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Deprived

I hit the ground hard as sweat poured from my face and ascended into a rolling steam, but I knew I couldn’t give up yet, the fight had barely begun. With a sharp pain in my side, I managed to stand up while keeping my guard against my attacker. He quickly attempted a sharp kick at my side, to which I somehow managed to block with the palm of my freezing cold hand. I tried to move forward, but the 3 inch deep snow kept me from making such a radical movement. My assailant used this to his advantage and tackled me to the ground. Once down, he stood up, allowing me some time to stand and fail once more. This time, being as frustrated as I was, I managed to leap back up and jab at his stomach. The move hit its intended target, but not to a devastating degree. Losing focus, I attempted a kick at his stomach, but he had foresaw this and managed to catch my foot in such a way, that I could find no way out of it. Realizing my defeat, he pulled at my leg, sending me down on my back for the seventh time. I laid there; feeling shunned and soon noticed his hand reaching to me. I took it and was pulled off of my snowy tomb. The spar had ended. “Do you know where you made your mistake?” my brother asked sharply. “No,” I replied in all honesty, for he would see through anything else. “Your kick was placed after the punch, giving me time to intercept it. Also, kicking at such an angle, in the snow was bound to slow your foot down anyways. If you really wanted to kick me, your foot should have already lifted off the ground before you even landed a punch. These moves come in surges, not one at a time…”.  He was right as usual, and realizing the sparing was over for today, I gave a nod and began to head back “home”.


A Place Called Home:


Of course “home” was hardly the proper word for where we lived. I suppose some people say that any place where you feel welcomed and sheltered can be called home, but at that time, I felt neither of those things in this place. My brother and I lived in a small brick house on the outskirts of Blue Point. It had been for sale for years, but no-one was interested in it. And so, my brother and I would take refuge there for years on end. There was no furniture, no heating, and even the windows had been boarded shut at one point.


Forgotten Memories:


I had been without a family my whole life, or at least that was what my brother told me. In truth, I had no memories before the age of nine. The farthest back I could possibly hope to remember was when my brother and I found this house four years ago in 1999. As if that weren’t odd enough, I had no recollection of my own name until I was ten, when my brother revealed to me it was Joseph. Of course I have no way of knowing this to be true, but I hung on to the hope that it was, and that my brother would someday tell me his name as well. In truth, I did not know my brother’s name or age, though judging by his appearance, I estimated him to be about six years older than myself. Of the many things that were taken from me, I was at least allowed the pleasure of knowing my own age, which was reportedly twelve.


Taken:


Our trek came to an end when we reached our old brick “home” and we slipped inside through a secret entrance through the back. My brother did not speak to me at all during this time, in which I was used to, not that I enjoyed it. Unlike my brother, I actually cared about what I was being deprived of… family, friends, a real home, conversation, and yeah, even education. Or perhaps my brother did care for these things but never mentioned it. He had always been stark and quiet to which I had grown sadly accustomed to. The floors here were bare and consisted of concrete. When it was as cold as it was now, I often piled clothes on the floor and slept on them to stay warm. Today was no difference and with my brother already asleep, I slid into my sleeping spot and listened intently at the howling winds. We used to have a dog that would show up to the house at night; most likely a stray. Against my brother’s will, I fed it some scraps and talked to it from time to time. As winter approached though, the dog stopped coming and now all I had to remember him by was these howling winds, blowing the painful reminder that I was practically alone in my face.


Game of Survival:


When I finally dozed off into my dreams, I could only imagine that I was smiling while asleep, because my dreams were always lighthearted and warm. It was in these dreams that I could find comfort it was in these dreams that I couldn’t be deprived. That night, I dreamt I was leaving a huge stone castle with jewels of varying colors and sheens in my hands. As I was leaving, a crowd of hundreds upon hundreds of knights on horseback came to greet me and praise me for reasons I didn’t even attempt to understand. The rest ended up as a blur, for soon the sun had peaked and I was awoken by the sound of my brother pacing the floor, which was quite unusual for him. “Something wrong?” I asked curiously as he continued to contemplate. My brother did not respond so instead I went into our bathroom and started brushing my teeth. In order to live, we had to steal. The main things my brother and I stole were soap, toothpaste, and foods. We had never been captured doing this, but on one occasion, I vividly remembered when a store clerk caught me stuffing a tube of toothpaste into my pocket. Security was called and I was chased out of the building. With nowhere to hide, I would have been easily caught if it weren’t for my speed. I had never seen my brother sprint, but I always assumed we were around the same speed, which was, simply put, ferociously fast. I now grabbed a stolen apple from the corner and ate my breakfast as I watched my brother continue to pace about the room. “You remember the S.S.C?” he whispered. I nodded as I recalled our time spent in the organization known as THEY the previous year. My brother had a dream one night, telling us to go enroll into THEY for reasons unknown. My brother hardly ever listened to me, but when it came to a dream, he was always a servant. The S.S.C had been age-old enemies with THEY for years and I recalled multiple missions involving the capture of a member, or the retrieval of documents. One task I had been assigned often was that of message intercepting. Two S.S.C members, who had been separated for many months, often wrote letters to one another. I had the task of reading these messages as soon as they were delivered. There was never anything important, but it really taught me a lot about how the S.S.C worked, and in a strange and probably pathetic way, gave me the feeling of having real friends. And so, even after we were kicked out of THEY, I still checked the S.S.C member’s mailbox every week to see if there is anything new. If my brother knew about this, he would have my head. It was one of the very few secrets I kept from him. “I had a dream,” my brother said. “It told me that the S.S.C was our new home.” I wasn’t shocked. “Enrolling in the S.S.C will no doubt be more difficult than that of THEY. When would we start?” My brother turned towards me and stared with his cold-black eyes. “Don’t be so sure. The S.S.C and THEY are alike in many ways… and we will start as soon as I can find a place to enroll… have you practiced your dodging techniques yet?” Coming from my brother, I knew this was not a question, but a command. And so I went on my way.


Preparation:


As far back as I could remember, my brother had been teaching me how to fight. I had no clue why really. But I suppose when you live in our conditions, staying fit was vital. And so, after every meal, every day, I would do my training. It had become second nature to me. After breakfast, there was dodging practice, after Lunch, there was sprinting, and after dinner, there was sparing. My dodging routine involved me and a net which crudely hung from the ceiling. Tied to the net was a basketball which had lost its air years ago. And so, my brother had filled it with rocks and dirt to maintain its shape. I would spend up to an hour and a half punching the ball with different techniques and block its retaliatory attack with a different block. The thought of being in a club again was an interesting one, but I tried not to get too excited. For I knew that it would not last, just like our time in THEY did not last. Our being kicked out of THEY was not because of our training or background, but rather, because we had become so skilled that the members of THEY had wanted to elect my brother as leader. There was a problem with this though; THEY already had a new leader named Talon. Fearing we would overthrow him, Talon demanded we leave and got into a fight with my brother. He hardly stood a chance and was knocked out in less than a minute’s time. Even so, Talon managed to turn all of THEY back on his side, and cast us out. Talon vowed vengeance on us for trying to betray him, and thus, we never returned to THEY. Oddly enough, my brother was neither shocked nor saddened at this loss. Perhaps he had planned it? I wouldn’t put that past him.


Training:


In any case, I began my jabbing techniques and got four good hits in before the make-shift punching bag collapsed to the floor. I then went through the trouble of hanging it up again so I could fit in a few more appropriate punches. My hits were certainly harder today, for dirt was flying out of the ball and collecting itself into a heap on the floor. This, much like everything else, was nothing new. I always trained more vigorously when I was confused. Nevertheless, I continued to wail away at the ball while simultaneously dodging it as it swung back at me with impressive speeds. It only glanced me once, if my brother had seen that, he would have had me start all over. With three repetitious jabs, the ball flew up high and as I stepped forward for a final blow, my feet came out from under me and I fell flat on my back, allowing the ball to pass over me, nearly busting my nose. I had slipped on the dirt that had covered the floor. I silently swore to myself as I grabbed a broom to sweep the dust away. My brother had left the house, leaving me alone. With this spare time, I decided to sneak out to Sycamore avenue for my letter.


Messages:


Back when I was in THEY, one of the missions I was sent on the most often was for me to travel to an S.S.C member’s home and get into his mailbox. His name was Luis and he had a friend who had been in the S.S.C about a year ago, but ended up moving away. THEY suspected that the letters between Luis and his comrade would reveal secrets of the S.S.C, but they never did. On the occasions that Luis did bring up the S.S.C, he was merely relaying news that most of THEY was already aware of. Yet, I still craved reading those messages. Hearing two friends talk back and forth to each other. How nice it must have been. And so, even now, long after we had left THEY, I still visited the mailbox, so I could intercept the letter and, in my own sick way, have friends to listen to, to learn from. I chuckled every time I thought about it. I was friends with two people I had never met, nor seen. Today I got lucky, there was indeed a message sitting inside, waiting to be delivered. I proceeded to stick my hand inside, grab the letter, and quickly dash down a steep hill, leading to a lakeside surrounded by thick grass and weeds. Carefully, I peeled the letter open and read:


Standings:


I layed back into the grass and read it over a few times. Nothing new to me here, I already knew who all these people were, and what their story was. Indeed though, it was odd that the leader of the S.S.C would be sending troops away for special training. What could they have to train for? The S.S.C and THEY used to be fight in large-scale wars filled with a lot of pain, and a lot of suffering. But that was many years ago. Now they only watched each other uneasily as the years passed. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have been a part of those battles. Although each side was constantly on edge, I knew one would never attack the other, not without reason at least. No one wanted to be the guy who brought war back between the two. With care, I slid the letter back into the envelope and resealed the message with some tape. Neither of them ever found it strange, and they never would. With that, I returned to the mailbox and slipped it in successfully. As I strolled away with pride, a crack of thunder roared in the distance and trees shook at the sudden gust of wind. It was time to head “home”.


New Name:


My brother was already home when I returned, staring at his bowl of corn and plate of buttered bread. Certainly no meal fit for a king, but he would usually be done by now. “Did you find out anything regarding the S.S.C?” I asked, getting a bowl for myself. “Yes,” he replied shortly. “We are to meet some tomorrow at the entrance to that skate park near the Guriad Mall.” I knew the place, and began to eat as I contemplated if there was anything I should say to him. I could certainly not speak of the letters, as far as my brother knew, I had stopped snooping at those for some time now. “Names,” he said. “My name will be Darek, yours will be Stan. We grew up in Illinois and moved here last year with our neglecting parents. That’s all they should need to know.” I sighed; this was the exact same routine as when we had joined THEY. My brother had gone by the name of Sid and I went by the name of Dan. We had just moved in from Alabama with our neglecting parents. THEY bought the ruse and to this day, were still looking for two guys named Sid and Dan. Now it looked like I was Stan, my brother would call me this as long as we were in the S.S.C to insure our ruse wasn’t found out. Likewise, I would call him Darek.


Mirror:


When the day had finally come to a close, I found myself lying on the floor, listening to the rain harshly hit the rooftop and occasionally drip down from a crack in the ceiling. It was on nights like this that my brother never slept. He would stay awake all night and wait for a leak. Then, as quickly as one started, he would apply tape to the area until it had stopped. Surely this leakage was not lethal, but he did so anyways, for whatever strange reason he had. Not that it mattered, I could never hear him move around, and the rain was so loud, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t hear just about anything besides the constant tapping. Soon, I had fallen asleep once more and found myself once again as a knight on horseback, this time, carrying a large javelin in my hand, which I pointed at a foe who was too distant to see. The horse began to barrel forward, nearly sending me hurtling off, but I managed to catch my balance and steady the javelin at the incoming target. As my foe neared, I eyed his sleek black armor and piercing eyes. Blood had spattered his armor and a dastardly grin fell upon his scarred face. He was riding on a majestic white horse which boasted a flowing white mane and sky-blue eyes. I steadied my javelin at the figure and we were now within only 20 feet of each other. Then, at the blink of an eye, everything changed. The beautiful white horse changed into a black one, with bones showing through and flaming eyes! And upon looking at the rider, I no longer saw the being whom I had noted earlier, but rather a scared little child, who had dropped the javelin and was ready to fall off the horse in an instant. In shock, I attempted to aim my javelin down at the horse, but it had only come halfway down before the dream ended, and I awoke in terror. Who was this child? Who was the man? Why did everything change? I sat up for a while, contemplating it all, before ultimately giving up on my reasoning and going back to sleep, where no more dreams came my way.


Winter:


In the morning, “Derek” had already gotten dressed and threw me a pair of jeans and a shirt. “Let’s get moving,” he said as he made his way to the next room over. I thought for a moment about telling him of the dream I had. But ultimately, decided it would be best to forget about it. I got dressed and upon coming to terms with the sad fact we would have no breakfast, followed my brother down a trail which would lead to the skate park. I had never actually met an S.S.C member. And I tried to imagine how they would act. Would I even notice a difference between them and THEY? I pondered this for a few moments before taking the time to eye the trees around us. Their leaves had descended to the ground quite some time ago and now sat decaying on the ground. I really did not like winter, all I could think of was those blistering cold nights at the house, where my nose would constantly run and my hands would shake uncontrollably. I pushed the thought out of my head; I had to be as normal as possible in this meeting. I already knew what the routine would be, we would come in with smiling faces and pretend to be excited yet nervous. We would tell them everything they wanted to hear and we would be on our way. Finally, we reached the skate park and noted a few figures standing under an oak tree nearby. “Those are our guys,” Derek said.


Meeting Larson:


As we grew close to the figures in the distance, I noted they were all quite muscular with short-cut hair and blue jackets. One in particular approached my brother and me first. He had short cut brown hair and blue eyes. His cheeks showed traces of a line of black paint, similar to that of which a football player would have. I couldn’t quite make out his age, but he seemed to be about a year younger than that of my brother. He shook my brother’s hand as if they were old friends and said “So this is your brother eh? Boy, you weren’t kidding when you said he looked green.” I cowered down in embarrassment. I knew what my brother was doing, he wanted to make it look like we NEEDED training. This didn’t change the fact that now the other two S.S.C members were smirking at me. “I’m Larson,” he continued as he stuck out his hand. As I shook his hand, he turned to my brother. “When you briefly met me the other day, I didn’t quite catch your name…” “Derek,” my brother replied promptly without even a flicker of deceit. That’s one of the many things I couldn’t stand about him, you could never tell if he was lying or not. “And your name,” Larson asked? I remained deep in thought, despite my brother’s quirks; he still held a place in my heart. For without him, I’d have nothing. “Joseph,” I replied absentmindedly. Suddenly, I froze as the terrifying reality that I had just used my real name was now present. My brother eyed me angrily as I wished I could only press a reset button. Luckily, Larson found no fault in this and proceeded to talk to my brother for a bit. Thoughts raced through my mind on how my brother would get me back for this. But in actuality, giving my real name proved no great risk. After all, THEY knew me by a different name anyways; no one was enemies with Joseph… at least not yet. This was the one thought that comforted me as I continued to listen in on the conversation. “Many of our current missions basically revolve around protecting kids from bullies and such,” Larson said. Though at times we are also to tighten security, provide protection to a target, deliver messages, etcetera.” “It is my understanding that new recruits such as ourselves are to be given a master upon joining,” my brother said. “This is true,” Larson replied. “And that would be me.” “Both of us,” my brother inquired? “Yes, as a matter a fact I already have an apprentice, Henry, why don’t you come over here and greet your new comrades?”  In an instant one of the boys under the tree approached us. He was about as old as me and shook both of our hands eagerly, “Nice to have you onboard.” “When do we start?” I caught myself asking. “We have to get some paperwork on you guys finished up before we can allow you to do anything. I’d say we should have it done by tomorrow.” With that, Larson proceeded to ask us a few questions about ourselves. Of course most of the important information was answered by my brother. I would be expected to remember these things just in case they were brought up again. Occasionally, Larson or Henry would shoot me a question. Things like my favorite food and stuff. I was allowed to be honest in some of my answers. Larson and Henry went through the whole meeting without suspecting anything, and when it began to snow, Larson cut the conversation short and stated we had told him enough and that we should meet him at his house tomorrow at 5:00 where we would start some basic training. My brother agreed and we bid them farewell as the snow picked up.


Long Way Home:


My brother remained virtually mute as we trudged through the blistering cold snow. I pulled up the hood of my jacket, trying to keep the snow from blowing into my eyes. When this proved pointless, I withdrew a shirt from my coat pocket and wrapped it around my face. I had learned this trick from my brother many winters ago, although he never did it. Cold didn’t affect him in the slightest. I vividly remembered one night when it at gotten so cold, the lake we used for bathing had practically frozen over (which was rare). I went to sleep without even thinking about taking an icy bath. But when I awoke in the middle of the night, I saw my brother washing himself in the nearly frozen lake. When he returned, his face had lost no color, and his hands did not tremble in the slightest. It was the same story here; my brother treated the snow as if it were a minor annoyance rather than a force that, quite frankly, could kill. “Sorry I gave them my real name…” I muttered, trying to break the silence. Sadly, my attempt failed and my brother remained even more silent than before. I began to wince as the blinding barrages of snow began to attack my eyes and drip into any crevice they could find. I could never recall a time when my brother showed pain. I often caught myself thinking of him as if he were some sort of alien or all-powerful superhero. “He’s only human” I’d repeat to myself. “He’s only human.”


Training:


I breathed a sigh of relief as I spotted our shelter in the distance. With the energy I had saved, I began to run for it, ignoring the deep snow. But soon, my brother’s hand came down on my shoulder. “Training,” he said. “If you are to be ready for S.S.C training, you must be ready for my training. Any time, any place.” I gazed up at the sky, watching the snow come down harder. I attempted to shoot a look of disdain at my brother, but it died out as it met his icy cold eyes. With that, I took up my fighting position and prepared myself.


Zone:


Soon, the cold no longer affected me, and the sounds of the wind were nearly silenced. I could practically hear my heartbeat. With lightning-like precision and speed, I rushed at my brother and attempted to do an uppercut. Quickly, he dodged the blow and caught my arm. With one lunge forward, he shot me to the ground. My face became planted into the snow, but I couldn’t feel it, instead, I used this moment to do a handstand and nail my brother in the jaw. I followed this up with a role that sprayed snow into the air, leaving me with a shield of snowflakes. I was now not sure what to do; I had never gotten such an upper hand. As I zoned out, my brother came charging out from the mist and tackled me, I was going to attempt to knee him, but he had already gotten up. This would have been the perfect time for a leg sweep, but the snow was much too deep, and my brother was aware of this. I leaped back up and attempted to land a punch at my brother’s chest. Following his words from last time, I already had my foot raised to kick him in the side. As expected, my brother was blissfully aware of my incoming fist, but the kick caught him off guard, sending him down. I nearly squealed with a childish glee, but noticed my brother had fallen in a strange way, he layed on the snow, sprawled out as if he had fallen hundreds of feet onto solid concrete. Or perhaps as if he was lying on his back in a swimming pool. Suddenly, my brother, to my utter astonishment, did a leg sweep! This sent me down into the cold. Only then did I realize that he had managed to fall in such a way, that his weight was evenly placed upon the snow. This prevented him from sinking in, and instead allowed him to do the leg sweep. Then I felt something creeping down my back as I layed there. It was a familiar feeling… cold. Suddenly, I could hear the wind again, and the freezing liquid spread all over my body. I began to notice the snow positioned on my face and my fingers lost all feeling. All I could do was lye their and shake. “You feel it now don’t you?” by brother asked as I struggled to stand. I silently nodded as he continued. “You nearly had it. You were almost able to escape reality and enter a zone controlled by yourself. Once you journey there, you stay there. There is no waking up from that reality, that tranquility.” I did not fully understand, but I nodded once more and gazed at the house. “Go on,” my brother said. With a limping speed, I rushed inside. Not that being indoors helped much; it was still cold and extremely damp. But despite it all, sleep finally found me.


Freedom?:


I had no dreams that night. Yet when I awoke, I vividly recalled the dream I had of the horse, and the being riding it. The very thought of that dream oddly enough made me sick to my stomach. So sick in fact that I no longer felt like eating breakfast. After completing my mourning rituals, I finally recalled that my brother and I would be traveling to Larson’s house at 5:00 and decided that I‘d better try and eat all I could despite how I felt. The wind had died out and no birds chirped outside. The house was quiet, leaving me to ponder what my brother had said to me last night. A zone ruled by myself? Who was to say I was not already in one? If anything, I was freer than anyone I had ever met! I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. My brother wouldn’t hold me back. Could Larson honestly say that he was free? Could Henry? Surely not; yet… as odd as it sounded… despite all my freedom, I felt more trapped than ever before.


