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S.S.C Origins Edit

Spark

The Silent Generation:

My generation was that of the silent generation. Born in the 1920’s to the 1940’s, I being born to that later half, I was of 17 years old in 1955. The fall of comics, polio, war, we had nothing extraordinary to care for. Instead all of America’s attention shifted towards commodities; I saw firsthand as televisions arrived at the doorsteps of each and every one of my neighbors. Everyone knew everyone. For a so-called “Silent Generation” we were quite vocal. But behind the happy smiles plastered on each and every TV screen, the whole country faced issues that would make me into what I became. We were a product of the times I suppose. When a whole country fails to realize it’s sins, I suppose an S.S.C is bound to happen.

Summer:

I had gotten my first car the day I turned 17. A 1951, Mercedes Benz in a dark red-tint. I’d joke over time that it was one of the most unsafe cars we’d ever drive in our lifetimes. These powerhouse machines were nothing short of breathtaking. The streets would often be covered in similar water-colored vehicles as they paraded up and down the streets, boys younger and older than myself hooting at groups of girls or simply showing off for anyone who was watching. I did not partake in such activities though. My heart already belonged to a girl; Summer. We had met a few years prior during one of my baseball practices. Coach had us run 3 miles after 4 players got in trouble for skipping practices. My chest felt like bursting and as I sat under a tree to cool off I was approached by her. I recall her long baby-blue colored dress with small folds and tucks around the neck and arms. She handed me a bottle of water and asked if I was okay. And as cheesy as it may sound, things were certainly okay from then-on. My Junior year I decided to ask her to prom and our relationship stuck. I suppose there could be no better place to begin such a story, than in the Summer.

Life:

It was late Summer that it all began. I had met with one of my closest friends; Jacob just as school let us free. “I’ll tell you this much,” I recall Jacob saying. “At this rate those ankle-biters will be running the team by the end of the year.” Recent incoming freshman had surprised everyone with their skill. And no team was affected more than our football division, with old players such as Jacob being pushed to the side. “Relax,” I replied as we rounded a corner; watching closely as some others hopped in their cars to leave the school-grounds as fast as possible. “Season just started. They’ve been practicing over break.” “Easy for you to say,” Jacob replied, stopping quickly to tie his shoe and wipe sweat from his forehead. “You’re not in baseball anymore. In fact you don’t even have a job yet, unless you count stacking wood into the back of your uncle’s pickup a job.” “Makes good money every now and then,” I reply shortly. “It at least gives me a chance to bash ears with someone who’s actually got some common blood.” Jacob briefly looked up at me and nodded silently as he fixed his other shoe. He knew more than almost anyone that my family was a mess. My mother had passed during childbirth and my father fell victim to a late strain of polio not long after. He spent a majority of his time drinking or simply not coming home. The man practically lived in his car. Thus I surrounded myself with people who were similar to me. Jacob had only his mother and my friend Calvin was so distant from his family that he’d often stay away from home for weeks on end without them so much as raising an eyebrow. We were the unlucky ones. But at least we had each other. Jacob stood now. He was a great deal taller than I was and his curly black hair gave him more height than he truly had. He had the body of a fit football player for sure, he had talked often about going professional, though it was more of a joke between us. “I gotta get going Johnny,” he said as he worked his way to the lot. “Can’t miss anymore practices!” “Stop calling me that!” I called back as he turned a corner. My name was Jonathan. Jonathan Coldwel. But just about everyone stuck to calling me Johnny, of which I could not stand. Granted, it was much more tolerable than other names I’m sure they could come up with. And so I turned around and headed back inside to meet with Summer.

Our School:

“Bradsburg United” the name of our school. One of the biggest schools in America, or at least we liked to pretend it was. The place was still ginormous. It housed every grade from kindergarten to high school, which many parents were quite fond of, leading to an increase in later years. But we as students hated it. I worked my way past a group of 12 year olds throwing paper wads back and forth. Summer would be waiting for me by her locker just next to the gym. She always stayed after so we could talk. The school was so large that we’d often only catch a passing glance at each other, and even that was rare. As I rounded a corner, my arm was suddenly grabbed and I was pulled back by Calvin Supco; one of my old friends from baseball who had caught me passing by. “Johnny!” he exclaimed, cradling my shoulder as he smiled broadly and his friends laughed. “We were talkin about your car. I’m trying to tell these fremes that it’s not a bent eight.” I grinned, the rumors had often spread about my car, and people constantly bought into them, thinking my car was bigger, older, faster, or slower than it really was. The school had that sort of effect on everyone. A rumor would begin and by it’s end it would be distorted and riddled with misconceptions and outright lies. “No,” I replied shortly. Just as I was prepared to say more, a large wave of seniors joined the group, calling out to Calvin and others surrounding him as they struggled to make their voices heard over distant laughter and footsteps echoing loudly through the hallways. Calvin was incredibly popular amongst seniors and juniors. He had made a name for himself when we were in baseball together, though he to had dropped out to pursue other goals. Calvin’s grip on me loosened as he turned to a boy beside him and laughed wildly at a quiet muttering. More teens called from across the hall; their voices muffled completely by the crowd; with Calvin raising his thumb up to signify he heard them, though I doubt he did. Realizing I had yet to meet with Rose, I slowly worked my way back, with Calvin taking note. “See ya tomorrow Jonathan!” I waved back, now turning the corner to see Summer again.

Trees:

“You get swallowed up by Calvin’s hoard?” Summer said with a laugh as we walked down the hall to the exit on the south end of the school; where we would find the least interruption. “Yeah,” I replied. “They weren’t just trying to talk to him. Everyone just wanted to talk to everyone. Wherever Calvin is, I guess people just see the opportunity to let themselves go a bit.” Summer walked ahead of me and handed over a rolled up sheet of paper. I took it as she meshed her hands together in anxious anticipation for me to look at it, her blue dress moving rhythmically back and forth as she attempted to walk backwards to get a better view of my face. I opened the sheet only to find a painting of a forest. Obviously finished by her during art. She had an eye for the beauty of nature and allowed it to translate easily on the page. Were it not for her large signature in the corner, I would think it to be a photograph. “Like it?” she said softly. “I used a photo of the forest down past Blue Point as a reference. There’s a huge tree down there in the center of the place. Beautiful sight. I embellished the colors as much as I could.” “I’m no art critic.” I said happily. “But yes. It looks great.” We finally reached the door, with Summer briefly peering out to see if her parents had come to pick her up, for she had yet to pass the driver's test; and failure of which I constantly would bring up for a laugh. “Already here,” she said, looking back at me as she began to push the door, not wanting to keep them waiting. “Give me a bell when you get the chance,” she said, quickly pressing the painting into my arms. “That’s for you.” And with that, she left.

The Other Side:

Now to myself, I worked my way to the other door closest to the lot. An odd thump met my ears, of which I ignored as I stopped briefly to fish my keys from my pockets. Suddenly another thump just outside the door and then some muffled laughter. With my keys now in hand, I made my way outside, expecting to see Calvin and his friends or perhaps the football team jogging around the premises. Instead a body was suddenly hurled into the bushes nearby, making me jump back as I Iooked up, only to find a hoard of teens around my age laughing hysterically as the body in the bushes struggled to stand. I tried to move, but remained strangely stuck in place as one of the teens approached the boy in the bushes. “Comics?” the teen said in a mocking manner, wildly waving some torn colored pages in front of his victim’s face. “Kid don’t you know nobody reads these things anymore!” The boy stuttered a bit in fear as he backed up carefully, with me briefly glimpsing his face. Brice. Brice and I were once friends in Middle School, even a bit before that. I recall stopping by his house from time to time to play basketball. He had changed so much since then, and it looked like those changes were getting him into trouble with the other side of the school. The side not masked with happy smiles and laughter. The real side.

Eyes:

“Listen Ivan…” Brice said, his voice trembling. “All I did was bump into her I swear! It was nothing! I was just read-” the tallest and burliest of the group gave a heavy chuckle. “Oh man Brice… I would like to believe ya. And I don’t see how any girl of mine could ever even THINK of talking to you. But the fact remains that if I don’t teach you a lesson, it’ll give off the wrong message to others. Why, they’d go ape on her.” Brice stumbled back more as I slowly regained some mobility and walked closer to the lot, still looking back as the boy named Ivan towered over Brice and took him by his collar, lifting him harshly so they could look eye-to-eye. Ivan suddenly raised his fist carefully to Brice’s jaw and leaned in so as to speak clearly and concisely over the hoots and hollers of his friends nearby. “Time for your first lesson,” he said strongly. “And believe me. It will hurt you a lot more than it will hurt me.”

Voices:

Brice was knocked hard against the jaw as I immediately staggered back to avoid getting caught in the fray. It was as if no-one even noticed me there. All attention was focused with amusement on Brice as he held his hand closely to the side of his face. Ivan walked closer, now kicking Brice into the lot with extreme power, the likes of which took Brice’s breath away in an instant as he coughed and felt at the blood dripping from his mouth. “Oh man!” One of the friends called out. “Ivan ain’t lettin up on this one!” “S-stop!” Brice yelled with a sudden renewed power to his voice, holding his arm out to Ivan as if such an act could keep him at bay. “Woah there!” Ivan retorted with a fake surprise in his voice. “Who do you think’s giving the orders here?” I suddenly heard a noise, now looking back I saw two teachers standing in a window upstairs, looking down at the fight. One of them, Mr. Davenport was my history teacher in third period. I finally began to calm myself. At last someone could end this madness before things got ugly. But this was not to be, the two looked on with a distant stare as if gazing into a void I could not see, perhaps even looking amused at the tussle before shutting the blinds with no hint at remorse. “Agh!” a scream resonated through the courtyard as Ivan twisted Brice’s arm and forced him to the ground, getting him into an inescapable hold to the dirt as he rested his knee harshly on Brice’s back. “P-please! Stop!” Brice began to beg, his head hardly able to look up without his jaw scooping up mounds of dirt. Then suddenly, as I stood there watching, Brice’s eyes met mine. I had felt like a ghost before and now someone had finally noted me, though I certainly didn’t want the attention. My hair practically stood on end and my flesh became drained of color as Brice lied there on the ground, just looking up at me. He didn’t speak a word, instead perhaps trying to convey a message. My hand became aware again and I felt my sweaty keys sitting firmly within my grasp. My car was only a few feet away. I didn’t have to get involved in any of this. It was Brice’s problem. He had bumped into Ivan’s girl. He should have been more careful. he should have known who he was talking to before trying to order Ivan around like that, but the eyes kept looking at me, their blue tint reflecting the sun above, truly his eyes were so bright compared to my own. I clenched the keys in my fist and with all the effort I could muster… I turned away from that piercing stare. My car was right there. Mere steps away. More cries rang out and some occasional thumps mixed in with the laughter of Ivan’s friends. I started my car, it’s roaring engine overpowering the sounds of the struggle nearby and the window being rolled up so that my face was no more than a silhouette, a nameless bystander who wanted no part in this. Any of it. My hand trembling, I switched to reverse, backed out from the space, and left. I had escaped. I was free from those voices and that stare. That blue-eyed stare from below.

Past:

My hands shook oddly as I grasped at the wheel. Every time I removed my hand to flick a dial or roll up a window, it did nothing but vibrate awkwardly as goosebumps formed on my forearm. How is it I could be so cold on such an uncharacteristically warm day? I turned into a diner just off the side of the street, hoping for a hearty meal to quell the strange sensation burning away at my stomach. “Jett’s Diner” a tiny little hovle that had attracted friends and I every weekend for over two years. Summer enjoyed the place too, though her parents were much too cautious to let her go with me on a weekend. As such I often went by myself or with Jacob. Jett’s Diner always had the latest news, fashion, and music; despite its misleading size. I flinched as a memory popped into my head. My father and I going to this diner when I was far younger. It was my first time inside and I had seen Brice. The two of us talked and laughed all day as my father constantly shouted for me to shut my trap and eat. I looked down at my hands, a menu had been slipped into them by a passing waitress. Nothing on it interested me. I was suddenly in no mood for eating. I finally leaned back as some tunes echoed from an older jukebox near the exit. “I-I’m sorry,” I small voice stammered to my side. “Have you been served yet?” The voice was familiar and once I opened my eyes a bit to see who was disturbing me, I found Noah Hawthorn. Similar to Brice; Noah had many issues with being attacked at school. He had been seen speaking to a man of color and giving him some money. This didn’t sit well with a majority of the school. He had been called some terrible things and I tried hard to stay away from his drama. He didn’t mind the words to much. He was much too shy and fragile to do anything about it. “Not hungry,” I said at last. “Just passing through.” “O-okay,” Noah said after a brief pause. He hesitantly took the menu and left me to my thoughts again. I tried to focus on the music but my mind once again strayed towards Brice and the bull; Ivan. I carefully pushed the memories of Brice to the side as I focused more on his attacker. I had never seen nor heard of Ivan before, leading me to assume he had just moved to our district, but how he could already have so many followers was beyond me. And he certainly wasn’t alone either. There were countless bullies at our school and I was a fool to believe teachers would bother and stop it. “Toughens kids up!” I recall Mr. Davenport saying once. He was only a couple years older than me and already he had fallen into the same mindset as all teachers. The majority of the school stuck to calling bullies “attackers” because that’s just what they’d do; attack. Attack without warning, planning, or even purpose. They ruled the school. And they knew it too.

Flags:

With the diner growing in attendance, I slipped outside for a breath of fresh air. As I approached my car I noted a motorcycle parked nearby. A 1944 Harley Davidson in a custom-painted; dark green tint. Attached to the back were a variety of small state flags ranging from Ohio to California, some even repeating. I smiled at last. There was only one person who drove a motorcycle like this. “Looking for me?” a deep voice called out as a tall, black-haired teen no older than myself and dawning a thick leather jacket made his way from the diner to my side. “Flags!” I said cheerfully, grasping his hand and shaking it as my grin widened genuinely. Flags was the text-book example of a drifter. His past and future didn’t matter to him or anyone else. He traveled from state to state seeing what there was to see and then leaving when he grew bored of it, collecting a state flag just before he took off. We could think of no better name for him than Flags when he arrived in this town a few months ago. Since then the two of us were good friends, with him showing up to football games or baseball matches both on and off the court. “I hadn’t seen you in a few days,” I said, retracting my arm. “Was worried you might’ve taken off.” Flags smiled and rubbed his head. “No no no,” He repeated. “Calvin and I have been fixing up a broken down truck just East of here near that fork in the rode. You know the one.” I nodded, I had forgotten how close Calvin and Flags were. Calvin was drawn to Flags’s free lifestyle. One not plagued by doubt or fear at every turn. I guess I was to. “You’ll be the first to know if I take leave,” Flags assured me. “But what can I say, this town has a hold on me.” “Glad to hear that,” I said quickly, noticing his attention shifting to the jukebox inside and some girls huddled closely around it. “Go on,” I said with a short laugh, not wanting to keep him ogling at the girls while I prattled on about my run-in with Ivan. “Huh? Oh yeah!” Flags said, finally snapping back to attention and giving me a quick pat on the back. “Got a good feeling this time!” he called back to me as he entered. Wish I could have said the same.

A Talk:

The rest of my day went about as usual as it always did. I found myself at home making some dinner and fixing a small leak in the ceiling of our bathroom. A particularly stubborn one to say the least. I had been patching it and many others for just over a year. After all, who else was there to fix them anyways? Certainly not my father, who refrained from returning home that night. I often wondered if he hated me. Hated me because of mother’s passing during my birth. Truly it could not have been my fault, but could he have still placed that hatred on me? I pushed the thought out of my head just as I had done with that of Brice and Ivan. They were none of my concern now. Now it was time for me to call Summer. “You’re an hour late,” Summer blurted as soon as she answered. “Second time.” I smiled and twisted some of the cords around my fingers as I spoke back over the scratchy line. “Like you even notice. You’re probably too busy drawing a fern or a cow or somethin like that.” Summer seemed offended, though I knew just the opposite. “Absolutly not!” she replied. “Cows are disgusting!” “Then what was it?” I shot back; smiling. “What was what?” Summer answered, sounding perplexed. “So what were you drawing then?” Summer was quiet for a while as I heard her shift positions and turn off a loud TV. “You know I have other things to do besides drawing,” she finally answered. There was a silence as I waited on the other end, knowing that was not all she had to say. Finally she broke the pause. “Fine!” she let out in a huff. “It was a lake.” I laughed, I could read her voice well at this point, and she could read mine with just enough efficiency. I had been told by her that I was a terrible liar and that if I ever were to go behind her back on some other girl, she’d know. I took that to heart. For the rest of our time we would talk back and forth for hours on end, her often mentioning some rumor she had heard from a friend or some crazy thing our elderly instructor; Mr. Burkheim had uttered. It was my job to listen carefully and be prepared to answer the occasional question. I would joke with her often that it was like taking a test. You’d be thrown heaps of information your way and at the end you’d be forced to answer questions regarding the least memorable portions of the content you learned. Sometimes I even had to jot things down to keep up. Summer always found that funny. And her laugh was genuine; as was mine. I was lucky to have her. And as the day turned to night our conversation finally came to a close and I got into bed; knowing full well that the rest of Summer’s day would involve calling her friends and telling them even more rumors and stories. I on the other hand required more sleep, and so that’s what I set out to do. Or so I tried.

Harsh Winds:

I’ll never know what it was that woke me that night. Perhaps branch blowing against my window or my father returning at an unsightly time; much too drunk to function properly. But something had done it. I woke with a start at 5 in the morning, the wind howling loudly outside my window with distant sounds of trash bins being thrown to the ground and wind-chimes echoing loudly. I laid there for the longest time listening to it. A then it occurred. A sharp breeze. Fast and unforgiving. Hard and crisp, differing itself from any other noise outside. I sat upright in fear as I put two and two together. That sound was not wind. But rather a gunshot. A close gunshot. Throwing my blankets off of me; I ran to my window and peered out into the darkened streets below. Lights turned on in the house across the street and more lights in the house next to it. A scream suddenly burst through this silence, dwarfing the harsh winds and causing neighbors to walk outside, wondering what was happening. Then I heard another sound; an alarm. The sounds of an ambulance in the distance. Carefully and quietly I opened my window and gripped the edges, peering my head outside in order to see the flashing lights approaching. The ambulance passed my house with blistering fury before making a loud breaking noise just out of my range of vision. It had stopped close, I could tell. Not wishing to miss what had happened I put on a shirt and headed outside, the wind slamming into me and making it difficult to move with much efficiency. Thunder began to roar in the distance as I caught a glimpse of red beams trickling through the bushes four houses away. Not walking at a brisk pace I could hear more screaming. It was woman. Crying loudly; her voice strained and course, she walked to her doorstep where paramedics began to speak hurriedly to her. Her red nightgown was thrown around violently and her hair was swung harshly to the left side, some tuffs sticking up as if she had been frightened by a ghost. Suddenly there were more sirens, but these were different. I looked behind me only to find two cop cars racing down our roads, honking at incoming bystanders to get out of their way. I quickly lept into the cool grass of the the side of the road and advanced further and the woman sobbed into her hands; tears trickling down her palms and onto the pavement. Police established a perimeter quickly, immediately pushing incoming residents off the property and telling them to stay back. They had not seen me though. Now blanketed by dark branches and bushes, I crept further onto the scene, my curiosity getting the better of me. Then I saw it. A white gurney being hauled out of the front door, past the woman who was to blinded by tears to see the small bed pass her and grow near to the open back of the ambulance. A thick splotch of red caught my attention on the bed. A sheet was resting over it. That sheet was covering a body. A body with blood spilling from the right side of the head, facing me. It was like I had seen a ghost. That white sheet moving swiftly over the driveway, it’s moans replaced with the sounds of the squeaking gurney wheels. I sat there stunned, looking for others to see their reactions. Though I had now circumnavigated the cop’s boundaries. They had blocked the whole scene with another ambulance truck. Nobody had seen it. Two men in white folded up the bed’s legs and tucked them underneath the gurney. “No!” the woman cried, not finally noticing what was happening. Her face was nearly as red as the splotch of blood and she became choked up on words as she attempted to race towards the gurney. “Don’t take him away from me!” a cop held her back as the ghost was pushed fully into the truck and it’s doors were quickly slammed shut. Before I could manage a closer look at the woman, she was taken indoors by two cops and remaining officers demanded residents to return home and assuring them that their safety was in no way jeopardized. The ambulance rushed away; it’s alarms louder than ever as it turned back down the road and sped towards the horizon. I stood there for a while hearing the woman shout. Her screams were mostly absorbed by the walls as she talked practically incoherently. The wind grew stronger and some inevitable rain began to sprinkle around me, with the branches over my head collecting them and leaving me standing in this dry patch of ground. Soon the voices of neighborhood spectators began to fade and the beaming lights of the houses surrounding me grew dark as well. I had never felt so held in one place, feeling as if the ground itself had me in its grasp. There was a sort of familiarity with this spot. Though I could not pinpoint it. I could only stand there and feel the occasional drip from above and the harsh winds on my face. But just as the rain eventually took leave, as did I.

School:

It had been a difficult night to try and sleep. Very few kids knew anything about the gunshot. The one’s who did had multiple variations of the story, some claiming to have seen a gunman being chased by police outside the back of the house, others saying little kid accidentally shot his father with the family gun. Though from my up-close perspective I had doubted all of these rumors. If anyone knew anything about it, I thought it would be Calvin, who I met up with just after second period came to a close. “Johnny,” Calvin said calmly as he met me in the hall. “I can’t stick around long. I promised the guys I’d meet up with them before class.” “I understand,” I replied; looking around to make sure that my following words wouldn’t attract the wrong crowd. “You know anything about those gunshots in my neighborhood last night?” Calvin’s dark eyes grew wide as if he-himself had been shot. “Oh man,” he stammered. I forgot you lived down there Johnney. Must’ve woke you right up eh?” I let the dark bags under my eyes answer that question. “All I know are rumors,” Calvin finally said. “Real crazy stuff that I’m sure you already know. I’ll tell ya something from my own observations though, teachers are acting real strange today.” “How?” I asked, growing intrigued. “Just been quiet. Distant ya know? You’ll see what I’m talking about when you get to your next few classes or so. Guarantee it.” Calvin paused for a moment and looked back; hearing some of his friends shouting around a corner. He seemed almost frightened for a moment, or perhaps just a little uneasy. He replaced the look with a smile and spoke again. “I remember going down that road where it happened though,” he said. “You remember? We used to ride bikes down there after practice or play makeshift soccer in the streets. Fun times. Guess it might be a bit dangerous down there now eh?” I nodded, briefly recalling the fun we used to have before the stress of High School hit everybody. I had to balance school and my girlfriend, Jacob had to worry about losing his place in our football team, and Calvin… well I sometimes wonder if he wanted to go back. Go back to the days before he had so many friends at his beck and call. I guess I’d never know. “I gotta go,” Calvin said as he turned back towards the voices. “Just keep an eye out!” he called. “You will see what I mean!”

Uncanny:

Calvin was right. For the rest of the day I could not help but feel like there was something going on at that school. Teachers were quiet, the principal was nowhere to be found, and a strange sense that something was being kept underwraps became increasingly obvious. Though the average person didn’t notice this. I spoke to Jacob and found no great unease on his mind and Summer was to preoccupied with an upcoming test to seemingly note it either. Then finally an update, or at least the most believable one. A rumor began to circulate that a meeting was to be held at the end of the day in the gymnasium. There was no word as to why, but the rumor seemed to be the most realistic thing I had heard all day. I eased my mind by telling myself the meeting would talk about gun safety, perhaps an instructor would appear to explain to us how dangerous it was to mess with a loaded weapon. This calmed me for the rest of the day. With one hour to spare, my final class was cut short when a man in a suit approached our class’s door and asked for everyone to come down to the gym. The rumors were true. And though I still felt at ease, that all changed when I spotted to individuals standing at the entrance to the gym; police officers. Something terrible had happened.

The Truth:

“Settle down everyone,” our principal said clearly over the microphone. The gymnasium began to settle down in clusters. Middle school students were in here as well as the high schoolers, but no sign of the younger kids. Jacob found me and carefully moved down the bleacher seats to my side. “Drugs you think?” he whispered to me as the gym grew even more quiet. “Could be,” I stated, though I believed just the opposite. Finally there was nothing but stale air circulating the room as some men in suits whispered to two more cops and then gestured for our principal to continue. “I have some unfortunate news,” he said; his voice becoming scratchy over the microphone. “Normally we would have waited to reveal such news to all of you. But the last thing Ms. Slater and I want is for wild rumors to come up surrounding this serious matter.” My pulse strangely quickened and I gripped the edges of the wooden bleachers as he continued. “At about 5 last night, Brice Wintzell… committed suicide in his room after his mother had gone to sleep…” Silence. Nothing but silence as kids looked wildly around the room, as if expecting to see Brice sitting somewhere amongst us. My fingers ground into the bleachers, splinters cutting into the tips as my teeth bore down on eachother and my heart rate quickened. Brice, the old friend who I had seen beaten up by Ivan had taken his own life. The house I stood by, the familiar yard, and the crying mother. I had seen them all before when I had visited Brice. Playing games with him and hearing his mother and father laugh as they watched us and bring lemonade out once we had exhausted ourselves. How had I not recognized it before? “He was rushed to the Webshire Hospital,” he continued; interjecting my thoughts as I cringed at the inevitable words. “But by then… it was far too late. Brice Wintzell was declared dead at approximately 6:23 in the morning.” My hands shook and my head grew light as the image flashed in my head over and over again. The bloody ghost, Ivan’s bloody fists, me turning my back on a friend in need. “You alright John?” Jacob whispered; noticing my face. I didn’t respond. I could only cock my head as I looked to my right, finding Ivan and his friends sitting in the lower bleachers; some of them smirking, others half-asleep. Ivan whispered to one of them before calmly tucking his arms in front of his chest and leaning back. He had no clue what he had done. Or did he? “I realize,” the man continued. “That this may sadden the majority of you. But to help ease this pain in such a difficult time, we would like to ask that everyone show up to Brice’s funeral on Sunday. It will be held at the Acorn Meadows cemetery at 8:00. Please show your attendance and offer your support to Brice’s mother during this mourning period.” My eyelids snapped shut as the man finally stated his last few words. “The day is done. You are free to leave.” And just like that, the sounds of rushing teenagers me my ears as they poured down the steps, speaking quietly amongst themselves. Talk about parties, clothes, and grades. Brice was absent from their minds already, but not from mine. The students’ day was done, but mine had only just begun.

False Comfort:

Jacob sat there with me for a long while, he did not bother to speak. When my eyes reopened, the first thing I saw was Calvin as he was pushed by his friends out the door and into the sunshine outside. Calvin looked at me for a moment, perhaps a silent way of telling me everything would be okay. “It’s not your fault you know…” Jacob said quietly, breaking my thoughts. “It is…” I replied, now staring up at the rafters. “I saw what happened,” Jacob finally admitted. “Took my eyes off practice for just a minute and there you were… you walked away and there is no shame in that. Ivan and his gang will stop at nothing to push down those perceived lower than them. You intervening would change nothing.” He let his words sink in, or at least that was his intent, but the words only danced around my head before evaporating into the rafters. “It’s my fault…” I said. “It’s not,” Jacob replied, losing his patience. I finally looked him in the eyes. “It is…” was all I said. Jacob sat there for a long while and eyed me as my attention drifted back to staring at the nothingness above. White curtains by the window allowed some light to leak in and onto the gymnasium floor. The window was slightly ajar and the curtains flowed freely in the soft breeze. For a moment the curtains let through a large burst of sunlight in their corners, with the red illumination of the sun peaking through, giving the illusion of red curtains. Bloody curtains. Ghosts dancing above us. “I’ll go to that service with you,” Jacob said as he stood and grabbed for his bag. “We all will. It’s the least we could do.” And with that he left, thinking he bestowed upon me a few words of comfort. But there was none to be found. Only the shuffling of ghosts from above.

Silence:

I did not call Summer that night. Or anyone for that matter. I found myself transferring from the silence of my car to the silence of my home. My stomach boiled within me and my head spun as I attempted to eat. And so I sat for a long while at my table. There was nothing I could do anymore. Helpless; that is what I had become. When the sun set and I felt fit to walk I hauled myself back to my room. As I opened my door and stepped inside I could practically find myself reliving those final moments of the day prior. The tranquil silence of the night, speckled with the occasional barks of dogs or low hums of distant cars making their way back home. I dropped into my bed and stared up at the wall; eyes wide open as I focused on the dark shape on my ceiling. My eyes adjusted after a while, revealing a poster I had hung years prior; now tattered at the corners and becoming blanketed in spider webs. A generic pitcher stared down at me smiling widely, his intensely blue jersey shining through the night. Then bang, a gunshot echoing through the night. My eyes flinched and my muscles contracted as I pulled my hands over my face, my lips trembling in fear and sadness. The gunshot echoed on through the streets. I had to stand but I couldn’t. The sounds of sirens began to blare in the distance as dogs barked wildly and disgruntled neighbors flicked on their lights and opened their garages, speaking in short bursts of confusion and fear. Still I could not stand. The sirens grew louder and tires moved rapidly down the road as a piercing scream of a woman shot through the air, with my skin growing goosebumps and my ears beginning to ring.Finally I shot up from bed, throwing the covers off myself as the ringing grew louder. I stumbled to my window, my face ripe with terror as I looked down bellow. Silence. Neighbors with lights turned off and garage doors shut. Cars with no wheels turning, no police circling, no sirens blaring… and no woman screaming. And so I looked out of that window for the longest time in my life and wept, my tears flowing down the crevices of my face and down into the grass below, my face hanging from the window in despair as my sobs grew louder and louder. Brice’s face was there too. And whenever my eyes flickered, begging the tears to subside, his face remained glued there to the insides, staring back at me. Begging for help where there was none to be found.

