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Old Wounds

It was pouring outside. Not the ordinary, pleasant rain that Toparsburg was often associated with. This was a sweeping sort of rain, one which seemed to brush over everything in waves. If you listened close enough, it was almost like hearing a tide. Thunder cracked in the far distance. My worry of a major storm coming our way was actually the only thing keeping my mind off of my upcoming speech. I had hoped to be accustomed to it all by now – the task of becoming leader over the entirety of Toparsburg’s S.S.C, but it was a job without rest. Just when one problem was solved, two more would rise on in its place, and so it would go. My opinions and rulings were also closely observed and carried into practice by other S.S.C groups around the state, even the country. I’d been leader of the S.S.C for over a year now, and met countless other leaders and elites, the names of which I could never hope to remember in their entirety. Yes, it was a hefty job, and the speeches were probably my least favorite part. I’d always considered myself to be somewhat of a casual sort of guy. I could hold regular conversations with ease, but giving a speech towards a silent crowd – sometimes not too silent, was always daunting. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my struggles, for Tim shared them as well. The two of us worked to better the S.S.C as best we could, establishing our power in equal and fair manners. Our decisions didn’t always coincide, but somehow, it’d always work out in the end. My old apprentice, George had also accepted to take leadership of the S.S.C alongside Tim and myself, but this did not last long. It took only a few months for him to come to the conclusion that he simply wasn’t ready for that kind of authority. I couldn’t blame him. Perhaps he also wished to focus more of his time on training with his apprentice Tye, or working with his girlfriend Samantha, who had also taken up residence within the S.S.C, making her a rare female outlier. Honestly, it might have been for the best that George chose to step down, as three voices trying to simultaneously rule over one jurisdiction, could lead to lots of confusion. Another distant boom called over the horizon. The clouds were practically black. I heard voices grow louder within the next room over. The meeting space was filling up, and my time of reflection had come to an end. Just before walking out in front of any huddled mass with troopers of all ages, I’d work to calm myself by remembering all I’d done to get the S.S.C where it was today. Tim and I had resuscitated it, and that was a success that no one could overlook. The S.S.C was back, and I was back with it.

Strange Behavior:

“Settle down everyone,” I announced while stepping towards the front of the room to speak. All the S.S.C members around me straightened up and listened intently, with only some of the younger soldiers taking a while to really be quieted by their masters. Technically, apprentices were not supposed to come to meetings like this, as they were mainly held for masters and elites, but I didn’t bother enforcing it. As expected, the room was utterly packed, with most everyone being forced to stand so that the greatest number of individuals could fit into the space. I didn’t even bother attempting to count how many were present. There were troopers of all ages, heights, races, and rankings, really quite a sight to behold, and a sound to behold as well. I was patient with it all, because in actuality, I was hoping to stall this meeting for as long as possible. Tim had been set to meet with me an hour ago to discuss his half of the speech, but he’d never shown up. It likely marked the twelfth time he’d done something like this. Sometimes he’d reveal himself about half an hour later, while other times he’d fail to show up at all, today I feared it was the latter. Once the room was finally silenced to the fullest extent, I gazed at my watch and stepped to the front of the room. I must have stood in this meeting space over one hundred times already, I’d memorized every little detail from the peeling walls, to the distorted ceiling, and crooked doors. This was a small S.S.C base which had been worked on for quite some time, yet was still largely disfigured. I learned very quickly into my career as leader that if you allow apprentices to train indoors during hot weather or cold weather, they’d likely rip the place to shreds. There really wasn’t any way around it, and so many places of operations were allowed to stay in somewhat miserable conditions, simply because the money it would take to fix it all, would be spent in vain. I sighed to myself and looked out a back window to check for Tim one last time. Still nothing. “We have been doing an excellent job,” I finally began with a warm smile, still distracted. “Records show that our actions have already saved over fifty kids this week! And we all know that records are often lower than the actual amount. It seems that with every passing day, the S.S.C grows closer towards other boarders. We’re helping kids from different states entirely. That’s a prospect that our founders never could have imagined – that many of us could never have imagined. This growth can be scary for some, but I see it as our next great adventure!” All the members cheered and began to brag amongst themselves regarding the deeds they’d personally brought about. With THEM no longer around, bullies and the occasional small group of rebellious attackers were our only real problems. Without having a war on our hands, Tim and I could pay closer attention to the smaller details from time to time, and work to settle the root causes of bullying. Samantha in particular, had already established herself to be quite proficient at this. Someday I dreamed that all the Fighters in the United States could somehow band together and become unified. It may have seemed impossible now, but who knew what the future could hold for us. Technology innovation was the prime example of this. When Tim had first joined the S.S.C in 2006; seven years ago, flip phones were still very much a thing. With the money we saved by not focusing too much on fixing bases, Tim and I were able to put more funds towards special pieces of equipment for masters and elites. One of my most trusted and capable troopers – Commander Delta, was in charge of our elite divisions, and would often be here now to tell the crowds to quiet down, though he had warned me two days ago that he’d have other matters to look into, and therefore would not be able to make it. I only wished Tim were a courteous. I allowed the masters to settle their apprentices once again. “I would like to congratulate all of you for another successful week,” I continued. “Tim will not be joining us today, so his side of the discussion will either be delayed till next week, or we might send it out to you. If you’ll head to the message board at the back of the room, I have an elite posted there with information regarding a small sect of kids who are causing some trouble around the old park. Nothing major, but it’s something to look into.” Various troopers around the room seemed disappointed at the lack of information and Tim’s absence. Many of them had taken quite the trip to arrive here on time, and would now soon be forced to leave not long after, through the pouring rain. “I'd also greatly appreciate it if you'd take the time to sign your name on the file patrol,” I spoke, immediately watching all eyes dart away from me. A couple people groaned. File patrol was just about the most boring task you could be assigned. It was almost a punishment. Basically, all the old S.S.C files accumulated over the years by those who came before us were still sitting around in old shacks or warehouses, collecting dust. Some of it could be useful for studying strategies, family history of involvement, and repair guidelines, but most of them were simply around for the sake of nostalgia. We still documented new events as well, meaning that these places were also stacked to the brim with newer content, and therefore considered heavily classified. I’d worked hard over the last couple months trying to get information documented in digital form, but it wasn’t taking off as well as I’d expected. And so, because of this overflowing amount of somewhat important documents, at least one guard needed to be posted to watch over them. They’d stay for a rather long shift with nothing to do but look at cobwebs and rotten papers, before being replaced by the next guy, and this would continue 24/7. A file base was never truly empty. Now that I was a leader, fighting minor bullies was hardly a focus of mine anymore. Many of my tasks these days would focus on speeches and paperwork. As such, I often volunteered to take lengthy file patrol shifts, simply because it was quiet and I could get more work done. Two birds with one stone. It didn’t take long for troopers to realize this tendency, and soon I found myself to be at these file bases more than any other member. It was almost demeaning really, but there wasn’t much reason for me to turn it down. Finally, after speaking of a few more formalities, I concluded our discussion. “I hope to see you all again, soon. Stay behind if you have questions. S.S.C dismissed.” The troopers quickly filed out of the room, with only a couple masters bothering to approach me afterwards, and only three people signing up for the file patrol. And still no Tim.

Handing Down:

I stayed in that drafty meeting hall until just about everyone had left. Some troopers had been kind enough to offer others some car rides home, yet some were still forced to shuffle out through the rain. Being that I was 17 now, I did have my own car, but often didn’t use it. Even though my fighting days seemed to be behind me, I knew the importance of staying at least somewhat active, and either jogging or running from place to place. Of course, I was regretting that mindset now. As I looked out a grimy window and watched the dark clouds rolling closer, some footsteps approached my side. “You even notice me in that crowd of yours?” George asked as he checked his watch. “I can’t say I did,” I replied. “These meetings are just too popular, ya know?” George snickered at my sarcasm and stepped over to another window overlooking a distant road. “So,” he mumbled. “No Tim again?” I silently nodded my head. “I just can’t put my finger on it,” I responded. “I can’t tell if he’s sick, or angry, or depressed, or insane. It’s as if it’s getting worse now.” “Maybe he’s trying to ease you into taking full leadership over the S.S.C,” George wagered. I shivered at the mere thought of it, but George went on. “He is 18 ya know. You don’t see many members hang around after adulthood. You’ve gotta pass things along sooner or later.” “An elite in Blue Point was in the S.S.C till he was twenty-two,” I argued. George didn’t bother replying, he knew when I was just making excuses. “Maybe I’ll try talking to him about it,” I conceded at last. “Guess it couldn’t hurt.” “Are we still having the warehouse meeting on Sunday?” George asked. “Yes,” I replied hesitantly. “But I will have to ask Tim if he will come along. Without him, we really won’t have much to discuss.” “Well Samantha has some great points to bring up regarding our deterrence plans” George reminded me. The rain outside briefly slowed, and George took this opportunity to rush over to the door. “Head out now, and you might not get drenched!” he shouted. “Good luck with Tim! You might need it!” I waved George goodbye and fetched my jacket from one of the backrooms. George ended up being wrong, it only rained harder when I stepped outside.

Searching:

Due to the seemingly unending storms, I chose to wait until Saturday to approach Tim about his absences. I suspected that I’d find him southwest of Marinay Woods, training with recruits in the expansive, open fields on the other side of the river. Tim cared for the spot far more than I did. It was in this field that the S.S.C had engaged in a plethora of official battles with THEM, stretching back to 2004. It was where I had bested Machine and had begun my rise from obscurity. It wasn’t that I hated the place, I just felt no real nostalgia from it. Back when THEM was still around, and boundary lines were drawn between us, the field was considered a neutral space, reserved only for war. I think Tim enjoyed the fact that it was open to everyone now, free for countless troopers to train within, outside of the public eye. I decided to drive to the location on the off-chance Tim wouldn’t be there at all, and the whole trip could be useless. As usual, I drove over one of the creaking bridges spanning the waters, and parked my car off to the side of the road, where several others were sat. Upon advancing over a series of small hills, I was finally able to look out over the dewy meadow. My initial impressions were not positive, as there seemed to be far less trainers out in the field today, and certainly none of them appeared to be Tim. Two small groups of apprentices, led by several masters, were doing a combination of pushup and running exercises. Meanwhile, a pack of about a dozen elites were trading various sparing techniques a few meters away. I felt almost antiquated in the presence of their quick reaction times and split-second punches or kicks. They demonstrated perfect movements, neither too reserved or exaggerated, and dodged incoming strikes with calculated blocks and weaves. I wasn’t the only one who was impressed, several of the nearby apprentices couldn’t seem to take their eyes off of these older troopers, they could only stare with their mouths agape and watch as one elite effortlessly flipped a willing partner over his shoulder, before immediately spinning around and pinning the rag dolled body to the soggy ground. “Great work!” called one elite standing somewhat separate from the group. Like the others, he was dressed primarily in black clothing, which closely mirrored his dark, spikey hair. Various padding spanned the entirety of his body, ranging from simplistic shin guards to a custom-made torso piece, which gave the elite an appearance of being twice as large as he really was. His cheeks were purposefully spattered with dirt, a custom that the elites had adopted to further set themselves apart from the crowd. Perhaps most striking of all were the two long sticks crossed along the elite’s back in the shape of an ‘X’. These sticks were specially made for respected masters and elites, and were utilized mainly in cases of emergency conflicts, wherein fists just weren’t going to cut it. Troopers had taken to calling them ‘E-sticks’, and I knew of only one individual besides myself and Tim who was allowed to brandish two at the same time. It was Commander Delta, holding a booklet in his hands and jotting down his various thoughts while watching his unit train. Delta was an elite unlike any other. Tim had met him hardly a couple months after we’d taken leadership over the S.S.C. Delta had spent his free time practicing karate, wrestling, and even boxing, earning him respected titles within each category. Years prior, he’d been approached several times by both THEM and the S.S.C in the hopes that he would join up, but he’d never accepted. Sometime later, when the moment came for us to establish a more orderly elite unit, the first person to come to Tim’s mind was Delta. The two shared some words for a few hours, and despite me having no faith in the endeavor, somehow Tim managed to talk Delta into it, the rest was history. None of the elites seemed to notice me as I drew closer, though I could overhear some stunned whispers coming from the groups of apprentices I passed. At last I approached Delta’s side and attempted to hide my disappointment at Tim’s continued absence. “Boss!” Delta exclaimed as he put his booklet away and outstretched a hand to me. I gladly took it, while Delta ordered his elites to take a break and allow us to talk. “Wasn’t expecting to see you out here, today,” Delta told me as the two of us walked some distance out of the earshot of the others. “Well I’m not exactly here to be a spectator,” I was quick to reveal. “I was hoping to find Tim. He didn’t show up to that meeting the other day, and his other disappearances and attitude changes seem to be more and more… I dunno… odd.” “I’ve felt a similar strangeness to it all,” Delta slowly admitted. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s still an excellent instructor and fighter. Far better than I could ever hope to be, but something has certainly changed. The last time I saw him, he seemed almost… tired – exhausted really. I’ve never associated him with being so weary. He was one of the liveliest guys to bother setting foot in this field.” “So, hasn’t been here all day then?” I confirmed. “Not likely,” Delta replied, shaking his head. “If I’m being honest, boss… you may just want to visit his house instead.” I rolled my eyes, but knew he was likely correct. “I suppose that’d be a good idea,” I sighed. “Call me if anything changes.” “Will do,” Delta replied. “If you’ll excuse me, I suppose it’s about time I made a guest appearance with that group of apprentices.” With that, the elite turned away from me, his usually serious face now changing into that of a pleasant smile as he approached the younger recruits. I always found it amusing to watch him talk to apprentices, just to see how soft he really was around kids. “Mask!” came a dozen shrill cries from the group. Before I knew it, ‘Mask’ was surrounded by the entire unit, trapped from all corners as he bent down slightly to speak with them and get updates on their progress. I may have known the commander as ‘Delta’ but to most apprentices, he was ‘Mask 16’. It was sort of funny, when Tim, George, and I had first met to talk about rules we’d want changed in the S.S.C upon our leadership status becoming final, we all unanimously agreed that the ‘Mask’ title should be toseed. When Delta joined the Fighters, he seemed to subscribe to our idea that a silent, unwavering figurehead was not needed. And yet somehow, someway, the name just happened to spring up again from the grave. Apprentices started calling him ‘Mask’ more often than ‘Delta’, and despite our efforts to counter it, the title was simply something which we couldn’t beat. Finally, I caved in and made it official, allowing the Commander to hold the name of ‘Mask 16’, though it was only that – a name. Delta was free to speak his mind and act separately from the crowd, unlike his predecessors. I wanted to lead soldiers in the S.S.C, not slaves. Delta was hesitant at first, but now it seemed he’d finally learned to embrace his other title and use it to show off good examples to the younger recruits. I only wished Tim were setting an equally positive change.

Checking In:

With few other options left at my disposal, I drove to Tim’s house, which was a trip I did not relish. Ever since Tim had moved away all those years ago, his new home was quite the distance from Toparsburg, and roads around the area were not well laid out for proper traffic flow. For a while, I pondered if this consistently long drive was the cause of Tim’s disappearances and lateness, but he’d never complained about it before. When at last I reached Tim’s house, I noted his car parked out in the driveway. All curtains behind the windows had been drawn tightly shut, though I could still see the lights were on around the building’s left-hand side. I casually made my way towards the front porch, the moment my foot touched down on the first step, the front door crept open. I stopped and watched as Tim slowly pulled himself out into the sunlight, looking almost sickened by its presence. Tim held a constant glance to his right, as if focusing on my car, though he had seen it countless times prior. “Hey, man,” I said at last. “You… feeling alright?” “I feel fine,” Tim responded absently, still looking to the right. “I’m guessing you probably didn’t come all the way up here just to ask that?” His voice seemed irritated and lost; it was as if I were talking to a different person entirely. Before I could say another word, Tim backed inside his house again and left the door open, signaling for me to come in. I followed behind him, wasting no time getting to my point. “If you’re upset with something I’ve done, that’s fine,” I assured him, still not able to see his face as he walked me down the hall. “However, it would help if you actually told me what that problem is, so we can work to fix it.” At last, we reached the end of the hall, wherein Tim switched a light on and turned so that he was staring at me with one eye, while his head still remained pivoted to his right. “It has nothing to do with you,” he stated bluntly. “I’ll handle myself.” Tim now turned away from me completely and stepped into a darkened room where he began trifling through a filing cabinet. “I have papers here for you to give to Delta when you get the chance,” Tim continued; trying to quickly change topics. My focus briefly drew away from Tim, and towards the space of the room itself. The whole place was a mess from what I could see in the dark. Paper had been flung everywhere, folders laid open beneath various chairs and desks, food wrappers had been strewn across the space so that they now made up the majority of the floor. A towel had been consciously draped over the only window in the room, preventing almost all outside light from seeping in. I’d never known Tim to be so disorderly or pent-up. It wasn’t in his nature. At last, Tim found the documents he was looking for, and without even bothering to turn around he held the papers out behind him, and waited for me to take them, and then to leave. I wasn’t going to let that happen. At least not until I asked one more thing. “What happened to the right side of your face,” I questioned, not taking the papers. Tim gradually lowed his arm. “What are you talking about?” came his whispered reply. “The right side of your face,” I repeated. “You’ve hid it from me this whole time. What’s wrong with it?” Despite this new personality Tim had seemingly adopted, he was still smart enough to realize I wasn’t leaving without some sort of answer. Tim let out a long sigh and stood up from the cabinet. Gradually, my old master turned to face me, revealing his right eye to be slightly swollen, with some bruising around the cheekbone as well. “Where did you get that?” I asked. Tim stared at me for a couple seconds, as if not sure what to say. “Had to protect some fifth grader from a bully,” he at last admitted. I raised an eyebrow at this statement. “Must’ve been some bully if he could manage to get a strike in at you. You positive that’s what happened?” Tim’s eyes immediately narrowed, and a small scowl appeared across his jaw. In an instant, he spun back towards the drawer and crammed the papers back inside. “We’ll talk later,” he stated in almost a growl. “I want to talk now,” came my increasingly worried voice, but Tim simply wouldn’t have it. Before I could speak another word, Tim stepped further into the room and shut the door harshly behind him; indicating that it was time for me to leave. “I wanted to know if you’d show up to our special meeting tomorrow,” I spoke through the door. Tim didn't answer. I was growing equally frustrated now, and understood that I’d reached a conversational dead-end. “Just show up.” I stated at last, turning away from the door. I let myself out of the house and back to my car. Tim could hide and lie all he wanted. I knew I would find out what was wrong with him, and I wouldn't give up until I did.

Memory Lane:

The following day, I arrived at the meeting place with zero expectations of Tim being there. I was right to be so realistic. Tim’s car was no-where in sight around the warehouse, and he certainly didn’t seem energetic enough to walk all the way over. This warehouse had been in S.S.C jurisdiction for a long time now, and it’s uses had widely varied over the years. It had gone from a training location, to living quarters, to a file outpost, to a safehouse, and now was utilized by myself, Tim, George, Samantha, and sometimes Commander Delta or Tye for special discussions related to the future of the S.S.C. A few members disliked these ‘secretive’ meetings, thinking it to be unfair that such important information could be spoken about behind closed doors. In actuality, they had very little to worry about. Half our time here was really spent just chatting or occasionally playing soccer in the wide-open space. Nevertheless, the warehouse was largely off the books, with not even the elites being fully aware of its location. In a sense, I guess the warehouse was almost like a getaway for us. A place outside of the S.S.C and outside of the school. It was a place where we could be ourselves again, and that’s what I enjoyed the most about it. I stepped through one of the backdoors and walked through a darkened, barren hallway which led to the center of the premises. Along every wall, you could spot carvings or pieces of graffiti left behind by members staying here long before us. This building had been around for such a long time, you’d be hard-pressed to find any surface where the names of old troopers weren’t etched into the brick, or crudely drawn images of the S.S.C insignia weren’t spray-painted. Tye had started calling it ‘the literal walk down memory lane’. At the end of the hall, just before making a turn into the desolate center, remained perhaps the oldest marker of this place’s past. In large, bold, faded letters of red, was written ‘Magna Oil’. Each time I past this ancient relic, more of the paint seemed to be chipped away. In fact, the ‘g’ was so heavily worn by the passing of time and an increasingly annoying leak from above, that it’s presence was practically nonexistent. And so, many of us stuck to calling the place ‘Mana’ for short. As for the ‘Oil’ term placed near the end, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. No surviving part of the building appeared to contain equipment related to oil, and I’d never heard of Toparsburg dealing with oil at any point in its history. Whatever the case, the warehouse now sat just south of the central town, crumbling away as nature overtook it. The expansive emptiness of the building allowed me to hear the voices of George, Tye, and Samantha long before I actually saw them. “Some people just don’t want things to be plain and simple,” I heard Tye state. “These rebellious sects of teens just want to stir up conflict where there is none.” I knew immediately what he was referring to, and I shared in his cynicism. From time to time, the S.S.C would have to put up with small groups of kids and teens who found fault in us. They consisted of all sorts of different people; former THEM members, expelled S.S.C troopers, bullies, a much, much more. These small groups of dissenters were a constant thorn in the S.S.C’s side, and were often the main topic of most every secret meeting of ours. At last, I strode into the central portion of the warehouse and spotted the three all speaking next to one of the several large stacks of rotted lumber. Small rocks and various other debris cracked beneath my feet as I made my way over. The three stopped talking until they could see my face, making sure I was not an unexpected visitor. Our only light source was a single, gigantic window which hung several meters above us, casting a steady spotlight down into the center of the floor. “No Tim?” I observed while stepping into the light. Everyone shook their heads. “No luck talking with Tim?” Samantha stressed. “No luck,” I immediately assured. “I just don't know what to do about him.” “Some of the younger guys were theorizing that he's gonna quit,” Tye admitted. I knew he wanted a reply, or some sort of assurance that Tim wasn’t going to leave us, but I couldn’t honestly tell him so. George handed me several papers to look over. “We have some more attacker groups popping up,” he stated; switching topics. “Delta couldn’t be here today, he’s working with some elites to take down an older one consisting of bullies.” “Everyone wants to be an S.S.C now, huh?” I responded in an odd mix between a laugh and a sigh. “Their intentions probably aren’t nearly as noble,” Tye reminded me; leaping up onto a series of logs which had long since fallen from their stacked structure. “I don’t see the allure, really,” I noted; flipping through the pages. “So, let’s say one of these tiny sects of eight people actually do somehow manage to take out a group of hundreds. Then what? Don’t they know that surrounding S.S.C’s from other counties will just rush in and stop them? And even if that doesn’t happen, do they really think they can set up some new unit of fighters? The whole school would hate their guts and refuse. It’s a doomed strategy no matter how you look at it.” “I don’t believe they’re thinking that far ahead,” George guessed. “But I share in your annoyance. Seems like for each one we take down, a couple more will rise out of the woodwork.” Samantha was about to speak again, when suddenly a door at the other end of the room, eased open. A figure, drenched in shadows began walking forward at practically a sleepwalking pace. George immediately stepped in front of Samantha while Tye leapt down from the pile of logs and waited by his master’s side. While they began to get into a fighting stance, I remained collected. The walk seemed familiar to me now. “You showed up,” I stated into the dark. At last, Tim walked into the spotlight, allowing George and Tye to take a quick breath of relief. “Try not to sound so surprised,” Tim answered. His right eye was still somewhat puffy, and his posture seemed to indicate he could topple over at any minute. “You look exhausted!” Samantha exclaimed, walking closer to him. Tim gave no response, merely walking past us and taking a seat on a log. “Well I’m here now,” he murmured at last. “So, what do we have to talk about?” I handed him the papers George had given me regarding the small enemy sects. Tim stared at it for a couple minutes, with an awkward silence growing evermore present. Finally, Tim’s head shot back up towards me, revealing a face of utter disappointment. “This is why you called me here?” he croaked. I looked at George for a second, hoping for some sort of backup, but he didn’t seem to want to step in. “It wasn’t mandatory or anything, that you showed up,” I responded. “You know how these work… I just thought it would be nice if you showed u-”. Tim’s head drooped as his arm flung the papers down to the floor, scattering them across the premises. “You wasted my time,” Tim growled. “That’s what you did!” He couldn’t seem to look at any of us. I tried to find words to speak, but somehow, I could tell that it would only make him more volatile. George and I silently stepped forward and began picking up the fallen sheets, which were now profoundly drenched and dirtied. Tim continued to look down at his lap as we did so. Briefly, I shot a glance at his face to see if he was still angry, but it no longer seemed present. Now his face seemed almost heavy. His eyelids drooped, and his mouth remained pursed. There was something else too, something which certainly wasn’t there yesterday; a bruise upon the left side of his neck. I slowly stood up and started to draw closer, when suddenly a new noise emanated from just outside the door Tim had entered through mere minutes ago. George heard it as well, and soon everyone but Tim was staring at the entrance, listening as slow footsteps grew closer to the door. Now I was just as tense as George and Tye had been earlier. This time, I knew we weren’t dealing with a friend. Tim refrained from moving to our aid, it was almost as if he’d fallen asleep. Just as I prepared to give orders for everyone to hide, the door swung open with incredible force, as a new, burly shadow let himself inside, taking long strides forward, towards the five of us. “There you are!” came a gruff voice I’d never heard before. None of us moved, it seemed we’d relegated ourselves to guarding Tim now. Samantha immediately stepped behind one of the wood piles, not allowing herself to be seen. At last, our visitor’s face became illuminated, revealing a masked teenager, about our age, but much larger than any of us. His head was almost entirely shaven, and the mask he wore was designed with a skeleton jaw. The guy’s clothes were darkly colored, allowing his entire body to seemingly meld into the shade. Above the skeleton jaw sat two piercingly brown eyes; deadest on Tim. “You thought you could hide from me forever?” he shouted again. “This time, I will beat you to a pulp! No more games!” I didn’t even have a chance to respond. He charged at us.

Interrupted Meeting:

I was the first to step forward, towards the intruder, pushing him harshly backwards, barely capable of ceasing his assault. A part of me was certainly worried, I had not gotten into an unexpected battle in quite some time. Nevertheless, I believed this pursuer had to have been insane to try and fight us all. Before long, the attacker leapt back into action, delivering a powerful blow to my stomach and then to my shoulder. As I staggered back, George and Tye rushed onto the scene, with the skull-faced visitor quickly being struck in the chest by the younger of the two. The attacker seemed more upset than ever, using his superior strength to shove George to the side and nail Tye in the face with a solid kick. Tye went down like a rock, as Samantha gave a brief shriek of horror from her vantage point. The visitor immediately turned to throw a strike at George, only for my old apprentice to quickly duck out of the way just in time. Now in this lowered position, George took advantage of the moment and grabbed hold of the attacker’s legs, pulling backwards at them until both gave-way, allowing both George and the intruder to tumble onto the floor. I stepped back for a moment, unsure if I should step in. Often times, interrupting a fight between two individuals could cause more harm than good, either messing up a chance at a proper takedown, or risking a strike at your own teammate. George desperately worked to wrestle the attacker to the ground, but it was of no use, before long, my apprentice received a brutal headbutt to his nose, followed by a precise jab at his throat. I realized now that I had to step in, no matter the cost, lest George suffer any more unnecessary injuries. Just as I prepared to race towards the fray, a figure hurried past me with intense speed. It was Tim; now seemingly more awake and alert than ever before. The attacker hardly had time to brace himself as Tim grabbed hold of his collar and forcibly yanked him back up to his feet, before striking him three times across his skeletal jaw. It didn’t take much longer for the intruder to push himself out of Tim’s grasp, now breathing heavily and clearly in a bit of a daze. Tim had struck him much harder than I’d thought, certainly hard enough to hurt his own hand in the process. I began running towards the two, wishing to provide immediate backup in case Tim needed it, but the moment my old master heard the sound of my incoming footsteps, he spun his head around to face me. His flesh seemed bright red and agitated. “Get out of my way!” he exploded in a fit of scornful rage. The unexpected hatred within his voice left me completely frozen in place, forced to watch the fray continue without me. George and Tye began to rise from their downed positions, but I gestured for them to remain where they were. If Tim wanted to do this himself, then there had to be a reason. And so, we all looked on as Tim and the intruder exchanged throws and kicks, each of them becoming more ruthless and faster than the last. While Tim clearly was throwing more punches, only a fraction of them actually managed to land on the attacker. Furthermore, Tim failed to dodge several incoming punches to his chest and arms – failures which I’d never seen out of him before. Simply watching the fight and not being allowed to help was starting to eat away at me. Tim took a fist to his lower lip, causing it to ooze blood down his face and onto the floor. The attacker suffered a fast forming blackeye, but not much else. If this went on much longer, then I knew I’d have to step in. Tim threw four rapid punches, with the intruder expertly dodging the third, then grabbing hold of the fourth, and using the leverage to twist Tim’s arm around and simultaneously shove him back. My mouth almost dropped open. I hadn’t seen an enemy use a trick like that in a long time. Tim let out no sounds of pain nor anger, now merely pulling his arm out of the attacker’s grasp. The fight was growing closer and closer to the door in which the unexpected visitor had first entered, I imagined that it was no coincidence. Tim was actively trying to work the fight outdoors – out of our sight. Before long, he got his wish, as my master managed a sharp kick to the attacker’s gut, sending him flying outside, into the wet grass. Tim was fast to step out with him, briefly looking back at us one more time. “Don’t follow me!” he urged, not so angry anymore, but increasingly tired in the face. With that, Tim slammed the door behind him, leaving George, Samantha, Tye, and myself to merely stand within that lone spotlight again, surrounded by emptiness. George quickly rushed to my side as Samantha inspected Tye’s injuries. “We can’t just leave him!” my old apprentice shouted in a panic. I nodded my head; agreeing, but still couldn’t find it in myself to disobey one of my oldest friend’s orders. “One minute,” I uttered at last. “We’ll give him one minute.” That single minute was the longest period of time I’d seemingly ever experienced. Each second felt as if it were an eternity in of itself. How could I live with myself if Tim was badly injured, never able to fight again, never able to lead again? How could I continue if he were captured, or worse? These thoughts and many like them would echo through my head over and over again, on an endless loop. George was feeling it too. Never before had we felt so helpless in a time where we could be of such help. Samantha bit her lip in a silent worry, while even Tye worked to ignore his pain and stare at that haunting, closed door. We couldn’t seem to hear anything outside now. In fact, our own fast paced breaths seemed to fill the whole room. However, just as the mark of one minute began to come forth, a slight thump was heard just on the other end of the entrance. It was the sound of a car door slamming shut. Now acting against my own orders, I sprinted to the door, flinging it open and gazing outside for the first time. Tim’s car sat just across from me now, it’s engine coming to life. It was difficult to see through the tinted windows, but I could recognize Tim’s dower look of weariness anywhere. I finally gave a breath of relief; the attacker was nowhere in sight now. In this clouded state of uncertainty and stress, I couldn’t even think to flag Tim down and tell him not to drive away. In hardly any time at all, he’d backed out of the abandoned lot, his tires squeaking as he sped away.

Different:

It took all of us a while to calm down after the unexpected strike. Commander Delta was called straight out of a mission to secure the area and make sure no one else was considering an assault. Tye now held a cool water bottle to his nose in order to reduce swelling around the area. He was still staring at the door, as if waiting for some other intruder to barge in on us. “Did you notice how great of a fighter that guy was?” Samantha noted. George hadn’t let her out of his sight or immediate range since the attack, I couldn’t blame him. “I sure did,” Tye muttered. “I know I’m an apprentice and all, but I usually don’t get my butt handed to me that quickly.” “It was odd,” George spoke up. “He obviously seemed trained, but he fought very differently than any old S.S.C or THEM member. It was like a whole new style out there. A combination of brute force and tactics.” “Maybe we should follow his example,” Tye remarked in a sarcastic tone. “Hardly,” came my fast reply. “The S.S.C has always used this method of fighting. Short and fast strikes, nothing too brutal. It helps you fight longer and not tire out. It’s like the first thing you learn upon joining.” Tye merely nodded his head and went back to icing his wounds. “What do you make of Tim’s behavior?” George asked me. “This attacker certainly seemed more interested in him. There could be a connection between this visitor and Tim’s personality changes.” “I don’t doubt that for a second,” I replied honestly. A few distant booms of thunder could be heard to the north. Another storm was approaching. “I’ll just have to talk to him tomorrow,” I continued with a sigh. “And get the whole truth out of him. No more games. This base was supposed to remain a secret from everybody, now that’s ruined. A lot of things are gonna have to change now, none of them for the better.” “I’ll come with you,” George responded, but I merely shook my head and gazed back at the door. “It’s best if I handle this on my own,” I assured him. “Tim’s not in the mood to be bombarded with too many questions.” My walkie talkie finally sprang to life, it’s hissing static amplified in the empty chamber. “Boss,” came Delta’s voice on the other end. “It seems clear around here. No sign of anybody. You’re free to go now.” Tye exhaled in gratification. It was as if we’d just been told a tornado had passed. Only now I seemed more worried than before. Worried that what we’d just witnessed was the beginning of a storm far worse than any of us could’ve imagined.

Locked Out:

“Open up, Tim!” I called, pounding at my old master’s front door like some sort of lunatic. It was sprinkling rain outside, and a bit too drafty for my taste, yet Tim refused to let me inside, or acknowledge my presence. He hadn’t told me to leave either. All I’d seen since pulling up to his house were those darkened, covered windows again, this time with a set of eyes briefly peering out at my car before darting away into the shadows. Tim was here, but he certainly didn’t want me to know that. Unfortunately for him, the damage had already been done, and I wasn’t going to leave until I started getting answers out of him. “I’ll stay out here all night if I have to!” I called again. “You led a dangerous outsider into our secret base! I expect to know who he is, and if he’s working with anyone!” Still silence. I thought about sneaking around the house and perhaps trying my luck with other windows or doors, but I had a feeling Tim had already made sure those were equally as secured. “I’ve known you long enough to know you don’t like talking about yourself or your problems,” I stated, speaking slightly softer this time. “But now things are different. If you have problems, it’s your job as an S.S.C leader to discuss those problems. Even Samantha could tell that kid had training, and she’s not even a fighter! We all know there’s more going on here than you’re telling us. So, how’s about you drop the act and just come clean?” Still silence. I swept some rain from my hair and sighed, my head now buried in my hands. Tim was becoming far too stubborn now, and I knew no logical argument would get his attention. I needed something bigger, scarier. Something to really wake him up. “Alright,” I spoke at last. “Alright, Tim. Ya know what? I’ve realized the truth now. The truth is that you’re too scared to open up to us and make yourself vulnerable. Which is a real shame, cause that’s what the S.S.C is all about. As such, if you choose to keep me shut out, to keep everyone shut out, then I will have no choice but to relieve you of your leadership duties. Delta and George understand my position and will support it, eventually the rest of the S.S.C will too. It can all be avoided if you talk to me.” I paused, still hearing only the sounds of various raindrops building up in the guitars and then tumbling to the ground beside me. There still was no response. He was testing me now, expecting me to keep talking and make more threats. I wasn’t going to humor him, so I turned and began walking away. I took several paces over to my car and started the engine. I waited a few more seconds before finally putting the car into reverse. At last, the front door flung open, revealing a disheveled Tim, holding his hand up for me to stop. My tires came to a creaking halt, and I once again found myself exiting and walking towards those front steps of Tim’s home, only this time I hoped find out the truth. The whole truth.

