window. I knew this mystery chauffeur was looking into my yard as well, maybe even looking at me. It was obvious that this must have been an S.S.C trooper, but something about the entire situation seemed off-putting. I found myself almost off-balance – perhaps a side effect of awakening from the sleepwalking life I’d been living for so many months. My eyes were truly opened for the first time in practically a year. Another strong gust of wind shot into George’s face. He was left with no choice but to bury his head at his chest, to avoid being struck by flying debris. At last, he stepped into the maroon jeep, with the vehicle fleeing the premises almost as fast as it had first appeared. I was dumbfounded, filled with questions and worries that I’d thought to be long dismissed. The feelings overwhelmed me, and my weariness grew to an all-time height. I felt as if I might collapse against the windowsill itself. Now walking upon weak and shaky legs, I approached my bedside and stared around my room. What had happened to it? I’d remembered there being posters of various movies all strung around the walls and doors. My ancient little league tennis trophies and ribbons were also absent from the desk counter. It seemed as if the entire space had been stripped of its personality; leaving it devoid of any materials that were not priority. Had I done this? I slowly sat upon my bed and leaned up against the wall. Everything felt wrong. I hardly had time to dwell on these oddities however, for my eyelids soon began to wilt, and my arms dropped limply at my sides. I found myself standing at the abandoned shack again – within that familiar dream which had met me upon so many forgotten nights. I was looking up at the sky, but now something had shifted within this dreamscape. There were no sounds to be heard. No birds, no talking, no wind or breathing. I turned my attention towards the surroundings. My master was not there, nor were any members of The Darkness. I spun around; desperately searching for some sort of life other than my own, but there was none. I was alone. Finally – feeling a pressing sensation at my chest and forehead, I frantically looked towards where the S.S.C flag had always been seen wavering in the distance. Sure enough, it was indeed standing within the same spot, but no fog dared to approach it, and the noiseless wind refused to bat at it any more than necessary. I blinked a few times; waiting for something – anything to strike at the flag, but nothing did. It remained standing. The persistent force on my chest and forehead only grew stronger, my heart was racing. I tried to open my mouth, but an invisible force kept it glued shut. I couldn’t move anything now except for my head. My feet started to feel cold. I looked down; finding mist at my feet. My back soon adopted a similar chilling sensation. It was only then, that I realized the tables had turned. This time, I was within the fog. I closed my eyes as the icy grasp fell over me. The haze devoured my presence, and I was gone.
I didn’t sleep that night. Isolation is a funny thing. Its presence had permeated my psyche – bringing with it, a subverted sense of dread. For all those old occasions at which I’d briefly awakened, I’d catch myself pondering if the feeling could ever, truly be lifted. Yet, strangely enough, when the time did come for this spell to dissipate, a new feeling came over me. I felt as if I was a deer in the headlights again, stunned by the presence of a growing force, which I couldn’t begin to comprehend or prepare for. Now I discovered that I loathed isolation’s absence. I was forced back into reality, forced to feel and see again. When the following day came for me to meet with Darkness in the small wooded area, near central Toparsburg, I felt just as torn and vulnerable as I had the day we’d first become acquainted. My master seemed to notice my worries as soon as I had arrived. “Something is wrong?” Darkness asked; though it sounded more like a statement. “I saw George in front of my house, the other day,” I was quick to respond. “It’s the first time he’s come that close to me, in ages!” Darkness remained standing below the trees; not nearly as concerned as I was becoming. “You think he plans on instigating a rematch?” Darkness guessed at last. I thought for a while on this, but it still felt as if there was more going on. “It’s something else,” I breathed at last; stroking my hair back. “Something about this just isn’t sitting right with me. Why would he return this late, unless he had a new plan? A bigger plan?” My master acknowledged my fears with a brief nod, but still seemed somewhat indifferent. “It’s time I told you something,” Darkness revealed. I stared up at him; my eyes still wide with confusion. “George quit the S.S.C about a month, following your attack on him. If he does try anything to stop you, the S.S.C won’t be there to back him up.” I rubbed my hands across my temple; overwhelmed by sensations of fear and bewilderment. My master now approached me – reading my feelings of trepidation as if they were mere text on a page. “I’ve trained you to be better than this,” he reminded me. “These worries of yours should no longer be such an issue.” I offered no response; my mind still dwelling on the mysterious car which had picked George up. “What if he lied to me?” I caught myself saying underneath my rapid breaths. Darkness merely glared at my remark, but I continued. “He told me that he and Samantha had parted ways… what if he was lying, just to throw me off his scent? And by that logic… he could have secretly remained with the S.S.C, even after his supposed leaving.” My master tried to talk, but for once I interrupted him. “It’s all too perfect,” I continued. “The timing of it all… he’s plotting against me – against us!” “Your paranoia will make you weak,” Darkness pointed out. “But that doesn’t mean the paranoia makes me wrong, either!” I shot back with a glower of equal frustration. Darkness seemed appalled by this behavior. He backed away from me, and returned to his post below the trees. “Maybe there is something going on,” Darkness mused. “But even if that is the case, I fail to see how you – standing here, will help to fix that.” “Get me the rest of The Darkness!” I finally bellowed. “Let them help me!” “We won’t act on a hunch,” my master scolded. I tried to speak up to him again, tell him that The Darkness were beginning to sound just as cowardly as the Fighters, but an aching in my forehead prevented this. “Then,” I said at last; my hands shaking. “I will handle him myself.” Darkness’s scowl slowly left his face; replaced with a look that almost resembled pride. “What do you mean?” he asked; his voice distorted by my pulsating skull. “I’ll stop him before he stops me,” came my rugged voice. “Tomorrow, I’ll pay Samantha a visit. I’ll use her as bait, lure George to come to the property on his own! Even if they have broken up, I refuse to believe he doesn’t care about her safety anymore.” “And what then?” my master prodded. “What happens when he shows his face?” I paused. Soon, the familiar, terrifying sensation of being consumed by the icy fog, came over me again. I realized what it was now, what it really meant. “Kill or be killed,” I slowly responded. My boiling blood thawed the mist from my soul. “I can assure you,” my master spoke in a booming voice. “The Darkness can cover up any aftermath you bring about. Any aftermath.” My jaw chattered with invigorated energy, and my hands rolled up into white-knuckled fists. It was time to take my isolation back.
Setting the Stage:
Toparsburg was due for a storm. Countless reports of frigid rain and possible snowfall almost persuaded me to stay indoors the following day, but I didn’t believe I could withstand yet another night without sleep. If anything, the storm would help to make it even more unlikely that George could rally S.S.C support. Could I really do this? That question met me with every passing minute. Once I took that final step towards peace of mind, there would be no going back. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to thinking of George as a former apprentice. I could hardly think of him by his name either. It seemed evident at this point, that he was nothing more than a ‘target’. I pushed various memories out of my head. My own thoughts seemed to conspire against me – feeding me that persistent doubt. Maybe this was truly the final hurdle, the last obstacle in my way – preventing that true potential from shining through. I entered my bathroom and stared into the oval shaped mirror strung above the sink. Before me, I saw a tired, scared young man. His hair – which had now grown slightly longer when compared to his former crewcut style; remained carelessly flayed in multiple areas. His eyes were baggy and dark, his jawline – shaky, yet stern. His face was riddled with forgotten scars and bruising, and his eyebrows seemed as though they had been sewn into a permanent, hateful formation. I needed to get close to Samantha. I wanted George to see just how easy it was for me to reach someone he cared about, no matter where they were. I carefully went about fixing my hair. Once I’d managed to revert it back to a respectable state, I put on a dense coat and wrapped a scarf around the majority of my lower face. I hoped this would hide most of the wounds – which it admirably succeeded in doing. I took one last look at my darkened eyes – realizing there was no quick method at hiding their appearance. With time passing quickly, and the storm only growing closer, I hastily came upon an old pair of glasses belonging to my father. They weren’t thick rimmed, but overall, the borders did a decent job at covering at least some of the shadows. At last, around four-o’clock in the afternoon, I left my house and walked out into the frosty landscape. Truly, it was far chillier than even I had grown accustomed to. Small ponds – which littered the path towards Samantha’s housing edition, were actually frozen over, though I doubted they could be solid already. Samantha’s house sat upon a rather large hill in southwest Toparsburg. If one were to follow the hill to its base, behind the property, you’d run into various streams and pools formed by Marinay River. I had no doubt that many of these runoffs were equally quite frozen. I tried to recall how I’d figured this information out, but the thought couldn’t come to me. Perhaps my master had mentioned it during a previous meeting? I grimaced at the idea of losing more memories once my isolation returned, but in the end, it was a necessary sacrifice. I had to choose between losing memories, or losing sanity to my target’s plots. Kill or be killed. I finally reached Samantha’s front door. No cars were parked in the driveway, likely signaling that she was either alone, or simply not there. I pondered what I’d do if indeed the house was empty. There was really only one way to know for sure. Fighting against my reservations – I knocked on the door. Silence followed. Not the slightest creak of inner footsteps or clatter of unhinging locks. I grew restless. I just couldn’t bring myself to wait another day. I simply couldn’t bear the weight in which such a delay could entail. I stared at the pasty, white door; a bitter hopelessness setting in. My attention now turned towards a nearby, front window. I inspected it’s every inch, and then shifted to look upon other pieces of the surrounding property. I wasn’t quite sure what was running through my head now, but I could feel my body growing tenser, and my heartrate skyrocketing. Before I could move, I saw something from the corner of my eye; a brief flutter of