Service:

When the time for Brice’s service finally came around, I found the best suit in the house, my father's which he had worn the day he married my mom. It was slightly big on me but the only thing in the house that wasn’t riddled with holes or stains of dirt. Summer had assured me that she would be coming and Jacob would as well. At this point everyone in town knew the details of Brice’s death. Rumors subsided but the disrespect of the population only grew. “Did you hear about the boy who offed himself?” I once heard a young woman say to the cashier as I passed through the store. Brice had been reduced to that; nameless. And with so many people speaking of him in this manner, it should have come as no surprise to me that the funeral was quite empty. There were mostly family members in attendance, with a few teens from the school who had clearly been dragged along by their parents. I avoided eye-contact with the grave, I could not bare to see it for any longer than a passing glance. Summer had worn a long black dress with a black flower pinned loosely to her hair, which she had curled and placed in a ponytail. Jacob wore a similar dark suit to mine and stood quietly under a set-up shelter. There was a small storm approaching. Brice’s mother weeped over his tomb, her voice faint as she spoke silently to herself or to whatever spirits may have been listening. When the drops of rain began to pour down, family members helped her to her feet and took her to the shelter where a sleek black car waited; ready to take her and the others to a nearby church for some final prayers. Jacob and Summer looked ready to go as well. “Come on John,” Jacob said quietly as he placed a hand on my shoulder, let’s get going. It’s not looking good out here. I silently turned to face him, along the way my eyes finally firmly met the grave, I nearly doubled over in pain and tears just catching the glimpse. “You go,” I said silently. “Take Summer with you. I’ll catch up.” “John,” Jacob began, but it was of no use. “I’ve made up my mind,” I said, slowly pulling away from Jacob’s grip. “This is what I want.” Jacob silently approached Summer to deliver my message and the two left before the rain managed to pick up any more pace. I now stood; my back to the grave; wondering if I really had the strength to turn and face it. I heard thunder in the distance, echoing through the sky, I knew my time would be limited here. And so I turned and faced it; faced the lonely stone of the kid I had let die. And I took a step closer. Then another. And another. I looked down on the grave for some time, repeating the scene with Ivan and the others in my head over and over. I remember seeing the teachers in the window, absently looking at Brice like an animal. Ivan and friends were there laughing in unison. And then there I was, standing above the fray, looking down at those clear eyes of Brice’s. And he looked back into mine. When I snapped out of the trance, I fell to my knees, the nice long cackies I was wearing now bore down on the Earth, scraping up wet sediment and plastering them forever onto the pants. I remained there; eye-level with the tomb. I was not above Brice. And I certainly was not on the same level as him either, no matter how hard I tried. Cold breeze and large drops of rain pounded down on my shoulders now, wetting my hair and soaking the suit clean-through. I did not budge. I sat staring at that grave for what felt like hours. If Ivan had saw what he had done to Brice, if he had actually felt it, maybe he’d be there by my side. But he didn’t. No. Not yet.

Past and Future

Summer was deeply concerned for me for the next few days. She’d call constantly asking if there was something she could do. I recognized her efforts and made it clear that I just needed some time to think. She abided my requests and I was more than happy she refrained from speaking the words I knew would eventually come up; “You hadn’t spoken in years.” It was the truth, but it was not the truth I wanted to hear. We had merely grown apart, but that in no way erased our early time together, he, Calvin, myself, and a few others running through the streets finding places to hide, narrowly avoiding incoming cars as we weaved in and out, diving behind trash bins or bushes. The whole neighborhood knew about our games and let us come and go as we pleased so long as we didn’t break anything. Why had Calvin not shown up to the funeral? I had expected few to show up, though I had certainly considered Calvin’s conscience to get the better of him. Maybe I really was just holding on to a ghost. “Are you ready to order?” came a shaky voice beside me, waking me up from my trance. I was at the diner now; Noah standing besides me; notebook in hand, ready to start writing. “Yeah,” I said finally. “Glass of water and the special.” Noah silently nodded and looked down at the board. Nearby I noted two younger kids laughing at Noah, his shoes had become untied and had become stuck under my seat, the moment he’d try to walk away, he’d trip, and the kids noticed and waited eagerly. I silently scooted the chair off of Noah’s shoelace, he hadn’t noticed. Ad as he walked away to give the order to the man at the counter, I could not help but see Brice. The two were similar in many ways, none of them positive for my mindset. Still I could not help but marvel at how such simple actions could results in such tremendous repercussions. I wondered what else could be done by the few, to aid the lives of the many.

Dinner

As the days went on, more and more people stopped talking about Brice. He had practically been erased by the collective mind. Perhaps Summer had instigated some sort of event to try and get my mind off of it as well, for after I had left the diner yesterday and gotten home, I received a call from her, stating that her family wanted me over for dinner. I had hardly ever seen Summer’s parents, much less eat with them in their house. I had only met them once before. I stopped by to speak with Summer a month or so into our meeting one another. Her dad answered and the topic of conversation immediately shifted to him asking if I was trying to date his daughter. I told him no, which was the truth, but he maintained his suspicions and when Summer and I eventually did get together, she told me he was very skeptical of me, but would still keep his distance. A sort of mutual respect perhaps? In either case I was now driving to Eva’s house for what would undoubtedly be a very awkward meeting. I carefully careened my car into her lush neighborhood and spied her house which; much like the others, was flanked by well-trimmed hedges and flowers beginning to wilt as winter crept silently around the corner. I hardly managed to exit my car before hearing the sound of the front door creaking open, with a deep and booming voice calling to me from across the driveway. “Jonathan,” the man at the door said, outstretching his hand as I approached. I took his hand and greeted him with a smile. His grip was harsh; purposefully so. “Come in,” the man said at last, letting go of my hand. “Dinner is already prepared. You can call me Walt by the way.” “Understood,” I replied, looking around the house which remained spotless from every angle. I looked to the kitchen where Summer sat nervously and her mother rushed feverishly about the area, pulling some hot rolls from the oven and setting them down on the table. There was another person too, Summer’s brother, who was two years older than me yet still lived with his parents. Summer hardly ever mentioned him, and eventually I had practically forgotten he even existed. Yet there he was, standing at the stairs; his arms crossed as he looked down on me, perhaps expecting some sort of greeting. I refrained from making eye contact and simply took a seat at the table where Walt told me to sit. I was so unprepared for this. Soon Summer’s mother joined us at the table, finally ending the brief fit of silence. “It’s so nice to finally meet you,” her mother said with an exaggerated smile. “It’s good to be here,” I replied, briefly drifting my eyes back to the living room where Summer’s brother still moved about. “We were worried you might not come,” Summer’s father said as he raised a spoonful of mashed potatoes to his face. “Summer said you were awfully upset about that death recently… that kid… Isaac was it?” “Brice,” I corrected, looking down at my plate and desperately hoping for a change in subject. Summer’s father seemed to get the hint, but her brother seemed to ease closer to the kitchen, suffocating me with his mere presence. “The school year is already coming close to entering it’s second half,” I said; changing the subject. “Some of my biggest concerns are to simply get good grades, maybe even get back into baseball if things turn out right.” “What kind of grades to you get?” Summer’s father asked as he wiped his mouth and briefly looked at Summer, who avoided eye contact with everyone but me or her mother. “Bs for the most part,” I replied honestly. Summer’s father grunted quietly under his breath, I could tell he wanted to say more, perhaps tell me that Bs weren’t enough to get into a good college, but he refrained from doing so. I desperately wished to say more but my words suddenly escaped me. The room itself seemed to spin as I pondered what this man could have been thinking. I fought this spinning for what seems like hours, but ultimately conceded to defeat; staring down at my legs and their reflection of the shimmering wooden floor. “Summer said you blamed yourself,” came a voice from the living room. It was Summer’s brother. I stared at him for a while, unsure what he meant. “Brice, I mean,” the brother continued. “To scared to speak up and speak your mind.” “Brandon!” his mother scolded. “That is no way to speak to our guest.” Brandon ignored his mother as he grew closer to the table and hovered over me. “You were to scared to speak your mind then, just as you are to scared to speak your mind now. Is that right? You’re the guy who wants to date my sister? A spineless nobody who mopes because he couldn’t do the right thing?” He was flustered now, I could see it, is overprotectiveness getting the better of him. But could I deny him? Tell him he was wrong? There were no faults in his statements. I was a nobody. I was spineless. “Walt talk some sense into him!” Summer’s mother said urgently as Walt merely looked on upon the two of us. Had he orchestrated this? Planned this meal to be an early failure? “Perhaps…” I finally said, my hands shaking as I stood in my chair to face Brandon. “Perhaps it is best if I leave.” Brandon looked me in the eyes for quite some time. His were so dark, a severe contrast to mine. He looked as if any move I made would result in a whip to the face or a push to the floor. But I was not here to fight, that is what he wanted. I moved away from the table as Summer sat in awe, too afraid to unleash her father’s wrath by yelling at her brother. From the corner of my eye I saw her mother stand, only to be gestured to sit back down by Walt. “If he wants to go, let him. A real man knows when to fight for what’s right. Maybe Johnathan just needs more practice.”

To Set a Fire:

I went straight home after that so-called meal. Summer didn’t call me all day, for reasons I’m sure that her brother and father were responsible for. How could such crooked people be so correct about me? It was cold in my house, my father was missing as usual and the fireplace had long since died out. I carried in wood and shoved it into the stove as I pulled flint and steel from a nearby crate of mine. I refrained from using matches to start a fire. When I was younger I had learned to use flint and steel to create a spark and then how to allow that spark to grow into a burning flame. It fascinated me and I had not stopped since. I clashed the two materials over a log within the stove as sparks flew to the corners before disintegrating into dark and dead embers. Spark was the first step. The first step to creating a fire. But sparks are weak alone. They must be tended to and nurtured. Sparks must be sustained. Like clockwork the spark hit the wood just right, sending smoke billowing out of a small crevice. I leaned in, nearly placing my whole head in the stove as I lightly blew on the flame. Then there it was, the combustion; a stroke of heat and flame, so small but still filled with such potential. I would need to continue the process. Spark, sustain, combustion. But my mind was in no fit state to stay focused on this thought. Walt and Brandon were right. how could I have helped Brice if I could not even help myself? No; spark, sustain, combustion. I felt as though I could rise above this pitiful existance of mine, looking out for myself instead of those who truly needed help. Let it go; spark, sustain, combustion. I had felt this way before though. That feeling that I could make others see it too. Just what we could do if we teamed up against those who sought to harm us. Impossible; spark, sustain, combustion. But this would never happen. No group could ever hope to change the course of adolescent behavior. But if their leader were some fool it could work. If their leader believed in something bigger than himself he could accomplish great things. They all could. A better tomorrow. No more ghosts with bloody red heads. No more pleading eyes staring through your soul. I could be that spark… as a group we could sustain… and then combustion… the fire of belief burning within us all, churning us forward; fueling our every movement. But no true fire can begin without that spark. Spark, Sustain, Combustion… S.S.C; the fire that burns bright and strong.

Earthbound:

I was insane. No doubt about it anymore. But why did I still feel so propelled? Where did this belief come from? The answers to these questions may never come to the light, but I knew where to start my plan. I’d start with one of the only people I trusted to help me; Jacob. After school had come to a close I quickly checked the halls for Summer, but she was nowhere to be found, as expected, giving me all the more time to speak to Jacob. I quickly rushed out the back door; narrowly avoiding Calvin and his crew as I made my way to the football field. Practice had yet to begin and I quickly spotted Jacob pulling his gear from his car. “Got time to talk?” I said as I walked up the his car, trying not to show any nervousness. “What about?” Jacob asked; not bothering to look up as he fished a helmet from the trunk. “Jacob I’ve been thinking,” I began. “About Brice and all.” Jacob finally straightened up and rolled his eyes at me. “It’s been over a week now hasn’t it?” he asked simply. “Johny it’s time we all moved on.” My heart sank as I watched Jacob turn back to the car to fetch his keys; ready to leave me behind as he attempted to arrive to practice early for once. Could I really change anyone’s mind? Was it already too late? I decided not to answer either question tumbling through my head as I turned away. “Alright,” I said plainly. “Alright.” I’m not sure what it was. Perhaps my voice getting the better of him, or maybe his conscience waking up from it’s slumber, but a call soon came after me. “Johny wait,” Jacob finally said as he slammed the car door shut. “What is it you want to tell me?” I turned back now to face him and checked the area for any other individuals. We were alone. “What happened to Brice could happen to any of us,” I began; my voice shaking a bit. Was I really doing this? Hearing the words out loud only made things worse. “What do you mean?” Jacob said with a slight laugh at the prospect. “Think about Jacob,” I replied. “It’s because of people like Ivan and his friends that innocent people are too afraid to stand up for what is right. Even the school system fails to see it. Students like Brice are left alone to fight their own battles, and sometimes they can’t do it!” Jacob shook his head; still not catching what I was trying so desperately to say. “We can’t go back in time,” Jacob said with a bit of remorse, looking as if he felt more sorry for me than for Brice himself. “I know that!” I shouted back. “Take that look off your face! We may be too late to save Brice, but that doesn’t mean we are too late to save others!” Jacob seemed surprised at the outburst. I couldn’t recall a time I had shouted at him for real. He seemed speechless for a while and stared down at his helmet. With rage still burning through me I snatched it from him and displayed it in front of his face. “This may help you. But it won’t help them. Ignoring the problem of our school - heck, of every school will solve nothing!” “What do you suggest then?” Jacob shouted back, grabbing his helmet from me. I was ready now. I could say it. Every strong fire begins with a spark. “What if there was a team,” I began; speaking slowly and keeping eye contact. “One which worked together to end the reign of people like Ivan… people to stand between him and his targets. People willing… to fight back.” Jacob stared at me once more; the wheels in his brain turning, he now knew why I was here. “We can be that team, Jacob!” I said; grabbing his shoulder. “And we can get others to. People willing to fight the good fight. People willing t-” “John we can’t.” Jacob replied with confidence. “You’re talking about leading an organized group of fighters. You think you can keep a leash on them?” “Not many fighters,” I corrected. “Just five. Enough to fight Ivan and his friends and teach them to never harm another kid again. We can set an example for hundreds upon hundreds of students here! Young and old!” “I need to get to practice,” Jacob said as he began to turn away. “Jacob don’t you turn your back on me,” I said sternly. “I’ve made that mistake before. Don’t be like me. We have a chance to start something great. Something bigger than ourselves.” Jacob stopped dead in his tracks and turned back to me. “Since when did your voice get like that?” he asked. “Like what?” I replied; confused. “You sound so certain… you really believe this could happen don’t you? That a group of people who have never fought for others a day in their lives could suddenly save the school? You really believe it.” I walked closer to him, my fear decreasing as I looked into his eyes. “I do.” I replied. I let that hang in the air for a while as the distant sound of a whistle echoed from the football field. He had missed practice. Jacob looked over his shoulder for a moment and then back at me. He held the helmet up to his face, looking at it for some time, seeing his reflection stare back at him. “Jacob I need you,” I said in all honesty. “You’re the only one I can trust with this right now… I’m counting on you.” Jacob stared into his helmet some more as the distant cries of a frustrated coach shot through the air, telling his guys to do pushups for an improper pass. “You’re insane, ya know that?” Jacob said from behind the helmet. I stood in silence, unsure how to respond. Maybe he was right. Then suddenly, to my absolute surprise the helmet was pushed back into my arms as Jacob stood smirking at me. “A real odd ball.” I laughed leaned on the nearby tree. “Sounds like we both are now.”

Gameplan:

“Summer know about this?” Jacob asked as I sat in the passenger seat of his rusted truck. I shook my head and looked out the back, trying to see if I could spot Ivan or his gang prowling the area. “I’m not even sure if we’re still together,” I replied solemnly. “Her brother and father seemed to have worked out some secret plan to push me under the bus in front of her.” “No worries Johnny,” Jacob assured. “It’d take a lot more than that to get a girl like her to stop talkin with you.” I nodded my head silently as I finally noted Ivan and two others rounding the school, Jacob seemed on edge even though we had no beef with them yet. I couldn’t blame his tension, Ivan was big, clearly a guy who made use of weight rooms. He knew it to. “Can’t believe I signed up for this,” Jacob said; still looking at Ivan and the others as they laughed and pushed each other. “Where do we even start?” I gave an uneasy laugh and turned to Jacob. “To be honest I wasn’t sure I’d get this far.” “That’s reassuring,” Jacob replied sarcastically; keeping his gaze fixed now on Noah, who could be seen fleeing the area of Ivan so as not to be spotted. Thankfully Ivan didn’t catch a glimpse of him this time. “We need more guys,” I said at last. “At least 3 more. We’ll also need to find a time to attack Ivan and his friends at once. If we fail then they’re just gonna be ready next time. We only have one clear shot at this.” Jacob nodded, “You have anyone in mind?” “A couple,” I replied honestly. “They’ll be relieved to hear I have a football player on my side already, little things like that can seal the deal for some people.” Jacob almost seemed flattered. “I’ll try my hand at finding out some information on Ivan and his pals, maybe see where they go after school. I’m assuming you want to keep as much of this off of school property as possible?” “That’s the idea,” I replied. “No sense endangering people or causing a ruckus.” Ivan and his friends reentered the building, with Ivan being the last to enter, oddly looking behind himself right at us. He couldn’t see us of course, not with the way the sun silhouetted our appearance, but the stare froze me for a while. Jacob seemed to notice it too as he sighed. “There’s gonna be so much involved in this,” he said softly. “Getting information, keeping people quiet, the timeframe we need to complete this by, the training we need to work as a team, and how we’re gonna cover our tracks.” The word “training” stuck out to me the most. “The decisions will come in time, I said. But we do need to carry this out before winter break. If we wait any longer than that, then Ivan will probably not even remember who Brice was. He’ll never learn his lesson and nobody at the school will understand our motivation. We have to strike while the memory of Brice is still fresh in their minds.” Jacob nodded, though I could tell he was unsure, after all, mentions of Brice’s name had fallen so greatly at this point, it seemed everyone had already forgotten. Maybe we had less time than I thought. We were both silent there for a while as we watched cars pull out from the parking lot and screech down onto the road. One car; a camaro of some kind, proudly bolstered a sticker of the Japanese flag in the rear window. While Jacob merely saw the red circle centered in the white rectangle, all I could see was that bloody ghost again, screeching down past me, those pleading eyes right under the surface. “I know you’ll never really understand why I want to do this,” I began. “But at lea-” Jacob stopped me. “I know John. I felt it to. When I got the news it sickened me. I just saw Brice two days prior. And to know he was just gone… gone for good… I couldn’t stand it. But nobody else talks.” Jacob rubbed his forehead in frustration as he looked back at me. “It’s Ivan… heck it’s everyone like Ivan who demands this stuff be pushed under the rug. You and I both know that there are dozens of attackers like Ivan in this school. They run the whole show. We’re their puppets and if they don’t want people to talk about something… poof. It’s gone.” Jacob shook his head. “I respect what you’re trying to do Johnny… I just hope others still can too.”

Black Gold:

As I drove my car slowly down the road to Jet’s Diner, I passed several construction workers surveying a field off the side of the road. They were equipped with heavy machines as two official-looking individuals pointed towards an unseen patch of land in the distance. My attention didn’t hold for long on these men, I knew perfectly well what they were doing. Towards the end of 1954, some rich men in suits dropped by our town in search of an oil field. And they found one. Just North-west to the main town was a wide open field that had undergone testing for months on end. When results came back the men in suits found themselves practically swimming in money; or at least anticipating to. Apparently our humble little town housed a practically unheard-of amount of oil, the exact numbers of which were constantly thrown around the neighborhood. Talk of black gold saving the town was an unavoidable topic. I couldn’t blame them, not only was setting up the machines allowing laid off workers to get jobs, but once the oil drilling process began early next year, the mayor struck a deal that our town would be receiving a large sum of money for every barrel of oil recovered. It seemed we had hit the jackpot; work for the jobless and money for the poor. All we had to do now was wait. I looked over once again to my left, now spotting some workers beginning to set up drills and small machines. It would be a long process for sure, but the black gold was there, sitting right below our feet. The oil rigs were not the only thing I noted though, just in the back of my mirror was a similar sight; a 1944 Harley Davidson; it’s dark green paint-job reflecting the sun from it’s exterior; resulting in an almost eerie green aura surrounding the biker himself. It was Flags. I rolled my window down and gave a short wave, to which Flags eagerly responded to, it was of no surprise to me that he was following me to the diner, I certainly didn’t mind; I had to find more recruits, and Flags was my next best bet.

Well-Enough:

“You’re doing what?” Flags nearly shouted this question out loud as he leaned back in the booth and pushed his meal aside. “Jacob was just as confused,” I said; lowering my voice and silently gesturing for him to do the same.”I can’t blame him,” Flags shot back. “You think you’re the police now? That you can just go around exhibiting your own type of justice around the school?” Three kids from our school sat nearby, I wondered if they could hear us, they were preppy kids, only a bit younger than myself, and they laughed and talked quietly as Noah approached them with their food at the counter. “The police don’t understand the impact this treatment has on students. They don’t know that’s why Brice killed himself. And even if they did, they have no means of proctoring us.” Flags shook his head wildly. “Just leave well-enough alone, Jonathan.” I shot him a glare, “All is not well,” I said coldly. “Flags you don’t go to our school and you’re not a resident of this town. Assuming Ivan and his goons found out about you helping us, what would they be able to do about it? You’re free flags, free to move and do whatever you want. You’re not tied down by our means and you never will be. And that’s why I need your help now.” Flags shook his head absently, pulling his food back up and taking a bite of the sandwich; staring more at the tiled floor than at me. “Hey Noey, forget something?” I heard one of the kids at the table say relatively loud. Noah tried to ignore them, instead pretending to be cleaning a dish near the edge of the counter. “Oh c’mon Noey, you wouldn’t wanna disappoint your customers.” the kids laughed and Noah walked back their way, his face flushed red. “It’s my birthday today Noey, and rules say you gotta sing, c’mon, let’s hear that melodic voice huh?” I glared, this was the third time I had heard this exact conversation. Flag’s heard it too, but buried his face in his food, acting as if he was oblivious to the affair. Noah blushed more as people around the restaurant looked on and the friends chuckled even more, Noah silently begin singing the song to the silenced restaurant as other tables belted out with laughter. “What’s that Noey!? I can’t quite hear ya. Might wanna speak up a bit.” I finally tuned out the noise and stared at Flags. “This is what I mean Flags. You may not go to school like us, but you are no idiot. This is wrong.” Flags just kept shaking his head, as if shaking the song and laughter from his mind. I wouldn’t let him do it. Flags when this is over then you can walk away and I won’t bother you with it again. Just do it just once. Just once help us to show Ivan what happens when he tries to rule over the school with an iron fist. You think he’s gonna come back after a couple whips to the jaw? We only need to do this once… then how long you stay for the ride is up to you.” Flags looked up from his meal and looked at me, though his mind was in a different placed, his eyes almost glazed over to my words. “I’ll think about in Jonathan.” he said at last, rising from the table. “It’s not like you to leave without finishing your meal.” I remarked, gesturing towards his half-eaten sandwich; an oddity in it’s own right. “Guess you could say I lost my appetite,” Flags said as he turned away and pushed out the door, leaving me alone with the residual laughter as I looked over at Noah. The song had finished and now he merely stood awkwardly in the back room his face pale and hands shaking a bit as he griped a table and leaned their for a while. “Hey Noah,” I called from across the room. My voice seemed almost unfamiliar, had I always spoken with such a hint of command? “Noah snapped upwards and walked my way, people staring at the two of us, perhaps expecting me to ask him to sing once again. But instead I just looked at him for a while, staring at his eyes. They were so much like Brice’s it scared me. But I looked at them steadily and did not turn away. No, not again. “Thank you,” I said simply and handed him a fair amount of money from my pocket, money I really needed to keep payments on the house in order, but I wanted the connection to stick. Noah seemed bewildered at first, not putting the money away and instead letting it sit in his hand. “It’s yours,” I clarified. “You earned it.” With that I stood, patted him on the back, and left. Those words. Why hadn’t I come up with them sooner?

Family:

After such a long day, I wanted nothing more than to simply head home and get some rest. Summer had still yet to call or meet me, and I half-hoped the phone would ring, hough part of me worried who might be on the other end. What I found waiting for me at home was far more surprising however.  An old rusted pickup truck with a broken back window and stacks of wood bowing awkwardly to the center of the bed. A man in a faded hat stuck his head from the window and waved to me with a smile. It was my uncle. Quickly he dismounted the car and let his cigarette hang from his stubbled fac for a while; enjoying a few more puffs before coughing a bit and throwing it to the ground; crushing it with his boot. “I didn’t know you were coming over uncle Stew,” I said politely; trying to hide just how tired I felt. Stew laughed and his gruff chatter bounced back a forth, making him sound almost as if he was losing his voice, though I was almost certain it was the cigarettes he smoked so frequently. “Jonathan, if I told you every time I was coming over then what’s be the surprise in that eh?” I gave him a half-smile and let him continue. “I can’t stay long at all I’m afraid, Margie’s got some turkey nearly ready for a late dinner and being late again won’t be very good for my health if ya know what I mean.” He stopped to wipe some dirt from his pant-leg and adjust his cap. “I know winter is a while off but that house of yers ain’t gonna stay warm for much longer without some wood.” “It was already pretty cold the last few nights,” I replied, though I wondered if that was just me. Stew nodded; “I got some wood that’ll tide ya over for several weeks. Oak wood, real good stuff.” I nodded once more and stretched a bit before climbing into the back of the truck and picking up wood to hand down to him. We were there in silence for a while; letting the clunks of wood striking the hard pavement talk for us, but Stew looked at me a few times, almost a look of puzzlement taking over his face. Stew was not one much to admit to be confused, and he’d fight anyone who’d tell him he had a couple screws loose, I’d seen it happen, but here he was, my uncle who never admitted to be stumped by anything, looking at my face like I was some sort of stranger. “Something on your mind Jonathan?” Stew said; some seriousness in his voice as he refused to take another log. “Yer father didn’t come home talking that rubbish again did he?” “No,” I replied quickly. “He’s around less and less now. I’m just tired is all.” That wasn’t totally a lie right? Stew stared at me a while longer, as if he could see right through me and into my soul. I was like glass to him, but I had to keep myself fogged for now. I couldn’t risk him getting in the way of my plans. “Alright,” Stew finally said, grabbing the remaining wood and arranging it into a fine pile by the house. “That’ll do ya.” “Thank you for this,” I said meaningfully as I outstretched my hand. Uncle Stew took it and gave it a squeeze. He always did have a strong-gripped handshake. “You can tell a lot about a person by lookin at their eyes Jonathan,” Stew said as his owned wrinkled eyes narrowed on my own. I glanced away. “You sure everything's okay?” Was everything okay? Would things be alright? Would my uncle understand my pans for the future; the meaning behind S.S.C? “I’m sure,” said my mouth and I backed to the door. Stew nodded a bit and stepped back into his truck, starting the engine up with some trouble before eventually beginning to pull out of the drive way. “I’ll see ya again here soon Jonathan!” he yelled’ his head sticking out from the window. I smiled and waved as he backed out. Sometimes it was good to be reminded I had family who still cared. But I always did wonder what Uncle Stew saw in my eyes that day. The dream of an S.S.C burned bright in me. Did he see the flames? See the flames piercing through the inky black sky? Could I?

Surprising Updates:

I was worried to meet up with Jacob again after school. I had not seen him all day, nor had I spotted Summer, I was worried both might have left me to my craziness. I carefully worked my way through the halls, avoiding areas targeted by Ivan, though those similar to him were impossible to lose. I’ll never understand how I didn’t see it all before. I knew attacks like this happened daily at our school, but not with such ferocity, not occurring so long after the school day had ended. I saw it now though. Two girls, both of them with thick glasses stood in a corner of the hall, one crying as the other silently tried to calm her. Attackers came in many forms and many genders, but the attacks were all the same. Another boy had passed me in the busy halls, his left eye bruised, clearly not accidental. We were a hateful bunch. Anyone to short, to tall, to normal, to strange, or who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time were targeted. And then there was Noah. I hardly ever saw him at school, I wondered if he still attended regularly. Putting myself in his shoes, I wasn’t so sure I would come back. “Johnny,” a voice whispered as I passed a corridor. I carefully backed up, finding Jacob motioning for me to stay. “You found me for once,” I said; walking over. “Wish this was the case more often.” Jacob just shook his head, he clearly had much more on his mind. “I’ve been asking around,” he began. “I have some information on Ivan.” I nodded and checked the corner; making sure Ivan wasn't around. “Go on,” I replied, leaning against the wall and keeping one ear opened for incoming crowds. “Guys on the football team have it out for me since my sudden disappearance, but a couple fellas are still willing to provide me with basic details on Ivan,” Jacob swallowed hard, I could tell it was hard for him to lose so many friends. “Ivan and five to six other friends visit the park just east of Strider Lane, you know the one?” “The new park,” I replied. “Yeah, talk about a terrible design choice placing it over there. Hardly any kids in the neighborhood anymore.” Jacob shook his head knowingly and continued. “They hang around there and brush off any kids who do attempt to visit. They’ll spend time playing basketball or just defacing the place.” “Any sort of specific time?” I asked; becoming interested. “Weekends only,” Jacob replied. “And if whether is bad they don’t show up. 6:00 to 8:00 is a safe bet.” My stomach began to churn. We were really doing this. “The guys you asked,” I said. “Did they wonder why you were asking them? Should we try and recruit them?” Jacob sighed, “One of them is a bit of a big-mouth, but no; we should be pretty safe. We’re not gonna be able to recruit them though, if anything they’re just as bad as Ivan.” I skimmed my hand over my head as I took this in; brushing my hair back; this whole school is rotten to the core,” I said lightly. “I did get Flags to agree to help us, I’m just not sure who else to trust.” Jacob seemed surprised. “You got Flags?” I looked down at my feet, knowing full well that Flags had yet to agree to join, but lowering Jacob’s moral now wouldn't have been a prerogative idea. “Yeah,” I lied. “He’s in, asked him the other day.” Jacob smiled and nodded his head. “I actually did ask somebody,”  he finally said. I couldn’t find room for words and simply waited for him to elaborate. “I asked Calvin,” Jacob finally stated; with a hint of uncertainty. “Calvin?” I repeated with the same level of uncertainty. “I mean sure he is a friend but… all those guys he hangs around... “ “Don’t worry,” Jacob said; his calmness returning. “I met Calvin in the baseball diamond and told him about what you’re trying to bring to life. He seemed interested, but hesitant as well. I have no solid answer from him yet, but he said he had your number and would give you a call if he made his mind up.” “If,” I repeated. Jacob and I grew silent; thinking about what the future held for all of us and the school as a whole. “He’ll come around,” Jacob finally said; his confidence returning. “I guarantee it, just stay round your telephone.” I grinned and shook his shoulder, “This is the beginning of something great,” I said to him. “I hoped that I wasn’t lying again.”