The True Story:

Tim didn’t even look mad at me as I approached him. He seemed far more tired than before, and exceptionally weak. He clung to the doorframe as if it were the only thing keeping him standing. “Come inside,” Tim stated at last. “Sit on the couch.” I chose not to offer any retort, and followed his instructions. The front door steadily closed and locked behind us. The room was once again bathed in darkness. Tim slowly shuffled my way and sat across from me, on a desk. The bags under his eyes seemed equally as visible here as they did out in the light. “Who was that guy, Tim?” I asked softly. “How did he know you?” Tim stared blankly at the wall behind me for a while. “That one calls himself ‘Blade’,” my old master responded at last. Tim rubbed his eyes and emptily inspected a large bruise at his arm. “Is he leading some sort of rebellious sect?” I asked, still remaining calm. Tim looked everywhere around the room except for at me. “No,” he answered. “He’s no leader… and it’s no small sect.” I raised an eyebrow at the statement. “I need more information that that,” I pressed. Tim opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t seem to find any words to describe the situation. He went back to staring blankly at the wall behind me. “Please, Tim,” I continued. “Please tell me what’s going on.” Tim rubbed the sides of his head and closed his eyes, trying to work out a headache. It seemed as if every fiber of his being had to be put to use in order to concentrate. His mind had to have been a mess of pent up emotions and stressors. I could see it all in his occasional glances. “Remember when I left you and the S.S.C?” Tim whispered across the room. My eyes narrowed, and my head slowly nodded. “That was four years ago, Tim,” I stated. “Back in 2009.” Tim silently confirmed this to be true, and continued to speak. “I never told anyone why I really left.” He paused to let this sink in. It was a true statement. I’d never learned the whole truth behind Tim’s disappearance. There were so many other things to worry about and discuss, the topic never really came up, and I learned to push it out of my head. But now here we were, all these years later, speaking about an event which changed everything, yet had been covered up all the same. “It all started a little bit before your big battle with Machine,” Tim began. “I thought Machine was our only threat at that time, and once he was gone all the fighting would be over… but then I learned of something far worse, far more dangerous. An old friend of mine... James, had quit THEM and was forming his own organization called ‘The Brotherhood of Death’.” Tim's voice trailed off as if hearing James's name out of his own mouth resulted in an invisible punch to the gut. Finally, he hopped back into our reality and continued. “He planned to overthrow the S.S.C and THEM in order to create a new fighting force. He’d lost faith in everything and everyone... he had to be stopped. I had to stop him. With my family planning to move, I decided that my disappearance should quickly follow suit. So, after the battle with Machine was over, I left to stop James from continuing his plans. I knew him better than anyone, and I knew he had nothing left to lose. I couldn’t bear to send anyone else his way… I couldn’t be sure what he’d do to them. He left his parents a long time before that. He lived all on his own, by his own rules.” I wanted to ask more questions, when I noted a small tear drifting down the side of Tim’s face. He didn’t bother hiding it. I quieted myself again, and let him continue. “I told you we would never see each other again,” Tim reminded me. I recalled that heartbreaking, confusing day. It was the first time I’d ever felt so lost. Maybe that’s how Tim was feeling now. “It was out of fear that you'd try to follow me… or that James would beat me… and get rid of me.” Tim paused once again and wiped the tear aside as it reached his chin. “And I left,” he stated. “James and I met near that pond between the school and Tye’s neighborhood – the one lined with all those rocks. Despite my pleas for him stop his plans and end the violence before it began, James attacked me anyways. And so, we fought. As the battle neared its end, the two of us were quickly losing energy and not thinking straight. In this uncontrolled mess of a fight, I pushed James at just the wrong time. He badly twisted his leg and fell into the lake, with the left side of his face sliding down those jagged stones. Before I knew it, he was bleeding profusely, with large gashes and scrapes now embedded into his skin.” I winced at the thought, realizing how much it must’ve haunted Tim to think about it any day since. “I p-panicked,” Tim continued, his voice becoming choppy. “I panicked and ran away. I couldn’t stand to see my old friend like that for any longer. Shortly thereafter, with a few more secretive efforts by myself, the Brotherhood fell apart, and James once again went missing from the world.” “And you went missing too,” I chimed in. Tim seemed almost hurt by the comment, though he must’ve understood it was the truth. Both myself and the S.S.C were so disorganized without Tim. It was a wonder we survived at all. “I thought about returning to the S.S.C and meeting up with you again,” Tim explained. “I really did. However, after all my efforts with the Brotherhood were settled, and I returned to Toparsburg, you’d gotten your own apprentice and were quickly working your way towards becoming a figurehead in the S.S.C. You’d truly become your own person – a person who didn’t need me stepping in the way of things. It would have stayed that way if it w-weren’t for… you know.” There was a long pause. We both equally understood what events had led to Tim’s forced return. It wasn’t something I liked to talk about anymore. “I take it the story doesn’t end there?” I wagered at last. Tim slowly shook his head. “Some time after we became leaders of the S.S.C, I began to get ambushed by several guys claiming to be apprentices of James… and were working with him to bring the Brotherhood back to life. Blade – the one which we met the other day, is one of James’s closest allies, and my most common attacker.” “People have been attacking you, and you didn’t tell us?” I exclaimed, standing from the sofa. “For how long? Months? Years?” Tim didn’t respond. I finally worked up the nerve to approach my old master, grabbing his shoulders and trying to shake him back to life. “Talk to me, damnit!” I yelled, but it was as if I were speaking to a corpse. Tim rose from his seated posture and stepped towards one of the windows. His voice was still quite weak, and filled with dread. “At f-first,” he persisted. “I brushed off the attackers with ease. They were only slightly better than your average bully… I thought I could handle them on my own. James is mainly after me right now… I thought if I could take down his forces again, on my own, the S.S.C could be spared another brutal war. They won’t attack any of you until they have me… and so far, that hasn’t happened. But there’s a problem to it all… they j-just won’t stop. The Brotherhood of Death is relentless now. You take one down, and there are dozens more, ready to step up. And by the time you take down all of them, the first one is all healed up and ready for round two. James has put together a unit of people who will stop at nothing to get revenge on the S.S.C. They’re refusing to back off. He’s toying with me now. Trying to break my spirit before breaking me.” “All this fighting is draining you!” I shouted. “Don’t you get it? His plan is working! The moment you realized this was too much for you to take on all by yourself, you should’ve called us!” Tim stared down at the floor, but I didn’t stop shouting. “We’re here to help you! We want to help you! Now the S.S.C is on the brink of a war we didn’t even know existed!” “Stop shouting,” Tim muttered under his breath, still not looking at me. I couldn’t seem to stop now, as all the questions in my mind began to simultaneously unravel. “Where is James now? Have you seen him? My god, Tim, the Brotherhood is likely recruiting other sects to join in with them! That’s how they keep growing! If you’d been paying more attention to that, we might’ve been able to cut off that supply before the Brotherhood even reached out to th-” “Stop shouting!” Tim cried out. He dropped to his knees and leaned back against his wall. More tears leaked from his eyes now. “I’m so tired!” he shouted hysterically. “I’m trying to lead! I’m trying to fight this menace off! I even have a job now, Brett! The S.S.C doesn’t earn enough money for me to stay functioning anymore! I have all this on my shoulders! I can’t seem to think straight! I can’t sleep! I can’t keep it up! I can’t!” The house almost appeared to shake with each defeated howl. My master sat across from me – broken and scared. At last, he wept silently to himself, as the immense pressure of all his duties finally came down upon him. I wanted to shout even more. What Tim had hidden from us, now was about to change everything. But as I looked down upon him, I couldn’t seem to stoop so low. He’d helped me in my times of doubt and worry, now I had to be there to do the same. Nobody had spoken a word of it, but I’d already made up my mind. As of that very moment, the S.S.C and The Brotherhood of Death were at war.

A Strange Note:

“What a stupid name!” George exclaimed over the phone as I was leaving Tim’s house. “Brotherhood of Death? What do they think this is, a movie?” “This is serious, George,” I interrupted while walking towards my car. “This is really gonna shake up the S.S.C, and definitely not for the better. If this group is even half as dangerous as Tim has led me to believe, then we’re gonna be up to our necks in combat. As for the name, I’d imagine it was chosen to freak out younger recruits. James must’ve known we’d find out about his group eventually. He knows that half our guys have never seen a true fight, let alone a singular enemy force.” George could only sigh in agreement. We both knew that the S.S.C’s time of peacefulness had made many of the members soft and not used to being pushed to their limits. “What’s Tim doing now?” my old apprentice questioned, almost sounding nervous. “I told him to get some rest,” came my reply as the engine to my car finally roared to life. “I’ve promised him that we’d handle setting this stuff up, but it’s his job to get back into the leadership role of things.” “I take it you want to keep all this a secret for right now?” George asked. “Even from Tye and Samantha?” “It’s best that way,” I replied honestly. “I’m going to be calling up Delta in just a few minutes. I’ll update him on all of this. When the elites believe they’re ready to work this out, only then will the rest of the S.S.C be notified.” “Alright,” George responded. I could practically hear him pacing back and forth. “You did the right thing. If Tim had been exposed to all of this for even a week more, I think the situation would’ve only been worse.” “I believe that,” I remarked. “When I pulled up to his house the first ti-”. My words came to a sudden halt. Something strange had now caught my attention. “You okay?” George called worriedly. My hand slowly crept over to the passenger seat of the car, where a large pile of papers had been stacked for weeks now, though this time there was something new atop the heap, something I hadn’t placed there; a tightly sealed, black envelope with no markings on either the front nor the back. I heard George calling for me again on the other end, perhaps fearing the worst had already happened. “I’m fine, George,” I eventually responded, much to his relief. “Listen, I’ll call you later tonight when we know a bit more. Just keep quiet about it.” I hung up before he had even managed to get a word in. The envelope was almost mesmerizing in its misplacedness. I was certain the thing hadn’t been there when I’d driven to Tim’s house, meaning that someone had placed it while we were inside. I didn’t have to open the letter to realize that what it contained would only make me dread the upcoming situations even more. Somebody within the Brotherhood might’ve listened in on Tim and I, or at least tried to. I chose to ignore the note until I’d reached my house, wherein I quickly scooped it up and dashed inside. I checked to make sure all my doors and windows were tightly locked before advancing to my room. I couldn't take any risks right now. If the Brotherhood managed to get ahold of me before I could alert the rest of the S.S.C to the problems on the horizon, they’d never be able to fully prepare as I wanted them to. George would be lost, Delta would be clueless, and Tim wouldn’t have the energy to pick things up. The situation was far direr than I could ever have cared to fully admit. The message laid heavily in my hand. There was more than just paper inside, some other object was giving the envelope a larger girth. Trying to keep a straight face, I peeled the letter open and removed a small slip of paper from the inside. My hands were slightly shaking now, making the text difficult to read, but I forced myself to power through it.

If you want the first strike against The Brotherhood of Death, go alone to the Union Cove at 11:00 tonight. ~ Night Riser”.

My hands stopped shaking, but my worries remained as I held the note out in front of me, reading it over a few more times as if I’d somehow missed a veiled threat. I knew very little about the Brotherhood, but it seemed unlikely that they’d be stupid enough to believe I’d fall for such an obvious trap scenario. My attention finally drifted back over to the torn envelope at my side. I’d yet to look at the other object which had been inside. Now with a dozen or more questions on my mind, I shook the envelope above my exposed palm. A dark, slim, metallic object tumbled into my hand now. It was a pocket knife, caked with dirt and grime, and heavily scratched around its base. I hadn’t the slightest clue what this gift was supposed to signify, with there being no evidence of inscribed letters or names. It seemed about as average as any ordinary pocket knife could be. At last, I flicked the blade open, hoping for one last clue as to what all of this meant. I got what I wanted. I took one look at the blade, and it was as if a brand-new floodgate of memories was torn open from my mind. Those jagged edges and that eerie glimmer of reflected light off the blade’s face, I’d seen it all before. It was Machine’s knife. 

Skeptical:

The last thing I wanted to do was disturb Tim, especially since I’d just told him to get some rest, but as the clock ticked closer and closer to 11:00, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the message and its urgency. If indeed the message were legitimate and not a trap, then this was information I simply couldn’t pass up on. If the S.S.C could hit the Brotherhood as hard as we could, in one sudden assault, an immediate victory was possible. The element of surprise was perhaps the most vital weapon we had. “Hello?” came Tim’s dreary voice on the other end of the phone. I was surprised he’d answered at all. “Sorry to bother you, Tim,” I spoke, reading over the message to myself over and over again. “I just had a quick question. Has the Brotherhood ever sent you… messages? Particularly in black envelopes? And do you know anybody going by the name ‘Night Riser’?” “That’s an awfully specific question,” Tim yawned. “What’s going on?” “So, you haven’t gotten anything like that.” I immediately deduced, not wanting to go into further detail and worry Tim any more than I had to. “No,” Tim detested. “I haven’t seen or heard of anything like that until just now. So, go ahead and tell me what’s happening.” “Just get some rest,” I reminded, preparing to hang up. However, Tim wasn’t going to stand for being left in the dark. “You told me I had to become a leader again,” came my old master’s course voice. “Well it’s time I step up and figure out what you’re talking about.” My mouth stayed shut while my finger remained on the button to exit the call. “If you don’t tell me,” Tim spoke. “It’s just gonna keep me up all night wondering what you’ve already found out.” Now that was something I couldn’t let happen. “It could be nothing,” I hesitantly began at last. “But I received an odd message telling me to arrive at the Union Cove later tonight. It was by some guy calling himself ‘Night Riser’. He claims that if I show up, he’ll tell me how to make an effective first strike again the Brotherhood. Apparently, he somehow overheard our whole conversation about it… what’s even more suspicious is that he wants me to go to the cove on my own.” Tim seemed just as bewildered as I was. “The Union Cove…” Tim repeated. “I haven’t heard that name in forever. I think I was just an apprentice when I learned about it.” “It’s that basement portion of the school, right?” I asked. “The section with old, outdated boilers. I recall vaguely hearing about it a few years ago, but I’ve never been there.” “Nobody has been there,” Tim reminded me. “Not in decades. Talk about a random spot to meet someone. I wouldn’t even say it’s secure.” “You think it could be a trap, then?” I asked. Tim thought the idea over for a while. It was already clear that the few hours of sleep he had gotten since my leaving his house had done wonders for his mental state. “That’s a possibility,” he admitted. “But I don’t think James is interested in getting ahold of you… not yet. It’s me he’s after. He used to work in THEM, so he understands that the best way to defeat the S.S.C is to do it fairly and honorably. That’s the only way to crush spirits and freak out other Fighter groups.” Tim tried to continue his hypothesis, but it was broken up by several consecutive yawns and coughs. “Looks like you need to get back to resting,” I noted at last. “I’ll handle things from here. Maybe I’ll go, maybe I won’t. I’ll talk to George about it.” Even over the phone, I could sense Tim wanted to check it out as well, but he must’ve known that I’d never allow it. “Fine,” he replied at last. “Just be smart about it.” “You know me,” I jokingly replied, not bothering to even finish the sentence.

 Clues:

Light rain smattered across the darkened windshield as my car slowly careened into the school parking lot. It was just nine minutes till 11:00. George was riding along with me, looking far more uneasy than myself. “I don’t like this,” George repeated for what must’ve been the fifth time. “We should’ve at least had Delta put some elites around here.” “I’m already breaking Night Riser’s rules by even bringing you here,” I reiterated. “Just stay in the car while I check it out. If I take unusually long, then you can jump in.” George merely sighed while I reached around to the backseat and pulled out a small hammer. George had warned me earlier that the old boiler room section was closed off with a lock, so I’d need some sort of tool to get in, most likely. “When’s the last time anyone even went to the Union Cove?” George asked, dreading every passing minute. “A long time,” I answered. The rain seemed to pick up its pace a bit. “As I understand it, the place used to be an S.S.C hideout until some troopers were caught by janitors and forced out. Eventually the equipment was replaced with newer technology and all the important things were moved to another basement section of the school. I can’t imagine anyone’s been down there since then.” George practically jumped out of his skin as I swung open the car door on my side. “Just relax,” I urged. “You still got that shoulder cam for me?” George dug into his backpack and took out a small, rectangular device with various straps and wires dangling from its corners. The shoulder cam was yet another device I’d chosen S.S.C funds to go towards. They were strapped around a trooper’s shoulder during dangerous missions, allowing it to record whatever the wearer was facing. It could broadcast a relatively live feed to a separate location, allowing others to monitor a trooper’s progress. Some more advanced models even had built-in flashlights and a camera option. The only downsides were that it could easily lose signal in some locations, and it only broadcasted one-way. Try as they might, the receiver of the shoulder cam information could not speak directly to the wearer. I’d hoped to work on solving these problems within the following months, but now with this new looming threat upon the S.S.C, all those efforts would have to be pushed back to a later date. I fixed the camera to my shoulder as George confirmed he was getting the recording. “Good luck,” my old apprentice expressed at last. “I’m giving you ten minutes down there before I come in.” “Fine by me,” I replied, and so I was off. Now dashing across the open lot in the dead of night and feeling the cold rain striking my head and back, I began to feel the encroaching fear of the situation that George had been detecting. Truly, this was a bizarre place to meet, and it almost certainly came at some sort of price. I gripped the hammer firmly in my hand and at last spotted a small, dilapidated staircase of concrete leading downwards from the side of the school to a metallic door below. I stopped for a brief moment to survey the surrounding courtyard, making absolutely certain there were no oddities in the immediate area. Slowly, I crept down the stairwell, my soft footsteps still baring a quite noticeable echo. At last my eyes were drawn to the lock of the cove itself – or rather, where the lock should have been. As I had already begun to presume, the device was nowhere to be seen, leaving the heavy doorway slightly ajar and creaking with every other gust of wretched wind. I carefully placed the hammer on the railing to my right, using both my hands to force the door open the rest of the way. It was no small feat, the room almost seemed to enjoy its seclusion, and despise intruders. Horrifyingly, no light awaited me within the cove. My vision became immediately blanketed by thick darkness – the kind of which no set of eyes could ever adjust to. My heartrate steadily increased while my shaky hand switched on the shoulder cam’s light. Whoever this Night Riser was, he certainly seemed to value at least one part of his name. I imagined him sitting in one of the room’s many darkened corners, listening to my each and every footstep, pinpointing exactly where I was. I desperately forced myself to brush this thought from my head and focus on what could be seen. With the room now barely illuminated, my attention came to that of several tremendously large cobwebs hanging overhead and wedged between rusted machinery or piping. Listening closely, I could hear the occasional squeaks of mice and various creaking noises through the walls. I didn’t even try to imagine what it could be. “Hello?” I ventured to say at last, whipping my torso around to ensure nobody was sneaking up behind me. I wondered what George was thinking of it all. Surely, he could hear the terror in my voice. Eerily, there came no reply of any sort to my calls. I chose to instead place my back against the wall and ignore the spiderwebs sweeping against my neck. I was getting an idea of the cove’s size now, realizing it to hardly be all too impressive. The room hardly appeared much larger than your average garage, though a large pile of junk towards my left could have been blocking off more space. I didn’t dare attempt to budge any of it. Aside from the pile, only three particular pieces of furniture remained in the cove; a wheelbarrow – caked entirely with mud and grime, a broken chair – knocked on its side and allowed to rot, and finally a singular desk tucked away in the far corner. I took a long breath and – with my back still against the wall, slid over to take a closer look. The desk seemed entirely out of place when compared to everything else in the cove. Its surface was absent of any dust, in fact, it was entirely wept clean. In the center of the table sat a single black envelope, hardly visible until I focused my entire beam of light upon it. It was only now that I realized Night Riser had never planned on meeting me in person at all. He had just wanted me to pick up yet another message, though that certainly didn’t explain why he’d asked me to come alone, nor would it explain why he’d chosen this location over a simplistic anonymous drop-off in my car again. Now placing the note into my pocket, I began to back away from the table, only for my focus to suddenly transfix on the table’s singular drawer, which had also been explicitly cleaned. There was something else Night riser had intended for me to see, and it somehow appeared to compel me to draw closer.

What Once Was:

Not sensing any great danger, I pulled the drawer open, discovering it to be tightly packed with various trinkets related to the S.S.C. I was admittedly surprised at the discovery, as I had completely assumed items such as these would have been confiscated or thrown out some time ago, yet here they were, likely untouched by human hands for decades on end. At the topmost layer were several neatly folded shirts, baring the blue S.S.C diamond logo haphazardly sewn to the shoulders. Its design was scribbly to say the least, making the diamond appear uneven in places, and cross-hatching too far in other areas. In fact, upon closer examination, I found that each patch was uniquely handmade, as opposed to our current patches, which were specifically designed to be similar in every last detail. The shirts ranged in sizes and conditions, with some appearing quite torn and patchy, the light blue color easily faded by time. Then there came a final shirt near the bottom of the pile, this one entirely different. Oddly enough, this final uniform was colored black, and bared a blood red version of the S.S.C logo upon it’s breast and shoulder. I stared at this shirt for some time, confused as to what it could have represented. My best guess was that it must’ve been utilized by a spy unit all those years ago, though even that answer didn’t sit well with me. The drawer was nearly empty now, only one large piece of fabric remained, along with several slips of paper poking out from beneath it. As if handling a delicate artifact, I lifted the large, black cloth into the light. A large puff of dust flew into my face as the cloth unfolded itself, revealing its size to be far larger than I had expected. My eyes widened as I soon realized the fabric was actually an S.S.C flag, but in no way was it ordinary. Its coloration was just as black as the shirt which had come before it. In its center sat a barely visible, dark red S.S.C diamond. Unlike any other flags I had seen from other periods in the S.S.C, this one appeared largely hand painted, with the red paint being allowed to run and drip from the logo’s crosshatched corners. It now remained frozen in this state of runniness, making the logo appear as if it were bleeding. It was a heart stopping visual, one that I couldn’t begin to wrap my mind around. Suddenly, without warning, the large door at the cove’s entrance was pushed open, with rapid footsteps now clattering into the space. I dropped the flag in an instant, feeling my heart practically twist in on itself as my head spun around to view the source of the noise. My eyes quickly fell upon George, a flashlight gripped steadily in his hands as he slowed to an immediate halt. “Are you trying to give me a goddamn heart attack?” I shouted, no longer caring for subterfuge. “George blankly stared around the room for a moment, taking it all in just as I had done. “Your signal went out,” he steadily responded. “I thought you might have been in trouble.” I fell back against the wall in relief of the situation. “Next time,” I breathed. “Just call first.” George ignored the table before me, instead focusing on all the old machinery before us. “You find anything?” he asked, brushing some cobwebs from his hair. I removed the envelope from my pocket and handed it to him. “Night Riser apparently just wanted me to pick this up,” I wagered. “I haven’t read it yet. You can take a look, if you want.” George raised an eyebrow at the strangeness of the situation before wedging his flashlight between his cheek and his shoulder as he gradually tore the message open. As George looked over the sheet of paper inside, my attention returned to the desk. I realized now that the slips of paper beneath the flag were actually old photographs. They were all black-and-white, and in dismal quality, baring various holes and strips of water damage. As such, three of the images were completely ruined and impossible to make out. However, a couple more were in just fair enough quality for me to recognize. The first image was a group photo of S.S.C troopers standing at each other’s sides, some giving salutes while others merely crossed their arms and smiled warmly. They wore the same types of blue uniforms I’d first pulled out from the drawer mere minutes ago. It was a strange thing to stare at such an old photograph, with materials from that era simply lying at my side. It was as if I’d jumped straight into a history book of the S.S.C and all that it was. I grabbed the second photo now, and my smile was quickly replaced with a cold stare. This image contained three individuals. Two of them were clearly quite young, but stood with a rigid conviction, their faces appearing distant and emotionless. They stared at the photographer almost with contempt. It felt like they were looking right through me. Between them stood an older looking guy, likely around my age or slightly surpassing it. His face was worn, and his eyes seemed to droop and sag with an immense invisible weight. His dark hair was just as unkempt, and his mouth scowled harshly into the nothingness. His neck was wrapped in a large rag, which swept over and past his shoulders. It made him appear far larger than he really was, though he certainly did not appear to be too thin regardless. If these were the only notable details of the photo, I likely wouldn’t have given any of it a second thought, but there was one more thing that I couldn’t help but note. They all wore those black uniforms, and they all seemed to despise it.

Preparation:

Before I could give the objects any more thought, George snapped to attention at my side. “I don’t believe it,” he muttered, both amazed and overwhelmed. “These are battle strategies! Strategies for the Brotherhood! It even contains some of their future plans!” “It’s a good thing we came here, after all,” I responded. “You learned to trust my intuition now?” “Not at all,” my old apprentice laughed, still fawning over the message. “We need to let Tim and Delta see this thing as soon as possible!” “Go ahead and call Delta,” I sighed. “He won’t like driving over here this late, but it’s important that he does.” My eyes drifted back over to the pile of S.S.C artifacts. “I also want him to take these items and store them in one of our file warehouses for closer inspection.” “You got it,” George agreed. “Now come one, let’s get out of here before we get possessed or something.” While I hardly believed in the supernatural, the room did appear to grow colder upon George’s exit. There was something else, too; the feeling of being watched. Not simply by one person, but by many. I concurred that I’d overstayed my welcome, and left.

A Different Level

Every little thing seemed different now, in the S.S.C. Meetings were no longer mere fluff or busywork, form-filling became harder to focus upon, funds were being redirected or saved. Half the S.S.C probably already new of the Brotherhood, even though the news had not yet been made official. Rumors always had a tendency to outrun my grasp. Nevertheless, with almost a week having passed since our discovery of the Brotherhood plans, I was now attending a final sit-down meeting to discuss what efforts should be taken into effect next. George, Samantha, a couple elites, Tim, and Commander Delta were in attendance, and all of us were on different pages. Samantha always preferred to take a more peaceful or mindful approach to things, while the elites focused more upon quick and devastating attacks. Tim’s thoughts were a mystery even to myself, and Delta didn’t want a thing to do with Night Riser or his messages. “It’s ridiculous!” the commander stated with more anger than I was accustomed to seeing out of him. “We get a couple cryptic messages from some guy who won’t reveal his name or face, and we’re just gonna take his word for things? That’s bad strategy! If you want me to inform the S.S.C that we’re about to go to war, I want to have more evidence at my side!” “We can’t just brush it off,” George insisted, rising from his seat. “I’ll admit I was skeptical at first, but I must’ve looked over these plans a hundred times, and I can assure you they don’t seem fabricated or misleading. We could be dealing with a defector from the Brotherhood.” Delta merely held his head in his hands, letting out a long sigh of disapproval. Tim stood from the table now, ready to share his opinions. It was incredible just how much his mental state had improved since we’d allowed him more rest. The attacks on him had ceased as well. His eyes were lively again, though his heart still remained heavy. In his mind, I was certain he still blamed himself for getting us involved, but it couldn’t be helped now. We were here, and that was all that mattered. “We need to also consider that this ‘Night Riser’ appears to have some strange fascination with the S.S.C’s past,” Tim reminded us. “Machine’s knife in that first letter was only the beginning. Then he suddenly brought the Union Cove into things, along with providing us access to old S.S.C materials.” “We tried getting in contact with Machine,” one of the elites interjected. “But he dropped off the radar some time ago. Probably moved to a different township.” “Night Riser’s ‘fascination’ with our past isn’t important, as far as I’m concerned,” Delta argued. “It’s likely just some guy who’s full of himself. I’ve seen it before, and so have all of you. Toparsburg and its surrounding territories are filled with people who want to build themselves up to be some mysterious, exceptional hero. They create these little personas with various little schticks that they think makes them more interesting.” “You say it as if it doesn’t pay off,” George joked. “Hardly anybody will follow you if you’re just some ordinary dude in a sweater vest. People want those figureheads or oddballs.” Delta’s anger seemed only fueled by these points. “So, you’re saying that Night Riser is likely trying to get people to join him!” the commander shouted. George scratched his head and winced, realizing he’d just soured his own position as trusting Night Riser. “Think about it,” Delta persisted. “This guy wants something in return for his help. If he was any ordinary defector, he’d just say so in one of his messages. He wouldn’t bother with the charades! He’s either trying to get followers somehow, or he’s just a part of the Brotherhood’s ruse.” There was a long silence, as hardly anyone could dare argue with such matter-of-fact points, though Tim was not swayed. “I know James,” my old master breathed. “I knew him for years. He’s a smart guy, and an honorable guy. Tricks like this are beneath him. If he wanted to do harm, he could’ve easily captured Brett in the cove, had a couple guys take down George while he waited out in the car, and then came after me while I rested at home. Overnight, James could’ve wiped out three of the S.S.C’s most important assets, but he didn’t. So, Delta, what’s your reasoning for that?”

First Target:

Tim never shied away from a good argument, and it oftentimes paid off. At last, the commander was quieted by my old master’s point. “Until he gives us reason to doubt him, I say we go along with the plan I outlined,” I at last stated. Delta looked as if he might vomit at the mere idea of it all. “There is still more to discuss!” he detested, though I was quick to silence him. “Sitting here any longer is just going to make things worse whether we believe Night Riser or not. The rest of the S.S.C needs to know what’s happening. We need to tell them the whole truth. Tell them about the Brotherhood, James, Night Riser, everything. There’s a lot of smart guys in our midst – far smarter than me. The sooner those people are told the truth, the sooner they can put their thoughts to work.” “Agreed,” Samantha stated. “People are worried by all this secrecy. A lot of them know something is wrong, but not the fine details of it. If we’re to put people’s minds at ease, then we need to hurry. Every passing minute, James gets one step closer to kicking us while we’re unprepared.” George and the elites chimed in with their brief words of agreement, but Delta still seemed radically opposed to it all. “The Brotherhood plans involve several details,” the commander contended. “What are we supposed to do first? Attack their supposed base? Take down one of their supposed commanders?” “As much as I’d enjoy a quick victory by attacking a Brotherhood base,” Tim responded. “It’d be wise for us to start small. Night Riser’s letter included the name of one of James’s direct apprentices who is in charge of providing both funds and training new troops. His name is Rick, I’ve been attacked by him on more than one occasion. He’s tough, but his real threat is just how beloved he is by the school. He’s in a popular crowd all his own, and if we end up taking him down without having a good reason, the S.S.C’s name will be slandered beyond belief by his friends.” “I doubt it’d be that bad,” an elite opposed. Tim merely sighed. “You’d be surprised just how much these kids value popularity. James chose him for a reason. Rick has the school on his side, and he always will unless we have proof he’s not what he appears to be.” “Well does anyone have a plan?” Delta asked, annoyed. “Or are we just going to wing it?” George rose from his chair again with a familiar smirk on his face. “I have a little something in mind,” he stated. “And I think you guys will like it.”

The Response:

Despite his intense reservations, Commander Delta held a large meeting the following day, in which he outlined nearly every detail we’d learned of the Brotherhood and Night Riser so far. The one thing he did not include in his speech was the upcoming mission by George, which we considered to be too delicate to leak just yet. As expected, responses from the S.S.C were all over the place. Overall, the older and more experienced guys did not mind the situation all that greatly. They’d been around to fight against THEM, in in their minds, nothing could ever compare to those hardships. Meanwhile, younger recruits responded with severe trepidation, as many of them had not seen real fights, and thereby had no idea what this ‘war’ really entailed. Thankfully, very few troopers quit the S.S.C as a result, though I did worry the number might increase once we actually started to catch some resistance. It was like the calm before the storm now, with everyone aware that with every passing day, we only grew closer towards the chaos. There was something else that nagged at me. I thought of those days of war between the S.S.C and THEM, and how long the whole ordeal had lasted. The two of us had fought on and on for seven years, very few troopers could lay claim to the fact that they’d seen it all occur from start to finish. If the Brotherhood were to become as big of a threat as THEM, I saw no reason a war couldn’t take just as long, if not longer. And then I thought about myself, and my age, and what Tim had said before about needing to get a separate job to support his changing life. The S.S.C had very generous donators that kept me well compensated for my leadership, but it wasn’t enough to last forever. I knew that my time in the S.S.C was growing shorter and shorter, and there was no way to turn back that clock. I worried about leaving everyone behind to fight in some squabble I helped start. How many people would be hurt, or lose the will to keep fighting for others? The numbers would just keep rising, and I’d go on with my life, not even aware of it all. How could I do that? In seven more years, I’d be twenty-four years old. I couldn’t fight time, but I still had time left to fight.

Fragments:

The day prior to his mission regarding the capture of Rick, George agreed to meet with me at the S.S.C’s secondary file warehouse. Now that the S.S.C was fully informed of the situation with the Brotherhood, I was placed under heavy watch by various guards throughout the day. Aside from a small confidence boost, it seemed like a waste of time, really. If James wanted to capture me, I was sure he could find a way to take down a couple elites with his forces. That was the scary thing about James’s Brotherhood, we simply had no idea how many troops James had at his disposal. Even Night Riser’s hints had not provided us with info such as that, which was the reason why George’s mission could not end with failure. Capturing Rick would provide us with information that’d change everything, I was sure of it. As expected, my old apprentice arrived just on time. It was almost as if he still treated these one-on-one meetings like they were our old training days. Though this time around, he seemed in no mood for idle chitchat. “I know what you’re going to ask me,” George remarked before I could so much as rise to greet him at the door. “And what would that be?” I asked, testing his accuracy. George merely shook his head and circled the room, briefly eyeing my two guards. “You wanna come with me on this mission,” he guessed at last. I tried not to show my surprise, but he was absolutely correct in this assessment. “Since when did you become a mind reader?” I joked, trying to brush the fact off. My old apprentice at last sat down at one of the nearby tables while my guards gave us some room to breathe. “Do you really not think I can handle this on my own?” George asked, almost sounding insulted. “I’ve been trained by you, by Tim, by several elites, and I’ve had my fair share of experience with bullies.” “That’s more than true,” I acknowledged immediately. “But you and I both know these aren’t ordinary bullies… and we also know that if you mess up somehow… the Brotherhood may take the upper hand without even breaking a sweat.” George sat slumped over for a minute to take in these words. It was always odd seeing him so thoughtful and so… uncharismatic. “I know that,” he answered after a while. “It really became clear to me just how alone we are in this after we got those notices from Blue Point and Foner county… they have their own troopers and tools just sitting there and collecting dust… but they refuse to send in help because our threat is a personally created one, and one that doesn’t present any immediate danger to the school. We haven’t heard back from the other nearby counties either, but I’d bet Harrison will be the next one to turn us down… their stubbornness is going to make this harder than it needs to be.” “Don’t talk like that,” I warned, growing closer. “That used to be my mindset as well… I used to think everybody was working against me and making things tougher… but you and Tim taught me that it’s rarely so simple. Blue Point, Harrison, and Foner do have problems of their own, it’s not just us, and I think it’s good that they’re standing by their moral rules and refusing to get involved with activities that they didn’t start.” George remained silent at these words. I sat across from my friend and gave a long breath. “You know,” I continued. “They do depend on us and respect us. If Tim I really pushed them, I’m sure they’d offer help to the original S.S.C… but that’d only make things worse. You’d have all new voices stepping in and giving orders. Pretty soon the whole thing would turn into a nightmare of confusion and wasted money. The S.S.C likes to think of itself as indestructible… but we really can be our own worst enemy. I’ve ran the whole thing through my mind countless times… and I always come to the same conclusion… we’re in this alone… and perhaps it should stay that way.” “Tye will be assisting me,” George spoke up. “And we’ve arranged for some elites to surround the area as well, just in case Rick tries anything stupid. That’s enough security for me. You’re better off staying here and observing the bigger picture.” At last, I nodded. “Just making sure,” came my whispered response. George finally seemed put at ease by my acceptance. He’d clearly believed we’d spend all afternoon arguing over the matter. “I do trust you,” I assured. “Just remember to keep that shoulder cam steady so that we can receive you easily.” “Now look who’s worried!” George exclaimed as he returned to the door. I only smiled and nodded, with George quickly doing the same. It was that silent look of assurance we’d grown to develop, one which could transcend my greatest concerns.