shade through the door’s peephole. Someone was looking out at me. A clasped my shaky hands together and raised my voice to the wind. “Samantha?” I questioned innocently. “Listen… something’s gone terribly wrong… I made a mistake… A big mistake.” I turned my voice shakier, and made a point to exhale a breath of smoke. “Why would you come to me?” a girl’s frightened voice called from the other side of the door. It was indeed Samantha’s tone. I’d rehearsed this entire conversation in my mind already, the worst she could say was a simple ‘no’. Any other remark would only assist in strengthening my lies. “It’s hard to explain,” I shivered. “It has to do with the S.S.C… I always thought something was wrong with them… but now I’ve just been told the full story… I think George might be in trouble.” Silence. George’s name, and the accompanying vague threat, seemed to be the stinging motive she’d been listening for. Slowly, I heard a latch come undone. Samantha held the door partially ajar, with a final chain lock separating the two of us. Her right eye peered out to me; still riddled with uncertainty. I gave her the most genuine look of concern I could muster. I knew she needed more than that. “The S.S.C,” I continued. “They think George was secretly helping me turn against them the whole time. They plan on attacking him today!” Samantha’s eye briefly darted away – as if looking at something just out of sight, behind the door. “Why not call him?” she pressed. “I tried!” came my quick-thinking reply. I threw my hands up hysterically. The door eased opened a bit more. “He won’t answer me! And besides, calling won’t do any good. The S.S.C can intercept calls! They’ve done it to phones before, and they’ve definitely done it now! I wouldn’t have believed it myself, but I heard the plans with my own ears. I need your help to find George, without using a phone.” The door slid open an inch more, with the chain restricting any further movement. Samantha still wasn’t looking at me. “I need your help!” I cried. “I know you don’t trust me… but this is important! Even if you two have parted ways, you still have to care about him! I may have disagreed with his choices, but what the S.S.C is planning to do to him – it’s crazy!” Several minutes had passed now, each second only served to make me more uneasy. Could she see through my lies? No responses from her made it all the more difficult to ascertain. “I’m f-freezing,” I said at last; both real, and manufactured hopelessness pervading my voice. Samantha’s eyes focused on me again, before looking around at the rest of her yard behind me. I stepped slightly from her line of sight so that she could note I had not been followed. “Alright,” Samantha breathed at last. The door shut in my face, followed shortly by sounds of the final lock being undone. I closed my eyes for a brief moment, and took a deep breath. This was the beginning of a new future. I didn’t want to hurt Samantha, but I knew I’d have to scare her. I needed George to see that I was prepared to do anything for freedom. My eyes sprung back to life as Samantha held the door semi-open for me. With no time left to lose, I made my move. With one sudden kick; I beat the door backwards, with Samantha barely able to hop away in time to avoid being struck by it. She shrieked as her light brown hair wrapped crazily about her horrified face. Samantha tripped over herself now, while I removed the scarf and glasses. “I want you to call him,” I demanded in foul tone; towering over her. Samantha only remained on the floor – slowly crawling away from me until her back met with the wall. “I said to call him!” I roared. Somewhere inside my head, the voice was calling out for me to settle, it took immense strength to drown its cries. Suddenly, Samantha lifted her right arm, which had previously remained unseen to me in all the commotion. To my sheer surprise, a phone already sat within her palm, baring a still image of George’s face, and an icon indicating he was already listening. He’d been listening the whole time – ever since I had arrived. Now a look of revulsion had plastered itself upon my own face. I’d been outplayed. Before I could say a word, the sound of a speeding car met my ears. I turned to find the red jeep pulling into the driveway, with the passenger door bursting open, and George hopping out before the vehicle even reached a stop. Samantha’s stalling trick had worked. My target savagely ripped off his winter cap and gloves, as he strode forward. His face no longer expressed that of indifference, now it was drenched with a saturated rage – one that nearly dwarfed my own manifestation. “I’m gonna give you one chance to walk out here,” George snapped as the red jeep finally reached a halt. I remained standing in the doorway, still stunned at this turn of events. It wasn’t as if this drastically changed my plans, but yet my brain still couldn’t seem to process it. I’d been so greatly caught off-guard, so terribly unprepared to be outsmarted, that now nothing appeared to make sense. “Your threats don’t mean anything to me,” I found myself replying. George shook his head; almost unable to cope with what was happening. A sudden force met my back now; tossing me from the entryway, out into the patio. Samantha had worked up the courage to kick me out, and now slammed the door once again – locking herself inside. “You say my threats don’t matter?” George reiterated as I hauled myself back up. “Well it’s not just me anymore.” The red jeep’s engine finally died down and the driver’s side door slowly crept open. I maneuvered myself into a fighting stance – prepared for anything George had to throw at me now. Then I heard a new sound – one which turned my blood to ice, one in which I could have never prepared for. “It’s time we talked,” came the voice. My eyes grew wide and all I could do was stare. By George’s side, stood Tim Allender.
“This isn’t possible,” I stuttered. Tim drew closer; standing between George and me. He looked so much older now. His jet-black hair was cut far shorter, and his eyebrows had developed into a significantly thick form. Not only had he grown taller, but his entire stature had changed to. Memories came flooding back through my mind, swirling about like a mighty hurricane of emotion. He used to stand with such relaxation, such trust when around me. Now his posture was rigid and unwavering to the climate or winds. He stood up to me as if I were simply another enemy. “What isn’t possible?” Tim questioned in this new, deeper voice. A disappointed frown grew upon him. “Is it simply ‘not possible’ for someone as ‘powerful’ or ‘intelligent’ as you, to not see this coming?” I couldn’t seem to reply. My legs were growing weak, and my head was still a wild storm of reminiscence. I continued to inspect the figure before me. Several small cuts and bruises laid spread across his face. I felt as though I was looking at a ghost. “C-Corruption,” I stammered; trying to make sense of it all. “He told me that he got to you… he told m-”. “He was lying, Brett,” Tim intervened; taking a step forward. His harsh stare seemed to soften a bit, now appearing more as a look of pity. “It was just another fear tactic of his, nothing more. I never even met the guy. He wanted to scare you, make you feel like a failure.” I shook my head; trying not to accept this revelation, but how could I not? This isn’t right. I said to myself. He can’t be back. It’s a trick. It’s a dream. I blinked and fell to my knees. The nightmare didn’t end. “We can help you,” Tim slowly assured while taking a few steps closer. George remained on edge – well aware of the fact that getting so close to me, was a risky move. “I approached George about a week ago,” my old master continued. “I’ve been keeping an eye on everything since then… I know what you plan on doing here, today. I know who’s been instigating this violence, and feeding your anger. I know all of it, Brett.” A tinge of anger resurfaced within me, and my empty stare grew into a scowl. “You don’t understand,” I corrected. “I’m doing this in order to better myself. I’m not going to be a slave to the S.S.C anymore. I’m not like you.” “I left the S.S.C!” George shouted over Tim’s shoulder. “It’s not the same without people like you – like you once were! It’s falling apart, Brett! It’s falling apart because of the trouble you’ve caused!” I tightly shut my eyes and clasped my hands over my ears. I wanted to escape this, I wanted to disappear, but there was no escaping this moment, or these words. “Bullies are reappearing all across Toparsburg!” George continued to shout. “Fighters around the country are looking to us for advice and assistance, and we can’t give them any of it! Does that sound like it’s making Toparsburg a better place? Does that sound like a path towards bettering yourself?” My eyes opened once more, Tim was hardly a meter away. George’s face was turning red with frustration, while my old master held up his hand to calm everyone. “Let us help you,” Tim whispered quietly. “The S.S.C doesn’t have to know.” His words tried so desperately to seep through my thoughts. They stung at me – weighing on my heart. It took every ounce of strength I had, to fight it off. “You’re all liars,” I accused through my teeth. “George didn’t leave the S.S.C, he didn’t even leave Samantha!” I shot a glare at my target. “Am I wrong?” I spat. George stared for a while and tried to regain some composure. “Samantha and I never broke up,” he finally admitted. “But the S.S.C really doesn’t know about any of this. They don’t have to. I left them by my own choice. This is between you and us, nobody else.” “The Darkness has made promises to me,” I spoke; tears welling up in my eyes. “The Darkness hasn’t promised you a thing,” Tim replied quickly. He took a few more steps. “You’ve never met them… because there’s no one to meet.” I felt myself slowly thawing out from this weak state of squalor. “What are you talking about?” asked my grizzled voice. He appeared distorted through my soaked eyelids. “This ‘master’ of yours,” Tim continued. “He’s alone, Brett. There is no group called The Darkness! It’s all just him! All just one guy!” Immediately, I stood once more. Tim and I were the same height now. My sudden motion made him back up a step, but he didn’t flinch or cease his beseeching glance. “You’re wrong!” I bellowed; more smoke rolling from my mouth. “He can’t be alone! He wants to help me! He wants me to reach my full potential!” “He wants to use you,” Tim corrected. His eyes seemed equally tearful, and his voice started to break. “I don’t know all the details, but he has something to gain from all of this. He’s forced you to confuse concentration with hate! Abhorrence isn’t the answer towards making yourself into a better person. It’s about having strength of mind, and strength of heart! That is what I taught you!” I searched my brain for memories of the training, but it all seemed lost now. I couldn’t seem to recall much of anything. He’s lying to you. I said to myself. He’s using you – just like before. I stood tall, and finally took a step of my own. “You left me,” I remarked at last; feeling my rage reach its height. “I can explain,” Tim reassured; attempting to calm my progressing footsteps with two outstretched arms. My old master may have been older now, but it almost made him appear more pathetic than ever before. I’d idolized him once, and now I saw him as he really was – just another scared, lost fighter. I brushed away my tears, and embraced the stormy thoughts; their disarray seemed to fuel me. “There is nothing to explain,” I said at last. “You left me. And now, I’ve left you behind.” I struck.