S.S.C Training:


Once Derek and I had gotten ready, we began trudging through the snow, over to Larson’s home. From the directions he gave, he lived in a two story house with a large amount of farmland surrounding it. There was no doubt in my mind that he had gotton so strong by working in the fields. Of course, I had yet to see him in action, but in all honesty he seemed even more muscular than Darek! There we no cars outside, except for one which I assumed was his. His parents were most likely at work. In the distance, I heard some sounds of cattle and the chatter of Larson and Henry. They must have heard our footsteps, for soon they rounded the building and met us. “Glad you could make it!” Larson said cheerfully. “We ran through your documents with the boss, he thinks you two would make a fine addition to the team.” “Great,” I replied. “Where do we start?” “You can start with the simple techniques that ever S.S.C member needs to know,” Larson replied. “Henry, take them to the field.” “Sure thing boss,” Henry proclaimed and he motioned for us to follow him. We began walking up a large hill until we reached a point where we could spy upon the whole town. Below us was a field, clear of much snow, clearly Larson and Henry had been shoveling it up. “We often train down there,” Henry said, “Same time, same place, but never the same routine.” “Very nice!” Derek proclaimed as we headed down. “While we wait for Larson, its best to get some stretches in, maybe some running to in order to get you fired up.” With that, Derek and I busied ourselves by doing some toe touches, pushups, sit-ups, and a few laps around the field. Finally, Larson returned with a couple of standing punching bags slung over his shoulders. He silently placed them before us and asked Henry to step in and show us a frame by frame play through of a proper punch. At this point, I started zoning out, this was nothing new to me and it was clear that Larson thought us to be babes in the woods when it came to fighting. From what I did catch, he mentioned moving in a fluid motion, ever-pressing forward in order to draw the enemy back and gain an immediate upper hand. The punches did not need to be done quickly as long as they hit the right place at the right time. Larson went over and over about how punching your opponent’s stomach may offer a swift advantage and allow you to follow up this move with a punch to the chest. Henry then illustrated how if done in the right set of time intervals, the opponent would almost always be knocked down. On that note, they moved on to footing. “At times, the proper footing can make all the difference when it comes to winning or losing a battle.” He showed us that leaning slightly forward would allow you to take less knockback, but leave you open for a pull forwards, which could send you on your stomach. It was for this reason that Larson began to hammer home that we needed to know what move our opponent would use before he even got into a fighting stance. “With enough training, you can often see a person’s intentions by their eyes. See where they are looking, how focused they are, how strong they are,” Larson said. I wasn’t sure if I could believe this, seeing as he had yet to learn of our true identities. Perhaps it had something to do with our eyes being so dark. Perhaps are pupils hid themselves better than that of the average person. After his lecture, Larson called me up to try out a move on the punching bag. Following Henry’s motions, I swiftly began stepping forward and provided a quick blow to the “stomach” and then to the chest. The punching bag rocked backwards but refused to fall. “Not bad at all,” Larson stated. “But you do need to straighten out your wrist when you punch and keep your thumb on the outside of your fist so that you don’t accidentally break it. “Understood,” I replied. “Alright Derek, why don’t you come over here and show us what you’ve learned,” Larson said. With that, Derek approached the punching bag and clumsily hobbled forward before punching the thing with a crooked arm. Even with such a messed up form, the punch still sent the punching bag nearly down to the ground, but not quite. It was clear to me that he was faking it, he wanted to seem weak and new to this in order to gain their upmost trust. “Well… not bad,” Larson said hesitantly. “But your arm was crooked and your forward move was much too slow and uncontrolled.” “Understood,” Derek replied, and Larson went back to explaining more techniques. Finally, at the end of training, Larson seemed pleased and ready to let us leave for the day, but I could tell there was something else on his mind. “Excellent work today you two. We’ll try and get about 2 hours’ worth of training every day in order to get the two of you in some top-notch shape. But, before you go, I’d like Joseph to have a quick spar with Henry, while I spar with Derek here. It is through this training spar that we can truly see your weaknesses and strengths. I recalled a very similar situation on our first day of training in THEY. Our master had asked my brother to spar with him in order to show off some take-down moves to some even younger recruits. To everyone’s surprise, my brother put up an excellent fight and let the guy win by only a hair. I couldn’t wait to see the look on Larson’s face when he figured out how strong Derek really was. With that, Henry and I squared off to the right of the field while Larson and Derek took to the left. “You ready,” Henry asked cheerfully? “You know it,” I replied eagerly, and with that, the spar began.


A Surprising Loss:


I knew Derek would be upset with me if I beat Henry on the first day, so I was already prepared to lose the fight. But this didn’t mean that I wasn’t allowed to get a couple successful punches in. Henry immediately targeted my stomach and tried a swift uppercut, which I blocked with my palm before kneeing him lightly in his. “Nice!” he uttered. This surprised me for a brief second, never had I heard a compliment in a spar before. It was in this instance of reflection that Henry managed to knock me to the ground and attempt to pin me. His hold was different than that of Derek’s but relatively simple to escape from. I grabbed a hold of Henry’s legs and pulled it towards me, causing him to lose balance and fall flat on his back. I now realized this would most likely be the last successful attack I was allowed to do on him in the first spar. With that, I purposefully made my stance a bit clumsier, which allowed Henry to see my weakness and pull me forward as Larson had alluded to. With me down, Henry pinned me once more. I lightly struggled before finally tapping the ground in submission. I was now facing where Larson was sparring with my brother and waited to see the familiar sight of Derek surprising the guy to tears. But in an instant, I noticed my brother appearing much weaker than usual. His blocks were never successful, his punches almost never hit home and when he fell, he stayed down for an extended period of time. Larson was attacking no harder than Henry had attacked me. With my mouth open wide in utter shock, I watched as Larson easily pinned Derek down to the ground and allow him to stand. “Hey, you did really good,” I heard Henry say behind me. “Th-thanks…” I said, still in shock.  “Not bad Derek,” Larson said. “But you need to be much more fluid with your movements and attacks. Otherwise, your opponent will see your attack coming from a mile away.” Soon after, Larson and Henry allowed us to go home in which only silence met us on our walk home. I was so curious to ask why my brother had allowed himself to lose so easily, but I simply could not bring myself to it. I tried to keep the thought out of my head, but I couldn’t help but think… maybe my brother was losing his touch?


Plans:


When we got home, my brother fetched himself a small meal as I stood in the corner still trying to understand what had caused my brother to lose such focus. After contemplating the situation further, I decided that asking my brother would be the proper course of action. “Brother,” I began. “That spar with Larson… you allowed yourself to lose so easily… it surprised me… is there something else you have entered the S.S.C for? Some other reason other than that dream you had?” My brother stood quietly by the window and gazed at the stars which were being covered by a thick blanket of fog. “No,” he replied. My dream still remains true to our mission here.” “Mission?” I replied. “I do not recall any mention of a mission…” My brother swiftly turned to me and stared for a second. His face was silhouetted by the darkness of the room and the silver light of the moon. “There is indeed a reason for us coming here… a target… a boy who has entwined in his heart that of pure hate, deceit, and darkness. If we do not stop this boy… he will grow to one day best me in a fight… I will be… injured.” “Stop him…” I repeated questionably. “If we can find this boy early and convince him not to attack me at a later date, all will be well once more. The S.S.C is none of my concern, only the boy…” I thought on the matter for a second. Of course “convince” obviously meant we were going to fight this boy. But could my brother really trust in a dream? Had a dream of his actually ever come true and helped us in any way? I stopped myself, this was not my call, nor would it ever be. We were in the S.S.C and that was that. “How do you expect to find him,” I caught myself asking? “His father joined the S.S.C at a young age and for only a week. If we can earn the S.S.C’s trust, we can access old records and find the last name of our target. From there, locating him should be simple.” “So this boy has not even joined the S.S.C yet,” I said. “You are willing to hurt this boy just because a dream convinced you to!?” My brother held no reply but I still burned with rage. “How old is he!?” My brother remained silent and continued to stare at me. Only then did I realize I had said too much, and under the weight of his gaze, I felt dizzy and sick. “I’m sorry…” I said. “I’m sure you know what you are doing, and I respect your decision.” “Very good,” he replied. “Until the time is right, this hunt for… Darkness must not be mentioned to anyone.” “Darkness,” I mumbled to myself… a fitting name considering the situation.


Continued Training:


Larson and Henry continued to train us as the days progressed. Derek and I held our personas tight and no one suspected anything. Derek continued to fight weakly as I began to pick up some interesting fighting skills. On one occasion, Henry taught me how to do a flip-kick. It involved some superior core strength and sense of knowing where you are in comparison to where your target was. On another occasion, Larson taught me how to control my breathing, allowing me to last much longer in fights as well as when running. Derek picked up these moves as well but at very slow rates, I assume that he already knew them quite well. Even after a month of training, Derek and I still had made no contact whatsoever with the S.S.C. I began to wonder if they were even part of the S.S.C at all. When we were going to sleep one night, I asked my brother how he felt about the lack of missions. He simply replied “In time.” So as the weeks continued, all I repeated to myself was “in time” this continued for a while without change. But finally, one freezing cold night, the time came.


Operation Shadow:


“You’ve come a long way guys,” Larson began. “You still have a lot to learn mind you, but I know from my own experience you’ve been waiting for a mission for some time. Larson stopped for a moment; the wind was hitting the side of the tent he had set up. It was night-time, a very unusual time for a meeting of any sort. “THEY have set up a new base down by Jake Avenue, there is a large forested area nearby which they have been observed moving supplies into. As you know, the S.S.C and THEY have been undergoing an uneasy peace, I do not want this to be broken by two new recruits like yourselves. Therefore, you must not fight any THEY member you come into contact with. The purpose of this meeting is to merely scout the area and find out what they’re doing in there.” “Like a Shadow,” I muttered. “Exactly,” Henry replied. “An excellent name for the mission, oh, and don’t worry about spying on them, if you are caught, they’ll be mad, but they’ve spied on the S.S.C plenty of times to, they won’t wage war.” “Take these,” Larson said as he handed us a couple sacks. “Everything you’ll need for the mission: binoculars, food, water, notepads, and walkie talkies. You will be heading out now, sorry we didn’t give you a heads up, but the S.S.C leader insists that you to take this one on when THEY has yet to fully inhabit the base.” “What will we be watching for exactly?” Derek insisted. “If I were you, I’d be looking out for platoons of members over 10, a surplus in spy gear, and BB guns.” I winced for a moment as I recalled a day of training in THEY, where a higher ranking official demanded that each of the new recruits be shot with a BB gun a few times so that we understood the feel of it. S.S.C members used BB guns as well, but they were difficult to obtain and utterly pointless considering that the S.S.C and THEY never fought. I suppose it was just a pre-war strategy. The more BB guns your side had, the stronger you were and the less appealing you became to possible attackers. Not every member was allowed to bring one into combat anyways, only those who had an expert shot. One rumor I had heard from my “friends’” messages was that the S.S.C had been considering getting rid of them all together due to an eye accident in practice. Thankfully, Larson never had us undergo such an excruciating training process, making me enjoy his company much more than that of the THEY members. “Sounds like a plan,” I stated cheerfully and with a slight yawn. “When you’ve been stationed long enough, we’ll contact you and let you head back here for a sitrep,” Larson stated. “Understood,” Derek replied plainly. And with that, we were off.



Around 12:00, my brother and I made it to the wooded area Larson had described to us. It was bigger than I had expected, and just as cold as I had anticipated. The trees were weighed down by mounds of snow and the ground remained littered with the icy substance I had grown to dread. Larson had given no exact point of entry, for the base was largely unknown and where the base itself was also up for questioning. Henry and Larson had both agreed it was most likely in the center of the forest, acting as a nucleus which would gradually spread to the rest of the forested area and take refuge in other portions. “There’s a path by the small pine tree over there,” I whispered. “It’ll probably lead us to a place where we can at least get an ear-shot of where these guys are.” My brother gazed upon the trail and then back at the lifeless darkness which remained ever-present within the forest. “The trail could also get us caught if we were to take the correct one. Our best bet would be to cut through the brush and make our own path.” This, of course, would slow our progress down,” I retorted. But as I looked back into Derek’s direction, he had already made his way over to the path he planned to make for himself. I struggled to keep up, and met him as he already began to push the bushes out of the way. One lashed into my face, sending snow down my shirt and into my mouth. “You start making a path to the right of me,” Derek said silently as if the enemy were mere feet away. “We’ll catch up to each other later.” Without retort, I wiped the snow from my face and did as he said. I traveled several feet to his right and then continued to push through in the same direction. For all I knew, he wasn’t moving at all, for I heard no sound but my own. As the mood became desolate and my clothes began to get caught to nearly every branch I passed, I noted an incredibly small clearing a bit further to my right. Any vantage point was fine by me, and I quickly embarked to the spot, in hopes that I would not be greeted by any THEY members. When I eventually arrived, I found the clearing to be slightly bigger than I had expected, yet set thankfully devoid of any other life but my own.  I backed myself up against a wide tree so that no one would manage to sneak up behind me. As I got a breath of fresh air, a large figure appeared to me from a distance. Even through the darkness, I could clearly see the towering tree in the distance. It was a behemoth compared to its surroundings and from my perspective, was practically in the center of the wooded area. I nearly cried out in excitement, thankfully though, a noise met my ears, sending me down into a crouch. Just to my right, a pair of THEY members passed by my location, walking down a hidden alcove I hadn’t even noticed. “Did you see that deer?” one asked. “No. I heard about it though, Kyle said it walked right up to the tent,” the other replied. “Yeah, wonder if it’ll be back, this place is incredibly boring at night.” From there, the voices trailed off as incoming wind swept our way. Thankfully, they were gone and I now had a good idea where to find the base. I picked up the walkie talkie to contact my brother, but became frightened that more members would come marching down the path. Besides, I was fairly certain he’d be able to find it himself. With that, I continued down the side of the alcove, heading for the tree and keeping my ears open for enemy noises. I was briefly filled with a sense of thrill. It had been a long time since I had had such fun and felt so alive. I quickened my pace and avoided hitting a couple of slender trees by the skin of my teeth. Finally, another clearing met my eyes, this one apparently much larger. For a brief second, I heard a faint voice in the distance. With one short-lived movement at a time, I brushed a few branches out of my way and peered out into the huge clearing. I suddenly felt raindrops hit my head and form huge puddles of mud around the tree. Nearby, as I had expected, were two white tents nearly catapulting themselves from the ground due to the sudden wind. As I readied myself to begin taking notes on my findings, I noted a large hill on the other side of the clearing. From there, I’d be able to get a safer vantage point. The only problem was that to get to this hill, I’d have to go all the way around the clearing.


Sneaking:


As I pondered this, I noticed that the two THEY members I had seen earlier were now stationed in separate tents. With my speed, I assumed that I would be able to dash across the clearing before either of them could even unzip the tents. With the noise of the rain and wind as my allies, I stepped into the clearing and began running for the other side. Suddenly as I was about to pass the large tree standing in the center, the mud clung to my foot, sending me plummeting into the ground. Through some superhuman form of hearing, one of the THEY members straightened up in his well-lit tent and began to unzip the tent! I struggled to get to my feet and I soon grimly realized I’d never make it to the other side in time for him not to catch me. Quickly, I made it to my feet and dove behind the large tree, keeping my back to it and my ears open to any noises he was making. At first I heard nothing, and assumed he has reentered the tent. But when the other tent unzipped, I knew that he had summoned the other member to check it out with him. Under most circumstances, I would not be afraid; I could easily take on two THEY members. But Larson had warned against attacking, and that frightened me. “Did somebody fall here?” one suddenly asked the other. They were close, they had found the imprint of my body and I quivered at the thought of being found. “Sure looks like it… maybe it’s from earlier…” With that, they were silent and I pushed my face against the wet bark of the tree in hopes of picking up some noise. Thankfully, the sound of zipping tents met my ears and upon peering around the corner, the two were back in their tents. Immediately, I sprinted from the tree to the large hill. I dropped to my knees and panted wildly, not because I was tired, but because I was relieved at the thought of being safe. Now lying on my stomach, I began to look through my binoculars at the “base” below. The voyage was worth it, I now had a much better view of the area, and it was disappointing at first glance. The two tents were the only structures set up at the moment. As I began to swear at the utter disappointment the base brought to me, my eyes focused on a ladder set up against the backside of the large center tree. Following this ladder, I spotted a tent like structure set up in the tree! I vaguely recognized it as one of the tents hunters will sit in, in order to see prey from afar. It was not large, but could easily fit a single person, plus, it blended in with the tree to such a degree, I had trouble knowing where it began and where it ended. Upon further investigating, I found other features of the base that were quite interesting. Two paths fed into the clearing, both free of anything to obstruct the view of whoever was coming in. I was glad I hadn’t taken the path, for hey would have saw me coming a mile away. The land was almost perfectly flat around the tree, providing suitable conditions for tents and other structures. To the far left of the tree, I noted a plot of ground with surrounded by a white coat of paint. I assumed that this was an outline for a future structure they’d build there, or, more likely, a training ground. The rain picked up slightly, as did the wind. It was not incredibly cold, but my hands still shook subtly as I pulled out a note pad to write down my findings. Keeping an eye on the tents, I began to write the estimated size of the area as well as objects placed there. I began to assume the supplies that had been sighted moving into the base, were that of the tents and a few boxes crudely thrown nearby. There certainly were no BB guns, as the boxes would have been handled better, and the amount of troops was certainly nothing to worry about. This base was merely in its infancy, assuming it would ever grow larger than this. I remembered my time at THEY and how often they would abandon bases that were either too difficult to reach, or to likely to be found. With the wind now picking up and causing branches to fall, I figured I’d be able to contact Larson without risk of myself being found. “Larson,” I whispered over the walkie talkie. “We’ve infiltrated the base and I’ve jotted some notes down.” “Nice work,” Larson uttered from the other end of the com. “With speed like that, I suspect you met little resistance.” “That’s right,” I replied. “There are only two guys here right now and their not incredibly alert either.” “Good,” Larson replied. “Stick over there for a while just in case anything picks up. I’ll pull you out of there in about half an hour.” I rolled my eyes as I imagined lying in the mud, practically unmoving for half an hour. “Roger that,” I replied with a hint of anger. With that, I rolled to my side in order to easily slip the walkie talkie back into place. Suddenly, I heard a voice shouting out “Hey! Who is that?!” I gazed up, only to find a third THEY member, who had just came in from the trail! He was staring directly at me, and soon the other two members disembarked from their tents to see what the commotion was about. I was in such shock, I could no longer move! All I could do was remain frozen as they advanced closer towards me. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, one member suddenly shouted out, “Dan!?” I was stunned; a THEY member had recognized me and referred to me by my fake name back when I was still in THEY. It hadn’t crossed my mind once that I was an enemy of THEY, and now that I was caught… I couldn’t bear to finish the thought, I managed to stand and sprint away, as they began to pursue me. The chase was on.


Evasion:


There was no path where I had been stationed, leaving me only with the option to dash through the branches and bushes. All the while, I could hear the incoming of the THEY members incredibly close by. It was so dark; I imagined that they could most likely not see me very well, so I attempted to dive to my left and remain stationary. With a single bound, I broke through the brush and landed hard on my stomach. The THEM members went running past for a moment, but one managed to hear my lack of footsteps and stopped the group. As I crawled under a bush, they began to prowl around the area. One of them, clearly knew, walked in my direction and stepped nearly inches away from my foot. “You sure that was Dan?” one whispered, thinking I couldn’t hear. “Definitely,” said the other. “He was in S.S.C gear and everything.” As I listened, a cold breeze managed to hit me, filling my throat with a desperate urge to cough. I covered my mouth with both my hands as I attempted to hold in the infernal sound, and as soon as it had nearly left my windpipe, bushes in the distance began to shake and multiple noises in the distant bushes could be heard. “He’s over there!” one yelled. I took this moment to let out the heavy cough; thankfully, they managed not to hear it and continued to sprint into the distance. As I stood up, I felt an elbow in my side! I gazed up in fear and thankfully found it to be Derek. “Come on,” he whispered, and led me through some nearby brush, until the sounds of the THEY members were long drowned out. Derek and clearly been the one who had made the noises to distract the THEY members, I was in his debt… again.


Back to Base:


Derek and I fled the base intact and even managed to save our stuff. As great an achievement as that was, it didn’t change the fact we had been caught. I remembered Larson’s words about not worrying about being caught. After all, THEY spied on us as well. These were the only thoughts that soothed me as Derek and I approached Larson’s house, where the tent was still set up. Hearing our footsteps, Larson poked his head out of the tent, “What are you two doing back here?” he asked.  I’ve been trying to contact you.” I glanced at my walkie talkie, I hadn’t even noticed that it had been destroyed by the impact of my dive. I hadn’t even noticed due to my severe stress of the moment. “I… got us caught,” I said in disappointment. “They chased us through the woods, we…” my voice trailed off as Larson gazed over at Henry with a slight look of disappointment. “It alright,” Larson stammered. “It was your first mission and you had almost no time at all to prepare for it… curious though that they would chase you…” My only response to such a statement was a simple, “yeah”.  I almost gave kudos to Derek for saving me, but I knew he did not wish to have such attention drawn to him. “Nevertheless,” Henry said. “You still managed to gather a plethora of info about the base; I doubt much would have changed in the remainder of time you had left.” Henry then plucked a sketchbook out of his pocket and asked for the notes I had taken. As Larson questioned Derek about the route we took, Henry read through the notes and began to jot down what the base looked like via my descriptions. When he finished, I began to stare at the base for a majority of the time, practically unblinking. Finally, Larson looked his way and noted his gaze. “You think that’s the one eh?” he said. Henry remained vigil a bit longer and then came back to reality. “Could be…” He said. “It’s a very decent size, and well hidden too.” “What’s he talking about?” I asked, trying to take the focus off our failed mission. “It’s been Henry’s goal for a couple years now to construct a new base of operations for the S.S.C… looks like he’s interested in this one.” “It amazing,” Henry cut in. “It situated within an easy to reach, yet difficult to locate area with little to no entrances and room for as many alterations as we want.” “You thinking of taking it over then,” I asked? “No,” Larson replied quickly. “Henry doesn’t have the rank to create a base of operations, and I have no interest in doing so. But it’s good that he has goals, especially since his time in the S.S.C as well as mine will be over soon considering our ages.” This statement got me thinking, did I have any goals? What was I to succeed in? Why did I always have to follow my brother’s goals… what of my own?