Observations:

The following day was a mixed bag of weather. Early showers followed by fierce and frigid winds, later replaced by a stagnant breeze – it all so perfectly reflected my emotions. George’s mission was incredibly time sensitive, as our spies had determined Rick’s most vulnerable points ranged a mere span between 4:00 and 5:00, wherein he’d often walk home with friends at his side. A rushed background check seemingly cleared all these followers from being Brotherhood members, though we could’ve easily missed something. To make matters scarier, most of the elites George had chosen to secure the surrounding perimeter had not shown up to the scene whatsoever, likely due to them getting held up by training or heavy traffic. If anything bizarre did happen out there, George and Tye would only have a few elites waiting in the distance to assist things. On that day, I’d agreed to take up file patrol at a smaller base, wherein I could watch George’s progress on his shoulder cam without being disturbed. Tim also had heightened access to the video feed, as well as another trusted elite, but the signal was too weak to stretch any farther. Moreover, it was too late now to call for any additional help to back George up, as I simply wouldn’t have the time to explain the various roles needed in this risky situation. It was nerve-wracking to watch every passing second, realizing how little help I could be. It was additionally difficult to see things on George’s end, as he had fixed the camera to the underside of a hat, so as to keep it out of Rick’s sight. My head swiveled back and forth between the monitor in front of me, and the clock to my left. The mission would begin in merely three minutes now, assuming that Rick appeared on time at all. As I counted down every passing second in my head, a specialized elite approached me with a small box in hand. “Sorry for the interruption, sir,” he noted, my attention barely even gracing him. “You ordered for us to share any findings we made in that secondary sweep of the Union Cove.” I forced my gaze away from the screen now and accepted the box from the elite’s hands. Very few things could distract me from this mission, but any new findings in the cove could be considered just as vital. The box was notably lighter than I’d expected, which didn’t bode well for my plans. “Most everything down there was water damaged,” the elite explained as I opened the box. “These were the only things that really caught our attention, and I can’t say it’s anything all that interesting.” I slowly lifted two yellow flashlights from the container. Both were broken now, dark mud settled into their every last crevasse. “We found them both wedged between the machinery down there,” the elite noted. “We’re not sure if they’re from the S.S.C or not, but we figured they were worth throwing in.” I nodded silently, keeping my ears attuned to the screen at my side, making sure to listen for any alarming broadcasts from Tye or George. Next, I removed a couple blue S.S.C shirts, similar to those I’d found in the cabinet drawer before, though these were in far worse shape, and still soggy with foul-smelling water. The elite said nothing, clearly equally disappointed with these useless findings. In the midst of this war, relics such as these could not be fully appreciated, there simply wasn’t the time. A deflated football marked the next discovery, followed by a pair of pliers, a torn up boot, and a broken watch. Just as I began nearing the end of the box’s contents, my focus suddenly ceased upon a long strip of tattered cloth. I tried to look at the other remaining materials, but this rag seemed to keep my eyes glued to it at all times. Finally, I grabbed hold of it and set the box down, bringing the cloth closer to my face so as to better inspect it. The rag was mostly black, with various red tuffs of cotton smattered all across it. I couldn’t explain it, but immediately I felt a strong sense of déjà vu. I’d seen this cloth somewhere before. Its image seemed burned within my head. I felt danger from it, and a poignant fear, but had no particular memory in which these feelings attached to. “Where did you find this?” I asked, my heartrate oddly increasing. “It was near the entrance,” the elite responded, obviously confused by my strange reaction. “It was one of the first things we picked up. We were drawn to it because the material it’s made out of doesn’t look like something you’d see back from the old days. It doesn’t match the blue or black S.S.C shirts whatsoever in that regard.” My head nodded, but my brain was in another place now. I felt lost, navigating my own brain for the memory of this unassuming cloth. The aura of danger only grew stronger as I fought harder to remember. Suddenly there was something, a fleeting glimpse of a memory – a person, a jacket, rain and coldness. It was on the tip of my tongue, but just as I further neared this cusp of remembrance, George’s voice spoke up on the monitor to my right. “We see Rick. Time to start moving.” My train of thought shattered instantly, the memory fled.

Breathless:

My hand hovered over my mouth as if fighting to silence each breath. George’s feed was already growing fuzzy and the audio suffered from occasional blips and white noise overload. “Quite moving around so much,” I said aloud, as if George could somehow hear me. My foot tapped nervously beneath the table. Amongst all the shadowy haze, at last the camera seemed to focus in on a group of boys walking towards George and Tye. “Get ready,” I could barely hear my apprentice state. “Follow my lead and everything should work out fine.” Tye likely responded with some sarcastic quip to ease the tension, but it couldn’t be heard over the crackling feed. George; likely realizing the signal was getting bad, steadied his head a bit so we could get a clearer look at the target. Rick was the tallest among the boys, with short, brown hair, long eyebrows which stretched nearly the entire width of his forehead, and a surprisingly slim build. We weren’t sure yet how he’d become involved with the Brotherhood, but I’d wagered James had been using Rick primarily for monetary purposes, the boy definitely didn’t look like much of a fighter, though in my experience, looks meant very little. The group of four friends continued to chat, not noticing George and Tye standing in their path, but Rick seemed alerted, looking away from his hoard on occasion to get a better look at our operatives. George was quick to realize that he couldn’t allow Rick to get any more suspicious, and began to move closer. At last, the two groups stopped each other, with Rick’s pack of friends looking George up and down as if he were some sort of extra-terrestrial who’d appeared out of thin air. Rick seemed far less amused. “Could we talk to Rick, alone for a second?” came a garbled, monstrous form of George’s voice. I balled my hand into a fist, growing more and more upset with this terrible reception. Despite all our finances, members, victories, and territory, it was humbling from time to time just to be reminded that we – the most of us anyways, were still kids, and that made things all the more difficult. Rick’s company broke out into several small fits of laughter, with Rick joining in, his face relaxing a bit. “I’m busy,” Rick responded casually. “Try another time.” Over Rick’s shoulder, one friend shouted something towards George, which immediately turned the audio feed into a mess of suppressed static. It took several seconds for the audio to right itself again. By that point, Rick and his group had begun walking past George and Tye, presuming that they wouldn’t be bothered again. What they didn’t realize, was that this was exactly what George had been counting on. Now turning to face the receding group, George spoke up. “What’s the matter, Rick?” my old apprentice called. “Afraid to go anywhere without your posse following along?” I bit my tongue and hung my head away from the monitor for a second. George had told us he’d try and “smack talk” Rick into revealing his true intentions. And while I did believe this could be a viable strategy, I could already tell George had no idea how to really get under someone’s skin. “Don’t screw this up,” I repeated over and over beneath my breath. “Don’t screw this up.” Everything on my monitor suddenly froze up, showing only a quarter of Rick’s blurry face looking back into the camera. Audio went silent, as did my breaths. The feed went dark.

Panicked Memories:

“Get them back online!” I shouted over to a couple of the nearby elites, fiercely rising from my chair and tossing it back against a wall. The brittle clattering only served to make my mood worsen. “Call up your guys on the hills and tell them to jump in if George is in any sort of trouble! If Rick so much as bumps shoulders with him, I wanna know about it!” “Yes, sir!” the elites responded diligently, immediately rushing to their respective stations. I wept my forehead of sweat and draped my body over a nearby window, hoping that a look outside could clear my head a bit and slow my heartrate. I watched as a couple cars passed by on a distant road, just barely visible from this vantage point. We were surrounded by hills and trees on almost every side, making it appear as if we’d established this building in the middle of nowhere, or in some post-apocalyptic society. Ironically, this wide, open space felt almost suffocating now. The only other traces of humanity were various triangular tips of high buildings on the other side of the hill. My house was among that array of geometric protrusions, as were a couple of the dimmed red, plastic tops to the old park. The sun helped blotch out the discolored platforms and rusted beams, but I still knew they were there. After a while, some things never changed. I stared at what could be seen of the old park a bit longer while the elites got in contact with their peers overlooking George, learning that no fighting exchange had yet occurred. Then there was something else – something fundamentally strange. It was that feeling of importance nagging at me again – new anxiety inspired not by George’s precarious predicament, but rather brought on by something from the past. My eyes shifted back to the table, where the small, torn, black cloth still sat. I immediately froze up. It was almost like a door within my brain that I’d long since closed, locked, and left behind had now been torn off it’s hinges. The door led me to that old park in the distance. Lighting danced all around it; illuminating the rooftops and platforms. Savage winds began blowing mulch and dirt into the air. Heavy rain pelted me from every angle. I was tired, scared, alone – almost alone. In front of me stood Corruption, his dark jacket morphing him into no more than a shadow with piercing white eyes. But his jacket wasn’t just black, a closer look revealed dark red tufts of cotton smattered all across it. I could see it now, see it with each flash of lightning. And as the sounds of rain dyed down, so too did the visuals encompassing me. I snapped back into reality, immediately putting all the pieces together in my head and replaying them constantly. The material found in the Cove was definitely a piece of Corruption’s old jacket. Furthermore, I could think of no one with more power than Corruption, who could have made Machine willingly hand over his precious pocketknife. I thought about the dark envelopes and how closely they mirrored Corruption’s visage, as did that name written upon them – ‘Night Riser’. “Toss me my phone!” I called over my shoulder, immediately relieving one of the elites from his post at the monitor. “Hurry!” I wasn’t sure what I felt now. Perhaps it was relief at the realization that I’d cracked the mystery, or maybe it was fear that now we’d walked right into Corruption’s trap. I had to speak with someone about this, and Tim was my best bet. Acting quickly, an elite handed me the phone; my fingers dialing up Tim’s number without so much as a single visual corroboration. I couldn’t take my eyes off the park now. The phone rang once, then again, and several more times before going to voicemail. I cursed under my breath and dialed the number again, watching as the elite by the monitor established a brief connection back to George and Tye, though there was no sound, and the visuals were still fuzzy. “Come on, come on,” I begged with every ring. Just as I prepared to hang up and try yet another hopeless call, a small click was heard on the other end. “What is it?” Tim answered in a hurry. “I’m trying to oversee George’s progress. They’re close to getting Rick to break.” “We lost signal over here!” I responded immediately. “But now something else has come to my attention! The elites found a black cloth in the Cove, it took me a while, but I’m realizing now that it was a piece of Corruption’s old jacket. Back when George and I fought him at the old park, I recall it tearing apart.” Tim remained silent, possibly too stunned to speak, or perhaps still too invested in George’s mission to see the potential risk at hand. “I believe Corruption is posing as this ‘Night Riser’,” I continued. “He sent us Machine’s old knife as a clue that he meant business, and is now trying to pull the strings so that we walk straight into a trap!” “THEM is long gone,” Tim butted in. “What’s he got to gain by doing this?” I messily began putting on a thin coat while struggling to hold the phone to my face. “It’s not what there is to gain, but rather that he has nothing to lose.” I exclaimed. “He likely blames George and I for his gruesome fall at the old park. He’s out for his own kind of revenge, and we’re likely at the top of his list! I’m coming over to your place now, so we can discuss this more!” “Don’t bother!” argued Tim. “I never knew much about Corruption outside of the stories you told me. If you really wanna know where to find him, I might know a guy.” I briefly tore the phone away from my face and turned to the elites, my face red with frustration. “Stick to watching that feed! If things go wrong, I need you guys to give orders!” The troopers nodded as I rushed outside to my car. “Who is it?” I replied at last, starting up the engine. Rain was sprinkling across my windshield now, and the sky seemed to echo a soft vibration – an early indicator of a big storm approaching. “His name is Francis,” Tim recalled. “I met him shortly after my encounter with James. He actually kept me up-to-date with lots of things while I was away. If it weren’t for him, I never would’ve even known you’d gotten an apprentice. The guy is filled to the brim with knowledge on both the S.S.C and THEM.” “Sounds like as good a start as any,” I admitted. “We have a phone number or address on him?” “I’ve lost his number,” Tim sighed. “So prepare to fill your gas tank, cause he’s a Blue Point resident. I’ll text you the address. We should ha-”. Tim’s voice suddenly stopped itself. “What is it?” I called. “Tim?” Every second of the pause only increased my heartrate. “Rick is starting to speak up,” Tim replied quickly. “You should wait before going to see Francis. We need you here in case things go wrong.” “No can do,” I protested at once. “Every second we follow Corruption’s lead, he just tightens his hold over us! I’m on route to Blue Point now, send me the address as soon as you can!” “I don’t think I’ve heard you this determined in a while,” my old master exclaimed, his voice intercut with background noise coming from George and Rick. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in such a hurry,” I admitted. “Just like old times… it feels good.”

Updates:

By the time I made it to Blue Point and received Tim's instructions, my car was thoroughly soaked, and the rain was only coming down harder. I worried about George and Tye again, wondering if I made the right choice leaving my post. Now having parked on the side of the road, I dashed through the unforgiving pellets, over to the front door of Francis’s house. There were no cars in the driveway, making me feel even more uneasy about my decision to come here. Thankfully, after only several knocks, the front door was pulled open; revealing a boy perhaps a bit younger than me, and far shorter. His hair was exceptionally curly and about the same dark brown color as his glasses. His skin seemed as pale as a ghost’s, and one look at him was all it took for me to realize he was no fighter. “Hello!” the boy shouted over a sudden loud crash of thunder just overhead. I didn’t respond, merely doublechecking my phone to make sure I’d gotten the address correct. “You’re Brett Blakley,” the boy stated again, though his voice was so low and fragile, it felt as if he were phrasing it like a question. “Yes,” I responded at last. “Are you Francis?” “That’s me,” the boy replied with a stifled smile. Thunder cracked loudly just to the east. “Let’s get inside before one of us gets struck by lightning,” Francis offered. I merely nodded and followed behind him as he led me indoors. I still couldn’t seem to believe that Tim would become acquaintances or even friends with someone like this. He seemed so unassuming. Francis led me upstairs, looking over his shoulder from time to time as if expecting me to say some sort of password. At last we reached a room at the end of the hall. It was incredibly diminutive in size, primarily due to multiple stacked boxes spanning every single wall. A small glass window was the only source of lighting in here, it almost reminded me of the Mana base if it had been shrunk down several times over. The boy stared up at me with big, blue eyes. He still seemed nervous and at a loss for words. “How’d you recognize me so quickly?” I asked; trying to break the tension. “Who wouldn’t recognize you?” Francis exclaimed. “As the leader of the S.S.C, I suppose you’re here to ask me some questions.” “That’s right,” I admitted. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that each of these boxes are filled with papers on every S.S.C and THEM member, operation, or base?” The boy laughed and pulled out a couple foldable chairs from the corner. “It’s mostly just clothes and Christmas ornaments,” he chortled. “All the information is up here.” Francis pointed to his head as we took a seat and stared out at the rainfall. I was already growing suspicious again. “If what Tim told me was true,” I stated. “There’s no way all this information could be in your head.” Francis seemed somewhat hurt by my accusations, so I stopped myself. “Okay, okay,” he seceded after a brief silence. “I don’t remember everything, so with some people I tend to write out bios and stuff.” “What can you tell me about Corruption?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. Francis’s eyes lit up as he leaned out of his chair. “Corruption’s real name was Max Hyett,” the boy immediately explained. “He went to Blue Point community school and joined THEM in 2001. He quickly rose in rank over the next couple years before eventually taking leadership over the group once Tim Allender took out the previous leader; Talon, in 2007.” A blinding streak of lightning flashed over the sky for a split second just beside us. Francis briefly paused at the noise before continuing his spiel, but with every low growl of thunder and remote sound of wind shoving itself heavily upon the window frames, I felt more and more anxious to get back to my post and check in on George. “In 2008,” Francis persisted, Corruption gained more of a fol-”. “Hang on,” I interrupted. “Listen, unfortunately, I don’t have time for a complete rundown on Corruption’s past. I just need to know where he is now, or at least how I could try to reach him.” Francis shot be a bizarre, unbelieving stare. “What?” he inquired. “You don’t know?” I reflected the boy’s confused gaze right back at him. “Know what?” Francis collected himself a bit and elaborated. “Not long after his injuries at the park,” Francis explained. “Corruption moved away from Blue Point. I’m not sure exactly to where, but I can tell you it’s nowhere close by. I’d have thought you of all people would have been keeping an eye on him. How is this the first time you’re hearing of this?” My thoughts and theories were shattered right then and there, leaving me feeling empty and confused once again. “I try not to obsess over enemies,” I muttered quietly. “You’re certain he moved away?” Francis solemnly shook his head, perhaps detecting my crestfallen change in attitude. “I used to have an S.S.C master living next door,” Francis went on to say while I stared out the window. “When his parents forbade him from training with apprentices in their house or in the backyard, I offered him my place. Over time, my hospitality earned me quite a few friends in the S.S.C, spread far and wide. That’s how I know as much as I do. If you’re really curious, I could try to contact some elite buddies and ask around for his whereabouts.” “That won’t be necessary,” I responded quickly, getting up out of my chair and turning towards the door. “I’ve heard everything I needed to know.” That was so far from the truth.

The Take Down:

By the time I’d made it to the proper S.S.C meeting location, the storm had reached its peak. The road seemed slippery and uneven, my windshield wipers struggling to keep up with distorting liquid masses building up on the window. Thunder was continuously lurid now, if another car had pulled behind to sound its horn, I doubted I’d come close to noticing it. Against my better judgement, I couldn’t help but stare down at my phone a couple times, desperately hoping for some sort of update from Tim, but his last message remained the same as before, ‘Talk to you soon.’ Any calls or texts attempting to reach him had proven ineffective. I wondered if he’d purposefully left me hanging, a sort of punishment for leaving in the midst of our first attack against the Brotherhood. I can’t say I’d blame him for such an action, though that understanding didn’t make me any happier. After what seemed like a never-ending wave of quickly pulsating heartbeats echoing throughout my body, at last I eased up upon seeing the meeting base was only populated by a couple cars. If things had really gone wrong, I’d be in the presence of dozens. I walked to the front entrance with wobbly legs and an aching core. For someone who hadn’t thrown a single punch that day, I imagined I looked worse than George or Tye combined. Sure enough, upon walking into the meeting hall, I found the two looking up at me from the table as if I were a ghost. “Right on time,” George stated, still looking worried. “I was about to call you. Tim said not to bother you though since you were away doing something important.” “Yeah,” I mumbled, throwing myself down in a chair and ignoring the boisterous squeaking of my shoes on the hard-concrete floor. “Yeah, I bet he did.” Tim’s seat was empty, likely meaning his car wasn’t behaving in this poor weather, the same could be said about several other elites who I would’ve preferred to speak with. It didn’t take me long to realize Tye was holding an icepack to his throat, which seemed slightly blistered and scraped. “What happened?” I asked, turning to face Delta as if he could explain things better than the injured apprentice himself. “After a rocky start,” the commander admitted. “George got the idea to send in Tye with the camera to see if he could get under Rick’s skin enough to cause an outburst. We think Rick was being really cautious around George, but with Tye all on his own, Rick didn’t hold back.” “He squeezed my neck and lifted me up in the air like in the movies,” Tye interjected hoarsely. George shot him a look to keep his voice down and recover silently. Delta nodded and continued. “Rick ended up briefly mentioning his affiliation with the Brotherhood in hopes of keeping Tye from speaking up, but our faithful little trooper didn’t make it that easy for him. Just as we were ready to send in some support, Tye figured he’d gotten enough information and broke free.” I couldn’t help but notice a small smile of satisfaction appear upon Tye’s face as he listened. “Rick immediately figured out what was going on,” George explained. “He started chasing us all the way back to the awaiting elite van near the road. Almost caught Tye by the legs twice, I was just about ready to tackle him and let Tye go on without me.” “I’m glad you didn’t,” I made clear. “Anything involving fists can lead us just about anywhere that we weren’t ready for just yet. So, you both got the video to one of our stations?” Commander Delta nodded and gestured to his phone. “If they hadn’t gotten that shoulder cam back here, all we’d have to work with would be the shoddy video feed that nobody would’ve believed. But now it’s crystal clear. I have my guys sending the video out to several reliable sources. In under 24 hours we’ll have it circulating all across the school. They might not know what the Brotherhood is, but they will know it’s not something they’re gonna stand for. Rick’s popularity is shot.” I finally allowed myself to smile along with Tye. “Glad we’ve got some good news again,” I stated. “I guess now we’re gonna have to discuss what comes next?” “Somehow,” Delta presumed. “I believe I already know what you’ve got in mind. And you should know I’m skeptical.” “I wouldn’t want it any other way,” I replied.

A New Message:

When the time came for everyone to head home, it was pitch-black outside. I almost felt uneasy returning to my car without guards at my sides. Just before I could reach the handle to my door, George called my name and dashed over to me. “Haven’t we talked enough strategy tonight?” I moaned, motioning for him to sit in the passenger seat so we could talk without getting drenched. When at last the doors were shut and the rain became muffled, George allowed himself to speak again. “There was something about the mission I haven’t noted in my report,” my apprentice whispered. “Nor do I plan on adding it.” Despite my fatigue, I still remained alert enough to realize this was something serious. “Just before I allowed Tye to go in and starting hurling insults at our target, I couldn’t help but notice there was something hanging loosely from Rick’s backpack.” George paused and finally got straight to the point. “It was a black envelope,” he breathed. “The very same we’ve been getting from Night Riser. My jaw dropped as I stared out towards Delta’s car beginning to back out of the lot. “I was going to mention it to the commander,” George stated. “But then I recalled how wary he’s been on all this. If he learns that the messages are at all being influenced directly from the Brotherhood… he might try to shut down all of our plans.” “Any ideas what this could mean?” I asked, still entirely stunned but attempting not to show just to what extent. “Several ideas,” my apprentice assured me. “It’s possible the letter was meant for you and Rick got ahold of it before anyone was the wiser. It’s also possible that black envelopes are just how all Brotherhood members send lengthy information between each other, and Night Riser just uses the same kind cause he’s still working for them as a mole.” George trailed off just before stating his final opinion. “What is it?” I goaded. My apprentice gave a lengthy sigh. “It’s also possible… Rick is Night Riser… and that he’s purposefully throwing us off so that the Brotherhood knows our plans before we even carry them out. After what you told us about the Corruption goose chase… it would appear that we’re being made to play right into someone else’s hand.” We both sat silently and listened to the raindrops unforgivingly strike the top of my car for the next few minutes. On one hand, Night Riser’s information had still allowed us to get the drop on Rick, but that could’ve just as easily been part of the plan – a strategy to lull us into a false sense of security. “Remember when our biggest fears were just about Eliminator sneaking around through the bushes in our front yards?” I reminisced. My old apprentice chuckled at the memory. “So much has changed now,” he replied, promptly losing his smile. “Hard to feel like kids when you’re doing stuff like this. Sometimes… I’m happy to know that kids and teens can grow up faster when exposed to threats. It gives us that sense of unity here, ya know? But then I think about how far we’re willing to go to stand up for students and for ourselves… and…”, George trailed off again. I think he realized we both knew exactly what the other thought or was going to say. And so, there was no room for those thoughts to be vocalized now. “Have a safe drive home,” my apprentice encouraged at last, hopping out of the car. I nodded and went on my way. All the while I prepared myself for a lengthy internal conversation to myself – the ones I’d get more often than not these days. They’d always start out as something different, but the end results were always the same; What was the S.S.C worth? And how much were we willing to sacrifice for it? However, in the end, as I dragged myself up my slippery front porch, already lost in thought, it seemed as if life at other ideas in mind. For wedged between the crack of the door and hanging at eyelevel hung a black envelope. Like a shaky moth to a flame, I found myself peeling back the paper, revealing another message from our mysterious informant.

"You want answers. You deserve them. But first comes your next mission; attack the Death Pit. Do not fuel the fire. ~ Night Riser".

Wartime

Everybody’s behavior had changed over the next several days. Elites, masters, and apprentices alike all began to realize that we weren’t fooling around anymore. The days of catching bullies and training out in the open fields were over. As far as we were concerned, every unknown factor could somehow be related to the Brotherhood. The effects this sudden war had on our troopers’ minds became most apparent when two masters approached Tim and berated him in front of an entire meeting hall. Under most circumstances they’d be demoted, or their pay would be reduced, but Tim and I couldn’t bring ourselves to make either of those orders. Leaders – true leaders, of the S.S.C were supposed to favor peace, not allow personal demons from our past to get the jump on us. My old master and I were quick to realize that if this war didn’t end quickly, we could be looking at a potential uprising. Some individuals were just sour enough to attempt it. Commander Delta, despite his qualms with our plans, could still be trusted to dismantle any rebellious sects that sought to create a mutiny, but even his efforts couldn’t stretch everywhere simultaneously. We were sitting on a bomb that could go off at any moment, and what made it worse was that we were practically surrounded by these bombs at all sides. Keep on fighting and risk letting the S.S.C tare itself apart, or call off the war and let the Brotherhood do it for us? Tim summed it up best after one meeting. “There’s nowhere to hide in a minefield.”

The Death Pit:

It was an uncharacteristically nice Saturday morning outside when we chose to hold the meeting that’d determine the S.S.C’s next big move. Several elites had vehemently protested our ideas, as they believed most troopers weren’t ready for the assault, but I knew we couldn’t keep putting it off. “Tomorrow,” I stated boldly to the front a room filled to the brim with troopers of all ages. “At approximately Seven o’clock in the morning, a team of trusted elites and masters will storm into the Death Pit. As we’ve long-suspected and will continue to suspect, Brotherhood forces are lodged inside the base, marking it as a major headquarters of operation.” The room blossomed with a thick silence at my every word. With each passing sentence, I feared someone would rise to their feet and challenge my decision. The only people giving me some semblance of strength to prevent from shying away from the microphone were Tim and Delta, both of whom stood loyally at my side. If someone argued against me, they’d have to argue against all of us. “Don’t let the name fool you,” I assured, noticing some younger troopers’ eyes shifting uncomfortably. “The Death Pit’s name was put in place by THEM years ago. It was specifically made to freak out attackers, but I assure you the S.S.C is far from fearful over this derelict barn, and we are far from fearful of the Brotherhood.” “The Pit is practically uncharted territory!” a rising voice called out, with a master slowly standing up to make himself better heard. My feet shifted uncomfortably and my brow grew unsteady with surprise. “You get these messages of ‘help’ from some unseen individual calling himself ‘Night Riser’ and you jump into things before you think! The S.S.C’s hands are already tied enough with rebellious sects, we don’t need to risk half of our best troopers getting injured right now!” My heart fluttered for a second and my stomach twisted. The master continued to stand there, acting as if he deserved a response personally. His gaze was deadest upon me, clearly filled with some pent-up rage. I despised this sort of public confrontations. Tim silently nudged me with his eyes, indicating he’d gladly speak up to the vocal master, but I held my ground and returned my voice to the room. “I know the risks just as well as any of our troopers do,” I responded. “If not more so. And as such, I see the Brotherhood preparing to tie the noose around our necks at any moment. The Death Pit is dangerously close to our core territory. Give them a foothold there, and we risk a whole lot more.” I’d hoped this would quell the master’s dissatisfaction, I’d hoped he’d merely nod his head and seat himself, merely keeping his thoughts private until the end of the speech. Everyone was frantically staring back-and-forth between he and I now, as if expecting one of us to keel over. “I suppose that’s your justification for sending dozens of troopers into a structure that’s bound to blow over with even the lightest of breezes?” the master continued to argue. At this point, Delta would have normally ordered his elites to remove the disruptor from the building, but he made no such move now. I imagined it was because Delta agreed with every word the master had to say. “We will take every precaution,” replied my voice, though it didn’t sound like my voice. It sounded weak and unsure. This wasn’t the same voice which had trained with Tim Allender, recruited George, or protested THEM – that was a strong voice, an unrelenting voice filled with passion and belief. What happened to that voice? “Listen,” Tim called out now, allowing me to stand back as he took centerstage. “I’ll be frank with you and I’ll be frank with every other trooper inside and outside of this building. We are the leaders of Toparsburg’s S.S.C. It is our role to make these decisions, and we do not make them lightly. I realize some of you look upon me as being responsible for this, and to that I can say I am eternally and profoundly sorry, but now, as we take on this new enemy, victory has a greater weight than sorrow, mistrust, or grief.” I felt almost lightheaded at this point, perhaps dizzy with conflicting emotions and thoughts. The rest of the meeting seemed to fly by in a haze of events, the likes of which I could not concentrate upon. However, despite this fatigue, I could notice two things; the master sat back down, and the S.S.C cheered at the meeting’s end.

History’s Brew:

George stopped me in the halls before I could make a getaway to my car. He seemed concerned again, but not regarding the mission; regarding me. “Don’t even say it,” I stopped him with an open hand. “I know I let that master walk all over me.” “I wouldn’t have put it like that,” came George’s usual lopsided, grinning remark. “Yeah well, let’s just not talk about it,” I persisted, now walking past him and closer to the exit. I instinctively knew he’d follow me – which he did, part of me wanted him to. “I’ve been having second thoughts,” George admitted at last, finally prompting me to turn and face him again. “Not you too,” I sighed, shaking my head in disbelief at George’s conflicted stare. “Night Riser has done nothing to make us question his intentions! His only crime is that he doesn’t want to be called by his name. Can you blame him? The Brotherhood is being led by a guy who ran away from home as a kid and has been living a life of torment and revenge for years now! He won’t hesitate to punish anyone who’d try to sell out his plans. James doesn’t have rules like we do! It’s Eliminator all over again!” My face was turning red as I shouted, I could tell without even looking in a mirror. If George was surprised by my outburst, he did a good job of hiding it. “I’m just worried that you’ll get pulled into this mystery so deeply that you’ll forget you’re a leader. Not an investigator. And we can’t forget the fact that Night Riser clearly tricked you into going on the false Corruption hunt, and that an envelope similar to his normal messages was in Rick’s pack.” “I haven’t forgotten!” I protested once again, but my voice was just as unsure as before. At last, we were both quieted. George gave a light sigh of almost disappointment and then reached into his pocket to take out a crumpled, outdated map. He held it out to me and gestured towards the old cornfield which ate up what seemed like half the space on the page. “So,” he started. “The Death Pit’s right at the center of the field?” I leaned against a wall to cool off some more. I couldn’t seem to look my apprentice in the eyes now. “Not exactly center,” I corrected, but it’s obscured by several pretty tall hills, kind of like what we have over at the file base, but even more secure.” “Tim told me the place used to be S.S.C territory,” George continued, staring at the map a bit longer as if it’d give him insight into what really awaited us there. “The Death Pit is a mess of history,” I exhaled. “A great big stew of foggy events. Back in the day, it was in the perfect place between S.S.C and THEM territory. That band of neutral space was under different leadership every other month, sometimes even swifter than that. Nobody can seem to plant roots there for long, mostly because it just isn’t good for housing.” I stopped myself for a moment, finally realizing where I was going with this. If I didn’t say it, I knew George would. “What that master said back there was true,” I conceded to the floor. “That barn is one of the oldest structures in Toparsburg that I know of and hasn’t been renovated in ages. It’s an accident waiting to happen… too much weight on the second floor… too much damage towards a wall or pillar… that whole place could come down on our heads. God, what am I doing?” George seemed even more worried now by my lack of faith. Before he could say anything else, I spoke up again. “But there is a strong possibility James is over there. It may even be a sort of makeshift shelter for himself. I learned years ago that Eliminator had stayed in the Pit for quite some time, all on his own. I’m certain the place is lined with history’s droppings at every corner. Old cans of food, building supplies, furniture, clothes, tools, you name it. If you were really determined enough, you could make good use of all that junk.” “You think James is building an army in his own backyard?” George repeated with a hint of humor, though the question was legitimate. “There’s only one way to really know,” I lamented. “And that’s why we have to go there.”

Loops:

Aside from some occasionally chilly gusts of wind, the weather played along nicely as Tim drove myself and two elites over to the new meeting position. We were just short of an hour away from the attack. Already, plans had been soiled. Just half an hour prior, our preliminary spy team spotted two unknown individuals seemingly patrolling the edges of the field. They bared no unusual insignias or weapons, though their presence on the outskirts was hardly a coincidence. Instead of slowly grouping together behind one of the hills like we had planned, we were now forced to arrive at an alternate location in central Toparsburg. Here there was a parking lot just outside of a diminutive knickknack shop owned by a former S.S.C master. Tim had already been in contact with him and gotten the go-ahead to use the space as a temporary grouping location wherein the appropriate number of elites and masters could arrive and be given their orders. We’d then be forced to hop in the vehicles one last time and be driven to the southern outskirts of the field, where we would be dropped off. The drivers would park in separate locations around the field and wait there until we requested to be picked up, or for backup. The moment we were dropped off, it’d be a dead sprint to the Pit. We couldn’t give the Brotherhood even the slightest chance of detecting us long enough to hide or prepare. I kept my opinions on this deviation of plans to myself. When Tim arrived in the lot, several other cars were already parked nearby, each of them housing several troopers and a vast array of our finest tools in the back. We waited a while longer for any stragglers before finally grouping in a large circle to speak. I couldn’t help but spot the owner of the shop staring out from one of his dusty windows, looking at us. I couldn’t tell if he was smiling or not. I wondered what it must’ve been like to see a group you’d been a part of years ago, now completely taken over by an entirely different generation, but continuing that age-old fight. Was he feeling a respect? A sympathy? Maybe anger at our inability to piece things together without violence? It didn’t take me long to realize I was projecting my own thoughts onto him. How would I look back on all of this? The answer eluding me, as did the first few statements Tim made towards the group. “There are only two entrances into the Pit,” Tim stated clearly. “One on the far left, and the other on the far right. The entire building is basically shaped like a giant bracket, with the entrances at the endpoints. Delta, Brett, and myself will be leading teams one through three into the right side of the Pit, the other teams will be led by George and his designated elites into the left side.” Everyone nodded intently, with George looking increasingly queasy regarding this heavy task. I couldn’t blame him, he’d organized strikes against antagonistic groups before, but never on such a wide scale. “George’s team will be reaching the left door first, so you’ll likely experience the full force of the Brotherhood’s bite. Stay strong and hold your ground. With any luck, my team will loop around and flank them before anything can go wrong. I must encourage all of you to watch your step and avoid touching walls or any sort of makeshift support. This place used to be a huge barn, you’ll likely stumble across plenty of relics of the past but take note that it’s all there for a reason. This place is an amalgamation of plywood and tape, an amalgamation of different groups in the past trying not to knock the whole place over or fall down through the flooring.” This remark garnered a few stifled laughs from those who were not entirely aware of just how serious Tim was being. “You need to be prepared for anything. By coming here, we’re risking the odds of running into as many as several full-fledged units of Brotherhood troops, or as little as no one.” That last part stuck in my head for a bit. If the Pit really were empty, I’d certainly breathe a sigh of relief, though I doubted that’d last long. It’d soon be replaced with that silent, internal dread of the unknown. If they weren’t here, then where were they? Tim exchanged a few more words and allowed George and myself to give various orders of our own, all of which basically boiled down to keeping walkie-talkies at the ready in case of an emergency, and to beware of tripping over supplies and clogging up the halls. After several more minutes of preparation, we all climbed aboard our designated rides again, this time with Tim taking shotgun in a different vehicle. His gaze had changed into a rock-hard, pokerfaced expression. It reminded me of our early days of training, wherein I’d constantly catch him worrying into his abyss of doubt concerning the war with THEM. There hadn’t been a need to look that wat since THEY fell apart, but now things were right back where they started. I closed my eyes and took deep, controlled breathes. I imagined Tim and George were likely doing the same. That thought comforted me. Eventually, the car came to a screeching halt, the doors around me were forced open, I opened my eyes, and we ran towards the Pit like it was our last battle.