“Let your mind go numb,” Darkness had once told me. “Deafen the feelings of pain or hesitation. Immerse yourself in the fight, feel only what is dealt to others, never what is dealt to you. Let the rest of the world fade away… and see yourself as you really are – an animal.” This was the lesson that spoke to me the clearest as I proceeded to kick Tim off his feet. My former master let out a cry of shock as George sprang into action; rushing forward and throwing a punch at me. I barely managed to grab hold of his approaching fist, and struggled greatly to keep my grasp of it. This wasn’t like before. George was actually trying now. It’s what I’d always wanted from him. No more mercy, no more lies. Before my target could throw another strike at me with his spare appendage, I twisted the captured arm, and delivered a powerful knee to his hunched over chest. It was my intention to continue the barrages of hits, but Tim had other plans. In one effective motion, he leapt from his downed position; managing to grab hold of my waist, and tackle me to the ground alongside him. “This isn’t you!” Tim cried as the two of us rolled towards the side of Samantha’s house. His eyes were still just as dewy as before. “Let us help!” his words started strong, but gradually grew fainter, as I continued to dull my senses. “I have nothing to say to you,” I replied in a robotic tone – devoid of personality. It was all the mission now. No time for feelings or memories. Tim had made his choice to attack me. He’d made his choice to join up with George, and remain loyal to a band of power-hungry brawlers. No turning back. Before Tim could speak once again, I managed to overpower his hold on me; trapping him beneath my weight and driving my foot into his stomach, while standing. The strike had to have been gut wrenchingly painful, but I didn’t bother focusing on the noises anymore. It was for the best. George was quick to attack me from behind; sending his right arm rocketing into my side. I didn’t budge. Budging was a sign of weakness. Now spinning around to face my target, I found him in a brief moment of trepidation; unable to strike me with such force again. It was the first time he’d ever truly attempted to hurt me, and now his misguided moral code left him open for attack. It was the main difference between him and I. Even if he had left the Fighters, he still held their ideals. He could never step from the road they’d led him down. I couldn’t change his path. I could only bring it to an end. I jabbed my fist forward; nailing George squarely in the nose, while my other palm took a fistful of the target’s hair; nearly ripping it from his scalp before my own forehead came crashing into his exposed temple. George was instantly knocked back by this sudden headbutt; leaving him in a daze. The fight had worked its way farther towards the back of Samantha’s yard. I saw her fearful eyes peak from the windows as I turned to face Tim again. She looked so helpless. I knew all she wanted to do now was call the police, but I had no doubt George had pled otherwise. My old master felt at his upper lip, detecting a stream of blood trickling down from his nose, which had been injured in our wrestling session. Against all odds, he refused to scowl at me, or give the slightest indication of abhorrence. This lack of hatred only served to make me angrier. I could hide from pain and sound, but my sight could not be dampened. “You’re trying to prove a point?” I remarked; circling around him like a vulture. “A point that you’re better than me because you don’t feel anger? You think stoicism will save you – save anyone?” “It’s not an act, Brett,” Tim assured; allowing my circling to continue. “I’m not fighting the real you. This is someone else. My friend isn’t gone, he’s just asleep, and I won’t leave him again.” For a brief second, I nearly felt my heart dropping. Just words, I reprimanded to myself. Then why does it feel like so much more?
How Heroes Fall:
I thoughtlessly found myself rushing at Tim, swooping in for a final kill, but my old master was not so easily taken by surprise. Not even facing me, he ducked out of my range, and used this brief instant of surprise, to trip me. The attack didn’t knock me down, but did succeed in sending me stumbling into Samantha’s fence, wherein I was left open for more attacks. Tim took advantage of this moment, sending a sharp punch into my chest, holding me back against the fence by my shoulder. I briefly winced in pain as he delivered yet another assault to my forehead. In his hurry however, Tim hadn’t properly closed his fist, causing the blow to damage his hand more than anything else. My master drew back; clinging to his aching knuckles. Now I returned with a vengeance of my own; attempting to kick him down, only for my leg to be caught and viscously thrust upwards. Once again, I did not fall, but was pushed back into the entry gate of the fence, which immediately gave way upon my impact. We were in the backyard now, and the pain I’d been enduring was beginning to compound on me. I could only ignore it for so long. The air was growing colder too, and the clouds above us had turned sickly and gray. George had regained his awareness, and accompanied Tim as he followed me through the fence; locking it behind us. “Brett!” Tim tried to shout again, but this time it was George who interrupted his pleas. My target came running at me, shouting as he did. The animal within him was starting to awaken. I thrust my fist out towards the advancing foe, only for it to be swat away, and with George’s elbow colliding into my jaw at the same time. The sudden impact caused me to bite down on my own tongue. I grasped my mouth, the copper taste of blood now washing down my throat. George managed to grab hold of both my arms – holding them still by my sides with all his strength. “Tim, now!” George called over his shoulder. Acting quickly, Tim rushed our way, leaping into the air as he drew back his fist. In one strong, downwards motion, his paw shoved itself into my cheekbone; knocking me out of George’s hold, and pinning me up against a tree. I failed to catch myself in the descent, instead landing harshly on my back, the force of which, easily throwing the air out from my lungs. I started to panic now, as Tim stomped down on my left leg, preventing me from standing up again. I was trapped, gasping for air, and losing myself to so many suppressed feelings within my head and heart. The world started to look fuzzy now, its sounds rushing in and out of existence, as if to the harmony of an ocean’s tides. I fought against the sensation, and briefly managed to focus in on the two figures above me. George was scrambling for my free leg, attempting to hold it still in this brief minute of victory. With every bit of willpower, I had left within myself, I shot my leg upwards, into his throat. Tim shouted in horror as his partner choked for air – just as I had done. My foot sprang at him once more; now nailing George in the forehead. My old apprentice gave a final deafening shriek of agony, and tumbled to the ground – no longer moving. Tim released me immediately; bending down to check on him. Samantha had also witnessed the whole ordeal, and now, despite her efforts against getting involved, rushed from her patio, and knelt alongside her fallen love. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. They knew I was still a threat, a danger to everyone, but yet here they were – rushing to the aid of this target, as if he meant the world to them. I blinked a few times; trying to wake the rest of my body from this brief state of devastating paralysis. Slowly, my legs started to pull inwards, and my hand caught hold of a low hanging branch from the tree above. With this newfound leverage, I cautiously began pulling myself back up. All these sounds were overshadowed by Samantha’s sobbing voice. “George?” she shouted as Tim cradled his bloodied head. “George!” I stood up straighter; slowly removing my grasp on the branch. “He’s out cold,” Tim conferred to her; his voice shaky and unsure. “You need to get him out of here. Take him inside, where it’s safe.” “What about you?” Samantha wept; tears flowing down her cheeks. Tim didn’t respond. He gently released George’s head, and stood back up. Samantha took hold of my target, wrapped her trembling arms around him, and dragging the fallen fighter away from the scene. Tim remained standing with his back to me. He knew I was there.