A Call:

That night I must have paced my room for over an hour; staring at the phone waiting for a call from someone. I replayed the images in my head, the image and me and several others, standing there - side by side as we dashed into Ivan and his hoard; knocking them to the ground and getting the message across; “you are no longer the strongest force in the school.” I tried to imagine his face; what would he look like? What would he say? Would he just look up and laugh at us? Cower in fear perhaps? I played every scenario through my head time and time again. Then I heard it, the phone downstairs ringing furiously; sending me stampeding down the staircase to pick it up just in time. “Hello?” I said; trying to mask my anxiousness. But instead of the voice of Flags or Calvin meeting my ears, I instead heard another voice. “Johnathan it’s me,” whispered Summer on the other end. I gave a sigh of relief; she hadn’t abandoned me, not yet. Her voice was hushed; strained even as she struggled to speak with enough power to let her voice be heard yet still remain quiet. “Listen,” she said. “My dad and brother are right upstairs and they might see me soon.” “You’re gonna get us both into a lot of trouble,” I said; happiness still in my voice. “Seems you’ve already done that,” Summer retorted. I shut up. “I talked to Jacob after school,” Summer started, “He told me everything.” My mouth stretched from a smile to a grimace. “He said he hadn’t told anyone else!” I said furiously; not caring how loud my voice was on the other end. “Relax Johnathan,” Summer said; keeping me quiet. “I noticed he was acting weird and I pressured him into talking. You’ve got some nerve trying to hide a scheme like this from me. Did you really think I wouldn't find out?” I grew silent, what did I think anyways? Summer suddenly grew quiet too and I heard loud footsteps on the other end. I heard Summer breath in quick rasps; was she really that afraid of her father? The footsteps lasted a while, before growing quiet again. “We need to talk about this at school,” Summer whispered. “Tomorrow you think you can cut a class?” “I suppose I could manage it,” I replied. Before Summer could get another word in, a loud thump came from just outside my window, it was no animal. Blood ran cold and my hand shook. “Summer something weird is goin on over here, I gotta go” I said; now whispering at her same level. “What about our meeting?” Summer called from the other end. The thump sounded a second time. “Third period,” I said quietly. “In the gym.” Summer groaned and was about to say more, but as I heard more rustling of grass on the outside of my house, I knew I had to get off the phone now. “I have to go Summer,” I finally said. “See you tomorrow.” With that I quietly put down the phone and grabbed a flashlight from the counter. For a moment I regretted not placing my baseball bat somewhere down here as well. I pressed my ear against the front door, the sounds had become so soft, but were ever-present. The sounds were footsteps, there was no doubt about it, but who could be stalking my house this late? The sounds suddenly ceased, leaving my head still plastered by the door, trying to make out any sort of man-made noise. Suddenly there was a hard pounding at the door, the noise immediately shooting through my eardrums and sending me down on my back in surprise. I stood now; scrambling for my flashlight, but not being able to find it. The knocking ceased; who could be waiting for me on the other side of this door? I knew ignoring it would be of no use; if I was going to face Ivan one day, I’d need to start facing fears. Now was that time. And so I carefully opened the door and closing my eyes; awaiting some sort of sudden pumbling, perhaps taking a baseball bat to the head; myself. But instead there was nothing, just continued silence as I opened my eyes and found a shadowy individual standing in the doorframe, his features all silhouetted by the streetlights behind him. “Jonathan Coldwel?” asked the figure; his voice lowered and gruff. I didn’t move, just remaining frozen in place; unsure whether to be relieved or mortified. “Y-yes,” I finally replied. “That’s my name.” The figure took this in for a moment and grew closer to me; his feet practically standing in the entry-way itself. “We need to talk,” was how he began.

An Unexpected Visit:

I think I took it as a dream for a while. Standing there in confusion and letting the figure walk past me and into the house, where he stood silently in the door-way, standing tall and making me feel surprisingly small in comparison. Had I told him he could come in? The memory elluded me. I had never been in a dream this real. “You are creating a group of fighters to take down Ivan and the others?” the figure asked; though it sounded more like a statement. I silently nodded; my eyes becoming transfixed on this stranger’s face. His head was covered by a brown sack of some sort, with eye-holes crudely cut out near the top, allowing the fray's of the sack to remain poking from all directions. This “mask” enshrouded his eyes in an aura of blackness and his lowered voice seemed entirely intentional. Would I have recognized his actual voice? “I want to join you,” the masked man said simply, tilting his head a bit as if to test whether or not I was still awake. I gazed at him for a second, my mouth finding no room for words. “H-how do you know about this?” I whispered. “Does anyone else know?” The figure let the question float for a while. “Word spreads where it needs to be spread,” he said at last, his gruff voice so in contrast with my own, it chilled my blood and make me shake. I noticed how he had refrained from answering the second question. “This effort…” I said; not looking him in the eyes, is for a closely knit group of people… I need to know who you are and if I can trust you.” The masked figure seemed bigger now, almost growing it seemed. I looked away from his face for distinguishable clothing, but whose only adornment was a simple leather jacket worn by most every boy at the school, and with black gloves only barely parting enough for me to see his light tint of skin. “Who I am is not important,” the figure said solemnly. “What I can help you to accomplish is.” I suppose I had expected the answer, still I was unsure if it was the right choice. “You think you have what it takes to fight these monsters?” I said, looking up at him again, this time trying my hardest to hold eye-contact. His eyes were piercing, but I could not tell in the slightest what he was feeling. Anger perhaps? His mask prevented me from having any clue. “Do you think YOU have what it takes?” the figure retorted; keeping his distance but sounding surprisingly even more condescending. My eye-contact broke and I shook my head, feeling dizzy perhaps. Could this really still be a dream? “You are afraid,” the figure said simply. He was right, though I stayed quiet. “We will all be. But we need to start somewhere in order to stop these attacks. Someday you’ll be able to look into the eyes of the enemy and refuse to flinch. But that all starts with those first few steps.” The figure’s voice softened a bit, but was still indistinguishable from anything familiar. I stood there for a while, letting his words move through me. They were so similar to the things I had said to Jacob. Could someone have heard us? I pushed it from my mind. No more questions. No more doubt. “For the future,” my mouth said as my hand extended to the figure. He looked at me for a moment, maybe a hint of happiness buried somewhere in those dark eyes. “For the future,” he replied; taking my hand and shaking it once. “I don’t have much time here,” he said, looking at the open door as if expecting something. “When you need to contact me, leave a note under the rock in the courtyard. The one near the baseball diamond.” I nodded. “Wish it were this simple to get the others to join,” I said with a slight laugh; trying my best to ease the mood. “It’s all about who you ask and how,” the masked figure replied. “There may be more for you at Jet’s Diner than just food.” I looked at him again, my mouth open, wondering if he had followed me to the diner with Flags. I didn’t bother to ask what he meant, I could tell he was ready to leave, walking slowly back to the door-frame in silence. “You won’t tell me your name,” I reiterated. “But at least give me something to call you.” The figure stopped for a while as he eased out of the door and into the front of my yard. “Mask will do just fine,” he said. “I am Mask, and I work for you now Jonathan; best you start asking the bigger questions.”

An Unwanted Response:

I didn’t sleep well that night. Come to think of it though, I hardly ever slept well anymore. But this time it was for different reasons. I played the conversation over and over again in my head, hearing that deep voice speak to me, looking at me with eye’s unafraid. Those solid, piercing eyes showing nothing but dedication. Oddly enough, I slowly accepted the fact that I didn’t know who Mask was, what I couldn’t shake was what he said about the diner. What could have been waiting for me there? I thought back to my conversation with Flags, wondering who may have overheard our talk in the diner that day. I had spoken in a hush, but anyone sitting behind us could have listened in if they were quiet enough. I only hoped now that someone else hadn’t heard us speak and alerted Ivan. He could attack me any time, but I had to wait to attack him. I suppose at some point I fell asleep, for soon I awoke to the sound of the phone ringing downstairs; with rays of light shining through my curtains alerting me to the light of day. Moving fast once more, I ran downstairs and picked it up, no longer knowing who could be calling, perhaps Summer wondering if I’d been murdered last night. “Hello?” I said, speaking with confidence in my voice in case Mask had somehow gotten my number. “Johnny it’s me Calvin,” came a stale voice on the other end. Now this was a call I had not expected. “Jacob told me about...” He trailed off. “I know your plan and all.” He didn’t sound very certain he believed what he was saying. “I know,” I replied simply. “He told me you’d think about it.” Calvin sighed on the other end and I heard the phone moving around in his hands. I wondered how he was reaching me, Calvin didn’t have a kind uncle to pay his phone bill, and certainly no dependable family. “Ihave,” Calvin finally said. “This plan of yours… I wanted to help you, I really did but… not now. Now is not the time.” I wanted to talk back to him; ask him when the time would be. If there EVER would be a time, but I didn’t. Calvin was the sort of friend who I couldn’t talk to like that. He had a hard life, harder than mine, and he was even more stubborn than me. “I understand,” I replied coldly; perhaps living up to my last name. Calvin seemed offended by the short reply. In those two words, I had said more to him than any lecture ever could. “Jonathan I just don’t think this is gonna fly, ya know? Organizing something like this and keeping it secret… it’s…” I could tell he wanted to say it, I had wanted to say it to, but I never had. “Impossible,” I finished for him. Calvin was silenced, as was I. It must have been a full thirty seconds before he spoke again. “If and when you do this,” Calvin stated. “And if it’s a success… then I’m in. But until then… I’m not the guy you’re looking for.” “We will do it,” I stated with a surprising level of confidence. “Just wait and see.”

Boundaries:

I was nearly late for school due to my extended talk with Calvin. I found myself less worried about finding more members, and more worried about what Summer would have to say to me after I skipped third period. If this was her way of breaking up, then I sure wouldn't blame her. I only hoped I’d make it out of the breakup with both my eyes still intact. When third period finally did come by, I slipped out of the public view and made my way to the gymnasium, where Summer would no doubt already be waiting in the shadows. There were no hall monitors in our school, but she’d fear getting in trouble; in fact it was positively out of character for her to skip a class at all. Finally I spotted her in the corner where the bleachers met the wall. I now regretted this decision, my mind flashed back to the meeting in which we learned of Brice’s death. I could still hear the laughter echo through the open air, or perhaps it was just the distant squeaks of chairs. Summer was not alone though, she was talking to someone; Jacob. “You didn’t tell me we’d be having company,” I said; avoiding eye-contact with the white curtain ghosts blowing in the windowsill above us. It was good to see her again, despite how angry she looked. Her face was almost red. “I can’t believe you!” she cried louder than I expected. “You think I wanna go to prom with a guy who’s got his face bashed in?” I earnestly laughed at the comment. Summer looked close to smacking me now, and I doubted Jacob would try and stop her. “Summer it’ll be alright,” I assured her. “Jacob and I are working real close to get people to help us. We’ll recruit, train, and when the time comes… fight.” Summer shook her head; trying to avoid the words like they were a swarm of bees. “I suppose you got Calvin’s call huh?” Jacob asked, intervening. “Yeah,” I replied. “Looks like we’ll have to keep looking. There is some good news though.” “You don’t sound too certain about that,” Jacob pointed out. He was right. “I was visited by somebody last night. Some masked teen about our age. He wanted to join our cause.” Jacob’s eyebrows raised as he looked as if he waited for me to reveal this as a poor joke. “I accepted,” I finally said. “We need all the help we can get, and if somebody approaches us, well then that’s just less work we gotta do.” “You don’t know who it could be?” Jacob asked. “Not a clue,” I retorted. “Though when we begin training, you might be able to recognize the voice. He didn’t stab me or threaten to shoot me… so I guess he’s a friend.” Summer shook her head again; looking like she might throw up. “Sorry Summer,” I said. “Probably not the best thing to say in front of you.” Now Jacob chimed in, “So now we have you, me, this masked guy, and Flags… you said you wanted five guys… who we gonna ask?” I pretended to think for a while, when in all actuality I was more concerned with the fact that Flags had not legitimately accepted my offer yet. “Well I’ll do it,” came Summer’s small voice as she drew closer to me. “Anything to keep an eye on you.” I immediately shook off the comment. “No, Summer,” I replied earnestly. “We’re not putting you in danger like that.” Summer seemed offended, I didn’t blame her. “What, you really think they’d hit a girl?” “In the right situation anybody can be brought that low,” I said. “It’s out of the question Summer.” Jacob nodded in agreement. “You know Jonathan would lose his mind is something happened to you.” My eyes drifted to the white curtains above us, where the sunlight bled through the top, appearing once more like that white sheet on the gurney. I wondered if my mind was already lost. Summer finally stopped fighting our words and gave in. “Fine,” she replied simply; reminding me of how I had spoken to Calvin. “I’m not sure I can trust anybody else to join us and keep the secret,” Jacob admitted to me. “Mask told me that there might be something or someone waiting at the diner for me; Jet’s Diner that is.” Jacob crossed his arms, “You have a name for this masked guy already?” “It was his choice,” I replied. Besides, when we get to fighting these guys, we can’t risk yelling for each other by using our actual names… we may need aliases.” Jacob grinned and toyed with the idea in his head for a while. Got a name for yourself then?” he asked; Summer seemed interested too. I thought for a while, trying to think of something that wouldn’t point to me, yet still make sense. Something easy to recall. Something that represented me and my fight. “Just call me S.S.C,” I finally said. “Spark, Sustain, Combustion… I am the S.S.C and you help me burn brighter.”

Reflections:

After school had ended I immediately made my way to Jet’s Diner. Not only to see if Mask’s clue would be there waiting for me, but also in order to meet Flags and learn what decision he ended up making. If he wasn’t here today, then it was quite possible he’d avoid me for life; he certainly had the means to do it. Bumming some money off a couple of girls and using it to buy enough gas and food to split from the town before anyone else took notice. I was at least happy now though. Summer didn’t leave me, though she said her father and brother were vehemently against us meeting anytime soon. She still assured me that she’d be able to beg her dad to let her use the phone again in about a week. She had a tendency to get what she wanted, though her joining our group of fighters would not be one of those things. I finally pulled up in the lot; which was surprisingly empty. I realized that most every adult must have been forced to work overtime at the oil field. Just about 60% of our town had to be employed by that company; “Magna Oil” as they were called. The decision was smart, their pay was certainly better than those who chose to work at restaurants or shops. I had little doubt I’d work for them too when this fighting business was behind me. I stepped inside; my shoes squeaking on the newly waxed floors as I made my way to the typical booth near the front. It would give me a perfect place to see Flags ride into the lot or perhaps past it. I dropped my wallet as I eased into the seat, with it falling to the ground and I quickly bending back to reach it. I caught a glimpse of my reflected face in the process. My eyes seemed so large and exaggerated by the tiles, and my eyebrows bet down as if I feared my own appearance. Someone else’s face was there too; Brice’s face, looking up from the floor and at me. “Can I help you?” Brice said. These words shot me back into my seat; my heart pounding. It was only a few seconds later that I was back in reality; realizing the voice was Noah’s; the face as well. I clutched the table for a moment and looked away. “In a minute,” I replied; sending him away. I looked around the restaurant, there were only two other visitors; one an old man, and another a middle aged woman with her kid. Surely Mask must have meant for me to find more than this? My gaze circled the premises, checking every nook and cranny for some sort of musclebound hero sitting at a booth, ready to called into action; but there was no-one. But then a noise, a familiar one; Noah wiping down the booth to my left; cleaning it to a fine shine. He stopped for a moment and looked at his own reflection. I wondered what he saw when he looked into it. That’s when I understood what Mask meant. And that’s when, for the first time in a long time, I called for Noah for a different reason other than to order food.

Coal:

He stared at me for a while, unable to comprehend what I was talking about. “You want help?” he said; nearly stuttering. “My help?” I nodded quietly; looking wishfully out the window, hoping for Flags to arrive and perhaps back me up. Still no-one. “I can’t fight,” Noah said with certainty in his voice. “You should know that. You come here like every day.” He was right, and I used that against him. “I do come here every day,” I replied. “And you know what I see every day? You. You getting pushed around by kids young and old. And you just trying to do your job as they use you for the butt of a joke. I see you walk back into that kitchen and try to push the words away. But they don’t go away do they? I remember them just as much as you do.” Noah seemed ashamed by my words and looked as if he mind stand from the booth. “I’ve heard enough,” started to say. “But how long until you’ve heard too much?” I retorted. “Listen… you and I both know what happened to Brice… we both know what will continue to happen if we turn a blind-eye to those in need.” Noah turned to me, perhaps a bit of anger in his eyes. “Are you suggesting I’d…” he trailed off; not wanting to say suicide. “No,” I answered. “But it’s not just that. There are people suffering in our school… our community… and countless other communities… imagine their reaction when they hear that five ordinary guys were able to put an end to it… think of what this could mean.” Noah sat back down. “Why me?” he said; showing his arms. “Does it look like I have that kind of muscle? That kind of willpower?” “And look at me,” I replied, my voice raising slightly. “Look at the guy who turned his back on the whole school and on Brice when he needed me… look at the guy who’s being torn apart by fear, stress, and regret. I don’t have a family, but I do have friends. You’re my friend, Noah. And we can help build each other.” Noah looked away, it was the same look I had gotten from everyone else too, except for Mask. “We’re just a bunch of lumps of coal,” I admitted; throwing my hands down. “But you can be sure that we can make ourselves into diamonds.” Noah finally glanced up at me. I felt like Mask for a second; looking at someone fearful, yet someone with hope. “Y-you’re gonna have to give me some details,” Noah finally said; firmly planting himself in the seat. It was then that I knew I had won.

Preparing to Train:

“We’ve got Noah,” I said cheerfully on my end of the phone as Jacob quieted down. “Noah?” he replied skeptically. “The guy who works at the diner… THAT’S the guy Mask wanted you to find?” “I can’t be certain,” I replied. “But I’d put money on it.” Jacob breathed a sigh of worry on the other end. “Noah is a bit… well he’s… not what I was expecting.” I knew he’d talk like this, but I stayed firm on my beliefs. “He’s got more confidence than you know. And we all are on equal footing here. I have no clue how to fight and neither do you. You’re just good at tackling people and throwing pigskin around.” “It’s more complicated than that!” Jacob growled; though I knew he found it funny. “If we’re gonna make this work,” Jacob finally said. “Then we’ll need to start training as soon as possible. All of us, together.” I shook my head in agreement, despite the fact that he couldn’t see me. “Any place you have in mind where we won’t get spotted by kids or Magna Oil workers?” “Arthur’s field might work,” Jacob replied. I recalled Arthur despite the fact I had only met him once. He was a friend of my father and the two would occasionally go drinking with each other, though Arthur was increasingly poor at making decisions on what to make of his life. Rumor had it that his father was rich and gave him a large sum of money to buy acres and acres of land. Arthur did it and later decided to use the land as a place to grow corn. This was it’s use for quite some time, that is until Magna Oil came around and took all of his fieldworkers. To make matters worse, after a heavy night of drinking, he came up with the insane idea to build a barn big enough to live in and raise animals. He made the phone calls and the place was under construction before he even realized what he had done. Funny thing was he didn’t even have any animals, and he was so low on money that he couldn’t tell them to tear the place down otherwise he wouldn’t be able to afford another house. And so Arthur lived in that huge animal-less barn in the middle of an empty field. It was common joke of the town. “Old Mc. Arthur had a farm, and on that farm he had nothing.” I’d hear that joke played to death for years. “That’s private property,” I replied to Jacob; what if we get caught. “Arthur is too ashamed to leave that barn and you know it,” Jacob said. “Even if he did catch us, he doesn’t have a phone and he can’t hire anyone to track us down. His father is on his deathbed and only gives his idiot son a small sum of cash to keep the field from being bulldozed. Aside from that money, Arthur isn’t trusted to handle anything else.” I almost felt sorry for the guy, but his own poor decisions put him where he was. And besides, I was certain that if the search for oil was a bust, then our town would never have the money to dispose of a field that big. It would just sit there and rot away as the years went by. “Okay,” I finally replied. “Noah gave me his number and I’ll leave a note for Mask at his specified location. I’ll make sure everyone shows up.” “What about Flags?” Jacob asked. “Want me to call him?” Jacob still didn’t know the truth, and my worst fears had been realized, Flags never did show up to that diner after my talk with Noah. “Uh no,” I stammered. “I’ll call him too. Don’t worry about it. You just better show up on time, I know how bad you were about doing that with football.” This change of subject made Jacob laugh, and distracted him from my nervousness. “Alright Johnny,” he finally said. “Look forward to training with you tomorrow. Over-and-out, boss.”

Meeting:

I waited Arthur’s field since 8 in the morning. Jacob and I had agreed that early training sessions would allow us to keep our cover for as long as time would allow. Still I wondered if Noah would show. He had sounded hesitant over the phone. More-so than usual. And I could not force myself to forget that Flag’s absence would surely be mentioned by Jacob. Nevertheless, we all agreed to meet at 9, I had arrived early; expecting Mask to be there, already waiting; though there was no sign of him. A part of my brain wondered if he had merely tricked me into giving my hopes up. One of Calvin’s crew pulling a cruel joke. The breeze was surprisingly cold, but this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, where we lived, warm weather was a reward, not a right. And so I sat there for a while, listening to the low hum of cars over the brightening horizon and the cool breeze struck at my face and stung at my nose. Finally footsteps, that same silent approach I had heard in the past. I turned to find Mask working his way down a hill to my left; his mask tied firmly on to him with strings about the neck. It couldn't have been comfortable. He almost seemed to take a different form in the light, appearing less large and foreboding, yet still powerful in a way only my mind could perceive. “You showed up,” I said; not caring how much surprise leaked into my voice. Mask was quiet, as if he didn’t want to speak. “Yes,” he replied simply; kneeling down on the ground and looking out at the road, just as I had done. “I suppose you don’t talk much?” I asked, joining him as I sat. “It’s for the best,” Mask retorted; only to return to silence. The odd thing about it was just how calming the effect of having someone by my side really was. An empowering feeling. This was it… this was the day our quest for peace would begin. Eventually I noted Jacob walking briskly up-hill, spotting and waving at me as his glance shifted curiously to Mask. “So,” Jacob said as he reached us. “You must be Mask,” Jacob extended his hand to the figure, but Mask ignored his presence and continued to listen to the distant sounds of growling engines and squealing tires. Jacob pulled his hand away and circled around to me. “Quiet one, huh?” I nodded as Jacob spoke more. “I know you said you’d contact Flags, but I saw him as I was passing the shop in Blue Point. My heart sped up slightly, I was certain he could hear it pound through the open air. “I talked to him about today’s training for a while. He said he was busy and couldn’t talk to me long and he sped right off. You two aren’t in some stupid argument are you?” I stood there for a while, unsure what to say or do, waiting there, just wondering if I could reach a level of quietness of which Jacob would forget I was even there. “Jacob,” I finally stammered. “I gotta tell you something… Fla-” suddenly footsteps; loud ones coming over the hill-side. Voices too, a couple people coming our way. Mask rose to his feet; his piercing gaze shifting that way, alerted to the possible threats as Jacob and I turned that way as well. Two heads now appeared on the horizon, one figure shorter than the other, but both around our age. I smiled; Flags and Noah had arrived. Both of them. Noah saw us and shrunk down a bit, clearly still under the mind-set that he was below us. I’d have to change that. My whole team was here, even one who I was sure wouldn’t come, yet here they were. “Eat your heart out, Calvin,” I joked; prompting Jacob to smile. Flags and Noah eventually reached us, with Jacob and Flags immediately exchanging dialogue and laughs as Noah stood mistified by Mask. It took some time, but I was eventually able to get everyone seated and listening. “Hey guys,” I said; my voice still low to avoid being overheard by some other individual out of view. “Time to clear up a few things.” I pointed to Mask. “This guy is called Mask. No, I don’t know who he is. Yes, he doesn’t talk much, but he’s the only guy who came to me to join this group, and that makes him a more dedicated member than I could ever imagine.” Mask offered to rebuttal and let me continue as I pointed to everyone else. Between the rest of us, I know none of you have ever fought as a team… some of you have never fought at all.” Noah seemed like he was about to get sick, perhaps this speech wasn’t the best idea. I continued regardless. “But we work as one!” I said. “It doesn’t matter how big, small, strong, or weak you are, you can still fight for what’s right! We’re fighting for Brice! We’re fighting for people like him! We’re fighting to save those people and become better people in that process!” I was shouting now, but Noah didn’t seem so afraid anymore, and Jacob was smiling approvingly. “So let’s get out there,” I said. “And do our best to craft a better tomorrow for everybody.” Jacob and Flags raised their hands over their heads and cheered loudly, obviously exaggerating their interest in my speech itself. I smiled and pointed towards a flat section of the field; the perfect place to begin. Jacob, Mask, and Noah headed over, with Flags coming my way and whispering to me “Sorry to keep you waiting.” “I was worried you wouldn’t come,” I said honestly. “I wasn’t,” Flags replied with some hesitation. But the way Jacob spoke about it… what he said about you and those helping… I saw determination in Jacob’s eyes that I’d never seen before any football game… this was different.” Flags backed away and rubbed his head, obviously trying not to look to sound to corny. “I’m not sure what you said to him,” Flags said. “But I want that determination too…”

Training:

“Up!” I shouted as my own arms strenuously lifted my torso from the ground. Noah was to my left and Jacob - to my right; following my command. “Down!” I shouted after a couple seconds had passed, bending my arms and allowing my body to hover less than an inch from the ground. We remained in this state for a while. Extended push ups were the best way to introduce us to gaining muscle mass without the need for weights, though I knew a time would come where we would need to spar one-another. Jacob released some pent-up breath into the ground, sending dust flying up at his face. Noah was breathing hard, we had been at this for several minutes. “Up!” I shouted again, with Jacob managing to rise before me, and Noah following through not long afterwards, though with shaking arms. I had tried hard to find flat ground to plant my hands, though small-dead stalks of corn still poked at my palms, no doubt at least one of my hands was bleeding under the pressure. Noah was breathing hard, his arms shaking under the weight. “Almost there, Noah!” I shouted. “Ignore the pain you feel guys, you’re only as strong as your ability to ignore pain is.” Flags gasped for a laugh. “What sort of botched sentence was that?” “Quit yelling at the boss!” Jacob retorted with a similar strained laugh. “Down!” I yelled. “You don’t have to call me boss,” I said through my teeth. “Sorry,” Jacob said. “Meant to say S.S.C.” “You know that’s not what I meant,” I sighed. I tried to speak once more, but the pain was beginning to set in. Noah’s arms wobbled even more uncontrollably as he let out short gasps of breath. Finally he fell to his stomach; his arms giving way. Nah laid there, breathing harshly; his pulse throbbing and sweat appearing on his brow and neck. “U-up,” I said; the pain now evident in my voice. “Jacob now refused to talk; biting his lip harshly as his face turned red. I couldn’t see Mask or Flags, though I assumed they were under similar conditions. My heart pounded now as I feared dropping or even bothering to give another command. My mouth burst open, hot breath rhythmically leaving my mouth as my head began to hurt and muscles ached. I had completely forgotten about the mild cold air. “D-down,” I stammered, my arms trying to gracefully allow my body to lower. But it was too late, my left arm weakened, sending me down on my side; breathing just as hard as Noah as I laid there by his side. Noticing that I had dropped, Jacob finally fell as well; with Flags going down not long after. A sort of domino effect of pain. Jacob tried to speak, but could not manage to find his words. I laid there for what seemed like half an hour, waiting on someone to tell me to stand. But who could tell me this? I slowly realized that they all counted on me. I was the voice that told them to act, and I would be the voice to tell them to stand. “I… think that’s e-enough arm workouts for today,” I said in a daze. “But we need to work on speed. C’mon guys, get up.” I rose to my feet, rubbing my forearms along with the others. Noah looked away, ashamed at falling first. “You did good guys,” I looked at Noah. “You ALL did good.” I looked at Flags, his face was blood-red as well. Mask stood behind him, his face concealed, though the sac on his head seemed to pulse heavily, suggesting his breathing had certainly intensified. He was human, just like the rest of us. I took five more strong breaths and finally spoke again. “We need to stay in the center of the field… running in a circle formation. Once we’ve ran until we can run no more, then practice today is done… understood?” Everyone nodded, no sarcastic remarks, no joking, just a mutual respect and obedience. If I were not so tired, I would have smiled. Our feet slowly but surely moved from standing to jogging. We moved in unison, with me leading the pack, Jacob behind me, then Mask, then Flags, and finally Noah. We were like some sort of machine, certainly not one without it’s flaws, but a machine nonetheless. “There we go!” yelled back, with Flags replying, his voice muffled by the wind blowing into my ears. We began moving faster now, turning where I dictated as I tried to avoid stalks of dead corn. I peered at my hands and rubbed them, wiping a bit of blood on my lower palm on my shirt. Jacob saw me and looked at his hands as well. “That pain in behind us now!” I yelled. “Don’t focus on more than one pain at once. Take it one at a time!” Even Noah laughed at this remark. We continued this way for a while, heat rising off our heads and into the air. Jacob was clearly better suited for this activity, able to run better than all of us due to his time in football. He stayed close at my heels, pushing me forward, and thereby pushing everyone else. Faster and faster we went, soon sprinting as mud and dirt flew from our feet onto those behind us. The team spread out, we soon ran in a sort of V formation. “Like birds of prey!” Jacob joked as we continued our rounds, each person desperately trying to pass the other. “Keep pumping those arms!” I yelled. “I don’t tell you when to stop, your body does! We go until failure!” I ran faster still - stepping in small crevices and holes created by our continuous tracks. We had battered the ground down, turning any stalks to dust as we leapt and bounded in every-which-way. Flags shouted and cried a few yelps of victory as he got closer to Jacob, who began to then go full speed, leaving me in the dust as he kicked up rocks and mud into my face. “That’s the way!” I shouted; pumping my arms in victory as my stomach began to ache and my sides start to cramp. Flags was beside me now, with Mask not far behind along with Noah. Noah coughed a couple times and held tightly to his side, my arm later began to do the same thing, as if my hip would explode or fall out of place without it. I looked ahead, where Jacob began to slow down, his body starting to slump over as his face once again turned red and his arms became to heavy to hold up any longer. We eventually reached him just as he dropped down to one knee and give a thumbs up to the passing individuals. Flags sped ahead of me a bit, taking the front of the group and pointing his head forward, as if the added weight would propel him any more than he already was. In reality, the blood rushed forward in his head, dizzying him and eventually sending him down to recover with an equal thumbs up. Noah was the next to give out, his foot becoming stuck in a small hole, twisting it slightly and sending him down in the dirt, getting the stampeded mud all over his forearms and upper body. Eventually I too, stopped, with Mask stopping not long after, dropping to one knee just as Jacob had done. We all stayed there, breathing hard as we faced the wind, allowing it to blow gently into our heated faces. Oddly enough I couldn't remember much else about that day. But I always would recall the silence. That sound of the calm breeze interlaced with the heavy breathing of five kids who had no idea what they were in for. But there we were. Our presence forever marked into that circle of mud. And we left in a similar silent fashion. There was no need for words. We all knew the plans for the future. This was only the beginning. But there was one person who stayed behind. It was Noah. He approached me just as Mask wandered off in his own separate direction. He stood a bit taller now, almost able to look me in the eye as if we were equals. “Thank you,” was all he said. “I nodded, my eyes perhaps a bit more moist than I’d like to admit. I watched him go, and looked back at the circle. Our ground zero. It could only rise from here.