The Raid:

It was the fastest I’d ran in a long, long time. It seemed like my whole body were nothing but a blur or a piece of the wind. My feet twisted awkwardly over the uneven soil, what made things worse were the bony remains of dead cornstalks, now only several inches high, protruding from the soil like rotten, weathered daggers. I couldn’t help but notice several elites in front of me already scraping up their ankles and feet as they dedicated themselves to being at the forefront of the wave – and it was a wave. It was as if I were seeing an ocean of blue surrounding me, of which I remained only a single drop. Our diamond patches proudly reflected the sunlight and our uniforms seemed saturated with a deeper aquatic color, richer to the senses. This was that old feeling of adrenaline. I’d nearly forgotten the excitement of it all. For now, it seemed as if my troubled exterior had faded away. I felt protected in that wave, but not by sheer body count, rather by respect and reverence towards those around me. Then we saw it, the dilapidated roof to the Death Pit sprung up from behind one of the hills as we grew closer. Some of our fastest troops had already cleared the hill entirely, now on the last downward stretch of the sprint. Aside from rapid footsteps or occasional grunts of discomfort at the stalky spires, no one made a sound as the Pit’s details were further taken in. It seemed bizarrely out of place – out of sync with the rest of the world – the lone, forgotten barn decomposing alongside the corn and soil. With every additional meter, more of the structures pitiful state could be observed. The roof was entirely sun-bleached on one side, with the shingles now dispersed all throughout the surface in disarray, many of them were gone. Wooden walls of the fortress hung in lopsided manners, sometimes jutting outwards like spears piercing a great and mighty whale. Surrounding the Pit were piles of indistinguishable black gunk, likely the inky, watered-down remains of wooden shards left out and exposed to the elements for ages. We were staring at the decaying, wretched flesh of the skeletal structure before us. Perhaps most notable was the large, sprawling chicken coop on the barn’s second level, which leaned unsteadily to it’s left, it’s large, gaping maw swallowing up every square inch of light which poured into it. If anyone were at the Pit, I imagined they’d be watching us from the coop, but my eyes fell upon no such observers. At last, I watched as George’s unit poured into the left wing of the building like a mighty, unstoppable hurricane. My team ran several more meters to the other end. The barn truly was massive, far larger that I would have thought necessary for such a lonesome establishment. Tim was correct about the bracket shape to it all. The entire center portion of land at the barn was surrounded on three sides by the walls of the Pit. The only use of a form like this – I thought, was that cows or pigs had once been fenced in at this central location, though now any evidence of it all was completely swept away by time, giving the building an almost prisonlike or overbearing aura. Perhaps at one time it was a sight to behold, but now it’s painted colors had long since chipped away into the black sludge before us, and its form had steadily begun to allow nature to reclaim it. Time wasn’t always a beautiful thing.

Unease:

Delta was the first of my team to reach the right entrance. He pulled open a slightly battered door which likely had been installed in the waning days of the S.S.C and THEM war, as opposed to being the original entry. Our team steadily funneled inside, careful not to be pricked by splintering wooden frames. When everyone had gotten inside, we all came to a simultaneous stop. It felt as if we’d all been frozen to the floor by an unseen force. In reality, I think we just couldn’t help but take in the sights of the interior. As somewhat expected, the entire space was in disarray, littered with junk of all sorts crammed into leaky corners. Various holes in the walls allowed the room to be decently lit, not requiring the usage of our flashlights. Thick cobwebs hung about the doorways and draped over our heads, but the only insects I could spot were the occasional tiny buzzards which swarmed through the beams of light before quickly vanishing into that powerful gloominess. Brittle chunks of wood hung loosely from the walls, some so loose that a simple nudge could break them to pieces. A window to our left had clearly long since been shattered and was now crudely boarded with rusted nails. A look above our heads revealed an ancient looking tarp strewn about the ceiling, likely there to prevent more leakage and to keep some heat from escaping. It was impossible to know where some fixes ended and where others had begun. We walked as if every step were upon an eggshell. Delta’s walkie-talkie shot to life with George’s voice, somewhat startling our more unprepared members. “Nothing,” came my apprentices flat, unwavering voice. “No resistance at all on our end.” “No signs of anyone staying here either,” called in an elite who was also on George’s team. I left the decision on what to do next up to Delta. The commander thought for several moments before offering his response. “Slowly sweep through the bottom floor,” he ordered. “I’d bet we have at least one individual here who could know something. Look for any evidence of recent activity and stay off the top floor until we can reconvene. It’s entirely possible there are people up there waiting for an ambush.” “Understood,” crackled George’s voice. The room fell silent again. “Spread out a bit,” Tim commanded, slowly walking deeper into the bowls of the premises. “Don’t get left too far back, though.” Not everything in the Pit was wooden, in fact we were now approaching the central back section of the building, which featured fractured concrete flooring. Large blocks of concrete had also been erected around the corners, helping the room to keep its shape. Perhaps most notable were the bales of hay stacked against most of the walls, a lot of them stretching all the way up to the ceiling. I imagined some of them were loadbearing crutches, and that moving them could be a dangerous mistake. “Some of the hay doesn’t appear to be that old,” one elite pointed out, keeping his voice down. “Probably only put in within the last ten years or so.” “There’s something else,” Tim noted, turning on his flashlight and pointing it to the floor in a section of the barn none of us had ventured towards yet. “Those small pieces of hay littered around the floor seem to be pushed to the side, creating a sort of trail towards the center of the Pit, where the stairs likely are.” Sure enough, Tim was correct, a clear trail was visible amongst the droppings, but there was no real way of knowing how old that trail was. “I’m surprised we can’t hear the other team,” remarked one master remaining close at my side. “It’s possible the S.S.C or THEM lined some of the walls with soundproofing insulation,” Delta pointed out. “Though I think silence is our most valuable ally right now.” After several minutes of uneventful exploring, some elites came across a separate room, or rather a makeshift room constructed with walls of hay, concrete slabs, and plywood. “Supports on this room seem awfully sturdy,” an elite pointed out as the room was scanned, finding nothing of interest. “If the S.S.C or THEM was this good at creating walls, I imagine that the haybales surrounding us could be blocking off hidden areas or shortcuts through the building.” “We’re like mice,” Tim responded slowly. “This little maze was meant to be traveled in very specific ways. The old S.S.C and THEM had this down to a science. Anything that’d give the enemy side an advantage would certainly be blocked out.” Every step or light breeze made me slightly uneasy again. I began to wonder if the haybales lining the walls were actually a cover for a hidden pathway, allowing enemies to watch our every move as we strolled past. I think Delta had similar worries, as he began checking in between each bale to make sure nothing was out of place behind them. “Make sure to look out for any gaps in the se-”. A sudden clatter was heard throughout the space. Everyone went dead silent immediately. The sound was of creaking, aching wooden frames. There was a shuffling aspect – footsteps, but they were not so much in the same room as us, but rather somewhere above. “Didn’t you tell George’s team not to go up the stairs?” Tim anxiously asked Delta while still taking in the eerie, voiceless steps. Delta didn’t answer. Tim took out his walkie-talkie as all eyes shifted towards him. “George,” Tim stated, hiding the worry from his voice. “What’s going on? Are you going upstairs without us?” Static was the only response Tim received. The floor above us seemed to shake slightly, with a sudden cloud of wood pellets and dust raining down from the ceiling and sprinkling themselves throughout our hair. A few members coughed and gagged at the cloud while others quickly used their shirts to cover their mouths. “George,” Tim called again. “Anyone. Respond now. That’s an order.” The static only seemed to grow louder. “Something must be wrong with the signal,” I stated. “They couldn’t have been attacked without us hearing something.” “Time we find out,” Tim responded breathlessly, turning towards the darkness of the Pit’s midsection. “Flashlights from here-on.” Everyone complied as Delta took lead again. I stared at my watch before it was ate up by the darkness. We’d been in the Pit for ten minutes now. Had we run into opposition immediately, as we’d expected, the ensuing brawl would’ve likely been over already, but nothing could ever seem to be so simple. Our crew remained quiet now, and I couldn’t help but imagine what they were likely thinking as we remained huddled together like a pack of frightened wolves. They were thinking how this was all my fault, how this could have been avoided with more planning or smaller series of attacks. Before I could get too hung up on this, our group turned a sharp, out-of-place corner, finding ourselves bathed in light once again. We all looked up at once, finding a giant hole in the ceiling, one which stretched through both floors. It was as if a comet had come crashing down to the very ground which we now stood, breaking through any and all opposition in its path. The actual cause was likely attributed to a rotten wooden beam losing its integrity before plummeting through the floorboards like a hot knife through butter. The wreckage had long since been cleared or reduced to that familiar, sickly mush. The walls in this room were lined with saturated haybales, likely placed there long ago to soak up any rainfall and prevent more of the Pit from being water damaged. Yet there was something else bizarre as well. Right in the middle of this passageway laid several haybales which had been toppled over on their sides, creating a giant shielding mass blocking our path. What struck me was just how perfectly placed the pile was. It laid just outside of the sunlight beaming through the hole in the roof, making its entire shape difficult to determine. I couldn’t quite understand the reason, but it just didn’t sit right with me. “Wait,” I ordered, stopping everyone in their tracks. Tim followed my gaze towards the haybales and came to a similar suspicious conclusion. “Weapons ready,” he ordered under his breath. Our troopers complied. With hearts now racing and energy building up within our every muscle, our team crept closer towards the pile. That’s when it happened. Like an unseen predator hiding within the tall grass, the haybales before us were effortlessly shoved aside as countless individuals came racing towards us, out from the darkness. Some of them quickly found cover behind walls and chucked rocks our way to keep anyone from getting too close. The figures were entirely dressed in black, with skeletal cloth masks hiding their lower jaws. Additionally, their eyes were filled with a burning fury and passion which immediately caught me off-guard. It was the look of someone who hadn’t a fear in the world. They had been waiting for us. Before I knew it, our two mighty waves collided, and I was one of the first to feel the full force.

Numb:

Almost immediately, I was struck in my side and harshly pushed against a hay bale, budging it slightly. The flashlight flew from my hands now, it’s once steady beam now flashing wildly to the floor alongside countless others. Now only relying on the dim illumination shining through the roof, I quickly assessed nearly a quarter of our forces were already down within the first few seconds, likely taken completely by surprise and knocked unconscious by the unseen hordes of enemies or incoming stones. My wild glances at the battle now shifted towards looking for Tim or Delta, but both of them must have been dragged deeper into the fray, for I could spot neither of them. One elite pulled an attacker away from me just before I was tackled, while a second unseen attacker slugged me in the chest, knocking me off-balance once more. I felt that old rush of energy again, occurring almost instantaneously, like a great explosion of vigor and fearlessness. Before the Brotherhood trooper could throw another punch, I offered a quick knee to his stomach, following through with a left hook. The foe was immediately downed as yet another rushed me from behind, wrapping his arms around my torso and attempting to force me to my knees. My legs attempted to stay strong, but now it was as if the Brotherhood trooper was holding all of his weight down upon me. With few options remaining, I threw a couple blind strikes into the darkness behind me, both of them landing on the attacker’s chin. This particular enemy seemed to bolster a superior height than what I’d expected, making it practically impossible to reach any greater portions of his face. Finally, my knees buckled, sending us both down to the ground, bathing us both in dust and that wretched, soupy grime at our feet. I briefly felt the fiery warmth of a hand reaching for my neck, only for it to be whisked away in a nanosecond by some unseen savior who used all his force to knock the trooper off of me. Not taking the chance of rising back up, I reached out for a flashlight lying near my face, still shining its intense ray at the feet of those left standing. It was impossible to tell who was who anymore, and several haybales once stacked tightly against the walls were now toppled to the wayside, some of them nearly falling upon individuals below. Everything had devolved into pure chaos. Out of that storm of bedlam, something suddenly struck the back of my head. I can’t be sure what it was – an unintentional swinging foot perhaps, maybe a deliberate downwards punch or chucked stone. Whatever the case, the back of my skull seemed rattled with a pain I hadn’t felt so poignantly in ages. It was so powerful and quick in it’s raid, I practically went numb to it. Yes, this was that sort of pain that hurt in more ways than the physical. I felt my eyelids quickly drooping, with my arms and the palms of my hands feeling as if they were being pricked by thousands of tiny needles, digging deep into my flesh. The flashlight once again fumbled out of my hands and my body lurched forward like a dying animal. Darkness only grew darker now, and the noises became muffled and stilted. I was wavering back to a world I hadn’t visited in a long, long time. That world of empty nothingness.

Secret Escape:

I’d been knocked out before, and though it was far from often, whenever I would be pushed into that realm of unconsciousness, I’d always been greeted with some dream or vision, even the slightest of sounds or odors, colors and textures, but such sensations did not come to me in that empty nothingness this time around – nothing did. For those few minutes before I awoke, there was only pure silence, though even this I could not take in, for I had no mind to comprehend it. It was almost like oblivion itself no longer welcomed me. I was an old friend – long since moved on. By all accounts, I would have thought myself dead if it were not for my eventual fluttering glances towards the ceiling. The back of my head still ached, though I imagined it would not reveal its full intensity until after it had a chance to form a full bruise or goose egg. Some the greatest wounds take time to brew, I’d learned that well. I gradually lifted my head, finding myself no longer in that darkened, cluttered passageway of chaos, but rather within a small, box shaped room, the size of which could only have accommodated up to six individuals at a time, lest there be hardly any space to move your arms. A lopsided window hung in the center of this box, it’s pitiful form having been cut out by hand with the usage of some power tool at one point or another. Two large wooden panels had since been erected over it, but this was hardly enough to block out the light from the outside world. Instead, sunlight crept into this ancient room of the Death Pit, illuminating its aged features in a manner that almost seemed peaceful. A rather large, wooden work desk took up the back portion of the space, most of its drawers having been removed, but a couple still remaining intact, overflowing with yellowed notes. In the far corner, a metallic chair laid on it’s side, one of it’s legs nowhere to be seen. It was such an incredibly odd visual to take in. This office seemed as if it were abandoned in a hurry one day, with all its contents remaining untouched ever since. The eeriness was akin to that of the Union Cove. With a growing headache and ringing within my ears, I didn’t quite grasp the extent of oddness regarding how I’d ended up here. I leaned all my weight against a rickety door just behind me. Moving carefully, I placed my ear against it, hearing no signs of struggle or speaking, but instead the sounds of light footsteps getting closer and closer towards my position. Terror filled me instantaneously as my hands shot towards where my walkie-talkie should have been, only to find that it was missing. Applying pressure to the back of my head with one hand and grasping the doorknob with the other, I prepared myself to come face-to-face with whatever awaited me just outside. There was a heavy movement on the other end of the door now, one which seemed inhuman and crude. I knew better than to let this fear broil within me any longer, I’d made that mistake far too many times. And so, in one quick motion of flowing energy, I shoved the door outwards and was carried along with the rush of wind back into that fateful hall from earlier, my fighting stance having shifted to a purely offensive one. Immediately, a flashlight beam shot into my eyes, blinding me to the enemy, but I made no show of it, refusing to submit to so much as squint before the rays. Just before I could take additional steps forward, towards the light, a hand grasped my shoulder and the flashlight was switched off. With my eyes struggling to adjust to these changes in lighting, all I could rely on were the sounds around me. “Brett,” came Tim’s silenced voice. “It’s us.”

Stuck:

My posture loosened a bit and my white-knuckled fists fell down to my sides. Now rubbing my eyes to clear them of this lingering dazzle of sparks, I found myself standing before Tim, Delta, and two elites, each of them warped by the splotches of wavering colors passing over my pupils. Some part of me wondered if I was dreaming. “What happened?” I asked, perhaps louder than what Tim expected, as I was quickly helped back into the room I’d just emerged from. “Shut that door and keep voices low,” Delta ordered as we each crept inside, all of us except for one of the elites, who instead chose to keep guard just outside. “What happened?” I breathed again, more irritated than anything at this point. “This place is teeming with more Brotherhood members than we could have imagined,” Tim answered, interrupting Delta, who’d likely have offered up a more negative interpretation. “We were hit hard back there,” Tim continued. “We’re all that’s left. Everyone else was bound and taken upstairs to the chickencoop. My eyes widened, and my head shook with disbelief. “That’s i-impossible,” came my stuttering voice. “George’s group too? What about the backup units? What abo-”. “Keep quiet,” Delta reminded at the sound of my rising voice, though it was beginning to sound far more like a voice of disdain rather than one of respect. “George’s unit was almost certainly captured as well, and all of our walkie-talkies were either taken or smashed to pieces. We can’t get ahold of backup,” Tim whispered. “We only escaped capture because we found some hidden rooms behind various downed haybales. I put you in this room, myself, during the fight, and then barricaded it shut again.” I finally took a knee and allowed myself to breathe a bit, feeling somewhat claustrophobic in this small box room now. “You’re saying even the Brotherhood doesn’t know this little space exists?” I asked, trying to buy myself some time to recover. “Likely, no,” Tim answered. “By the looks of it, this in an old THEM office.” My old master moved towards the desk for a moment, a slight limp noticeable in his steps. My crestfallen attitude was short-lived, as Delta stepped forward with words of his own. “We don’t have time for this speculation,” the commander argued as Tim began looking through the desk’s drawers. “We have two whole units of troops captured right above our heads. Tim, we can’t waste time looking at ancient papers.” “Sometimes patience is the best tactic of all,” Tim answered without so much as hesitating. “An old friend once told me that, and I try to live by it.” Delta immediately strode up to the desk, his teeth barred, and eyebrows slanted viciously. “Patience for what?” he hissed, the sound of his displeasure surprising Tim a bit. “Patience to allow our troops to be tortured for information? Patience to allow for the Brotherhood to realize they missed out on capturing the three of us? What the hell do you think you’re playing at? These aren’t just ordinary troops, they’re elites with vital information and tools which the Brotherhood can and will use to their advantage. We act now.” “No,” Tim responded, turning his gaze back to the drawers, his expression not budging whatsoever. “We wait here. That’s an order.” Delta opened his mouth, perhaps ready to unfurl a mighty storm of words to describe his dissatisfaction, but Tim was no longer willing to give him the time of day. “Listen,” my master continued. “The Brotherhood has this place packed to the brim with soldiers. If the five of us just go storm up there and attempt to take everyone back by force, a couple potential things can happen. Either we’ll be stopped by guards before we can even reach the top of the stairs, thereby alerting the whole base to our position, or we’ll rush into that chickencoop, under heavy attack as we do so, we’ll reach the troopers and start freeing them to give us cover, only to find that more than half of them are likely still unconscious or nursing wounds which will prevent them from fighting. We’ll be left with hardly anyone at our side, and the Brotherhood will be more than happy to mop up what’s left.” Delta’s mouth slowly closed, and his eyes settled. We all knew how passionate the commander was about keeping troopers safe, but we also knew he wasn’t idiotic enough to question that realistic logic of the situation. “So, for now,” Tim continued. “We catch our breaths a bit and figure out how to turn this situation around.” “They’ll really start freaking out once they realize they failed to capture Tim and I,” I wagered, my hand still clinging to the back of my head, as if releasing it would cause my entire skull to shatter. “We can expect they’ll start sending search teams down here and around the surrounding field.” Everyone was quiet for a moment. As crazy as it seemed, I was more fearful of this lost silence than I was of the bickering between Tim and Delta. I’d have rather argued for hours on end than hear that collective uncertainty. We had to be more than just a great, blue fist. We needed to know when to use our heads, and work together despite some differing opinions. That was the S.S.C I believed in. “They won’t check the fields,” observed Delta at last, peering out the boarded window and gazing up at the sky, which was quickly growing with dark clouds. “They know we have backup forces around here. The S.S.C always has some sort of backup force. The last thing they’d want is to alert another unit of troopers that something was up. They’re just as trapped as us.” Each of us looked to Delta with some confusion as to what he was getting at. “The Brotherhood seems to thrive on taking us by surprise,” Delta surmised. “But they can’t work nearly as effectively if we meet them on common ground. The Brotherhood wants nothing to do with that backup unit and will likely stay holed up in the Death Pit until S.S.C backup eventually acts on my orders and heads in once half an hour of no contact has passed. Once backup is within these walls, they’ll become easy prey, just like our teams were. We can’t let that happen.” “What are you suggesting?” Tim asked. Delta ran his fingers through his hair and stared out the boarded-up window some more, as if waiting for the solution to strike him like a gust of wind. “Perhaps,” the commander stated slowly. “If the Brotherhood won’t go outside on their own… we can force them out.”

In Motion:

The linchpin of our entire plan was based around the idea that these Brotherhood forces had to have some sort of leader present in the building. We couldn’t be sure if it was James himself, or one of his trusted underlings, but so long as there was one single mind to give the orders, there was at least some chance we could make this work in our favor. Inversely, if these troopers really were acting on their own, without any form of real leadership, the odds were slim that they’d operate in any way we could predict or defend against. I’d learned some time ago that predictability was one of the greatest weaknesses a person or group of people could possess. The sects we’d been fighting ever since the fall of THEM had used the S.S.C’s predictability to their advantages, and so following in their footsteps was an odd feeling for me to come to terms with. Despite any reservations I may have had, the plan went into motion within the next several minutes. Tim and I swapped uniforms with the two elites, adorning them with our specially made shirts and patches. Wishing us luck, the two departed in order to fulfill their portion of the plan. Working carefully, Delta and I separated from Tim, silently progressing through the darkened halls of the Pit and eventually reaching its leftmost entrance. Similarly, Tim was tasked with hiding at the rightmost entrance. Without any form of communication, there was no way for Delta and me to know if Tim had made it or been caught along the way. I felt what could only be described as an aura of worry while the commander and I crouched behind a fallen haybale. I was about to whisper to Delta, when a muffled voice cried out over our heads, somewhere on the second floor. My heart skipped a beat at the unexpected sound. I listening as a trooper – presumably one of our own, was brutally questioned by a familiar voice. “Where are they?” I could just barely make out, with Delta clearly coming to a similar conclusion. A loud crash sounded now, practically shaking the walls themselves. We were left to only imagine what must have been happening, and every slight creak, shout, or whimper only weighed down our souls even more. “The troops must be waking up faster than Tim had thought,” Delta observed, trying to distract the both of us from the noises. “We’ll have to do this quick.” I tried to find an answer, but no words could seem to form, my mind could only gravitate towards those tortured sounds and voices. “C’mon, man,” Delta breathed. “You’ve gotta snap out of it. One mission at a time.” “One mission at a time,” I repeated, trailing off a bit as I made out some more spoken words from above. “If you don’t talk, they will,” the voice persisted. I closed my eyes for a moment and took some breaths, attempting to block the haunting words from my thoughts, but it was like straining to calm a great rush of water, something always managed to break through, pulling and nagging on my psyche. “It’s Rick,” I found myself saying at last. Delta looked towards the ceiling and listened for himself. “I suppose it does sound like him… you think he’s the leader of this base?” “I do,” I answered, though a part of me was still unsure, perhaps worried that the elusive James was waiting somewhere in the wings, ready to pounce at even our slightest misstep. Simultaneously, the commander and I noticed movement from just outside. Our vantagepoint made it difficult to tell for sure, but moving figures – tinted with blue, were now roaming away from the Pit. The first step of our plan was now in motion. There was no turning back.

Decoys:

“It’s them, alright,” I noted, risking a brief glance out the door. Our two elites, still adorned in the uniforms of Tim and myself, moved farther away from the Pit, putting on a good show as they did so, with one of them faking a limp, and the other struggling to support him has they feigned a last-ditch effort of escape. “Here we go,” Delta spoke under his breath, unsheathing his E-sticks. “You sure you don’t want to use one?” “Call me old-fashioned, I guess,” came my uneasy voice. The two of us hardly had another second to think before there was yet another sudden stir from upstairs, this time containing a multitude of voices, yet somehow Rick’s seemed to break through all the rest. “There they are! Stop them before they reach the backup units! Bring them to me and do it quietly!” As anticipated, Rick had taken the bate, as he was not able to discern there was anything out of place due to the fact that he couldn’t view the escapees’ faces. Sure enough, a rush of stampeding footsteps emanated from the stairways behind us. Peering just over the haybale, I watched as two shadowy figures took towards the right exit of the building, while another two began heading our way. “Quick and silent,” Delta reminded me, his voice almost drowned out now by the incoming troopers and the wild calls from overhead. The two Brotherhood soldiers ran past us now, with one reaching out to the exit door. He hadn’t even had the chance to take hold of it before Delta sprang into action, dashing behind the two and knocking them both to the ground with a flawless fluidity, placing his palm over one’s mouth while I took to subduing and silencing the other. Taken completely by surprise, the only sounds the troopers made were those of a couple desperate kicks to the wall. Mine struggled for some time longer than I’d expected, trying to bite at my hand and then burying his fist into my stomach, but it was a lost cause on his part, before long, we’d managed to knock both of them out. Without a word, we took to removing their skull masks and uniforms, only to utilize them ourselves. “I’ll hide the bodies,” Delta panted at last, having practically held his breath for the entire conflict. “You go on ahead and hopefully Tim can meet you before the guys up top get suspicious.” Wasting no more time with a response, I bolted out the exit, sprinting through the ancient cornfield, whose surface had now been torn apart and scarred by our earlier raid. I gave a glance to my right, waiting to see Tim bursting through the other exit, similarly dressed as a Brotherhood soldier, but instead there was nothing. The door didn’t budge for a moment. My heart skipped a beat, but I couldn’t risk arising doubt, so my attention lingered back towards the fleeing decoys. Showing no signs of hesitation, I leapt towards them both, sending a harsh kick into the ‘injured’ decoy’s back. Acting accordingly, the other decoy pretended I’d taken him by surprise, being dragged down to the ground by his companion’s sudden weight shift. I heard footsteps approaching me from behind now, with Delta rushing out to help me secure the two. Even from a fair distance away, I could see his eyes lingering towards Tim’s exit, but there was still nothing. “Put up a fight,” I whispered to the decoys, putting one of them in a loose headlock. “We can’t let them notice some of their retrieval team is missing.” The decoy quickly broke free of my hold, attempting a kick to my side, which I unconsciously blocked with a notably skilled kick to the shin. Not wanting Rick to take notice of this experience, I opened myself up for a strike to the chest, which the decoy took immediate advantage of, striking me with enough power to send me staggering backwards, but not inflicting any unnecessary injuries. Delta, realizing we were stalling, joined in by tackling the decoy to the ground and wrestling him into a lax sleeper hold. Just before another move could be made, the right exit at last tore itself open, with Tim rushing out to greet us, adorned in the Brotherhood gear, with no notable signs of foul play. I assisted Delta and held down the active decoy’s flailing legs, while Tim grabbed the supposedly injured trooper and kept him pinned beneath his foot. “They sent four people down and there’s only three of us,” Tim spoke through his teeth as I Delta and I hoisted the struggling decoy to his feet. “They might be suspicious.” “Any suggestions?” I whispered. We paused a bit from our conversation, once again so as not to arouse suspicion. Now gradually dragging the decoys along with us, I dared a brief look up at the chicken coop for the first time, finding Rick and several Brotherhood elites standing just at the edge and staring down at us. While the elites seemed amused by the decoys’ failed display, Rick remained straight-faced. His eyes were difficult to track, though I felt as if he could see right through our masks and was now putting on his best poker face to lull us into a false sense of security. As far as we knew, we were now walking to our own doom. Before I could voice my concerns to the others, Tim turned back to the decoys. “When we get upstairs,” he whispered. “Start struggling as hard as you both can. It should take the focus away from the three of us.” “And if it doesn’t?” Delta questioned, as if he were in tune with the elites’ innermost thoughts. “Then we’ll fight to the bitter end,” my old master answered without so much as a pause. After a few moments of excruciating silence, we reached the left entrance. I slowly pushed the door open with my spare hand, immediately spotting two Brotherhood troopers standing at the opposite end of the room, their arms crossed. I turned my gaze away from them almost instinctively, hoping my surprised demeanor would be lost in the dim light. “Need help getting them up here?” a Brotherhood soldier called to us. Tim immediately stepped to the forefront. “They seem to be playing nicely for now,” he answered. “But you’re free to stay close in case they have anything up their sleeves.” There was a pause now, with the overhead creaking and chattering only serving to accentuate the perceived stretch of the silence. Perhaps they had noticed that we were one man short, or maybe they were struggling to believe our captured targets truly were who they’d appeared to be, but in either case, the troopers eventually submitted without further questioning. “Boss is waiting up top, he said not to harm them anymore than necessary,” one stated. “Guess he might want that honor himself,” the other chimed in, with the two of them now joining our group. Tim and Delta offered no further comments, instead progressing forward like the dutiful soldiers we were meant to portray. All the while, our captured accomplices kept their heads hanging low, though as we began ascending the rickety stairway, I could feel one elite’s muscles beginning to tighten. It was a sobering realization for me – a reminder that no matter how much training any of us had gone through, we’d never be able to go through things like this without a tinge of fear eating away at our thoughts. Sometimes the greatest show of strength can be demonstrated through a straight face. My heartrate slowed a bit at this thought – my mind now awash with a slight humor. Soon we’d be back home, and I could annoy Tim and George with moral quotes such as these for the rest of the day. Soon we’d be home, and everything would be as it was.

To Cease:

I was the first one to reach the peak of the stairs, turning to find the chicken coop filled to the brim with Brotherhood soldiers. Not one of them moved now, as they instead turned towards our arriving party. The two captured S.S.C units were sat near the walls and corners. It was quite obvious that they were trying to keep weight off the center of the room. Nevertheless, that’s where Rick now waited for us, his face just as unresponsive as when I’d last eyed him. Before anyone could speak up, our captured decoys immediately began playing their part, now viciously fighting against us, with my captured soldier even successfully taring his arm from my grasp. “Get ahold of them!” Rick boomed, with several other Brotherhood soldiers now swarming to the staircase to assist us. I wept my brow of sweat for a moment, unsure if it was a result of the struggle or yet another unavoidable show of fear. The Brotherhood soldiers were far more brutal than necessary as they took to pinning the decoys, with one going so far as to push me out of the way in order to take hold of one’s shirt. Perhaps in their mind it was a sort of cathartic experience. More than half of the enemies here had been either expedited from the S.S.C or had previously worked in sects to take us out. They didn’t have to remove their masks to make that clear. In any case, their hurry worked in our favor, as Tim, Delta, and myself took steps away from the fight and fell back in line with soldiers waiting by the walls. Delta and I remained together while Tim silently navigated to the opposite end of the room. Rick didn’t seem to notice us, with his face now burning with an internal rage. Just as our decoys finally began to settle, Rick stormed forward, aggressively taking one of the elites by the face, holding it still to get a better look. “This isn’t them!” he shouted, his teeth barred. “They’re a couple of damn decoys! Guard the exits!” Four troops obeyed instantaneously, rushing down the stairs as Rick returned his attention to the fakes. “You just made a big mistake,” he growled. “But this can still end well for you. You have Brett and Tim’s uniforms, so I know you’ve seen them. Now just tell me where they are, and I swear on my life that we’ll let you and your whole team go. Believe me when I say the we don’t want to keep all you people here longer than necessary. It’s really them we have the problem with.” There was a noticeable urgency to Rick’s voice now, one which indicated worry on his part – worry that he’d failed to catch us and worry of what that would do to his image.” I briefly scanned the room for George, eventually spotting him on Tim’s side, his arms bound with a thin rope of some sort, along with his feet. Every other trooper was in a similar state of immobility. My side of the room seemed to primarily consist of the injured S.S.C soldiers – ones with quickly forming bruises around their eyes, cheeks, and forearms, many more covered with various cuts. Perhaps most alarmingly was a trooper who seemed to be bleeding from forehead and his nose, having clearly been struck directly with a rock from the earlier assault. He was conscious, though clearly in quite a daze. “Don’t think that stalling with help you,” Rick persisted. “We know your backup unit is outside. We also happen to know that they have orders to storm in here once enough time of no contact has passed. You can be sure we’ll take them down just as fast as we took you down, and at that point I think you’ll find it will be quite effortless for us to take a visit to your bases.” The elite decoys refused to answer, now only staring at Rick with an unfazed blankness. Rick dropped to one knee now, speaking almost in a whisper. “Who do you have guarding those bases, exactly?” he rhetorically mused. “Apprentices? Some lowly masters trying to get work done? You think they can hold us off when you couldn’t so much as throw a proper punch?” As before, the elites said nothing, accept there was a slight change now. A change as one of the decoys looked over to the heavily injured soldier I’d observed before. The elite’s eyes widened slightly, and his jaw shifted to the left. It was a subtle movement of worry, but Rick had caught it, now turning his attention directly to the decoy. “You can stop it all,” Rick assured. “You know that, right? You can stop any of this madness from continuing.” I nervously looked to Tim now. He was slowly moving around the room, making sure to keep himself from standing out. He carefully reached down to a bound soldier, using a cord cutter to unassumingly remove his restraints. Tim was the only one of us who had such a tool ready, as such, it was up to him to free as many troopers as possible before we could hope to fight back. “C’mon,” Rick breathed. “Let’s stop all this right here and now. Your troops are injured. They need your attention.” The elite tried to hide his encroaching fear, but it was of no use now. Rick saw the care he had for his comrades. The elite’s eyes darted towards where Delta stood now, practically begging the commander to do something. As much as any of us wanted to, Tim still hadn’t made enough progress yet. The troopers he’d freed had to keep still while being cut, and then keep the rope bunched up near their arms and legs so that it still appeared they were captured. It was a lengthy process that could fail at any second. ‘Just a little longer,’ I thought to myself. ‘Just a little longer.’ Rick suddenly stood back up, now looking down at the elite with disappointment. “My patience is running out,” he sighed. “Maybe you’d like to see a demonstration of the alternative?” His face now seemed more remorseless than ever. “Let’s see how tough yo-”. A sudden buzzing noise emanated from the scene. More eyes than ever before were drawn to Rick and the decoy, allowing Tim to get some more work done. Rick straightened his posture almost mechanically before reaching into his pocket and removing a cellphone. The device continued to buzz in his hand. For a moment, it looked as if Rick had no intention of answering the call, but a closer inspection revealed a new emotion within the leader’s eyes – a look of fear. Almost like they were working under a hive mind, the room became quieter than ever, with Rick finally pressing a button and bringing the phone to his ear. “Hello, James,” he answered.