“You know I’m not giving up on you,” Tim breathed; his back still facing me as he insured Samantha and George made it back inside. I offered no reply, merely lumbering closer for a better, final shot at him. “Have you forgotten everything I taught?” my old master continued. “Or has it all been repressed?” He slowly turned to look my way; still without the slightest hint of anger in his eyes. Instead he appeared increasingly somber, even heartbroken. He wasn’t talking anymore, wishing for me to dwell on his words. It was precisely what Darkness would have advised against, and yet, the memories spread like a virus with each additional step I took. I shook my head; attempting to drive the flowering pictures from my brain. Nothing of this manner seemed to work. Tim’s greatest weapon was his mouth. That was how he’d deceived me into joining his cause, that was how he’d swayed me to fight his battles, and that is how he intended to resuscitate his old friend. Fighting was my only release from these dagger-laced words, the only thing separating my past from my potential future. Before any more could be said, I threw a punch in Tim’s direction. With his remaining reflexes, my adversary managed to block the maneuver as if in a boxing match, following it with a swift throw to my chest, then an uppercut at my stomach. I reeled backwards. Now, with this added distance between us, Tim came running at me once more; using his acceleration to push me several more feet closer to a hillside which overlooked Marinay. Fighting on slopes was never a strong suit of mine, and Tim undoubtedly knew that. My old master jammed his foot into my right leg; chopping me down like a tree, but I refused to fall alone. Acting fast, I grabbed hold of his collar, and dragged him along. Tim managed to rip himself from my grasp as we hit the ground, and attempted to kick me once more from this position. I carefully rolled out of his reach, but only grew closer to the hillside. I was playing right into his hand. Growing nervous, I attempted to stand again, with Tim instantly tackling my feet, throwing me off-balance. “You just don’t know when to quit!” I shouted; feeling my vocal cords shredding themselves with intensity. My elbow repeatedly came pummeling down on Tim’s back, while he still clung at my feet. My old master let out a series of pained gasps, yet refused to budge. Finally, I grabbed hold of the back of his neck; crushing it while simultaneously prying him away. “I’m n-not giving up!” Tim croaked over my shouts. I felt my body growing weak again, the pain was starting to register. Tim used this moment to drive his feet steadily into the ground before us, pushing forward like a football player – shoving through a line of defense. At last, my body gave way, and my legs were torn out from beneath me, my face hurtling over Tim’s arched body, then into the ground. Dirt wedged itself into my right eye and nostril, while Tim kept me held down, gradually forcing one of my arms behind my back. I could feel him shaking as he tried to hold me still. His own body was quickly losing energy as well. Kill or be killed. The words passed through my mind once more. Suddenly, my remaining eye focused in on a fallen branch, lying just within reach of my remaining arm. It was all I had left, and all I needed. With Tim still scrambling to keep my legs in place, I fetched the hefty branch; and wildly swung it over myself. In my cloudy mind, it truly seemed as if my life were at stake, and I’d do anything to save it. Tim had never saw it coming, the branch crashed into his forehead, then to his cheek, and finally to his throat. At last, I felt my opponent roll off of me, screaming through clenched teeth. I lifted my head to him; finding several deep lacerations scattered on his face; the most prominent of which, ran through his left eyebrow – gushing blood. I tried to pick myself up, but my legs – again, couldn’t support me. With my options now waning, and Tim still attempting to stand, I clenched my fist one last time, and hurled my entire downed body at Tim; striking his temple with unparalleled force. Both our bodies turned to ragdolls – floundering forwards, just to the edge of the hillside. My head wavered back and forth, and my arms turned to string; no longer capable of moving themselves. A stream of blood ran from my mouth, undoubtedly covering most of my chin. Tim laid just beside me; his wounds still leaking out onto the dead grass. He, too – endeavored at moving his limbs, but appeared in a similar state of devastating fatigue. We both needed time to recharge, now the question was; who’d be the first. Acting out of desperation and torment, I attempted use of my legs, still no luck. I tried moving my arms, they remained numb. My focus; once so clear and keen, now grew hazy. I breathed in pathetic wheezes, while my muscles seem to split apart at the slightest of movements. Finally, my head crashed into the ground – facing Tim. Unlike me, he’d stopped moving. At this point, he’d seemed to have forgotten all about our conflict. He focused now on what lied below us. Gradually, I stared the same direction. Now we both rested there, on that cold, unforgiving ground – taking in the sight of Marinay River – far below, where this hill finally flattened out into an expansive series of channels; most of them still flowing despite the cold; other runoffs – completely iced over; their shimmering surfaces – reflecting what little beams of light dared to poke through each of those heavy clouds. The water ran for miles; disappearing over more hills and trees, but the interlocking state of what was visible, seemed to call to me in some way. My breathing slowed, as did my heartrate. There was a peace to it all, and it seemed so very familiar. Tim gave a short grunt; using what little strength he had in his left arm to hold his torso from the ground – lifting his head up for a better view. “Like webs,” he observed; a voice lost in time. An expression of solemnity now developed over him. “Aren’t they?”
The words hit me like a bullet. In that one, mere sentence, Tim had managed to resurface a memory so deeply suppressed into the bowels of my own mind, that I had thought of it as being no more than a dream. There was Tim and I, fishing along Marinay River. He’d taught me so much about myself, and about who he was, yet there was so much more to discover. That was the day he’d asked me to join the S.S.C – his family, and in doing so, made me a part of his family too. My eyes widened. Instead of dark thoughts and memories, the good times I’d shared years ago – started to reappear. These experiences of happiness spread over my brain like mighty explosions – the information appearing so new and profound. I remembered the exhilarating fear of battling THEM alongside my master, I remembered Tim’s reassuring training, I remembered George and I working together, George’s growth as a fighter, and more than anything; that bond we’d all shared – George, Tim, and I. We were more than friends; we were family. My blurred vision stared once more upon the majesty of Marinay river. All those splitting waterways, twists, turns, and separations. There was a harshness to it all, but also an inevitability. Despite their appearances as I could see them now, these channels all converged into one, breathtaking body of water, and – far into the distance, after stretching miles and remaining separated for so very long; they all met once more, in yet another pool of oneness. They all came back together. A tear rolled down my cheek, and my nose stung with something other than the cold air. Marinay River’s cracks and divisions may have appeared to the layman as ‘ruining the beauty of cohesion’, but they’d be wrong. The branching pathways only made the whole picture all the more impressive, all the more beautiful and breathtaking. With my neck still straining from soreness, I looked at Tim. He was crying too. He’d once told me how Marinay’s waters seemed like a family – imperfect, yet great in the grand scheme of things. Darkness had been trying to throw me from this unity. He wanted me to make my own path and separate myself from the family I’d known, but what awaited me in this nothingness? I could travel as far as I’d like, win as many battles as I wished, grow stronger than any Fighter could ever hope to defeat, but then what? Loneliness was all that awaited me on that path, and once my grand scheme of things was all said and done, once I’d reached this elusive ‘full potential’, I’d be but a single streak of water across a never-ending map. It’d be an impressive sight, but what weight did it have? What personality did it contain? Where were its struggles, its twists, its turns? I could go as far as my heart’s content, and my river would never make a difference. It would be alone in its blandness, and accomplish nothing. This was the truth of what Darkness wanted for me, and what I had thought to have wanted for myself. Another tear fell down my cheek. At last, I used what little power I had, to roll onto my back and look up at the sky. “Brett?” came Tim’s hoarse voice. He sounded confused, and even scared. It didn’t make him weak. It gave him personality, and tempered his spirit. Now, fully realizing what I’d become, I embraced all the memories – good and bad. It was all a part of my journey; a journey I didn’t want to take alone. “I'm sorry,” I wept; still staring up at the dark atmosphere. “I'm so, so sorry. Sorry for everything.” It was the first time the real Brett Blakley had spoken in nearly a year. It felt good.
He seemed overwhelmed at first. I believe we both were. After everything that had happened, and all that I’d done to hurt those closest to me, I knew I didn’t deserve to be forgiven. I had earned all of this pain, and all of this isolation. If my hunch were correct, I felt that Tim would leave me this way. “It's... It's okay, Brett," my master coughed at last; allowing his body to slowly droop back to the earth. “It’s okay.” His words shook me, but not in a negative manner. Instead, my tears seemed to only flow more freely, and my cold, unfeeling heart began to soften. We laid there for what seemed like an eternity. It was as if we knew it wasn’t over. There was something coming – an ambience of dread and bleakness. The current of air started to grow thicker – more unforgiving. Finally, some small, cold bead struck my forehead, then another impacted my chin, and yet another shot into my arms, my legs too. The clouds had finally opened themselves; unveiling a parade of freezing rain down upon us. The frozen droplets stung at my exposed skin, and chilled my body to it’s very core. Hurriedly, I shifted my weight; rolling so that my back was to the storm, but this was only a temporary solution. I had to find the strength to stand, but it simply still wasn’t there, and even if I could work up the vigor to support myself, I knew I stood no chance of being capably supporting Tim. My master rolled into a similar form as my own; wincing as the piercing shards of ice stabbed at his neck and limbs. “George!” Tim cried out. “Samantha!” his calls were effortlessly brushed away by the wind. Our fray had taken us farther from Samantha’s immediate property than I had thought, and our bodies were hidden over the cover of various trees and bushes. No one – it seemed, was coming for us. “Samantha!” Tim shouted once more, through his teeth. His jaw was already chattering, and the rain was only growing worse. “George!” I called out, alongside my master; noticing the strain in my voice growing more palpable. There came no replies. “We have to… try to move…” Tim called to me. Together, the both of us frantically worked at adjusting ourselves. The moment my head rose a few feet, a panging headache took over, quickly sending me reeling back to the ground. Tim had no luck at standing either. It truly was as if our bodies had been switched off. I dared to look down the hill again – where Marinay could hardly be spotted over the downpour. Amongst this fog of rain, there stood a single, silhouetted individual – walking up the steep knoll. I knew who it was before his form could even come into focus. “Darkness,” I whispered at last. Tim looked down as well; feeling a similar state of hopeless urgency to leave. “Whatever he says,” Tim spoke aloud. “Don’t listen. Please just trust me.” “I fail to see how your words hold any more power than mine,” came a not so distant response. I stared back at the figure – watching as it finally took real shape and definition. Darkness’s masked face stared down at the two of us as if we were insects. Tim no longer spoke; realizing that doing so in such a state of weakness could only lead to more trouble. Darkness sighed as he looked to Tim and then back to me. I couldn’t look him in the eyes now – those impossibly black eyes. I knew they’d see right through me, right through my change of heart. Suddenly, Darkness extended his left arm; holding his gloved hand open, for me to grasp. “Take it,” he goaded. “You and I can still finish this.” I didn’t respond. “You want them gone,” Darkness reminded me; still reaching out. I bit down on my lip; still feeling intense cutting sensations all across my body. Darkness knew I needed his help. He could stand forever in these icy, cold conditions, but we could not. As far as he was concerned, I was already within the palm of his hand. My body wanted so desperately to take hold of his arm, to be taken to safety, shielded from this piercing agony. “You. Want. This,” Darkness said again. Acting on instinct to follow his orders, I slowly began to slide my arms out from underneath myself. Our hands slowly moved to meet each other, the hope of safety now just mere inches away, but then I stopped. I looked over at Tim. His tears had frozen to his face, and his eyes now struggled to stay concentrated. He was fading away, and there was nothing I could do about it. Nothing but respond to the master standing over me – my only chance at life beyond this storm. I thought about Tim. I thought about George. I thought about the S.S.C. “No,” came my shaking voice. My arm dropped back down, out of Darkness’s reach. “This… is w-what you want.” “Don’t test me,” he ordered; growing impatient. “If you stay out here, you’ll die.” “And if I go with you,” I whimpered. “They will die.” Darkness finally pulled his arm away; grabbing hold of my shoulders and forcibly spinning me around so that my frontside was to the rain again. His head hovered over my face; eclipsing the storm from contacting me there. “I’m not your enemy,” his unwavering voice continued. “Tim abandoned you. George betrayed you. The S.S.C used you. The school disrespected you. Your enemies obsessed over you and promised to make your life more of a living hell than it already was. That was the world for you back then. That is how I found you. It’s nothing to miss. I’m giving you one, final chance to change your mind. Your end, or your future? Which one are you willing to take?” It felt as if ice were forming over me. Life or death. I repeated to myself. Go or stay. I looked to Tim one last time. His eyes finally closed, and his mouth fell open. My old master’s consciousness had left him. Now only Darkness and I remained. “I am your master,” Darkness boomed. I stared up at him again. “Not… anymore,” my voice shuttered. Every word I spoke or thought, now seemed to be growing slower. Reality was leaving me, but one question still echoed through my fleeting mind. “The Darkness,” I wheezed. “They were never real… were they?” Darkness at last moved his head; allowing the freezing rain to strike at my eyes and exposed wounds. His foot came stepping down on my chest, and he bent down to speak closer. “I wanted to prove a point,” he growled; angrier than I’d ever seen him. “A point that you were meant to become this way – powerful, unstoppable, unfeeling. A point that this was your destiny. Your place is to cause pain! You were born for it!” He stopped himself from saying more. What little of his face could be seen beneath that ski mask – it looked enraged, but there was something else there to. A fear laid hidden within those eyes – something deep and guarded. I knew he wouldn’t explain more than what he was letting on, but he didn’t need to. Something told me that this moment meant everything to him. It was the thing which frightened him most, kept him up at night – the thought of being incorrect. He’d attempted to write my story for me, but now I was back. Now I had the chance to choose how it ended. I tightly shut my eyes to the rain. I let the world grow silent, and my concentration to focus on telling him something – these absolute words. “You… were wrong.”