Run-in:

My muscles ached more than they ever had before for quite some time after our training. Joints stung and pulled with each bend of my arm or leg. It was a sign that we were growing stronger; yet a bitterly painful sign at that. I had seen Noah and Jacob throughout passing periods looking equally sore, though when they spotted me, they’d stop grasping their arms and give a small smile. Nobody wanted to look bad in front of the “leader”. Truly I still was not used to calling myself that, let alone hearing others speak it. I was rounding a corner in the west-wing corridor of the school when a behemoth came out of nowhere, shoving me to the side like I was never there. Ivan. “Out’a the way, squares!” he boomed, his friends cackling behind him as they eyed some girls in the next wing over. It was the first time I’d ever been so close to him. Perhaps in my concentration I had forgotten how big he really was. Ivan continued down the hall; I doubted he even realized I was the one he pushed. Now he simply strode down the hall; his shoulders back and stretching the width of the nearby doorways. “Feel like you’re in over your head?” came a voice from behind me. It was Calvin. “Words aren’t enough,” I replied, trying not to sound to upset that he had chosen not to join us. I looked around; my eyebrows raised; there was nobody following him. “Lose your flock?” I asked. Calvin glanced back at well; pretending he hadn’t noticed. “My offer still holds,” Calvin reminded me. “If this works, I’ll be right by your side. The flock can either join me or stay hiding in corners while Ivan plows down the halls.” I nodded; somewhat surprised he was still so serious. “You’re running out of time though,” Calvin reminded me. “Winter break is fast approaching. The giant needs to fall, lest he just get stronger and gain more friends over break.” “How much time do we have?” I asked. “I’m losing track of days.” Calvin thought for a moment, doing the math in his head. “About three weeks,” he finally said. My blood ran cold again. It was sooner than I’d thought. “Ivan uses the weight room every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday,” Calvin said. “If you guys train just about every day and even on weekends, I think you’ll stand a fighting chance at matching his strength.” I nodded approvingly. “Thanks Calvin,” I said. “Just like old times. You and I working together to win a game.” Calvin laughed; not one of his fake laughs he put on for his friends, this one was real and genuine, coming straight from the gut. “Some game you have!” Calvin exclaimed. “I don’t recall our games dealing with who get’s punched in the face for losing.” “True,” I said; grinning. “I guess it’s part of growing up, then.”

Week 1:

“Listen up guys!” I shouted, my voice almost getting lost in the heavy winds of the day. “Winter break is fast approaching and we’re lucky it hasn’t already began to snow or drop in temperature!” I let this sink in as I looked around. Noah stood close to Flags, they talked a lot actually; it felt good to see Noah warming up to the cast. Jacob stood separately, still trying to hide the discomfort in his arms from our last training session. Mask was there as well, of course standing alone, his clothes always in the same dark variety; his mask never changing. “We have three weeks,” I finally said. “Three weeks to train and grow stronger both physically and mentally! If we’re going to take down Ivan and his men, we’re gonna need to work as a team. For now however, I need to make you aware of one thing. Every day that you don’t show up, the more time Ivan will have to get stronger. We can rest, but Ivan won’t. Understood?” Jacob gave an exaggerated nod, with Noah and Mask being the only one’s to seem to take the statement completely seriously. “What you got in store for us, boss?” Jacob asked sarcastically. “Station work-outs,” I said. “We’ll be going in a constant circle of exercises; each one timed. Once we’ve gone through an entire round, then phase two will begin… then phase three… and so on until our muscles ache twice as much as yesterday.” Noah almost seemed defeated; his gaze shifting back to his shoes. I could always count on him to reveal what the whole group was thinking. “I’ll be right there with you,” I assured; stepping closer to the bunch. “I always will be. Every bit of pain you feel; I feel too.” Noah looked back up and nodded, and with that, we began.

Phases:

Everyone ran back and forth from station to station as the clock in my head ticked away. “Two minutes on each!” I gasped as I went to do continuous push ups. Mask was nearby on sit-ups while Noah did planks not to far away. Jacob gave an exasperated laugh. “This isn’t to bad!” he said while doing high-knees, Flags not to far away; weaving in and out between sticks I drove into the ground earlier. The familiar feeling of dead stalks piercing my palms began to become apparent, scratching at my wounds; still fresh from last time. I held in the urge to breath heavily as my mind focused on that countdown. Up and down over and over, trying so hard to keep my knees from kissing the earth. And then onto the next station, doing sit-ups, giving my arms a rest and sending all power to my lower body. I wondered if these individual exercises would really make a difference. Ivan was training with real weights and an actual coach no doubt. What did we have? Sticks? Rocks? “Push it out of your head,” I told myself, my core beginning to ache as I continued by movements upwards and downwards. Then on to high-knees, with my team cheering me on to go faster, my legs were sagging, but with all effort I had I still managed to keep them going up and down in unison. “That’s the way!” yelled Flags between his pushups. Jacob was beginning to look ill, I could tell he’d pushed himself to hard early on. I then moved to running in and out of the stick paths, I could spy our ground zero circle still engraved into the earth nearby. We really were leaving a mark, the question was would that mark stick. Would we be remembered? Could 5 people really change anything? “Push it out of your head,” I told myself again. My internal timer rang and I moved to planks. I quickly placed my forearms to the ground and propped up my back half; weighing myself down for as long as I could, my torso so badly wanting to rest. Then I noted Jacob, still on sit-ups, struggling to go up and quickly falling downwards as he panted wildly; even starting to cough and curse as he failed to rise anymore. My timer stopped; as did everyone else. They were waiting for my orders. “That w-was phase one,” my mouth said. “Phase 2… each activity is three m-minutes.” I breathed heavily between each words, Noah groaned and Jacob couldn’t seem to rise. “C’mon Jacob!” I cried. “We have to do this.” Jacob’s head turned my way, he was fighting back the pain in his core and arms; looking defeated as I’d ever seen him. “I… can’t d-do it John…” he said slowly; breathing even heavier between each word. I quickly came to his side and kneeled down. “L-listen Jacob…” I rasped. “This life we’ve chosen to live will be full of phases… they’re here to help us… make us s-stronger… And if we ignore those phases then we’re ignoring our own potential.” Jacob’s eyes squinted; his muscles bulged and like a being from the undead; he rose. We all rose a bit that day.

Names:

Flags had invited to meet Jacob, Noah, and I at Jet’s Diner the following day. I hadn't heard from Jacob after the training we had done the day prior; he’d left without saying a word or even so much as a nod. It worried me that one of my closest allies may not have been dedicated to his role. I faced heavy traffic that day; Magna Oil was sending in bigger machines. Sweaty men walked or rode around the streets; easing the supplies towards the “oil” field. My careened carefully around their equipment as I spied their faces. Men I had known for years had left their places of business to join this effort. I wondered if my uncle might consider it as well. They seemed hungry and tired, but happy nonetheless. I finally reached the lot; packed as I had expected. A young waitress met me near the door as I noted Flags and Jacob sitting in a booth to the back. “I’m with them,” I told the girl. “Any drinks we can get you?” she asked. “A slurg is fine,” I replied distantly; already heading over to the booth. Jacob’s shoe’s were still caked with mud and dead leaves from yesterday; I doubt he noticed - or perhaps he simply didn’t have the energy to clean them. I sat down. “Guess we don’t have to worry about talking quiet,” I said over the crashing sound of the nearby boombox and laughing customers. Jacob was still quiet; not looking at me. “Alright Jacob?” I asked; though I didn’t expect the answer from him. “Yeah,” Jacob replied; still looking down as if gazing through the table itself. Noah approached, he was working today. He carefully hovered over our tables with a tray holding our drinks. His hands visibly shook as he eased the tray down to us; the liquids almost spilling from the glasses. His bright blue diner-issued shirt also quaked around him. “Jeez Noah,” Flags exclaimed as he grabbed his drink. “You still that intimidated by us?” Noah gave a short laugh and looked Flags in the eyes - actually in the eyes. “No,” he laughed hesitantly. “Arms are like pudding after yesterday.” We all gave a smile; Jacob did too. “I never knew it could be so painful to put on a shirt,” I added. Noah nodded accordingly, with Flags taking a heavy drink from his glass. “We can talk in a minute,” Noah said. “I have to tend to some other tables. Just tell me what you need to say every time I loop around.” We agreed and turned back to each other. Now Jacob seemed a bit livelier, as if one sip from the drink made him all better. “I thought about what you said the other day,” Jacob stated. Seeing the confusion on my face; he continued. “About the phases you know? About their role in our current lives as well as our future.” Flags and I nodded now. “Johnny is becoming one hell of a speaker,” Flags bolstered. “And then I thought back to all of us getting anonymous names,” Jacob continued. “I thought…” he hesitated. “How about Phaze?” I took this in for a moment. “I like it,” I finally stated. Jacob grinned ear-to-ear and took another drink. Flags seemed amused. “You won’t catch me taking on one of those fake names. Just stick with Flags okay?” Jacob and I spent a couple solid minutes reminding him that Flags was a fake name in of itself. “Flags is who I am,” Flags elaborated. “My old name and life don’t matter. I don’t care if Ivan hears it or not; Flags is the name I’m taking.” I slowly accepted this. “So,” Jacob said; crossing his arms and leaning back. “We’ve got S.S.C, Phaze, and Flags. What about Noah?” We waited a while for Noah to circle back around before asking him; he seemed to marvel at the idea. “Guess I never thought about it before,” he said. “Jet,” he finally stated. “Stealing the name of the diner?” Jacob asked. “You that uncreative?” Noah shook his head, “Give me a break,” he said. “You already took the good one.” Noah was called to help another table, with Flags letting us return to conversation. “We can’t forget Mask,” Jacob said. “I guess he already has a fake name though… even more uncreative than Noah.” Flags leaned in. “I asked Mask a couple questions before he left training the other day,” he whispered; as if Mask was somehow near us. “Simple questions… like if he thought our training was good and all.” I raised an eyebrow at this remark and let him continue. “I did it so I could hear his voice,” Flags elaborated. “He doesn’t sound like anybody I know. He’s clearly disguising it.” “Yeah,” Jacob agreed. “But usually I can tell who someone is, even if their disguising their voice. And I still have no clue who he is or why he’s helping us. Not only that, but I waited in my car a couple days ago to see who would pick up that note Johnathan leaves behind to inform Mask of our plans.” This peaked my curiosity. “Did you see anyone take it?” I asked. Jacob simply shook his head, “Not one soul came close to that note. I waited until 6 o’clock.” “He must pick it up at night,” Flags guessed. “It’s not our job to drive him away out of suspicion,” I said with a sigh as I looked around the diner. “Anyone idiotic enough to join our cause must be kept close. There may not be many like him.”

Week 2:

Kids were already beginning to speak of Winter break. It made me nervous every time I heard it spoken or saw it jotted down on a calendar. But despite my insecurities, I was feeling stronger mentally and physically. My muscles still ached every day, but in a different sort of way. No Longer did it feel so agonizing… it was almost… fulfilling. Like eating a buffet of food after a day of fasting perhaps. “My shoulders drew back more often as I strode down through the hall, I was changing and Summer had already begun to notice. Noah had perhaps made the biggest change of all. His skin was tanned now, far more than ever our own. From time to time I notice him out jogging on his own, or talking to new people he never would have had the confidence to speak to before. It was like we’d created a new person. It made me happy to see, though sometimes it was painful. I still occasionally saw Brice in him. And I’d wonder to myself if we could have convinced Brice to join us. Would he have agreed? Could we have saved his life? I pushed the thought aside; Mask was arriving now; his soft footsteps only audible via the dead leaves scattered around the field. He silently sat a distance away from me as we waited just as we had done every day prior for the others to arrive. Our training had been similar all of last week. Doing phase exercises and occasionally just simple runs. I wanted this week to be different, we couldn’t get to attached to those old ways. It was time for a change. “Sparing,” I finally stated as everyone arrived and took a seat in the open field. Even Flags seemed surprised. “Like fighting you mean?” he asked. “Yeah,” I replied; my voice a bit happier than I’d imagine. I could practically sense their hesitance. “The time to face Ivan is drawing closer and closer every day!” I shouted. “If we are to fight them, we need to learn how to fight ourselves.” I could tell Jacob had something sarcastic to say, but I stopped him. “Noah will face me,” I said. “Mask will face Flags. The guy who loses the fastest in those two fights will face Jacob.” “We need an even number,” Jacob complained. “Bring Summer next time.” “Not funny,” I said with a straight face. “We’ll start with Mask and Flags.” Slowly and perhaps even hesitantly the two stood and faced each other as the rest of us cleared out to watch. “How do we even do this? Or score it or whatever?” Flags asked. I thought for a moment. “Whomever pins who first is the winner. Three-second count should work fine. Think of it like wrestling.” Flags nodded, though I could still tell he was scared. I’d seen him fight once before, but he was not in the right state of mind that day; broken up over some girl a guy took from him. That fight had gotten ugly, I didn’t want to see it happen again. “Go!” I shouted and Flags raised his arms and eased forward. Mask stood in place, his arms to his sides, but his legs spread slightly; he was on edge to move in a split-second. Flags lunged forward and attempted to bear-hug Mask, only for his opponent to spin to the left; getting behind Flags and pushing him to the ground. “Pushing like that in wrestling?” Jacob whispered to me. “He might have the right idea…” I replied under my breath. Before Mask could pin his opponent, Flags lept forward, sliding his chest against the broken stalks; I could hear him yelp for a brief second. He quickly stood and ran back at Mask; bending down and grabbing his legs before carefully toppling him over. Flags rolled around; sloppily trying to pin Mask’s arms as he worked his way up to pinning him; all along the way spewing dirt and grime over his shirt and accidentally getting poked and prodded with stalks of corn. Mask suddenly bent his legs with enough force to free them from Flag’s grasp and Mask slipped away in a brief second; able to rise and place a knee on Flag’s back, preventing him from standing he laid there; his face almost buried in the dirt that had risen up. I counted silently, “That’s three,” I said at last. Mask removed his knee from flag’s back and stood back up; wiping some dirt from his shoulders as Flags stood in a heated fury. He had not expected to lose. “That’s not right!” Flags shouted. “He wasn’t wrestling!” I nodded slowly; thinking over the battle. “Wrestling isn’t the way to go…” I finally said. “Not only do we not know it, but it tares up the ground beneath us and leaves us rolling on the ground like animals. When fighting multiple enemies, they’d see that moment of weakness and kick you while you're down… there’s no way we can fight like that.” Flags angrily rubbed his wounds; patting down some blood on his left arm. “What then?” he said through his teeth. “Standing upright…” I elaborated. “It keeps you constantly alert… like boxing…” Jacob nodded silently. “Lemme try with Noah,” I finally said; turning towards my opponent. Noah’s previously improving demeanor had seemingly vanished now; he stood with his shoulders down and his eyes not meeting mine. “No worries,” I told him. “There won’t be any knockouts… the first one to fall down is the loser.” “You got this Noah!” Jacob yelled with some actual sincerity in his voice. “Yeah, bash his face in!” Flag’s added with a laugh. This eased Noah’s nerves a bit, as he looked up and raised his arms in a typical boxing fashion. I did the same. My heart was beating now; like drums inside of me droning on and on. Everyone stepped back and I lunged forward much like Flags had done. Quickly I jabbed my fist forward, with it striking Noah’s unguarded chest, knocking him back a bit. Noah stepped forward, delivering a well-placed punch to my side and another to my stomach; knocking some air out of me. Using all of my strength, I punched again, this one being blocked by Noah’s forearm as he swiped it away, stepping forward with intense determination as he used all energy to deliver his after his in my direction, some to my sides, others to my chest. I could only block a few of them. Each blow stung sharply and my head felt surprisingly woozy. Perhaps I didn’t realize just how serious this was. Adrenaline was pumping at its maximum as I rushed forward; jabbing up at Noah’s stomach. The air was knocked out of him and he coughed and wheezed as he backed up. I took this time to deliver to more harsh punches to his arms; weakening them incredibly as they nearly dropped entirely. My feet were dragging now, the adrenaline rush beginning to leave me and giving way to simple pain and exhaustion. I tried to move forward again, only for my dizziness to get the better of me; sending me down on my knee as I toppled over. “Woah!” Jacob exclaimed; sincerely surprised at the fall. I was down, and with a harsh kick to the shoulder, Noah knocked me firmly to the ground, where I remained, trying to make the sky stop spinning. Flags and Jacob cheered enthusiastically, with Flags rushing in and jostling Noah’s hair, giving him a light punch to the arm. But Noah was not smiling, he was breathing heavily; even harder than me. I managed to stand; the world still spinning. We were both empty. No adrenaline left, all our energy wasted. “It’s too fast…” I finally muttered. Jacob and Flags looked at me; confused - but Noah knew what I meant. “This style,” I said. “If we go at these guys putting all our energy into each punch and movement, then we’ll run out of energy before we ever move on to a second opponent… we need a fighting style that uses short hits and kicks… something that slowly leaks out energy… fights will be longer, but much more efficient.” The sky was still spinning now, the morning clouds looking like red sheets. Bloodstained sheets. “You’re suggesting some whole new method of fighting then,” Jacob said with a laugh. “I looked at him, or at least one of him. “I am,” I said, this time more serious than ever. And we can develop it together and apart… something that won’t steal all our energy… a peaceful sort of fighting. And as I looked at those blood-stained clouds, I knew peace was still something to strive for.

Growing:

And so it was that for the rest of that week, five sweaty guys who were more than out of their minds met up in an abandoned cornfield to fight with each other; leaving battered, bruised, and defeated every night. Some fighting styles we came up with took too much energy, others made us far too vulnerable, some had us working to close while others had us to far apart. But slowly and surely things did fall into place. Mask started it all; showing us all how to deliver strong - yet short, kicks. Flags came up with the idea to keep your arms close to your body to protect the torso. While Jacob worked on stances, Noah and I took to learning just how little energy we could put into a punch without it doing damage. We began leaving that field with a bit more hope towards the end of the week; though I’d be lying to say that my hands didn’t shake as I crossed off day after day leading to our planned attack. Soon we had it down to a science; merging our ideas together into some compounded fighting style… a soup of ideas. I had tried to convince the group to take a picture once; just so we could remember our faces before they were battered and mutilated; but only Noah and Flags showed up; we took the picture anyways, and I had it developed not long after; proudly displaying it on the top of my dresser. Soon the third week came swinging around… and that was our final chance to make things right.

Rules:

“Looks like we can expect rain or snow here soon,” I told the group as we sat - still quite uncomfortably in that old field. We had a habit of sitting at the center of our ground zero; perhaps it made us feel safer than we really were. Jacob looked into the sky; his eyes steady and his face flat. “Yeah,” he replied. “I don’t like the looks of the sky lately… losing it’s color and all. Remember, if weather is bad the night we go to the park, Ivan and his friends may not even be there.” “Any reason you asked us out here so early?” Flags asked; rubbing his eyes. “Isn’t there always,” I sighed. “It’s time we start looking at rules to this fight.” Now it was Noah that scoffed at me; his skin had tanned much more than any of ours now; I attributed that to him going out on his jogs on sunny days. Truly his muscles had grown as well; that’s what our exercises were meant to do. His face seemed fuller and his voice lesh shrill than the old days. It was astonishing how much he’d changed in such short time. “Rules to fighting?” he said. “Seems sort of contradictory.” “True,” I replied. “But the fact remains that if we’re gonna take these guys down yet still have people look up to us, we need to be careful how we’re throwing punches.” The group was silent now; they knew when joking needed to be put aside. “Punches to the face are allowed… and I doubt we can stop it from happening anyways, but you need to keep contact short. If we knock out ANY teeth, then every time he looks in the mirror he’s just gonna feel the rage burning up back inside him again; we’ll be fighting the same battle over and over, that’s no life. No cheap shots either; Jacob you know what I’m talking about.” Jacob smirked; remembering a botched kick at Flag’s side a couple days prior. “We’re playing by the books here,” I said. “We’re not taking easy ways out… we want a real fight. A fight that tells them we know what we’re doing and that our victory was no stroke of luck… you guys know a lot about fighting and much more about each other… but we still have this one final week ahead of us, I say we make it a good one.” No objections came forward.

Metamorphosis:

It rained hard all that week. Incredibly hard. I hadn’t seen such bucket-fulls of rain since Brice’s funeral. I tried not to think much about it. But every time I felt water pool up in my hair and stream downwards - clinging to my face; I couldn’t help but see that gravestone. “Up!” I called out; pushing the thoughts from my head. All around were simultaneous grunts of conformation; everyone knew they’d save breath by not talking; it was what allowed Mask such a clear advantage in early weeks. “Down!” I commanded; all of our bodies lurching back towards the Earth, not a single one touching. Rain pounded onto our backs and small gusts of wind careened over the hills of the field, sending sediment into our faces; but we stared at it all nonetheless. “Up!” came my voice again; everyone following suit. I looked to my left; there was Noah - or should I call him Jet? At my side, his arms no longer shaking; his face hard and steady. He knew I was looking at him, but his eyes remained transfixed on the ground before him. No distractions. I looked to Flags; rain seemed deep into his shirt; no doubt weighing him down, but he showed no stress. His body and head remained level with the ground; he was almost a part of it. No distractions. “Down!” I shouted again. An ache came up through my arms and lower back; but it was a familiar ache; a friendly sort of ache. Rain poured down harder as we continued this sequence over and over again. “Up!” I yelled. “My body lurched upwards, and with it - my face did too. A headstone stood in front of me; rain pouring on the pitifully small piece of engraved rock. But as pitiful as that stone was, it struck me with fear far more presently than any crash of thunder. Of Course it wasn’t really a headstone though, just a folded grey shirt of Jacob’s - I knew that… didn’t I? Thunder crashed around us, but our ears were deaf to it. Only the sound of my voice would meet their ears. That zone would continue throughout the day. Poetic I suppose, eventually our arms would give way, and our runs would come to a panting halt, but that determination… that sense of calmness… it was a sensation I should say nobody would want to escape from. And so we’d continue. Running around that ground zeroes; burrowing down in it; the rut created by many runs long since past; or so it certainly seemed that way. Perfect formation, no single one of us growing farther forward and none falling behind - a perfect unison. Spars would occurs too; the rain hitting our skin harshly; almost blinding our eyes as we moved forward and back; exchanging punches to guts, torsos, and shoulders. We had a cycle about it. I’d face Mask, move to Jacob, then Noah, then Flags. No-one would be injured of course, merely knocked down or simply backing away as that timer ticked in our heads. Our hands were coarse now, not by much, but still notable. We were all a bit coarse; our personalities unchanged, but our determination ever growing. I remember on the fifth day, looking back as Mask, Jacob, Flags, and Noah departed that muddy field; rain still batting at them. And it was that moment that I knew we were ready. I saw it them. I saw that dedication in their faces; the same as my own; reflected back in that polished diner tiling… they were one in the same. We were ready and I knew it.

Final Preparations:

It was almost like going off to war. At least it was like that for me anyways. I’d called for Summer to meet me in the library the day of the attack. At first when I arrived; only to find librarians, I was worried perhaps her father or brother had kept her from talking to me, but I soon noticed her footsteps echoing down the hall; there was no way she could miss this. Finally she poked her head through the double doors leading inside and spotted me in one of the aisles. She swept her hair back and walker with her arms strictly to her side, as if fearful one of the librarians might ask what she was doing here. “I don’t have long,” she said in a whisper as she reached me. I nodded silently and took her over to a couple chairs in the back where nobody would hear us. “Can’t believe the time is really here,” Summer said as she looked out a window, noting the sky looking particularly icey today. “I know we’ll put up one good fight,” I assured her; trying to keep and uncertainty out of my voice. Summer looked away from my gaze; pretending to look at some crusty old books on the shelf, but I could see some tears forming in her eyes. She knew this day was coming, but I’m not sure she ever knew I’d really REALLY go through with it. Gently, I touched her face and swept it back towards me. “Hey,” I said with a smile. “I’m winning this alright? We’re winning this.” Summer tried to smile, but more tears leaked from her eyes and slid down her face. “I know you will,” she said at last; pursing her lips as she held back more tears. She took my hand and we hugged. I’d like to think she didn’t feel the lump in my throat; as I too held back some tears. It was nice to have somebody that cared for me. But it was time for me to meet up with the others that cared for me as well. Those four others who would help lead me to victory.

Final Day:

Everyone showed up that night. The sun hung low in the sky and casted out it’s pink and orange rays across the expansive sky. We stood under it, dawning some masks provided by Jet. The masks were really just blue worker shirts from the diner. We used two each. One was tied tightly around the bottom of our faces, slung over the nose and ears and tied tightly in the back. A second shirt was wrapped around the forehead, easing back like a bandana and overlapping the knot of the lower shirt, making it much more difficult for an enemy to untie our masks. Of Course Mask himself preferred his usual garb, we did not stop him. Besides him, we all looked the same under that fabric; our eyes peering out, looking every which way, our hearts pounding like drums and amplified by the silence. It was the silence that stuck with me the most. Through our time dressing and prepping, I don’t believe any of us ever said a word. There were no more words to say. Only muted glances. But we all knew what the other was thinking and doing. We were one. And so, as one, we left that field and our ground zero. We left it behind and left into the watercolor sky.

Watching:

We arrived at the park just as the sun hit the hills in the distance. There were houses nearby, not many, but I knew if we were not careful, somebody might see us. We stayed hidden from the park for a few minutes; the bushes and trees being used as perfect vantage points. I peeked over at the park. Sure enough they were there. Ivan leaned against a bottom pillar; smoking a cigarette as a couple of his friends carved their names into the slide. Not far off from there, two more were playing a rugged game of football in the open grass; Ivan’s gaze was focused on them. “There’s usually seven,” Phaze whispered to me. I looked around a bit more, but nobody else was in sight. “Perhaps they didn’t show up,” I replied. “We can’t risk waiting for them. We need to strike now while everyone is separate and distracted.” Phaze nodded and gave a thumbs up to Flags and Jet to move a bit closer. “Flags and Jet,” I began. “You two take on the two guys playing football in the field. With any luck, Ivan will rush forward and try to help, that’s when I’ll jump him. Mask and Phaze will take on the two guys by the slide.” It was hardly a plan really, but I had no time to plot the situation in my mind for long. Every minute we wasted, we’d risk friends of Ivan showing up. Flags and Jet looked at eachother and then at me, offering silent agreements as they crept from the bushes and prepared to sprint on my mark. “We can do this,” I told myself; ignoring the rushing of my heart. “We can do this.” Finally I looked at Jet and Flags. “Let’s roll,” was all I had to say.

Revenge:

Jet and Flags took off in a second; their feet silent as they sped across the field. Ivan noticed them out of the corner of his eye, but must’ve mistaken them for bumbling kids playing tag. With so much smoke in front of his eyes, I wouldn’t doubt it. I finally stepped from the bushes and looked back to Mask and Phaze, they had already advanced past me and were creeping towards the two graffitiers. Then I heard it; that first strike. Jet had delivered it. A harsh yet quick jab to the head of one of the football players. He went down in an instant, his friend turning around only to find Phaze on top of him; elbowing him in the chin and pushing him to the ground. Ivan dropped his cigarette now; his mouth wide open, unsure what he was seeing. I stood there for a while too, wondering just how similar we felt in that moment. “Hey!” Ivan shouted, his face growing red and his eyes flaring up with anger. He began to lumber forwards; trying to assist his friends. But I was there now, right in front of him. How had I gotten there? My legs must’ve carried me. Ivan looked me up and down, I could almost feel his heart beating. Suddenly two sharp bangs as Ivan’s cohorts were pinned to a metal support beam of the play ground; Phaze and Mask had struck. It was my turn now. Ivan looked all around him; taken back by his friends being pummeled by these unseen attackers. I rushed forward, my fist raised high as I whipped him across the jaw. My hand throbbed. I had never hit someone so hard. Ivan’s face lurched back as he cradled his head in his hands. He pushed back towards me, hitting me once in the chest and again in the stomach; almost sending me doubling over. I had not felt this type of pain before, nor this knowledge that he had hit me with real malicious intent. This was no spar, he meant business. In my blurred vision I could see Mask and Phaze, struggling to keep the others pinned. I shot back at Ivan; ignoring the pain in my hands as I delivered two quick jabs at his forehead. “You little-” Ivan began, though his words were cut off by a kick to the gut. Ivan was cursing under his breath, his friends cussing similarly as they tried to fight us. Ivan delivered an uppercut to my head; sending me down. I held my ground; managing to stand and back up just in time to avoid Ivan throwing himself on top of me. He landed with a grunt in the dirt. Quickly I threw a harsh kick to his side; sending him rolling over. I looked around, Flags had knocked out one of the friends and was helping Jet now. As my head shifted back to Mask and Phaze, Ivan appeared out of nowhere, grabbing my throat and holding me in the air. My body twisted and kicked like a rag doll, some kicks finding their way to Ivan’s chin and shoulders. Still choking me and blocking out the splintering pain; Ivan pinned me to a wall of the playground; his grip becoming stronger as he eased his head forward to look me in the eyes. “You think you’re tough don’t you?” he said through his teeth. His lip was gushing blood; his forehead as well. I struggled to breath, my head throbbed and my eyes watered and stung. “Well guess what?” Ivan said, his face so close to mine I could feel his breath on my face. “This is what happens when you mess with the wrong guys.” His eyes furrowed as he brought his other hand to my throat. I gasped and choked; my mind going blank and my hands numbing. It was like i could feel my very being slip away. I could see it now. That look of Ivan staring down at you; calling you worthless… I imagined I was Brice for a fleeting moment; imagined him seeing this every day and every night… imagining seeing someone there to help… only to walk away. Nobody was going to save me. I had to save myself. My head suddenly swung forward; striking Ivan’s temple and nose and catching him so off-guard, he dropped me and stumbled back. His hands remained glued to his face as blood leaked from between his fingers. “I’ll kill you!” he shrieked through his hands. I was still on the ground; breathing sharply as I struggled to regain consciousness. Ivan’s hands finally left his face and clutched into to meat hooks; ready to tear me limb from limb. I rose to my feet; my arms out in front of me. Ivan rushed at me delivering two harsh blows meant for my body, only for my forearms to block them. Then another. And another. And another once more. Over and over he jabbed at me but I remained focused on those fists, blocking each hit and slowly walking him away from the park and into the field. I heard it now; the beating of his heart. I felt his pain and saw the fear in his eyes as he desperately began looking around for help. There was no help. He was tired now. He was learning exactly what we had learned long ago; that putting all your energy into each hit only wears you down faster. His knuckles bled and his arms contorted oddly now; as if sprained. It was odd really; me focusing more on my wounds rather than the rest. “Flags! Jet!” I heard Phaze call. They needed final assistance with the last standing friend of Ivan. “It’s over!” I yelled to Ivan, grabbing his incoming fist and throwing a punch of my own at his eyes. Then another to his chest. Another to his forehead. Over and over I threw those punches; each quick, yet powerful. Ivan stumble; struggling to remove his arm from my grasp. His mouth couldn't shut now. He was staring up at the sky; seeing stars both real and fake. And then; just like that, he fell. Like a giant collapsing to the Earth. Not catching him or softening the fall. All of it was against his will. His muscles flexed and steamed; trying to raise him up, but were too weakened; to far gone. I heard the final friend fall from behind; being knocked against a platform of the park and tumbling down with the same amount of force. And then footsteps, those familiar sounds of my friends as they walked behind me and stared down at Ivan. Ivan blinked uncontrollably; his head moving in every which way; as if unsure where to focus. Now it was I who grew close to him. “Look at me,” I said; placing my foot on his chest to prevent him from moving. Ivan gazed up at me; I wondered if he could understand. “Brice’s death is on you,” I said coldly; meeting his gaze, this time with my eyes more piercing than his. “And we are here to avenge him. Take that with you wherever you go. That we are here… watching you… waiting for you make that mistake again. Rest assured we will find you… and be aware that next time we’ll only be stronger.” Ivan tried to speak back at me, but his thoughts were fading now, growing dim. We needn't strike him anymore. He blacked out on his own; his empty gaze just looking up at us. “S.S.C,” Phaze said quietly. “You did it. It looks like we have an accomplished mission on our hands.” I took my foot off of Ivan and stayed on my knees; breathing now with relief as I rose my left hand up in victory. My hand was met by the others; criss-crossing them every which way. “WE did it,” I corrected. And so we had.