A Voice:

Rick remained motionless as he kept the phone close to his ear, offering a few confirmations to questions we could not make out on the other end. Tim looked towards Delta and I and gave a signal indicating he was nearly done freeing an acceptable number of soldiers. Even though his mask covered a majority of his face, Tim’s eyes seemed preoccupied with something else entirely at this point. The mere mention of James must have shaken him in a way no other person could have hoped to understand. Nevertheless, after a second of pause, Tim returned to his task, albeit with a newfound hurry which only made me bite down harder on my tongue. In the meantime, we were left to continue eavesdropping on Rick’s unexpected hail. “Still the same,” Rick stated in a downcast tone. He paused a moment and then continued. “Two troops fled the building in their uniforms… we – my elites, thought it was them at the time… they’re not talking yet but-”. Rick silenced himself immediately as the voice on the other end interrupted with words of its own. Rick pursed his lips and shook his head to the inaudible caller, his face growing more distressed. “I know… I-I’m sorry,” he offered, seemingly to no avail as yet another thick silence fell over him. Rick shifted uncomfortably before turning to face the rest of the room. For a split-second, his eyes scanned right across me, but it was quite evident that much like Tim – his mind was on other things. “You’re sure this is necessary?” Rick offered to the phone. Both the Brotherhood and S.S.C soldiers looked at each other in a unified confusion as Rick once more shook his head and at last brought the phone away from his mouth. “At attention!” he shouted. “James would like a word with all of you! You talk, you’re punished! It’s just that simple!” Tim stopped in his tracks instantaneously, his brow drawing upwards in a look of dread. Rick now set the phone to a speaker mode and held it above his head. Not a single soul dared to interrupt. Out of that maddening silence, a crackling, deep voice emanated from the phone. “This is no victory,” it stated with a blunt certainty. The Brotherhood soldiers bowed their heads in a silent disappointment. Tim’s arms fall limply to his sides, his grip on the cord cutters almost loosening enough to allow it to tumble to the floor. “I’ve said it all before. The S.S.C can only be damaged when you cut off it’s head. What you’ve achieved here is meaningless in the long run.” Even Delta couldn’t seem to move. The whole lot of us were transfixed on the voice as if under a heavy spell. “Yes, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times,” the deep voice continued. “The more you know an enemy, the easier it is to get into their head. Perhaps you’d like a demonstration?” Rick looked to the phone as if staring upon the face of a crazy man. “Sir?” he questioned. “Step closer to the stairway,” James responded. “I want my voice to reach through every hall of that building.” We all watched as Rick approached the stairs without query. Now with Rick’s back to us, Tim worked up the courage to lean down towards yet another bound up trooper. The air was somehow growing more still by the second, allowing the next word to sink in all the more deeply. “Tim,” the warped voice now called. My old master’s face snapped back towards where Rick stood. “You’re still here aren’t you?” James persisted, a slight laugh entangled throughout his words. “People like you don’t just run away… but you do hide, isn’t that right? Hide until the situation is dire enough?” Tim leaned forward, an uneasiness crawling through him. I felt it too – a twisted web of words entangling our hearts and restricting our lungs. “I’m going to count to ten,” James stated. “And if you don’t stand up for yourself and for your units… well… we’ll throw the injured off the chicken coop. One by one, by one, by one… on and on. When they’ve all gone down, we’ll drag them up and do the same thing all day long.” The entirety of our forces began shuffling with a profound fear, while the injured troopers began to breath heavily and shift closer to the walls. Some of the Brotherhood soldiers even seemed to be taken aback by the order, their faces now seeping with a deep uncertainty in their own comrades and choices. “I looked to Tim again, waiting for some sort of gesture or glance in my direction to give off a message, but there were no such signals. Tim now only stared at Rick and the phone as if they’d both vanish in the blink of an eye. “Your S.S.C never crosses that line,” James elaborated. “No group which rises up to the S.S.C’s level ever even tries to. And now I think you and I both know that it just can’t be that way anymore. It’s time to take risks and take that next big step.” Tim’s eyes narrowed. “Some broken bones here and there, what difference does it make?” Tim steadily set the cord cutter to the ground and adjusted his stance. “And so, let’s see how far we can take things, shall we?” James pried. Tim’s hands balled up into white knuckled fists, his face now growing an intense shade of red. The phone crackled once more. “Ten…” the voice sounded. And that was all Tim needed to hear. Without a faulter to be seen, my master attacked.

The Clash:

No one had even the slightest chance of stopping Tim as he tore the skull mask from his jaw and sprinted at Rick with more speed than I’d ever thought to see out of him again. Without so much as turning around to see his incoming attacker, Rick found himself hurtling into the nearby wall, Tim’s fist planted firmly into his side. Brotherhood forces all over the room now simultaneously began rushing forward, some of them managing to hold Tim back, but it was a short-lived accomplishment, as now the soldiers Tim had freed earlier threw their ropes to the side and ganged up on the enemy forces while their backs were still turned. Those who Tim had not gotten to untie, were quickly tended to by Delta and other elites. It didn’t take long for Brotherhood troops to begin perusing Delta’s team. It was time to act. Working quickly, I dove into one attacker’s legs, successfully binding them together and allowing him to tumble headfirst into the splintered floor. A second attacker noticed my efforts, immediately turning around to dash my way while I was still down. All the energy that’d been building up within me over the last few minutes was finally being put to use, as I waited for the attacker to get within only a couple feet of me before performing a powerful leg swipe. While I was never particularly good at moves such as that, the trooper didn’t seem to expect it, and ended up toppling forward, barely missing me as he instead fell upon his own comrade. “Brett!” called Tim’s voice now, overshadowing even the most deafening roars of combat encircling the coop. I turned to find three Brotherhood troopers simultaneously attempting to keep hold of my master’s arms and legs near the stairway. Tim was clearly using every ounce of strength he had left to keep the enemies from overtaking him. I immediately began rushing his way, only for Tim’s gaze to stop me in my tracks after only a few steps. “R-Rick!” he continued, an enemy now wrapping an arm around my master’s throat like a snake restraining its prey. “He’s trying to get away! T-The left exit! Stop him now, or all of this is meaningless!” As much as I wanted to assist Tim before chasing after the fleeing leader, it was quite evident that we simply hadn’t the time. Troopers of both sides frantically ran in all directions now, though weight was still attempted to be focused away from the central floor. A group of injured elites had linked arms and now formed themselves into a sprawling barricade which protected the injured, though holes were quickly emerging as the Brotherhood fought back with an undying forcefulness. Not far to my right, other S.S.C soldiers feverishly worked to tie up their attackers with the very ropes that had mere minutes ago been utilized against them. I seemed to be largely ignored at this point, since my uniform was not bright blue like those of my comrades. I turned hesitantly from Tim now, rushing to the edge of the coop. Immediately, I recognized that jumping from such a height would not be enough to break bones, though I was almost certain it’d cause me to pull a muscle, thus squandering any hope I had of catching up to Rick. Delta noticed my hesitation almost immediately and joined me at the edge. “Take my hand!” he ordered over the chaos, his attention now drawn to the ground below. “I’ll lure you down as much as I can!” Offering no resistance to his plans, I took a tight grip of Delta’s forearm and prepared for the maneuver he had in mind. From the corner of my eye, I spotted a lone figure fleeing from the Death Pit’s left entrance. Just as Tim had warned, it was indeed Rick. The deserter showed no signs of slowing down to witness the battle’s end. He instead seemed to be making his way largely towards the western section of the field, where he’d likely hoped to escape the view of the backup units. “Hurry!” Delta goaded, his voice becoming exasperated as I climbed down the side of the Pit, using a loose board as a foothold. Delta kept a death grip on me for as long as he could, but I could quickly tell his strength was fading with every passing second, and the elites could only cover for us so long. Now wincing in pain and drawing his lips back to reveal grinding teeth, Delta dropped to his stomach and leaned off the edge as far as he could without tumbling off. This final maneuver allowed me to descend an additional several steps off the side. While not an immense improvement, I now felt safe enough to let go and try my luck with the ground. Delta fought against the pain for an extra few seconds, regaining some control of his voice as he strained his neck to look at Rick. “Show that coward how the S.S.C gets things done,” the commander shouted. I looked to the ground, looked back to Delta, and nodded. With that, I was released. It was time to end this.

Final Efforts:

Holding my breath as if diving into a grand pool of rock and dirt, my stomach now seemed to flip instantly upon being released, giving off a feeling akin to that of an intense punch to the gut. I hadn’t long to suffer these sensations, as my legs met with the ground, bending as best they could, like a spring absorbing shock. Despite my best efforts, it was not the happiest of landings, as my left leg bent inwards more than I’d anticipated, releasing a loud snap around my kneecap and temporarily flooding my body with a powerfully numbing ache. Despite these inconveniences, there was no time to rest, not with Rick so far ahead of me. I began to run now, the jolting weight on my bad leg reducing my sprint to a mere hobbling jog. Every step released more aching injections throughout my torso. Another look at Rick revealed he was not in the best of shape either. Tim’s unexpected punch left the leader disoriented and filled with a similar agony stretching through his waist. His legs seemed wobblier with every step, and his body lurched forward in a manner that seemed as if he may spill his guts. My thoughts were interrupted as my knee once again emanated with two sickly pops. Even with his slowed pace, it started to become evident that Rick would still manage to outrun me if this went on much longer. I needed to convince him escape was no longer an option. Fighting every natural instinct in my body, I straightened up and began running as if I’d never suffered the injury at all. “Stop, Rick!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. The fleeing enemy at last turned around, noting my presence. The moment he turned to look at me, I quickened my pace some, further selling the illusion that I was in perfectly fine condition and would easily catch up to him if he were to continue running. Rick offered no response at first, as he instead tried to compose his form and sprint faster, but it was of no use. Upon trying to adjust his posture, a sudden shock must have panged through his stomach, immediately pulling his chest inwards once again as if it were caught on the end of a fisherman’s line. Rick at last stopped himself, breathing heavily enough for me to hear him from my distance. I at last slowed my pace a bit, relaxing my leg as best I could. “You’re just as annoying as they say, Brett!” Rick unsteadily shouted across the field, almost dropping down to his knees as he was assaulted by more of his pains. I didn’t dignify him with a response, instead choosing to remain focused on him should he try anything. My injured leg dragged against the uneven ground a while more, kicking up small plumes of dust. “Capturing me won’t do you any good!” Rick shouted again, his voice breaking as he bit down on his lip. “Blade is still out there… James is still out there… they’re only going to crack down harder on you! You hear me? You won’t know what hit you! You hear me?” My thoughts lingered on Tim, Delta, and the rest of our troops for a few seconds now. I wanted to be there fighting by their side, I wanted to protect them with every ounce of strength I had left, see the battle through to the end just as I’d always been taught. However, it laid outside my hands now, and outside Rick’s as well. Maybe that realization was scaring us both at this point, but it all had to be set aside now, for everyone’s sake. Realizing that nothing he said would stop me, Rick lurched forward and removed his hands from his stomach to defend himself. Now within only several feet of him, I leapt into the air with all the momentum that had been carrying me forward, sending a midair kick careening into his offensive arms, causing them both to fall limply to the wayside. Now landing to his right, I focused two brief blows to his injured abdomen. Rick let out an exasperated yelp, clutching his stomach once again and at last falling backwards, into the dirt. Rick incessantly cursed to himself now, his tightly shut eyes steadily giving way to tears. Some part of me didn’t want to stop there. Adrenaline still circulated throughout my soul, pricking at my knuckles. It would be so easy. So simple. I found myself grabbing his collar now, forcing Rick’s head up to look me in the eyes. This was a man who would have followed James without any qualms. He would have tortured the wounded and maybe even taken it farther. Rick could not bring himself to look at me, instead letting his head fall forward without a sound. I finally let go. As much as he deserved more, I had to remember to be better, to be above such petty things. “This,” I told him. “Is why we don’t cross that line.”   

The Transport:

My conflict with Rick lasted longer than I’d initially suspected. By the time I’d returned to the Death Pit, most everything had settled down. Apparently, someone had finally gotten their hands on a walkie-talkie and contacted the backup unit. With extra forces storming the building, remaining Brotherhood soldiers quickly fled the premises or were captured in the process. Despite the victory, not a single trooper of ours dared to cheer. Not only had the Brotherhood utterly embarrassed us with superior tactics, we were quickly running out of daylight. Our newly emplaced interrogation system forbade us from holding enemy soldiers past certain hours, lest their parents or other loved ones become suspicious. With no time for words, all captured Brotherhood members were quickly taken to our larger vehicles and transported to various locations across Toparsburg. George, Tim, and myself boarded the truck carrying Rick and several elites who we believed would offer up the most information on the Brotherhood’s future plans. To avoid the loss of any time or security, the vehicle was filled to the brim with some of our best troops. Additionally, escort vehicles remained close to us the whole time as we made our way to a barn supplied to us by a master. “You sure nobody will try busting him out before we can get answers?” Gorge asked, offering up the first words I’d heard from him since his rescue. “It’s doubtful,” Tim responded, keeping his voice low, despite the fact that our prisoners were detained in the back portion of the truck, where sound could hardly travel. Tim seemed as if he were ready to say more but stopped himself to adjust several bandages around his arms and wrists. His left eye also seemed to be growing puffy, but he’d refused ice. My old master seemed trapped with his own thoughts now, still obsessing over every word James had spoken. “I’m sorry,” George sighed, speaking to no one in particular. “Sorry that I let our unit get captured so easily.” “What exactly happened?” I asked, applying pressure to my kneecap as if it’d fix the swelling. “We were separating slightly,” George recalled. “One guy went to a darker portion of the Pit and was seized by a Brotherhood soldier. The soldier had a knife to our guy’s throat – an actual knife!” Tim showed no signs of wishing to respond, leaving me to only rest my head in my hands. “He told us to move up the stairs quietly or things would get ugly,” George elaborated. “I didn’t have a clue what else could be done… but I know there must’ve been something… you guys would have had an idea and the-”. I held up my hand to calm George down a bit. “I doubt there’s much else we could have tried,” I assured him. “We’re just lucky they didn’t attempt the same thing on our unit… they must’ve thought we wouldn’t have cared.” “Then they must know us a whole lot less than we think,” George stated, his voice almost trembling. “Of course, that doesn’t explain how they knew we’d attack the Pit… and they knew we’d have backup waiting in the distance.” “I intend to speak with Rick about that,” Tim interrupted, not looking at any of us. “I want you both with me. The elites will question the others, but Rick is our main concern. We can only keep him an hour longer than everybody else before he gets released.” “Let’s make it count then,” George replied with a newfound determination. Our discussion continued only through silence.

Interrogation:

“How many of you are there?” I asked, sitting in a chair across from Rick now. We’d allowed him to remain unbound throughout the interrogation, though any sudden move on his part would quickly be stopped by several guards within the confined, dusty space. Rick stared at the floor without a response, mimicking our decoys’ behavior from earlier. “What exactly is your endgame?” George inquired, keeping any fear or hatred from his voice. Rick once again said nothing. “You think you're gonna get out'a this without talking?” George persisted. There was another brief pause, allowing us to hear the voices of other interrogators throughout the premises. Some of them were already getting results, whereas we were still in the dark. Finally, Rick lifted his head to look at us, panning his view first to me, then George, and finally Tim – who hadn’t said a word. “I know I'll get out of this without talking,” Rick smiled. “When it comes to torture, all of you people go limp. Didn’t used to be that way – nope. The S.S.C had a backbone once. You people make it soft.” “You’re saying the Brotherhood has no qualms with torture?” Tim finally spoke up, somewhat throwing Rick off-guard with his loud tone. “That’s right,” Rick answered. “That surprise you after what you heard today?” “Not in the slightest,” Tim answered. My old master stepped forward a couple paces and sat beside me, allowing the natural creaks of the floorboards and chair to fill the pause. “What surprises me,” Tim continued. “Is that you’re not begging us to keep you here.” Rick cocked his head to the side, an inquisitive look forming over his face. “Excuse me?” he questioned. Finally, I began to see where this was going. “If what you say is true,” Tim sustained. “I think what waits you outside these doors is going to be a whole lot worse than anything we’d ever try.” Rick’s mouth opened slightly, but no words came out. “You honestly think James is going to take you back after losing to us?” Tim asked, raising an eyebrow. “You captured two whole S.S.C units and were about ready to take down a third. Our best troopers were in the palms of your hands. All you missed were two people – Brett and I, and we still managed to bring everything crashing down. You were a joke out there. If our roles were reversed and one of my elites had failed so spectacularly, you can bet he’d be fired in an instant.” Tim was lying of course, though his point seemed to be holding true, as Rick remained silent, hanging on Tim’s every word. “James will take it a step farther,” Tim warned. “I know James and he knows me – just like he said. The moment you walk out of here tonight, you’ll be all alone for the first time in a long time. Isn’t that right?” Rick lightly bit his lip and looked back at his feet. “You’ve lost any love the school had for you,” my master explained. “As well as any respect James had for you, and any support we may have offered you… that is unless you answer our questions. Then I might consider having guards keep an eye on you, instead of James choosing to keep an eye on you himself.” “I-I won’t have you people following me around!” Rick stammered immediately, though he seemed unsure of his own words. “Our guys are better than you give credit to,” Tim promised. “You’ll never know they’re there. You’ll still need to look out for yourself a bit, make sure you’re not getting into any situation where things could go south.” George turned away from Rick for a moment to let off a small victory grin while Tim merely crossed his arms and awaited an answer. Rick looked at Tim for a while, and then back to me. I could only imagine what thoughts were rushing through his head now, but Tim didn’t show any signs of worry. “Let me think about it,” Rick offered, his eyes shifting uncomfortably. Tim immediately arose from his seat and gestured for me to do the same. “We have more important things to do than await your decision,” my master bluffed. “I asked one of my commanders to contact me should he receive no cooperation from any of your comrades. Since I’ve yet to hear anything, I’m going to assume one of them already talked.” Rick’s eyes widened, and he quickly arose from his chair just as Tim turned his back and began to approach the door. Guards immediately grabbed Rick by the shoulders and forced him back down. “Wait!” Rick called now, the strength in his voice now entirely missing as he shoved the guards away from him. “I’ve made up my mind! I’ll help you!”

Questions Answered:

A heavy wind built up just outside, with the calls of crickets and frogs occasionally stirring up, only to fade again, as if in sync with the flow of night air. The sounds constantly bordered on relaxing and nerve-wracking, for just as you’d find yourself drifting off into the pleasant droning of nature, the wall would once again be shoved and twisted at your side. “He’s obsessed with you,” Rick went on to admit. We’d been questioning him for several hours now. Every answer seemed genuine, though occasionally riddled with insults towards us for asking questions more than once – trying to catch him in a potential lie. Had he demanded it, Rick could argue we needed to set him free, as his time here had expired, and his fellow soldiers had long since been given warnings and released. Despite this, Rick showed no signs of wishing to leave our discussion early. “James is obsessed with Tim?” George asked, wishing to keep Rick talking in a constant flow, instead of allowing for silences. “It’s all he practically used to talk about when training us,” Rick scowled. “He despised Tim for taking down THEM, and for his continued success at the expense of others.” “He hates the wrong guy then,” I immediately interjected. “I’m the one that took down Corruption, and any efforts afterwards to clean up remaining sects was all handled by elite squads, led by the former leader; Zach.” “That may be true,” Rick admitted. “But James sees it all differently. Since 2007, every major success the S.S.C has been responsible for can be traced back to Tim in some way.” My master rubbed his chin for a moment and shook his head in a profound disagreement. “Why would you join someone like that?” my master questioned, a direct curiosity to his voice. “What possible hold over you could he have had?” Rick swept his hand before his face as if swatting away most of Tim’s words from reaching his ears. “I’m not going to sit here explaining my own intentions,” Rick made clear. “Suffice to say that people joined because they saw a chance to overthrow a group that was becoming too strong for its own good. You’ve got to understand. The S.S.C needs someone to oppose it. It needs distractions! Distractions are a way of keeping you people from cracking down on everybody! You three may have good intentions for the future, but what about the next guy? Or the next? Or the one after that? The S.S.C is going to collapse in on itself sooner than later and take a whole lot of regular folks down with it.” None of us dared to answer to any of these possibilities, no matter how much we may have agreed or disagreed. “Then this leads us back to before,” George responded. “What’s the Brotherhood’s true, ultimate goal? You can’t possibly be such a hypocrite as not to see that if you take us down and become the new status quo, you’ll end up being just as devastating to Toparsburg and other communities.” Rick merely ran his hand through his hair, now looking to the blanket of complete darkness above our heads. “We’re making it up as we go along,” Rick confessed. “At least that’s what James told me. I think he does have a plan for keeping us in check, but that’s something he’d never reveal until it’s time.” “George told me he saw you had a black envelope in your possession when you two crossed paths,” I brought up, changing gears for a moment. “We’ve been receiving black envelopes as well, from a person calling himself ‘Night Riser’. What can you tell us about that?” Rick seemed stunned for a second, looking at me as if I’d read his deepest secrets to the whole room. “That’s impossible,” Rick denied, his pupils practically quivering. “It was Night Riser’s messages which filled us in on the Brotherhood,” I elaborated. “They even suggested we attack your Death Pit.” “We assumed it may have been a traitor from your side,” George added. Rick shook is head, buried in thought for a moment. “H-He’s sent James messages as well…” Rick stated at last. “He’s given us information on you. In fact, he’s the one that warned us you’d be coming to the Death Pit in the first place!” Tim, George, and I traded glances for several seconds. One step forward, two steps backs.

The Last Message:

“Once again, I would like to thank every single S.S.C member who assisted us in the Death Pit raid,” Commander Delta congratulated to a room filled with elites, masters, and even a generous sprinkling of apprentices. I tried to read the faces of everyone in attendance, attempting to create a mental image of their compiled opinions on all this. Despite my best efforts, real life could hardly prove to be so cohesive. Some individuals were ecstatic and filled with a growing sense of hope, while others only focused on the uncertainty of our future endeavors. I wondered which side I fell on – should someone have been reading me. “While we can’t divulge every piece of information we’ve obtained,” the commander continued. “I assure you I have my best guys looking into everything, separating truths from lies and exaggerations.” Scattered applause floated through the room for a moment, as Delta suddenly turned to face where Tim and I were sat. The commander stepped away from the center of the room for a second and drew closer to us, gesturing his hand our way as his face took on a look of sincerity. “And another thing,” Delta continued. “I want to offer my apologies to Tim and Brett for my doubt in them. These two care for the S.S.C more than I think any of us really understand, and I’m going to try harder than ever to live up to what they expect of me. And what they expect is for an equal amount of care and respect to be within all our hearts. The S.S.C survives because of that heart, I urge all of you to keep yours as the days of the Brotherhood’s threat come to an end.” Despite any opposing views, everyone offered their praises now with thunderous applause and cheers. The apprentices seemed to especially enjoy the message, and it must have put the elites at ease to know their commander was getting along with the leaders again. For a while, that room beamed with a sound of confidence I’d nearly forgotten. At last, it was Tim who was left without words, proudly smiling as he looked over the S.S.C. I still saw worry buried behind his eyes, but there were some things I knew my old master would have to deal with on his own. I offered Delta a silent nod of respect while George settled people down and gave the word that the meeting had ended. I looked to Tim again. While our smiles to the crowd were mostly quite honest, a silent trepidation rested just beneath the surface. The Brotherhood was still a larger threat than anyone realized. The mystery of Night Riser seemed to be the tip of that foreboding iceberg now, raising far more questions than any of us could honestly own up to. Sleep was one of my favorite temporary escapes from these threats on the horizon. Following the meeting, I drove home with the intention of getting some much-deserved rest – allowing me to clear my mind of worries and return with potentially new ideas, or at least an open mind towards what our next move would be. But then there was a feeling – a sensation of anxiousness as I pulled into my driveway. Slowly, I stepped out of my car and stood motionless beside it for a while, taking in every remote patter of water fluttering down from the gutters, or overhead dancing of branches. I looked to my front door now. A part of me already knew what was waiting there. Now approaching the entrance, a small, black note revealed itself poking out from just under the welcome mat. With shaking hands and a heavy heart, I took hold of the envelope and tore it open. Somehow, even in the dark, I could still see the inky, splotched handwriting at my fingertips.

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be forgotten? It's painful. But it will all be over soon. ~ Night Riser”.

I kept the note clutched within my hands for the longest time. I knew it was the last thing I needed to read right now, and I knew Night Riser could no longer be trusted, but for some odd reason that I couldn’t begin to understand; I believed him.

The Truth

Just as before, things seemed to eerily change since Night Riser's last message. The blue skies and fair weather that had previously been gracing Toparsburg now seemed to be replaced by a dingy, gray atmosphere, with the low hanging clouds occasionally pelting us with unpredictable rain showers. The dreariness had an unfortunate, heavy impact on moral. Some troopers who were more superstitious believed it all to be an omen of dangerous times ahead. Although it may have seemed a somewhat vain or narrowminded belief, I struggled to grasp that anyone else was as bothered as me. As the days went on, growing into a week, I constantly tried to trick myself into thinking I’d never read Night Riser’s note, but it kept flowing through my head all the same, day after day. “It will all be over soon.” What did he really mean by that? He could have been speaking of the war between the S.S.C and the Brotherhood – which many were now dubbing, ‘The Silent War’ on account of the Brotherhood once again becoming a bloodthirsty predator, stalking through every dark alley, abandoned building, or lonesome outpost, but never actually striking. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore. Machine's knife, part of Corruption's hood, messages aiding both sides, it just didn't add up. Discussions concerning all of this were now turning into circular debates which offered very few finalized options. Later in the day, Tim had scheduled a rather important meeting wherein we’d once again cover information we’d learned and come up with a plan of attack which could end the Silent War before it turned to quite a deafening one. I wasn’t sure what prompted his decision to discuss it now. A part of it may have related to Delta’s teams finally sorting out all the information they’d learned from captured or bribed Brotherhood soldiers, though I personally doubted any of it would be helpful enough to track down James. I looked out my window for a bit, hoping that if I blinked a few times, the sky would suddenly brighten up, the answers would come to me, and the achilleas heel of the Brotherhood would at last be exploited. I could wish all I wanted, but as I opened my eyes, the same colorless sky still met me. I wondered now if this was how Tim had felt when he was too afraid to come clean about James returning. Maybe he was feeling similar worries again. After all, Tim had not mentioned James for some time now, hardly ever even speaking up when the elusive leader was brought into the equation. Tim was seemingly diving back into that quiet place within himself, where thoughts regarding his past still poked and pried at his conscience. Small blemishes of rain built up on the windowpane now. I stared at the sky a while longer. All of everything was beginning to look like a whole lot of nothing.

The Way Things Were:

“I experienced what had to be a record number of questions concerning Night Riser,” Delta revealed almost immediately after our meeting had commenced. As per usual, Tim, George, Samantha, myself, and trusted elites were present around the table. It was annoyingly humid within the conference room, with George quickly becoming the first person to begin tugging at his collar. “As far as I’m concerned,” Samantha replied. “Night Riser is no threat to us anymore. His last message didn’t contain any information that assisted us. It’s clear that he somehow knew we’d heard everything we needed to from Rick. He knows we won’t trust him anymore.” “That may be so,” I answered. “But the Brotherhood doesn’t know that. They certainly wouldn’t believe us if we warned them. And even if they did, there’s no guarantee they’d even care. Information is information.” Everyone quietly nodded now as Delta shifted through various papers before him, apparently trying to find a document of importance. “Rick hasn’t tried to return to the Brotherhood?” George asked now, stealing an unused paper from Delta to utilize as a fan. “No signs of that at all,” an elite assured. “We’ve worked some of our magic and reduced the school’s pressure on him a bit. He’s still not pro-S.S.C, but it seems like he’s off our case for now.” “When will we stop guarding him?” George mused, buying Delta a bit more time to rummage through documents. Tim leaned forward now, smiling a bit. “We never had him under guard,” my master stated. “It’s all in his head. We told him to be safe, and he’s done so.” The elites, George, and Summer all offered up some chuckles at the ruse. I joined them for a second, only to notice the smile on Tim’s face fade away when everyone else took their eyes off him. His expression immediately morphed into the same empty stare he’d been demonstrating for days now – a look that seemed so strong, yet hardly had the supports to maintain itself. It’d shatter with even the slightest misstep. I knew he wanted to laugh along with him – I truly believed that, but his heart wasn’t in it no matter how hard he tried. Nevertheless, it was still a brief lift of spirits to see everyone laughing again, no matter how short-lived it was, but it was a superficial kind of hilarity – amusements we never would have partaken in had we not all realized the stretch of time it’d been since things had been normal. Delta finally leaned forward and spread copies of one sheet around to each of us. “Here’s a list of absolutely everything we can generally confirm or believe from our ‘discussions’ with the Brotherhood. I’ll be honest, most of it you’ve already seen, but I’d take a closer look near the bottom of the page. This is information we’ve been checking up on for quite some time.” My eyes skimmed to the paper’s final portion, where a new name was finally brought to the light. George read the exact sentence aloud before anyone else could fully take it in. “Blade has command over a base alongside Marinay River.” “That’s right,” Delta nodded. “It was a pain in the ass to confirm or deny, because the river breaks off into so many pieces, but my spies finally did come across something the other day. Delta now removed two small slips of paper from his folder, revealing developed photographs of a small shack of sorts, not too dissimilar to ones the S.S.C utilized now. “I haven’t the slightest clue what this building used to be used for,” Delta admitted, but it sure looks conspicuous as hell. Maps of the area reveal some large clearings in the nearby woods. They’d be perfect Brotherhood training grounds.” Samantha took hold of the photos and passed them slowly around the table, as if everyone had to verify they were not somehow faked. I heard Tim give a heavy sigh, but still not say another word. I sensed a mounting tension in his composure. “We know what time he’s over there?” George asked, still staring deeply at his paper. Delta only exhaled as Tim had done and fell back into his chair like a puppet whose strings had been cut. “Afraid not,” Delta stated. “Nobody we questioned knew for sure, probably because he doesn’t have a set schedule.” “Do we even need Blade at this point,” an elite argued. “James is the real deal. By the time we work out a way to take down Blade, he’ll likely have appointed someone else to command over Brotherhood forces. That’s assuming he hasn’t already.” “Nothing would please me more than to be able to take out James now,” Delta responded. “But absolutely nobody we talked to knew where he was. Rick came the closest to give us that information, but he seemed pretty honest when he said James moves around a lot. The way I see it, we just need to keep causing the Brotherhood trouble until it can eventually draw James out of hiding.” Everyone grew silent again, unsure where to continue. “Something is so wrong about all of this,” Tim mumbled under his breath for a moment, narrowing his brow. Everyone looked to him, a worry pasted across each of their faces. We all knew by the sound of his voice, that Tim was getting tired of everything to do with this war. “I don’t get how the Brotherhood is being so patient,” my master continued. “We heard James in that phone call. He’s become an absolute loose cannon, and yet the Brotherhood hasn’t laid a finger on us! We’ve been making the first punch every time.” “You’re saying the Marinay base could be some sort of trap?” Samantha questioned, choosing her words carefully. Tim rubbed his temple and merely shook his head. “I’m not sure what I think anymore,” he breathed. George filled the new silence with a few nervous taps at the table’s surface. The noise immediately seemed to bother Tim, who shot my old apprentice an immediate glare across the room. I was sitting close enough to Tim to see his hands shaking a bit, and felt a great pain washing over me, as if Tim’s every regret had manifested themselves into bruises and cuts throughout my body. “Nothing,” my master barked. “They’ve done nothing. No attacks, no threats, no messages, no nothing. This group is composed of people who hate us, hate everything about us, and all we have to show for it are some sloppy attempts on our part to clean things up. This isn’t normal. None of it’s normal.” “Hey,” I whispered, noticing everyone’s eyes becoming wide and somewhat fearful. “It’ll be alright. If Delta has a plan to go to this base, we can get ahold of Blade and get some more answers.” Suddenly, my master slammed his papers against the desk. Everyone seemed to jump a little. We’d never seen him like this, never seen Tim appear so upset. “Another attack,” Tim stated, as if repeating after us. “Another and another and another! Can you honestly look at me and say you’re not the least bit disturbed that we’re the only people who’ve been attacking? Sure, James may have threatened to injure people, but it could have been a lie… w-what if he’s doing all of this to paint us as the villains?” “That’s hardly a pla-”. Delta tried to argue, only for Tim to immediately rise from his chair. “Do you know what an apprentice asked me the other day?” my master interrupted, at last seeming to lay all his cards down on the table. “He came up to me and asked, ‘when can we start fighting bullies again?’.” No one dared respond, not out of fear, but out of an earnest disgrace. “When’s the last time we congratulated an apprentice for his first successful saved kid?” Tim questioned, seemingly losing all of the composure he’d been feigning. “When’s the last time Delta, Brett, or I rose our fists in the air as we announced the number of bullies we’d stopped or turned around? Can any of you tell me where the smiles and laughter went?” “It may seem dower,” an elite answered, his voice not nearly as strong as before. “But the troops are dedicated. The last meeting showed us that. Those cheers mean something.” Tim buried his face in the palms of his hands and shoved his chair aside, taking a few steps back, against to the wall, almost like he was feeling suffocated by our stares. “Of course, they do!” my master shouted, his voice growing hoarse with every word, and his eyes turning red. “We can have all the dedication in the world! Our troops can follow orders, train to fight the Brotherhood all day and all night, become the best damn soldiers the S.S.C has ever seen, but what good is all of that if nobody’s happy?” At last we were all left firmly without words. In hardly a minute’s time, Tim had outlined our deepest fears and regrets concerning everything that’d been happening. It was that unspoken truth we’d wanted so desperately to avoid speaking of, yet still yearned to hear. Tim knew it just as well as I knew it, but if we were anything alike, he’d also know now that yelling wouldn’t solve the problem, it’d likely only worsen it. At last, my master collected himself and took the papers he’d been given. “I’m sorry,” he breathed, taking the time to look at each of us. “I’m s-sorry. Follow through with Delta’s plan. I need to rest and think about all of this. Because it’s not right… none of it is right.”

Persistence:

With Tim temporarily out of the picture, the task of raiding the small base near Marinay River was looking increasingly risky. While I did have incredible faith in Delta and his teams, it was ultimately Tim who had worked out the plan which saved our skins at the Death Pit. The odds of another trap awaiting us in Marinay was impossible to fully confirm or deny, though that didn’t at all stop me from trying. Despite my worries, Delta saw little else we could hope to accomplish at our current state. Spying on enemies for too long often led to a negative backlash with the school, and only served to feed the flames of hatred in the souls of the few sects which still tried to trip us up during these difficult times. Bribing Brotherhood members was also quickly beginning to yield diminishing returns. Truly, getting ahold of Blade was our best bet at finding James or, at the very least, pinning him against a rock and a hard place. Hoping to ease everyone’s nerves a bit, George had invited me to a game frisbee, along with Tye and Samantha. My immediate reaction was to deny the offer, as I still had a practically insurmountable bout of work to look over before the attack would be carried out, but then I thought back to Tim. I saw how badly the stress of our situation was weighing on him. For years, I’d always wished to be more like Tim in nearly every aspect of my personality. I looked up to his bravery, his intellect, his fighting prowess, nearly his whole demeanor, but his worries were something that I knew I couldn’t stand to bare. Despite everything, I had to make time to satisfy that basic human need for relaxation, lest I follow in Tim’s footsteps towards a period of subdued misery. In many ways, I’d been there before, and I’d sworn to never go back. “I didn’t try calling Tim about this,” George made clear immediately upon my arrival to the field. “It may be for the best,” I stated honestly, wishing I were wrong. “You remember my rules? George asked, throwing the frisbee my way. I briefly looked to the sky, as if waiting for the peacefulness of the scene to be immediately disrupted by a rogue downpour, but nothing particular caught my eye. “Your rules are a joke,” I answered at last. The comment immediately brought a legitimate laugh out of Tye, who now could hardly contain himself as he attempted to stretch. George merely looked over his shoulder, a cartoonishly-devious smile on his face. “That’s an additional 50 pushups tomorrow, young man!” he warned, though this could hardly serve to compose the apprentice. “Alright, alright,” George continued, heightening his voice so as to drown out Tye as best he could. “It’s Samantha and I against you and Tye. You fail to catch a throw, we get a point, you perform a trick-shot and we miss, you gain two addi-”. “Can we just play, already?” Samantha called out, trying to force her hair into a ponytail. “We all know it’s gonna start raining before you finish explaining this.” “I remember the rules, George,” I assured. Now eyeing me suspiciously, George ran to Samantha’s aide as the two jogged to the far side of the field. “You actually remember?” Tye asked me now, as we waited. “Throw the frisbee and don’t drop it,” I responded with a smirk. “How could it be any simpler?” “Just a recommendation here,” Tye offered. “If we win, I think George could stand to do 50 pushups. No pressure.” Now I found myself laughing just as Tye had done before. “I heard that!” George called in the distance, though it was painfully evident he was only joking. A warm breeze brushed through my hair now, as if pulling me back to some semblance of serenity. “I missed this,” I found myself saying now, with Tye just barely managing to hear me. Several seconds passed now as George began wildly flailing his arms, indicating himself to be ready for the first toss. Tye briefly turned to me. “I think we all have,” he wagered. “Now let’s kick some ass.” 