Darkness backed away from me as if I had contracted a deadly plague – the strenuous plague of being sated with what one had, rather than the easy sickness of wanting more and more. I allowed my head to rest upon the soggy ground, and my eyes to close. “It’s over,” I said in a whisper. Suddenly, I felt Darkness’s knee come crushing down onto the back of my neck. “It’s not over until I say it’s over,” came his cold, robotic reply. I knew there was no changing him, so I did not speak, and I did not fight it. Darkness pushed more of his weight upon me, sending an unbearable panging sting across my entire body. He wanted to torture me, to make me regret turning away from him, making him lose out on whatever bet he had placed over my head. I fought my every instinct to cry out or resist. I wouldn’t give him that satisfaction. If he wanted to get rid of me, he’d succeed, but only as a coward. The muscles in my neck now felt viable to snap at so much added pressure. I could breath, but only in short, unstable rasps. I closed my eyes as tightly as I could; closing them until it felt as if they’d been stapled shut. I bit down on my tongue, holding in any cries of desperation. The noises of my surroundings had almost completely vanished now. Even the once deafening shower of freezing rain, could hardly be noted anymore. Instead the world was replaced by a ghoulish howl. Perhaps it was the wind, or maybe I really was screaming, shouting for help, but no longer able to process the fact that it was being done. The sound scared me, and I so desperately wished to be free of it. I pictured myself dying there, on this hilltop. I pictured a possible eternity awaiting me. An eternity of ghostly wails and cries. I heard the noise grow louder, fiercer. It was in this moment of agonizing pain, as my body gave out on itself, and reality appeared to warp into something so much more terrifying, that there came a new noise; one with such power, that it shot right through those droning howls. “No!” shouted the familiar voice – George’s voice. I felt Darkness’s knee loosen up from my throat, only to then be swept away within a fraction of a second. I forced my eyes open again. George; despite all his injuries, and despite the fact that he hadn’t known I’d reverted to my old self, was protecting me anyways. He’d tackled Darkness away from me, sending the two of them rolling uncontrollably downhill, towards Marinay River. I couldn’t stop blinking now. My eyes were red and puffy; tears streaming down my numbed cheeks and chin. The macabre cries returned to me, but I refused to embrace their calls. Giving up was no longer an option. I looked upon George again, and realized something about our togetherness which had not always been so clear to me. Maybe I’d never had the strength to admit it, but ever since I’d met George, I’d always been looking out for him. I’d talk down to him, tease him regarding the ways he acted or reacted, but there was always an attachment there. He was like a little brother to me, and I – an older brother to him. Now he was in trouble, fighting to save the same person who’d squandered his life with the S.S.C, and even the first relationship he’d ever had. It was time to make things right, and I couldn’t do that by lying still. I owed him that, and so much more. The hill gradually evened out several meters away from where a large, frozen mass of ice now waited. Darkness managed dig his heels into the ground beneath him, stopping his descent, while George continued to roll. He obviously was not yet fully recovered from my final strike against him, and now this newfound dizziness was only making it more difficult to concentrate. I looked on in revulsion. It was as if I could feel his every sensation now. I imagined the small rocks and shrubs embedding themselves in his back and palms as he tried to cease his tumble. I could feel the sickness in his stomach, and the wild throbbing of his head as it occasionally smacked into the dirt. Finally, his body sprawled out, and his unforgiving fall came to an end.
As if sharing one consciousness, George and I both began rising to our feet. A new power was coming over me – a protective feeling I’d never experienced before. I couldn’t hide from this pain etched all across my body, but I could try and ignore it. George hardly had time to rise to his feet, before he found Darkness charging at him. He seemed no more than that of a blurry shadow, moving at speeds I couldn’t believe to be witnessing. He wasn’t holding back. If I didn’t step in, George would almost certainly die down there. Luckily, my apprentice anticipated his foe’s incoming strike, managing to dodge to his left and deliver a solid punch to Darkness’s side. It must have hurt, but the beast didn’t waver for a second. My apprentice tried to back away and put space between them, but found himself immediately jabbed in the chest, then the forehead. George didn’t know Darkness like I did. In my time training with him, I’d picked up on the fact that Darkness worked best in close quarters, and almost never allowed his opponent any breathing room. It was a nonstop barrage of strikes, which would only come to an end once the adversary was down. Slowly and carefully, I managed to stand, daring a first step towards the battle. Immediately, the intense daze of standing upright again was too much for me, and I soon found myself falling face-first to the ground. My teeth bit down, hard on my lower lip, slicing it open as more piercing darts from above, struck at my exposed neck. Meanwhile, George had luckily managed to duck just out of range, while one of Darkness’s fists sailed over him. Acting quickly, my apprentice lunged forward and up; using his shoulder and superior footing to knock Darkness back a few feet. The shadow didn’t seem amused, and was likely close to overcoming the vertigo of the fall. Once he started fighting at full capacity again, there was no way an injured George – or anyone for that matter, could hope to stay fighting for long. Even from this great distance away, I could see George shaking, not only from the cold, but out of fear. Acting on impulse, he grabbed hold of a nearby, downed branch, and attempted to swing it at Darkness, only for the stick to be immediately snatched up by beast’s expecting palm. Now – with the branch within both their hands, Darkness used his advanced strength to jut the back end into George’s mouth. My apprentice released his grasp immediately and clung to his lips as they oozed red, just like my own. Darkness tossed the stick aside and began to speak to George, who was now backing away like a cornered animal. I so desperately wanted to hear what he was saying, but my current state prohibited it. Once again, I worked up the power to stand, now managing a single step, then another, then a shaking third. However, as soon as the ground beneath my feet began to slope more drastically, my stomach seemed to collapse in on itself, with the resonating anguish traveling straight to my legs. I fell once more, barely capable of keeping my head supported so that it couldn’t strike the ground again. Even the slightest of blows could easily do away with my consciousness, it was a ticking time bomb. Freezing droplets were now bouncing up from the ground, striking at the underside of my jaw. My hands were riddled with small, red dots; yet another result of the rain coming down harder. ‘Stand up’ my mind screamed. ‘Stand up and fight!’ My body did not comply. I squinted my eyes with downtrodden torture. My mouth was trembling. “Stand up!” I shouted aloud now; calling towards the ground in this newfound deafening tone. It only succeeded in exhausting the remaining air in my lungs. Through these watery eyes of mine, I now watched as George’s fist was grabbed by the shadow, and then twisted backwards with unrelenting malice. My apprentice wept at the maneuver’s effect, immediately falling to his knees. Darkness had no intention of stopping there. His foot now extended; stabbing George in the stomach, sending him lurching forwards. My old master finally released George and took a couple steps back, watching as he spat up blood and clasped his frozen hands over his gut. More words were exchanged, and my heart continued to sink. George’s head – now bobbing up and down, was turning pale. Immediately, I seemed to know what Darkness was telling him. He was putting George down, mocking his lack of focus, lack of training. He told George that he was worthless, and a cancer towards his plans. He threatened me, he threatened Tim, he threatened Samantha. He told George of how many people he’d failed, and the pain he’d brought by trying to fight him. Darkness’s words spun into these biting, degrading criticisms, not because they were true, but because he could make George believe them to be. I felt so helpless – lying there and watching it all happen. I wanted so desperately to scream – shout at the top of my lungs for him to block out the shadow’s words, but my voice was gone now. Finally, my numb hands refused to support me any further. My torso plummeted back to the unforgiving ground, and my sight of the battle was lost. With nothing left to cling to, my mind at last gave in, and my awareness fled.