Celebration:

We must’ve been audible from quite a distance; the five of us hooping and hollering as we lept up and down; smiles glued to our faces. Jacob gave me a pat on the back while Flags gave Noah a well-natured noogie. Our words became muddled and clumped together as we eagerly tried to shout over each other; offering compliments or trying to share thoughts on just how it felt to punch one of those neanderthals in the gut. “Did you see that final punch?” Jacob yelled; though I could not tell to whom he was talking to; I’d imagine he didn’t know either. “Nearly got my mask torn right off!” Noah yelled; gesturing to his slightly torn bottom piece. Flags rubbed his knuckles and slung his arm around me; squeezing me tightly in that brotherly hug sort of way. “Didn’t know what hit’em,” he said. Mask watched us celebrate from a distance; his arms crossed as if he were not as excited. I knew better though, he was just as satisfied with our victory as we were, he just didn’t know how to show it. I finally untied my mask and felt at my face and mouth. “Anything missing?” I asked. “Nope,” Jacob replied. “Just as ugly as before.” We laughed for a good while and eventually managed to quiet ourselves. I was the first one to address the thing on everybody's mind. “Now what?” I finally said; looking around. Flags gave a laugh, but eventually sobered up as he too realized that we’d never really discussed it. Where to go from here? Could we really leave all this behind? “Guys I need you to listen here for a moment,” I continued. “We won this fight; no doubt about it… but we can’t be certain Ivan and his crew are going to quit being idiots, cold-turkey.” Everyone nodded; Mask included. “If any of you wants to quit while we’re ahead… I won’t stop you,” I continued. “We set out to stop Ivan and we did. Our mission is over. I’m proud to have worked with you all here… watch everyone grow… you’re like family to me.” This remark hit Flags hard, I could tell. With that, I stood and gave a nod; briefly rubbing my left shoulder with my right arm. Jacob smirked and stood as well; making the same gesture on his own; but this time holding it there; creating a sort of “V” with arm. I looked at him quizzically. “You okay?” I asked. “Or did you get hit a little to hard back there?” Jacob laughed. “Probably,” he said; still holding the posture. “I like this though… like a salute sort of thing… our own unique motion, symbolizing that pain we feel in unison… and that victory we share.” I saw Noah copying the move on his own; taking it in for himself. “And here I thought I was the poetic one,” I remarked. Flags too stood and slung his arm across his chest; reaching to the shoulder. For a moment I even thought I’d seen Mask briefly dawn the salute. I smiled again. “If you wanna continue this training and grow as a team and as a family… then I’ll meet you all here tomorrow,” I said. And I was very sure I would.

Sustain

Spread:

I was more than ready to let myself heal and have some peace of mind following our attack on Ivan, however there was still one final day of school remaining before break began. I had hardly set foot inside the school before I was nearly tackled to the ground by Summer; who squeezed me hard and giggled with sheer excitement. I remained silent and she finally backed up a bit, keeping her hands on my shoulders as she backed up to get a better look at me. “You survived!” she said happily. I was going to speak, but she quickly grew closer, observing a bruise on my upper-right eye and an ever so slight cut to the right side of my mouth. “Is it that noticeable?” I asked. It doesn’t really matter,” Summer replied; her smile still growing. “What do you mean?” I asked. “They’re not in today,” Summer elaborated. “None of them. You must have really scared them off. And besides… people know.” My smile faded and I looked at her in confusion; prompting her to continue. “You know how it goes, one guy claimed to see the fight at that park from his back window. He calls to tell his friends, his friends tell their friends, so on and so on. The entire school is booming with the news… I’m surprised you didn’t hear.” “Yeah well, I had wanted to get a solid 48 hours of sleep since that beatdown,” I exaggerated. I thought back to the two friends of Ivan who had not shown up to the park that night. Surely they were still here, and I had little doubt that they’d be looking for guys with scratches and bruises about their face. “Just act natural,” Summer assured me. “If anyone asks, tell them you just got in a rough game a football with the guys.” I nodded slowly; still wondering just what would be waiting for me when I traversed further into the school. Who knew already? Did Calvin know? Teachers? Would a police officer be waiting for me outside of my first period? I brushed this out of my head for now and said goodbye to Summer as I headed inside. “Hey one more thing,” she yelled from behind. I looked back. “Now that you guys won this fight, you need to consider accepting me into your group now.” Now I was really worried.

Pressure:

I didn’t even know how to walk; really. Should I stand tall; bold perhaps? Maybe slumped down so as not to be noticed? Or perhaps an average walk like nothing had changed. But things had changed; and it showed. Kids were loud and they flooded the halls with their presence; it was as if Calvin’s hoard had multiplied one hundred times over. Some 4th graders were pretending to punch each other in the face near the restrooms. 8th graders stood huddled in a large group; listening as some guy spewed nonsense about how he’d seen s bring knives into the fight. I was sweating a bit now; almost as badly as when I fought Ivan; but this was a different sweat; it was that kind that builds up under sheer pressure alone; that fear of being bombarded with questions from every direction - people wanting answers and me not being able to give them. I could not spot Jacob or Noah anywhere, perhaps they were smart and had skipped school entirely. Then there it was; a hand on my shoulder. I slowly turned my head; unsure what sort of face would be looking at me. My eye’s met Calvin’s. I breathed a sigh of relief. Calvin seemed less relieved. “follow me,” he started - leading me through the crowds and past some teachers trying to calm down the voices. Calvin led me down to a stairwell where the legions of kids finally diminished. He seemed calmed somewhat by the silence. “So…” he began; his eyes darting. “You really did it huh?” I nodded; a sort of look of pride appearing on my face. “I’ve kept everything a secret;” Calvin said. “I’m not sure who leaked information but… Johnney there is no way you’re gonna be able to keep this hidden.” “I have to try,” I replied. “Surely you didn’t bring me here just for that.” Calvin seemed almost embarrassed. “A deal is a deal,” he replied simply. “I know I can trust you Johney - that’s why I want to help. Ivan and his guys were just the tip of the iceberg… the beginning of a deeper issue rooted all throughout the school.” I shook my head in distant agreement; this was nothing new to me. “I want to help you guys,” Calvin finally said. He nearly seemed to want to say more, but he left it as such. I gave a smile. “Welcome aboard,” I told him. “I know keeping this hidden will be hard, but I promise we’ll get it sorted out… we just need more time.” “I understand,” Calvin replied with certainty. “We meet out in Arthur’s cornfield,” I said. “Up by the hills overlooking the road. You’ll see a circle etched into the ground; we’ll see you there I hope.” “You can count on me,” Calvin said with a pat to my back. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you without your crew,” I joked as Calvin began to walk away. Calvin stared at his feet a moment or two. “Yeah…” he replied. “Yeah.” And he was gone.

Rise of the Golden Age:

I was late to practice that day. Summer had stayed longer to talk to me than I’d anticipated. She shot questions from every angle; asking about every individual punch I dealt out and obtained. I was afraid to tell her to much in terms of positives, I feared that it would give her a pleasant picture of what we were doing. I would not allow for her to try and step in and get herself hurt. Thankfully she avoided mentioning that topic. In any case, I was a full half an hour later today. I had expected to see the usual guys; each decked out in heavier clothing than the day which came prior. Truly the cold air had not come in just yet, but it was certainly declining in heat; we took immediate notice. However as I rounded the large hill overlooking our battlegrounds, my eyes came upon such a different site that I should think my brain perceived it firmly as that of just a dream. There was Flags, Jacob, Noah, and Mask; each of whom standing close to each other; talking things over, but then there was more. Three kids; two of which seeming a couple years younger than myself now stood in their own separate group nearby. The older of the three noted my presence at the hill; resulting in everyone staring up at me. Then more movement; Calvin - who stood so still near our ground zeroes; eyeing it, that I doubt I ever would have noticed him had he not moved. My mouth was gaping, Jacob seemed to give a nervous smile; while Calvin’s seemed a bit more generous. I slowly came down; the four of my usual guys making their way towards me; engulfing me in a circle of questions and comments. “Who are these guys?” I said over the wild chatter. “All of’em have different stories as to how they got here,” Flags told me. “But they all share one thing in common, rumors brought them here.” “Rumors of our identity,” I said through clenched teeth; eyeing the three. “Rumors of where we train… how could we let this happen?” Noah seemed equally annoyed at the situation; yet tried to make light of it. “Well somebody needs to talk to them,” he said quickly. “Figure out what to do with them.” Now the three had decided to walk over in unison; seeming almost out of breath; like they were gazing up at some mighty relic. I was no relic. My eyes narrowed and my mouth formed into a grimace as I approached them. My body told me to be angry, but my mind was not so sure. I had thought about facing Ivan every day since the incident with Brice; but never had I thought about facing off against regular people who had no idea what they were getting into. “You,” I remarked slowly. “What are you all doing here? Who told you about us? Who else knows?” The three seemed taken back but this seriousness; each looking back at one another; hoping for one to elect himself to speak on behalf of the rest. No-one spoke though. Except then another voice chimed in; Calvin’s. “They’re here to train,” Calvin said; walking up to my side. “You told them about all this?” I asked with a strong dose of anger. “No,” Calvin replied; almost seeming a bit offended. “I told you before; this is a secret I am not giving up. But you know how it is. All it takes is a few little clues and stories and then here we are; with recruits we never would have expected.” I thought back to Mask and his mysterious joining. There must have been some kind of leak somewhere, some kind of message getting out and spreading through the school hivemind like a virus. Finally a younger kid spoke; his voice slightly shaky. “We know about what you did with Ivan,” he said. “That’s… well we… you’ve really helped a lot of people.” My eyes finally stopped their intense gaze, and I found myself sort of humbled for a moment. A thank-you… how long had it been since I had heard one of those? “This is our chance,” Calvin said; leaning in to me. “Our chance to get a force built up that can lead itself with AND without you. A force that can operate to quell dangers all throughout the neighborhood.” “Calvin-” I began to interject, though he continued. “You know about all those people who hang around me,” he remarked. “If I tell them to join; they’ll join, they do whatever I tell them. From there it’ll spread like clockwork. Forget secret identities, who’s gonna go up against any guy who’s got an army at his back.” “You’re getting ahead of yourself,” Noah told Calvin. “We can’t just open the doors to everyone at once… the process needs to be slow… controlled.” “I suppose you’re right,” Calvin admitted. “But we can’t just tell these guys to go home. They want in, I say let’em. They’ve got more guts than I did.” I could practically feel the regret seeping from his voice. All this time I had assumed Calvin took us as a joke, but no, he truly regretted not joining us at my first offer. Perhaps he was feeling that pain of turning your back on something that needed help. The sun was beginning to set now; it’s upper half cradling over the Earth and sending out brilliant waves of gold. I looked at the three kids; there watching it set along with me. Not far away was that ground zeroes of ours. Perhaps it truly was time to pass the torch… let the golden brilliance shine longer and brighter. The rise of a golden age.

Real Gone:

And so it all grew. Day by day I’d come to that same field and day by day I’d be met by new faces; some eager, some frightened, some unsure how to feel. Ages slowly changes as well; gradually becoming younger and younger. I had most recently met a boy only 9 years old wanting in on this action, but I turned his request down, at least for the time being. This group had no room for their innocent minds. With winter break now in full swing and the cool air slowly becoming more apparent by the day, I found myself stressed; wondering what would be waiting for me back at school. My identity was out now; everybodies was. Noah and I had worked a bit to keep lips sealed, but it was of little effect. I finally declared it simply fate that our names would be spoken of, not that I agreed with it that is; I just acknowledged it. News on Ivan was the scariest of all; in that there was none. No information on him or his friends. I had heard brief stories of them meeting from time to time at a new location and speaking, though these stories had no real information to back them up. In truth it was almost as if Ivan’s entire presence had vanished; and I was just as on edge about that as I needed to be. “Uh… S.S.C,” came a distant voice. My thoughts flashed back to Ivan’s face; that glare he gave me, the look of determination, hatred, anger… did his friends have that same look too?” “Boss… uh, sir,” came another voice somewhere in the fog of thought. I began to think of him now; crouching behind a bush or fence post somewhere; friends at the ready; waiting to jump at me when I walked by… they knew my name, they knew my face, they probably even knew my car. I felt naked. “Boss,” came the voice again, this time cutting through my mind and sending me spiraling back into reality. Jacob, Calvin, and a young kid now stood before me; the younger one looking somewhat frightened while Jacob seemed more worried than anything else. “What is it?” I asked; rising from my spot and staring down off the hill. From here I could oversee all training. Jacob tended to showing recruits fast and powerful punches. Flags dealt with speed. Noah taught rules and regulations and Mask kept everyone in order. In a strange sort of way, I’d lost some of my grip over the training; I just was not needed. “This kid showed up an hour ago and wants to talk about joining the cause,” Calvin said; gesturing to the red-headed kid with freckles adorning his face. “He’s refusing to leave without talking to you.” Calvin tapped his foot impatiently while Jacob looked over his shoulder; still seeming worried about something. I smirked and bent down to look the kid in the eyes. “Join the cause eh? I said in an almost mocking manner. “Do you even know what the cause is?” “To help kids in trouble,” the boy replied; shifting his gaze a bit to the fighters below practicing kicks. “What’s your name?” I asked. “How old are you?” “My name is Albert,” the boy replied chipperly. “I’m 11.” He gave a toothy grin and once again looked back at the fighters. “Awful young,” I remarked; rising back up to look at Calvin. “Exactly,” Calvin said. “We have no room for children in a group like this. They’ll sooner get themselves hurt and draw unwanted attention to us.” Suddenly I heard footsteps coming from my left; Noah was approaching now. “Hang on Calvin,” he said; raising his hand and placing it on Albert’s shoulders. “This is a real issue that we can’t just brush off. At what age do we draw the line? How do we keep ourselves secret in a town that is practically fueled by rumors? We need to look at the big picture, the rules I give the guys are few and far between.” “You think Johnny… er… S.S.C doesn’t know that?” Calvin scolded; his arms crossed. “I’m not saying that,” Noah said defensively. “But we’re getting to big. We almost have well over 25 recruits. If we don’t come up with rules now… then we’ll lose control of the system.” Calvin offered no objections and the decision was quietly put into my hands. I shook my head a while; trying to piece it all together and ignore that mounting stress. I couldn’t let the guys see it; we had come to far. I finally looked back down to Albert. “Why do you want to join?” I asked. “To help kids in trouble,” Albert echoed once again like a broken record. “No,” I said. “I mean really… why did you come here? Why us? Why you?” Albert grew quiet for a while. “Because... I get picked on a lot,” he finally said; averting his eyes to the ground. “I see,” I said quietly. “But this group isn’t about revenge… it’s about… fairness.” Albert’s head shot up. “I don’t want revenge,” he elaborated. “I just want them to see why we do it… like how and why we do it all… so they can learn to love too.” Noah smirked at the good-natured comment. I believe Calvin may have rolled his eyes. “You’re a smart kid,” I said with a grin as I gave him a pat on the shoulder. I looked back at the others. “So long as they have this level of maturity and level-headedness, who am I to turn them down?” I said. “We accept anyone who wants to help others learn to love instead of hate… that’s why we exist.” “But John-” Calvin began, though he was cut off by another voice; a female one. Now Jacob straightened up; as did I. I realized now why he seemed so nervous. “Accept ANYONE huh?” came the voice. I knew it immediately. Summer had arrived.

Rabbit Ears and Shades of Blue:

“Thanks for the warning Jacob,” I remarked sarcastically. Jacob wiped his brow, crossed his arm over his chest, and left; with Calvin doing the same before leading Albert down to the others. Noah stayed with us. I turned to Summer now. “You’re giving me that look,” she said; her smile bigger and her eyelashes batting at me affectionately. “That look like you don’t have time to deal with me right now.” “Read like a book,” I replied. “And what’s up with this?” Summer asked; holding her arm in the salute stance as Jacob and Calvin had done. “You some kind of king now?” This prompted a laugh. It was good to hear myself laugh. “No,” I replied simply. I began walking down the hill with her; Noah moving close behind; still giving us our personal space. “It’s not a sign of submission, it’s a sign of respect. We all know what we’re getting into and we do that because we respect each other. Nobody is above anybody.” “You got a name for yourselves yet?” Summer asked as we walked past the sparring guys; who began to fight a little harder to impress her. “Haven’t given it much thought,” I said honestly. “We’ll know it when we find it.” Summer quieted herself and looked out over everybody. She was trying not to say it; trying very hard, but she really did want to join us here. “It’s too dangerous,” I finally told her; looking her sternly in the face now. The smile faded from her face and she seemed truly hurt. “I could never forgive myself if something happened to you,” I admitted. “You need to stop trying to stand in my way here… or are you just trying to get hurt to prove to me this is not the right path to take?” “It’s not my place?” Summer asked; still sounding downtrodden. “Summer you know that’s not what I mean,” I sighed. “You know my dad says similar things,” Summer remarked. “Our TV stopped working a few months back. Something wrong with the rabbit ears.” “Summer-” I tried to interject, but she continued; growing louder now as her eyes watered a bit. Noah stepped away slightly; realizing this wasn’t just a sap story. “So I try to fix them right? And I do… just messed with some wires and bent the ears just right and there it is…” Summer wiped a tear flowing down her cheek and turned so she wouldn’t be facing the rest of us. “And my dad starts screaming at me… in some idiotic drunken rage… he says girls aren’t supposed to fix things like that, it’s not in their place. And that’s why I want to join Jonathan! I don’t wanna get in your way or put myself in danger… I wanna fix things! I wanna prove him wrong!” Summer gathered herself a bit, but some makeup began to run from her eyes as she dabbed at it with her sleeves and stepped away. Noah fetched a blue shirt and handed it to her to dry herself. She now sat down in the field; not caring if she got dirt on her as she just shook her head; unsure what to think. I sat next to her and silently motioned for everyone to go back to what they were doing. “Summer,” I stammered. “H-how come you never told me this?” “Because what if he’s right?” Summer muttered; wiping her eyes still. “Maybe I am just off from the others… I mean… look at these guys… I’m not one of them… how could I be?” I couldn’t find the words to respond. “He just… my dad just says things things that leave me feelin blue you know?” Summer finally stated. She wanted to say more, but trailed off. My mind raced, but could come up with no more things to say. Then I looked down at the blue shirt shirt Noah handed her. Bright blue… a shirt from Jet’s Diner, the same types of shirts we had used to hide our identities in the fight. That familiar blue… that safe blue. I gently placed my arm around her a took the blue shirt; holding it out above us so the sunlight could shine through. “You know,” I said. “I think there are some nice shades of blue don’t you think… that kind that seems more clear… guess sometimes you need a pretty strong light to see that.” I gave her a playful nudge and handed it back. She felt the shirt in her hands and looked to me, a slight smile on her face. “Yeah,” she replied. “I guess there are some good types of blue after all.”

Unification:

As every day passed, we obtained new members. Some young, others old, but very few could claim to have seen real combat; aside from some notorious fighters that Jacob had somehow gotten a leash on. In truth, it felt as if the original members had a better grasp on everything that I did; and with Summer now among our ranks, I began to wonder if we might lose control. All it would take was one well-placed call to the police to end our entire operation. One little incident capable of shutting down all of our work for good. It was a scary thought. Days prior, Arthur had even spotted some of our guys roaming around the field; a little too close to his barn. The guys say he shouted like a maniac and threatened to shoot them if they came back. This did very little to lower moral however. Every day heald something new, and for us, that was an exciting prospect. Timing was no longer a concern; members appeared at that field at all different hours of the day. I had seen them practicing from as early as 7 in the morning to as late as 9 at night. Guys would appear; some talking, some sparring, some racing up and down the field, others wrestling on the ground as individuals such as Noah or Flags tried to keep them in line. Sometimes guys would take days off, sometimes more than a few; but nearly all of them came back. On this day in particular, I headed over to the field about mid-day, there was a light rain but the cold air had momentarily subsided; I expected to find guys taking advantage of the rare warm weather; of which they were; at least seven of them. Four guys ran past me in a single-file line; giving quick-strained salutes of respect. “Hey John,” one barked, with others referring to me as “sir” or sometimes even “boss”. The sound was strange to me, but Jacob had told me before that I should be honored that these pre-teens would bother to respect anyone but themselves. I had earned their respect, and they were trying hard to earn mine. I glanced to my right; finding Noah approaching me. “Keeping these guys in check?” I asked; growing near him. “Well you know,” Noah replied. “It is not so easy anymore. I try to keep one of the Origins out here at all times but… well, schedule mix-ups can be an issue.” I tilted my head a bit. “Origins?” I repeated. Noah cocked his head back and gave a laugh. “Oh that’s right,” he said. “Guess Flags never told you. In order to distinguish the new guys from the original five; I’ve stuck to calling us The Origins. You, me, Jacob, Mask, and Flags; the guys who kicked it all off.” “I like it,” I replied honestly; shifting my gaze back to a couple sparring guys who lightly kicked and punched at each other's ribcages. “Then you’ll like this even more.” Noah said; reaching to his back pocket and removing a bright blue shirt. I recognized it right away; that similar long-sleeved; baby-blue shirt worn by employees at Jet’s diner, with gray stripes running up the sides as well as a distinctive gray collar and cuffs. Only the logo had been cut out a sewn up with a simple dark blue patch. “Same shirt you gave Summer a while back right?” I asked; referring to her previous tearful encounter. “Sort of,” Noah admitted; goading me in for a closer look. “Listen, I got  promotion a few days ago and now I have access to all the employee garb. We’ve got bags full of the stuff; ranging from super small to extra large.” My eyebrows raised in confusion. “What do you have in mind?” I asked. “I heard what you and Summer said about those shades of blue. And I think that if we are ever gonna make these guys truly feel like they’re a part of something; we need to have them dress like it.” I was skeptical; Noah could see it in my eyes. “It’s no trouble,” Noah assured me. “I’ve already snuck three of these out the door every day since the promotion. If I continue with that method, we’ll have at least two shirts for everybody in a couple weeks or so.” I smirked and shook my head in bewildered acceptance. “A team color and everything,” I said. “I’m gonna have to start doing some leader stuff so I don’t get overshadowed by you guys.” Noah laughed and gave me a friendly slap on the back. “It’s a yes then?” I shook my head a second time. “You’re helping us grow; how could I say no to that. Have at it.” Noah’s eyes lit up and he excitedly flashed the salute before returning to his guys. I saw Albert among them; he saw me too. And with that sun gleaming to my back and my perch atop that hill; I thought I must’ve looked like some sort of hero to him. And in a way, I was slowly beginning to feel like it.

Masters:

It had been nagging at me for a long time. Kids and teens were content enough to be able to hang out with their friends and spar for the greater good, but the time would come when eventually they’d start seeing the big picture and wondering when do we do this? No “missions” had been given since the rise of our Golden Age; and now I was getting phone calls from people of whom I didn’t know even knew my phone number; asking me about what tasks would be given out, how people would be organized, who would lead attacks, how many people would contribute to an attack, where to strike, when to strike, etc. I held off the questions with answers like “Soon,” or “No comment.” However the calls just kept coming. And so when I advanced towards the field one rainy Thursday morning; I could only hope that I’d be met with the faces of those who I was comfortable speaking with. I was not so lucky. As usual; Noah was there; Calvin and Mask as well, but the field was packed with individuals running amuck in every which direction. “Hey!” Noah shouted at one younger kid. “Get back in line!” The kid slowly walked back; only to get distracted moments later and run off again. Calvin worked closely with Mask and a few other more proper soldiers; but they were far outnumbered by the immature. “Everyone settle down!” I called out over the hill. My voice acted as a whip and soon everyone was facing me as I made my way down the hill and eyed them. A little more than half were wearing the blue shirts Noah was distributing. I felt almost guilty that I wasn’t dressed the same. They respected me nonetheless. “This is getting out of hand,” I stressed; pointing to those who were running amuck. “You guys want missions? You’re going to have to start acting like it first!” I felt some anger burning away at me; this was not our purpose; to avenge Brice by bringing immature kids to a field and making them cramp together into small - ruckus-making cells. My face grew hot as I stared down at them; some younger, some older, some even about my age. Finally a voice chipped in as Mask strode past the crowds. “There isn’t enough of us.” he said coldly. “I’d say there is way too many of us,” I barked back; preparing to expel two snickering teens from the group entirely. “No,” Mask replied; now standing in front of me so as to block the view of the others. He stared at me through the holes in that bag; his dark eyes now cutting through me once more; telling me to be silent. “There isn’t enough of the Origins to go around,” he elaborated. “We can’t keep relying on ourselves to teach. We need to trust those mature enough to handle those who aren’t yet ready. A master and apprentice.” He drew back and pointed to Calvin and several others standing in the salute-fashion. Their faces were rock-hard and their eyes dead set on mine. “We give each of them four or five guys to look after; we can ease the load on the Origin’s shoulders.” “They don’t know enough yet,” I replied; closing my eyes and shaking my head. “We don’t have a choice anymore Johnathan,” Mask replied; drawing close to me again and this time easing to my side to whisper into my ear. “If we fail to keep the peace for much longer, you can bet our Golden Age won’t last much longer. We need to act fast and establish systems. And I won’t always be here to tell you that.” I drew away and looked at him for a moment; wondering what he could have meant by that; but finally I conceded to his gaze and looked back to Calvin and the other mature soldiers. I swallowed hard and spoke to them. “Listen,” I said. “Mask is right. If we are going to keep the peace within this group of ours, then we need other people willing to step up and help run this. Are you willing? Or are you not?” The matured soldiers stood straighter. “We’re with you till the end and back,” said one; with Calvin nodding in agreeance as others also replied yes. I now stared back at the others; growing serious as they realized they were getting bosses - multiple bosses. “I will work closely with the Origins to determine those mature enough to be masters,” I stated. “Listen closely for any new news on the matter. Things are about to get strict here.” I let this set in. “Don’t let me catch you stepping out of line again.” I now turned and walked past the matured soldiers; still saluting. I gave a smile and nudged Calvin as I passed. “Congrats of the promotion.” And with that, I was gone.

The System:

I slumped over my writing desk; my windows drawn shut as I wrote feverishly on a sheet of notebook paper; drawing my attention back and forth at other sheets strewn about the desk and floor. My phone had been ringing a few times downstairs; but I had unplugged it after it had interrupted my attention to many times. As my wrist began to cramp and my eyes began to blur; I could pick up the faintest sound of my door opening downstairs and footsteps coming my way. For a moment I wondered if my father had come home early; though in my business; the thought disintegrated before long. I had far too much work to be done; and not enough time to finish it. Finally my door swung open and Summer walked in; or at least I could tell it to be her; as I recognized the fruity perfume. “You could have answered my calls,” she said; carefully stepping over papers and sitting in a nearby chair; watching me work. “And you could have knocked first,” I shot back; starting a new paragraph. “Would you have really answered?” she replied. I had no response to that. “Johnny what are you doing?” she finally asked. My head was bobbing toandfro in every direction; like a hunted animal desperately searching the area for predators. I must’ve looked insane. “Come on Johnny,” she said again. “Talk to me. What’s going on?” The lead of my pencil was wearing down; I turned to sharpen it while shuffling some previously written papers and checking for spelling mistakes. “Writing rules,” I replied eventually. “Yeah,” she said with a sigh. “I heard you sorta went off on a few guys at training the other day.” “I didn’t do anything that they didn’t deserve,” I replied. The pencil was sharpened now; I began a new page regarding mission structure. “And you think writing some kind of constitution for a group with no name will be capable of settling them down?” she asked; a mocking tone in her voice; but it was a loving sort of mockery. I didn’t reply; I had way too much to do and not enough time to finish. Not enough time. Running out of time. Have to act fast. Have to act now. My arm moved too fast and the head of the red pen I had nearby snapped off; releasing a flood of red ink spilling onto the clean white sheet I was working with. I finally dropped my pencil, stood abruptly, and threw the pen across the room in sheer anger as I crumpled the sheet and tossed it to the wall; swearing like a sailor. Summer stood for a moment as I sat down in a huff; she had never seen me so mad. “Johnny?” she said hesitantly; a tinge of fear in her voice. “What’s got you so worked up… I mean really?” I turned to her now; my head in my hands. “All of it!” I shouted. “Every master needs four apprentices, I have to choose who is fit to be a master, who they answer to, how long are training sessions, who decides when to attack, how to schedules line up, who needs blue shirts, who needs a drive home, who do we fight, who do we protect, how too we protect, how do we fight,” I trailed off. “It’s all on me,” I said; looking up; revealing the dark circles under my eyes. “It’s too much! Too much for any human!” I laid back in my chair and stared up at the ceiling; it felt good to get all that off my chest; and the sound of rain outside, cooled my head a bit. Summer sat motionless for a while, but eventually stood and walked past me. “Johnney look here,” she said calmly. My face steadily turned her way as she delicately lifted a picture from my nearby stack. Among them were photos of Summer and I, pictures of me back when I played baseball, a photo of my father and mother getting married. But she moved past them; instead propping up a blurry; recent photograph of Flags, myself, Noah, Jacob, and Mask. The five of us staring into the camera with smiles; arms around each other; minus Mask of course. Summer brought the photo closer to me and let it sit in my hands. “Look here,” she said. “All of you smiling; loving what you were doing. The five of you unsure about the future but still trudging through the uncertainty head-first. That is the love you put into this. And the S.S.C will never grow if you’re unwilling to show that love anymore. That’s why you fought. Don’t lose sight of that now.” I gripped the photo in my hand; studying each of our faces. My mouth cracked a smile and I gently leaned it back against the wall. “You’re getting to be a better speaker than me,” I said. Summer grinned and pulled up a seat to my side. “Now,” she said. “Let’s see what we can do about these rules shall we?”