Meltdown:


The snow had begun to melt, much to my surprise, as my brother and I made our way back home that night. I had no doubt that this wouldn’t be the last time we saw it. Yet everything felt peaceful, even tranquil during that time. I began to appreciate life at the moment instead of worrying about my future. Not that I had much to be thankful for mind you, except for the melting of the snow. When we arrived home from another silent journey home, I noted water dripping down into our house from the attic, at a moment’s notice, my brother busied himself stopping the leaks and collecting some of the water in containers. I got some food and managed to fall asleep. Only later the next day did I vaguely remember a dream I had during this time. From what I could recall, I was standing in a patch of snow, unable to move and hardly able to turn my head. Everything looked as if it had been slowed down extensively to the beat of my own heart. However, little to no sound could be heard. I recall looking down at my feet and noting that I was standing upon a thick sheet of ice, somehow growing thinner. Before I could even think to move myself from the spot, the ice gave way, sending me into the water, which was not cold, only dark. At a moment’s notice, I had awoken with literally a leap in my slumber. By then, it was already morning, and the dream escaped me until midday. I supposed that the meltdown had embedded itself into my dreams to, and that was the end of it.


Continued Training:


A week had passed before my brother or I had received any word from S.S.C members beyond that of Larson and Henry. I cannot say I blamed them for being so silent, after my failure in Operation Shadow, it was hardly a surprise. Nevertheless, Larson’s training grew ever more difficult. Flips strongly became that of focus, as did blocking hard punches without too much knockback or pain. At this point, Henry and I alternated between victories. Sometimes Henry would manage to overcome me with a plethora of successful hits to my side or a strong push which would throw me off balance. On other occasions, I’d manage to overcome Henry with a tackle to the ground or at times a barrage of chest kicks. Derek was a different story, he’d constantly lose battles with Larson, though he did improve his fighting performance slightly, it was still very much clear he was holding back. There had been no mention of Darkness in quite some time, but it was quite clear that Derek still had his mind set on it. As we arrived on yet another freezing cold day, Larson asked to meet with me as Derek went off to practice. “You’ve really been improving on those spars with Henry,” he said proudly. “So well, in fact, that I am now willing to allow you to meet the S.S.C, beyond that of Henry and I.” “Wow,” I replied. “I don’t know what to say… Derek is meeting them as well then?” Larson darted his head at the ground, I knew the answer before he could even speak. “Joseph,” he began. “Your brother is a decent fighter… but even when I’m going as easy as I possibly can on him, he just can’t seem to get out of such a… well… slump.” I was silent as I took this in, Derek would be pretty upset if I were to meet the rest of the S.S.C without him at my side. “Derek will get to enter the S.S.C ranks soon enough, it’s only a matter of time,” Larson continued. “If you accept, I’d be happy to introduce you to them today after practice.” I stood in silence, contemplating the situation. I felt an odd sensation in my heart. I couldn’t pin point it at the time, but I truly believe I was feeling, for the first time in a long time, the ability to make a choice… a choice in which my brother could not stop… What a great feeling it was, and I relished it for a while. But in the end, I knew that I’d have to come back to my senses. “As great an offer as that may be,” I stated. “I stick with my brother always… and I can’t leave him behind.” Larson shook his head and thought on the subject for a while. “Alright,” he began. “Tell ya what, I think it’s about time you and I had a spar. If I win, you’ll meet the rest of the S.S.C, if you win, I’ll yet your brother come with you.” He must have seen the worried expression on my face after he stated this, for he quickly restated, “Of course, I won’t go hard on you, but don’t expect me to go easy on you either.” I knew at this moment that I was playing with fire, if Larson wished to beat me, I assumed he could quite simply do so, but if I were to whip out some moves I had learned from my brother, surely this could throw him off guard to such a degree, that I could have my advantage. The rest of my thoughts on the matter were blurred, and I soon found myself shaking his hand as we met in the courtyard for a spar.


Ice:


Henry and Derek had been enlightened as to what was going on. I refused to look Derek in the eyes out of fear he would give me an icy stare which would turn me colder than I already was. “You ready Joseph?” Larson called. “Ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied with a slight laugh. With that, Larson ran towards me at great speeds. By all means, I was certain he was about to land a punch at my chest, so I quickly readied myself for a counter. Suddenly, only half a second afterwards, Larson drew his body up like a missile, and at a whim, kicked my legs out from under me. I punched the ground, Larson had fooled me. Getting to my feet, I used his close proximity against him and successfully kneed him in the stomach, allowing his recoiling body to fall into my awaiting hands. I soon had him in a headlock as well as pinning one of his arms into the air. It was clear this had not been the first time Larson had been in such a hold, because with a sudden burst of energy, Larson leaned forward, sending me flying over his back. Now dazed, I opened my eyes to find Derek staring at me. From the look alone, I could tell what he was thinking; I should have waited to use such a move, waited until he had tired. Taking this silent message to heart, I leaped back up and exchanged multiple punches in which Larson dodged with relative ease. I allowed my heart-rate to settle during this time. Being that he was not trying his best, Larson refused to jab back at me during this time. Knowing this, I continued the punches and more rapid speeds, sending him stumbling backwards as he attempted to counter them. I recalled an illusion Derek had showed me a year back. If I were to release my punch in a jaggedly fast way, and at the right angle to the opponents eyes, I could make him believe I was about to throw a harder punch than what I really was. Using this method, Larson was too fearful to cease his blocking. Now with him tiring, I tried to grab hold of his shoulder. Foreseeing this, Larson maneuvered himself out of my way, leaving me to only grab open air! I nearly stumbled, but used Henry’s methods of balance to keep myself steady enough to provide a sidekick to Larson. This successful hit caught Larson by surprise and I managed to follow it up with a hook and jab before being knocked back. Larson readied himself for another charge, I looked back at Derek again, and he was keeping a close eye on Larson. Noticing me distracted, Larson too stared over at him. The moment their eyes met, Larson must have noted such a cold stare, for he too became frozen for a second, as if hypnotized by the piercing stare. With this, I dashed forward, kneed Larson in the stomach, and before he even knew what was happening, Larson was once again in my hold. Only this time, he couldn’t find the strength to leave it. Granted, had I used this method in a real fight, it would be, in fact, quite useless, seeing as it required the full use of both my arms and even legs, to keep the captured enemy steady. At this point, there was nothing Larson or I could do. “I gotta say Joseph… you're even better than I thought,” Larson said. “You’ve clearly picked up on what Henry’s been teaching you… but remember, I still have some tricks to.” As soon as this was uttered, Larson propelled himself upwards, smacking his head into my jaw, sending me back in shock. With an equal amount of speed, Larson managed to spin around and catch me by the arm before I could fall to the ground. Now hauling me back up, Larson said “I’ll keep my word, as far as I’m concerned, you won this fight. I’ll have some members ready to meet with you tomorrow seeing as we’ve already lost a lot of daylight.” I looked at the sky, it was dark indeed, had we really been fighting that long, or was this an omen as to us getting closer to Darkness? On the way home, my brother didn’t speak to me, and furthermore, didn’t make me do any workouts at home. I supposed this was his way of saying he was proud of me. Good enough, I suppose. When I awoke early that morning, I decided to engage myself in the guilty pleasure of reading my good “friends’” mail. Arriving at the mailbox and checking to be sure that no-one was nearby, I began to read. Another message which was being sent by Luis.

I thought for a moment of what it would be like to get a chance to talk with Luis, perhaps even meet the people he’d mention from time to time. Even if I ever did, there wouldn’t be much to talk about. I had to watch every word I said, and perhaps Luis was not the kind of person I’d be interested in talking to anyways. Never the less, I’d be meeting some S.S.C members tomorrow, and I was deathly worried about it. As I snuck home, I played a few thoughts through my mind. These thought often involved me spilling the beans by accident, and alerting every S.S.C member of who Derek and I really were. I hoped that my brother would be able to locate Darkness with relative ease upon joining. Perhaps even within a week, though I doubted this considerably. The following night was a sleepless one to say the least.


Names:


By the time we had reached Larson’s house, a strong wind blew over the frosted ground, sweeping particles of snow into our faces. “Nice weather we’re having eh?” Larson joked when we arrived. “Henry is waiting for us over at the base. I was gonna take bikes over there, but the streets are too blanketed by snow. We’ll just have to walk.” “Not a problem,” I lied as we started our trek. “S.S.C bases, as you’d expect, are set up all throughout the town,” Larson stated as we walked. “Several of which even exist outside of the town. For that matter, when members move away, some have spread the ideologies of the S.S.C to their new homes. There are at least six other states which have adopted the S.S.C.” There was a pause. “It’s interesting to think about,” he continued. “While we’re down here with our own leaders, problems, and goals, their miles away, doing something totally different, something totally unaffected by us… It goes to show you how small we are, but not insignificant. The choices we make can have a domino effect which can spread the country.” “I don’t suppose they have to deal with THEY thou,” I presumed. “No,” Larson replied accordingly. “THEY have a much harder time spreading their ideas. To be honest, I’m not really sure if they have any ideas, any goals. In a nutshell, THEY is losing focus. There have been some rumors that they are even gonna change their name to THEM to signify their change in beliefs, their change in practice. Quite frankly though, even if it’s true, I don’t think it will happen. Something huge would need to take place for them to make such a change.” “It could boost security,” Derek said suddenly. “What do you mean,” Larson asked? “The townsfolk aren’t stupid,” he answered. THEY has been around for generations now, a change in the name, even the slightest one, could throw any suspicious person off.” “Hmm… I suppose you're right. I’m gonna have to mention that to the guys on top, they might be interested in something similar for the S.S.C,” Larson stated. “I don’t mean to sound impatient, but are we almost there?” I asked. “This base is located over in Blue Point, towards the north-east portion of the park,” Larson said. “You know the place?” I shook my head yes as Larson continued. “We take pride in having each base posses a special purpose. The one we’re headed to was nicknamed Old Triton. Its main function is for newcomers like you to be stationed there, get some more advanced training, and go on some simple missions and tasks.” “In which base are your better troops stationed?” Derek asked. As Larson thought this over, I wondered why he’d ask such a question; it was hardly of any importance. “I’d say our top base is Fort EITS, but that’s pretty debatable. Its located down south of here, near Kingsdale,” Larson replied. “What about documents,” Derek asked? “Involving past S.S.C members or something.” Now I understood. Derek was playing Larson like a fiddle, tricking him into revealing the location of the base in which we could find the records on Darkness’s father. “Easy,” Larson said. “It’s Fort Limbo. It’s put at a distance from most bases, so as to keep it hidden. I haven’t been by there in a while, but last time I went, I recall it being just outside of the city limits, and a few miles off the coast of a creek just east of here. We send some of our most intelligent members over there to look stuff over or simply to guard them.” “Sounds like a nice place to be,” Derek replied. “Indeed it is,” Larson said. “Perhaps we could all go some time, seeing all those cabinets full of files and photos from the past are truly something to behold.” “I couldn’t agree more,” my brother said. “I couldn’t agree more.”


S.S.C:


At long last, we arrived at the S.S.C base Larson had described. It was a run-down house, but with clear signs that it had been slightly managed to keep from leaking. Windows had been boarded up most likely to keep anyone from looking in. “Looks like home,” I thought to myself. The building had two floors; though Larson made it clear there was a small basement as well. I gazed up at the second floor and spotted an S.S.C member looking out the window at us. Noticing Larson with us, he called for someone who was also in the room to most likely answer the door. Just as I had expected, we were met at the entrance by an S.S.C member who was obviously younger than me. “Hey Larson, glad you could make it, the boss will be in soon.” Larson thanked him and we made our way into a larger room. A few S.S.C members walked into the doorway to get a glimpse at us, a couple of younger ones ran through the house, trying to catch each other. The new recruits varied significantly in age, by the looks of it, Derek and Larson were clearly the oldest in the whole place, with Henry and I being near runners up. I spotted one kid who I assumed was only eight years old, it was really interesting to me that the S.S.C was willing to take in such young recruits. At last, the “boss” did come out with a warm smile and hearty handshake for Larson. “So these are the guys eh?” he asked. “Seems like only yesterday you were tellin me you got a couple new apprentices.  I tell ya Larson, ain’t Henry enough already?” Larson laughed. “Henry is hardly an apprentice anymore; He’s already signed up for a codename. Looks like it’s gonna be Specter.” “Well now I’m jealous,” the boss replied with a grin. With that, he turned his attention to us. “As for you two, we’re glad to have ya onboard. The code-name’s Rigor, but you two can just call me Matt. Things won’t be much different here than they were before, only exception is that you can now start to see some real S.S.C work in action. Not only that, but we’ll be sure to send you two on some missions from time to time. It shouldn’t take long before you guys are shipped out’a here and taken to a more suitable base, considering your age.” After thanking him and going over a few more formalities, Matt showed us around the place. The base was exceptionally boring for the most part, consisting of very little to do during free time. Some members busied themselves playing cards, while others simply played sports outside. One thing that did catch my eye was the presence of food. In the basement of the house, a mini-fridge sat against the wall. Inside were some bottled waters and light snacks. These were available to anyone training at the base, and I was certainly thankful that I wouldn’t have to worry about getting food at home anymore. There was also a room for showering located near the front of the premises. I presumed it was simply a hose which had been fed into the wall, yet I had no clue where the water came from. This also lifted a burden off of my shoulders, bathing in the lake was surprisingly effective, but overall, it was simply getting to cold to continue the act. “Consider this your home away from home,” Matt said. I took that to heart.


The Plan Emerges:


After the long tour had ended and my brother and I made it back home, I couldn’t help but wonder what his plan was in obtaining the document we needed. Larson had stated only the smartest members stayed there, and even though my brother’s idea of name changing was a good one, it surely was not enough to get us stationed there. “How are we supposed to get this document anyways?” I asked. “There has to be well over 1000 documents over there.” My brother took very little time to think on it, he had clearly been prepared for such a question. “The name of Darkness’s father was revealed to me in the dream. His name is Gus, and I saw his face. All I need to do is look into the first names, I doubt there will be many Gus’s there as it is. Even if there are, I’d assume pictures of the members will be included anyways, allowing me to identify the correct one.” I recalled how my brother and I had our pictures taken only a week ago for just such a purpose. “That still doesn’t explain how we’re gonna get in,” I replied carefully. “Simple,” he said. “Larson will take us there for a visit, I’ll be sure of it. Once there…” my brother trailed off, knowing full well that I was aware of the mission. My brother amazed me really, that he could betray two people who have shown us nothing but kindness. My amazement was not a happy one though, it was out of disbelief, if I recalled correctly, my brother had told me to never grow attached to any individual who would hinder your plans, still though, such a statement came off to me as being truly ironic, seeing as he had done nothing to get my life moving. If I were to travel back in time two years, I doubt I’d even notice anything had changed.


New Training:


The next morning, Matt welcomed us with open arms as he introduced the rest of the crew. Though to any other person, the setup would have appeared exactly like my training with Larson and Henry, in only a single glace I could tell that this was something totally different.  There wasn’t much joy in the eyes of these individuals, Matt would occasionally call them by name, but overall just yelled and pointed. The individuality was gone here; the training which used to only focus on me was now spread out over an entire group of people. “Alright,” Matt said. “This entire week, we’ll be doing some workouts outside.” Nearly the entire group moaned, yet their legs carried on despite this. Matt waited at the door and began to hand out some jackets. He’d then reach into a box and pull out some other warm object. The lucky ones would get scarves or mittens. I was fortunate enough to get a coal-black ski mask, which I prayed I’d be able to keep. “If you guys do well in training this week, we’ll be heading out on a mission this Saturday. Do good, and you MIGHT just get promoted to duke it out with the real guys.” Matt gave Derek and I a slight nod and continued his pre-practice speech. While the practice that day was difficult indeed, it was the day afterwards things really began heating up.


Steak out:


I was met by my brother while shuffling around our house trying to stay warm. “C’mon,” he said. “We’re going out.” It was still freezing outside, but I was thankful that he woke me up midday for once, rather than the crack of dawn. I was also pleased to locate my ski mask lying on the floor; I was permitted to keep it on the grounds that I knew Larson. Upon dawning the warm mask, I fled the house and restrained myself from asking my brother where we were going. In a time which was shorter than I would have expected, we arrived over a large hill and looked down upon a sturdy-looking immense building in the middle of nowhere. “Fort Limbo,” my brother said, making a slight gesture. I instinctively ducked down, expecting an armada of S.S.C troops to come marching up hill to question us. “Relax,” my brother said without even so much as a whisper. “It’s Tuesday. Nearly all S.S.C members are at school right now.” Now embarrassed beyond belief, I stood back up and marveled it for a few moments. So many documents of the past, all lying within that one lonely building. “What are we gonna do,” I asked? “I thought you were gonna wait for Larson to take us.” “I am,” my brother replied. “We are here only to survey it, and its surroundings. If something goes wrong, you need to know where you are running.” I scanned the area, considering our distance away from the lonely building; I could tell that it was much bigger than how it appeared. The house was surrounded by a moat of hills, each one steeper than the last it seemed. However, I noted that where two hills met, a small valley was created. Running in such a direction would be the easiest way to escape… perhaps the only way. As I began to circle the building from a distance, I found that there were two doors, a main entrance and a back way. Neither door faced the valley, but it seemed easy enough to make the change without being captured. When we had saw everything that needed to be seen, we went back home, but I carried the image of that base away with me, it’d either make or break us… I hoped for the latter.


The Breaker:


That Wednesday, Matt met the troops by the hill and I soon found myself strapping on a weight vest. Younger recruits did the same, but with mere 2.5 pound weights strapped to them. I didn’t get a good look at mine, nor did I want to, my only thought was “please be 5 pounds. Please be 5 pounds.” Matt strapped on a vest as well and began giving orders. “Endurance time boys, I could give ya a thirty minute speech about how fun it is to run for 2 and a half miles, but I figured I could just show ya.” Uneasy laughter ensued. “In the big leagues, we call this hill The Breaker. I pray you don’t have to learn why. You’ll be jogging to the top of the hill and then sprinting back down it. We’ll do this until we’ve hit two miles. Understood?” I heard a few troops murmur in confirmation that they understood, but the reality of the situation was that no one expected to make it out of this work out in one piece. At the blow of a whistle, Matt lets us loose and the jog to the top began. Instantaneously, the full weight on my vest took hold, there had to have been 20 pounds on my back! Immediately falling behind the rest, including Derek, I grunted in pain and continued my forward lunges. “That the best you got Joseph?!” I heard Matt yell from a distance. He was taking up the back, to make sure nobody fell behind. I reached the top without much falter and did surprisingly well for the next three trips. But this was not to be I guess, because it all hit me on the fourth trip up. I was not alone in feeling this pain, younger recruits were beginning to slow down and pant uncontrollably. As I neared the top, my forehead began to sweat profusely, allowing the sweat to drip into my eyes. Though this was not a bother at first, soon my eyes were stinging as if two bees had had a field day on my pupils. I had no way of knowing when we were to reach to miles, and Matt wasn’t going to tell us anyways. I tried to take my mind off of the pain building up in my sides, but that was the least of my worries as my legs too began to cramp up. I had reached the top and now did a quick turn around the orange cone Matt had laid down as I began sprinting back down. Everything was fine at first, but when I glanced at a house for only a mere second, my foot was caught in a pothole that caught me so off guard, I was thrown to the ground in seconds with the full weight of the vest following me. The fall had taken its toll, I struggled to stand or move. Matt began to call out, “C’mon Joseph, you’ve come too far to quit now!” I struggled to regain my footing, but eventually I did indeed make my way back down the hill, where Matt and Derek waited. “You’ve got one more lap to go Joseph,” Matt said. “Make us proud… beat that recruit up there.” I turned my attention back to the hill, only to find a younger recruit (who was probably already one lap behind me), halfway up the hill! Taking no time to speak, I made quick steps and adjusted my ski mask the wind was against me and I felt as if my legs might fall off at even the slightest hindrance. There was also a sharp pain in my back, most likely from the fall I presumed. Ignoring both of these things, I progressed towards the top, where the recruit was only now getting ready to sprint back. Without hesitation, I broke into a heavy sprint after him. My strides were long enough to jump the stream behind my house, and the pains in my sides were strong enough to down three S.S.C members, but this would not stop me! The ice beneath my feet was no longer noticeable; I had seemingly tuned it out. The cold around me had vanished to; all I felt was the heat of my own body. The sounds of the world around me became distorted and eventually they fell silent altogether. The strides became faster, the pain vanished, the weight on my back became nonexistent… I was doing it… I was escaping reality just as my brother had told me, and entering a zone controlled by myself. He was right, the tranquility was soothing… I felt as if all burdens were passed and that the only thing standing in my way was merely my own thoughts. I could have remained in this world; this paradise, but a sudden hand on my shoulder shattered it, and just like that, I was back. Not only was I back, but I had passed the recruit 30 whole seconds ago, and continued to run afterwards until Derek caught up with me. Matt told me that he had never seen such concentration in The Breaker exercise. “You’re gonna make a fine trooper kid,” Matt said. I was grateful, but that was not the reward I wanted… I wanted tranquility… unbelievable, inescapable, tranquility.


Under the Eye:


Thursday was thankfully a day of easy workouts. The troops and I were sent to a field to partake in simplistic sparing, which really was quite boring. I was paired with a young recruit who clearly had no clue what he was doing. As this time was moving along at below a snail’s pace, I took notice of Matt standing at a distance with a figure dressed in all blue. The figure wore a navy blue vest, strapped behind the vest was a long stick. He also wore a light gray belt, strapped to which was a BB gun of the highest quality. Matt pointed in my direction, then to Derek. I could only assume that it was an S.S.C member he was speaking to, one of great rank and importance. As I stood mystified at the figure, my sparring partner got in a quick and lucky jab, with that, I went back to sparing. Once I managed to look back again for the two, they had vanished. Saturday was approaching; my first mission was on its way. However, it was not this thought that made me worried; it was the thought that once I did succeed in my mission, Derek and I would begin our master plot. For the first time in a long time, I began to feel as if I had already lost.