Light Among Darkness:
Twisted images flashed before me. I recognized none of them. A swirling abyss of nothingness spewed them unforgivingly my way. My heartrate was increasing exponentially. Was this real? My mind couldn’t seem to grasp an answer. I was floating in a manner not only of body, but of spirit. Everything was set adrift, impossible to regain. My feet felt a sudden chilling sensation. I tried to fight against the fear, but seemed compelled to look down. That old, familiar fog was wrapping itself around my legs, bringing the cold air with it. My glance immediately shot away. I couldn’t bear to watch it devour the rest of me. I didn’t have the strength for it. I could only grit my teeth together in an expectant dread – shivering, frightened, and alone. The freezing phenomenon spread to my fingertips, then to my stomach, then to my chest. I held my breath and braced my head for the mist to travel up its sides, undoubtedly turning the entirety of my body and soul into nothing more than a statue of ice – remembered by many, loved by few. Somehow, I kept my eyes open, wanting to stare at something – anything as I left this world, but the warped images only grew more difficult to distinguish, and those recognizable, ghostly howls emanated from each of them – the infinite reach of them. I heard it all, and felt it all. Maybe that was enough. Just as the fog stretched to my mouth, there came something different. Something at my forehead seemed to change. I couldn’t seem to pinpoint it. It was as if some fundamental aspect had shifted, but the description of which eluded my vocabulary. Then it came again, this time stronger, more distinct. For a brief second, I could almost determine it. The haze grew to my nose now, seeping into my body and stinging at my entrails. I couldn’t breathe, it seemed the air around me had grown just as suspended as my mind. Yet, despite it all, my eyes remained open, and a feeble willpower persisted within my frightened head. I wanted to feel the oddity at my forehead one last time – a final goodbye from the world. Then it arrived, thumping – no, splashing into my brow, and dripping across my face. It was water, a single drop of water, coming from nowhere, but arriving nonetheless. I searched my mind for an answer as the fog deafened my ears. My lungs began to burn, and my chest grew constricted. Cold - the water was cold, otherworldly. The mist now nipped at the corners of my eyes. ‘It… isn’t real,’ My mind called out at last. ‘None of this.’ I was still outside… still alive… still capable of saving my friends. The haze suddenly retracted, pulling back down to my mouth again. I breathed rapidly through my nostrils – taking in every breath I could muster, as if it would be my last. I had to wake up, had to keep fighting. “It’s not real,” I spoke aloud. The mist retreated, but hardly as much as before. It seemed the doubt was setting in. I felt glued here, as if I’d been stuck in hibernation for hours, or days on end. What was there to return to? More pain? More suffering? Was that to be my prize? “Wake up!” I called over the uncertain voices in my head. They continued to speak, but now it was I who had to overpower them, not the other way around. I would no longer play as a puppet to fear – not like this. Your fight is over. There’s nothing to return to. It’s all lost, all because of you. “Wake up!” I cried louder. “Wake up!” The fog dropped to my neck. I could move again, think more clearly, feel another drop strike my temple. I rapidly blinked, experiencing the sensations of just… being. The water slid down my nose – parting ways at the cheekbone before reuniting at the tip of my chin. Like webs. It was like a web, and it is like a web. I was a part of it. I stared into this void of nothingness, and blocked those warped images from my field of view. The shouts of indecision withdrew, and the mist was reduced to nothing more than a fleeting puff of smoke. “Wake up…” I told myself. “Be a part of that web again.” I awoke.
A Show of Strength:
My eyelids sprang back to life, allowing the setting sun’s light to saturate my entire field vision. A dark shadow hovered over me for a second, and my heart skipped a beat. Was I really too late? Was Darkness back to finish the job? When my sight cleared at last, the dark figure metamorphized into that of Samantha – staring over at me with a look of terror still etched upon her face. I gazed around; still fighting against the uncontrollable urge to sleep and drift away. I was still outside, but now underneath Samantha’s roof. She’d obviously dragged me here not long after I’d passed out. A single bead of water fluttering down from the rooftop’s edge, striking onto my forehead. If it weren’t for that single droplet, I might not have awoken from that all-encompassing fatigue. “Where… are they?” I spoke; my vocal cords now so weak that I could hardly breath without a sudden sting. Samantha seemed hesitant to talk to me, and for good reason, but these were pressing times, she knew that. “Tim just woke up,” Samantha muttered, almost equally as breathless. “He was in bad shape, but he said he had to help George! They’re still fighting down there – down the hill, near the river! I c-called the police, but the storm is so bad now… it could take them some time to get here.” “We don’t have the time,” I replied. My skin was covered in goosebumps, my ears, fingers, and toes – now without feeling. “We have to finish this n-now… or he’ll only come back to haunt us.” I carefully pushed myself closer to the wall, and leaned my weight against it. My body slowly began to rise, as a distant shout of agony called over the storm. It was George’s voice. Samantha cowered at the mere sound of it. Hurriedly, I planted my hand against the side of the house, and attempted to steady myself upright, but my palm was too slick with water, and just as soon as I tried to push myself fully from the ground, I found my grasp slip loose, sending my torso hurtling back down, into the wall. I couldn’t help but cry at this fragility. My friends needed me, and I couldn’t even manage to stand. I let my body sink back down to the grass, and my occasional blinks became slower, more adrift. Suddenly, a new force broke me from the spell, as Samantha wrapped her arm behind me – using her own strength to help me stand. “Look at m-me,” she breathed; noticing my exhaustion. “We’re in this together. All of us!” I rubbed my eyes, and managed a smile – a real smile. My feet finally planted themselves upon the slick lawn, and my head turned towards the endless waves of downpouring ice. Gradually, I found the strength to pull myself from Samantha’s hold. I was standing again, and the dizziness no longer seemed present. For the time being, I was awake and alive. It was time to act.