Words to Live By:

“Take a seat boys!” I shouted out as I strode past individuals. It was a record amount of people now; I did not wish to count; I had bigger things on my mind. The masters were largely to thank for the turnout anyways. We had structured things so that the Origins would pass orders on to the masters who would - in turn; instruct their student accordingly. However the masters were still free to train their apprentices with their own unique stamp of fighting style as well as moral ethics; so long as it fit within the guidelines. The rules were nolonger spoken either. Thanks to tremendous help from Summer, Jacob, and Noah, our rules of conduct were placed in a document entitled “The BLB” spanning 19 pages long and consisting of well over 40 paragraphs; it covered nearly any question or concern faced by our guys. I stared out over the crowd; still awaiting silence. Most everyone had received their blue shirts now. It was an amazing sight really; a sea of blue right before me; and I was sailing it. Noah had offered to dye my shirts yellow or green to symbolize leadership; but I had refused. I was no better than anyone else. I was part of the blue. “Many of you have had the chance to read through the BLB,” I said; still walking up and down through the rows of guys. “I have Noah and a couple others working on copying the rulings onto other sheets so as to be better distributed, but it will take time.” I let this sink in some more. I spotted Albert and Summer near the back of the group; Albert whispering questions to her; much to her delight. I didn’t mind it. “And to those who have read it… you know that this is the foundation for missions. What you do, where you go, what you say… the framework is all there.” Suddenly the crowds erupted with questions; with masters quickly interjecting to silence their guys. Calvin was among them; his apprentices were all friends of his; granted much less mature ones though. “However,” I stated. “You will not enter any mission or come into contact with any person of interest without my knowledge. You’re master is responsible for locating a threat. And he then must approach me for confirmation. Is that understood?” “Yes, Jonathan,” came the calls - or perhaps it was more of a chant. “Winter break won’t last forever; and neither will this decent weather. When school returns; I need you guys to be prepped and ready; so that the whole school will know what we stand for. Is that understood?” “Yes, Jonathan,” came the calls once more. Suddenly a hand shot up in the air; Albert’s hand. For a moment I contemplating ignoring the gesture; but as I gazed over at Summer; I saw her grinning; urging me to respond. “Yes Albert,” I finally said. The crowds’ attention turned towards Albert and he quickly became nearly overcome with anxiety. “W-what about n-names,” he struggled to utter. “Excuse me?” Cme my reply; with Albert’s cheeks looking flushed as he struggled to find the right words. “Go on,” Summer whispered to him; though everyone could hear her over the silence. “L-like a name for us,” Albert finally clarified. No doubt Summer was behind this question; she had been bothering me with the name issue for some time now. Now the crowds’ attention went back to me; younger guys beginning to shout out name options; with some of the older ones interjecting with their own more “mature” options. “Blue Avengers!” Shouted a dark haired boy from the back of the group. “Freedom Fighters!” squealed a younger boy nearby. The names flew left and right and I could only stand stupidly as the comments began to bury me. I was beginning to learn things about myself. I was a decent speaker when I had things planned; but the moment things took a spin or questions were asked of me; my mouth became sewn shut and my mind froze. Now here I was; my brain feeling colder than ever as I stared blankly at the invisible words hurtling at me. “Guys settle…” my mouth finally said. “Listen… we are so much more than fighters… we can do more than that… we are not mindless machines… we are… we all work differently and uniquely… giving us a name would only tie us down.” I let the crowds try and digest this for a moment; though they couldn’t seem to stomach it and before long; more names began to spill out. Then suddenly a new voice; a familiar one; Jacob’s as he worked his way out from the crowd. “They’re right ya know boss?” he said with a shrug. “And you’re right too. But here’s the thing. We may all fight, train, think, and act differently, but we all share that same dream as you. The want to spark, sustain, and combust. You are the S.S.C, and so are we.” I found no words; leaving Jacob to turn to the crowd. “What do ya say boys?” he shouted; his hands raised triumphantly. “We were, are, and always will be S.S.C… it’s the thing we all share! The words we all live by!” The troops smiled; none more so than Noah; who started clapping, setting off a chain reaction. My eyes were seemingly frosted over; watching the groups as they cheered the name; my name. They were me. I was them. “S.S.C!” Came a chant from Calvin. Soon his friends joined the effort. “S.S.C,” it was belted out again. “S.S.C,” and again. “S.S.C,” and once more. “S.S.C! S.S.C! S.S.C!” and on and on again. We are the S.S.C; the flame that burns strong and bright.

Puzzle:

The following days were filled with requests from every single group of fighters within the S.S.C. Every master thought their apprentices ready to fight, and every apprentice approved of their masters’ abilities to lead them. But for the very first mission to ever be carried out by an official S.S.C, I wanted to be present; and most likely present for the next several ones as well. I had trained these people, I’d seen them grow, I’d befriended them; and letting them all loose to do whatever they pleased was a load of stress my mind was not yet ready to bare. Flags had been very vocal about wanting to work with his apprentices to rough up some targets that had been dealing with drugs near the football field; under the bleachers. And while I appreciated the enthusiasm; I had to tell him to wait for a better time; in which we had the supplies and plans put together. And so now here I stood with one of the units; led by a friend of mine named Teddy; and his four apprentices. They had shown up to nearly every day of training and their ability to follow orders and work together was second to none. I could think of no better unit to head such an attack; well - except for perhaps the Origins themselves. We were meeting at my house. Noah and Flags had shown up as well to give input as we began to piece things together. I felt like an army commander straight out of the movies; with Teddy taking a seat at my large dining table and spreading a crudely drawn map of the town before me. I was a tad bit humbled really; this many people had never sat with me at my table before. The S.S.C was becoming my new family and I did not regret that in the slightest. Teddy began to go over plans once more so that Noah and Flags could figure out what was going on. Teddy’s troops huddled closely over their master’s shoulder; remaining silent. “Those two friends of Ivan,” Teddy began. “The ones that didn’t show up to the park on the night of your first attack. We’ve managed to track them down. Turns out they got into a pretty intense argument with Ivan just a few days prior to your attack. Even though they nolonger talk to Ivan and his other guys; they still act about the same. I don’t think we need to go into details about what that could mean.” Flags mumbled something under his breath for a moment; though I could not make it out; he seemed slightly angered; I wondered if it was about me picking this mission over his. Teddy pointed to the tool shack behind the school and ran his finger down a dotted line leading towards the Magna Oil fields. “The two meet up at the shack almost every day,” he stated. “They smoke some cigarettes and then head over to the fields.” He pointed persistently at the line as well as ushering our attention to the roads. “We need to cut them off before they reach the fields. Not only that but we need to make sure we aren’t in ear or eyeshot of the roads. And we can’t attack them at the shack; it’s too close to the school; we’d risk a custodian hearing us.” I nodded in agreement; expecting more; but Teddy soon leaned back in his chair; awaiting our thoughts. “Well…” I began; unsure of where to begin. “I had admittedly expected a bit more. Like ideas on how to attack them, where to hide, etcetera, yet there was no more. In a way I wished Jacob were here/ He was clearly much better and speaking off the top of his head. “That’s it?” Flags said; looking up and Teddy; somewhat annoyed. “You brought this map and your guys here just to point at a line and vaguely tell us we need to attack them?” “Calm down Flags,” I said passively; returning to my gaze of the paper. But Flags would not be silenced so easily; now focusing on me. “Johnny come on,” he scolded. “My team is handling the bigger picture here. We could eliminate drugs from the school campus. We have a better strategy, a better team, and a bigger impact!” “Which is precisely why we’re not ready to deal with it yet;” I countered. “We start with the low tasks; we work our way up to the bigger ones. Patience is key to this and I need to know you’re gonna treat that with respect.” Flags almost seemed to blush; he didn’t like to be spoken to like this in front of Teddy and his guys. He’d gotten used to unconditional respect. I stared up at him from my seat; waiting for him to settle. He gave me a brief glare, shook his head, and looked back at the map. “Fine,” he murmured quickly. Thankfully Noah worked to ease the tension; pointing back to the map and offering tips. “There are hills right here at the end of the road,” he began. “We can take them on there.” “We’ve checked that area,” Teddy replied. “It’s barren of any trees or bushes; they’d see us coming. Even though our numbers are larger, I still want to minimize injuries.” Once again Flags seemed to want to say something; but he held his tongue. With Noah unsure how to solve the problem; my eyes went to work on the map; delicately surveying each square inch; getting a mental picture of the area in my head. I had drove past that road almost every day on my way to school. I knew that road; I knew that area. My eyes moved frantically from place to place, I began mentally picturing us in the area; and there we were, almost like one of Summer’s paintings; or a still photograph of us place by place. Situations ran through my head, Teddy’s voice became distant, my thoughts were both clear and cluttered; flying around my brain in a sort of chaos that only I could understand; a puzzle where every piece led to the next. Then… just like that… there it was. “I got it,” I finally said. “We use the hills as cover.” “Too close to the road,” Flags reminded me. “You mean the bumpy back road with slippery ice patches and constant pile-ups?” I asked with a grin. “Listen, I drove down that road in the snow for an entire semester. The pile-ups are regular and expected. If we wait for just the tiniest bit of ice, we can have a couple of our guys with cars fake a little slip-up. Traffic will be cut down; never reaching the hills. We hide behind them and wait for the two to show up. Then BOOM, we got’em.” Teddy’s mouth hung open comedically as his apprentices whispered amongst themselves. My idea ever clammed up the skeptical Flags. Noah grinned and looked up at Teddy. “That’s why he’s the boss.”

Operation Choke:

It had lightly drizzled snow this morning. I awoke to the cold silence of my house; realizing I’d have to start a fire here soon. I shifted out of bed and shuffled my way to the window; staring out over the lightly snow coated surroundings. I knew almost immediately that Teddy would call soon; letting me know that now would be the best time to start the attack. I quickly put clothes on and waited by the phone. Sure enough; one of Teddy’s apprentices called; stating that his master was rallying the others and putting the finishing touches on the mission at hand. Noah had been notified to come along if he wished as a spectator. Meanwhile I was tasked with pulling together some masters with cars and instructed them on when and how to make it seem like their vehicles and spun out of control. Before I knew it; I was already decked out in light winter garb; staring out at the road near the hills. In my pocket sat a relatively new piece of “equipment” a toy walkie talkie provided by Teddy’s younger brother. We found it to be our best bet at relaying information while outdoors; though connection was terrible; as was the quality of sound. Nevertheless it was capable of contacting multiple sources at once, making it vital to our plans to cut the traffic down to a halt. Finally there was a call; the voice seemed to be Teddy himself; it was the first time I had heard from him all day. “Boss we just spotted the two guys,” came a crackling voice over the speaker. “Understood,” I called back; feeling somewhat nervous that Noah had yet to arrive. The goal was for Teddy and his guys to handle the mission themselves. I was not supposed to fight alongside them - it was simply upon me to oversee the fight and offer assistance if needed. It hurt my stomach actually - feeling almost helpless in a way I hadn’t felt since Brice. “Johnathan?” Came a voice from just over the hill. It was Noah. I waved him over. “Not too late am I?” He asked. “No,” I responded; now turning to my walkie talkie. “Choke team. Teddy and his guys have spotted the targets. They aren’t moving yet. Start your cars and wait for my signal to head out.” “You think we can cut off the road long enough?” Noah asked. Honestly I was not sure; time was my biggest fear in this situation. Noah understood my silence and waited patiently for another call. A little part of me wanted the mission to be called off - or maybe the Origins could rush in and swipe the two guys off their feet. Just like that it would be over. No fear of injuries or failures. Noah must’ve seen my worried expression, because he began to speak; but his voice was cut off with the sound of the walkie-talkie once more. “They’re on the move!” Came a crackling voice. “We’re running over to the hills now. They won’t spot us if we make a loop. We should be just fast enough to get to you on time.” “Good job Teddy,” I replied; keeping my stressed voice down to a minimum. “Chock team; you get all that?” “Loud and clear boss,” came a reply; though the “clear” part was most likely a lie. Noah and I laid on our stomachs now to minimize any chance of being spotted by cars or the targets. Sure enough I heard light screeching on the roads behind us and turned back to find our chock crew cutting off the road by veering their cars horizontally across it; two cars worked like a charm and we had thankfully pulled it off without any incoming cars seeing the deed. Driving around the cars was equally restricting; with large pits next to the road making it impossible for cars to traverse them. Now the clock had really begun; it was only a matter of time until angry drivers started pushing the cars out of the way or the police were called to help with the mess. My heart began to beat; I tried focusing on the side of Noah’s face from time to time, he seemed to calm compared to me. I wondered what his secret was to keeping such a cool head. It felt good to be with part of the original crew again. Flags was usually too busy training to meet with me and Mask was also quite similar; with his unit being strictly trained almost four times a day. My ears suddenly picked up on rapidly increasing footsteps; my mouth spread open and my mind began to reach that familiar blankness. We had been caught! We must’ve been spotted! And now here I was lying on the ground; susceptible to anything - anyone! “It’s Teddy and his guys,” Noah whispered to me; giving that fearless glance I had come to expect from him. I breathe a sigh of relief; looking to my left to confirm that they were sprinting to our sides, getting down on their stomachs and awaiting the targets. Teddy had come equipped with some binoculars that also belonged to his brother. The view allowed him to eye the targets from a fair distance away, long before I could distinctly make out their presence. My eyes darted back and forth between the incoming targets and the road. Two cars had already piled up behind our faked spin; and drivers were looking annoyed at the inconvenience. As instructed; the two S.S.C troopers were told to have a fake argument to stall the incident as long as possible. Closer and closer the targets came until eventually I could spot their faces. My stomach tightened a bit, I remembered them from that day with Brice. And that pain was soon replaced with something else. Not so much sorrow and not so much fear. But anger - just sheer anger as my brows furrowed and I recalled their snickering faces. They had gotten out easy by not being at that park, but their time had come. “Do it,” I whispered just as the enemies reached the foot of the hill. For a split second one heard my faint voice; staring up and seeing our heads peeking over the side of that hill. But there was nothing they could do. Teddy and his troops stood from the left and sprinted down the hill; reaching the base with enough speed to knock the targets to the ground. Noah watched the fight closely and my eyes were once again drawn back to the crash. Three more cars had appeared with two more not much farther away. I was sweating now; even through my winter garb. Teddy got one of the targets in a choke hold as the other lept away from the four apprentices and managed to stand; cursing and throwing large exaggerated punches; one striking an apprentice clean in the jaw; sending him down. Teddy; distracted by this unexpected turn of events; loosened his grip on the other target; allowing him to break free, spin around, and kick him hard in the stomach. Teddy reeled over in pain as the distant sounds of cop cars echoed in the distance; we were moving to slow. One of Teddy’s troops kicked a target in the back; sending him collapsing forward on his face before being pinned down by two others. The other one had begun running up the hill; hoping to seek refuge near the crowded road, but it was of no use. Teddy - now recovered from his injury grabbed hold of the target’s ankle, sending him face planting into the ground just like his friend. The target rose his face to look up as he was dragged back by Teddy. For a split second he saw my face; looking down at him. His eyes widened and a sick sneer appeared on his face. “You’re dead for this!” He shouted! The cop sirens grew louder. “You hear me!” He shouted again. “You’re dead!” With those final words; Teddy dragged him the rest of the way down; where the two other apprentices held him to the dirt and swiftly struck him in the back of the head; slowly but surely knocking him out. The other target was finished similarly nearby. At last Noah rose to his feet and slid down the hill; giving Teddy a warm embrace and patting the other troops on their backs. “Perfect!” He stated. “Couldn’t have asked for more!” He was exaggerating of course, but he was happy nonetheless; as were they. The apprentices rose their fists triumphantly and then gave quick salutes to their master and then to me. I slowly gave one in response, but my mind was in a different place. A place where these “targets” would really take revenge on me and to those I cared about. You’re dead, it echoed through me over and over again. “What do we do with them?” Teddy asked as the cop cars finally reached the scene. I stared down at the two for a moment before crouching to one’s side. I looked at his face for some time. Justice had indeed finally been served, but I still felt an emptiness weighing on me. “Uh… boss?” came Teddy’s voice once more. “They’re dressed warm,” I stated; pointing down to their thick jackets. “Push them together and fix their hoods on tightly; that’ll keep them warm enough until they wake up.” Teddy’s troops obliged and I carefully turned back towards the road. The two troopers were still arguing with one another as cars honked angrily from behind and cops told them to settle down. I raised my hand in the air and gave a quick wave; signaling the deed was done. And just like that the troopers stopped their fighting and the cars were turned back around. I sat on the edge of that hill for a while and although he’d intended to leave with Teddy and his group, he noted my hesitance and stayed back with me. “Time is flying,” I said as Noah came closer. It was lightly snowing again. “One minute we’re fighting… the next minute… silence.” Truly it amazed me at the speed of the operation. Had our first mission been as fast? I didn’t bother asking. “Don’t let these guys get to you,” Noah said as he gestured to the downed foes. “They’re just a couple of unborns with nothing else to turn to… hopefully we’ve changed that.” I nodded; though I wasn’t necessarily sure I agreed. My eyebrows raised and I turned to Noah for a moment. “How do you do it?” I asked, much to his confusion. “How do you stay so level-headed… no fear… no stress.” Noah thought on the matter for a while and brushed back his hair. “You remember the real me,” Noah finally said; almost with a hint of reluctance. “That old me who slaved away at the diner as he was berated by kids and teens alike… I saw first-hand what it was like to be Brice… what it was like to be many good people at our school. And yet I refused to take a stand for myself.” Noah paused, getting a tad bit emotional as he turned away from me. “That’s the real me. And time has moved so fast that… that… well I may have changed on the outside but inside Jonathan… inside I’m terrified.” I finally stood and walked to his side. “You’ve grown more than any of us,” I said honestly. “Sometimes I get so worked up with what I’m trying to do that I forget what everyone else had to leave behind to make my dreams come true.” I looked up at the snow for a second. “You’re a brother to me Noah,” I said. “We’ll be terrified together.”

Behind the Curtain:

News of our victory spread fast throughout the S.S.C. Orders flew at me left and right; everyone wanted to be next up to the plate. After the stress of Operation Choke however; I thought it best I wait a couple days before accepting another mission. I was at my house now; still avoiding the occasional calls; being careful to note whether or not their pattern reflected that of Summer. A difficult challenge to say the least. It was a bitterly cold day that morning and I busied myself starting a fire. Carefully and steadily and whisked the flint and steel together onto a small piece of tissue paper; plowing slowly at the fumes to create blossoming flame. The smoke rose, the spark began to grow and shine and just as I was prepared to let it rise; there was a sudden knock at the door. Obviously not Summer. “Damn,” I muttered; tossing the paper into the fireplace and coming to the door. “Who is it?” I called from my end. “It’s Elvis Presley!” Calvin’s voice mocked from the other end. “I opened the door; finding Calvin half-frozen in my doorway; his nose and ears even redder than the blossoming flame from earlier. “Christ Calvin,” I exclaimed; pulling him in as his teeth chattered. “You have a death wish?” Calvin grinned and stood in front of the empty fireplace. “I rushed over,” he said slightly out of breath. “Didn’t have time to put on a coat like a sane person.” I raised my eyebrow and signaled for him to continue. “Nobody's told you yet right?” Calvin asked. “Everyone is telling me everything,” I remarked sarcastically; once again trying to start the flame so Calvin wouldn’t freeze. “It’s about Flags,” Calvin said. “He told some sewer that he and his apprentices were gonna take on those druggies by the football court. Guy spilled his guts after Mask questioned him a bit. I tried to call but you never answered. If you wanna tag along to make sure things turn out alright; then you better get going.” The flint dropped from my hands and I quickly stood to face Calvin. “He did what?” I exclaimed; teeth barred. Calvin was confused now; staring at me almost like a stranger. “I told that idiot to wait for permission! He’s gonna get himself hurt!” Calvin rested his hands on the fireplace and smiled. “Relax Johnny, he’ll be fine. Since when were you the master of fighting huh?” My mouth and eyes tightened at the remark. “Get out’a here Calvin, I need to move!” Calvin seemed almost insulted by the remark, yet continued out the door regardless and packed himself into his car. “Need a lift?” Calvin shouted from his window. “No,” I called back as I stepped into mine. “I need to talk to Flags myself.” My car sped out of the lot and raced through the streets. I was feeling it again; that empty rage-like feeling. That feeling of betrayal. My eyes narrowed and my hands stuck to the wheel with a death-grip. Turn after turn I could feel the anger beginning to boil up; readying to spill over. I eventually reached the school parking lot. Flag’s motorcycle was there; as was a car most likely driven by one of his apprentices. They had beaten me here. I quickly hopped out and slammed the door behind me; sprinting into the football courtyard. Cold wind blew through my ears; deafening me to my surroundings. That was until sounds of cheering emanated from behind the leftmost bleachers. I recognized cries of victory like that. We had won; but at what cost. Sure enough I worked my way over the gait and slipped beneath the bleachers; finding Flags and his apprentices patting eachother on the back and snickering at the several downed foes. Two apprentices clutched their forearm and head respectively; bearing signs of them being throws harshly into the concrete. Flags was oblivious to their pain. “Flags!” I shouted out through the cold; my breath expelling like a dragon beast. The clapping stopped immediately; with Flag’s apprentices looking at eachother with a sudden fear and uncertainty. Flags merely smiled and cautiously approached me; his hands raised as if to demonstrate his innocence. “It was a victory,” Flags said calmly; glancing at the downed enemies. I strode up to him now; looking him now; squaring myself up to his taller and bulkier frame and looking him straight in the eye. “That isn’t the point!” I shouted. “We work together as a team! Not just you and your unit! We are ALL one; everybody! You had to permission t-” “Johnny come on,” Flags said; still grinning. “You’re gonna wake up the whole neighborhood.” “Don’t you give me orders,” I said; scowling. Flag’s smile suddenly dropped from his face. “You endangered yourself, your apprentices, and the S.S.C as a whole,” I lectured. “I don’t care if you're part of the Origins or not! You are subject to the same rules as everyone else!” “I’m protecting the kids around here!” Flags shouted back as his apprentices crept away out of sight. “We make our own demons!” I exclaimed. “Doing this right now will only make more! Protection through risk is no way to operate!” “We are the S.S.C, Jonathan! We are risk!” My palms were sweating now and my head begin to spill over with thoughts of rage. I had to say something now to make him feel  just as idiotic as he seemed. “I was going to accept your mission idea tomorrow!” I lied; holding stark eye contact with Flags. Now Flags was quiet for a moment; absorbing what I had said; but still locking his gaze with mine. My lie reverberated through my head for a while. Would I ever have accepted this? Would I have really been useful? Was Flags right? Was I right? Blue eyes. Crystal blue eyes staring at me. My gaze on Flags suddenly broke; and now it was as if he could see right through me. “You’re lying,” he said flatly. His glare held strong and I began to shrink away; unable to look at his face anymore. It was as if I was nolonger in control of my own body. “You lied to me,” Flags said again; raising his bruised-up hand to my face and pointing accusingly. “I can tell when you lie Johnny,” he boomed. “Don’t you ever lie to me.” My heart quaked and my jaw shook with coldness. Flags waited there a while; as if wanting to say more; maybe do more, but eventually turned his back and stormed off to his apprentices who were watching in awe nearby. It was like going back in time. Seeing myself walk away from Brice; leaving him feeling helpless… feeling cold… betrayed… Flags looked back once; but I still couldn’t stand to look him in the eyes. They were to blue for my liking; too familiar. I stood there and remained there. His eyes were blue… weren’t they?

Distractions:

I hated rumors. I always had and I always would. In some ways I suppose the S.S.C never would have reached it’s peak without them. Rumors spread the good, the truths, the meaning, the effort. But more often than not, they spread the bad as well. The embellishments, the falsities, the outright lies. It wasn’t long until everyone within the S.S.C knew about my argument with Flags. It was nothing I was proud of. I knew he meant well; but sometimes it seemed as if I was the only one who saw the big picture. And although this detoured members from making similar mistakes as Flags, I was well aware that it was only a matter of time until it happened again. Calvin would not always be there to fill me in on those who were slipping through the cracks. I needed a deterrent, and I knew just where to begin. “Hey guys settle down!” Jacob clamored as some routy apprentices took their seats. We were of course in the field again; almost everyone had been ordered to show up simultaneously for this important meeting. It was the largest turnout I had ever seen; that ocean of blue growing vaster. There were just as many familiar faces as there were the new. This was my best; and perhaps final attempt at sating their hunger for action. Calvin and several other masters were called to my sides; their hands positioned behind their backs with a strict formal posture. The apprentices were to know that this meant business. Flags had “conveniently” missed this meeting. Jacob gave me a thumbs up and I began to speak. “Many of you know about the… unpleasantness as of recently,” I began. “We as the S.S.C have already made a decent number of enemies. It is my job as leader to make sure that those numbers never reach a point in which we find ourselves outmatched.” No one dared speak; I hoped it wasn’t out of fear. “Winter break has only a mere two days left before we pour back into that school. What awaits us there is unknown. But I refuse to let our ranks fall into anarchy as we hunt down whatever threat we see fit. We are better than that.” Summer was sitting nearby; nodding in agreement. “Which is why I am establishing new jobs for both the younger and the older. The school needs much more than protection against attackers. Imagine if we set up a messaging unit; people capable of delivering messages to and fro between members. They’d have to be fast; but we can’t always rely on cheap walkie-talkies.” This at least brought about a brief laugh. “It can be used for regular students to. We need to be on their good side. Delivering their notes back and forth to establish a trust and to let them know that we are not the enemy!” I saw Calvin look at me oddly through the corner of my eye. “Imagine a unit of builders… people who can craft tools for us on a massive scale… both for combat and group effectiveness. You are a smart bunch; if you want your ideas to be noted, then it’s time for you to show those ideas!” There was some clapping and excited glances coming my way now. “An expense team; a unit dedicated to the purchase or procurement of new and better gear! Look down at yourselves! Those shirts you wear would never have been available if not for Noah’s dedication to providing us with materials to help us unite!” Even more positive feedback as the masses shifted in anticipation. “Or a unit of spies,” I stated. “Those who know how to be silent yet effective. Finding and taking down enemies won’t always be so black and white! We need eyes around the school - around the whole town! People to look between the lines at those gray areas and report back to us!” I had them now; all of them it seemed. Summer clapped excitedly for me along with a few others as Noah gave a genuinely wide smile. “But the only way for these units, and by extension - this organization to stay in one piece is for everyone to do their part in building it! Master and apprentice alike! When separated we are nothing but a drop of blue in a world full of grey, but when we’re together; we can flow, and whip, and flood! We can wash away the gray areas and paint the whole town blue! That’s who we are! And that is what we always shall be!” The masses cheered louder and louder still; questions flying left and right as everyone began to ponder their place within the S.S.C. I couldn’t help but smile over them; seeing Albert speak frantically with a kid his age while Jacob offered a nod of approval in my direction. Yet my smile could not hold forever; there was still a nagging at me; that subtle feeling of dread. I turned around and my eyes met Calvin’s. He still stared at me almost in disbelief. You can’t please everyone. My mind said. But there it was; nagging at me with that phantasmic force of emptiness. Persisting, growing, spreading like a virus that could outrun the blue.

The Dead Man:

“I’m telling you Jacob, his eyes were practically drilling holes into the back of my head,” I exclaimed as we drove past the Magna Oil workers. It was the first day back to school and the cold had prevented Jacob’s car from starting up. “Did you ask him what his deal was?” Jacob asked; looking out at the field to see workers busily shoveling snow and lifting pipes up into place. “No,” I replied. “Figured I’d had enough arguing for at least a week.” “I see it like this,” Jacob said. “You’ve created an S.S.C constitution and now you’re setting up specialized units. You’ve taken this group from 0 to 100 and maybe that’s just too much for some people. That’s their problem, not yours. I know Noah loved the idea; said he’s interested in having a leading hand in the messaging department. I think I’ll just stick to training and recruitment.” “Agreed,” I replied quickly as I noted the school coming up just from over the horizon. I swallowed hard and my face remained tightly faced forward. “Nervous huh?” Jacob asked with a quick laugh. “You know you really are terrible at hiding your intentions. No wonder Flags caught your lie.” “Shut up,” I joked. “I’m just hoping I can make it through a normal day… same with the rest of them. They’ve never operated at the school. They only know life during the free days of Winter Break. Who knows what’ll be waiting for us there… angry instructors, some hot-headed bully, the police-” “Ivan,” Jacob interrupted. “I believe I covered that category,” I said; brushing off the remark. Jacob nodded and we stayed quiet for the rest of the ride. I didn’t like it; knowing we were both afraid of the same thing. But I knew if push came to shove; I’d face Ivan again and beat him again. My usual empty parking spot was now flanked by cars; many - of not all of them belonging to S.S.C members. Near the entrance I saw a couple masters talking to their respective apprentices; laying out ground rules and other details. Two teens a couple years younger than me had climbed a tree nearby and were looking down upon the courtyard. “Looks like we have the beginnings of a spy unit,” I said; but Jacob had already worked his way indoors. I tried to follow him; but was quickly pulled to the side by Teddy and another master. “We’ve been working with Mask and Noah to set up units and give them parameters that’ll let them do their job without looking suspicious,” Teddy spealed. I gave a quick - almost embarrassed nod. Really I was just worried about what sort of “grey” eyes might be watching. “That’s good,” I told him. “We start small. Once the school starts seeing us as a friend; we can begin working faster. I’ll be the one to tell you when that time comes.” “Yes sir,” the two replied; offering salutes. I quickly grabbed their arms and yanked them back to their sides. “None of that here,” I whispered. “Too soon.” Teddy and the other master eventually left me to enter the school on my own. The halls seemed different now - bigger perhaps. My steps were both with pride and hesitance. To my left; where the corridor opened to reveal the primary gathering of students; I noted many familiar faces; some master, some apprentices, there was Jacob giving some kid a noogie. But to my left; where the hall remained somewhat barren and rigid; I saw the unfamiliar; those faces who looked up at me; their eyes and mouths silent. Could they know who I was? What I’d done? And so it was, a right step of pride, and a left step of fear. I felt almost alone; crazy Jonathan Coldwel hobbling down the hallway; looking for his next victim. For the first time in awhile, I actually wanted apprentices to rush me for questions, or perhaps have Calvin grapple me into some pointless conversation on cars or shed repairs. But there was nothing; perhaps my strictness was working against me. Suddenly the hairs on my neck stood up on end, my heart froze, and my jaw locked into place. The frozen statue of Jonathan Coldwel stayed cemented in the center of the hall; gazing infinitely forward as the lumbering figure of ivan and two of his friends came striding toward me; eyes dead set on me. They knew who I was, and there was no fighting that. Ivan’s face showed no bruising, but a couple slight cuts protracted around his forehead and left cheek. His face seemed almost split in half; one side scowling - eye squinted, the other side grinning - eye fiery and alert. My footing held; though that was not my decision. Ivan and the others stopped a mere three feet in front of me and Ivan looked me up and down for some time. He focused a long while on my eyes, seemingly matching them with the teen who had beaten him up weeks prior. I was sure he hadn’t forgotten. “Well if it isn’t the big man himself,” Ivan sneered; his friends not even bothering to laugh; instead watching me; just waiting to pounce at a moment’s notice. Tension was growing and eyes were focusing on us from all directions. “There’s a lot I could say to you Johnny,” Ivan said; growing closer to me and leaning down a bit so as to see me eye-to-eye. “So much I could do to you…” I didn’t back away; but I dared not speak. “But,” Ivan remarked simply. “You’ve heard it all before. You’re a dead man walking. You’ve made some extraordinary enemies Johnny and you made a severe mistake of making me one of them.” His friends were grinning now; their hands balled up into fists. Noah and Jacob were not far behind them; preparing to attack if needed. “If I were you,” Ivan continued. “I wouldn’t even watch my back. You’ll only delay a very, very, VERY painful end.” With those final words; Ivan turned around and slowly walked away; his buddys not far behind; one turned back and jutted his fist near my face for a closer examination. It was battered and bruised; the skin somewhat peeled in areas. “See you around, dead man!” He shouted. And just like that they were gone. I gained control of my legs again, gave a silent glance at the crowds, and continued walking down the hall. There goes crazy old Jonathan Coldwel - hobbling down the hallway to death row. There goes the dead man - his lips turning blue and his stare growing colder.