Called Out:

Each of us dragged ourselves over to the nearest bench, heavily panting as if we were wild, rabid animals, practically bathing in our own sweat. “Think w-we m-may have gotten a… l-little two competitive,” Samantha struggled to speak, dropping the frisbee down to her feet as she walked. Tye attempted to chuckle at the remark but couldn’t seem to find the energy as he instead remained hunched over the side of the table, feverishly rubbing the front of his shirt across the sides of his face. Tye’s characteristic curls now found themselves subdued by the perspiration, much to George’s amusement. “You l-look like… a sheepdog that got stuck out… in the r-rain,” my old apprentice lauded, collapsing just beside the table and now lying on his back, gazing up at the clouds, which were quickly seeming to become darker. “You guys are lucky Toparsburg seems to have the flu. We may not be able to finish this game today.” “Hey, don’t count us out yet,” Samantha commented, looking to Tye and myself. “According to George’s count, we’re only a few points behind, and there’s still a round to go. If not today, then another day.” “I’m going to h-have a heart attack if we k-keep this up,” I joked, now massaging my stinging eyes. “Is that fact included in your stupid rulebook, George? Maybe worth awarding us some more points for not dying?” “Tell ya what,” George stated, picking himself up from the dry grass and sweeping it off from himself as if it were now his only concern. “If you pull off another under-the-leg trick-shot, I’ll give ya the whole game!” Tye let out a response riddled with hindersome breaths, though it sounded as if he’d stated, ‘You’re on.’ Such a reply hardly surprised me, though it did only serve to make my stomach churn a while longer. “I’m not going anywhere until you get that water,” Samantha made clear, finally letting her hair down for a bit as a sign that we’d be taking an extended break before attempting anything else. Just as George opened his mouth to give a response, a distant call seemed to meet all of our ears simultaneously. It was as if the smallest of voices was reaching out to us now, it’s form carried along by the sparse gusts of wind themselves. It called my name. We all sat perfectly still for a few moments, not saying a word, almost like we’d simultaneously experienced the strangest of hallucinations, but then it came again, this time louder than before. “Brett!” I stood from the bench and turned around, suddenly spotting an elite S.S.C trooper across the field, sprinting towards us. George saw him as well, at first brushing off the unwelcomed visitor with the wave of his hand. “Looks like they’re worried you haven’t called them in half an hour. These guys really do monitor you 24/7, huh?” I looked closer at the trooper’s face now. His eyes were wide and unsure, and his pace only seemed to grow faster upon catching our attentions. George noticed my silence and recognized my body tensing up. His smile now immediately erasing itself from his jawline, George straightened up and rushed to my side. We worked our ways forward a bit, meeting with the trooper halfway, while Tye and Samantha waited behind. “Sorry to bother you, sir,” the elite apologized, his heartrate clearly visible even through his shirt, indicating himself to be just as exasperated as us. My thoughts immediately rushed to Tim. “What happened?” I asked, not waiting for even the slightest of pauses to slow the news. “We received a message over one of our secure walkie-talkie frequencies,” the elite explained. “W-We’ve been trying to get ahold of you.” “Cut to the point,” George ordered, now looking as if he were standing atop a bed of needles. I couldn’t have looked much different. “Three troopers are missing,” the elite made clear. “And the message is saying that if ‘Tim Allender and Brett Blakley’ don’t show up to Specter’s Tree soon, things will go from bad to worse!” My face went pale as Night Riser’s words came flooding back into my mind again – a hurricane of worries, a whirlpool of doubt, all of it immediately washing away the happy and tranquil thoughts. ‘It will all be over soon.’

The Fog:

The car ride to the nearest secure S.S.C base seemed to be taking forever, even as the elite took the faster backroads and shortcuts. The car shivered with every turn, and us along with it. The sky, as if realizing the dire turn of events, now grew increasingly dark, with the wind picking up. George and I attempted to get ahold of Tim for the entire trip, though there was never an answer. “You’re not actually going to do what some anonymous voice is telling you to without some sort of plan, right?” Samantha questioned as the car took another sharp turn onto a gravely portion of road, shaking us all around the vehicle’s insides. Thinking quickly, I spread my arms and legs throughout the cabin, attempting to stay perfectly still so as to not mistype a single key while dialing. I stared out the window once more, desperately hoping to find Tim’s car sailing up behind ours, but we seemed utterly alone. “If troopers are in danger, it’s my job to help them no matter what,” I answered at last, with my phone call once again proving ineffective. My voice already sounded incredibly strained, unable to hold a pitch for long. “You don’t think Tim’s going by himself, do you?” George now asked, biting at his nails. I stared out the window a little longer, finally seeing the S.S.C outpost popping up around the next turn. The car suddenly struck a bump, sending each of us temporarily flying up in our seats, and pulling my phone out of my grasp. “Normally I’d say he’d never try something like that,” I responded, my legs now pumping nervously at the floor. “But with how he’s been acting, anything’s possible.” “What’s Specter’s Tree?” Tye asked as the car now messily shifted lanes. “It was an old S.S.C base,” George responded, his mind clearly on other things. “Not used anymore, but I suppose some members must have visited it. It’s this singular, old tree at the center of the large forested area in eastern Toparsburg. I’ve never been there, but I heard stories from older guys who said the place is a practical maze of tightly packed trees. If Tim already went in there, finding him will be nearly impossible!” Despite hardly ever having the stomach for it, even Tye grew serious upon hearing the details, immediately drawing back to his seat and remaining quiet. At last, the elite turned onto the last road and slowed down a bit. Without hesitation, George and I immediately pulled at the handles on each side of the car, leaping out and then racing into the grass, towards the base. Right away, we were greeted by five other elite soldiers, with one of them instantly handing me a shoulder cam and a small black monitor that fit into my pocket. “Delta’s inside, sir!” one stated, as the others quickly opened the doors and allowed George and I inside. Constant punches of wind barreled into the walls of the premises, and a distant thundering clatter only served to worsen my nerves. Indeed, Delta now paced back-and-forth behind a large counter, waiting for us. Several walkie-talkies laid scattered about the table now, each of them playing a message bathed in static and occasional harsh mutes. “Bring one up to your ear and listen close!” Delta ordered, wasting no time greeting us. Following his wishes, I placed one device closer to my face, with my eardrums now immediately assaulted with a distorted voice continually repeating a short message. “We have three of your soldiers,” it would say. “Each of them a prisoner of ours, now awaiting rescue at Specter’s Tree. Tim Allender and Brett Blakley are to be our only guests. Should anyone else approach the tree, we will know, and the prisoners will suffer for it. You have half an hour.” “What the hell?” George stated under his breath, listening as the message sounded once more. “It’s on a constant loop,” Delta observed. “It’s been this way for seventeen minutes now, all across the same channel. I can’t begin to imagine how, but somebody knows how to broadcast over it, overshadowing any other communication on that line. It’s gotta be the Brotherhood.” “Where’s Tim?” I asked breathlessly, recklessly fixing the camera to my shoulder. “He was feeling slightly better and was at the east training center. He was one of the first one’s to hear the message.” My heart dropped upon hearing every word. “Did he go to Specter’s Tree?” I found myself shouting now, barely able to hear anyone else’s voice over the constant roar of static. Delta shook his head uncertainty. “All we know is that he raced off,” the commander made clear. “But he may be waiting for you at Specter’s Forest.” “Dammit, Tim!” George muttered, now looking at me in unison with Delta. “I’ve got to go after him before he gets captured or worse,” I barked, turning to the door and grabbing an already prepared backpack of supplies for the trip. Suddenly, George placed his hand on my shoulder, stopping me in my tracks. “You sure you want to do this?” my apprentice questioned. “It’s undoubtedly a trap of some kind.” “It’s not up for debate,” came by hoarse voice. I quickly pulled away from his grasp and bolted out the door without another thought. Delta ran out alongside me, pointing to the small, black monitor I’d been handed. “It’s a feed of our end!” he shouted as fleets of wind began carrying dust into our eyes. “I’m already calling for elites and masters to group up just outside Specter’s Forest!” Delta continued. “If this is the big one, we’ll be ready for it! I’ll have people monitoring your camera, and if you want to check up on us, then just turn your monitor on!” I no longer had the room for words, now merely nodding to the commander as my adrenaline pushed me faster than ever before. Soreness slipped away, and my fears seemed to vanish. At this moment, I was slicing through the gales like a hot knife through butter, leaving Delta in the dust. I’d become my own storm. Everything was a blur to me now, a series of whirring images, interspersed with black nothingness. My body seemed to move on its own, and my mind couldn’t seem to focus on anything. It was as if I were walking through a fog – some murky dreamscape where everything came down to basic instincts. It was a wretched, empty sort of feeling, but I didn’t dare try to fight it. I’d felt it all before. One moment I was running. The next I was in a car. Then I was gone.

Specter’s Forest:

In what felt like no time at all, I found myself parked just outside Specter’s Forest. Precisely as George had recalled, the trees of the woods remained tightly bunched together, and littered with dense flora between most any space. The wind violently thrashed the sprawling mass of treetops back and forth, occasionally looking as if it’s force would tear the roots clear out of the ground. Everything had lost its color while the sun receded further beneath the skyline. Now a light dressing of rain was building up on my car window – an indication of worse storms to come. As Delta had promised, the entrance to the forest was guarded by several entire units of S.S.C troopers, each of them already outfitted in blue ponchos and rainboots, preparing for the possibility of a lengthy stay. Various cars were also littered around the area, with no clear indication of orderliness or forethought. The sudden turn of events had everyone on edge, with some remaining quiet as Tye had exhibited, while others called out loudly to each other over the wind. Taken as a whole, it was pure, controlled chaos, and I was no exception. Much like the Death Pit, Specter’s Forest was located near the outskirts of Toparsburg, with only two roads bordering its sides, each of them extremely obscure to the average traveler. We didn’t need to worry about outsiders becoming suspicious, but should something go wrong, paths to exit the area could easily prove difficult to traverse. Not even taking the time to turn off my car or dawn a jacket after parking, I leapt out into the unforgiving breeze and raced to the forest’s open maw of an entrance. Two elites approached me, looking just as perturbed as Delta had been, despite their training to show otherwise. “It’s way too dark to see much of anything through the trees, sir!” one made clear. “If anything goes wrong, just make sure your camera stays on, and we’ll be in there as fast as we can.” “Is Tim in there?” I called, not breaking from my stride. The older elite cautiously pointed to a car sitting atop one of the nearby hills, surrounded by nearly a dozen others, with troopers waiting inside, shielded from the rain, but ready to leap into action at the drop of a pin. “That’s his car,” the elite observed. “But we believe he went in some time ago… at this rate he could already be at the center.” I grit my teeth together and now shoved my way through the gathering, panicked crowds. For a few seconds, the blackness overtook me again, thrusting me into that world where time didn’t exist, and my actions were controlled by something other than just my mind. When the feeling broke away, I was already along one the forest’s winding paths, surrounded by darkened trees to both my left and my right. Frightened by my presence, shadowy birds took off in sudden flight just overhead, raining down a series of twigs and leaves upon me. Still running to the best of my ability, I looked behind myself for a moment, still spotting small beams of headlights peaking through the compact accumulation of trees and weeds. I couldn’t hear a single voice now, nor any footsteps aside from my own. Abruptly, just before I could pay attention to where I was going again, my head struck against a low hanging branch. The sudden stop caused my feet to immediately slide out from under me. I tumbled to my side now, a stinging pain setting in through my arms, and a thick muddy paste now caked along my entire left side. The fog immediately receded, and I found myself fully immersed back into the present, with my own mind and my own body returning. “No,” came my gravelly voice again, this time much smaller and weaker. My slick hands fumbled around my shoulder, coming across severed pieces of plastic scattered just beneath me – the remains of my shoulder camera. My heartrate began to increase. “No, no, no.” Working against the pain, I attempted to prop my body up against a tree, only to for my head to immediately begin spinning upon righting myself. I piteously collapsed back to the ground, sinking into the disturbed mud while all my pent-up fears came rushing back to the forefront. I closed my eyes now, only to then hear something aside from my own breathing. My eyes opened to a grey boot crashing down right before my face. Now a mess of emotions, I couldn’t seem to find the room for words. Before long, I found myself carefully hauled up from the grime, by an unseen hero. “There you are!” came Tim’s voice, sounding more worried for me than anything else. I brought my hands out before my eyes, nearly seeing in double vision while a blurred Tim knelt down at my side to get a better look at me. “Your head’s bleeding,” he pointed out, handing me a small rag to place against it. Two large water droplets paraded onto my forehead, drawing a diluted stream of blood past my nose. “Why didn’t… you answer the calls?” I spoke through the discomfort, constantly blinking in an attempt to adjust my vision. “My phone died a while back,” Tim explained. I was going to wait for you outside, but I figured scouting out the area couldn’t hurt. Also wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be captured the moment we walked in.” “Scouting out the area?” I repeated, struggling to come to terms with the fogless world. “What about the captured troopers? We’re wasting time… we have to go save them.” Tim immediately stopped me from rising to my feet. “There aren’t any captured troopers, Brett,” Tim assured me. “At least I don’t believe there to be.” My vision began to clear slightly, allowing me to view Tim’s face more clearly. There was almost a serenity about his expression. It terrified me more than anything else, as it seemed strangely reminiscent to the day he’d disappeared to fight James all those years ago. “It’s James, isn’t it?” I coughed, placing more pressure on the side of my head and now clasping my punctured hands over and over again so as to keep the blood flowing. “It has to be,” Tim replied, finally helping me to my feet, but staying close in case I toppled under my own weight. “He wants to settle this alone, so he made up a story that he knew would keep the others out. Our thirty minutes are already up, but the message is still playing on my talkie.” “I know you w-want to be honorable about all this,” I stated, talking in a daze. “But you need more backup than me if this is where things end.” “Backup would be easy,” Tim agreed, nodding his head and looking out at the pulsating rays of light past the other trees. “But they don’t get to the core of the problem. It has to be me. It’s the only way James will learn.” I shook my head, ignoring the piercing throbs as I did so. “He won’t learn,” I swore. “He’s too far gone, Tim… you need t-”. Without warning, I lost my balance, falling out of Tim’s reach and sliding down the side of the nearest tree. “I’ve never felt like such dead weight,” I croaked, leaning my head back in disgust. Tim offered no response, merely sitting against a tree at the other end of the path. More water trickled down from the branches above us, cascading through the night air and highlighting themselves in the slim beams of headlights. Another distant crack of thunder sounded to my right, but Tim seemed oblivious to its presence. “Did you know this forest used to be owned by THEM?” Tim asked, his voice, remote. “The S.S.C must’ve wrestled for ownership countless times. People fought, people got injured, people spent money, lost money, built, destroyed, nobody could seem to get a firm foothold.” I held my breath and leaned my head forward again, not speaking a word. Tim continued to look around us and back up at the gloomy sky. “And then… one day we got it. Through the right tactics and courage, the S.S.C drove THEY out. What a sight that must’ve been, huh?” Tim pitifully threw his hands up in the air, still not looking at me. “The S.S.C got everything it wanted. Permanent bases were established, maps were altered, and then… hardly even a couple years later… the S.S.C left. You want to know why?” I continued to stare his way. “There was no more challenge,” Tim said. “The S.S.C needs challenge… otherwise the things we once cared for don’t seem to mean so much, and we go other places to get that sort of resistance.” Tim let out a long sigh as his hand lingered by his forehead, as if mirroring my injury. I could tell he was speaking from some place deep but didn’t quite know how to get any of it across. For someone who’d rescued more people than I could have ever hoped to have equaled, it was odd to think that the one person he could never seem to sate was himself. “I only started to really think about it when Rick brought it up,” Tim admitted. “It was hardly just him talking. It was James too. And I know he’s there, waiting for us at Specter’s Tree, ready to lecture us on the whole concept till the sun completely sets.” Tim paused for a moment and took another deep breath. “I guess… I’m wor-”. Before Tim could finish his sentence, there was a sudden rustling just down the path. “The wind?” I guessed, still sloped against the tree and dabbing at the gash. Tim only shook his head and immediately stood back up, facing the noise as it grew closer. “He’s here,” my master breathed. Not wasting another second, I reached up to a branch just above me, using it to hoist my body back into a somewhat sturdy posture. The wind seemed to stop all at once until we were left with nothing but the rustling sounds of footsteps. For a while, I felt like I was dreaming again, but this seemed more akin to a nightmare. Without hardly another sound, a figure turned the nearest corner before us, his face impossible to see in the dark, but his voice breaking through it with a frigid precision at our hearts. “I am here,” the figure stated. “But I’m not James.” My gaze turned to Tim. His mouth was hanging open, and his hands now lingered unsteadily at his sides. It looked as if the lightest breeze would push him over now. The figure remained still, only seeming to focus on my master. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten my voice, Tim,” the shadow spoke, his voice resonating with an eerie combination of humor and disdain. Without speaking, Tim drew several steps closer, his legs nearly turning to jelly with every pace. Finally, my master stopped a mere foot away from the visitor and reached out as if trying to touch a ghost. At last, his voice returned to him. “Nick?”

What Never Left:

The figure’s hand grasped Tim’s arm now, with my master still looking just as shocked as before. At last, the silhouette moved closer, finally allowing us a slight glimpse of his features. The visitor was around our age, with coal black hair much like Tim’s, but slightly longer and curlier. His skin was somewhat tanned and speckled with scars of varying ages and varieties, all of which circled around his eyes as if drawn into a dark whirlpool. “Nick?” Tim spoke again, though now his voice was only a whisper against the pattering rain. “I’m honestly surprised,” the visitor smiled, shaking Tim’s arm playfully, as if to ascertain my master was really standing before him. “You’ve forgotten a lot of things, Tim. You forgot Eric, your old friends, your old enemies, but the thought that you’d remember the apprentice you left for dead, well that never even seemed possible to me.” “Tim?” my voice quivered. “Who’s Nick? What’s going on?” My master offered no reply. Even as the path grew dimmer, I could see him practically turning white. “Not going to answer him, Tim?” the figure named Nick asked with a look of displeasure. “It’s alright. I’m more than happy to do the talking.” In a split-second, Nick clutched Tim’s arm, pulling it forward so that my master completely lost his footing, now thrown into Nick’s awaiting fist. The air was immediately knocked from my master’s lungs as Nick’s fist made harsh contact with the recipient’s chest. Strangely, Tim offered no resistance as Nick’s free hand now took hold of his exposed throat, before effortlessly tossing him to the ground like a ragdoll. Reacting as quickly as I could against the shock of the moment, I released my hold of the tree, dashing Nick’s way as he silently awaited me. Just before I could get within a few feet of the attacker, Tim suddenly sprung back to life, grabbing my ankle and desperately holding me back. “What are you doing?” I shouted now. Before Tim could explain himself, Nick’s foot shot into my stomach, immediately sending me reeling back, alongside my fallen mentor. The visitor, no longer smiling or speaking, approached me and stepped down on my already injured kneecap. A surge of agony shot through my body now, as I could do nothing more but scream into the rainy void of a sky. “Nick,” Tim begged, his voice beginning to trail off. “Please stop. I can explain everything.” Tim’s words only seemed to provoke the visitor, as he now dug his heel into my shin with all force he could muster, a sickening squeak now emanating under his thick boots as they tore at my flesh. “And you, Brett,” Nick stated as his head tottered down my way. “You still not understanding who I am yet?” I could not seem to speak anymore, as my jaw now seemed pinned shut with an excruciatingly heavy force. Trying to open my mouth only seemed to make my teeth chomp down harder, practically feeling as if they’d shatter apart at any moment. “I’ll give you a hint,” Nick spoke up, as Tim seemed to turn to stone once more, allowing himself to be doused in the direct path of the rainfall. Now reaching into his pocket, Nick removed a small, black envelope, throwing it at the soggy ground before me. “I’m not the biggest fan of the Night Riser name, either,” Nick confessed with a shrug. “But hiding my identity was a crucial step if I wanted things to fall into place as they have.” At last, Nick removed his foot from my leg, allowing me to draw a strained breath. “If you get up, I’ll only make things worse for your master, here,” Night Riser threatened, taking the time to step on my hand and pry the backpack from my limp body, and then doing the same to Tim. Pouring my energy into words now, I looked to my master with pained eyes. “Who is this guy, Tim?” I asked frantically. “Why’d he say he was your apprentice?” “It’s because I was,” Nick intervened, moving back into the curtain of shadows, making his exact location tough to pinpoint. The rain was beginning to come down much harder, madly whipping around the branches and shrubs all around us, as if the forest itself was howling in pain. “That’s impossible,” I stated, feeling my forehead begin to ooze with blood again. “I was Tim's apprentice. I always have been. Right Tim?” My master still couldn’t seem to budge. A desperate tinge of anger sprang through me now, manifesting itself into a gruff shout. “Is it true or not, Tim?” My mentor seemed to snap out of it for a second, looking to me with only sorrowful eyes. I knew his answer before he even said it, and that knowledge made my heart ache worse than any other injury I’d sustained. “I’m sorry, Brett,” Tim murmured, clearing his throat. “Nick... was my first apprentice… years ago.” Now my master swiveled his head to stare up at the darkness. “How are you here?” Tim asked, practically gasping to even finish the sentence. “I thought Machine had-”. “You thought he’d what, Tim?” Night Riser smirked. “Thought he’d killed me? You really do overestimate those old enemies of yours. Machine talked big, but he wasn’t like James and I. He wouldn’t go that far. The fact is, after you made it clear I wasn’t fit to follow you, I approached Machine with an offer.” Tim let his head fall back to the ground. “No… no, this is impossible,” my master tried to convince himself, only seeming to amuse Nick further. “It’s funny,” the former apprentice spoke, holding out the palm of his hand to catch the rain. “Back when I trained with you, I woke up every morning feeling the pains and aches of spars and rigorous training. Hell, I could hardly walk. That training and manual labor was next to impossible for me at the time, but I still always showed up to practices. And that’s because I thought you offered me something nobody else would.” Nick let the water tumble from his grasp, now forcefully grabbing Tim by the collar and pinning him against a fractured tree. “The S.S.C,” he spat. “I used to think it meant something greater, something special. But you know something? When Machine agreed to take me under his wing and hide me away from the world, I woke up every morning feeling just the same – no – better. THEM gave me a home, accepted my weaknesses and tempered them. They weren’t like you, they didn’t hide me away.” “Is that what all this is about?” I screamed, no longer knowing how I felt about either of the two. “A petty grudge because Tim didn’t trust you enough? You’re willing to send these cryptic messages in an attempt to screw us over all because of that?” Nick looked to me and smirked, finally letting go of Tim and crouching so that his knee bared down on my chest. “There’s that fire,” he observed. “So fascinating, this apprentice of yours, Tim. But, there’s so much more to discuss. As the years went on and Machine became more of a burden than anything else, I always remained behind the scenes, growing in rank and making it by business to check up on you and your S.S.C. Corruption made me his right-hand, giving me access to more information than I ever could have dreamed of. But at the end of the day, a second-in-command is still only second.” Memories of the battle with Corruption came whizzing back to me now. Every drop of rain upon my head only seemed to make the memory more potent. “Corruption brought Machine with him when he wanted to fight me,” I recalled, struggling to breath as the pressure on my chest grew stronger. “But at the last minute, he told Machine to leave… you talked it all into him, didn’t you? You talked him in to fighting me on his own – knowing he’d lose!” “And there’s that perception!” Nick applauded, still treating me like a lab rat. The shadow finally moved away from me, almost treating it as a merciful reward. Tim had backed himself up to a tree stump, staring at Nick as if he were looking at a stranger now. “With enough of a push, manipulating someone’s ego is beyond easy,” Nick continued. “While I was fully prepared for the possibility he may be able to take you down, I considered it a victory either way. And boy, did you deliver in my favor. With Corruption out of the way, who do you think got to inherit THEM?” Tim finally broke loose, rising from his position and standing up to his old apprentice, but still not showing the strength to attack. “You’re not saying what I think you’re saying,” my master breathed. Nick looked to Tim as an adult would to child throwing a temper tantrum and allowed the rain to punctuate the silence. “Say it,” Nick goaded now. “Go on.” “It was all a lie,” Tim spoke in disbelief, shaking his head. “You’re saying THEM never broke apart. You all went into hiding!” Nick could only nod as he turned his attention away from his old master, wagering that he still wouldn’t attack yet. Just then, I felt the crisp fog pulling at my consciousness, urging me back to the fight, and back to the darkness. For a moment, all I could do was look away, but then my gaze came across Tim. He stood in a fighting stance, but everything about it was wrong, from the footing, to the position of his arms. His heart seemed broken and his face was drained with his hope along with it. I finally closed my eyes, reveling in the confusion, shock, and sorrow of it all. I could feel everything all at once, and before Night Riser could say a word, I found myself enveloped in the mist once more. Against all odds, the pain no longer seemed to slow me, as I too rose from the ground and stood by my master’s side, though now I sensed nothing towards him but betrayal and lies. Nick turned to the two of us, offering an impressed nod at my recovery. “As angry as you may be,” he stated. “You really want to hear this through to the end. I’m afraid I’ve really just been stalling the two of you.” “What have you done?” Tim spoke through his teeth. Briefly, my mentor seemed to sway to his right, as if a burst of wind had thrown him off-balance, but such effects were not notable along the path anymore. “Any minute now,” Nick began. “The Brotherhood will swarm your troops at the forest’s entrance. They received a little tip from my alter ego that you’d all be gathered here. Unfortunately, James won’t be in attendance, as he’s currently hiding out at the Death Pit – the last place anyone would be looking at this point. But make no mistake, he’s given orders for his troops to use extreme prejudice. You created a real monster out of him, huh?” Tim’s fists suddenly unfurled themselves, as his hands instead reached back to his forehead, grasping it as if suffering an immense headache. My eyes only burned brighter with a cruel passion. It didn’t matter how Tim felt, or how Nick felt, both of them were traitors in one degree or another. I was the solution. The rain seemed to evaporate upon immediate contact with my skin, but neither of the two noticed, as Tim could only seem to close his eyes while Night Riser grew closer to him. “But the fun doesn’t stop there, my friend,” the silhouette pried, abruptly shoving Tim back into the same tree. “At the end of the day, I’m not on your side or with James. No, it’s so much more satisfying than that. Once the Brotherhood comes here and your forces put up a good fight, THEM will come by to clean up what’s left. Those soldiers you must have noticed all cooped up in the cars by the hillside – they all follow me, as do handfuls of spies planted within both your units and the Brotherhood’s. We’ve been very busy.” Tim looked to his old apprentice as a tear forced itself from his squinted eyes. He held his head tighter, now dropping to his knees. “Yet another thing your master failed to mention,” the shadow noted, looking at me. “Your ‘trustworthy’ friend here has been experiencing some real problems when he gets worried.” Nick brought his mouth to Tim’s ear. “And you are worried,” he taunted. “Aren’t you? It’s time for THEM to rise back to the surface stronger than ever before. We’ll save this school from the trauma the S.S.C and the Brotherhood have unleashed upon it. We’ll be lauded as heroes, and rightfully so. Not every THEM group survived our long wait, but you can be damn sure the ones who stuck it out will soon be carrying out their own attacks all over the country.” Nick gestured to the sky now and smiled brightly. “When the sun rises tomorrow, everything will be so different – so much more focused and precise. Every empire falls, my friend. It’s just a shame you’ll have to miss yours.”

Aftermath:

No longer having the patience to listen further, I tackled Nick to the ground, though he seemed to be dissonantly prepared for the strike, as his bent leg now rested between us, effortlessly unfolding itself into my stomach once we crashed to the ground, immediately throwing me off of him. “I told you not to do that,” Nick growled, rising to his feet with the same speed as me. His words and threats were meaningless to me now, as were any thoughts of speaking for myself. Everything was so clear, even the rustling branches at our sides appeared as nothing more than a blur – a distraction. Wasting no more time, I lunged forward, my left arm raised far above both our heads, while the other guarded my ribcage. Once again, Nick seemed to read the move instantaneously, shifting his body to my far left, where my incoming strike couldn’t hope to reach. Now free of danger, Night Riser offered two rapid kicks to both of my shins, knocking me off-balance just enough for him to pull me forward by my shoulders and get me into an excruciatingly tight headlock, the kind which seized both blood flow and air in their tracks. I grew lightheaded, but the determination remained the same, if not more unhinged than ever. “S-Stop!” Tim ordered, his eyes struggling to stay focused on us as he desperately moved one of his quivering hands our way. Like a panicked animal, I struggled in all directions now, ignoring Tim’s every word just as Nick had done. “Sadly predictable,” my opponent sighed, seemingly speaking to the both of us. Before he could tighten his hold any further, my head shot backwards, nailing the shadowy figure straight in the nose. Night Riser’s hold finally weakened just enough for me to break loose, spin around, and at last land a successful strike at his exposed side. Nick stumbled back into the trees for a moment, his heavy steps now throwing water into the air around him. My vision seemed to be growing abnormally exceptional in the lowlight, as I could easily make out his strained face as he clung to the wound. Night Riser opened his mouth to speak, but as he did so, a loud shouting emanated from the woods behind him. Not from one voice, nor two, or three, but dozens – if not, more. Nick lowered his arms and turned his attention to the cries, looking disappointed as he observed branches toppling over in the distance and flashlight beams arbitrarily shooting through the flora. “James is smarter than I gave him credit for,” he permitted, sounding disappointed. “He altered the plans I gave him and seems to have sent his forces through this way, maybe hoping to route out any troopers hiding in here. An interesting plan, but the end result is all the same.” Nick stared back at me for a second, watching my shoulders repeatedly rising and falling back down as I drew weightier, stronger breaths. “We’ll have to finish this later,” the shadow dismissed, pulling further back, into the trees. “Can’t risk getting caught when things are so close to working out. I trust the two of you will escape, that is one of your best qualities. Make no mistake, though. The moment one of you is alone again, I’ll be more than ready to end things.” With that, Nick finally evaporated into the night, with the shouting Brotherhood members’ voices only growing fiercer by the second. I had no intention of allowing Nick to get away, it simply wasn’t in my newfound nature. I focused upon the woods, slowly blocking out the incoming wave of soldiers. I could hear Nick’s every footstep now, his every bound and breath. I could follow him to the ends of the Earth, just as he intended to follow me. But then I heard something else; a pained grunt, a broken gasp for air, a body lifelessly dipping into the mud. It wasn’t from Nick, but rather from someone just behind me. I turned, finding Tim passed out at my feet, his face now relaxed, but his chest barely moving. Oddly enough, my eyes stayed transfixed on him for a while. I couldn’t seem to turn away. Night Riser’s sounds were growing dimmer to my senses. “You have to catch up,” came my internal voice. “You have the energy, the strength and willpower. You have to catch up. It’s what you want.” I took a step back from Tim, then another, only to freeze again. The more I listened to that wispy voice, the more I realized it sounded nothing like me. I couldn’t move, because I didn’t want to move. I wanted to stay there. I needed to stay here. It was time for the fog floating through my head to go, and so it did, with only the batting of my eyes. I was snapped back into the present, my body now relaxing slightly. The pain from the short-lived battle was at last dawning all the more potently at my every muscle and bone. The rain streamed back over me all at once, like an invisible umbrella had been pulled from the atmosphere just above me. At last, I fell to my knees before my friend. There was no more strength to run, and none more to hide.

War:

For what felt like forever, I remained at Tim’s side, my fear no longer broiling beneath the surface, but now fully released as my muddied eyes began to fill with tears. “C’mon, buddy,” I whispered, my voice in tattered pieces. “C’mon and wake up. Please. Please wake up.” I wanted so badly to move him – to do anything, but without better knowledge on what his exact ailment was, trying to lug him through the dense jungle of trees could only serve to worsen the condition. My tears became inseparable from the rainfall now, as all I could think to do was drape body over Tim’s form, shielding him from the elements as best I could. Even as the Brotherhood’s calls grew deafening and it seemed as if the whole forest were being torn to shreds in their wake, I couldn’t help but feel more lost and alone than ever before. A sudden call radiated to my left now. “Brett!” it screamed without faulter. It was George’s voice. For a few seconds, I felt like I was hallucinating, as the blood at my forehead now encroached further into my eyes, somehow accentuating the headache. “Brett!” George’s voice hailed once more, over the rain. Slowly, I lifted my head, only to find a unit of S.S.C troopers flocking my way, three of them with torn shirts and bloodied noses. Tye and Samantha were a part of the group as well, staying as close to George as possible, their faces panicked and drenched. I stared at each of the troopers, unable to talk, but just barely managing to point my ravaged finger towards Tim. An elite immediately dropped to my master’s side, surveying his current state. George visibly winced at the sight of the two of us, leaning down before me but still looking to the other end of the path. “The Brotherhood is storming through the forest,” my apprentice informed me, knowing that his duty was first bound to the S.S.C’s safety before anything else. “Some went straight for the entrance too. I think they plan on boxing us in. We need to get you guys out of here, maybe find a hole in their units to slip through and think of a plan.” In that moment, Tim’s leg unexpectedly kicked outwards, as the rest of his body swiftly leaned up as if awakening from a bad dream. “Tim?” I found myself saying now, though no words followed it. My mind was still in shock, and it seemed my master was no different, as he forcefully pulled himself away from the elite, and struggled to stand back up. “You alright, sir?” an elite questioned, all of us looking to him now for some sign of normalcy. Tim scanned the unit just as I had done, before immediately snapping his gaze back towards the intruding enemy forces. One look at his eyes was all I needed to know that he was being buried beneath a wave of emerging memories and feelings. “Sir?” the elite questioned again, reaching out to him. Without speaking a word, Tim suddenly spun away from us, dashing into the bowels of the forest. “Catch him!” George commanded two of his guards, but neither moved from his side, as they now stared down the flooded trail with dead set eyes. George and myself followed their gazes, finally spotting a unit of Brotherhood soldiers breaking through the tall weeds, raging towards us. There was a silent acceptance to all of us now, with each of the soldiers, Tye and Samantha included, moving themselves ahead of us, giving George just enough time to haul me back onto my feet. A second later, the two forces clashed with an earsplitting force that seemed to shake the very ground itself. Tye was one of the first to be knocked down, as a Brotherhood soldier sent a cheap shot hurtling into his jaw and shoulder. The elites managed to push several of the attackers into the sides of the trail, sending quick jabs at their temples to knock the enemy’s heads back into the base of the trees. George released me now, rushing to Samantha’s side as one soldier attempted to grab her arm. Showing no signs of holding back, my apprentice leapt between the two, elbowing the attacker in the throat before delivering a high kick to yet another who was advancing on his right. The two stood back-to-back, finally disappearing as more soldiers surrounded them. I shuffled forward some, my vision wildly blurring in and out and breaths growing forced. Upon taking another step, my injured knee let out a familiar snap. Before I knew it, I was staggering into a tree, away from the elites’ protection. Noticing my presence, four Brotherhood troopers began stepping around the rest of the fray, heading towards me. My knee let out another pop, it’s shockwave of agony bringing me to my knees again. Tye, still downed nearby, grasped at one of the soldier’s feet, managing to trip him and the second trooper at his heels, but it still wasn’t enough. A pang of thunder flew out across the sky as the last two soldiers leapt over their downed comrades, finally managing to close in on me, unopposed. I felt at my unraveled forehead a while longer, and then to my legs. All I could seem to do now was shut my eyes. Shut my eyes and wait for the world to fade away. And so, it did.