How it Ends:
I took my first step, then a second, a third, a fourth. I heard Tim scream something over the earsplitting wind, I couldn’t make out his words, but I could decipher the feelings behind them. He was weary, losing himself to the injuries just as I had been. I refused to put Tim or George through that fog. It was my burden, and my burden alone. Adrenaline began to surge through my veins once again, providing a temporary jacket of heat around me. The freezing rain now didn’t seem to have an effect, as my steps grew faster and my fists tightened. I could feel again – feel everything. No longer was a fueled by anger. Now it was something different – something simpler, and yet far more focused. It was concentration – emphasis on not only the here and now, but also the recollection and lessons from the past, and the planning for the future. I reached the sloping hillside and gazed down. Far into the distance, Tim and George were rushing at Darkness while remaining at each other’s sides. Even from so far away, I could see their speed had diminished significantly, and their thrown punches had become slow and easy to avoid. Darkness certainly wasn’t fighting with as much intensity as before. I had no doubt that Tim and George had put up a good fight, and helped to whittle him down, but it was also evident that he was holding back, waiting for the perfect moment to draw upon all of his halted strength, and end them both simultaneously. I began rushing downhill. In no time, my stomach became agitated, and my sides ached. My head tottered downwards, staring at my feet as they took rapid, short steps. I watched them as if they’d disappear at any moment – swept out from beneath me, only this time Samantha wouldn’t be there to help me stand. There was a loud crashing sound from below, drawing my attention once more. Tim had been knocked into George, leaving them both off balanced, and open for attack. Darkness wasted no time lunging at them, striking one fist into Tim’s chest, and another hammering down over George’s right arm. They’d gotten so much closer to the frozen expanse of water at the outskirts of Marinay River. I feared that if I wasn’t fast enough, one of them could walk or fall into the sheet. George tried to strike back at Darkness, only to find his arm far too numb to utilize without seriously pulling a muscle. This unexpected hesitation allowed for Darkness to grab hold of his head, lean forward, and smash the back of my apprentice’s skull into the dirt. I so desperately wanted to scream, to tell Darkness to leave them alone and face me instead, but it wouldn’t be wise. I knew I couldn’t stop Darkness by force – none of us could, but if I were to catch him by surprise, there just might have been a chance for success. It was almost as if he knew I was arriving, for his attacks seemed to be growing stronger and faster. The shadow managed to slug Tim’s nose; spraying blood downwards onto my master’s lips. With just as much veracity, Darkness stepped backwards, avoiding a retaliatory throw from Tim, before kicking George in the ribcage, sending him falling back down. It was as if he wanted me to take in each and every detail of my friends’ suffering, but he never looked my way. I had to trust that he didn’t know, I had to trust in Tim and George to keep it that way. Darkness approached my old master with an attempted kick at the kneecaps, but Tim still seemed to have enough life left within himself to move out of the way, managing a quick sucker punch to the shadowy figure’s chin before he knew what was happening. Darkness attempted to withdraw, only for George – who still laid almost motionlessly upon the ground, to grab hold of his legs, causing the monster to tumble backwards. I hadn’t the time to cheer, my run was not complete. ‘Run?’ I repeated to myself, almost in awe. I stared back at my legs, now watching them effortlessly charging down that hill, pumping up and down at a pace I’d never seen myself reach before. I ignored the pulsing aches at my sides and gut, they weren’t important now. Darkness, Tim, and George were so close, growing closer. The shadow kicked himself from George’s hold and tried to stand, but Tim wouldn’t have it – tackling the beast back to the ground an unleashing a barrage of aimless strikes all across Darkness’s body. It wasn’t how Tim normally fought, but it was enough to throw Darkness off-guard, allowing several of the strikes to bitterly injure him. Now within less than a hundred meters of the two, I almost felt as if I could take a breath of relief, but then it happened – the turning point – Darkness’s last resort. As Tim continued his wild, furious strikes, Darkness adjusted his footing from beneath the both of them, and before I could do a thing, his body turned sideways, sending Tim toppling over; with his head resting just at the edge of a grassy overhang. Sitting just below this projection, was the frozen pool of water. Tim seemed to realize what was happening, but it was too late. Darkness fought his way out of my master’s hold, stood up, and – with a hateful snarl, stepped down upon Tim’s spine. My master fought against the downwards force, but it was too much. At last, his body crashed against the ground. He was now at the mercy of the beast, who could kick him into the waters at any moment. I felt anger festering within the depths of my body. I wanted to shout, to fight, to make Darkness pay for what he’d done to all of us. The call was strong, but I had to be stronger. It’s what Tim and George would have wanted from me. Anger could be a powerful tool, but it’s substance was dreadful, and its origins – vile. Hatred only led to more hatred – a nonstop cycle, a void that could never be filled. That wasn’t the life I wanted. My mind cleared itself, and for a brief few seconds, I could hear Darkness saying something, even over the storm. “This is how it ends?” he spoke; weighing down on Tim’s back even more. Tim held his mouth closed; he – too refused to give Darkness the joy of watching him beg. Suddenly, Tim’s stare drifted upwards, and spotted me. His tense eyebrows became relaxed, and his pained face grew somber. He knew what was going to happen, and so he said it. “Yes,” my master replied in almost a whisper. “This is how.” Darkness seemed to know something was wrong, and turned towards the hillside, outstretching a fist, but it was too late. I had no intention of fighting him, I only needed to beat him, at whatever the cost. In one final motion, I threw myself from the earth – leaping forwards and allowing Darkness’s fist to fire into my head. That one strike was all it took for my consciousness to dither, but my efforts were not in vain. Upon this great force of impact, Darkness and myself were thrown from the overhanging mass of land – our bodies turning to ragdolls in the open air. At last, I closed my eyes, awaiting the sound of cracking ice, and the sensation of deathly cold water to swallow me up. I heard the ice break, and I heard Darkness give a final, chilling shout, but then there was nothing – nothing but the feeling of a hand grasping on to my leg, pulling me upwards, away from the ice – away from the cold.
“He’s waking up,” came a shrill voice beside me. My eyes flickered open. At first, my surroundings remained a blur, much as they had been when Samantha had woken me up from beneath her roof, but now I wasn’t certain where I was, or who was speaking. Still very much in a daze, I attempted to sit up, but a gentle hand was quick to meet my shoulder, urging me to remain lying upon my back. My body felt warm, with various cold patches around my joints, lips, and temple. “Icepacks?” I caught myself saying aloud. “Please stay still,” the soft voice persisted. “I’m sewing up a nasty gash in your arm. Do you feel anything?” I felt nothing of the sort, except for this continual, thick confusion. At last my eyes adjusted to the various lights strung about the room. It seemed to be an abandoned garage of some sort, with various cabinets and tables strewn about an otherwise eerily, derelict room. “This…” I hesitated. “This is an S.S.C base.” My attention turned towards the girl at my side. Indeed, she dawned a white S.S.C patch on her shoulder; indicating herself to be part of the medical team. I couldn’t believe my eyes, there was no way the S.S.C would let me back into their presence, not after what I’d done. My focus shifted down to my arm, which was indeed quite grotesque, appearing red, puffy, and spattered with blood. I stopped myself from looking upon it any further. I didn’t have the stomach to watch my own arm get sewn shut. My tongue felt it’s way around my lips, finding them in a similar messy state, but having already been tended to. Gel icepacks had been wrapped tightly around my limbs, preventing them from swelling any further, and offering me a blistering reminder to the unforgiving cold outside. I listened closely; almost capable of hearing the muffled pitter-patter of rain hitting the rooftop. My memory had not yet fully restored itself, and so I was left to fill in the various gaps in my mind, as to what had occurred. Suddenly I heard footsteps from just behind my resting place. Someone was walking this way. “What’s… going on?” I questioned slowly. A new figure knelt at my side. I uncertainly turned my head, finding George observing my wounds. “Just stay calm,” George tried to assure me. “Tim is handling things. He’s here… he’s safe, thanks to you.” I couldn’t stop looking at George now, noting various stitches spanning his own face, and several bruises coated about him. I wasn’t sure which ones were caused by Darkness, and which ones were of my own doing. I didn’t want to know, but I couldn’t stop staring. “Are… you okay?” I murmured, trying to keep the pain in my throat at a minimum. My memories were coming back. George smirked at me and leaned against a nearby chair. “I’m fine, sir,” he promised. “’Sir’,” I repeated. “It’s been a while since I’ve been called that.” “It’s been a while since I’ve said that,” my old apprentice responded. “It feels… good.” Before I could talk again, a nearby door gradually opened, with Tim’s eyes peering around the corner, noting my awakened state. I didn’t smile, for I knew it would never be enough. Instead I could only look at him with a silent earnestness. Tim simply nodded; as if reading my mind. He took several steps inside, and I soon realized he wasn’t alone. Following just behind him, was none other than the leader of the S.S.C – Zach, himself. My eyes widened, and I couldn’t help but move my arm a bit, annoying the medic still working diligently at my side. “Don’t try to talk,” Zach spoke to me as he approached my table. I could tell he was tense – just as I currently was. I’d never agreed with his ruling within the Fighters, but the power that Zach held was still present. The S.S.C was capable of great and terrible things, now that they had me within their base, anything could happen, Tim and George would be helpless to stop it. I swallowed my fears, and held a solemn eye contact with him. “Tim told me everything,” Zach revealed; sitting in the chair beside George. My hands started to shake, and it felt as if there were a lump within my throat. “That was quite the selfless act you pulled,” he unexpectedly continued. “I just wish you would have consulted me or the others before trying something so… bold.” My head was spinning again, though now it seemed due to confusion, rather than discomfort. “What?” came my weak voice of bewilderment. Tim immediately stepped in before another word could be spoken. “Zach,” my master interjected. “He’s obviously still quite stunned. Let’s give him a bit more time before asking questions, okay?” Zach stood from the chair and nodded. “I understand. You can stay here if you’d like. I’ll go check on security. Please alert me if there’s anything he needs – anything any of you need.” With that, Zach abruptly placed his right hand over his left shoulder; signaling an S.S.C salute not towards Tim, and not towards George – but instead towards me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – the leader of the Fighters – the group I’d intended to destroy, now saluting me as if I were his closest confidant. Now pondering if I was within a dream, I cautiously lifted my free arm – crossing it on my chest just as he had done. Zach smiled, left the table, and closed the door behind him without missing a beat. Tim gave a small chuckle upon seeing my mouth agape. He walked to the medical trooper and politely asked her to leave us for a few moments, of which she obliged. Soon, it was only George, Tim, and I – all of us still heavily wounded. A small cut on Tim’s hand was still untreated, indicating we hadn’t been here as long as I’d imagined. “Tim,” I spoke at last. “What’s going on? Why was Zach treating me that way? He should be calling for my head on a pike… not saluting me and letting his troops heal my injuries.” Tim sighed and circled the end of my bed, as if uncertain of what to say. “Be honest with him,” George insisted towards my master. “He’s gotta find out sooner or later.” I tried to sit up some more, but my chest was immediately met with a panging, flattened phenomenon. Quickly, I was thrown into a fit of coughs. George stayed by my side and brought a water bottle to my hands. I allowed myself to lay back down once more, and take a drink, which quickly seemed to overcome the wheezing. “Brett,” Tim replied; staying quiet. “I’ll be honest… I’ve used my influence to tell Zach that you were sent on a secret mission by me. I told him that your goal was to get close to this ‘Darkness’ and learn if he was a threat. In doing so, you had to follow his orders, no matter what. As far as Zach or the rest of the S.S.C are concerned… you’ve just returned from a taxing undercover mission unlike any other.” I shook my head; trying to piece it all together. My memories still remained as a temporary mass of blurred images and sounds. “We c-can’t lie to them,” I croaked. “They’ll find out. I’m willing to own up to my mistakes.” “Honestly,” George admitted. “I’d imagine some of them do have a feeling we’re coving for you, but they wouldn’t dare to admit it. Tim has offered his story, and I’ve offered mine. Even though I’m no longer a trooper, they still hold my word in high regard. Sir, this is the opportunity for a second chance.” “You… want me to join the S.S.C again?” I inquired. The thought didn’t sit well with me. I couldn’t imagine living a lie of this sort. I couldn’t be considered a hero after what I’d done. “The decision rests with you,” my master certified. “If you wanted back in, they wouldn’t have any solid evidence to hold against you. If you’re to leave, they’d understand that too. When we first arrived, I was on the table just next to you. The medical team couldn’t stop fussing over all your injuries. Some elites saw it too. It was a rough sight… I think we all were a rough sight. They saw just how hard you fought out there – fought to save us. They can’t begin to explain how you could have woken up so quickly after being knocked out in the freezing cold, and then have the remaining strength to run down that hill and rescue us. They simply can’t fathom such a speedy recovery.” “You’re a mystery till the end, boss,” George smiled. I tried to share in their happiness, but only found my eyes watering again. I wasn’t afraid to cry anymore, it was what I felt. The memories were finally coming back – all of them. Everything I’d done, all the people I had hurt. At last it was all here – simultaneously coexisting within my sorrowful head. “I don’t deserve this,” I whispered. “I don’t deserve any of it…”. Tim grew closer and placed his hand on my shoulder; looking at me with that old stare of his. It was one thing that never changed, and I was thankful for that. “Brett,” my master said at last. “The person who attacked those students and fought against the S.S.C – the thing in which George and I fought before the storm – it wasn’t you. I could see it in his eyes. We were fighting a different person altogether. It’s only now that I see my friend again, and I’d rather spend our reunion celebrating this victory, rather than dwelling on the life and death of the being you thought you were.” I understood Tim’s sentiments, but still couldn’t find the strength to look back at him and say he was right. I couldn’t seem to do anything now except weep. George stood and took a few strides away; hiding his face. I didn’t have to see or hear his cries – I could feel them. “Brett,” Tim continued in a shaky voice. “We’ve all made mistakes, and we’re bound to make plenty more, but mistakes are what makes us who we are. We live with them in our own ways, and sometimes we can only accept them when we have friends to help carry that burden.” I remained quiet, lost in thought. “George and I are willing to t-take that step,” Tim stammered. “And we know that you’ll always be there to do the same for us.” There was a silence again, though this time I knew Tim had no more to say. It was all on me now – the moment to decide between opening up, or keeping my struggles to myself. Soon, I found myself trying to sit up again. The pain in my chest was still significant, but I ignored it all the same. Pain would come and go, but these friends of mine were one of a kind – more than that. “Family,” I said aloud. At last my mouth could form a smile. We talked and talked, as if time had no limits.