Shining:

The rest of that day was hardly much better. I thankfully never spotted Ivan or his friends a second time, but the units I had established were already working a bit to hard to gain student approval. It was still the talk of the school; and I didn’t know how to feel about it. I had entered one of my classes only to find two S.S.C troopers establishing a messaging system; telling some kids to contact them if they wanted a message delivered to someone else on the premises. Another time I had found some S.S.C troopers drawing up what seemed to be crude schematics of some kind; “An idea for a weapon,” he had told me before going right back to work drawing up his idea where practically any classmate or enemy could notice it had they wanted to. Summer had tried to cheer me up during lunch; but I could not help but worry for the troops as well as for myself. When the school day ended at last; I was at least allowed to breath a sigh of relief that no unprecedented fight had broken out. Moreover I was happier to be reminded that my car was protected by an outer layer of S.S.C soldier’s vehicles. Ivan wouldn’t dare attack me with a unit to back me up, he’d wait till I was alone. As I grew near my car; I noted Calvin leaning up against it; looking out at the baseball diamond not far off. He must have sensed my presence to some degree; for he turned his head and have me a wave as I approached. His face seemed stone-cold; devoid of happiness and sadness. “We need to talk,” Calvin said; gesturing for me to follow him over to the empty baseball diamond. I gave a light sigh and followed behind him. I knew better than to argue with someone like Calvin. “What am I in trouble for?” I asked; trying to lighten the mood. We finally reached a place where we could not be seen by onlookers. Calvin reached into his pocket and in a sweeping gesture, scooped out a fistful of dollars and coins. “This,” he said through his teeth. “Jeez Calvin,” I said. “How much is that?” “Over 20 dollars!” Calvin said; his eyes narrowed much like mine were previously. My mouth sat open and I waited for Calvin to speak; yet there was nothing. “Where did you find that kind of money?” I finally said. “It’s not mine,” Calvin clarified. He suddenly stretched out his hand and dropped the large sum of cash into my open palms. “It’s yours.” I was speechless now. “I was approached by over 15 guys today,” Calvin stated. “Most of them masters… even a few apprentices. Apparently some rumor came up that our ‘expense team’ was to give money to me for transport to you.” Calvin showed little effort in concealing his disgust at mention the expense team. “I never would have expected this much… definitely not on the first day,” I mumbled; still struck by confusion. “This isn’t right!” Calvin exclaimed; throwing his hands up for a brief second before quickly retracting and leaning back against the walls to the baseball diamond; staring up at the clouds. “Calvin,” I said sternly; pocketing the funds. “Donating resources in their choice; not mine.” “But it was you that laid the groundwork for all this,” Calvin corrected. “Don’t think you can hide your intentions from me, John. I see exactly what you’re doing.” I was growing upset with his vagueness. “And just what is it I am doing?” I asked. “You’re trying to distract these guys from going on more missions. You are trying to prevent another Flags incident by waiving shiny objects in front of everyone’s face! A messaging team? A spy team? An expense team? Hell, a team to make you weapons and provide you with more tools? Just how far are you willing to go to keep a leash on these guys?” Calvin rubbed his temple with exhaustion. He wasn’t so much angry as he was annoyed. “Calvin,” I stammered. “I’m just doing my best to keep people in line. If we are going to make this group last… we need to establish a system for procuring data, tools, and yes - even money. I’ve put them on a ‘leash’ for their own good.” “John,” Calvin said solemnly as he turned to me. “I think it’s time I told you something.” I slowly nodded and let him speak. “When I first agreed to join the S.S.C,” he began. “I was under the impression we’d take down Ivan and his whole crew, adjust some other issues around the school, and when peace finally came, the S.S.C would dissolve away and we’d be there to look back and appreciate it all. I never knew you planned on keeping it alive…” Calvin trailed off. “Indefinitely?” I said for him. Calvin shook his head in a quiet agreement. “We can’t do this forever,” he said; eyes closed. “Somebody will get hurt… our goal as an organization needs to be to drop out while we’re ahead… I know we haven’t reached that point yet… there is still a lot of scum in this school… but the day will come when Ivan will submit and every other teen and kid growing up to be like Ivan will submit along with him. And when that day comes… the S.S.C has no right to hover over the heads of this town; just waiting to strike at the drop of a pin.” “Christ Calvin,” I replied. “We’re not overlords. We’re just doing our job.” “But can we do it forever?” Calvin asked; turning to me now; his eyes almost sunken and his skin somewhat pale. “Can we really? Should we really?” I was speechless for a brief while; unsure what to say to sate him. But my mind was still far too cluttered with more work that needed to be done. “Now isn’t the time for this,” I finally replied. “We’ll discuss this issue another time. Okay?” Calvin didn’t seem to want to agree with me; but he had no more to argue. “Alright John,” he finally said. “Another time.”

Ladder:

The school week went on with similar struggles and similar boosts of moral. Units were still finding their footing and the messaging system was still making special rules and regulations in order to achieve maximum privacy. Finances were still coming in as well, with a little over 9 dollars finding it’s way into my hands. I hadn’t spent any of it yet; I wasn’t sure where to begin. It was getting much colder out now; I soon moved from wearing light jackets to heavy coats. Training had went from exhausting to almost claustrophobic. You can imagine my exhaustion as I drove home from practice one Thursday afternoon; finding Uncle Stew sitting on the edge of his pickup truck; a cigarette hanging loosely from his mouth. His usual smile was replaced by a grim and empty stare - it reminded me a little too much of Calvin. My muscles and head were aching, but Stew didn’t seem to care. Without so much as a word he hopped into the back of the truck and started throwing wood into a nearby dwindling pile. “About time you got here,” he said gruffly. I adjusted my coat and ignored the powdery white flakes of snow. “I was… busy,” I replied vaguely before hopping into the truck with him and tossing some off along with him. Stew was quiet for a while; I knew this meant he was thinking about something - something serious. I attempted to avoid eye contact and start up a few sub-topics, but none of them stuck. My arms were beginning to visibly shake; not from the cold, but from exhaustion and overuse. Stew was slowing down too; but I soon realized he was doing it on purpose to test me. I quickly rubbed the pain from my arms every time he looked away and tried to hide the pain from my face; but eventually I met my match as I attempted to lift a large piece of oak from a pile. The heavy chunk sat uneasily in my hands and my limbs began to ache and strain to rise it any higher. With a sudden puff of air and moan of agony; the log slipped from my hands and crashed to the base of the truck; almost smashing my foot. Stew finally stopped to throw a log down before ditching the cigarette and turning to me. “You’re tired,” he said. I only nodded quietly and attempted to lift the log once more. Stew suddenly held it down with his foot. “I’ve heard some stories,” Stew said in a dead-serious tone. “Buddy of mine up north said his boy and his friend got attacked by some students on their way to the Magna Oil field.” My eyes darted nervously away to the ground as I recalled one of the two targets from Operation Choke seeing my face. “And that wannabe farmer Arthur was raving at the bar one night about catching some teens training in his field one afternoon.” “Uncle Stew,” I mumbled. “It’s nothing, really.” “You’re not denying it,” Stew pointed out. I wouldn’t dare lie to my uncle. He was all that kept me alive and allowed me the pleasantries of heat and electricity. And so I simply remained quiet; staring down at my feet as I searched for words in my head. The snow lightly built up on the back of my head and caught itself in Stew’s scraggly beard; aging him to some degree. “It was because of that Brice kid wasn’t it?” Stew finally said; drawing back a bit and sitting down on the edge of the truck. “He was an old friend,” I admitted. “And i turned my back on him… I won’t turn my back on the rest of the school too.” Stew shook his head back and forth; taking in the truth of the situation. “You’re dad was a fighter when he was your age to,” Stew recalled. “Knocked a guy’s front teeth out for looking at him funny.” “This isn't like that,” I told him with more strength in my voice. “We don’t maim theme… we just ward them off… make them crawl back to whatever grotesque pit they climbed out of.” “And if the police get involved?” Stew inquired. “They won’t,” I said with surprising certainty. “The guys we go up against have pride in themselves. If they try and tell teachers or police; they’ll lose every ounce of respect anyone in that school has for them. They want to beat us fair and square… no outside forces needed.” Stew’s face still seemed distant and the wrinkles on his face only became more extenuated as he pondered the thought more and more. “Your girlfriend know about this?” He injured. “Summer approves,” was all I replied with. I certainly knew I couldn’t tell him she was actually a member; I still hardly believed that myself. “This is awful dangerous,” Stew sighed. “I need to know you’ll be okay.” “I have guys willing to fight by my side at a moment’s notice,” I assured him. “This is something big I’ve worked to make… and they know and respect that.” Stew seemed to brush off the statement as he reached through the truck and pulled out a large-wadded up piece of red cloth. “I know,” Stew said slowly. “But that may not always be enough.” His eyes darted up to me for a second and his hand steadily began unfolding the cloth. He peeled back the layers; finally revealing a sharp - silver switchblade resting at the core; gleaming orange as the sun began to set. Stew carefully gripped one side and handed it over to me. “Take it,” he said. My hands remained at my side. “Uncle Stew I promise I won’t ne-” “Take it,” he said again; shaking it at me. I gave a deep sigh and grabbed hold of the switchblade; tucking it into my coat pocket. “Good,” was all Stew had to say. And with that we returned to stacking the wood as the sun set and darkness took over the skies; the snow turning black along with it. Stew eventually hopped into his truck and looked at me just before he pulled out of the driveway. “Johnathan,” he said with a level of sincerity I’d never heard from him before. “Please be careful.” And he was gone. That night I threw the switchblade far beneath my bed where I’d never have to see it again. I was better than that. But part of me knew that Ivan might not use the same level of digression.

Shopping With Summer:

Summer and I strolled through the aisles of our local shopping center; she stopped for a brief moment to look at a bright green dress in the window display. “C’mon,” I said; pushing the cart further towards the back. “You don’t wanna get lost again do you?” “I’m not an idiot, Jonathan.” She laughed. “That was when I was six. I knew I never should have told you that story.” I merely smiled and turned the cart left into the toy section. “You sure they’ll have’em?” Summer said over my shoulder. “If not we’ll just have to go down to Blue Point and shop over there.” I replied. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I spotted some bright yellow packages with pictures of happy kids plastered on the front. “Walkie-talkies,” I said. “How many are we getting?” Summer asked. I fingered through the stash of donated money and plucked out a little under half of it. “However many this’ll buy,” I said. “These things hardly even work,” Summer reminded me; shaking her head at all the money we’d potentially be wasting. I walked to the shelf and began grabbing armfuls of the devices and packing them firmly into the cart. “They’re all we got. And hey, if we keep them in good condition they can be passed on to future members.” Summer offered no argument at this and grabbed a few other boxes from the shelves. Out of nowhere her head suddenly shot up and gazed down the aisle. “What is it?” I asked. “What about these?” Summer replied. She walked daintily down the aisle and took down a BB-gun from a rack. The scene was ironic really; seeing such a prim and proper girl holding a gun. I walked over and examined the box. “These things could really hurt somebody,” I told her. “Oh c’mon Johnny, these aren’t the professional ones. These were made for kids. So long as you give them to the right people I don’t foresee any great injuries.” I scanned the box a bit more and checked the hefty price. “It really would leave a mark,” I mumbled. Although I was trying to avoid it, my mind drifted back to Ivan and the others. How far could we really get with punches and walkie talkies? “Fine,” I said at last; much to Summer’s excitement. “We’ll buy about… 10 of them. The guys at the checkout lane are gonna be snowed with us.” Summer laughed and helped me take some more from the rack; leaning them together in the cart. “This is exciting,” Summer told me as we left the isle. “Exciting?” I replied; raising my eyebrow. “Don’t you think I’m just gonna give you one of these things. Your family would never allow it.” Summer’s smile broke away a bit and a streak of worry appeared over her face. “I’m surprised they even let us talk to eachother anymore. My brother is probably the most upset about it. Thankfully my mom is doing her best to smooth things over.” “If your mom can manage to put a leash on those two then I might as well make her the leader of the S.S.C. Heaven knows I can’t even control a couple of 12-year-olds.” We laughed for a while as we walked back to the front. It was good to laugh and be there with Summer. I wondered how long it’d stay that way.

Buffing:

We handed out the walkie talkies to nearly every group of masters and apprentices. I gave BB-guns to only those who I trusted most to carry them; of which included all of the members of the Origins. To save money, I tasked them with buying their own ammo. And so now as I approached that same-old field under that same-old hill; I heard the new sounds BB rounds going off. It was like a silent puff; a quick rush of wind followed by the occasional clang of a metal can be shot from posts dug into the ground. This place was really like our own little slice of paradise; growing by the day with obstacles, weights, and other various training objects brought by apprentices. I walked down and stopped to watch a few training apprentices. One spotted me a whispered of my presence to a fellow-teammate. Along the word flew until the whole unit was working faster and harder than ever before. They treated me with the respect an athlete would give to his coach. I turned away and spotted Calvin and Flags talking near their respective units. They had done this often; combining their apprentices into a sort of league; where they’d learn competition and team-work. I didn’t dare walk to close to them. Flags was still a bit sour over our argument, yet he’d still speak with me from time to time, albeit with that sort of shortness that you’d come to expect from someone still holding back some anger. And Calvin had yet to reapproach me about the bigger issue at hand; the lifespan of the S.S.C itself. Instead I approached Jacob as he watched over his apprentices like a hawk. “Down!” he called out in the crisp air. The apprentices bent their outstretched arms so that their chests gently touched the Earth. Jacob let them stay that way for a while; letting them feel their stomach and muscles ache. “Up!” he finally called out. Like clockwork, the troops’ arms shot ramrod straight back into typical push up position. “Awful familiar,” I mumbled to Jacob; giving him a slight shove as I passed. “Learned it from the best, boss!” He called over his shoulder before returning to the training. I could never really tell if he was serious or sarcastic whenever he called me ‘boss’, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it. Despite all the pressure, all the tension, and all the fears; I could still manage a smile inside knowing that these people looked up to me; and I looked up to them as well.

Jackpot:

I was driving to town to pick up groceries for the next few nights. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t thought of using some leftover donating money to make ends meet. However Uncle Stew had provided just enough to keep me sated; and I suppose that was good enough. However as I was within eyeshot of the town; loud honking and yells came to my attention. I carefully careened around a corner and found myself in a massive pileup.Some individuals sat in their cars; their yells muffled by the glass. Others took out their frustration by honking horns. And there was even those who had  grown so impatient that they’d turned off their cars entirely; sitting on the hood and flailing their arms around as they got into heated debates with men in hardhats and orange garb. Immediately I knew it was because of Magna Oil. Something big had happened. A couple men in hardhats walked passed my car; their heads ducked low to avoid being hit to hard by insults. I quickly rolled down my window and called out to them. “Hey,” I said calmly. “Do you guys know what’s holding things up?” The first man ignored me and continued his stroll, while the second decided to speak up. “We’ve hit big,” he said. “Pipes have been set up, frames are sturdy, we’ve seen our first glimpses of oil today. And in a couple days we think this place will be fully operational during the day. And if we get enough workers and funding; perhaps at night as well.” My eyebrows raised excitedly. Our little town was finally going somewhere; it’s face now manifesting itself on the maps. “I’ll have to try and apply then,” I said. The first man snorted a laugh. “Get in line,” he said. “That’s what’s causing the holdup.”

New Move:

I had decided not to waste time applying to Magna Oil just yet; despite how much I wanted to be able to support myself without Stew covering for me my whole life. I entered my house with the sparse groceries I had picked up. Immediately I could tell my dad was home. It was particularly early for him; but his ratty jacket laid strewn over a chair and a few boxes had fallen from the kitchen counter; which now remained in a sloppy; almost unrecognizable mess. The smell of whisky was strong in the air and I did my best not to breathe it; as if the smell alone could hinder the mind I was so desperately trying to sharpen. He was asleep already of course. My phone suddenly busted out with a loud ringing and the bed upstairs began to squeak upsettingly. To avoid any unnecessary conflict; I dashed over to the phone and picked it up; speaking in a whisper. “Yes, hello? Who is it?” “Jacob,” came the voice on the other end. “Hey listen, it’s been awhile since the last legitimate mission and I think Calvin and I have worked out a good idea to get the school year started out right.” I wiped off the counter top and pulled up a chair. “Lemme hear it,” I said. “You know that well down past the park we fought Ivan?” “Yeah,” I replied. “The folks in the neighborhood over there use it as a primary water source. But with Magna Oil beginning to hit it big; I’d imagine the city will be able to set up a more stable system here soon.” “Not soon enough,” Jacob interjected. “That spy unit you set up is working wonders, even if it was meant to be a distraction.” I scowled; even though he couldn’t see it. “Who told you it was a distraction?” I asked. “Calvin?” Jacob paused on the line for a moment; realizing perhaps his statement was distasteful. “Uh well… that’s not the point,” he said. “The point is that the spies figured out that five guys from our school got their cages rattled by a couple other guys whose families depend upon the well. These 5 targets plan on dumping something into the well as a sick joke. Nothing lethal you understand, but it’ll still affect anybody over there that stops by for a drink.” “When's this going down?” I asked. “Sometime three days from now. We have school that day so we can best bet they’re going sometime afterwards.” “You mentioned Calvin’s involved?” Jacob paused again and spoke carefully. “Yeah,” he said. “He thinks this is a petty form a revenge and that it’s the S.S.C’s duty to stop sick pranks like this. I agree with him. If we don’t act, some people could get really sick. Calvin says he’ll merge his apprentices with mine to form and big and safe army for us to stop these guys.” “That’d be about twelve against five,” i said. “One of Calvin’s guys is sick and he says two of his other guys aren’t prepared for an organized fight like this. And one of my guys is busy that day. So that leaves us with a force of eight including Calvin and myself. I’d say that seems reasonable.” “You think your guys are ready?” I asked him; still keeping my voice low. “Unlike Calvin, I think that the only way for these guys to grow is for them to see and take part in the action. Making your guys do push ups all day won’t help them much when they need to sock one of these germs in the face.” “I suppose I can’t disagree with that,” I finally said after some thought. “Alright… we’ll do it but I’m gonna need you and Calvin to make sure you’re on the same page. I’ll help out on battle plans if you need any, but I’m leaving most of this up to you two.” “Not a problem boss,” Jacob said enthusiastically. “Do you really mean it when you say that?” I finally asked. Jacob laughed. “One of life’s greatest mysteries,” he said.

Ambush:

It was a cold Sunday morning that I pulled up by the field. I had been tucking my car in the same spot since basically day 1. The grass had grown worn down and stripped away from the Earth; replacing itself with globs of wet and pasty mud. There was no way around it though; this little spot I had chosen just behind some pine trees in the ravine of the road’s bend was the perfect area to avoid being spotted by police or other… unpleasantness. There were flurries already coming down and my ears lightly stung as I pulled a warming cap over them and strode uphill where I’d be able to look over my guys. I was conflicted really. A part of me wanted to see Flags and Calvin there; training with their guys and moving beyond their issues with me. But another part of me didn’t want to see them there; knowing full-well their presence would take me out of the calmness of the moment. But even now; as I trudged up that hill; my calmness began to shrivel away. For as I ascended; my ears came upon an odd sort of moaning and several other cries. I had grown accustomed to hearing noises similar to this after spars between apprentices or even masters. But this was different; this was not mere upsetness; this was the sound of agony. I ripped the cap from my head so I could hear more. Through the strong and cold breeze I heard more shouting from just beyond the hill. I couldn’t make out the words; but I could tell this was no mere spar. I must’ve dropped my cap and whatever else I was holding; for I soon found myself bounding up that hill; my eyes wide and fearful and my fists clenched. I finally reached the pinnacle and stared down. Below me were only a couple units. Calvin being the master of one and Mask being the other. They weren’t alone though. Six teens not dressed in our blue garb were circling the two units lie birds of prey; lunging in and out with punches and kicks from every direction. I recognized most of them; friends of Ivan. This was no spar; this was an attack. My mind attempted to freeze in place, attempted to make me stand there forever as if part of a painting. I could not be more thankful that my pounding heart told me otherwise. “Hey!” I shouted; my feet moving faster than ever as my body picked up momentum from the downwards slope. Two of the attackers; shocked by my piercing voice; turned to face me. Mask used their distraction to pound one in the pack of the head and get the other in a sleeper hold. I had picked up so much speed now; it was as if I was nothing but a blur; moving without a mind or a conscience. I was merely a force. Unable to comprehend anything anymore; I jumped into the air and - still propelled by my velocity; kicked one attacker square in the chest; knocking the air out of his lungs and sending him to the ground with a crippling thud. “Their broken up!” Calvin yelled to the unit he was defending. “Take’em out! Go!” Calvin’s unit surged forward and past me; managing to tackle one of the attackers as the other one attempted to make a getaway; hurling insults to us as he sped away. He was in no shape to outrun us though; soon two of Mask’s forces were able to catch him in a dead sprint and with two quick jabs to the throat and forehead; knocked him out like a light. I could breathe again. My hand gripped my sore leg and I limped to the attacker Mask had gotten in the hold. He was subdued now; with Mask having transferred him into a hard headlock. “What happened here?” I yelled; my eyes almost burning a hole through the attacker’s head. “W-we were just trying to get some pay-back,” the attacker gasped. “Ivan sent you,” I stated. The attacker was silent; his eyes drifted to his fallen friends. “How’d you learn of our location?” I asked him. My ears were cold again; and my lips were dry and cracked. “W-what are you gonna do with me?” the boy asked; ignoring my question. I stopped for a moment and gazed around at the troops. Calvin crouched beside a couple injured apprentices while the rest merely glared at the attacker; their eyes dark and unforgiving. “We’ll let you go,” I stated; turning back to him. “But only so that you can tell that coward Ivan that next time he wants to pick a fight with the S.S.C, that he best show his own face in the process.” No members argued with my decision. I gave a quick signal and Mask threw the attacker to the ground. “Run before I change my mind,” I said through my teeth; though I had no intention of doing so. Now leaping to his feet; the attacker sprinted out of our sight; until all we could hear was the sound of the wind and the muffled moans of our wounded. I walked to Calvin’s side and looked over them. One had suffered a tremendously hard hit to the head while the other had somehow been cut up the arm; leaving a deep and bloody gash that leaked through the cloths we wrapped around it. I bent down and reached out to touch the bandages, but Calvin’s arm suddenly flung in my way. “Don’t touch it,” he demanded. “Damage is done.” I looked at him for a moment - at Calvin I mean. He seemed distant; obviously deep in thought. This was only proving his point more and more. The longer the S.S.C was around; the more injuries we’d sustain. Would the end really justify the means. For once I was not so sure. I stood and walked away from Calvin, a couple apprentices flocked to my side and handed me a spare cap and gloves. I accepted them. Finally Mask approached me. Due to the snow blowing in my face; it was hard to see his eyes’ expressions, but I knew he could not be happy about this either. “We’ll have to move,” he told me. “Move?” I repeated. I turned back to the field; the place where we had spent so much time together since the very beginning. There in the distance sat our ground zero; where even the snow could not cover; in fact it had been worn all throughout itself by the deep tracks of feet. “They know our location,” Mask said solemnly. “We stay here, we risk another incident.” Calvin swiveled his head towards us and gave a slight nod. His cold eyes seemed to stick to me for a while before he went back to his work. I stared once more at that ground zero, where the grass had been long swept away; now only showing the dirt from below. The cracked and freezing earth seemed as discolored as the noses of some apprentices. The circle took on a purple appearance; standing out against the thin blanket of snow. “Alright,” I finally said. “I’ll need you and Calvin to spread the word… we’ll need to take up shop somewhere else. If anyone has any bright ideas I’ll be glad to hear them. Mask gave a quick salute and turned back to tend to the wounded. I made my way to my car to think things over. I suppose it wasn’t just that. I didn’t want to see all that blood. It reminded me to much of the ghost gliding over the porch. The ghost with a blood-red face and eyes colder than any.

Abroad:

It amazed me just how fast it was. Just how quickly we all cut our roots from the grounds we held so dear. Any idea of any other location seemed foreign to me, but necessary all the less. Summer and Noah had stopped by my house today. We were talking about new locations and new plans in case Ivan really did decide to rear his ugly head once more. “I don’t want to be near the school,” I reiterated. “To close to authority.” “Perhaps not as a main base of operations,” Noah replied. “But there is a boiler room down there that nobody even uses anymore since we got the new system. We’d be hiding right under everyone’s nose… literally.” “Noah are you proposing multiple bases?” Summer interjected. We were all standing above a hand-drawn map of the town - which was drawn by one of our members with a superior talent for art. For the most part it was accurate and Summer had put herself to work on making more. She knew the map forwards and backwards. “It’d be a good idea,” Noah replied. “Not all our guys lived close to our old field. If we have multiple bases; masters and apprentices can pinpoint the best location to meet, talk, and train. And if a base is discovered; it at least won’t give away our entire location.” I nodded slowly and picked up a blue pen; marking a triangle by the school; where the boiler room was situated. “Where else do you have in mind?” I asked. Summer pointed to the wooded area southwest of the school. “I go here to paint the trees and fauna,” she said. “I’ve seen some occasional hikers but otherwise the place is pretty sound. We could even go off the trail, cut down some tall grass, and make a nice little compound.” Noah glanced up at me and smiled. “Looks like your smarts are rubbing off on her Johnathan.” I tried to smile with him, but my thoughts still dwelled on the old base and on Calvin. The mission Jacob had organized along with Calvin was only two days away. I wanted so badly to delay it, but we only had one shot of catching the pranksters before it was too late. “Uh boss?” Noah said. “You hear me?” “Yeah,” I replied quickly; grabbing the pen and marking another triangle in the wooded area. “How about Mellow-Falls?” Noah asked; pointing to yet another wooded area situated to the northwest of the previous location. “For all the same reasons Summer said before. We get maximum security, cover, and we’re situated real close to Blue-Point for members that live up there.” I eyed the location for a while. “It’s too big,” I said. “Almost twice the size of Summer’s spot.” Noah tapped his finger on the table and thought it over for a while. “Two bases then,” he said. He picked up a pencil and lightly sketched two triangles on separate sides of the woods. “This way they won’t have to travel to far inland and we still have a fair amount of guys posted around to ward off trespassers.” I sighed, grabbed the pen, and made two more marks. “So that’s four bases total,” Summer pointed out. “Whaddya say we round things out and set up one more.” “An HQ,” I said distantly. “We need a place where the Origins and I can meet up with ease and discuss important events such as mission planning and changes to the BLB.” Summer looked somewhat relieved to hear me speak again. “The forests won’t work?” Noah asked. “I don’t want to have to push through thickets and low-hanging twigs just to talk about dress-code,” I said. “And neither do you I’d assume. We need a place that’s easy to access. Not only that but I’d prefer for it to be in the open for better walkie-talkie connection.” Noah sat back in his chair. “That’s a tall order,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll come up with something,” I stated. “Check around with the guys and see if any of them know a place that fits those parameters. Summer, I’m gonna need you to give the orders for guys to start setting these places up. I want these bases up and running before the mission on Wednesday.” “Sir yes sir,” Summer remarked sarcastically; grabbing her coat. She was out the door before I could give her any other orders. Noah grabbed his things as well but stopped in the doorway to turn and speak to me. “You alright?” he asked. I busied myself poking at the fireplace; blowing at it a few times to keep the flame burning. “Calvin’s got me in a tough spot, Noah,” I remarked. “Need any help sorting it out?” Noah inquired. “It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before,” I told him. “Now close the door; you’re letting all the cold air in.” And he did.

Warning:

I decided to treat myself to a quick sandwich from Jet’s Diner the next day. It was one of the few things that could take my mind off of the mission a mere day from now. I wouldn’t have to worry about interruptions either; seeing as Noah was not working today and Flags had quit showing up so frequently. In between bites I wondered what he thought of me. Could he really think me to me some kind of crook? Some liar who only wants things his way? I tried to forget by listening to the loud pounding of the juke box behind me. Now kids unaffiliated with the S.S.C were snapping their fingers and chatting about some other topic. I almost felt alien hearing normal conversations anymore. Talk about chores, cars, girls, everything. When was the last time I’d spoken that way.” I wanted to join them really, but it was not my style to drown out sorrows by impeding on other people's’ lives. I somehow heard the door to the diner swing open and some heavy footsteps come from behind me. A medium-framed figure walked to the counter, waited for service, and then turned it’s torso around suddenly; spotting me. I didn’t bother looking at who it was, I knew Ivan would have said something by now so I merely went back to eating; still watching the figure from the corner of my eye. I should have known it was to good to be true however, the figure strode away from the counter and sat in the booth across from me. I finally looked up now. Summer’s older brother sat across from me; his arm positioned on the head of the booth while his other laid tensely on the tabletop. He was making himself look bigger than he actually was. There was a look of disdain in his eyes; but he tried to shield it with a crooked smile. “Johnathan,” he said. “Oh hey,” I said; still eating. “You’re Summer’s brother… Brandon right?” He nodded and gave a deep grunt. “I guess you’re not here to eat with me are you?” I joked. Though I had become somewhat silent around those in the S.S.C, I could not help but poke fun at Brandon. He had frightened me before, but he was no Ivan and he certainly had no idea just how much I’d grown since then. “I’m here about Summer,” Brandon replied with a scowl. “Word has gone around that she’s joined your little faction.” I found it difficult to swallow the next bite; must less chew anymore. I put my food back on the table and leaned in towards him. “I don’t know who told you,” I said. “And I hardly care. It wasn’t my choice to have Summer join us - that was her call.” “She’s an idiot young-woman,” Brandon said. “She doesn’t know what she wants. Perhaps my father would like to know about this little operation of yours?” The cogs in my brain grinded together and I felt that little tinge of heated rage coming up on me. “You won’t tell him,” I said at last. “Otherwise you would have done it already. You also didn’t intend on meeting me here today; it was just bad luck on your part.” Brandon blinked a couple times; his scowl growing wider. “Because of you my father and mother have been fighting day-in and day-out. My mother wants Summer to do as she wishes while my father vehemently thinks she should be kept at home; away from these problems. I can’t bring myself to harden their pain by telling them that their own daughter is putting herself in harm's way in a manner they never would have thought before.” I offered no reply and merely stared at Brandon; waiting for him to reach a point. “I’m not the villain here,” Brandon spouted; rising slightly from the booth and hovering over me. “But I sure as hell am not gonna sit on the sidelines and watch as my sister runs head-first into the bloody war you’re brewing up.” “She’ll do as she pleases,” I told him; sucking the emotion from my voice. I was sick of being pushed around; told what I could or couldn’t do. It may have been too late to argue against Calvin or Flags, but I wouldn’t stand still in front of Brandon. The grimace finally faded from Brandon’s face and an inexplicable calmness came over him. “I see,” he told me. “I see.” He left the booth and turned back to me with a light smile on his face. “You know Jonathan, I may have graduated, but I still have a lot of friends at that highschool of yours. Friends that owe me favors.” “I’ll keep that in mind,” I told him. Now feeling as if he’d won our game of dialogue, Brandon made his way out of the diner and sped away in his car. I tried to eat some more, but my mouth had become stale and the mere outside touch of food made my stomach churn. And so I rose and threw away my meal. While doing so, an S.S.C member from our messaging squad came through the doors and spotted me. “Jacob has some news for you, boss,” the trooper whispered. And with that I left with him; now eyeing those teens by the jukebox more than I had ever before.