The Merge:

I saw things during that sleep. At first, only the abstract – swirling masses of reds, and greens, and blues, and yellows, and every other color in-between. Then there were sounds – a great web of sounds, each one acting as a sort of strand, leading steadily into the next and the next. Some were pieces of music, others – natural straits from the outdoors. I heard voices too. There was Tim’s, George’s, Tye’s, Samantha’s, and so many others. They closed in on me, their words becoming mixed together, until it seemed to almost form one, echoing call. Despite all this, I couldn’t seem to make out what it was saying – no – repeating. Even with all those voices, all those sounds, something was still missing. Within that dreamscape, I imagined myself raising my head high, feeling cool tears sailing past my cheeks, staring through the clouds of color, looking beyond them, focusing on the greater message. Yes, a voice was missing, but it wasn’t far. It was only when I stared back down, looking at my own hazy hands, that it became clear. The missing voice was my own. I stayed there, sitting still, but nonetheless fighting against the unseen hand which pushed me to keep on sleeping, to keep on dreaming, to run away from the world outside. Its force was strong, tying me down with heavy, shadowy chains. My eyelids faltered briefly but refused to stay closed. For I realized then, that there was something about that hand. Something it tried so desperately to cloak behind it’s imposing form and power. It was alone, and I was not. I thought back to the voices, and back to myself. There was no use in crying anymore, and no use in staying here, sheltering myself from reality. All at once, the voices drifting through the space converged with my own, coming to one, unanimous conclusion which shattered it all. “Wake up.”

The Sway:

The dull shine of the moon was the first thing to greet me as my consciousness returned. Any stars which may have potentially been visible were now blotched out by imperceptibly dark clouds, which still spewed rain down onto my exposed face. I tried moving my arms, only to find they’d been bound behind me, now digging into my back. After escaping the dream world, the light pain was somewhat of a comfort, a reminder that I wasn’t finished yet. I steadily began sitting myself up, finding the unit of S.S.C soldiers scattered around me, all of us grouped together beneath Specter’s Tree, guarded by a handful of Brotherhood members. Far away, on the other side forest, the slightest sounds of a struggle diverged through the air, occasionally picked off by harder, thrashing downpours. It was an eerie feeling to listen to the muffled chaos, leaving the mind to only imagine how dire the situation was becoming with every passing minute. I blinked my eyes repeatedly, having no other option of drying them. Still struggling to see, I noted several of our soldiers were still in a state of comatose. Briefly, my gaze began to drift towards their injuries, nearly ready to take it all in. Thinking fast, I forced them away, back to the tree. Now was no time to begin feeling sorry for myself. “Brett?” now came a whispered female voice. Adjusting my vison slightly with several more blinks, I found Samantha and George, awake, along with a couple elites. Attempting to keep his movements subtle, George tried scooting his body near me, his legs and arms tied up just like mine. In a sudden accidental slipup, George’s elbow abruptly collided with a puddle, now audibly splattering water across the scene. Like birds of prey, two Brotherhood soldiers immediately swarmed around my apprentice, one of them striking his right eye before the other took hold of his restraints, yanking George back to where he’d been just before. The troopers turned to me now, wretched grins appearing across their faces. “Boss!” one called to a sizeable figure nearby. “He’s awake!” “H-How long have I been out?” I found myself asking. No longer caring what his captors did to him, George sat his body back up to face me. “It’s only been eight minutes or so,” George assured me. “Don’t worry. They still haven’t caught Tim.” Before George could continue, a boot struck against my shoulder, pinning me back into the grime. “And here Rick was having such trouble with you people,” laughed my attacker as he approached George. “You speak one more time, and we’ll make sure you never speak again.” My apprentice narrowed his eyes now, with Samantha quickly throwing him a look, urging him to stay silent for the time being. As if reading her thoughts, George complied, finally settling himself firmly back into position. “Blade,” I recalled, finally recognizing the figure as my blurry vision at last seemed to subside. The leader stepped back over to me, shaking his head. “Good to see you, too,” he joked, now gesturing for his soldiers to lift me so I was standing before him. His troopers obeyed, hoisting me up until Blade and I looked at each other straight in the eye. He was much as I remembered him, with cold, lifeless eyes and fully formed muscles which allowed him to hulk over any other individual in the area. His skull mask was removed now, revealing the lower side of his face, which was now considerably bruised and cut up, presumedly from the earlier fight. “You know what I’m gonna ask,” Blade stated. “Where’d Tim go? I want a piece of the action out there, and I can’t leave until you talk.” “We don’t have time for this,” I argued straight away. “You need to listen to me.” Still looking entertained, Blade shot his fist into my gut, nearly toppling both myself and the two troopers supporting me. “I’ll ask again,” Blade urged, rubbing his fist. “Where is he?” I didn’t allow any weaknesses to show through, nor did I plan on breaking free. At this point, the best I could do was make the situation clear. “THEM is back,” I coughed, a surge of thunder somewhat drowning out my voice. The Brotherhood troopers and awakened S.S.C soldiers all stared at me now as if I’d spoken in another language. “Did you get hit too hard out there?” replied Blade as he covered his mouth and feigned worry. “It’s true,” I breathed. “Both the S.S.C and the Brotherhood have been getting messages from a guy calling himself Night Riser. He’s actually a THEM member who wa-”. Blade sent another punch hurtling into my stomach, the impact strong enough to send arcs of water flying out at my sides. Everyone was quiet again, with George and some of the elites beginning to piece together exactly what was happening. Blade looked at me for a while, watching as I struggled to collect myself amidst the suffering. “I’ll admit the name rings a bell,” the leader stated, referring to Night Riser. “But don’t think you can buy your friend time by dredging up wild rumors. Should I ask you where Tim is again?” “You need to listen!” I shouted through my teeth, still not trying to fight against my handlers. Blade merely sighed and shrugged his shoulders, now drawing his arm back farther than ever, ready to strike another blow. “The cars out front!” I boomed, keeping Blade from following through with the attack. “At the entrance to the forest, there’s a hillside lined with cars. They’re different from all the others parked out by the road! There are soldiers in those cars.” “THEM soldiers?” Blade wagered, still sounding sarcastic. “It seems much more likely to me that you’re just trying to lead us to the last place Tim would go.” “I can prove the soldiers aren’t ours,” I protested immediately. “All you have to do is call up your guys out there. Tell them to approach the vehicles on the hill! They’ll see what’s going on! THEM is waiting for the S.S.C and the Brotherhood to cripple each other, that way they can easily take out whoever is left!” Blade finally took a step away from me, looking out at the blackened forest, towards where the actual battle was still brewing. “He’s just trying to distract us!” a Brotherhood guard suddenly argued, approaching Blade’s side. “The cars are probably just filled with backup troopers. We can deal with them later. For all we know, Brett could have planned to be captured.” “I know you have no reason to trust me,” I acknowledged, looking to Blade not with hate, but with a very real urgency. “However, if you know me at all, then you know I’d never sell out comrades.” Blade looked to me and then back out into the forest. Now oddly enraged, the Brotherhood guard and a second trooper stepped between the leader and I. “You’ll stay quiet now,” one ordered. “If you answer with anything other than Tim Allender’s location… we’ll break your friends’ arms right in front of you, starting with the blonde boy that seems so protective.” My lips finally froze up as Samantha moved closer to George, resting her head on his shoulder and visibly trembling at the thought. The wind began to pick up again, grappling the branches of Specter’s Tree and wildly flinging all materials around the area that weren’t tied down. The sounds of the battle could no longer be heard. My apprentice looked me in the eyes now, offering a slight nod which not even his girlfriend could detect. We both knew that I had to go on, for the betterment of everyone. “You’re in charge, Blade! Not these two! The call is yours!” I shouted his way. Practically foaming at the mouth, at my outburst, both the guards began approaching the captured troopers, one of them pushing George over, untying his arms, and holding one limb out, onto the earth. “No!” Samantha screamed, desperately wrestling against the soldiers as George followed my lead and didn’t put up a fight. “Don’t! No! Please!” each of Samantha’s cries chilled me to the bone, along with nearly everyone else surrounding the tree. It was a real shriek, a genuine sob of panic. The kind that couldn’t be scripted. Against all the harsh exterior, some heart must have laid within Blade’s chest, as he now turned towards the guards. “Step away from them for now!” he ordered just as one prepared to step down on George’s bare arm. “I’ll give the call,” Blade finally submitted. “I’ll just send a small team over. If anything goes wrong and it is revealed to be a trap, then we’ll work with your idea.” The guards slowly moved away from the captured S.S.C troopers, looking at each other with bizarrely unnerved expressions. I found myself thinking back to Night Riser’s words now. Something was off about these two, and the moment the answer occurred to me, it was all too late.

Cast Aside:

Without another moment of faulter, just as Blade removed his walkie-talkie, the two troopers sprinted at him, one yanking the device from his grasp while the other aggressively kneed him in the spine. The behemoth collapsed to the ground, screaming out just as Samantha had done. The two Brotherhood soldiers who had been holding me, along with others who’d been keeping watch, now sprang forward, tackling the two traitorous guards, who fought as if their very lives were at stake, biting and clawing their way through their supposed comrades, only to eventually be subdued. I was on the ground again, watching as Blade now rose back to his feet and turned to the traitors with a look of fiery disgust. “What’s gotten into you?” Blade scolded, remorselessly kicking one guard in the jaw. The traitor immediately released the walkie-talkie from his grasp before clinging to his bleeding mouth, unable to form words. “Night Riser planted THEM soldiers in both our groups,” I finally interrupted, knowing the two would never spill their guts fast enough. I began shifting to my knees. “They wanted to keep you from discovering the truth out there.” All eyes were drawn to Blade now, as the once untroubled commander allowed his lips to purse and his shock to fully surface. “Contact the units over there!” Blade at last ordered to his more trustworthy soldiers. “Tell them what’s going on and prepare to change tactics!” “It won’t be enough,” I countered, slowly standing back up. “The battle has been going on too long, and too many of your guys have to be injured at this point!” Blade threw me vile glare, now storming my way and rolling up his sleeves. I refused to move or even flinch at his approach. Even the mighty wind no longer seemed to have an effect on my balance. I had to move beyond all of that. No more running. Now within only a foot of me, Blade stopped himself, his scowl beginning to fade as it was instead replaced by a skeptical raise of his eyebrow. “You’re not suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, are you?” the leader questioned. Brotherhood soldiers surrounded us now, as if observing a fight that would determine everything. Only our fight was one of trust, and I’d learned how dangerous that battle could be. “The only way for THEM to be taken out at this point,” I continued. “If for the S.S.C to help you. With both forces fighting side by side, with unified orders, it can be done.” Several of the Brotherhood soldiers immediately broke into laughter at the concept, with others merely remaining silent. The laughter was quick to die down as everyone began to realize Blade was a part of the latter. The commander looked at me a while longer with what others must have seen as a stone-cold poker face, but I saw something different. I saw fear creeping up at his eyes and mouth, wrinkles of stress manifesting themselves upon his forehead. We both knew how dangerous THEM could potentially be, especially if they’d waited this long to return. “The Brotherhood and the S.S.C may be different in many ways,” I observed, still sensing his hesitance. “But we both like winning, and we both don’t like being tricked.” Aside from the wind, everyone and everything was muted, with even the rain seeming to slow its assault as my speech progressed. “I know what you’re thinking,” I persisted. “You’re thinking about how James would react to all of this. You’re realizing he’d never support a temporary truce.” Blade’s pupils twitched for a split-second at the remark. “But he’s not here,” I said at last, turning to look at every soldier in attendance, regardless of the uniforms they wore. “We are here. And we have the choice to make things better. I’m reaching out to you for help, Blade. I doubt we’ll ever have the chance again.” The leader watched me a while longer, almost staring through my head. A part of him wanted to catch me in some sort of lie, or pick up on the slightest tinge of worry, but there was none to be found. I didn’t need to be in the fog to feel this way, and that knowledge gave me all the strength I needed to stare right back at him. Blade suddenly reached into his pocket, removing a small switchblade knife. I continued to stand my ground. With that perhaps speaking more than any word could ever hope to. Everyone was on pins and needles now, with even the Brotherhood soldiers backing up as Blade flicked the weapon open. My eyes stayed open with it. For a second, I caught my reflection alongside it’s edge. A part of me couldn’t help but smile, for I saw more of Tim in that reflection than I’d ever seen before. Blade walked behind me, finally cutting the ties from my arms and legs. “Just for one day,” he stated. “Let’s show THEM why they should’ve stayed buried.”

To Make Amends:

The next several minutes proved to be a hectic race against the clock, with our former captors now hesitantly freeing the rest of the S.S.C unit, and calling to their comrades out in the field, explaining the change of plans. Several of Blade’s teammates flat-out refused to follow along with their leader’s controversial orders, leaving Blade with no other choice than to tell them to step aside. The wind was growing gruesome enough to send multiple branches hurtling out from depths of Specter’s Tree. Those which remained attached, now haphazardly swung about the area, nearly striking a few distracted soldiers. The hazards imposed by the storm were seemingly growing at exponential rate, with the primary path leading out to the battle, quickly being deemed too dangerous to travel, as the earth around the area had completely degraded into a swamp-like mush, the sort which immediately swallowed up footfalls. As such, an alternate route was plotted, wherein troopers now had to leave through the west side of the forest, only to then loop around towards the front. As more and more soldiers from both the Brotherhood and the S.S.C unit began to take the substitute passage, George and I busied ourselves by reaching out to as many elites as we could. The howling air made distributing the new plans an even more difficult process, as it would consistently turn our voices or the voices of those on the other end of the call into indistinguishable fuzz, riddled with war cries. Even as more elites, including Delta, began accepting the alterations, it was still impossible to truly know how the change in orders was being accepted by the populace. The S.S.C had been conditioned to hate the Brotherhood, just as much as the Brotherhood had learned to despise the S.S.C. Opinions were powerful devices, easily shaped and so rarely broken. Coming to a truce so suddenly, over a threat so shocking, was never going to be a simple process, but it was all either of our groups had left. Fearing we were still reaching out primarily to deaf ears, Tye and Samantha were next to rush from Specter’s Tree, dedicated to fixing things up in the battlefield as best they could, with however much time we had left. While our efforts were making some difference, I couldn’t help but feel a pit forming in my stomach as I’d occasionally glance towards the trails which fed into the night. I was worried for Tim, worried that whatever had caused his earlier collapse was only bound to return. It was true – I had a duty to support the S.S.C, but at what cost? For all I knew, my best friend’s life was still in danger, and as I found myself staring out at the paths more and more, watching the downed leaves form into small vortexes, patrolling the area before breaking apart without a trace, I knew I had to act. I’d made the mistake of ignoring friends in need before, and I knew I’d never be able to live with myself if I let that happen again. When, at last, the final few communications were sent out, I waited for Blade to become distracted by his own calls, before quickly pulling George to the side, hoping for the wind to drown out any evidence of my voice. “I have to go after Tim,” I made clear, feeling the raindrops beginning to come down harder atop my head. “You and I both saw there’s something wrong with him. He’s a danger to himself at this point.” “You know where he is?” George doubted, keeping one eye on Blade at all times. “Night Riser mentioned James is hiding out in the Death Pit,” I murmured. “If Tim wants to put a stop to all this, I’d bet he’d head out that way.” My apprentice nodded, now with a conflicted glint to his eyes. “If Tim’s unfit to take down James,” he began, only to stop himself, looking at my torn and muddied clothes. “If he can’t, then I will,” I finished for him. “Or at least do as Tim would do, and fight till the bitter end.” George finally allowed a smile to pass over his face. If anyone would understand why I had to leave, it was him. “Good luck,” my apprentice wished at last. “And don’t forget that you owe me a final game of frisbee.”

Catching Up:

Waves of dirtied water flew out at the road upon each sharp turn, the tires barely keeping the vehicle from sliding clear off the street’s edge. I pushed the gas down harder, feeling the mud around my legs beginning to dry and flake off, only to then be forced back up by the air-conditioning, spreading into my face as a fine powder. I’d called for a vehicle to pull up on the west side of Specter’s Forest, though given that the battle was still raging on, likely reaching its height, the best car the elites could manage to take my way was a smaller in size and didn’t handle well against the opposing forces of nature. Despite this, I refused to play it safe anymore. With hardly any other cars out and about, the road was now entirely mine, allowing me to take the vehicle first up to fifty miles an hour, then to sixty, and finally pushing it to the limit, around seventy. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the speed limit signs, for I knew I wouldn’t like what I saw. Every turn now became a gut-wrenching leap of faith, and every bump sapped my breath away. The Death Pit was on the opposite end of town, though if Tim had been moving as fast as he could, he may have already been capable of arriving before me. I desperately brushed the thought out of my head, still trying to pour all of my focus onto the dampened roads. It was only when I sailed to the top of one of the larger hills near central Toparsburg, that I truly managed to get a good look at just how bad the storm was becoming. Streetlights were currently trembling with each breeze, the shops losing both wooden signs, shingles, and posters, each of which were ripped from their venues with a sickening ease. A chair laid in the center of the road now, with more debris ahead of it, and pools of rainwater filling in various potholes, making the road appear deceptively smooth. I fumbled around the controls for a while, now swerving around as much of the junk as I could, every deviation sending materials around the back of the car flying left to right, occasionally nipping at the back of my neck, but never any closer. My hands finally came across the button for the cars high beams, allowing the light to stretch practically all the way down each and every road, though now anything within the immediate vicinity of the car was easily oversaturated by the intense luminescence, still causing me to run across several unstable pieces of land. I took a few deep breaths, each of them working to slightly lower my heartrate, though my hands and feet still felt as if they’d been drained of blood, making the act of steering and applying any sort of brakes, increasingly strenuous. After several more minutes of agonizing stress, I turned onto the final backroad, leading towards the abandoned cornfield. Without warning, my left tires struck against an unseen pothole, the accompanying jolt managing to rock the car heavily to the right, momentarily flinging my hands from the wheel. My heart stopped. Time seemed to slow down. Within that brief second, I felt almost trapped within the weightlessness, able to count every raindrop striking against the windshield, spreading itself out into a fine, transparent disk, before steadily exploding outwards, dissolving into the beams. A moment later, the cabin shook back to it’s proper state, with the wheels now creaking and my speed slowing. I had no doubt a tire had been punctured, but there was still enough air left in them to reach the field, but any attempt at returning to Specter’s Forest with time to spare was now shot to pieces. If Tim had not gone to the field, and if Nick had lied about James staying at the Pit, then everything would be lost. I’d be abandoned. At last, I drove alongside the expansive cornfield, barely making out the tip of the Death Pit behind several inky hills. I slowed the car some, frantically scrutinizing every square inch of the area, looking for the slightest discoloration or footprint. At last, my eyes fell upon a mass of blue, tucked away just at one of the mound’s peaks. I opened my eyes wider. It was a seemingly unmoving body – Tim’s body. My mouth instantly grew dry, my legs completely losing sensation. Without speaking a word, or even letting another thought cross my mind, I stopped the car dead in its tracks.

The Lost Story:

I kept my flashlight trained on Tim’s body as best I could while sprinting across the cornfield. Along the way, my wild paces occasionally sent the ray skewing too far ahead or behind him. Each temporary disappearance only fed into my doubts and fears, no matter how hard I tried to keep them contained. The rain nearly felt like needles upon my face now, occasionally blinding me to the scene entirely. I knew, somewhere within me, that familiar fog was waiting behind a wall – no – less than that – a thin, rusted gate, creaking and bending with every move – every thought. The fog – swirling in on itself repeatedly, over and over, always active and never dying. All I needed to do was open that gate, let the adrenaline take over, let my body reach all new speeds, all new strengths, and levels of focus some could only dream of, but then who was to say I’d ever want to close it again? Who was to say there was room for the two of us – me and that fog? Now growing within close to forty feet of my master, I finally began to see movements. His left leg continuously scraped away at the dirt beneath him, with his hands clasping closed and open, as if reaching for something which never quite met him. “Tim!” I shouted out, loud enough for even the rain to grow muted in my wake. There was a short pause, with Tim’s heavy head finally lifting itself from the ground, looking my way. Now within the center of my beam, I could fully take in the dark bags clinging to the undersides of his eyes and the intensity of his frayed, dirtied hair. His left ear and arm were now scraped and minimally bleeding, likely a result of his sudden collapse, or perhaps a leftover of Nick’s assault. Not wanting to be seen like this, my master began pouring all of his efforts into sitting back up, which he did indeed pull of, although with great strife. Finally, I reached Tim’s side, turning off my flashlight and dropping down to my knees alongside him, exactly as I’d done before. My mentor was visibly disoriented, his head leaning unstably from front to back, as if it were struggling to balance itself upon a fine point. “It’s all my fault,” came Tim’s ghostly voice, speaking to the emptiness before him. “My fault.” I immediately shook my head, denying the remarks. “You couldn’t have known,” I replied, grabbing his shoulder to keep him steady, or at the very least to remind him that he was still here, in the real world. Tim’s hand reached up to his forehead, pushing his thumb hard, into its center. “What’s going on with you?” I questioned, temporarily looking back at what could be seen of the Death Pit. Tim didn’t answer, and his current unsettled state made it impossible to read whether or not he didn’t know, or simply wouldn’t tell. I brought myself in front of Tim now, placing both my hands on his shoulders, urging him to stay focused on me. “Tim,” I said again, trying not to raise my voice beyond what was necessary. “You need to talk to me. I need to know what’s going on. I need to know the truth.” My master slowly removed his hand from his head, now rubbing his eyes to get a better look at me. “It just started… h-happening,” my master finally said, his mouth forming into a sharp wince. “I g-get these headaches when s-stressed. I thought I had it under c-control but I,” Tim hung his head again. “Oh god, it’s all my fault.” It was hard seeing Tim go through this, looking so tired and distant – more so than ever before. My heart tied itself in knots, watching as his shaking hands grasped at his head again, almost behaving on their own. “Tim, listen to me,” I urged. “James and Nick are different people now. They’re not the people who left you. Their decisions were their own.” “James is right to blame me for everything,” Tim wept, acting as if he hadn’t heard a word I’d said. He pushed himself away from me now. “I’m the one that r-refused… to mend things up with James, I’m the one that didn’t give Nick the f-freedom he wanted, I’m the one who left you behind, letting you get pulled in by the negative s-side of Toparsburg.” I tried to interrupt, but Tim refused to stop himself, now lurching over as if he might vomit. “And then all I could do was lie to you all! Lie about everything or k-keep secrets! What k-kind of person am I?” “You’re a person who the S.S.C counts on,” I insisted. “A person who’s always been there for them and for me. You’re a person with friends who care about you, and who can look past the mistakes.” “It’s too m-much,” Tim responded, his voice now degraded into nothing more than a whisper. “How can I lead the S.S.C when I didn’t even have the strength to march through the Pit’s d-doors?” I looked back to the Death Pit, watching as it seemed to shake in the breeze, though I couldn’t tell if my own eyes were betraying me, as they were now building up with water apart from the rain. “I’ll go,” I made clear. “I’ll take you back the car, and face James, alone.” That was the breaking point – the moment my words finally struck something within my friend. It was the moment he remembered just how much he had to lose, outside of himself. And for him, it was more than he was willing to risk. Tim immediately began to stand himself up, shaking his head and grimacing. “This is my m-mess,” Tim grunted and coughed with every movement. “It has to be me who solves it. Nobody else has to get hurt.” I stood back up with my master, looking him straight in the eyes, just as I’d done with Blade. “I’m willing to make that sacrifice,” I promised. “James has to know you’re having this problem. He’ll try to get into your head and make it worse. You’ll be a pushover.” My master stumbled backwards some, removing his hands from his head again, as if to display his determined face all the more clearly. “It has to be me,” he repeated, drying his eyes. “He can’t get into my head if I d-don’t listen.” I was about to continue the argument, when a sudden flash emanated from just behind me, brushing over Tim’s upper half and then persisting along the waterlogged ground. Another car had pulled up beside my own, almost entirely blending in with the dark horizon. I felt a surge of unease spread across the cornfield, practically raining down on us just as notably as the downpour itself. Tim adjusted his footing and looked to me, his face regaining some strength, though I feared it was only for show. “It’s him,” Tim muttered now. “Nick. He must’ve figured out I’d come here, just like you did.” Now it was I who was without words, as the headlights to the other vehicle switched off, now completely hiding their origin’s placement. “Brett,” Tim continued. “I’m counting on you to stay here and hold him off. James is mine. I can’t wait around and risk him getting away.” I looked to my mentor, hesitation still consuming me, showing itself through blunt, troubled eyes. I still couldn’t find the right words to say. In that moment, Tim’s gaze narrowed itself upon me, as if surprised by something. “I know that look,” my mentor stated, a hint of reminiscence in his tone. “You look like someone who wants to find another way, think up another plan, but can’t seem to find a way out. Moreover, you’re not sure how much you can trust me.” I stayed quiet, finding myself looking down at my feet. “It’s alright,” my master continued. “You look how I feel. But looks and feelings are one thing, while actions are something entirely different. It’s time to push aside shortcomings, no matter how painful it might be for either of us. And so… let’s act.” I finally met my master’s gaze again. Hearing him say something like that, finally reminded me of Tim – the real Tim. “Nick will try to get into your head, too,” he warned. I slowly shook my head and looked back to where the car had disappeared, staring into the night as if I could see past every particle. ‘To look weak, was to lose before the battle even started.’ Yet another quote I’d learned from that genuine mentor of mine, the kind which now stood before me. “I’ll just have to be as strong as you,” I finally replied. Even though I wasn’t facing him, I imagined Tim smiling at the remark. There was one thing I didn’t have to imagine though, as my master called out one final thing before departing over the next hill. “Likewise.”

Demons:

It didn’t take long for Tim’s footsteps to fade away, leaving me to stand my ground at the outskirts of the Death Pit. As the moon began to resurface from the clouds, the entire field was dyed with an eerie cobalt hue, finally highlighting a familiar silhouette, walking straight towards me. “I suppose you’re going to tell me you planned this, too?” I yelled over the rain, motioning to both myself and the Death Pit. Night Riser’s face finally became visible, no longer smiling, but rather seeming distracted, or even disappointed. “I’m only human, Brett,” Night Riser made clear, finally stopping several feet out in front of me. “For example, I hadn’t anticipated you finding out I was assisting both the S.S.C and the Brotherhood. Even then, I was shocked to see how quickly you turned away from my assistance. Why, I was planning on stretching this out for quite some time, wearing Tim down until he could hardly stand, much less fight. I also planted little clues to keep you busy and throw you off my trail. You wouldn’t believe the trouble I went through, only for you to then only discover that piece of Corruption’s hood. So disappointing.” The atmosphere around us seemed to grow cold with every passing word. The rain only served to absorb some of that chilled air, carrying it continuously over my head. Nick abruptly began walking to my left now, prompting me to immediately step into his path. “Tim’s busy right now,” I made clear. “You’ll heave to take up your business with me.” Nick only sighed at the remark, stopping his advancement. “Despite what I said back in the forest,” he began, his expression becoming more serious. “It’s really only Tim I have a problem with. Do I hold a grudge against you for being my replacement? Sure – I guess. But when it’s all said and done, let’s face it, we both got roped in by the same liar.” I wanted nothing more than to spring forward, nailing Night Riser in the jaw before he could speak again, but I needed to buy Tim as much time as possible, especially if this was a fight I couldn’t win in my current state. “He’s made mistakes,” I acknowledged, liquid pouring from my hair like a miniature waterfall. “And he knows that.” “But he hasn’t learned what consequences come from those mistakes,” Nick responded immediately, as if knowing what I’d say before even opening my mouth. “I never agreed much with people like Corruption or Machine,” Nick revealed, looking away for a minute, as if reflecting on everything that had led him to this precise moment. “I thought their obsession with fear was more of a crutch. They never understood that it was only a means to an end. But there is one truth to their values – a truth they never grasped the full scope of – a truth that goes as follows: nobody learns a thing, if they never know what it means to suffer a consequence.” I offered no reply, remaining in a fighting stance, should the shadowy figure try anything. “The S.S.C wards off bullies with occasional fights and warnings,” Nick shook his head, gesturing towards the space around him. “It’s like… it’s like the rain. Rain washes away some of the grime and filth, only to dredge it up in other places. That cycle continues and continues, and I feel like I’m one of the only people who sees that! And when that rain eventually ends… well… nothing is cleaned at all.” Nick briefly paused, now pointing to the S.S.C patch on my chest. “Can I ask you something?” he inquired. “How long do you really think that symbol will mean anything? How long can the S.S.C really go on for? 20 years? 40 years? 80 years? What difference does it make? It will fall someday, and things will go right back to the way they were before.” “Maybe so,” I responded, my face and mind still unchanged. “But that’s still 80 years of help. You’re delusional if you think whatever you do now can have lasting impacts a century from today. We live in the moment, we fight in the moment, and that has to be good enough.” Nick let his head fall back, his blue-shaded face looking sickened at my remark. “Now you sound like Tim,” he breathed. “What was I thinking telling you this? I wouldn’t really expect you or anyone else to understand. All you can do is keep punching. Even now, that’s all the Brotherhood and the S.S.C can think to do as they fight my finest troops. Your little team up will fail, that much is obvious. Your two groups just hate each other too much to make a difference. If you have the smarts to disband yourselves after the crippling defeat, THEM will never have to fight on such a scale ever again. We’ll do what you people should have been doing from the start – help people in need. Through fear, we’ll teach bullies and chaotic sects lessons they won’t forget. Lessons they’ll pass on to their children, shaping them into a generation which doesn’t need to fight or torment – a generation that has no use for us.” Despite my best efforts to the contrary, some of what Nick was proposing did seem to interest me. I imagined a Toparsburg where there were no territories, enemies, or violence. We could all be kids again – kids with respect towards each other and themselves. Could that be enough? A large globule of rain struck against my nose now, seemingly awakening me from the trance. Nick was smiling again, observing my uncertainty. “You know the funny thing,” he stated, beginning to take a few steps closer to me. “If you’d stayed with Darkness, I feel like you’d be standing at my side right about now, as I prattled on about all of this to Tim. I tried to keep my expression unchanged at the remark, but it was impossible to not feel that fog scratching at my insides with long, icy fingernails. “Aw,” Night Riser teased. “Sorry if that struck a nerve. I know you don’t like to talk about it. It makes you uncomfortable. I really think you should let that side of yourself out more often. I saw it in the forest. It was one of the few things I hadn’t predicted.” “If your intention is to make me angry,” I breathed. “I’m sorry to say that when it really comes down to it, I really don’t give a damn what you think about me.” Nick finally nodded his head at the comment, defeatedly throwing his arms back down to his sides. “Then I guess there’s nothing else to say,” he conceded. “So, let’s get this over with.”  

Thrown Away:

Realizing there was no use in stalling further, ignoring my pained knee and head, I dashed towards Night Riser with all the leftover speed I could muster, kicking up massive trails of water with every step. My fist raised itself high above our heads, a good way of throwing off an unprepared enemy. But Nick was more than prepared, grabbing hold of my hand as it thrashed towards him, and using it as leverage to force me into the ground. No longer holding himself back, Night Riser began repeatedly kicking at my chest and gut. I felt the air being forced out of me with every strike, but as the thoughts of Tim seemed to grow within my mind, I somehow found the strength to grab ahold of my attacker’s leg, pushing it uncomfortably towards his center of mass, causing him to lose balance and stumble away from me. I managed to stand myself back up during the brief pause before then lunging at him. Once again, Night Riser refused to allow himself to fall victim to the maneuver, as he swiftly ducked beneath my arm, tearing the S.S.C patch from my chest with one hand, and savagely elbowing me in my neck upon straightening himself out at my side. For a second, I opened my mouth to draw breath, only to be greeted by an influx of agony. Now throwing my patch over his shoulder, Nick audibly laughed at the struggle, remaining at my side as I firmly clutched my neck, finally feeling some air beginning to find its way into my lungs again. Still gasping in pain, I turned to Night Riser, grabbing and twisting his arm before delivering a piercing throw at his face. Nick tore himself from my grasp, steadily moving backwards while pinching his nose. The blue tinge echoing through the night fell upon his exposed teeth as they morphed from a look of pain, to a wide grin. Blood began dripping from my foe’s nostrils now, running down the sides of his face before getting instantly picked off by the storm. “Oh, how much more fun this could be if you’d just go a little bit further,” he laughed. Within a split-second, Nick threw himself back at me, only to be stopped by my elbow to his chest. Not to be outdone, my attacker managed to take hold of my arm before I could distance myself again. Nick’s head now rammed straight up, into my face. The impact immediately busted my nose, unleashing a similar flow of fluids down my lips and chin. “You could’ve been so much more!” he continued to bellow. “The S.S.C couldn’t touch you! Nobody could!” He rushed my way once more, delivering a kick to my stomach, which my arms failed to block with any proficiency. Truly, he had been training for this moment for a long time. Nick’s fighting styles drew upon tactics utilized by both Tim and Machine, with his own special, additional skillset thrown into the mix, making for a deadly combination of both speed and raw power. I found myself hunched over now, stabbing pains now repeatedly pulsating through my bruised and muddied torso. Night Riser quickly took the opportunity to grab me by the throat, tightening his grip while forcing me down to my knees, as if bowing before him. The diluted mixture of blood and rainwater draped over Night Riser’s entire jaw now, as he spit the substance into my face. “You threw it all away!” he cried, now bringing his other hand to my neck as well. “And for what? To be more like Tim? When will you realize you’re trying to live up to a failure?” Fighting for every breath, I found the strength to send two quick jabs into Nick’s chest. His grasp loosened just enough for me to wrestle his hands off, kicking him in the shins for added measure. Night Riser finally separated himself from my immediate reach, with the both of us getting a chance to collect ourselves. I immediately felt something else residing just past all the pain. The fog was calling to me now – a distant, echoing voice that nevertheless felt so close. I could almost see it forming around my tattered hands, warping reality itself. All I had to do was let it in. My mind would be asleep, but my body would be more active than ever. I could do it for Tim, for the S.S.C, for everyone. One step was all it took – one step into that great unknown. I looked to Nick, watching as he desperately wept at his oozing lips, his hands now shaking as a result of the demanding punches. His hair was now entirely wetted upon his face, making him appear thinner and tired. I saw the pitiful side to my enemy now, and it only seemed to drive me forward all the more keenly. The fog grew closer too, nipping upon my hands, calling for me to lift them up, to strike. So simple. So fast. Suddenly, my foot stepped upon something, seizing up my movements at once. I stared down at the ground now, finding my S.S.C patch, lying faceup, staring back at me. It shined through the azure night, forcing the fog from my pores and sending it evaporating into the clouds above. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it, but there was something calm drifting through the air now. An acceptance. A way of letting go. It was in that moment that I looked back to Night Riser, taking heart in the fact that even if I were to lose this fight, I’d never lose myself. And I’d never be like him again.