Training:


“Wake up boys!” Matt yelled from a megaphone, we’ve got a big day ahead of us. It was very early in the morning that Matt had told us to meet, and while we had all showed up, we were mostly asleep as we swayed around like palm trees in the breeze. “You’ve all got a mission on your hands tomorrow!” Matt said. “The real guys ain’t gonna go easy on ya, weather you're tired or not, YOU have to be the one who makes the move! Today’s workout… tree climbing!” The others shuffled around nervously; rubbing their hands together in order to stay warm, I was most glad I hadn’t forgotten my ski mask. “That’s right fellas!” Matt continued. “If I had a nickel for every time I had to climb a tree in the big leagues, I’d be broke! But that’s the point of this exercise, doing something that you know is pointless, but still must be done for the greater good! The field behind me is chalk full of trees of every shape and size! It’ll be your job to find a suitable tree and climb to the very top. Only the trees which have had blue ribbons placed upon them are allowed to be climbed! I don’t want anybody coming back to me without a blue ribbon! As we began moving towards the trees, Matt spoke once more. “One more thing! If you feel like you’re gonna fall… don’t.”  


The Climb:


Most recruits had already chosen a nearby tree once Matt had let us loose. I made the mistake of walking farther out just in case Matt had placed easier ones there. All I found were trees which grew even taller the farther back I went. Once I heard a whistle in the distance, I knew it was time to begin, so I chose a sturdy looking oak tree and began climbing towards the blue flag placed on top of it. I suppose such a task was relatively simple, it was certainly not as complicated as other workouts I had done. But the fact remained that I had never climbed a tree of this size before, there was never a need to do so. The first few branches were incredibly easy to grab onto, being that each one was large and sturdy, I might as well of had a latter at this point, it was that simple. As I began to encourage myself, a quick gaze upward revealed to me that I was far from reaching the top. Taking advantage of the sturdy lower branches I flung myself from one to the other, gradually getting higher up on the face of the tree. Smaller branches poked at my sides a briefly clung to my jacket, but this did not discourage me. In the distance, I heard a scream and assumed that one of the new recruits had fallen from his tree. I almost felt sorry for him before it occurred to me that most trees had a blanket of snow below them. As for my tree, the ground was practically barren below; I wouldn’t have the luxury of falling onto the icy net. The branches now began to thin and my movements became much slower. At one point, I had to creep around the entire tree in order to get a foothold and continue on upwards. Things only got worse from here; the branches that had once been plentiful had now disappeared almost completely. I was left with barren tree to shimmy up. Admittedly, I did indeed hesitate to do so, but with no other options left, I wrapped my arms around the tree and began to push myself upwards. The bark of the tree was wet and decayed, a slip of either foot wood surely result in quite a grizzly fall. I attempted to look up, but the tree remained so close to my face that doing so would surely scrape my entire face. This left me with only the option of looking left or right, which didn’t help at all in retrospect. My legs began to ache now, and my arms became heavy, with no clue as to how far up the tree I was, I could only imagine that I still had a ways to go. “Don’t stop now,” I told myself. “It’s too late to stop now.” A distant crash and yelp from behind me calmed me slightly; I was not as alone as I had thought. Nevertheless, I continued my shimmying, as the air seemed to grow colder and thinner even. In an instant, my foot gave way, sending my head shooting straight into the trunk of the tree. My head ached and for a brief moment, I held to the trunk with only two fingers on one hand. I began to struggle like a fish out of water as I attempted to return my foot to the tree, the only thing keeping me from sliding or falling back down was the location of my arms and the friction between the top of my head and the tree bark. Calming myself, I returned my foot to the tree and ceased all movement. I felt as if I was a part of the tree really… as if we were one in the same. I could have hung there forever really, allowing myself to freeze to the side of this accursed oak tree until I was nothing but a block of ice, hanging like a fruit. However, in my momentary struggle, I had dazzlingly caught a glimpse of a tree branch slightly to my left, it was still a distance away, and in truth, it was hardly worthy of being grappled to, but it was my only shot, for my head was now stinging and my hands grew sore. As I climbed, I took my mind off of the situation and recalled summer time. More specifically, my mind wrapped around a certain memory of three summers ago. I recalled the sweet warmth of the sun as it beat against my face and I had traveled to the lake to bathe. I recalled dropping a shampoo bottle and as I bent to reach it, a bee had stung my hand. The stinging was a painful one, similar to the feeling which echoed through my arms now. But I refused to dwell upon this. Instead, I imagined that I was there, lying in the lush, unkempt grass, feeling the cool breeze sweep the heat away from my face. I could almost see it, I could almost hear it… before I knew it, I had found that my arm had grabbed hold of the elusive branch. I was nearly at the top.


Breeze:


Returning to reality, I found myself perched upon the great oak. What was once a strong and thick trunk, now appeared to me as that of a twig. Beyond the fact that a fall from this height could kill me and beyond the fact that there were no other legitimate branches to grab, the strong winds and my heavy presence caused the tip of the tree to waver as if it were a flag blowing in the breeze. I held onto the trunk for dear life, but every movement I made only infuriated the tree, as it shook ever more violently. I didn’t dare to look down, I had never been so high off the ground, and I could only imagine that I was afraid of heights. The blue flag remained taped to the pinnacle of the tree, just out of my clumsy reach. With my eyes forced shut both willingly and due to freezing temperatures, I had no clue how to grab it without falling to my death. It occurred to me here that Matt was about the same height as me, and that if he could put the flag atop this monstrous tree, then I should be able to reclaim it. I knew at this point that my only other option was to stand on top of the branch and snatch the flag before my concentrated weight costed the branch its life… as well as my own. Slowly, I began to slide my hands against the tip of the tree and push myself upwards. I felt heavier, my body didn’t want to move, but I persisted. A sudden breeze stronger than the rest caused me to sway to and fro, struggling to maintain any type of graceful balance. I reached out to the trunk and steadied myself as I continued to trip upwards. The breeze grew stronger and the tree below me swayed wildly in different directions. Soon, I was standing on the branch, with my head parallel to the prize. Presently, I heard snapping at my feet, and in no time at all, I found my body plunging downwards! Without thinking, I snatched the flag and braced myself as I fell past the barren portion of the tree and towards the larger branches below. Time, it seemed, was moving five times slower, and my focus seemed to increase about as much. I spotted the nearest branch and desperately clung to it with a death grip. The full force of my fall was stopped instantaneously, causing my head to whip back in a sudden jolt. Now close to the ground, I let go of the branch and landed on my feet. The flag had remained in my hands, but all was not well. My neck ached horribly, and a massive headache also arose within me. I could not even think to move. All I could do was plop myself down next to the tree and begin to doze off. Blackness ensued.


Continuation:


I awoke to smell of burning wood and some mumbling from a distance. Clearing my eyes, I found myself laying on the floor of the S.S.C base, with most of the recruits looking down at me curiously. “Looks like he’s awake,” one said. Matt’s voice came calling my way, “How ya feelin Joseph? Considering the fact that you almost got a serious case of whiplash, I just figured I might as well ask.” “Where’s Derek?” I asked; absentmindedly. “Downstairs,” Matt replied. “Getting ready for the mission.” “Mission?” I replied. “How long was I knocked out?” Matt laughed, “Practically the whole day my friend. The mission in early tomorrow, theres only about four hours left.” I began to stand, but balance eluded me and the only thing keeping me from falling onto the floor was a recruit propping me up. “Settle down there kid,” Matt said. “I don’t think you're ready to handle a mission right now. My eyes widened, “I’ve gotta go… I promised Derek…” Matt looked at me somewhat sympathetically, “I suppose you have a few hours to heal up… but after that we gotta go.” With that, Matt departed downstairs and most of the recruits left me to sit on a busted couch. For the longest time, I sat there with my head buried in my hands. I knew perfectly well that there was no way I’d be able to accomplish a mission in my condition. I began to replay some old conversations with my brother through my head, recalling how important this mission was in getting us to the big leagues. However, these thoughts were interrupted by more dozing. At first I did not notice, and welcomed the sleep, but soon I erupted from the couch and walked about the room. “Get ahold of yourself Joseph!” I yelled. For the next few hours, I did basic stretches and anything else that could keep me awake but not injure me further. For a guy who had apparently slept an entire day away, I sure was tired. “Joseph,” called Matt’s voice from the doorway. “It’s time… you ready?” I nodded my head and with all the balance I could muster, I approached the door, trying to look fit as a fiddle. Matt did not seem to notice my ruse, and followed me downstairs, where everyone else waited. “It’s mission time fellas,” he began. “If you're sitting here today, that means you did everything right. But now it’s time to bring it all together and really get your hands dirty. Today’s mission… escort a group of S.S.C scribes to a safe place.” Everyone stared at Matt with confusion. “I guess I’ll explain,” Matt replied. “Every year, the S.S.C scribes that write our documents and files; move all of their new supplies from one base, to another. I won’t get to in depth here, but they do it in order to keep the locations of files, constantly changing. In the process of transportation, the scribes have noted that they’ll be passing through THEM territory. Your mission is to help transport those supplies without causing any ruckus. Understood?” Everyone saluted in reply and got ready to leave. In no time at all, all of us had marched down to the safeplace and met with some scribes. Our work was far from over though. Each of us were given a case of files and documents to strap around our backs. Mine was heavy, but I had dealt with worse. While Matt held back talking to a scribe, I spoke with Derek. “You don’t think they’re moving the file we’re looking for right now do you?” “No,” my brother simply replied. “Matt said these were new documents. The one we’re looking for is about as old as they co-”. Derek stopped speaking, as if something had caught his eye, but what had actually happened was the something had caught his ear. Without making a sound, Derek motioned that I listen in on the conversation between Matt and the scribe. Ignoring the wind in my face, I tried to focus in on it. “That’s what he told me; anyways,” I caught Matt saying. “He said that they’d wait by that hill over by the rocks.” “In that case, theyre going the wrong way,” the scribe replied. Matt spoke up, “Don’t worry, I’m gonna make a right turn up ahead here. At that point, go ahead and signal the boys with your walkie talkie.” “You really think they’re ready?” the scribe asked. “They don’t look as brave as previous groups you’ve brought in.” “I know what I’m doing,” Matt replied with a laugh. “So long as they think they’re actually fighting an enemy, they’ll show their true colors. I was working on making some THEM patches last night, just to seal the deal. They’ll certainly believe it’s the real thing. They always do.” With that, I returned to facing Derek. “What was that?” I asked. “There is a squad of S.S.C members up ahead, they’re going to jump us and pretend we are under attack. This whole mission is a ploy.” “Ploy or not, at least we know it’s coming,” I replied. Derek offered no response and we continued to trudge through the snow as it built up at our feet with every step. It felt strange to be lied to, I wasn’t sure why at first, but I later came to the conclusion that usually I was the one playing the part of the liar… then I wondered if I should have been proud of that.



After walking about a mile or so, I became worried that Matt had totally forgotten his plan. We had yet to turn to the right, and there were no rocks to be seen. Nevertheless, I remained hopeful; there were hills all around us, each one bigger than the last. At this points, the documents really began to weigh on my back, many recruits had to stop in order to catch their breath. At one point, I thought I had saw a head pop out from behind a snowy hill, but upon inspecting the area, I found nothing, assuming that it was a stray cat or perhaps just my imagination. My neck still ached at this point, but overall, I was feeling much better. Finally Matt called out an order. “Alright boys, you deserve a little rest. Wait here a little bit and warm up. We’ll be turning towards our target pretty soon.” I could finally breath a sigh of relief. The attack was near. “Do you think we’re gonna make it there alright?” one younger S.S.C member asked me. “If we don’t freeze first,” I replied. “We might as well be swimming in some ice water with some polar bears.” The younger member laughed and went back to warming up his hands. It had been some time since I had made anyone laugh. It felt good. Good in a way that I don’t think I’ll ever really understand. It was at that moment that I heard wild shouting coming from the hills nearby. At first I believed that we had awoken spirits who rested here, for I could see no humans uttering the sound. Matt straightened up and whispered something indistinguishable to the scribe. Thats when I saw them. A horde of up to 28 “THEM” members descending down the hill side at full speed. I gave a crooked smile as I prepared for the sooner than expected fake attack. “Stand your ground boys!” Matt called out. “Don’t back down! Keep fighting the good fight!” I caught a glimpse of one of our invader’s forearm, which barred the THEM purple circle logo. The troops surrounding me dropped the files and formed a clumsily made battle position. Our fake attackers finally reached our location and the fray began. As I locked arms with one of the attackers, I caught a glimpse of Matt battling fiercely in the distance. It confused as to why he’d be fighting so hard against a bunch of fake raiders. I pushed my opponent to the ground and proceeded to step on him as I made my way to aid some of the younger kids. As I pulled one THEM soldier off of my comrade, I noted that the scribe which Matt had been speaking with earlier, was under siege. I attempted to run his way but was quickly tripped by yet another attacker. As I laid on the snowy ground, I watched as the attacker beat the Scribe continuously in the mouth. The scribe’s head was twisted to the side and a tooth fell from his bleeding mouth. Thats when it hit me. These were not fake attackers. These were real THEM members. We were under attack.


Confrontation:


I rolled away from my current attacker and sprinted towards the one who had knocked out the scribe. At full force, I leaped his way and socked him in the jaw, sending him down immediately. I was now separated from most of my comrades. The ones that remained were of little use. Aside from Matt, Derek, and myself, our forces were merely stalling the inevitable. I was suddenly punched in my side and pushed to the ground. recovering from this blow, I sprang up and managed a swift headbut in the face of my attacker. An incoming fist found itself in my grasp and I threw the member to the side. Three attackers were now focusing on me. As they began to head my way, I backed up and fell over a mound of snow. One raider made the mistake of standing over me. He received a quick kick to the chest and throat. The other two were far more prepared though. One hauled me up and locked my arms behind me as his partner began to wail away on my stomach. Thinking quickly, I used the member behind me as leverage and lifted both my feet in the air, kicking my attacker in the stomach. With both my feet on the ground now, I leaped backwards and landed on successfully pushed the THEM member behind me to the ground beneath me. I looked around again. There were so very few of us remaining and I was in bad shape. Only then did I recall seeing the scribe and his walky-talkie. If I were to locate that walky-talkie before getting my face smashed in, I’d be able to call in the fake THEM members to our assistance. I began pushing through the crowds, attempting to locate the fallen transmitter. While pulling a few THEM attackers off of my friends, I successfully found the device lying near the fallen scribe. Two raiders noticed my presence and began running my way, attempting to tackle me. With no options left, I dove towards the walky-talkie, leaving the two THEM members to tackle each other instead. I grabbed the walky-talkie and turned it on. “We are under attack!” I yelled out. Before I could say more, a hand grabbed the device away from me and threw it to the ground. The attacker snickered and slugged me in the throat. I fell next to the walky-talkie. It was smashed. I could only hope that my message had gotten through and that the fake ambush would know where to look. I was stepped on by my attacker and was about to be punched out if it were not for Derek throwing another raider at him, knocking them both into the snow. I managed to locate Matt and three others as they were under heavy siege. Acting quickly, I kicked one THEM trooper in the back before whipping another in the face. One attempted to get back up and trip me, but Matt delivered to him a swift kick to the face. One of our members was knocked out cold by a THEM trooper who seemed relatively familiar to me. He bared a large scar above his right eye and his face was scattered with freckles and stress-related wrinkles. Ignoring this, I attempted to kick the attacker, but my foot was caught and I was flung back to the ground. Matt and the other S.S.C member tackled the guy to the ground, resulting in both the THEM member and one of our guys being knocked out. Suddenly, another noise was heard from the hills, but this one was far more glorious. Coming to our rescue was a group of ten or so S.S.C members, dressed as THEM troopers. Our confused enemies stood no chance against an attack such as this. The very moment our troops clashed with the enemy, we were victorious. I was about to thank our saviours, but their attention was drawn to a figure standing not so far away. I looked over and found Talon; leader of THEM, standing shocked over his fallen comrades. “I didn’t want this,” he said briefly. Before Talon could move or say more, he was tackled by two of our guys and restrained. Every S.S.C member around seemed to smile. Matt eventually shook hands with everyone who had helped and only briefly acknowledged the fact that I had been the one responsible for saving us.”Excellent work boys,” Matt said; standing before us. “Don’t bother taking in all these troopers. We are in the middle of nowhere, it’s far too much work. As far as I’m concerned, this mission is a success. We have our prize.” Matt looked over at Talon who was now flanked by five S.S.C guards. “You can all head back to base,” Matt said warmly. I adjusted my ski mask and began to file behind some of our guys. Suddenly, Matt called out, “Oh not you.” I looked back in confusion. Matt motioned towards Derek and I. “You two are go’in with them.” Matt pointed towards the S.S.C members who were beginning to take leave. Derek immediately turned towards them and began to walk behind. I could not help but falter at the thought of going somewhere new. Matt walked up to me and saw the distress on my face. “Joseph,” he said. “You and your brother never belonged here. You deserve more than any of these guys to be a part of something bigger. I’m tired of wasting your time with these prissy missions and exercises. And thats why I’m not gonna make you sit through some stupid ceremony that you're gonna forget about two days later. Just go with’em. They are where your future lies.” I gave a slight smile and Matt gave me a push towards the real troopers. “Better get go’in before they leave ya,” Matt said. So I went.


A New Game:


The walk to who knows where was a long one. The real S.S.C members were quite quiet, much like Derek. I heard one give an occasional order, but none were ever directed at me. I worried at first that they were not even aware that we were supposed to be going with them, but none ever objected to my presence. Talon remained eerily quiet as he was transported. It was quite uncommon for someone as important as him to be captured so easily. To some extent, I wondered if his capture was part of some elaborate plan. But when I passed him once, the leader seemed so generally upset. Talon may have felt my eyes looking at him, because he once looked up in my direction. I nearly turned away in fear that he’d recognize me from our time in THEM, but then I recalled that my ski mask hid my identity well. Finally, one of the S.s.C troopers turned to me. “Name?” he asked shortly. “Jospeh,” I replied. There was a silence as the walk continued and the trooper thought over some things for a bit. “We are going to our primary base of operations,” he began. “We would not do this under most circumstances but… this is different. The leader of the S.S.C as well as many elite troopers shall be present during this meeting. Do not make yourself stand out from the crowd. Once we have finished our business there, you are to follow us.” “Understood,” I said. The trooper then silently left me and approached Derek for a similar conversation. I was amazed by how orderly the troops were. I couldn’t even recall hearing one cough. Two of these troopers carried BB guns, symbolizing their authority. Along with this, some members carried long sticks which I assumed were for battling, though I had never seen such a weapon used by THEY. Perhaps it was my curiosity that allowed the time to pass too quickly, for soon we had reached the door of an incredibly large warehouse of sorts. One of the troopers gave a grand hand gesture to a figure looking out of a boarded up window. With that, we were allowed entry. I expected to be greeted by warm air, but it was just as bitterly cold inside. S.S.C soldiers turned their attention away from sparing or exercises and came our way to get a glimpse of our prisoner. Finally, we came to a halt and were quickly flanked by elite troops who took Talon towards a being leaning against a metallic support beam. The being was Brian; leader of the S.S.C.


Fanning Flames:


“Talon,” Brian said as he walked forward to get a good look at the prisoner. “It is my understanding that you have engaged in an attack against our S.S.C forces.” “This is true,” Talon mumbled. “You do realize that an attack like this would give us perfect reason to declare war,” Brian stated. “Your forces were in our territory,” Talon said. “We have the right to protect it.” “Territories are not agreed on or of any great importance. Even you know that after last time,” Brian replied. Talon looked down for a moment. “It was not my order to attack,” Talon said. “My right-hand man Gus gave the order against my wishes.” “What lies!” Brian exclaimed. Talon finally looked up and stood to Brian. “We are not the only ones to get our hands dirty,” he said. “I have received word from by troops that two of your S.S.C members snuck into our soon-to-be base and spied on us.” I began to back up. Could he really be talking about Derek and I? Talon continued, “These two troopers were recognized as once being part of THEM. They betrayed us and vanished… until now.” “what is your point?” Brian asked; annoyed. “The point,” Talon began. “Is that I have reason to believe that you were the one to place them in THEY to begin with. You used them to steal information from us and report back to you.” I nearly stumbled over in panic. Talon was indeed referencing Operation Shadow! Some elites were looking at me now. I couldn’t tell if they knew or if they simply noticed my strange behavior. Brian laughed. “You are lying,” he said. “You're simply trying to cover up for the fact that you attacked us for no good reason. Or you are trying to start a war.” “You sewed the seeds of war when you sent those members our way and made them try to overthrow me!” Talon wailed. “If its a war you want, it’s a war you get!” Now everyone in the room seemed concerned, even Brian. “Lock him up,” Brian said at last. “Not such a good idea,” Talon replied. “My troops have been instructed to raid any small base of training operations if I do not return within an hour of leaving.” Talon smiled. “Do you REALLY want to put new recruits at risk?” Brian momentarily stared angrily into Talon’s eyes, trying to overwhelm him I suppose, but finally he spoke. “Let the coward go,” Brian said. “The moment he steps foot outside of this base, war will ensue.” With that, the elites hesitantly pushed Talon to the door. “Enjoy your anarchy,” Brian told him. In no time at all, Talon was gone.


Actions:


I suppose it had all been building to this. All of our actions, all of our decisions. I should have seen it all coming. My head was spinning now. I felt as if I was about to puke from anxiety. If the S.S.C were to launch an investigation, they would easily find out that Talon was telling the truth and that we were in fact traitors. The very thought of the word traitor made my head spin even more. I had never really used that word to describe myself, but thats what I was. Now, because of Derek and I, the S.S.C was going to war for the first time in ages. One of the elites saw my anxiety and told me to go home for the day and meet them at Hendricks Field the following morning. When I made it home, I laid down and began to cry. The thought of Larson, Henry, Matt, or any of those new recruits getting hurt because of me was overwhelming. Soon, the door opened and my brother stepped in. At first I thought he had left the room, for no noises could be heard, but soon I received a kick to my side. As I attempted to stand, I was taken by the shirt and pinned against the wall. “You nearly got us caught,” my brother said bitterly. “I just co-” I began, but was cut off. “I don’t care how you feel about the S.S.C or any of the members within it,” my brother said. “We have our own mission to attend to and this war is not going to stand in our way. Now pull yourself together and think of a good explanation as to why you were acting the way you did. I have no doubt the elites will be wondering.” With that, he let me go and left the room. He was right. We had a mission. This war was none of our concern. If anything, it was a distraction.