Time Goes On:
It was as if the world became a blur again, but this time it was natural, not fueled by hate and repressed thoughts. A lot of things changed over the following weeks and months. I chose to respectfully leave the S.S.C for the time being, and to get away from fighting. Tim and Zach understood these wishes and offered me support if I ever needed it, as well as quick reentry into the group should my vacation come to a close. The time spent away from combat did my body well. My wounds were given time to heal, though the memories of that horrid day in Samantha’s backyard would stay with me forever, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Ignoring the past was a futile effort. Embracing it and learning from it were the only ways one could truly live with himself. Tim and George were both incredibly supportive during this time, and would visit me often to play some sports or watch various old movies. Even Samantha managed to become a friend of mine, and put the past behind her. Tim ended up teaching George and I how to regularly make a three-point shot from across the basketball court. George instructed me on how to play ping pong without looking like an idiot. I taught both of them how to play pool. I suppose we were all masters in our own, unique ways. Eventually, despite Samantha’s initial hesitation, George rejoined the S.S.C and worked with elites on battle strategies and attacks. Although George didn’t make a big deal out of it, Tim made it clear to me that my old apprentice was doing the Fighters a lot of good, and was quickly becoming one of the most well-respected troopers around Toparsburg. During the final dance of the schoolyear, I passed both he and Samantha as they closed in for a kiss. I knew better than to bother them now. Various guys and girls around the dancefloor stopped me on occasion to talk or get something to eat. The S.S.C had somehow done me the service of spreading the word to the whole school that my previous behavior was no more than a difficult, secret mission. Of course, not everyone believed this. Individuals such as Trevor Sykes were so against the sudden positive opinions towards me, that he left the S.S.C entirely, and abandoned the position of Mask. In a way, I think he was happy to be rid of it. More responsibility did not always equate to more happiness. In the end, those that did give me the luxury of a second chance would go on to become some great friends. I still felt guilty over the lie the S.S.C was spreading, but I recognized the opportunities it opened for me, and I respected that. Sometimes I would catch myself thinking about Darkness. I thought about how I never saw his face, learned his real name, or understood his true motives. Search efforts by the S.S.C had been conducted several times around the frozen stretch of water he’d broken through, but murkiness, bad weather, and the freezing cold made it nearly impossible to really tell if he’d met his end down there. Even if he hadn’t, I couldn’t imagine he’d return. Darkness seemed to live for the sole purpose of turning me into a monster, and when I proved him to be wrong, his purpose left him. That was the danger of clinging to one thing, and one thing only – the moment you lose it, there’s nothing left to keep you going, nothing left to strive for. Now it seemed as if each day offered me something new to think upon or act upon. I was growing as a person, and enjoying every second of it. Tim’s changes seemed equally dramatic. He was calmer now than he’d ever been before, stronger, faster, more focused. He’d allowed for his best qualities to shine brighter, and I strived to follow in those footsteps. Tim never did tell me all the details regarding why he’d left me years ago. I think it was a painful topic for him, so I did not bother pressing him for answers he didn’t wish to give. If there was one other thing I’d learned from my experiences that year, it was that sometimes mysteries were best left unsolved. As I worked my way through the dense jungle of dancers, I saw something which took me by complete surprise; Random Kid – sitting in the corner of the dancefloor, alone. It was the first time in practically forever that I’d seen him without friends at his beck and call. At first, I pondered if he should be left alone. There were some people who’d never have the strength to open themselves up and forgive another. Suddenly, before I could think any more on this subject, R.K.’s blank face stared upwards. It gazed past every other sight the room had to offer, until it was focused on me. R.K. allowed his gaze to hold a bit longer, and at last a small smile appeared upon his face. It was not a mocking grin, nor was it threatening. The smile was real and warm. Words weren’t needed.
A New Foundation:
It was now January – the first month of the new 2012 year. Just when I was beginning to think things were settling down a bit, sudden news struck. Tim, George, Tye, and myself were all shoveling snow from Samantha’s driveway at the time, when a truck pulled up to the side of the road, and an S.S.C elite rushed out to greet Tim and hand him a letter. Tim gave his thanks, and the elite quickly left us. “This can’t be good,” George sighed as he leaned on his shovel. “Any idea what it could be?” I asked while Tim read the message to himself. “With any luck,” my old apprentice replied. “It’s news that they’ve finally finished repairs on that southeast training base. I’m so sick of helping them do roof work. I swear, I’m gonna end up falling any day now!” Tye began laughing as he planted himself before George. “You’re sick of it?” Tye scoffed. “You’ve been making me go over there for ‘practice’ the last couple weeks! I might just be an apprentice, but I swear, nobody over there has a clue what they’re doing!” George simply nodded and laughed along with me. “I never said I was a great master,” George recalled. Tye was about to speak again, when Tim finally turned away from the letter, to look at us. He was rubbing his chin now, looking somewhat shocked. “What is it?” I asked. Tim briefly reviewed the letter over again, just to reconfirm what he’d just read. “Zach is moving to another state,” Tim at last revealed. None of us were certain how to react. The longer the S.S.C remained without a leader, the more unhinged things could become. “Save your surprise,” Tim continued. “There’s more. Apparently… he wants me to take over again!” Tye offered a sarcastic clap, realizing that Tim was not fond of the idea. “You gonna turn him down?” George questioned. Tim only stared at the letter a bit longer. “I’m not sure,” he replied at last. “I may have the knowledge to lead but… that’s a lot of weight to be set upon one person’s shoulders. I’ve known the feeling.” “I can’t think of anyone better to lead the S.S.C than you, Tim,” I made clear. My old master smiled and at last stuffed the document within his coat pocket. “If I do say yes,” Tim replied. “I don’t think I can command the S.S.C alone. How do you guys feel about a… partnership?” “You mean like all of us?” Tye immediately asked, practically jumping out of his boots. “Sorry, Tye,” Tim responded. “I was mainly speaking about George and Brett.” Tye merely crossed his arms and gave an exaggerated pout. George silently nodded, thinking the idea over. I was put in a similar position of uncertainty. “If I do come back to the S.S.C,” I began. “And the three of us begin acting as leaders… it’s likely that a lot is gonna change. Zach was a fine guy, but we all know that we’d run things differently than him.” “Different isn’t bad,” Tim reminded us. “But the decision is yours. If you guys turn me down… I may still try to accept the offer, albeit begrudgingly. “You can count on me,” George said at last, shaking Tim’s hand. My old master and apprentice turned away from me to continue their work, understanding that merely standing in place would pressure me into making a decision I wasn’t sure of. It was an appreciated gesture, but an unnecessary one. Before Tim’s hand could even reach out to his snow shovel, he found my hand waiting for him. “Looks like we’ve got big things ahead of us," I wagered. We all smiled. This was what freedom really felt like.