Purpose:

Nick didn’t seem amused anymore as he approached me, breathing heavily and allowing his footsteps to linger behind in the pasty soil. “You should know,” I wheezed, still struggling to breath. “Tim seemed to miss you more than you ever could have imagined.” Night Riser closed his eyes at the revelation, sending a heated left hook into my side, bringing me down to my knees. We’d migrated towards the peak of one of the largest hills in the field, a portion where the bases of long since dead cornstalks still resided, sun-bleached and brittle. They pierced at my knees now, but I refused to stay quiet through the pain. “W-What you did to him,” I spoke through clenched teeth. “Was the work of nothing more than a b-bully. Not a savior, certainly not a figure of hope.” “Quiet!” Night Riser roared. Grabbing my face and attempting to shove me onto my back, but I refused to move any farther, digging my feet deeper into the dirt. Now filled with an unrelenting rage towards me and the world, Night Riser shifted all of his weight forward, using it to drive a fervent strike into my ribcage. All at once, a brittle snapping noise fled into the space around us. Nick finally let go of me, allowing my hands to reach at my chest, feeling a sudden grit within my body – a sort of twisting, pressing sensation I’d never experienced before. The sounds around us subsided, as I could do nothing more than cling to my torso, feeling a fracture running through the left set of the ribs, piercing at my lungs. Nick reeled backwards, suppressing a tormented weep of pain while hugging his forearm. My mouth remained gaping open, desperately trying to breath in and out, but even the lightest movements seemed to only make the fracture grow longer, or perhaps shoot shards of bone deeper into me. Night Riser dipped down upon his knee right before me, taking in every hushed moan from my being. “You brought this on yourself,” Nick made clear, his voice just as ragged as mine, struggling to catch a breath. “You could’ve walked away from all this… you could have left with some dignity. But now here we are… me – someone who has nothing to lose, and you – someone who’s about to lose everything.” I brought my head up to look at Nick now, still unable to form a word. “As much as I want to let you see the new Toparsburg,” he continued. “You’re just too much of a distraction. I’ll dispose of you, then Tim, and only then will things improve. I swear to you I’ll make things better in your absence.” Still on one knee, Night Riser placed an arm on my shoulder, preventing me from moving away while he again brought his arm back, forcing his hand into a shaking, bloodied fist, aimed for my throat. He was ready to cross that line. “I’m sorry it has to be this way,” he stated, his expression becoming genuine. I looked at him closer now. “I’m sorry, too,” came my raspy voice. Before Night Riser could make another move, I launched myself forward at him, bearhugging his arms to his sides before shifting all of my weight to our right. The force couldn’t have been all too powerful, but given our debilitated statuses, it served as just enough to throw us both into an uncontrollable roll down the hillside. Nick shouted in an immediate, helpless distress, deafening my ears as I could only bite down on my tongue, focusing on keeping Nick restrained at all costs. My foe wildly kicked his feet around us now, immediately losing a shoe as well as several long slivers of his jacket, each of them effortlessly torn off by the passing cornstalk shards. As our descent grew faster, the stubbled field began to feel as if it had turned to daggers, each stalk stabbing and scraping into our backs, sides, and arms. Mud cluttered our vision now, leaving us with only that sensation of perpetual revolutions and knives being thrust into our backs with every roll, some of them letting go, while others only remained lodged or entangled within our shredded clothes. While Nick could do nothing more than scream, I found something else floating through my mind – something which pushed the pain aside briefly, but truly. I was thinking of my friends again. The high times and the low times. I remembered being saved by Tim, I remembered my fights with Machine and the day I’d met George, I remembered my battles with Eliminator, my encounters with Jack, the showdown with Corruption, the defeat of Darkness and the new age of the S.S.C. It was all there, in my memories. Not all of them were positive – no, but they didn’t need to be. They’d defined who I had become, and that knowledge made it all seem peaceful in some way. At last, our fall began to slow itself, ending with Nick just beneath me, no longer fighting in the slightest. I wept the debris clear of my face, finally looking down upon my foe. Several stalks remained jutting out from his arms and shoulder, stained with a vivid crimson coloration. Nick gradually lifted his head to look up at me, his eyes now wide, terrified, and lost. He opened his mouth, but now only let out a final, meagre gasp before letting it splash back at the ground again, the pure shock of the trauma sending him out cold. I finally allowed myself to relax, falling to the wayside, next to Night Riser. I looked first to the sky, seeing something in the night besides that of the moon. It was a single, bright light – unmoving, but yet shining through the dark as if it were nothing at all. It was a star. I smiled at the thought that it would be the first of many. Now my attention turned to the tip of the Death Pit, still barely visible over the hill, but there nonetheless. I’d done my part, now it was up to Tim to finish the rest.

Old Friend:

Tim had approached the Death Pit with rain as his only constant companion. The throbbing commotion was still surging through his head, dramatically lessening his other senses, but there was no turning back now. The past had to be met head-on, lest it only become all that much more of a burden. My mentor’s hand rested on the left entry door now, as if searching for some familiar aura waiting inside for him. There was nothing. Working slowly, almost taking in every last second, Tim pushed the door open, finding small, battery-operated lights spanning the length of the interior, leading to the back. None of them had been there during the Death Pit raid. Tim let out a heavy breath, wishing the air to be composed of his remaining doubts. “James!” my master called now, allowing the door to close itself behind him. At first, the only reply Tim received was that of the wooden walls creaking, almost breathing with every gust of wind. Rain could be heard slipping its way through the Pit’s dilapidated insides, dripping onto the ground besides Tim, while more seemed to pool up just behind every wall and sopping haybale. “I thought I’d saw you,” a grizzled voice echoed in the distance, bringing a cool breeze along with it. Tim continued moving forward, not caring if his footsteps remained audible. “But then I realized I was only looking at a ghost,” the voice continued. “The Tim I used to know was one of strength and energy. Now look at you.” With that, another individual stepped out before my master, a light casting across the right side of his face, leaving the left entirely blotched out by shadows. James didn’t smile, nor did he seem upset by my master’s unexpected appearance. He seemed only indifferent to it all. Tim stopped several paces out from his former friend, observing him as one would observe a hallucination. “A little bird told me you were having trouble up here,” James continued, tapping at his own forehead. My mentor took an additional step, now spying an E-stick attached to his foe’s back. “Your little bird is leading THEY,” Tim disclosed. “He’s been using the both of us to fulfill his plans.” James nodded, a slim look of disappointment visible on the emphasized portion of his face, but nothing more. “I’ve already heard,” James responded. “I even heard the S.S.C and my Brotherhood were working together to stamp them out. I’ve tried to order against it, but Blade seems to have cut off my signal. Can you believe that?” “If our groups can let bygones be bygones,” Tim replied, his jaw growing softer. “Then we can do it too.” James remained still, once more unphased by my master’s words. “I’m sorry to tell you that’s just not going to happen,” the leader responded. “It has to be this way. I expected you to know that.” “But why does it have to be this way, James?” Tim raised his voice, taking another reverberating step. “For this whole conflict, you haven’t sent a single attack our way, no true demands have been given, no solid plans for the future – nothing. As far as I can tell, you seemed more grounded than ever, maybe even ready to talk out a different solution!” James remained quiet for a second, before finally taking several steps towards Tim, at last allowing the left side of his face to become illuminated, revealing an intensive series of dirtied bandages wrapped around it, even spanning over his light brown hair, which now stuck out from the gaps like stiff twigs. Two crudely cutout holes allowed him to both see and hear on the damaged side, with the other small spaces between the bindings allowing for the jagged remains of his scars and disturbed flesh to vaguely show through. James lightly stroked his blistered fingers down the bandages. “This is why things can’t go back to the way they were.” “You know I’m sorry that any of that happened,” Tim swore, his heart dropping at the sight. “If you’d just have listened to me when we had the ch-”. “I protected you from THEM,” James disrupted, first irritated before quickly switching back to passive. “I was your friend – willing to do anything to keep you safe. And then, the moment you saw me as even the slightest threat, you did nothing more than threaten me. And then, when you heard I was trying to start something new, you did this. Because you fear what’s new.” “Despite all the S.S.C’s faults,” Tim defended. “It still helps people. Any group that tries to take it down and spread to Toparsburg and beyond – they all have ulterior motives. Including yours.” “Yeah,” James agreed, looking out, through the cracks of a boarded-up window nearby, towards the moon. “You’re absolutely right. Which is precisely why the Brotherhood was set to fail from day one.” Tim squinted at his old friend now, the creaking walls becoming all the more eerie in the absence of speech. “Try not to look so surprised,” James persisted, his voice still grave and emotionless. “The first Brotherhood was a legitimate attempt to alter things, but the second time around, I knew it just wasn’t going to happen. I had special ties which warned me about THEM still being around. I knew that trying to start up a third group would only clutter things.” “You’re saying all of this,” Tim gestured behind him as if the entirety of the Brotherhood forces were standing just at the doorstep. “All of it was just a ruse?” “More or less,” the leader confirmed, still watching the moon. “The people joined because I fed them stories they wanted to hear. Some just wanted to see the S.S.C up in flames, some fell for the wild tales of a school brought to peace, and others were added merely through favors I called in from my old THEM friends. I pulled every string I could. I did it all just to wear you down. It didn’t take long for me to realize that attacking was unnecessary. You did all of that yourself, and the silence only drove you madder. The one truth to it all, is the fact that you seem to cause endless destruction wherever you go. I know it’s not all intentional, but it’s a fact.” Tim continued to listen, gob smacked by every word. More thunder was beginning to charge up in the skies just overhead. “I get It now,” James spoke, turning back to Tim at last. “The S.S.C, THEM, the Brotherhood – what’s the difference? You’re all just a bunch of kids pretending to be soldiers. You’re all the daydream of a toddler, smashing action figures together in his backyard sandbox. There comes that moment where you just have to grow up. Today, right here, right now, I’m going to make you suffer like you made me suffer, Tim. I’ll fulfill every last wish I have to bring you nothing but pain and torment. Maybe I’ll let you live with it… maybe not, but I do know one thing for sure; when it’s over, I’ll return to nothing. No more Brotherhood or dastardly plans to take over the neighborhood. I’ll just go back to being the nobody I was, and that will have to be enough.” Tim felt tears pulling at his eyelids now. A crash of thunder above the Pit seemed to mirror his shattering heart and soul – leaving him empty and without words. Growing impatient by the silence, James removed the E-stick from his back and snapped it over his knee, breaking it into two pieces, each with pointed ends. “Here,” James ordered, throwing one piece to Tim’s feet, while retaining the second. “Despite all I’ve done to bring you down, I can’t bring myself to make this fight too unfair. Hell, even if I lose, we both know that I’ll still be in your head. That damage is beyond done.” Tim looked to his feet, staring at the E-stick like it was from another world. “I get it now,” my master spoke, his voice quivering with the wind. “I see what you really are. I see what I made you turn yourself into. All that can satisfy you now is revenge. And by fighting you here, I only make those feelings grow stronger.” Tim swiftly kicked the splintered stick back to James, who now could only raise an eyebrow at Tim’s argument. “You may think you can walk away from all of this if I’m gone,” my mentor continued, his head shaking. A flash of lightning shot out in the distance, it’s flash bright enough to flood the entire premises with that brief, all-encompassing light. James flinched, but Tim did not. “However, there is no getting better. Hate has a habit of just building itself up stronger, burning hotter and hotter until it scolds everything it can even think of.” Tim now turned his back upon his old friend. “I’m not going to let any of it continue. Because you’re right about one thing; it is time to grow up.” With that, my master began walking back to the door, his fists entirely unraveled. “You’re joking!” James now managed a brief laugh. Tim no longer had anything to say – still marching towards the exit. Even without facing him, Tim could sense the panic setting in to the leader – a realization that everything was about to amount to nothing. “Stop,” James resolutely commanded, his voice drowned out by another lightning flash just outside the window. It made the leader and this place seem so much smaller. “Stop, Tim!” My master did not slow down, nor grow faster. He was halfway to the door now, his eyes closed and his head down. “We need to finish this!” James snarled, his voice shaking the walls in unison with the ongoing gusts. Still no response. “It has to end here! Are you even listening to me?” Tim refused to faulter. That’s when it happened. Now with Tim near arm’s reach of the door, James sprinted forward, not letting out a single sound beyond that of his own footfalls. He raised the E-stick above his head, before throwing himself into a final leap, ready to mercilessly plunge the sharp end of the weapon through Tim’s back. Within that split-second of time between life and death, my master abruptly spun himself around, lifted his leg up high, and sent his foot slamming into James’s chest. The attacker was instantly dropped to the concrete floor, releasing his weapon as his back struck hard against the flimsy, exposed wall at his left. As if reading the entire situation, and ready to diffuse everything with an almighty show of power, the heaviest gale of wind that had been felt throughout the whole storm, now shot towards the Death Pit, physically slamming itself into the barn’s sides like a battering ram. James and Tim felt the sudden force, looking to each other as a muffled snap was heard somewhere up on the second floor, followed by another, and another, and now a haunting, metallic fracture. Tim’s eyes widened as chips of wood and concrete began breaking themselves off from the ceiling just above him. That was the moment the roof collapsed.

Destruction:

The entirety of the Death Pit was shaking now, almost feeling as if the whole place had been uprooted by a giant, lurking through the night. Up on the second floor, the rapid sounds of haybales pounding themselves into the floorboards could be noted. A jolting, unnatural force crossed the ceiling now, as a large chunk of the concrete and wooden beams gave way, collapsing themselves upon James’s legs, pinning him to the floor as the leader could do nothing but cry out in anguish. Just down the hall, more of the upper level to the barn began tearing through the space, knocking out several of the lights in the process. From Tim’s vantage point, it looked as if the entire place was being devoured by the shadows themselves. More rapid cracking noises sounded behind the walls, spilling jets of wretched water across the floor, immediately shorting out more of the lights nearest to James, making him nearly impossible to see. My master turned towards the door again. It was still available, though the wooden portion just above it now seemed to bend awkwardly inwards, nearly ready to block the exit at any moment. James’s cries began to dwindle, instead replaced with a low, bone chilling whimper. My mentor made a choice in that a moment, a choice to look away from the door, and back to where the night still clung to his old friend, preparing to drag him away. Tim fell to his hands and knees, reaching blindly forward and cutting his hands on the jagged timber as he poured his entire being into lifting it from the floor. “Hang on!” Tim shouted, his eyes forcing themselves closed as he desperately continued to lift debris. “Hang on, James! I’ve got you!” Just then, a gnashing combination of wreckage sounded just over Tim’s head. He felt a sudden push at his chest now, finding himself forcefully flung backwards, just as a new series of dimly lit haybales came crashing down in front of him, right where James had been. All of his old friend’s noises were completely silenced now by the roaring thunder and earsplitting collapse. My mentor wildly looked back at the door but found it to be missing – buried beneath a pile of lumber and blocks of stone. The walls on the first floor were giving way, bending outwards and prepared to snap at any moment. All that remained was the single, boarded up window. Working fast, Tim rammed his shoulder into the planks, breaking one of them, though the nails still held the pieces firmly in place. All the lights around Tim went out at last, with one piece of the falling debris striking Tim’s hip, while another smashed down at his right foot, immediately sapping it of feeling. With no options left, Tim brought his gory hands to the boards, straining against their rigidness with every fiber of his being. The first broke just as a shower of splinters from above injected themselves into Tim’s back and neck. He didn’t stop. There wasn’t the time for pain. The second and third board finally ripped themselves from their frame, with the sudden separation pulling Tim down to the floor, where his arm was instantly impaled upon one of the darkness’s invisible teeth. Not hesitating or crying out in distress, my friend pulled himself from the dark maw, finally reaching up to the windowsill, and pulling himself outside just as yet another unseen object struck against his head. The exact moment Tim’s body safely tumbled to the other side, he fell unconscious. The wall nearest to him now folded inwards like a notebook, never to be opened again.

Stillness:

I had dragged myself to the Death Pit just in time to witness its collapse. It was like looking at something from another reality – watching as the building steadily flattened out at the top, tossing its pieces away from the center like water spewed from the heart of a fallen raindrop. With all the injuries I’d withstood, no amount of speed nor concentration could have brought me to the first floor in time to even try and save Tim. And so, all I could do now was stand there, a void forming through my spirit. Breathless, I watched as the first floor doubled over under the increasing weight. The sounds were some of the worst parts – both chaotic and deafening, but yet, behind it all was a hazy gritting bellow and otherworldly clangs of twisting and clattering metal, which almost formed into a petrifying tune of obliteration. The noise moved through the field as a shockwave. I now fell to my knees as it’s full magnitude resonated through me. The Pit collapsed in that moment like a great house of cards, and then – finally, took one last breath, exhaling towering plumes of blackened wood particles, laced with floaty tufts of hay. And then, just like that, it was over. No slight trembles or avalanches – nothing. In what seemed to me to only have been seconds of destruction, the entire place had settled into the earth, almost as if it had always been that way. I finally limped towards the fallen Death Pit, both my arms embracing my ribcage as firmly as possible. The steps seemed to make things worse, almost rattling the broken bones inside of me, but I no longer found myself caring. It was only as I stood mere feet away from the Pit’s grave that I could begin making out details. The wreckage followed a natural, sloping curve – largest in the center, where thick boards and metal rods shot up, into the night sky. I found myself crying now, shuffling through that junkyard of oblivion as if it were my own resting place. I’m not sure what it was – what kept me from turning my back to it all, fleeing towards the hilltops and never looking over my shoulder. I’m not sure what it was that led me towards one of the decimated sides, my feet unsteadily falling upon mangled pillars and other failed supports. And I wasn’t sure what it was the drove me to view one felled wall in particular, but I did. And now, releasing my arms from my chest, letting the pain do it’s worst, I lifted a thin sheet of plywood from the drenched cornfield basin. Beneath that shard, heavily bruised and battered, though still breathing, was Tim Allender. I dropped to my knees one last time at my friend’s side, though no longer out of terror, but rather out of relief.

Forward:

A lot transpired that afternoon, much of it I was unable to fully grasp. After Tim and I had been picked up from the cornfield, we were immediately shipped off to some of the best available S.S.C medics in Toparsburg. Inversely, Night Riser had been sent to a secure holding facility for questioning. I was treated for a concussion, and it was also confirmed that I had indeed broken two ribs and suffered extensive gashes around my body where the stalks had penetrated. S.S.C elites would occasionally visit me throughout the night and into the morning, speaking in hushed voices. I struggled to recall most of what any of them had to say. All I could seem to recall were the several hours in which medics had applied alcohol to my wounds to prevent infection. I could also remember the countless stitches garnished across the cuts which would not have otherwise healed properly. And there was one final memory evoked within me. Something I’d been questioning over and over again but could never seem to get a direct answer to; “How is Tim?”. I’d fallen asleep with those words passing through my lips, and then seeping into my dreams themselves. When I awoke the following morning, I was immediately welcomed by a battered Commander Delta and an intense headache, stronger than most any I’d felt in the past. The throbbing was powerful enough to keep me from even lifting myself to greet the commander with any semblance of strength. “He’s awake now,” Delta called just behind him. George and Samantha quickly entered the space, both of them littered with various bruises and small cuts, but nothing severe. “Does he know yet?” Samantha asked, keeping her tone down. I clutched the edges of the bed now as hard as my dulled muscles could manage. “Know w-what?” I stuttered, still too hazy to identify what I’d been told the other night. My heart sped up for a second as George grew closer, examining my bandaged head and torso. My apprentice sensed the fear and immediately calmed it with a familiar smile. “We won,” George told me at last. “Enough of the Brotherhood joined our efforts to fight THEM back. Some of them were captured by us, while plenty of others were imprisoned by the Brotherhood. It’s safe to say that with Night Riser locked up, they’ll finally be put to rest.” I took a long breath, as if blowing out whatever embers of THEM were left upon our doorstep. “Thank you,” I stated simply, scanning each of them. “Thank you all… for everything.” Even Delta could not help but beam at the remark. “I won’t lie to you boss,” the commander continued. “We do have a lot of injuries on our hands still. The S.S.C definitely took some hits out there. You’ll need to be prepared to win people over again. To what extent – I can’t be sure yet.” “We also have troopers working on talking things out with the Brotherhood,” Samantha disclosed. “It’s a slow, uneasy process, but James seems to be out of the picture now, and from the updates Tye has sent us, it looks like Blade wants out of the Brotherhood entirely.” “There’s one more thing,” Delta continued, his smile somewhat fleeting, though still keeping a stiff upper lip. “Tim,” I identified. Delta nodded as a short silence took over. Even now, in these brief seconds of uncertainty, I still felt a certain sense of serenity. I didn’t hear the rain anymore. No gusts of wind or pangs of thunder. The world had changed for the better, and I needed to change along with it. “He suffered a concussion similar to yours,” Delta cleared up. “His foot was also in bad shape, but we didn’t have much of a chance to look at it. He woke up a couple hours ago and said he needed to see Night Riser. He… seemed really distressed last night, and I think he could use a friend right about now.” I sat up, my brain feeling as if it were being crushed between two clasped hands. The whole room blurred slightly, and each of my comrades doubled in numbers. One of the several George clones took hold of my shoulder now, transporting me back to reality. “I’ll drive,” my apprentice proposed. I couldn’t argue.

Loss:

George didn’t talk much over the course of our trip. He likely didn’t wish to overwhelm me with more information than necessary. While I appreciated these efforts, never before had I wished to speak so much. “The Death Pit,” I mentioned as we cruised over the soggy roadways, occasionally spotting downed trees or homes with shredded rooftiles. “I saw it collapse.” George kept his eyes forward, slightly shaking his head in corroboration. “With all the damage around Toparsburg,” my apprentice exhaled. “It’s doubtful anyone will be checking out a forgotten barn in the middle of nowhere anytime soon.” We stayed quiet a while longer, listening to the sounds of the tires lightly bounding off the littered street, and the calls of songbirds. After my heart pounding race towards the Pit the other day, going normal speeds felt wrong somehow, or at least built up an anxiety somewhere within me. That wasn’t the only thing weighing on me now though, George knew what else there was. “Although Tim didn’t talk much,” my apprentice made clear. “He did claim that James was still in the building when it collapsed. We… sent a small team to the Pit in order to check for a potential body, but nothing conclusive came out of it, and now we just don’t have a lot of available people to continue the searches.” I couldn’t seem to respond, nor could I stomach staring out at the ruined town any longer. George looked over to me. “Do you think Tim can handle this?” he asked, genuine worry filling his voice. “I’m not sure,” came my honest reply. “We can do our best to ease that pain, but it’s ultimately up to Tim as to how he’ll choose to take it.” Our car crept up to the abandoned Magna Oil warehouse, where only a couple other vehicles resided. I turned to George with an immediate look of confusing. “What are we doing here?” I asked. George shrugged his shoulders some. “Tim wanted Nick moved to this place,” he explained. “Maybe to keep him away from any of his THEM companions. Delta told me there’d be more guards here but… seems empty. Hope he didn’t move Nick a second time. I might have to ca-” “No,” I interjected now, keeping my focus on the warehouse. “He’s still here. I can feel it.” George unlocked the doors and shifted himself to look directly my way. “You’ve saved the S.S.C more times than I care to remind you of,” my apprentice said, his voice growing with fragments hope. “Now it’s time to save its soul.” “I’ll do as best I can,” I vowed, shaking my apprentice’s hand and stepping from the vehicle. George couldn’t help but smile again as I shut the door behind me. “I know you will!” he exclaimed. “In my eyes, nobody’s better!”

Loose Ends:

The moment I walked through the primary Magna Oil entrance, three guards instantly moved themselves in front of me, before suddenly realizing who I was and backing down. “Is this all of you?” I asked as each of them offered up apologies. One stepped forward and pointed towards the hall leading to the back of the premises. “Yes sir,” he answered. “Tim is down that way with the prisoner. He asked us all to stay grouped here.” I started walking towards the passage until turning back towards them. “How did he look?” I questioned. Each of the guards shared nervous glances with one another now, before the same one spoke again. “Honestly… sir,” he faltered. “It was hard to say.” Such an answer was not all too shocking. I strode down the hallway now. Every footstep still came with its own burdening aches, but I only ignored it. Now wasn’t about me. Now was about the past and trying to piece things together. As soon as I turned the corner of the hall, I found Tim sitting alongside one of the graffitied walls. A peaceful ray of light shone down upon him, as if he were the focus of the whole world. “Hey bud,” I stated, carefully sitting at his side. “You shouldn’t be here in your condition,” replied Tim’s raspy voice. He wasn’t looking straight at me, but rather at a door a bit farther down the hallway. “Likewise,” I responded, smirking a bit. Tim still concentrated on the door. “You’re wondering what to say to him,” I found myself diagnosing now. “If you want to keep things private, I can stay out with the guards.” “No,” Tim dismissed at once, finally drawing his attention to me. His face was riddled with small lacerations, and his hair remained cluttered with hay and wood particles. Everything must have been moving so fast for him. I wondered how his head was feeling. “It’s good to see you, Brett,” my master confessed. “But I almost wish you hadn’t caught him.” I let those words sink in for a while. It helped me to realize just how painful all of this was in his eyes. “I won’t pretend I understand all of your past, Tim,” I made clear, looking over his additional injuries. “I won’t pretend like I have the means fix your problems or to give you the right advice to do so. But I also won’t pretend like I don’t care. I won’t be pretending when I stand by your side in that room. And I won’t be pretending if you ever need help.” At first, my friend didn’t respond, making me believe as if even these words were not enough to lift his spirits, or that they’d perhaps fallen upon already deaf ears. My heart began to sink again, only for my mentor to suddenly push back against the wall, extending his feet until he’d slid himself firmly into a standing position. He held an arm out to me now, which I gladly took. It was time.

Forgotten:

Opening the door to our lone prisoner’s room, we found Nick slumped over a desk with hands and feet tied together. Dried blood hung around his face, arms, and legs, with only the worst wounds having been treated. The prisoner looked up at us, his expression now one of complete disinterest. “Come to gloat?” Nick asked. The room’s thick concrete walls didn’t even let his voice escape the space, instead allowing it to bounce around the area for some time, surging around us before snuffing itself out. Tim had urged me to stay quiet for this talk, which I was willing to obey. “Oh, what am I talking about?” Nick answered himself, throwing his detained arms up. “You’re too good for even that, right? To good to face me on your own. No, instead you just run away. You leave me with your broken little apprentice and run off to fight James, only to bring a building down on his head. Maybe you’d like to do the same to me? This place doesn’t seem too sound. C’mon!” The final shout stabbed at our ears, but neither of us showed any discomfort, with Tim instead sitting at the opposite end of the table as I guarded the door on his right. “The interrogators already told you the details?” my master began, still not finding the power within himself to look directly at his old apprentice. “They told me what was important,” Night Riser reacted, gazing at Tim with nothing but pure contempt. “The S.S.C and the Brotherhood overwhelmed my forces, James is gone, and you don’t have to release me within a set time, because I don’t have a family waiting for me. Hell, I can just sit in here forever and rot away – anything to make things all the more comfortable for the S.S.C. Sure is great that everything worked out in your favor again.” I so desperately wished to stand up for my master now, to look straight at the THEM leader and outline his every fault or sin, but I held myself back. No matter how much I wished it weren’t, this was Tim’s fight. My master gradually worked up the courage to raise his head and speak for himself. “All I ever did when you became my apprentice was treat you with the kindness and respect of a brother... and yet you betrayed us simply because I wouldn't allow you to go on a single mission. Now look at us… all these years later. This isn’t who we were.” Nick cocked his head and watched as a small tear shed from Tim’s left eye. Nick grinned for a minute, seemingly ready to laugh at my master’s pain, but abruptly stopping himself with more of an expression of disbelief. “Are you really so stupid that you thought that’s the only reason why?” Night Riser spat. “I was an idiotic little kid when I ran away, Tim! James was too! Not one child in Toparsburg hasn’t heard the stories of runaways who found lives of adventure and excitement outside the county, free of school and ordinary responsibilities. They’re folktales for fools!” There was a slight crack in Nick’s tone now. “The same night I ran from home, THEM had me sleep in the Death Pit. I’d never felt so cold and lost. I immediately regretted everything!” At this moment, his voice was shaking – wavering back and forth with every breath, nearly ready to snap under its own weight. “I wanted to go back,” Nick confided. “But I was scared of what my parents would think, and what my friends would think, and what you or the S.S.C would do if you learned I’d made a deal with Machine. And that fear was enough to keep me away, and to offer some faint semblance of warmth every night.” Nick no longer seemed controlled by his rage, but rather it looked as if he were grieving over each aspect of his past. “But it doesn’t end there,” the prisoner persisted. “After around a year living outside of Toparsburg, I got the opportunity to return for a short time, and I pushed myself to check in on you and everyone I used to know.” Now a tear rolled from Nick’s eyes, instantly swept away by his passing sleeve. “What did I find?” he began. “My friends had found new friends. You’d roped in another apprentice. My own parents had a baby on the way! Nick? Well he’d apparently been forgotten ages ago. Right?” There was stillness. Even after everything he’d done, neither Tim or I could seem to respond to the first apprentice. “After that day,” Night Riser whispered. “I couldn’t do anything but loathe the Toparsburg I’d left behind. Every morning, every night – I could only think back to how I was only a drop in the bucket to you people – a fizzled spark.” “We all missed you more than you know,” my master replied with a look of earnestness towards the figure whose eyes now seemed conflicted between water and fire. “I never forgot about you, your friends never forgot, and neither did your parents.” Tim briefly focused on the small puddles of tears which were forming at the table’s edge. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started realizing just how much we try to put a mask over the emotions we deem unworthy of showing. We can lie, laugh, and continue the deception for however long we see fit, but that doesn’t make any of the bad things go away – not really. It stays with us forever, stronger even. It’s how we move on from there – or learn from there that’s important.” Now it was Nick who became silent, looking down at his restrained feet, water dripping down to the hard floor below. “I’ve actually been working with your parents,” Tim revealed, his eyes squinting, and his mouth frozen in a look of grief. His eyes looked at his hands, but that’s not what he saw. “They’ve given me a job looking after your younger brother. And every day I look at his face, or your parents’ faces, or at your own face still hanging around every wall, immortalized in photographs they haven’t dared to touch, I can’t help but realize just how much you’re missed… they’d b-be happy to see you again, Nick. And n-no matter how much you try to deny it, I think you want to see them again too.” “Second chances,” the former leader murmured past clenched teeth. “Are mistakes.” Tim did not look away, nor succumb to these words. He remained just as still as before, save for only those tears. “When the Death Pit was coming down,” my master said now, almost sounding like he was a world away from us. “I tried to save James from the debris. I couldn’t see a thing, and couldn’t be sure that if I saved him, he wouldn’t have just tried to kill me all over again, b-but I tried anyways. I t-tried so hard. And then something…” My master started to trail off. He stared at the ceiling now, as if trying to keep the tears held within his head. I walked forward a few paces and placed a hand on his shoulder. He needed that anchor – something to keep him tied back to the world of now. The gesture seemed appreciated by my mentor, as he looked back to his old friend once more. Nick raised his head as well. For the first time, I saw them truly looking into each other’s eyes with one, unifying emotion. “S-Something,” Tim stammered. “Pushed me back just in time to avoid being crushed by more rubble. I c-can’t be sure what it was that saved my life. Maybe it was a falling piece of wood, or maybe even my body naturally reeling backwards and coming up with a false sensation… or maybe it was James… giving me second chance. And if it was… if someone as lost as him could find it in his heart to let me try again… I need to find it in my heart, to let you try again.” Night Riser’s eyes still seemed red and exhausted, and his mouth refused to budge. Tim rose from his chair and turned to me, finally wiping the tears from his cheeks and eyelids. “Can you wait with the guards, Brett?” he now asked. “This is where I need to stand on my own.” Sometimes the simplest words were the most effective, and I knew it wasn’t my place to oversee the conversation in full. Sometimes you just needed to take a step back, and let the end be the end. “I understand,” I told him, and I truly did. Before leaving, I looked to Nick one last time, watching as he allowed his silent tears to fall freely, unrestricted. I couldn’t seem to read him anymore, and instead of that making me uneasy, it almost served as being cathartic. Things had changed. The next several minutes kept me at the edge of my seat, as I waited alongside all those guards at one of the exits. They threw countless questions my way, none of them I could possibly have known the answers to. It was the sight of George’s car waiting just outside that kept me attached to the real world, instead of the fluctuating, dramatized mess of my own imagination. After a while longer, I felt a sort of finality take hold of the air. I returned to the interrogation room, finding Tim all on his own. He stared at the blank side of the table as if it displayed everything he’d ever wanted. I sat alongside him and stared as well. We must have remained there for the longest time – turning nothing into something.

End of the Line:

In the end, when the dust finally settled, a very different S.S.C emerged to Toparsburg. Due to injuries stemming from the final battle with THEM and the Brotherhood, as well as the backlash received once the full extent of the Night Riser situation was explained, many troopers chose to take their leave of us. Masters and apprentices were broken apart, units were left scraggly and bare, and positions remained unfilled. Despite these losses, I made it my business to look towards the brighter side of things. Almost all of the remaining THEM forces broke apart following the war. Smaller sects which had also appeared overnight in other counties were swiftly being dealt with, oftentimes without Toparsburg’s immediate assistance. The Brotherhood was in an even worse state of disarray, with Blade choosing to quit the group and return to a normal life after it was revealed to him and many others that James had merely been using them all. Without solid leadership or proper backup measures, all that remained of either of the two groups were stragglers who refused to accept they’d already reached the end of the line. Commander Delta and his trusted teams made it their business to put a stop to these remaining forces, and successes had far begun to outweigh any loss. There was something bittersweet about seeing the enemy groups limp along – desperately trying to piece themselves back together despite all the odds working against them. I couldn’t help but think back to the old days. I remembered how much THEM and bullies had terrified me, how imposing they’d appeared. Now I watched them break apart, not with a bang, but rather with a soft, dwindling puff of smoke. The old days were over, and now so much had changed. I’d grown up and become someone I was happy to be, but I’d also grown into someone who knew I couldn’t keep it all up forever. Tim went through a similar process of change, with the both of us eventually beginning to speak the silent truth – our own retirement from the S.S.C. The details still were not entirely solid, though we were sure we wanted to leave together, and allow the S.S.C to live on in trustworthy hands. We needed hands which valued saving tormented kids, not hands who sought to build an empire or start a war. This was a time for growth – a growth of values and understanding. Of course, this wasn’t our only issue to resolve, as I’d also worked at convincing Tim to finally see a real doctor regarding the pains he’d been experiencing in his head. While he never flat-out said it, I think he appreciated that I’d pushed him so far, just as I’d appreciated how far he’d pushed me. With my support, as well as the support from George, Tye, and Samantha, Tim was able to heal some of the mental wounds he’d established over the Silent War. He went on to detail his fight with James, though George and I were the only ones to ever learn the explicit details of the final few moments. More searches for James were carried out around the Pit, however the debris often proved too massive to lift, and heavy machinery couldn’t be brought out without severely risking our secrecy in the area. Nothing was ever found of James, nor did Tim truly figure out what had pushed him out of harm’s way. I’d learned some time ago that some mysteries were perhaps meant to stay unsolved. Tim was slowly learning that as well. With our time in the S.S.C coming to a close, my mentor and I worked harder than ever before to build the S.S.C up again, to allow it to shine just as brightly as it had appeared to us when we were younger. Every morning in which I surveyed the apprentices, masters, elites, and friends who’d hung around, I was almost overwhelmed with a profound sense of admiration for everything which had brought us here. All of us were so different, yet so alike, and if the end of the Silent War had taught us anything, it was that respect was one of the most powerful weapons we could ever hope to wield. Maybe that’s what being a hero truly was – having the ability to respect others, see them eye-to-eye, and do everything in your power to understand and continue. I now rested upon the dewy hillsides and watched as cotton ball clouds let the pure sunlight wash over the training masters and apprentices. I rested there, just taking it all in. We are the S.S.C.

THE END