War:


That morning when I awoke, my brother was nowhere to be found. I assumed that he had already begun to head over to Hendricks Field. Strapping on my winter gear and ski mask, I made my way there. I relayed my explanation multiple times as I approached the area. Even stuttering could blow our cover. So long as Brian and the rest of the S.S.C continued believing that Talon was lying, we were fine. When I arrived, I found a platoon of S.S.C soldiers standing about the field chatting or stretching. Derek was there too, as I had expected. One soldier approached me and looked me up and down. “You are Joseph right?” he asked. “Yes sir,” I replied. “I’m Robert,” he said; shaking my hand. “And I’m your new leader. I gotta say, I was worried you wouldn’t show up after how you looked yesterday.” “What did I look like?” I asked. “Green,” he said with a smile. “I was just overwhelmed with what was happening… it … got the best of me.” Robert seemed satisfied with this excuse and led me around the field. “Under most circumstances,” he began. “These guys would be enacting in some routine workouts and spars, but things have changed. The S.S.C is at war and so I was sent to the platoon by Brian himself to oversee your progression.” “So you are not the normal leader?” I asked curiously. “No,” Robert replied. “But so long as the S.S.C is at war, I’m here to stay. This is the big leagues man, don’t squander your chances.” I nodded my head and looked closer at Robert. He wore all blue and carried not only the long stick, but a BB gun of high quality. It was the BB gun that really made him stand out. I recognized the orange marks down the sides. Robert was the same figure I had seen talking to Matt quite some time ago. I could only pray that he was not as familiar with Larson. “We will be engaging in a series of missions that will put you to the brink of exhaustion,” Robert said. “When I’m done with you, you’ll be fighting THEY members with your eyes closed.” I laughed. “You’ll be working with those two guys over there,” Robert said; pointing to two individuals standing in the distance. “They are somewhat new like you. I’d guess you’d get along pretty well.” “When is our first mission,” I asked. Robert smiled. “Tonight,” he said. “And every day to come. This is war now. No day goes to waste.”


Trio:


“My name is Joseph,” I said as I extended my hand to greet my two new partners. They shook it eagerly. “I’m Clocker,” said the darker skinned one with a smile. “I’m Apollo,” said the bruised up one. “I take it those aren’t your real names huh?” I said with a laugh. The two grinned. “Nah,” said Apollo. “We don’t bother with names. We here enough of those during the day.” Any idea what the mission is?” I asked. “Please don’t tell me it has something to do with climbing trees.” “Ah,” said Clocker. “You climbed trees during your training huh? You good at it?” “I’m good at falling of of’em,” I replied. The two laughed. “Yeah,” said Clocker. “The mission today is pretty simple. We’re gonna randevu with an S.S.C brigade just south of here and trade off some supplies. Now that we’re at war, we need all the weapons we can get.” I shook my head. “Hope this turns out better than it did last time for me. I’d prefer not to get my face broken a second time. Maybe I’ll make that my New Years resolution.” The two laughed again. “We need a nickname for you,” Apollo said with a laugh. “Funny Man sound good?” I thought on it for a while. I had never had a nickname before, but that didn’t mean I was gonna pick a name like Funny Man. “I’ll have to get back to you on that,” I laughed.


Mission:


We crouched behind some bushes as we made our way passed some THEY territory. We were told that if anyone spotted any soldiers from the opposite side, we were to hide and wait for them to pass. Once again, we were forced to carry heavy supplies in large sacks which were not permitted to touch the ground. Mine had to weigh at least fifty pounds. Our guys are just up ahead,” Robert whispered as we neared a barn. Finally, we reached the group and warmed up for a bit without any issues. Apollo and Clocker were quick to following me. “So how’d you end up here?” Apollo asked me as we began to head back. “What do you mean?” I responded hesitantly. “Well,” explained Apollo. “The way I see it, most people either join the S.S.C cause one of their parents was in the group or cause their parents don’t really care. Which are you?” I’ll be honest in admitting that I never much thought of my parents anymore. I had buried emotions like that a long time ago. Though I had to respond with something. “My dad used to be and S.s.C soldier,” I stated proudly. “Really?” Clocker asked. “Was he of a high rank?” I began to get caught up in the lie now. “Oh yeah,” I said. “He was similar to Robert. Real tough guy.” “Nice,” Clocker said with a nod. “I’m not so lucky. My parents could care less what kind of business I get into. I think they stopped caring after I refused to stop fighting. But hey, I personally think I made the right choice.” “What about you Apollo?” I asked as we continued our slow and steady trudge through the snow-covered hills. “Rather not say,” Apollo retorted. “Some stories are better left forgotten. “I’ll tell ya this though. Some-” everyone was suddenly hushed by Robert’s still hand, raised in the air. Now drawing my attention away from my two new friends, I found myself out in the open as everyone else leaped behind a bush or two for shelter. In the distance, two THEM members patrolled the area. I could do nothing now but lye on my stomach and wait for them to pass, hoping I wouldn’t be caught. A single movement would alert them to my presence. I could no longer see, my face was buried deep within the freezing cold snow. However, my sense of hearing became heightened and I could certainly pick up the sounds of voices and footsteps coming closer. I could now only wait for the inevitable. Realizing all was lost, I swiveled my head to the right and stared at my comrades apologetically. Suddenly, I saw Robert scoop up a handful of snow and carefully chuck it at one of the THEM soldiers just as he bent down to tie hi shoe. Now angered, the soldier stood back up and tackled his accomplice with fury. In that moment of struggle, I too managed to leap behind some cover. Robert had saved us. “Thanks,” I whispered to my hero. “Not a problem,” Robert replied. “I’m not looking to battle just yet.”


Mail:


Despite the close call, our first mission had been a success. Apollo and Clocker had spent the rest of that evening asking me more about myself. And as such, I spent the rest of that evening building up some more lies. When I returned home that night, I could not help but feel overwhelmed once more about my behavior and the lying I was resorting to so often. Perhaps this was why my brother hardly talked. Maybe he hated the lying just as much as I did. Wanting to clear my head and possibly my conshence, I decided to stop by Luis’s mailbox and see what it was like in the lives of those who didn’t have to lie to live. As such, I did not get much sleep that night, as I was well aware that I’d have to get up earlier than usual. Luckily, my internal clock woke me at about the right time and I busied myself trying to sneak out without making too much noise. However, once I passed my brother’s room, I noted that he was nowhere to be seen. It was much too early for him to have met with our S.S.C comrades. Only then did I hear the slightest of noises coming from a private room that my brother had taken the time to construct a door for. I curiously placed my ear against the door and listened. I had only been in the room twice, it was pretty much off limits for me. The last time I had seen inside of it was practically a year ago. At first the sound was indistinguishable, but soon I found it to be that of writing. Whatever he was working on, my brother was doing it incredibly fast. The sounds of his writing came in quick decisive bursts. I could only dream of being able to write so fluently. Suddenly, the weight I was applying to the door caused a slight creak to emanate. At that moment, the writing ceased. Terrified now, I carefully made my way out of the house and sprinted for the mailbox in hopes that my brother would not follow me. Thankfully, I arrived without falling or being caught. As expected, a message was waiting to be sent. Carefully, I removed the letter and read it’s contents eagerly.

I sighed and placed the letter back into the mailbox. As I closed my eyes and attempted to forget the situation, my anger only mounted. Finally, able to take no more, I shouted at the top of my lungs and wailed away at the metal mailbox with all of my fury. No matter where I went, the burden of this war followed me. Now because of me, I’d no longer be able to read messages between the two people who I really related to most. Finally, I ceased my howling and placed my back against a tree. “When will I know I’ve went to far?” I asked myself. I offered no reply and noted that it was about time for me to head down to practice. My agony would have to wait.


A New Task:


I arrived pretty early at today’s meeting. Only Robert and a couple other members were already at attendance. “Joseph!” Robert exclaimed. “Glad you're here. I suppose your brother is on his way?” “Yep” I replied. “How have things been?” Robert sighed and adjusted his boots. “Not great,” he said. “As you’ll hear from plenty of other guys, one of our smaller bases of operation was attacked the other night. THEY’s hand was to quick and too powerful for anyone to stand in their way. In times of war like this, we are bound to lose a lot of members thanks to injuries or just flat out giving up.” I looked down at my feet and gave a hard sigh. “No need to worry,” Robert said. “We are just as prepared and they are. We always have been. The way I see it, war was bound to happen anyways. THEM and the S.S.C have never gotten along. They were created that way.” “Can you tell me today’s mission?” I asked; trying to change the subject. “Easy stuff,” Robert replied. “We’re heading down to a base in Red Wood to fix up an aging base there. I’ve already sent over supplies. All we need now are some helping hands to get the place in working order again.” “Understood,” I replied. “Noting that more soldiers were beginning to show up. Our march towards the base took a while, but cold didn’t seem to affect me as much anymore. It was as if my blood was just as cold as the vile substance. When we arrived, it was quite notable that the base was in shambles. Holes riddled the walls, chunks were taken out of the floor, and leaks were present. Derek and a couple of guys went onto the roof while the rest of us worked on the outer walls and inner flooring. For one, I was not given the difficult task. Instead, I got to remain inside and hand out boards. Clocker was allowed to do so as well. “Hard to believe S.S.C members could stand to stay in this place,” Clocker said as he handed me a board. “I mean look around, you could twist an ankle in one of these holes.” “Don’t tempt me,” I said as I received yet another board. Clocker laughed. “Seriously though. This place is a mess. I have no doubt that any S.S.C member who grows up in this kind of environment will never reach their full potential.” I looked around and the house. It reminded me of home.


Arguement:


In only a few hours, the house was already in much better shape than before. Holes had been covered, rotting wood was replaced with fresh pieces, windows were either fixed or covered up, and the roof was looking fine. Most guys were now working on the final touches of the last room. It felt nice to not have to constantly be on edge about what would happen next. However, this feeling faded away when a sudden loud noise shook the roof above us. There was a muffled shouting and more shaking ensued. Quickly, we all left the premises to check the roof. One S.S.C soldier lyed out-cold on the edge of the roof, while another was storming towards Derek! “Somebody hit me with that hammer!” the soldier yelled; infuriated. “Hows about you feel some pain, huh quiet guy?” “Stop right there!” Robert yelled from below, but the soldier paid him no mind. All he could do was swear up and down as he made his way towards my brother who was staring him down while standing in place. In a sudden burst of speed, the soldier rocketed towards Derek but only succeeded in punching the air. Derek had moved to the left in less than a second. The soldier turned around and attempted to deliver an uppercut, but his fist was caught and Derek’s knee shot into his opponent's throat. My mouth was hanging open, it had been some time since I had actually seen my brother legitimately try to fight. In a last effort attempt, the soldier grabbed hold of my brother and lunged to the side, trying to throw them both from the roof. Derek lost his footing and the two began to roll downwards. Robert attempted to climb up in time to help them, but was too late. The two began to fall from the top. I closed my eyes and flinched, but a lack of any falling sound caused me to draw my attention back towards the two. Derek had latched onto the gutter with his feet and the soldier clung to him tightly. The fall was not a long one, but it’d certainly sprain his legs upon contact. The soldier’s grip began to loosen, he could no longer hold on, and Derek showed no signs of letting go. With a quick yelp, the soldier plummeted to the ground as Derek did a silent sit up; placing him back on the roof. The soldier tried to stand, but proceeded to fall to his knees in pain. It was then that Robert approached him. I had thought that he’d help the fallen soldier up, but Robert had other things in mind. Robert grabbed the soldier’s throat and directed his face upwards so that they could look each other in the eye. “You think you’re tough?” Robert asked with his teeth clenched. “You are nothing!” Robert began to wail away at the soldier’s stomach until he had begun to cry. Only then did Robert knock him out with a square punch to the face. “Let this be a lesson to all of you,” Robert said as he wiped blood from his knuckles. “You do nothing unless I tell you to do it! Is that understood?” “Sir, yes sir!” we all replied. Except for Derek. Derek had nothing to say. He did not fear Robert, he did not fear the S.S.C, he did not fear this war. Derek had other things to worry about.


Lesson:


Our trek back to base had been incredibly silent. We were ordered to take turns carrying the fallen soldier. Even Apollo and Clocker had no more to say. Once we had arrived back to base, we did some basic exercises before being allowed to return home. Needless to say, I was glad to be back. As I sat in silence for a while, my brother entered the room. “They are very much alike,” he stated. “Who?” I asked. “The S.S.C and THEM,” my brother replied. “Their fighting, their missions, their ways of thinking, their attitudes. The fact that such similar groups can’t learn to settle things out, is something that sickens me.” He was quite right. What that S.S.C soldier and Robert had done that day, was certainly not what I had expected from the S.S.C. “I guess there are no good guys or bad guys anymore,” I said. “There never were,” my brother replied. And he left.


Dreary:


That morning, I awoke to a noise that had not met my ears in quite some time; chirping. I quickly rushed outside and just as I had expected, a bird was perched on top of a dying tree nearby. Winter was starting to fade away. There was a noise in the distance and I raised my head only to find dark clouds heading my way. These were not early signs of a snowstorm though. I was certain that these were rain clouds! Winter was coming to an end it seemed. Even so, it was still quite cold outside, forcing me to dawn the ski mask once more. Just as I left the house to go to the meeting, the rain began to fall. It began as small droplets, but eventually escalated to a downpour. Nevertheless, the S.S.C soldiers still stood vigil in the field. We were all ordered to sit down and await further commands. As usual, Apollo and Clocker came to sit by me. “Ah,” said Clocker as he gazed up at the sky. “Gotta love a little rain!” Apollo snorted in response. “You think this is nice?” he said. “Maybe its alright now, but when we get home, these cloths are gonna retain freezing cold water.” “We’ll be walking refrigerators,” I elaborated comically. “Oh settle down you two,” Clocker said. “If theres even a single flash of lightning, we’re going home.” Robert finally came to our attention and we all grew silent. Just as he was about to speak, a crack of thunder and a distant strike of lightning caught our attention. Apollo flashed a quick smile and some members began to talk amongst themselves about leaving. “That enough talk!” Robert yelled as he stared back up in the sky. “You aren’t going anywhere!” It was quite obvious he was still upset about yesterday’s events. I wondered what that meant for us.


Sneak:


“Today we’ll be staying here in the field. We are going to test your ability to sneak up on a target. Fighting won’t solve everything, and if you can take out an enemy before he can even become a threat, you are doing the right thing. This is why I’ll be sitting in the center of the field, and wait for each of you to try and sneak up on me without me hearing you. You must then put me in a headlock of which I am incapable of escaping or calling out for help. Each of you have two minutes to do these things once it’s your turn. You all disappointed me yesterday, don’t make the same mistake now.” With that, we made a line and stood about 50 meters away from Robert’s location. “This is too easy,” Apollo said as the first in line was released. “With all this rain and thunder, there is no way he’s gonna be able to hear us!” “I don’t even need the rain,” Clocker said proudly. “I once snuck up on four THEM members and silenced them all without being caught and without any help.” “Maybe in your dreams,” Apollo replied. With that, we watched as the first in line began a slow trek towards Robert. His mistake was obvious from the get-go. He had spent so much time slowly approaching his target, that once he was within 10 feet, he had already ran out of time. “Next!” Robert called out; his back turned. The next soldier, trying to avoid the mistake of the last; sprinted towards Robert and before even reaching 30 meters, was heard and forced to turn back. “Pathetic,” Clocker said as he made his way to the front of the line. “Let me handle this.” After being called, I watched as Clocker steadily tip-toed his way towards Robert. As far as I could tell, he was doing fine, but within a mere 7 meters or so, Robert spun around and ordered Clocker to turn back. Clocker stormed back to us in a fit. “There is no way he could have heard that!” he exclaimed. “Robert is just lying!” “I dunno,” I replied. “He might have heard you step in the wet grass as you came that way. Your foot applied to much pressure to the ground below you.” Apollo began to nod his head in agreement, but he was not alone. A majority of the other soldiers were silently agreeing with my diagnoses. “What would you suggest?” one asked. “I’d suggest throwing a rock at his head and finishing him off that way,” I replied jokingly. The troops began to laugh as they contemplated the idea. “Seriously though,” I said. “Walking with your heels hitting the ground first will silence your steps and offer less pressure.” “Worth a shot,” said the next soldier as he made his way up. “This trooper followed my orders, but was still to slow in reaching Robert in time. This trend continued for quite some time. Some made it farther than others. On rare occasions, someone would manage to put Robert in a headlock, but were quickly thrown off. Apollo was one of these people. “What's your advice for putting him in a headlock?” one member asked me. Unfortunately, I held no answer. “A headlock is effective on some people and not effective on others,” I said. “Finding the perfect one is nearly impossible.”Rain began to pour down harder as the line grew shorter and shorter. Finally, the only remaining troops left were Derek, two soldiers, and myself. It was my turn now. As soon as I stepped foot into the field, I began to understand what was taking people so long. The field was riddled with holes and bumps of every shape and size. I had already witnessed two members fall to the ground. Even worse, the freezing cold rain was beginning to accumulate in some areas; sprinkling the entire field with patches of water. Not wanting to make the same mistakes as the others, I began walking on the heel of my feet as instructed. I moved somewhat quickly as I weaved around the patches of water. On one occasion, my foot squeaked silently as I made a step. Thankfully, Robert had not heard the noise. Finally, with thirty seconds remaining, I approached Robert and stood still for a moment. I feared that the slightest of a wrong movement could spell my doom. I could not stand here much longer though, he’d feel me breathing on the back of his neck.Holding my breath and ignoring the rain, I quickly wrapped one arm under Robert’s chin and pushed his head forward with my other hand. This push forward sent Robert’s mouth into my forearm, which muffled any sound he could make. Robert began to struggle immediately and began to twist his head far to the left. I could do nothing now but push harder on the back of his head, making it more difficult to maneuver. Finally, Robert ceased his moving and signaled for me to stop. Our leader now spun around to see who managed to finally best him. I’m sure you can imagine his surprise when he found out it was the new guy. Immediately, most of the other troops came running my way, slipping on the wet ground as the ran to congratulate me. It actually felt good to have done something right. I felt as if I had actually accomplished something and taught others an important lesson in the process. “THEM members standing in the middle of wet fields beware!” I shouted as the groups cheered for me. Finally, Robert cut in. “You're a sneaky one,” Robert said as he shook my hand. “How’d you manage that?” I was about to come up with something to say, but Clocker quickly cut-in. “His dad was a high ranking S.S.C member. It’s in his genes I guess.” Robert looked surprised. “Really?” he asked. “What was his name or unit? I’ve probably heard about one of them.” My heart stopped. Any joy or peacefulness I had felt were now gone. Never would I have thought that a fake story about my fake dad would come back to bite me, but in retrospect, I should have seen it coming. Now all I could do was stand there and stutter as ideas and excuses raced through my head. People were staring now; noting my obvious confusion at such a simple question. “This is it,” I thought to myself. “They’re gonna learn the truth because of me. Why can't I just keep my mouth shut!” Everything was silent now. No one was saying a word. I had made it so far just to be discovered because of a simple question. Suddenly, Robert lurched backwards as his legs were kicked out from underneath him, sending him into the arms of an awaiting attacker who managed to place both his arms under Robert’s and then wrap around the back of his head. In the blink of an eye, the attacker shoved Robert’s face into the mud and placed one foot on top of his legs while the other leg applied pressure to Robert’s back. Just like that, Robert was taken down without even putting up a fight. The attacker released the leader who spun around in shock. The crowd began to cheer wildly as Robert could only clap in astonishment at the fact that Derek had just performed one of the best sneaking takedowns he had ever experienced. From then on, all talk was focused on Derek and his fast-thinking. While everyone else chattered happily at the entire thing, I could only walk in embarrassment and fear. The fear didn’t involve the freezing cold walk back home. This fear was centered around the fact that Derek was there to save me that day. What would happen the day he wasn’t around? What would happen the day where I truly messed up?


Tough Times:


I could only recall short pieces of the dream I had that night. From what I could recall, there was a figure of sorts standing above a smaller figure. The two had remained stationary and I recalled myself walking closer to them both. The walk turned into more of a run, and that is all I could manage to remember. A strong breeze had come to replace the rain of the previous day. I donned my gear and began to head out to training once more. As I made my way to the door, I accidentally had absent mindedly bumped into my old punching bag. It was hard to believe that it had been so long since I had even touched the thing. I pushed the remnant of my past out of the way and continued heading towards the future. Once I had arrived at the field, I found a majority of the troops talking freely as Robert remained on the distant side of the field. Looking closer, I found that he was speaking on his phone with someone. I could only assume that he was learning important information pertaining to today’s mission. As if reading my mind, Apollo approached me. “You hear the news man?” “You know me,” I said. “I’m always twelve steps behind.” “Well the guys are saying that we’re gonna be fighting some real THEM members today.” Clocker now approached and shook his head in agreement. “It’s about time we taught those guys a lesson,” he said. “Am I right?” We nodded as Robert made his way towards the groups. “Alright boys,” he said. “It appears the seeds of war have worked their way in our direction. S.S.C intelligence has told us that THEM will be attempting a raid on one of our medium-sized bases just west of here. Our mission is to wait until the base is under attack before rushing in and taking the enemy by surprise before they can do to much damage. You’ve all come a long way to get here, don’t let me down. If you have any further questions, ask me on the way there. We need to get moving. Take all your supplies and prepare yourselves for a fight.” With that, troops busied themselves picking up supplies and talking over some plans of their own upon arrival. When everyone was finally organized, we formed a line and began our trek. Some members seemed quite disgruntled about the whole situation. “What are we even gonna accomplish if we win this,” one member said. “We’ll still be at war.” “If this attack goes as planned,” Robert responded. “Then THEY will be pushed back to more of our eastern bases. Hate to say it, but this war won’t be coming to an end until Talon is captured once more.” Now silenced, the troops continued towards the base which finally took shape as we neared it’s location. As expected, the base was indeed already under siege and troops ran wildly around it, attempting to flank enemy forces or get a short rest. “They attacked earlier than expected!” Robert yelled out. “We fight now!” Immediately, we began the attack.


Pushing:


“What’s our game plan?” Clocker yelled as he caught up to Apollo and I. “I say we head in through the back way,” Apollo replied. “That’s where a majority of our guys are. We can’t risk separating from them.” I silently agreed and we moved into the crowded back room. The layout of this building was a confusing one. I had no clue what the place was used for before becoming a base, but one thing I did note was the fact that the front of this premises contained two huge wooden doors which were now flung open, allowing THEM members to pour in and out. “I have an idea!” I shouted as we worked our way through the crowds. “Try to gather up a few more guys. If we work together, we can push those front doors shut and prevent any more enemy troops from leaving or entering the area.” “Sure thing Joseph,” the two replied as they fled to find some helpers. At that moment, I was elbowed in the back of my neck, resulting in a painful cramp. I turned around and managed to put my attacker in a headlock before pinning him to the ground. A THEM member ran my way and attempted a strong kick to my stomach, but I quickly moved to the side and caught his leg in mid-flight. Now with an advantage, I swung the trooper by his leg and flung him into two other THEY troopers. I drew my attention to the front doors. Apollo, Clocker, and several others were waiting for me. Not wanting to waste any time, I began to sprint through the fighting crowds, being sure to clothes-line any foes who were running in the opposite direction. One incoming THEM soldier avoided this maneuver and dove under my arm. Now behind me, this attacker managed to put me in a headlock and punch me in the gut with his spare hand. I tried to escape the hold, but this attacker obviously an elite. In the distance, I noted Clocker standing in a ready position. He motioned for me to duck and I quickly obliged. With that Clocker ran forward and kicked the foe I was battling right in the face. Two THEM members noticed the move and attacked Clocker simultaneously. Moving fast, I rushed to help my friend but he yelled out to me and motioned for me to stop. “don’t worry about me!” he yelled. “Just do what you have to do!” I was unsure how to respond to this, I could not allow for a friend to get hurt. But as I looked back at the doors, I noted how those waiting for me were now under some attack. Looking back twice, I made my way over to my comrades and cried out, “Close the doors! No matter what you hear, close the doors!” With that, our two groups began to shut each door. I held onto the one to the left as Apollo handled the right. Four other S.S.C soldiers were aiding in our attempt. At first, the doors moved shut incredibly fast, but halfway through their descent, the doors began to receive heavy opposition from the other side. THEM members were pushing at the door, running into it in an attempt to gain entry. Wild cries filled the air and some more S.S.C soldiers came to our aid, some tending to the doors, others protecting us. The two doors began to close further until nearly all outside light had been blotted out. I practically pushed at a total horizontal angle as I used all of my strength to close the doors. Finally, the creaking ceased and near total darkness flooded the insides of the premises. Force from the outside continued to grow stronger and the wooden doors bent awkwardly as snapping sounded. It was now up to our remaining fighters to finish off the THEM members inside. I watched as our protectors were picked off by shadowy soldiers slowly making their way towards us. Shouting from the outside grew even stronger and some of us holding the doors shut were now under attack. Only then did I spot my brother. He was with two other shadowy figures who were working their way towards us. Each of them carried a long stick and at my brother’s command, they raised the sticks and began to twirl them above their heads as if they were helicopters. THEM members quickly flanked the trio, but only succeeded in getting their faces whacked by the incoming twirls. In the distance, a familiar voice orders S.S.C members to go into a crouching position in the back of the room and hold there. At that very moment, the fight subsided and everything inside grew quiet. We had won. That being said, over twenty THEY members still pushed strongly against the doors. Suddenly, the familiar voice called out, “We are ready! Open the doors!” With that, I let go and dove to the floor as the doors burst open and light filled the room. The shouting THEM members began to run inside, but immediately stopped in their tracks in sudden shock. At first I examined my bloodied and blistered hands, but upon gazing up, I found that the S.S.C troops who had arranged in the back of the premises were all elites. Elites with BB guns pointed towards the horde of THEM members. One more step from the group of enemies, and our forces would unleash a painful barrage of BBs into the group. Without words, the THEM forces dropped their supplies and raised their hands in submission as remaining soldiers tended to them. I could only lie against the wall and breath a sigh of relief as I felt my swollen arm muscles. Only then was my attention drawn to the familiar voice I had heard. The one which had commanded the elites and told me to open those doors. There, standing alongside the troops, was Henry. Not so far away, standing alongside Derek and Robert, holding a stick just as they were, was Larson. Noting my presence, the trio headed my way. “Nice to see you again kid,” said Larson as he helped me up. “That’s right, you haven't heard the last of me yet.” I gave a short laugh as I tried to put two and two together. Finally I realized that this base belonged to Larson and Henry and that this entire base was made to house elites. “”That was quite a thing you did there,” Larson continued. “You saw that?” I asked; referring to the door plan. “I saw it all,” Larson replied happily. “It’s my understanding that this isn’t the first time you’ve used some true intellect to win over a battle. Robert and I have been speaking, and we both believe that it’s time that you and Derek became battle followers in this war.” I was dumbfounded. “What?” I replied in confusion. “Batte follower is a name we give to an S.S.C soldier who has time and time again defied the odds and won battles,” explained Robert. “You and Derek would follow Larson and his apprentice Henry as they moved from base to base, preparing for the next big attack.” “As luck would have it,” Larson said. “THEM has been pushed due east, which just so happens to be in the direction of Fort Limbo; the base your and Derek were interested in. Derek flashed a quick grin upon hearing this. It was an eerie reminder that he was getting exactly what he wanted. “The two of you can be shown around Fort Limbo tomorrow,” Larson said as Henry approached. “Its a great honor for you to receive such a title. What do you say?” I could only stand there for a while. I wasn’t sure what to say. I had made friends here. I had made a name for myself here. I had a future worth looking forward to in the S.S.C. The moment I’d say yes to this request, Derek’s plan would be fulfilled. Then what? This was the moment where I could change my life for the better. Derek now looked at me. He nodded his head slowly, telling me to say yes. That was when I remembered that this decision was not mine to make. It never was. “I say yes,” I replied; looking down at my feet. “I say yes.”


Goodbyes:


This was it. The ending. I could feel it in my bones. My brother would waste no time grabbing the file he wanted. Once he did that, it would all be over. Our dependence on the S.S.C would be suspended… permanently. I had believed that Larson would have allowed me some time to say my goodbyes, but he did not. My brother and I had left right after our conversation at the battle zone the previous day. I left Robert without ever showing my signs of respect towards him, I had left Apollo without ever saying thank you, I had left without even bothering to see what became of Clocker. I desperately tried to clear my mind of these issues, but to no avail. Larson had told my brother and I that he’d stop by to pick us up at the bus stop in the city. He had also made the mistake of telling us that we’d be moving from base to base so often, the chances of us seeing Fort Limbo again, were not at all great. This only hastened the amount of time we had to take what we wanted. My brother must have seen the look of worry on my face as we were readying ourselves to leave. “You are nervous,” he stated. “I am,” I replied truthfully. “Don’t you think that maybe we could stick with the S.S.C after this?” I asked. “They have shelters, food, water, and people.” My brother gave me his trademark cold and empty stare. “Have you forgotten why we are doing this?” he asked, though it sounded more like a statement to me. “Darkness…” I said; my voice trailing off. “Not just Darkness,” my brother said. “It is not so much about him, but what he will do. My dreams have been clear. He shall… restrain me if he is not dealt with. If I am restrained, do you truly believe you have what it takes to continue. Can you even survive without my constant presence?” “No,” I replied. “You’re right. Where would I be if you got hurt?” “In a jail cell,” my brother replied bitterly. “This world oozes with sin and hatred. When the police find out that you've been stealing, inhabiting a building thats not yours, and fighting others, they will show you no pity. There is no pity in life. They will not understand you. This is your life. Your free life. Enjoy it over the alternative.” I nodded into submission as my brother shut the door to his private room. As he was doing so, I stepped outside and thought his words. He was right. I didn’t belong in the outside world. No matter what I did, I’d still be a nobody in the end. This was my life. Larson didn’t matter, nor did Henry, Apollo, Clocker, Matt, or Robert. They may have fought besides me and enjoyed spending time with me, but they could never understand me. A pleasant warm breeze hit my face, causing me to take off the ski mask and toss it inside. My brother soon left the building and we began our walk. “It is time to end this,” he said. “I agree,” was all I could say.


A Ride:


When we arrived at the bus stop, Larson had already arrived along with Henry. I was pleased to see that we’d be traveling by car today, courtesy of Larson. I had ridden in a car only once before - according to my memory. It was when I was still in THEY. Ironically, that car ride was made only two days before our leaving of the group. It felt good to not have to walk, especially since I was still slightly sore. “I’ll warn you two ahead of time,” Larson said. “Due to all of the important documents located at Fort Limbo, security is rather tight. Try not to get separated from me when we get there, or they might confuse you with the enemy. That being said, Fort Limbo is not well controlled at the moment. The two leaders of the fort were injured a couple days ago, so the whole place has kinda been running itself lately.” “Hopefully our presence there will straighten some guys out,” Henry said. Larson could only smile. “Don’t count on it,” he replied. Finally, Larson parked the car in an open field and pointed towards the base. The premises was much larger than any area I had ever seen. I could do nothing but marvel at the sheer size of it all. “Big eh?” Larson said; noting my amazement. “The place is used for storing wood and wheat during the summer time,” Larson explained. “The guy who owns the place used to be an S.S.C member himself. So he lets us take over the place as long as we don’t get in his way. Nevertheless, the place still has some mighty tall stacks of wood throughout the area. Don’t mess with them too much or you're liable to cause an avalanche. We already had a leg injury just two weeks ago because of that.” “Understood,” I replied as we walked inside. Larson had not lied, the entire place was filled with a plethora of rowdy S.S.C soldiers and a few elites attempting to calm everyone. The inside seemed even bigger than the outside and I noted a surprising number of rooms and passages throughout the place. Some passages led to offices of sorts, while others led to rooms for sparing. It was all so much to take in. “Our task here is simple,” Larson shouted over all the noise. “We are going to restore some balance to this place and leave it with the elites to take charge.” “Where would that filing room be?” Derek asked. “To be honest,” Larson replied. “I haven’t been checking up on that room in a while. I’m not to sure, but I’m certain we will see it.” With that, Larson met up with an elite who seemed to be a friend of his. The two began to chat as Henry approached us. “Trust me when I say this will take a while,” he said. “You guys might as well go take a load off in that office over there. Theres chairs and everything. I’ll tell Larson where you went.” “Thanks,” I replied as Derek and I made our way to the room. I was not sure why, but I became incredibly sleepy while in that room. I can only assume that I had simply succumb to the incredibly soft chairs. They were much more pleasant than sleeping on boards after all. In no time at all, I had fallen into a deep sleep.


Dreams:


I was unaware that I was walking in my own dreamscape at that time. I had totally forgotten the mission and any other chains which tied me to reality. It was all quite pleasant really. I found myself standing in a hallway, surrounded by other people my age. To my left were lockers while classrooms existed to my right. The kids passing by me smiled grandly as they walked by. Still not realizing this was nothing more than a dream, I tried to find a mirror in order to see if there was something on my face. Upon finding one, I noted nothing odd about it. However, while still gazing at the mirror, I suddenly noticed a large figure standing behind me, eyeing me angrily. A strange mix of sensations overcame me. I was not afraid of this being despite his bulging muscles and height. While my brain told me to fight, my heart told me to run. With that, I began to sprint through the halls. I could hear myself yelling something, but it was as if my ears were being covered by pillows. As I ran and screamed, those who I passed began to do the same. Some people would momentarily stop and ask me something, though I could not hear them either. The run which had began at my own free will, was now completely out of my control. My legs were taking me around corners and through smaller halls. It was almost as if I was trying to lure the behemoth behind me into a trap. Suddenly, that part of the dream faded and I found myself once again in the hall. This time, the kids around me seemed nervous, as if they were expecting a bomb to explode. The events of this dream were once again out of my control as I found myself speaking and laughing about something. Some individuals around me began to laugh, but not before a darkness began to appear, clouding my vision and taking my breath away. My face began to hurt  for reasons I could not understand. My mind told me to fight against it. The darkness appeared strong and mighty, but it was all merely an illusion. However, my heart told me to continue to let myself to continue to be assaulted by the darkness. Before I knew it, the siege was over and I found myself able to move again. I felt a burden lift from my shoulders as if someone had removed fifty pounds from my back. It was done. Only then did I awake with a start, Derek had awoken me. I glanced at a clock and noted that it was 6:15. I had hardly been asleep for two minutes, yet the dream seemed to last ages in my mind. “Security is not dulling,” Derek told me. “If this is to become a fight, we need weapons.” I noticed how certain Derek sounded when he said that.


Preparation:


Our mission had now begun as far as I was concerned. I nonchalantly kept an eye on Larson and Henry while Derek eyed the area for any signs of a weapon room. Finally, he spotted something. “Theres a room to the far left of the right half of the building,” Derek said as he motioned towards the door. I too saw as an elite left the room while handling a hefty load of supplies. I looked back one last time at Larson and Henry, their heads were still turned away from our direction. “We’re good to go,” I whispered as Derek snuck out of the room and walked briskly behind a stack of wood that would hide us from Larson. These stacks of wood were far more present than Larson had let on, allowing us to easily slip behind the wooden stacks without attracting much attention. Suddenly, as we were about to head to the next stack, Derek stopped and motioned for me to listen. The crowds had calmed down just enough for me to hear Larson saying his goodbyes to his friend. There was neither enough time to get weapons or head back to the room. We were stuck. Suddenly, Derek grabbed onto one of the wooden shafts and began to pull. “Take the other side,” he whispered. “On the count of three, we pull this log out.” With that, he began the countdown, “1… 2… 3.” With that, we both pulled at the log with all our strength and successfully dislodged it. In an instant logs from the top of the stack began to fall. The two of us quickly dove out of the way and integrated ourselves into a small group of soldiers who were close by, yet not seen the deed we had committed. Derek’s plan had worked, all attention was now focused on the fallen logs and S.S.C members worked together moving them aside, checking to see if anyone had been injured or worse. With the temporary distraction in place, Derek and I ran towards the room only to find two guards standing inside and surveying the area. Thankfully, their backs were to us, leaving Derek and I with the element of surprise. Derek began to slowly creep up on the guard to the left as I silently approached the one on the right. In that moment, I hesitated. Could I really do this? Once I did, there was no turning back. It seemed as if the option was out of my hands though, as the guard sensed my presence and spun around, forcing me to grab hold of his shoulder, spin him back around, and put him into a chokehold. Acting fast, I slammed the guards head into the wall with all the force I could muster, quickly knocking him out. I turned to Derek and found that he was squeezing the other guard’s neck with his forearm, so that the trooper was incapable of breathing. In an instant, the guard had fallen unconscious. Our deed had been done. Our mark had been left. Thankfully, I had still donned a jacket before leaving our house, allowing me to grab a small BB gun lying in the corner. Derek found a similar gun as well as two sticks which had been created with springs so that it could be stored easily, but then retracted in battle. The sticks truly were a work of art. I’d guess that they belonged to some incredibly high ranking elites. Derek threw me one of the sticks and headed for the door. “No time for anything else,” he said. “Lets move.” Acting quickly, we both found our way back to the office without drawing even the slightest of attention from the others. In only a little over a minute, Henry returned to the room and explained the situation. As Henry led us to the fallen logs, it was quite noticeable that the mess would take some time to clean up. More logs had fallen over than I had expected, and without a crane, it’d be nearly impossible to put it all back together again. Larson’s attention suddenly became immediately focused on us. “I realize that this is not a good start to our mission,” he said. “I’ll just lead you guys around more of the building while these guys do some cleaning. You coming Henry?” “I’ll catch up with you guys,” Henry replied. With that, Larson took the lead and began to walk us farther into the premises.  


Timebomb:


Larson continued our trek into the building without missing a single detail. It was only a matter of absolute luck that he had avoided the direction the the weaponry room. He’d occasionally stop to show us some rooms used for lounging or heating. It came as a great surprise to me to see how many small closets existed throughout the building. These closets were primarily used for hanging coats rather than storing supplies. As time went on, I could tell that Derek was growing impatient. We had seen a wide variety of rooms of all shapes and sizes, but not once were we introduced to any room filled with files. I began to wonder if Larson had embellished the stories of this place. Just as I was losing hope, Larson finally turned towards us. “Time for the real spectacle,” he stated. “Say what you want about all these weapons and cozy rooms, in my eyes, these S.S.C documents are where our organization truly gets it’s chance to shine. It reflects on something beyond just mindless violence. It gives you insight into the human side of all this.” Larson led us down an incredibly narrow hall before stopping to speak one last time. “Try not to touch too much,” Larson said as he pointed towards a door nearby. “Fingerprints are the last thing these files need.” With that, Larson turned his back as we walked closer to the door. Larson then reached for a key in his pocket and unlocked the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I noted Derek taking out the stick he had stolen. Larson; unaware of this, pushed the door open, revealing a large room blanketed with files of all shapes and sizes. Rusted filing cabinets as well as new one lined the walls, as did authentic S.S.C flags that had to be well over forty years old. Some aged portraits sat on a couple of small tables spread through the room. Larson had not lied when he said it was a glorious sight. However, this was all that Derek needed to see. Now removing the stick completely, Derek prepared to knock Larson out with one swift blow to the head. Weather he had sensed the move or simply been ready to say something, Larson had already swiveled his head around just in time to see Derek knock him out cold. “There is a closet to the left,” Derek told me as he advanced into the room. “Stuff him in there and look out for guards while I search through these files.” I nodded in a silent agreement as I began dragging Larson to the closet. Suddenly, I overheard two voices heading in my direction. Moving quickly, I left Larson lying on the floor in order to dash towards the file room and shut the door so that they could not see Derek. Now heading back to Larson, I continued our journey towards the closet which seemed to be moving away from me now. The voices grew closer as I began twisting the doorknob. In a flash, I opened the closet door and pushed Larson inside before hastily closing it. The two S.S.C members had now rounded the corner. They had not seen Larson, but one had noticed my quick slamming of the door. This trooper approached me sternly and looked me up and down. “I have not seen you here before,” he said. “What are you doing here without a guide?” I tried my best to come up with a lye, but my mind grew numb as the trooper stared me down and looked at the door I had slammed shut. Just as he was reaching for the handle, his friend stepped in. “Relax, Eric,” the other soldier said. “I saw him come in with Larson. He’s probably his new apprentice.” “Yes,” I said hesitantly. “He just told me to wait here while… he talked to a friend of his.” The trooper stared me down a bit longer before slowly nodding his head and continuing his journey down the hall. Thankfully, Derek had heard the conversation and grown quiet inside of the filing room. When the two finally rounded the corner once more, I thought it best to return to Derek. “Have you found it yet?” I asked; shutting the door behind me. “No,” Derek replied quickly. “Nearly there.” With that, I kept my ear pinned to the door as I attempted to listen for more guards. When no sound found it’s way to my ears, I noted a filing cabinet with the letter “G” scribbled on the front of a single rusty drawer. I then recalled how Derek had told me that Darkness’s father was named Gus. Acting on instinct, I rushed to the drawer and began pulling at it. At first, it would not budge, but upon applying more force, the entire drawer flung open; giving off an incredibly loud screech. Derek turned towards me in silence. He was about to speak when we both suddenly heard footsteps coming our way. Now frozen in place, we could do nothing but wait for the footsteps to pass. But they did not. The doorknob began to turn and before either Derek or myself could even think of a plan, the door flung open, revealing none other than Henry! At first, Henry too was frozen in place, unable to fathom what was happening. It was only once he got a good look at our stolen weapons that he slammed the door with all his might. The only sound that would now meet my ears was the sound of Henry sprinting down the hall, calling out, “Traitors! Traitors in the building!” This was it. We were finally found out.


The Escape:


Without a word, Derek took out a file and shoved it deep into his jacket. With that, he sprinted for the door and motioned for me to follow. Now out in the hall, Derek motioned for me to follow him down the long end of the hall. “They’ll be expecting us at the short exit!” my brother yelled as we booked it towards the other end. Suddenly; as my brother had predicted, troopers sprinted from the short exit and began running towards us. Thankfully, we had already ran much too far for them to catch up. Now nearing the corner, an unlucky trooper found his way into our path and only succeeded in being knocked harshly into the wall. I did not yet know what to feel. Everything was happening so fast, I couldn’t manage to react to much of anything really. It was only once we completely rounded the corner that I knew what to feel; fear. There, blocking our exit, was an entire armada of S.S.C troops arranged orderly as they awaited commands from Henry who stood amongst them. Derek and I were now frozen as more S.S.C troops poured in behind us. “Just what do you think you're doing?” shouted Henry as we became completely surrounded. Derek offered no response besides his icy cold stare. “Answer now!” Henry yelled out. “Or I will unleash the full power of the S.S.C upon the two of you!” Once again, Derek refused to reply just as I refused to hold eye contact with anyone. “Very well then traitors!” Henry yelled. “Take’em out!” With those simple words, an entire circular wave of troops began running for us. “Duck!” my brother called out. Thankfully, I had reeacted just in time to head his commands. With all sides closing in, Derek removed the stick and and in one 360 degree loop, bashed every front line attacker at once! The wounded troops immediatly fell to the ground, causing the secondary wave to trip over their fallen comrades. Acting quickly, Derek removed the conceiled BB gun and fired into the crowd. I was still afraid, but there was work to be done. Mirroring the actions of my brother, I also removed my BB gun and unleashed it’s artillery into the third wave. The shots did not last long however. In less than a second, I was completly out of ammo. One elite soldier dove over his fallen friends and successfully tackled me to the ground before delivering two harsh punches to my face. Now angered, I managed to tuck my feet under his stomach and kick him off. Henry was now stepping over the fallen troopers as he made his way towards us. Not to be outmaneuvered, Derek chucked his BB gun at Henry who successfully caught the object right in front of his face. This was no achievment however. Seizing the opportunity, Derek rushed over to Henry shoved the butt of the gun into his forehead; knocking Henry to the ground and tripping an incoming trooper as well. Now I watched as my fists made contact with incoming soldier’s faces and stomachs as I attempted to hit three targets at once. Derek busied himself by snagging another stick from a fallen elite and using the two in tandem to knock out the never ending hordes. Just as I elbowed one target in the nose, two attacker grabbed me by my arms before twisting them behind me. To my left was an elite and to my right was a standard trooper. Thinking quickly, I managed to headbutt the elite and grab his BB gun as he staggered back; wiping blood from his face. I now turned the BB gun towards the trooper and fired three shots at his chest; sending him falling back in pain. The elite grabbed hold of my firing arm, but with my free one, I managed to bust him upside the head with the stick. Two elites now arranged themselves in the corner and began firing BBs in my directions. Four shots immediately hit my chest, causing me to double over in pain. Thankfully, the disorganized crowds blocked the shooters from continuing their barrage. Everything was chaos now as S.S.C soldiers struggled to distinguish friend from foe. Clasping my chest in agony, I stood back up and clotheslined an incoming enemy. Derek had become separated from me now. He was currently holding off another wave with a stolen BB and a broken stick. Just as I was about to attack another soldier with a stick, the weapon was hot out of my hand by a close-range shooter. I now dove to the side, tackling one soldier and pulling another one in front of me to become that of a human shield. The surprised shooter, could not help but fire at least nine shots at his comrade before stopping abruptly, allowing me to throw the shield into him and knock him unconscious as he laid pinned to the ground. Incoming waves moved slower now as they struggled to step over bodies, allowing my to use my newly stolen BB and shoot them down on the spot. Suddenly, a trooper caught me by the neck and shoved me forwards. Now staggering with any sign of regaining balance, the attacker kicked me in the chest and slugged me in the mouth just before I fell in front of the two shooters from earlier. Blood now dripped from my mouth as I raised both hands in an apparent sign of surrender. just as the two lowered their guards slightly, I successfully snagged one of the BBs and shot the other one before doing the same to my attacker. I was so busy focusing on the remaining soldiers, I had not noticed that Henry had regained his footing and now had succeeded in sneaking up on me and kicking the gun from my hands. I prepared to punch him in retaliation, but faltered. Could I really do it? This faltering was all that Henry needed to jab me in the throat and push me back into the ground.Henry now looked down upon me as he advanced in my direction. I could do nothing but crawl backwards in fear as he grew closer. Just as I reached the wall, I felt around me and found a BB gun near my hand. Thinking fast, I shot Henry once in the arm before raising the gun to the ceiling and firing at the exposed lights. My aim was an absolute success as I shot out three lights with ease, blanketing the area in darkness. Terrified troopers began to run from the building as glass came pouring down into the masses. With that, Derek was quick in dispatching those who remained. Henry had been so surprised by this move, he had not noticed that I had regained my footing and was now prepared to pounce at him. In a single bound, I tackled Henry to the ground and punched at his face. However, Henry had grabbed a fallen stick and proceed to place it between us and push it upwards so as to choke me. The attack was a success as I became unable to breath and was quickly kicked off of him. I attempted to stand but only succeeded in getting hit multiple times in my face by the stick. My face was bruised and bloodied now as my eye began to swell and my head grew difficult to keep balanced on my shoulder. I attempted to lunge forward and punch my attacker, but only succeeded in striking the air. Everything was spinning now. It seemed as if this would be the end. In one final lunge forward, I successfully grabbed the stick in mid-flight and quickly twisted it clockwise, spraining Henry’s hands in the process. Henry called out in pain and staggered back, allowing me to unleash a barrage of weary attacks at his head. The first two strikes were direct, sending Henry into a spin. However, the third punch was blocked and exchanged for a jab at my stomach. Now with the apparent advantage, Henry stumbled forwards and grabbed hold of my arms, forbidding me from moving. Losing energy now, I lunged my head forward and struck Henry’s forehead with great force. With that, Henry could do nothing but stare at me distantly as his nose bled. At first I thought he’d say something to me, but without a word, my foe, fell backwards to the ground, dragging me down with him and causing me to land hard on top of him as we hit the ground.


Showdown:


For a great while, I had blacked. Oddly enough, I could see nothing nor hear anything, but I felt tremendous pain. This was not the pain brought forth by that of a dream. This was real pain; real suffering.That is what I awoke to as well. There was pain surrounding me; suffering taking hold. The entire floor had been cleared and now only two blurred figures stood in the distance. I rolled over and found Henry still underneath me, still unconscious. “What have we done?” I said to myself. “What have we done?” I could not find the strength to stand, though I could see the fallen soldiers around me. I had shot some, punched out others, whacked a majority with a stick and not thought twice about it. I was a monster here. I would go down in S.S.C history as a monster. My attention was once again drawn to the two figures in the distance. Derek was still standing. Across from him stood none other than Larson, who had awoken and busted out from the closet. The two were talking, but I could make no sense of their words for some time. I was still too weary. After shaking my head slightly, they became easier to see and hear. “Is this really how you want it to go down?” Larson threatened as he circled my brother. “Beaten to a pulp while your “brother” there watches. Thats assuming he’s even your brother of course. Or did ya lie about that too?” My brother offered no response. “You could have been something here,” Larson continued. “You could of helped others, but instead you decided to hurt them instead. You had friends here and you turned your back on them. You are nothing now.” I looked back at my unresponsive brother. He was battered and breathing heavily. He had been incredibly weakened by the attack. “So be it,” Larson said as he ceased the circling. With that, he attacked. Larson was practically a blur as he lunged towards my brother and hit him upside the head with his hands locked together. Derek stumbled back; nearly losing his balance and Larson dashed forward and delivered to swift blows to the ribcage. Derek punched forwards, but Larson ducked the incoming fist, grabbed hold of it, and twisted it behind my brother’s back. I tried to stand back up, but my feet gave way beneath me. Larson shoved my brother against the wall and kneed him in the back, sending him sliding down to the floor. Larson circled Derek and delivered to harsh kicks to his side. Just as the leader was about to deliver a third, Derek grabbed hold of his attacker’s leg and stopped it mid-flight. In a sudden burst of energy, Derek regained his footing and kneed Larson in the stomach before following the attack up with several swipes to the face. Larson staggered back slightly before throwing a sudden punch at Derek’s face and grabbing hold of his throat. Derek began kneeing Larson in the stomach, allowing himself to be released quickly. Once again, I attempted to stand, this time falling back against the wall. Neither of the fighters noticed my presence, but I took in every moment of theirs. Rushing forward with surprising speed; my brother pushed Larson to the ground and stepped on his chest. Just as I began to smile at our apparent victory, my eyes were drawn to Larson’s hand, which had grabbed hold of a broken stick. Derek had saw it too, but was too late to stop the incoming attack. With incredible force, Larson pushed Derek’s foot from his chest before suddenly jabbing the broken piece upwards. In an instant, the stick made contact with Derek’s face, leaving a bloodied streak up the right side of his face. Without making any sound, my brother grabbed hold of his face and stumbled against one of the stacks of wood. Larson; stick still in hand, slowly approached my brother without so much as a word or a hint of regret. With that, I slowly pushed myself from the wall and began to limp towards the two. Larson grew closer now, prepared to strike at a moments notice, but no-one can be prepared for Derek. In a sudden motion, my brother jabbed Larson in the throat and delivered a hard kick to the ribs. Everything was in a fluid motion as Derek continued to walk forward, punching and kicking at Larson without falter. The enemy stood no chance and continued to back up under the heavy siege of attacks. Swipes grew faster as it seemed almost as if Larson grew more battered at the blink of an eye. Soon, Larson’s libs were busted and his eyes became swollen as cuts appeared on his face. It was only a matter of time until Larson was forced to the ground, still clutching the weapons. Derek now stood above Larson who had his back against another stack of wood. Derek delivered a strong kick to the head, sending Larson completely flat. As Derek looked down at his fallen enemy, Larson jutted his hand upwards, striking Derek with the broken stick a second time. Another gash formed on my brother’s face, this one appearing on his forehead. Now crouching down, my brother was seemingly at Larson’s mercy. I began to hasten my strides as I continued to try and walk towards them. Derek had fallen awkwardly on the side of the wooden pile. I stopped immediately in my tracks. I knew what my brother was going to do. As Larson grew closer to my brother, he too noticed, but by then it was too late. Derek had grabbed hold of a loosened log. In a final act of pure strength, Derek pulled out the log, sending the stack of wood tumbling over. “Run!” was the last word I could hear from my brother as the pile of wood completely flooded the area. Larson managed to leap backwards, but his leg was still caught under one of the logs, causing his to land and twist his leg violently. There was so much I could have done to Larson… to make him pay… but my brother had told me to run. That was my mission.


Loss:


And so, as Larson cried out in pain, I limped from the building and out into the open. It had grown incredibly cold now. The blood on my face immediately froze at the first glance of the darkness and frost. Clinging to my chest, I began to limp towards Larson’s parked car, where I recalled seeing him hide his keys. Once inside, I examined my wounds and dug out several BBs which had lodged themselves in my arm and chest. I’d like to think that the warmth of that car was what allowed me to make it back home that night, but in truth, I believe that the spirit of my brother had spared me in my long walk home. I don’t recall much of the journey, but I remember my eyes freezing shut and my legs growing numb. My left arm had lost all feeling by the time I had reached my house. Now falling to the wooden floor, I could do nothing but weep. Now it was truly over. The S.S.C would surely hunt me down and now I had lost the only family I had ever known. There was no future for me now. There was only pain and regret. I could not help but wonder what I could have prevented had I said no to Larson’s request. Or if I had continued my watch of the door and stopped Henry before he could run. I could blame no one but myself for what had happened. I began to doze off multiple times, only to be awoken by the freezing cold. All of my strength had left me now. I could not manage to stand or even drag myself across the room. It had to be around 6 in the morning when I woke for a fifth time and searched the room for the ski mask I had left behind earlier that day, but it was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, a soft noise met my ears. This was not the whisper on the angel of death but rather a noise coming from within the house. With all my strength, I hauled myself back up and lumbered into another room. The noise was just as soft and eerily pleasant. Finally, I understood that the noise was that of writing. The writing came from my brother’s private room. At first I could only freeze as I pondered if the ghost of my brother was haunting this place, but my curiosity got the best of me in the end and I found my hand reaching for the door. As my hand grew closer, the writing stopped abruptly. Not to be detoured, I turned the doorknob and flung the door open. Immediately, I jumped back in fear as a figure stood in the doorway. Falling to the floor; I looked up at the unexpected guest. He was tall, muscular, and imposing. His very presence cast the deepest of fears into my heart. The figure stepped out of the room and revealed himself to be wearing my ski mask. I could no longer tell if I was dreaming or not as tears of agony met my eyes. “Pick yourself up,” said the figure in a distant voice. I knew that voice. I knew those eyes. The identity of this figure was my brother. “We have a job to do.”


The Final Plan:


I’d like to say that my spirits had raised since the discovery that my brother had survived the collapse, but this would be a lie. My brother refrained from telling me how he made the escape and was now more concentrated in his work than ever before. I can only imagine that the run-in with the S.S.C only sharpened his concentration in finding Darkness. “You… you got the file?” I asked; dumbfounded. “Yes,” my brother replied. “Gus’s file is safe here. It will take time before the S.S.C will be able to track us down. By the time they learn of our location, we’ll be long gone.” “Long gone?” I repeated. “Are you saying we’ll have to leave our house behind?” “This house is of little importance in the grand scheme of things,” my brother replied. “We must prepare for the encounter with Darkness. We’ll make our attack in three days and show Darkness our strength. Once he sees our power, he will no longer be a threat to me. “Understood,” I replied quietly. The Darkness battle was not the main thing that worried me. Above all else, I was concerned about leaving my home behind. True, it was never ours to begin with, but it had given us shelter for longer than I could remember. My throbbing head caused me to lay back down and keep from over thinking too much. The sun was already rising by the time I went to sleep, but I didn’t mind. It had brought warmth with it allowed me to sleep away the pains of battle.


Old Life:


Upon awaking that morning, I immediately busied myself getting washed and dressed as I prepared to go to S.S.C training. I was already halfway out of my house when it struck me that it was over now. I couldn’t go back. Retreating back inside, the air had grown chilly, causing for me to look for my ski mask once more. Finally I recalled that my brother must have still been wearing the thing. I could not bare to take it back from him. It covered the scars of a battle that never should have been fought. I walked into my personal training room and delivered a light punch to my makeshift punching bag. It was the first time I had practiced on the thing in quite some time. All that remained in my head now was the fact the battle with Darkness was only two days away. I had fought armadas of THEM members, saved multiple battles, trained to my limit, and taken out an entire base of S.S.C soldiers, yet Darkness and the mystery which surrounded him still managed to sink fear into my heart. “This is it,” I said to myself. “once Darkness is roughed up a bit, we’ll be done with this fighting. We’ll be done with this running.” Though I had suffered no external scars in my battle with the S.S.C, the mental repercussions ran deep. I no longer wanted to fight. The battle with Darkness would be my last. I was sure of it. Of course, that was assuming I could even survive my fray with the enemy. Just in case this would be one of my last days on Earth, I decided to visit Luis’s mailbox in hopes that he had reverted back to messaging. To my great surprise, inside the mailbox was indeed a new letter being sent. Sneaking away from the area, I carefully opened the envelope and took out the message within. At first I was afraid to read the message; afraid that it would only remind me of the actions I took. However, these were things I needed to hear. These were my actions and I had to face them. The message read,

I sighed and put the message back into the mailbox. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I suppose that perhaps I was hoping for a piece of advice or perhaps some assurance that everything would be okay. Obviously I was in the wrong place for that. It was in that moment that I made the decision to leave the mailbox behind… permanently. I would find my own ways to obtain a sense of happiness. In two days, everything would be better. At least that’s what I told myself.


Family:


On my way home that day, I noted a family walking towards the city. They looked so complete and happy. I wondered what my family was like. Usually the feeling would pass quite soon, but this time it had stuck with me. Even after I had made it home and practiced on my punching bag, the thoughts remained. I pictured my father as a strong and fast heroic figure who was somewhere out there trying to find me. I pictured my mother as looking like an angel who stood my my father’s side and prayed for my return every day. I wondered if I had another brother, a sister even! I’d picture all of us living in a brightly colored house on a hill, where the sun would set every evening and bath our lawn with a beautiful orange tinge. There were so many people out there who took their lives for granted. There were people who walked home every morning without realizing how fortunate they were to have a roof over their heads and a warm bed to sleep in. There were people out there who chose to treat their parents like dirt instead of people. They’d never worry about where their next meal would come from or if they’d wake up without their eyes frozen shut. In that sense, I was thankful for the nothing I had. For the moment I’d receive the abundance that other’s possessed, I’d have everything yet be thankful for nothing.


Dream:


I wondered where my brother would take us after the battle came to a close. We weren't tied to this place or any other, so that was of little issue to me. What I feared more than anything was moving away and not finding a sufficient place to pick up from where we had left off at the previous residence. I attempted to push this thought from my head as I rationalized that after all of my bad luck, some good ones must have been building up for this moment. I would have turned to my brother for further opinion, but he was still in his private room - writing away. After a quick workout, I lied down early as I attempted to save some energy. That is where my dream began. Unlike dreams I had been through in the past, I seemed much more alert now. I found myself standing outside in the snow. In the distance, I could hear a scream which shook the very ground I stood upon. Running closer to the source of the scream, I found two entities in the distance. The figure on the ground was pitch black and casted an equally dark shadow on the ground where it laid. Standing above this being was none other than my brother who still had the ski mask donned. My brother gave a slight smirk as he looked down at the fallen competitor. Only then did I realize the other being was Darkness, who had just been knocked out by my brother. Though I knew at this point that I was in a dream, I could not help but smile warmly and nod my head approvingly. This dream was an omen. An omen which told me that we would win this fight and that our efforts would not be put forth in a vain. My brother would not be injured by this entity and our future seemed bright. Suddenly, an eerie aura of sorts began to sweep over my dreamscape; covering the surroundings in a smoky gray mist of sorts. I could now no longer move as I watched my brother step closer to the entity and raise his right foot. At this moment, the aura swept over the black entities face… this was not the face of a Darkness… this was the face of a child. I was lost now; unsure of what was happening or what the purpose of this dream was. The world began to spin around me and grow darker after every revolution. The spinning grew so powerful that I began to vomit and my ears started to pop as the world became a nothing but a blur. I attempted to focus and fight through the spinning, causing the world to appear again. I was still spinning, but I could see my surroundings once more.My brother and the child were gone and now all that remained were the dead trees and snow. Just before my dream came to a close, the world before me began to fade. This was not the cause of my rapid spinning, but rather the simple fact that everything around me was disappearing. I looked down at my body - it too was becoming no more than a fading color which gave way to nothing but darkness. I awoke. Only then did I begin to understand.


The Truth:


The sun was readying itself to rise as I flung the sheets on top of me to the side and rushed towards my brother’s room. Just as I had expected, he was gone. My head was spinning with theories and revelations, though I could not truly know if what I was thinking was true unless I were to go into my brother’s private room. Rushing around the corners of the house, I listened carefully and heard no sound coming from within the room. I now reached for the handle, but froze as soon as I came into contact with it. I had never opened this door without my brother’s consent. I let go of the handle and backed up; staring at the door in an anxious fury. If I was to know the truth that my dream had alluded me to, I’d have to enter that room. With that, I walked to the door and slowly turned the doorknob. The door opened and inside of the room, lit by the orange tinge of the morning sun, were small tables cluttered with papers and pencils of different sorts. On the wall hung other papers and pages which were cluttered with small letters and tacks which stuck them firmly in place. On the center of the table laid a file which stood out from the rest of the mess. This was clearly the file of Darkness’s father Gus. Slowly walking forward, I opened the file and my theories pertaining to the files purpose were proven correct. The file was now littered with scribbles, circles, underlining, and small print. The edits had practically flooded the entire thing; drowning it in ink and graphite. I glanced behind me for a moment, making sure there was no one behind me and then proceeded to look closer at the contents. Gus’s last name and some of his information was scribbled out by my brother, most likely in order to keep me from knowing the truth. He had always been a master at predicting my actions. I had no doubt he had foreseen this invasion unto his private room as well. Gus’s file was basically short following the general information, he had not remained in the S.S.C for very long. I began to calm myself, believing that my dreams and theories were simply stress. Just as I got up to leave, my thigh knocked over some papers hanging loosely from the edge of the desk. Quickly, I picked them up and was readying myself to place them back where they had come from, but then my eye was drawn to some papers which had seemingly been long buried underneath the pile. In all actuality, it was Gus’s information, the very same which had been scribbled out of the document. My brother had not intended for me to locate this paper, but I had prevailed. I stared at the paper, reading steadily. Gus was born in 1965… a mere 38 years ago. This meant my theories had proven correct. Darkness was no man… he was no teen… he was a kid. This was not all. Gus’s last name had been listed on the paper as well… as was his child’s full name. My hands shook as I read the last of my brother’s writing.

The rest of the page was blank, as if awaiting to be completed at the missions end. Perhaps this paper was that of a sick memento to remind my brother of his doings, or perhaps he had intended on me finding it. I’ll never know.

All I could do was stagger back against the wall as my heart sank and the papers flew to the floor. Tears once again filled my eyes as I realized my brother had been lying to me from the start. Darkness was merely a young kid, not a teen who was bursting at the seams with power. My brother was not going to rough him up, he was going to kill him. And the attack would not be tomorrow… it would be today.


Final Mission:


Now walking like a half-dead creature, I approached the document one last time and found Gus’s address; 233 Jacob’s Ln, Melburg. This was a place far from my normal reach, but I was well aware that my final mission would take place here. If I were to hurry, I could stop my brother before he reached the place, and end all of this madness now before it could spread. Needless to say, I could not help but hesitate as I put on my boots and donned my warmest garments. For every movement and action I took, I felt as if this might be my last time at home. I gave the punching bag a brisk touch as I made my way out of the house. This was going to be the hardest day of my life. I subdued my emotions and began to sprint, trying my best not to look back at my home. All I could do was run now. What awaited me at that house, I was unsure, though I could tell it would not be friendly. Light flakes began to soar from the heavens and hit my bare face. Furthermore, the snow began to build up as well, causing my feet to become stuck on multiple occasions. I refused to be subdued and continued my flight at full speed. It was not long before my eyes locked with a plethora of rolling hills ahead of me. Refusing to slow down, I ignored the pain and the struggle. I thought back to my time training with Matt. I remembered the Breaker and the hefty jacket he had given me. I remembered the peace I had felt as long as I concentrated. Perhaps the thoughts of what was going to happen somehow leaked from my mind and spoiled my concentration, for I couldn’t manage to find that peace now, but I still had the strength to conquer the hills and continue through the thick snow. At one point, my foot became suddenly snagged on an unforeseen branch, causing me to fall forward and barrel down the hill. At first I could not breath, for every time I tried, snow rushed towards my face. The icy substance was now seeping through the crevices in my clothing, causing my blood to chill and my teeth to chatter. Thankfully, the roll came to a close just before I could suffer major injury, though it had slowed me down considerably. What awaited me now was a huge expansion of cornfield which had received more snow than any other location I had ever laid eyes on. I had not gone halfway through the field when the snow suddenly reached my thighs. Any attempt to walk on this snow would prove futile, for it was too flaky to support any real weight. Now I could only trudge through the thick snow, moving at a snails pace. I began to curse out loud as I regretted my decision to go through the field at all. I was certain that my brother was not as foolish in his decision. My mind began to flash back to my short time with Robert, Apollo, and Clocker. I recalled our first mission of hauling supplies to an outpost. I remember trudging through that deep snow with enough weight on my back to seemingly kill me should I have fallen. I had no weight on me now except for the weight of regret, and though that weight is a mighty one, it could be overcome. My strides became faster as the snow parted at the whim of my legs. Before I knew it, I had overcome the field, and the snow returned to my ankles where it belonged. My feet were freezing now, too much ice had found its way inside of them. I dropped to my knees as I neared the outskirts of the town. I found it difficult to catch my breath as it became a struggle to breath through my icy cold windpipe. Only when I looked up did I see a tall black figure in the distance, nearing the houses at a casual pace. The figure was my brother, I was sure of that much. Rising to my feet, I began to try and call for him, but received no reply. I could only assume that he had either been unable to hear me, or he was simply ignoring my cries. Though my muscles remained bitterly frozen, I began to stand once more before sprinting towards the town with all of my strength and energy. Snow soon began to clutter my face and enter my gaping mouth as I ran against the wind. I ignored the feeling as my eyes once again caught a glimpse of my brother scouting out one house in particular before knocking at the door. My pace became quicker until I found myself at the edge of a steep hill which had previously been shrouded in snow. Some ice gave way as I came to an abrupt hault. This halt would prove to be a mistake as my feet were soon ripped out from underneath me and I plummeted a few meters onto the lightly snow covered ground. I rolled onto my stomach and stared at the ground for a while. I tried to find warmth in the grass poking up from the ground, but could find none. Looking back up, I watched in horror as my brother stealthfully waited outside of the door for the lone kid to answer, which he did. The boy was young indeed, I’d imagine he was

and even from this distance, I could see the innocence in his eyes. Those were not the eyes of Darkness. Those were blue eyes which reflected a warm and sunny sky. As I stood, my brother leaped from his hiding spot next to the porch and knocked the boy out cold with a swift blow to the back of his head. The boy immediately fell onto his porch; knocked out before even getting a glimpse of his attacker. “No!” I shouted as my feet fumbled and I regained my speed. Only then did some peace come to me. I felt the snow melt away from my face and time feel as if it had quickened. Noises became indistinguishable, as did any other visuals besides my target. Before I even knew what was happening, I had already mounted the porch and shoved my brother to the wall with great force. This was my target; my brother.


Split Paths:


My brother pushed himself from the wall and towered above me with a look of shame on the portions of his face which I could see beneath the ski mask. “What are you doing Joseph?” he asked robotically as he grew closer to me. “Stopping this insanity!” I yelled; holding my ground. “I won’t let you kill a child just because your dream tells you to!” My brother shook his head and stopped advancing. “This is the only way to insure our safety,” he stated coldly. “To insure YOUR safety,” I corrected. “This isn’t about me! This has never been about me has it? Everything you do, you do for your own gain!” “You are wrong Joseph,” my brother replied. “This child will grow to become a threat. Threats must be neutralized.” I clenched my fist and raised a finger to my brother’s face before pointed back to the unconscious Brett. “This is not the way,” I said sternly. “It is the only way,” my brother growled as he grew closer and pushed me back slightly. “You do as I say. Not the other way around.” My emotions which were leaking from my brain now seemed to be pouring out as I grew upset. “That’s what it’s always been about,” I mumbled. “You’ve kept everything from me. I don’t know my real home, my real family, by God - I don’t even know your name!It’s because of you that everything has been taken from me! You have deprived me of a life! You have deprived me from a future!” My brother attempted to speak, but I quickly cut him off. “I ask to know more, I abide by your rules, I start a war because of you!” I shouted. “And you repay me with lies and false promises. Where will it end? Where will other dreams lead you? I am sick of following orders, I am sick of your lies, and I am sick of running!” I now positioned myself between Brett and my brother; trying to remain brave. “Very well then,” my brother said. “You want to know your origins? You want to know your family? I will tell you.Let me finish my mission and I will tell you everything you want to know and more.” My fist became unclenched and my heart kept from beating. I could know where I came from… my life could be whole again. Perhaps it was the cold wind hitting the side of my face that caused me to look to the side for a moment. I saw Brett lying behind me. I looked back to my brother and beyond him I saw a future. A future worth living now that I’d know who I really was. I looked back to Brett again, and then into the house. Above the fireplace hung a photograph of the family. They had their arms wrapped around each other and smiled brightly at me. They looked so happy. They looked so sure of their future. I was unfit to be in their presence it seemed. Brett had a family, so did I, but there was a big difference between him and I, that difference was that he would come out of this unscathed, and I would not. “No,” I replied; turning back to my brother. “Learning about my past won’t subdue the feeling of letting you get away with murder. His life is worth more to me than learning the truth of the past. Maybe it’s time I stopped looking back and started looking towards the future.” My brother now cornered me against the wall. “Your willing to fight to save a boy you have never met?” he asked. “I am,” I replied simply. “It’s what I want. It’s time I started living my own life, not yours.” Then it began.


A Final Fight:


I pushed my brother away from me and attempted a close range knee to the stomach, however, in the blink of an eye my brother caught my leg as it rose and twisted it with ease, sending me spiraling to the ground in front of him. This was no spar, this was a real battle - a battle that I was not prepared for in the slightest. Acting quickly, I spun my leg around in an attempt to trip him, but my brother had saw the move coming and avoided my trip with a simple stronger footing. He grabbed me by my neck now and rose my face to meet his. “I’ll make you regret this,” he whispered. Now lifting me by my stomach with his other arm, my brother held me above his head before chucking me off the porch and into the snow. I finally had time to stand again, but it was short lived, a quick punch to my side and a kick to the chest reminded me that I was not facing the average fighter. My brother had grown up fighting and growing stronger by the day, then again, so did I. I leaped up with surprising speed, tranquility coming over me as I did and managed a quick jab at my brother’s face and chest. The hits were successful in that they were delivered without fault, yet my brother was hardly pushed back in the slightest. Growing angry, he delivered a strong hit to my face followed by a fluid barrage of punches and kicks. My tranquility was running low as I only narrowly escaped a couple of blows to the face. Acting quickly once more, I caught my brothers left arm and twisted it before kneeing him in the stomach twice. As I raised my other hand to deliver another punch, my brother quickly caught the incoming hand and twisted it in a similar fashion. A splintering pain came over me, causing my grip to loosen and my brother to gain enough strength to use the back of his captured hand to whip me harshly in the jaw. I held onto my face now, feeling a stinging pain and a lack of ability to return to tranquility. My brother seized the opportunity and unleashed several more lashes at my shoulders and throat. Now having no choice but to back up, I stumbled and began to roll down a steep hill to the side of the house. I now rolled down the icy hill, causing a great pain in my hip. I was at the bottom for no longer than a few seconds before my brother lifted me from the ground and held me up in front of him. With me as his puppet, my brother began to hit my chest and stomach, showing no signs of growing tired. My body was burning with pain, yet the cold still filled my body and stung at my organs. I began to cough uncontrollably, unleashing a trail of blood on my jaw and torn jacket. My brother finally let me go and I fell to the ground like a rag doll; gasping for air. “Are we done here?” my brother asked; already turning his back to me and beginning to head back up the hill. I wanted it to be done, that much was true. By bones ached and made cracking noises as I stood. My thick jacket had softened some of the hits, yet I could still feel the bruising and could visually tell that my fingers were turning pale and beginning to bleed from my multiple crashes to the ground. I remembered my fight with Henry. I remembered the spars I had made with Larson and my brother in the past. I also remembered my clashes with THEM as well as the S.S.C. It had all been building me up - making me stronger. I had not made it this far to give up now. And so, with the sharp pain in my side growing ever stronger, I hauled myself back up and called out to my brother. “I am not done!” I shouted. “I will never be done so long as I still have a reason to fight!” My brother turned to me now - looking down upon me. “That boy will become nothing but a demon!” he yelled. “He will lie, he will deceive, he will betray, he will bring nothing but pain in his wake!” I looked down at the bloodied snow in front of me and gave a short laugh. Finally, I looked back at him, got into a battling position, and spoke up. “Kind’a like us then, huh?”


Finished:


Only once I embraced my wrong doings did something change inside of me. I looked at what I had done wrong, I had remembered the pain I had caused, I thought about the consequences of my actions. My brother was right, he was not responsible for all the bad things that happened in my life… I was. I had followed him down the road to nowhere and never stopped to turn around. Perhaps I was still on that path, though I felt stronger now that I embraced it. In that moment, tranquility came my way. It did not build up or come upon me in waves, it hit me like a brick wall. Before I knew it, the world was a constant blur and all became quiet and tranquil. My pain vanished and my vision became clear. It was as if I was a super human of sorts. With lightning fast precision, I dashed at my brother and elbowed him away from me. I could no longer tell whether I was running uphill or not, it was of no concern. My brother tried to lunge at me, but I punched at his chest and used the split second of his surprise to leap behind him and put him in a choke hold. Grabbing my arm now, my brother threw me over himself, sending me down on my back, but with no pain to be felt. Rising faster than ever before, I ran at my awaiting opponent, clenched my fists together, and leaped at him in a forward motion. The strike hit home and my brother was sent flying onto his back at the sudden lash. Now on his back, I ran towards my brother and began to punch at his chest and face while holding his legs and arms down with my own legs. He began to struggle, but it was of no concern to me, I continued my barrages of hits as his mouth grew bloodied and a permanent scowl formed on his face. In my haste, I had somehow not noticed he had freed an arm which soon came striking at the back of my head, dizzying me slightly. In this moment, my brother tucked his feet underneath me and kicked me off of him, only to grab onto me as I flew away and use that momentum to bring himself back up. Now above me, my brother stepped on my gut and used his other leg to kick me hard in the jaw. For a moment, my tranquility faded and the shattering pain flowed through me, but then it returned as if nothing had happened. With little options left, I clenched my fists once more and waited for my brother to bend back down in order to deliver the two fists crashing into the sides of his heads. Once this maneuver had been done, I shoved him away and continued to push him back with one hit after another. Punches were followed by kicks and headbuts in a rapid succession, my brother could not keep up. However, in a sudden turn of events, my brother caught my arm and with my leg following through, caught it as well. Now holding me by these limbs, my brother used all of his strength before pushing me off the ground and sending me into a backflip. Suddenly, my head smashed into the ground; shoving my jaw into my collarbone and then sending me down on my back. Suddenly, my tranquility was broken, I began to feel the cold touch at me once more and the pain which I had ignored was now reaching me all at once. I began to cry out in sheer agony as my brother stood over me. Without hesitation, he picked me up, turned me towards him, and began to punch me repeatedly with any strength he had retained. He was tired, so very tired. I had pushed him to his absolute limit, and he had done the same with me. For a moment, everything became bright and sunny, I smiled as I looked towards a gleaming sun and green grass, but that vision was soon replaced my a final jab at my head. I was now let go and allowed to drop to the group where I began to vomit and cry. Blood now poured from my hands and face, leaving the snow stained with the vile substances. My left eyes was beginning to swell, as were my exposed ears. My entire body was churning with this pain and agony. My brother remained standing above me; swaying in the wind. Without a word, he began to limp back up the hill; leaving me to freeze on that icy ground. I touched my face, it stung in some places and was numb in others. I felt fractured skin and was also well aware that I had sprained both of my arms and one leg. The fight was over for me.


Darkness:


Though my vision was blurred and my mouth numb, I still called out to my brother for a final time. “You say this kid will become a monster,” I said; luring his attention. “You say he will leave nothing but terror in his wake. You call him Darkness, but I see none in him. Yet you have done nothing but lie, betray, and hurt. You’d leave me to die here and follow it up with nothing short of murder! Brett isn’t dangerous! Brett isn’t a liar and a traitor! Brett is no murderer! Brett is not Darkness here, my brother, you are!” With all the strength I had left, I stood up and stared upwards at my fallen brother down; swaying constantly as I did. There was a silence at this moment. I was not sure whether I had imagined this silence, or if it was real. Everything seemed off now. It was as if I was in a dream of sorts. At last, my brother looked at me and began to walk forward. I stood my ground with all of my might and continued my locking gaze as he grew closer. No Longer flinching or backing down, I waited for him to meet me. Just as I internally prepared to be thrown back, my brother stopped in his tracks. He was quiet for a moment, but soon looked me straight in the eyes once more and spoke clearly through the whipping winds. “You think I’m Darkness?” he asked me with a subtle look of disappointment directed towards me. “You think I don’t know my purpose? You think I don’t know his? Fine then. Darkness shall be my name now. A reminder to you of the slander behind that name. A reminder to you of what was lost.” My anxiety increased but my feet held firmly to the ground. “The boy shall live,” my brother finally stated. My heart finally began to beat once more and I was allowed to breath through this tension. My brother turned away for a moment before turning back to me and pointing his finger at my face. “You don’t know,” he said starkly. “You don’t know how much you’ve costed me… how much you’ve costed others, but you will. A time will come when you see what he does… what he becomes. Maybe then you’ll know the sacrifice I’ve made.” The air changed at that moment. It was as if the wind had switched directions and began to blow harder than ever before. More snow began to rain down upon us; coating us both in a blanket of it all. The air grew thin too, and harder to breath. I cannot say that I didn’t believe my brother’s words. I did, but that was a sacrifice I had to make on my own accord. I tried to speak, but was quickly interrupted by my brother as he circled around me and began to back up into the icy fog forming around us. “You want to make your own path?” my brother asked me - though it sounded much more like a statement. “Go ahead. You’ll make that path without me.” It was only once my brother turned around and his cold blackness began to fade into the white icy mist around us, did I truly understand what he was saying. Now fumbling forward and slipping on unseen patches of ice I began to call out to my brother. “Wait! Come back!” I screamed; falling to the ground. My eyes began to tear up as I painfully crawled farther into the total whiteness. “I can’t do this without you!” I called out; tears rolling down my cheeks and freezing on my face. “I can’t do this without you!” No matter how far I went, there was no sign of my brother. I could do nothing now but plant my face in the ground and wait for the snow to burry me.  I had lost the will to live in that moment, this was the destiny I had fought for. However, a sudden realization struck me as I began to fade; Brett was still lying outside. Pushing snow off of me now, I could do nothing but limp back to the house as my hands and face began to freeze. I looked back several times, waiting for my brother to return from the whiteness and help me make it through the tough times, but he did not. When I made it back to the house, I saw Brett still knocked out on his porch; the interior warmth of his home keeping him stable. I did nothing but stare at him for a few moments and then looked back at the house. There were obviously no parents home. Without parents to watch over him, who would? Suddenly, Brett’s arm moved slightly as he made a slight effort to open his eyes fully. Jumping into action, I ripped a branch from a nearby tree and placed it near the awakening child before leaping behind the deck and leaning against it silently. As expected, Brett rose back up and stood at the porch for a while in confusion. Through my pain and sadness, I rose my head to look up at him. Not noticing me; Brett noted the stick and looked up to verify whether or not it had fallen from one of the tree branches lingering over his house. Seemingly satisfied, Brett silently headed back inside, shutting the door firmly behind him. Then there was only me. Perhaps it was best this way. Perhaps it has always meant to be this way.


Broken Home:


One way or another, I did make it home that day, but changes had been made. Not changes to the house - changes in me. Whatever the person I was when leaving this house in the morning, was certainly not the same person who was home now. My brother - as I had expected, was gone. I noted his possessions had not moved whatsoever throughout my absence, and they remained as such. I was all on my own now. Perhaps it was the tending to my wounds that managed to allow me to get my mind off of thinking of such a topic, but it was still quite apparent that I could not stay here. Just as my brother had known, the S.S.C would come looking for us for what we had done. There was no escaping the past, but there was tending to the future. The next few days were spent wrapping myself in any bandages we had left as well as eating all of the food that remained in the house in small portions. I nursed myself back to health in a matter of less than a full week. I had always been good at shaking off wounds, but there would always be wounds that I could not bandage. Some would fester and bleed long after being dispatched, but they were no harm to me as long as I did not make them to be a harm for me. I no longer ignored the past and refused to think of the things I had done. I embraced the past and the future, but the future could not be upon me yet. I still had to move on. One sunny Saturday morning, I worked my way outside of my house and stood at the front door for a while. I saw the snow melting before me as the earliest signs of winter truly coming to an end came upon us… er… me. I had learned of another western abandoned house about thirty miles away, but I could not move. I was in no pain, nor was a frozen due to cold, but I could not believe this was my last time at a house which I had grew up in. I felt as if leaving this place behind would mean leaving my brother behind as well. For some time, I gazed into the open fields around me, waiting for my brother to return and for us all to have a happy ending, but he never did. Realizing he would not be returning, I took my brother’s things and buried them underneath the house. As for his private quarters, I left them untouched, believing this to be my way of thanking him for protecting me all those years. Whatever secrets lied within the room, I’ll never know. To this day I’d imagine it remains as such. After well over half an hour, I wished my home a silent goodbye as I made my way through town in order to arrive at my destination the quickest. As I made my way through town, carrying two backpacks worth of supplies, I found myself at the doorsteps of an orphanage. Whatever the reason, I could not help but wonder if I belonged there. With any luck, I could find a family and go to a school for the first time in my life. I was near Brett’s house as well, meaning we could have very well gotten to meet up. A future could lie here, but only if I chose it to be. I was about to make one of the biggest decisions of my life, and there was no one to tell me no. There was no one to make that decision for me. Now it was only me. I was the master of my own destiny now. As it should have always been. And so… I chose.


Future:


I woke up on a hard floor, pain surging through me and a difficult night of sleep. Perhaps I should have used the beds like all the other guys at that orphanage, but it just didn’t feel right to me. The floor, despite the pain it brought, still lulled me to sleep faster than any bed ever could. I’ll save you the time of learning every aspect of my ending up here, though the entire situation was a long one. When I had turned myself in for adoption, I received nothing but questions upon questions regarding my origins and previous place of staying - of which I spun clever and necessary lies. For some time I was something of a test subject; being subjected to blood tests, dental tests, and DNA tests in order to figure out my family or at least find records of me ever existing. Perhaps my knowing of this origin story was never meant to be, for no matter what the test, no one could seem to figure out who I was or how I got here. Legal issues ensued and I was nearly put in the paper are two separate occasions. The press was foaming at the mouth and labeling me as “The Kid Who Doesn’t Exist”. Thankfully, I refused to be involved in any such reports; fearing that the S.S.C would see them. For some more time I spent my life in and out of a courtroom as it was argued as to how I should be treated and where I should be put. Had it not been for people who cared for me, I would have never found my way back to the adoption center where I stayed for some time thanks to a plethora of loopholes. Though my first months there were riddled with depression, I picked myself back up and spent my remaining days brightening the lives of others around me. I think it was there that I really understood my true calling; to make people’s lives better. I spent the days telling jokes and giving hope to kids who had none. To them I was like a superhero, but in actuality, I was no better than them. As luck would have it, I finally found a real family to call my own in early 2004. I would have never achieved this family had it not been for the lies regarding my age that I had made upon first arriving at that orphanage I had claimed to be two years younger than I truly was, and my looks could pass it off relatively well for the most part. Though I had not only spread this lie in order to get a family, I mainly thought of it because of Brett. I trusted that my brother was finished with him for now, but I did not believe for a moment that he would refrain from returning someday in order to fulfill whatever destiny he’d be following. Brett needed someone to watch him, someone to protect him, someone to toughen him up. I became that person. My school and new place of living were located far enough from hostile S.S.C territory, though it still remained quite present here to. It was not long before I had to go by a nickname in order to fully cover up any evidence to who I was. It was not hard either. I was smart in school, but my years of lacking a real education definitely showed through at times. This ignorance was pleasing to my classmates and gave me the idea to play it off as total stupidity. Using jokes and a laid back demeanor I picked up from Apollo and Clocker, I soon became the funniest guy in the whole school - a real jester. Though everyone else referred to me by a different name, one in which I cannot complain about. The school knew me... as Random Kid.


A Place Called Home:


As the back of my head made hard contact with something, I could not help but think back to the day I had lured Machine to Brett, knowing full well that an S.S.C soldier named Tim Allender was in the area. I had trained Brett silently, making fun of him at times and borderline bullying him on other occasions. It was not as if I wanted to do such things, but I knew that if Brett was ever going to be ready for his future, he needed to be strong. He needed to face the criticisms and his faults, just as I had done. It was not long before Tim took Brett under his wing and taught him the ways of the S.S.C. My job was not over though. I continued this work of mine for some time; preparing him. I suddenly came out of my flashback and stared at the figure holding me against the wall with such force upon my neck. There stood Brett; a seemingly power hungry monster who had lied, betrayed, and hurt others. While those around us cowered in fear, I could not help but smile on the inside for a moment. What the others were seeing was not the Brett I had come to grow up with. And so, after an allowed beating, I was released and permitted to see Brett walk away; looking back at me once with hate. Through those hateful eyes I did not see Darkness. Instead I saw blue eyes which reflected a warm and sunny sky. Perhaps this sky was dreary and cold, perhaps this sky was unsure of where to pick up from where it left off, but no matter how hard that sky tries to stay cold and barren, a warmth will come and the snow will melt away.

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