Roots:

I was drove behind our S.S.C messenger as he veered off towards the school. Almost all cars were gone now from the lot; save for a few parked around the back towards the boiler room. I parked besides the car I recognized as Jacob’s. “New base established already?” I asked the messenger. “Not quite,” he replied. We walked down a small outdoor stairwell which led to the door of the boiler room. I heard voices from inside. I opened the door; finding myself in a surprisingly spacious area. All machinery was in the far back of the premises and some new materials had been moved in with boxes and crates. A foldable table was erected near the back, with Teddy seated at it along with two of his apprentices and Jacob. “It’s coming together,” I said to noone in particular; gazing around the room. Jacob motioned me over to the table and pulled out a folding chair. “Yeah,” he said. “Space is a little tight. I’m thinking we can do simple lifting workouts in here and use the track field for bigger activities. If anyone asks; we’ll just say we’re training for next year’s season.” “Fine by me,” I replied; still looking around. “That’s not why you called me here though?” Jacob shook his head and motioned over to Teddy. “I’m moving,” Teddy said at last. “Moving?” I repeated. “To where?” “Details are hazy right now,” Teddy replied. “Though it looks like it’s gonna be somewhere south of here. Another state for sure.” “I’ll be sad to see ya go Teddy,” I said meaningfully. “Any idea what to do with your apprentices?” “Austin is my best trained soldier,” Teddy replied; gesturing to Austin. I see no reason why he can’t take up the mantle of master and pick up from where I left off.” “I won’t disagree with you,” I replied. “There is something else…” Teddy said slowly; almost shyly. “I’ve seen the S.S.C grow a lot… and I am fiercely dedicated to it and what it stands for. When I move to whatever state the winds take me, I was wondering if I’d have your permission to create another S.S.C.” At first I had no response. Never before had I given thought to an S.S.C existing outside of my reach. I’d could never have envisioned it growing so well past it’s roots. But here we were. “Teddy,” I said with a smile. “So long as there are kids in need of help, there is always room for an S.S.C. You’re smart, dedicated, and strong… I can’t think of a better person to lead another S.S.C.” Jacob gave an overdrawn sigh at this remark. I laughed. “Oh quiet, Jacob. You know you can’t lead an organization. You can hardly lead your group of apprentices.” Jacob laughed along with me. “We’ll see about that tomorrow won’t we?” My mind once again flickered to the mission. Could we truly be ready for this? “I have to get going,” Teddy said; looking at his watch. “It’s been a pleasure, boss.” Teddy offered a salute, to which I gave one in return. We held there for quite some time; living in the moment, and with that, Teddy bid farewell to the rest of his troops and left. Soon the only sound remaining was the distant hum of an engine and silent creeping of tires. I turned to Austin and the other apprentice. “You’ve got big shoes to fill,” I told them. “This place is coming together fine. I need you and the rest of your unit to head down to the Mellow Falls woods. We need guys down there to clear out grass and other debris. And when you’ve put enough work into it; feel free to set up shop there. It’ll be your main base of operations.” “Yes sir,” Austin replied with a quick salute. With just as much speed, the two left Jacob and I to sit and marvel at the room’s silence. “We have such young guys,” Jacob told me. “Only a matter of time before some of them move out as well. The S.S.C is becoming impressionable. Before we know it, S.S.Cs will start springing up all over the US.” “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I replied. “And don’t go around making statements like that near Calvin or his team. He doesn’t want the S.S.C to overstay it’s welcome. Telling him we’re being uprooted and spreading across the globe will only get him riled up.” Jacob sighed and stood from the table; unpacking some boxes. “Fine,” he said. “There is something else I need to tell you,” I said; scratching the back of my head and feeling a tad embarrassed. “Got approached by Summer’s older brother today. His name is Brandon. Graduated a while back.” “What about him?” Jacob asked. “HE met me today and spewed out a bunch of empty threats. Says if we don’t get rid of Summer then he might start something. I mean… it’s all a bunch of lies but… well,” I trailed off - not knowing how to continue my thought. But Jacob nodded regardless. “I’ll have the spy team look into it,” he said at last. “Thanks,” I replied sheepishly. “Thanks.”

Operation Igloo:

It seemed like no time had passed at all since the raid on our first base. The raid that shattered us into cells; almost completely cut off from each other now. Flags told me I was being to negative about the situation, but I truly despised our separation. There was a bigger issue weighing on my mind now however. Operation Igloo; the mission to stop several pranksters from messing with the water supply of a nearby village. Igloo was not always the name assigned to it; in fact it was Noah who suggested it. We had a major freeze during the night and as a result, roads were riddled with patches of ice. I had nearly tripped the moment I took a step onto my porch. Despite my thoughts to the contrary, this did little to stop the targets from making their move; at least according to the spy team. Calvin had arranged for me and Jacob’s group to meet him in the village by the well. There we’d wait in our cars until we saw the targets approaching the area. We assumed they’d either disembark their vehicles on the very road in which we were parked or come up over the hillside just  rested. We outnumbered the targets; which was the only thing that could ease my mind. I was the first to arrive at our designated location. I carefully parked my car in an inconspicuous spot and waited for both Calvin and Jacob to pull up before stepping out to exchange final words with them. Calvin was the first to arrive; his chosen apprentices sitting still and ramrod straight in the back of his car; ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. Jacob showed up not long afterwards and I immediately saw the difference between the two units. While Calvin’s remained orderly and silent. It was like night and day. I opened my car door and signaled for the others to come out so I could get a better look at them. “We’re lucky it didn’t snow,” Jacob said; exiting his car. “The targets may not have shown up.” “Yeah,” I replied. “Lucky.” My eyes scanned the apprentices; one stood out; Albert. He was clearly the youngest of the group. I had spent so much time looking over the units of other members, I must have never noticed that Albert was Jacob’s apprentice. I wanted to say something to Jacob; try and tell him not to let Jacob come along, but I knew he wouldn’t listen. And being so controlling over a mission was what had got me in trouble with Flags to begin with. “I’ll be watching from up here,” I told everyone; looking away from Albert at all costs. “You guys get in over your heads, just give me a signal and I’ll race down to help. Keep in mind we’re right next to a neighborhood. Mainly just old people in these houses here, but we still need to keep quiet. Is that understood?” “Yes sir,” came most of the replies. I was noticing that hardly anyone would call me by my real name anymore. “Jacob, Calvin, I’ll leave the rest to you.” Jacob raised an eyebrow. “Phaze,” he said. “That’s my mission name remember?” I looked at him for a while. “Just don’t get killed,” I said. And with that I stepped back into my car.

Snow Dust:

We waited in our cars for a long time. Phaze was keeping an eye out for the targets with binoculars while Calvin spoke silently to his guys. Calvin had made the correct choice to make all of his apprentices friends of his. This allowed for a closer bonding. When one jumped; the others were ready to jump along with him. I had nearly fell asleep when I suddenly heard an increase in volume coming from Phaze’s car. I looked over; finding Phaze holding up his hand; trying to silence his crew. Albert looked somewhat frightened, but listened to his master. Eventually Calvin saw it to; the upcoming targets; five of them. The targets were mere black silhouettes against the shining, bright snow. I was feeling nervous once again, I wished that Chris were here to tell me he felt the same; but now I was all alone. An outsider looking in. The figures drew closer. They were laughing and punching at one another. One awkwardly clung to a white bucket at his side; I could hardly tell what was in it; but it seemed rather heavy. They passed it amongst themselves to make transporting it easier. Before I could get any closer of a look; the cars to my left and then to my right flung their doors open. “Go, go, go,” Calvin whispered to his guys. He was relatively straight-faced. He’d never been in a real fight before; but judging by how confident his voice was; you’d never be able to tell. “Quit playing around,” I could hear Phaze chastising to Albert. Phaze and Calvin leaned in to speak for a moment, nodded their heads, got back with their apprentices, and the charge was made. My palms were sweating already as I straightened up in my seat. The groups had timed their run perfectly; able to reach the enemies before they could reach the well but after the chances of escaping became futile. Calvin’s squad ran to the left of the targets while Phaze’s went to the right. The targets; initially confused by the incoming hordes suddenly realized the situation and dropped the bucket; trying to run away towards the hills, but they were far too late. Quickly; like a well-oiled machine; the two groups converged on the targets; trapping them in the center much like how Ivan’s friends had managed to surround the two units from the field incident. Albert was pushed to the back of the group; and was mostly too short to be noticed by the targets; who now swung wildly in all directions; their punches being blocked by Calvin and his guys while Phaze worked his way around each of them; placing hard punches to the back of their heads. Everyone was moving in a fury now; so much so that the very snow they stood upon was kicked up in the conflict; causing a plume of snow dust to envelop them all. I was blinded now to any action going on behind that smokescreen. “Come on,” I said to myself. “Come on.” Sweat ran from my forehead and seeped to my eyes; I tried to wipe it away but more just took it’s place. I lept out of the car; allowing the cool air to meet my skin; I must have been steaming. In that instant; three of the targets busted out of the snow dust cloud; and sprinted towards the neighborhood where they could take cover. The snow dust slightly cleared behind them; revealing the two S.S.C units blindly throwing punches at one another; unable to see if they were striking a target or not. “No!” I yelled from my perch. “They’re getting away! You’re fighting your own men!” I turned to my car and flung the door open; grabbing wildly for a walkie talkie. I found one and radioed to the groups. “Quit fighting! Quit fighting! You’re fighting your own men! Do you hear me?” They were so invested in the rage of the moment; I doubted they could even hear me. I watched in horror as one of Jacob’s apprentices slugged him across the face; leaping on him and holding him down in the snow while Calvin mistakenly wrapped his arm around the throat of one of Jacob’s guys. The two targets were getting closer to me now; so taken aback by our raid that they didn’t even notice me. I recognized one of them from Operation Choke. Some people never learn. Unable to call to the attention of the others; I sprinted from my car; not even bothering to close the door or put the walkie talkie back. The targets finally noticed me. The one from Operation Choke glared and stopped in his tracks while the second one ran to my left; trying to get away. I lept to my side; grabbing the fleeing target’s ankle and tripping him. The other target ran at me a pushed his foot harshly on my chest to prevent me from standing. As his friend rose from the ground; the attacker slowly began to dig his foot harder into me; my breathing became slowed and it became difficult to move. “Crushed like a bug,” I could hear him saying. “Like a little bu-” he was suddenly tackled from behind by an unseen force. The attacker was small; but the attack was unexpected enough to drive the target off of me. “Albert!” I gasped; realizing finally who it was. “Stay away!” Albert did no such thing; clinging to the attacker like an ape to a vine. I attempted to step in the way; only to be punched in the back of the head by the second target; who drew back in pain as he heard his fingers pop. I fell to the snowy ground once more; my head throbbing and by eyes blurry. I could hear the blood rushing through my head, every beat of my heart, the screams of Albert were there as well. How had things gone so wrong? I awoke from my short trance; my bare face still rubbing into the stinging snow. I gradually managed to stand and turn to the second target as he held onto his hand; screaming in pain. I felt like joining him, but my body said otherwise. I found myself walking towards him as he stared at me with utter disgust and disdain. I delivered a swift kick to his temple; sending him down immediately. I was gasping for air still. I couldn’t differentiate left from right and for a while I wasn’t sure if I was even in the same field. But that’s when I heard it again; the shrieks of Albert behind me. I spun around; only to find the attacker from Operation Choke holding Albert firmly by his leg as he dangled him above the well. My heart stopped. My pain stopped. The whole world stopped. But the voices didn’t. “Hey!” Cried out Calvin as he made his way uphill towards us with whatever remainder of the units we had left. “Let’em go! He’s a kid!” The attacker shook his head as blood ran down from the right side of his mouth. “You brought me to this!” He shouted as Albert helplessly flailed his arms; desperately trying to push away from the well or punch at the attacker’s leg. Nobody moved, we knew we’d never be able to catch him in time. And the attacker merely stood there; looking back and forth between us and him; just holding Albert above that gaping well like a man holds a bone to a dog. “We can work something out,” called one of Calvin’s apprentices. “I’m done talking,” the attacker said with an almost insane-laugh. It’s time you figured out just what kind of muck you’ve gotten into. Somebody has to take the fall… and it looks like it’s going to be him!” “Jonathan!” Calvin called to me; rage filling his voice and cracking through the coldness. “Say something!” I looked at the two; watching the attacker’s eyes flicker over to me. A smile creeped up on his face. The same smile as Ivan, the same smile as Brandon. It was that smile that let you know exactly what they were. And what they were was something that no S.S.C could ever fix. Just as I opened my mouth to speak; Calvin suddenly flung himself at the target; punching him straight in the face with all the power he could muster. Time seemed to slow down as I watched the attacker let go of Albert. I watched him fall; screaming; his eyes panicked. And then there was Calvin; his teeth bared and his eyes flaming; spinning around and grabbing Albert by his shirt just before he could descend any further. With a final heaving effort; Calvin tugged Albert back to land; where they both fell down in exhaustion and tears; Albert crying the most ofcourse. The remaining apprentices swarmed the attacker; but found him out-cold already. I gazed off into the distance; finding Phaze and a few other apprentices scraping themselves up off the ground as the dust cleared; the three other targets all knocked out as well. The battle had been won. The physical one at least.

Stinging Truth:

Albert stayed down for a long time as apprentices from both groups walked over to calm him. I still could hardly feel my legs; but I approached the site as well; bending down by Albert’s side. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’m so, so sorry.” Albert struggled to speak or look at me clearly; but he indeed lifted his head and gave me a shaky nod. “I-it’s o-okay sir,” he cried. I noticed movement to my side; and found Calvin shakingly standing to his feet. He looked down at Albert and for the life of me I couldn’t read his face. It had such a mixture of pity and hatred that I doubted I’d ever see it again. Calvin looked at me now. “The time to talk,” he told me. “Is now.” I nodded and turned to Phaze; whose face had already spawned a bruise and a slight cut to his chin as well as a busted lip. His apprentices didn’t look too well either. “Phaze get them in the cars and warm them up. Use my car if you have too. Somebody put blankets on the targets so they don’t freeze to death.” Phaze gave a silent nod, he was in no mood to be joking anymore. That just left Calvin and I; standing in the war-torn snow; a few spatters of blood here and there. Calvin almost seemed without words as he looked at Albert departing. “This is what we’re fighting for?” Calvin spat. I could find no response. “This is Brice’s legacy? More blood? More fighting?” “Don’t bring Brice into this,” I argued, but Calvin wouldn’t have it. “Why not Jonathan?” Calvin yelled as he gripped his most-likely sprained wrist. “Is it because maybe deep down inside you know that avenging Brice ended once you took down Ivan and his guys?” My face was turning red now and I drew forward to clutch Calvin tightly by the shoulder. “Ivan and his guys are not finished!” I yelled. “They are still here! They’ve learned nothing!” “And neither have we!” Calvin shot back; swiping my arm away from him. “You’ve brainwashed these people Jonathan! You’ve told them sweet lies and made them feel like they’re a part of something that will last forever! Revenge a few times is fine; but we can’t keep living this way! No kid Albert’s age should ever have to find themselves in a life threatening situation; only to turn around with fake smiles and salutes; saying everything is okay! This is not okay!” The cold was stinging my ears and cheeks; I was feeling the rage dying out within me. The fire growing still and silent. I looked down at my feet in shame. “They’re free to leave whenever they want,” I said. “But they won’t,” Calvin said sternly. “So long as they see you working to build up this force… they’ll never all leave it behind.” I looked up from my feet and and stared at Calvin. “What are you trying to say?” I asked. Calvin’s eyebrows finally dropped from their furrowed state and he sighed. “Jonathan,” he said. “The only person who can stop this train from crashing is you. I’m saying… if you have any respect for Brice, for these people's’ safety, and for me; then you’ll quit the S.S.C and urge others to do the same.” I wasn’t sure what to feel anymore. Calvin didn’t seem to know either. And so we stood there for the longest time; our faces burning with cold. “I know it’s hard,” Calvin told me. “But it’s necessary. I will stay in the S.S.C and continue to train my apprentices. I owe them that. But once you leave and things start falling apart - which they will, I’ll take my leave. The S.S.C won’t go out like a light. It’ll go out fighting.” I looked at Calvin a bit more. He was feeling all I had felt; his face showed it. That mourning loss. Though I couldn’t tell for what he actually mourned. Perhaps it was that same look my uncle spotted on my face; that telling look of mourning - with stark seriousness just below the surface. “You’re right,” I said at last. “I’ll make the announcement tomorrow. I’ll even make sure the messaging team gets wind of it early-on so that common students will know.” Calvin nodded slowly. “You’re doing the right thing,” he replied. “No more blood Jonathan. No more blood on our hands.” I could only shake my head. “No more blood,” I repeated.

The Dream:

My drive back home was slow. Not just because of the ice of course. The sky was pale now; devoid of any color or hue. It seemed so white that had you been gazing upon it right at the horizon; you’d hardly be able to tell it from the snow-covered sheets below. I did finally reach my house and shuffled inside; throwing my coat and gloves to the floor as I made my way to my room. The pictures were the first things my eyes fixated on. Some old, others new, all of them with a story. My my mirror was where the most resided. To the left sat photos of the Origins. One with Flags crossing his arms as he looked out over the expanse of that empty field. The ground zero poked slightly from the corner. Another picture showed Mask sparing with Noah. Noah’s face had come out much better than you’d expect. You could see every inch of worry and doubt on his face, yet there he was, standing up against Mask regardless. Jacob was in another photo; making snow-angels in the dirt - dirt angels. And then a final one; the group photo of us all staring back at the camera. Jacob; the muscle and the trustworthy one, Flags; the boy with nothing to lose, Noah; the one who wanted to change not only for himself, but for the rest of the school to, and Mask; timeless in appearance and timeless in his mystery. And there was someone else there to. The skinny one holding the camera out in front of them all; grinning ear-to-ear as his eyes wrinkled and shined back. He was so out of place from the rest. Maybe he never had what they had. To the right I saw pictures of guys training; some taken by me - others not. Teens and kids saluting, guys jogging around the ground zero, guys talking, getting their shirts, firing at tin cans and sparing until the cows came home. I saw so many familiar faces looking at me. Even Summer and Albert peered their heads from a few. For a moment I felt like I was right there with them. My eyes teared up as I grasped them in my hand; shuffling them forward and back, and forward and back. I wanted so badly to leap into those photos; join the happy ones inside and escape the sad ones in the present. I put down the photos with care and rubbed my eyes. I had no dreams that night. I guess those had been slain just as well.

Changing Times:

When morning came; I silently made my way downstairs and made a phonecall to a trustworthy friend in messaging squadron. I didn’t want to delay this, my decision had been made. “Hello?” came the voice on the other end. “It’s Jonathan,” I said simply. “Listen… I don’t want questions and I don’t want Noah to figure this out, but as of this evening I’ll be leaving the S.S.C. I need you to round up members. We’ll meet over by the small wooded area where one of our bases is being established around 7:00. You know the one?” There was an expected pause of disbelief. “Uh… yes sir,” the voice called back. “I’ll get on it right away.” “One more thing,” I told him. “Make sure this news only sticks with me and you. I’ll talk about everything at the meeting.” I hung up before he had a chance to question anymore. I wondered how the other Origins would react. Would they really stay in the S.S.C without me? I had worried about Noah the most. He worked incredibly close with the messaging team and I knew if he got word of it; he’d try and stop me. I’d have to lie low for the rest of the day. I only left the house once; and that was to get the mail. I found the daily paper inside and read it on the edge of my bed; blocking out any sounds of incoming calls downstairs. The front page bolstered thick black text “Magna Oil Ships Out First Successful Load of Oil”. Following paragraphs covered statistics about the oil and the incredible profit one meare load had made; a strong portion of that going towards our town. The project was being headed by a man from Nevada; who owned the entire company. Ofcourse he had other factories being put up across the nation; and as such, he elected a business partner to run operations while he was away. The name of the partner caught my eye. Oscar Felding. I didn’t know him, nor had I ever seen him, but the last name was familiar. His son, Dante Felding had gone to my school around the same time I had become friends with Brice and Calvin. He was among the few friends who ran around with us through the streets, stirring up trouble, and living each day like it was our last. Unfortunately our behavior was a bit too rowdy for Mr. Felding’s liking. He had his son dropped out of school and he had been home-taught for years since. I doubted I’d even recognize him if I saw him again. Their family must have been even richer now with this participation with Magna Oil. I tried to smile; it was beginning to look like our town might manage to piece itself together without the S.S.C after all. There was suddenly a jiggling of the doorknob downstairs. I’d locked myself in. I carefully put down the paper and positioned myself on the staircase. “Who is it?” I called. “It’s me,” Samantha replied from outside. She didn’t sound upset; just cold. She must not have figured out just yet. I walked downstairs and opened the door for her. She’d wrapped scarves around her head and donned a thick cap with fuzzy earmuffs. Her coat made her appear much larger than she actually was. “Come on in,” I said. “What’s going on?” Summer reached into her pocket and pulled out a crumpled copy of the town map. My stomach rolled over at the sight of it. Should I tell her the truth now? Tell her that everything she fought to join our group was just a waste of time? I decided against it. “Noah and I have been looking everywhere for that special base you wanted just for the Origins. She pointed to an open area in the middle of the corn field down south. “Turns out there is a shack here,” Summer old me; her eyes squinting with joy and excitement. “It’s used in the Summer to store small amounts of corn but otherwise it’s useless during the winter. Nobody even visits the place. It’s well hidden from the public eye thanks to some trees to the north of it. A back road runs up to the left; allowing for easy parking. I drove down there to see it with some girlfriends of mine and we still almost missed the place; that’s how well hidden the place is.” Unable to contain her excitement anymore; she jumped up and down and smiled broadly. “Isn’t it perfect?” she squealed. I could only stare at her and the map with somber eyes. “It’s perfect,” I told her. I suddenly leaned in and hugged her, I can’t quite explain why. Maybe it was the only thing that could keep me from sinking further into this madness. I just held on to her without a word. “Everything alright?” she asked me. “Yeah,” I said. “Everything is gonna be fine.” I could vividly hear the sound of me speaking and I finally understood what Flags meant. I saw just how blatantly my voice dripped with lies.

Influenced:

I managed to stay inside for the remainder of the day; replaying the lines I’d say to the other members. How could I really put it? How could I tell them that I was killing the very thing I helped create? These thoughts flowed in and out through my head as I drove to the woods. I even took the back roads to avoid being spotted my other drivers on their way over. I reached the site just as the sun began to go down and made my way to the edge of the woods; listening closely so I could follow the sounds of disembodied voices echoing from within the thick brush. I only needed to push through the bushes and weeds for a while until I came across a surprisingly well laid-out path; the grass cut in some areas and compressed downwards in others by use of a heavy rolling log. As the voices grew louder; my heart beat faster and my nerves rose considerably. Finally I could spy tinges of blue peeking out from behind the trees. Indeed everyone had already assembled around a huge tree in the center of the woods. Masters and apprentices sat in their respective units to the front of the tree; while the Origins talked hastily to the back. An apprentice noticed me watching them all; and soon all eyes were on me as a silence seemed to take over. “I will be with you all in a minute,” I said to ease the tension. They were soon speaking amongst themselves once more. I saw Calvin in the bunch; his unit prim and proper. They most likely already knew what I had to say. Summer was there as well; she seemed to notice the worry on my face. “What’s going on?” Jacob asked me as I approached them. His lip had swelled and the bruises had become much more pronounced. I could hardly look at him. “You guys just go out there and take a seat,” I told them. “I’ll make everything clear once I get my thoughts together.” Slowly but surely they went back to the crowds; leaving me leaning against the back of the tree; breathing in and out as if I might blackout any moment. “You’re really going to do it aren’t you,” came a sudden voice. I looked over - Noah had stayed behind. “You know?” I asked; hardly surprised. “Don’t blame the messaging team,” Noah said in all seriousness. “I figured out something was up the moment I heard guys saying goodbye to one another as if they’d never see eachother again.” “Save your breath,” I told Noah. “Operation Igloo and the attack by Ivan’s hoard a few days ago is all the proof we need that the S.S.C is doing more harm than good.” “And when you leave you think it will all just go away?” Noah spoke up. “It can’t stand on it’s own without a leader. I’m the only leader they’ve ever known. I leave - they leave. It’s just a matter of time.” Noah seemed almost disgusted at me and drew closer. “Jonathan look around!” He shouted. “You built this fire and together we’ve helped kindle it! This is the flame we were fighting for! Salvation not only for Brice but for the whole school! A way of preventing another Brice! Preventing another Ivan!” “We failed!” I shot back; my face red and my eyes watery. “We’ve put too much at stake! I’ve already stood over far too many wounded and far too many tears!” Noah looked at me even more fiercely; pointing his finger in my face. “Running away from your problems won’t solve them Jonathan,” he lectured. “Calvin was not in the Origins. He does not understand why we started what we did. He still doesn’t get it! He thinks he can put his thumb over you and quite you! He thinks he’s better than you simply because he cares about the guys here! Like we don’t care? Now he thinks that he has the power to puppeteer you into submission! Pushing you and me into corners we can’t escape from!” I hadn’t the slightest clue how Noah had learned of the severity of Calvin’s hand in this matter; though I should hardly have been surprised. Perhaps I’d given him to much power and too much say after all. “I don’t know what to do Noah,” I finally mumbled; shaking my head and staring down at the dead grass at our feet. “You do what you’ve always done,” Noah replied. “You lead.” “I’m no leader,” I replied. “I’m a coward… an idiot… I don’t deserve these people.” There was a silence; I looked up to find Noah starring at me. He seemed almost amused; but his serious eyes took over as he back up and shifted his pointing finger to himself. “Look at me Jonathan,” he said. “Look at who I am and think of who I was. And every time you see me, I want you to remember that phantom of myself. I want you to remember the bad so you can better contrast the good. Know now that every time you see my face; you’re looking at someone who’s life you changed for the better.” I stared at him; my nose dripping from the cold and also the stinging fear. “I can’t speak for the others,” Noah said. “But I can speak for myself. Thank you Jonathan. You killed the old Noah so a better one could take his place. Just know that whatever your decision is when you stand in front of these guys, the end of the S.S.C might not bring about the same amount of sentiments.”

Decision:

I felt that familiar fear rising through my body as I stepped to the front of the tree and waited for silence. Some members offered salutes while others sat in huddled groups so as to better stay warm. “Hello everyone,” I stated. “I’ve come here with news… I won’t keep you long but you all deserve to hear it.” Calvin’s words were still burned into my head; with Noah’s words trying to rub them away. My head felt as if it was filled with cotton. I could not find myself capable of making a clear or concise thought. I attempted to raise my hand to address a point; but quickly noticed it shaking. I snapped my arm back to my side and gripped my leg; hoping nobody had seen the shivering. “We’ve done a lot of good,” I said with only half-certainty. “The S.S.C is something special but…”. I trailed off. My eyes were shifting around at the confused faces. All their eyes directed at me. Some dark and unforgiving; others bright and curious. I saw the faces of Brice all throughout and faces similar to my own. Those fearful yet hopeful few who were willing to risk their safety to protect the safety of others. I thought of Teddy and his spreading of information to lands far beyond our reach. I thought of Summer and all this organization had meant to her. I thought of the Origins, and Ivan, and myself. Some of the memories were bad, but as I stood there in front of my troops; some still offering salutes and others watching me intently; ready to follow any order I’d call out to them, the good began to overshadow the bad. The good grew in my head and the cotton in my brain seemed to melt and wither away against the power and strength of the good. It was then that I realized Noah was right. The S.S.C wasn’t finished. Not yet. We still had fight left in us, and I wouldn’t let Calvin stand in the way of that. “As of today,” I said. “You no longer need to consult me with your mission plans. The masters here are smart and honorable. If they see it fit to battle; then I say we let them.” Wild cheers came from the crowds as masters looked at each other; a tinge of worry striking their faces but also happiness at their newfound freedom. “The changes to the BLB book will be made appropriately,” I spoke out. My hands were no longer trembling and my stomach was sated. “Feel free to approach me any time for assistance, but just know that I have no right to put my thumb over you and control what you can and cannot do. You are your own people. You’ve united under the S.S.C and I trust you. I trust all of you.” I suddenly spotted Calvin; his face had changed from somber to utterly stunned. I had betrayed his trust in favor of spreading it amongst the rest of the S.S.C. My message was directly mostly to him. Calvin didn’t trust in us to make a difference; but now I’d show him that we had that power and we’d keep it. “This is the start of a new era!” I said; raising my hands in victory. “An era of trust! An era where we fight for what we believe in! This is what the S.S.C was, is, and will always be about! Our cause rests in our own hands! Not just in mine, but all of you!” Summer smiled warmly from the crowds as they rose to their feet and cheered. None seemed happier than Noah; who’s mouth hung open in a smile as he excitedly shook Jacob. “And so S.S.C!” I yelled. “I wish you the best of luck and fortune. I’ll steer this boat of ours so long as you keep it afloat! Go in peace!” The clapping intensified as nearly everyone stood; some jumping, some pumping their arms in the air. The ocean of blue had been sated once more. At least in parts, for as I stepped away from the tree; I could not help but spot Calvin and his apprentices still sitting. Calvin’s surprise had faded into silent brooding. Other members in other groups reacted similarly; still sitting in silence as the ocean waved and thrashed around them. They were like rocks; unmoving to the changing times. I decided to look away from the bad however and focus on the good; saluting members as I walked by them to the Origins. Flags did not seem to know what to think; standing with his arms crossed as he gazed over the crowds. Mask of course showed no emotion of the matter, but Jacob and Noah were both grinning and Summer too soon came to us and wrapped an arm around me. The coldness I felt seemed to fade at her touch. And so we spoke there for the longest time; until many others had left. Against my better judgement I decided to gaze back once and only once. Calvin and his crew had vanished without a trace. I wondered if I’d ever see them again, but in a way I didn’t quite mind it. For how much better could our sea of blue flow without such rocks blocking our path?

Adjustments:

As romantic as it might seem to have simply bestowed freedom across the entirety of the S.S.C, I could not bother to lie and say that it didn’t come without its faults. And faults are what shined through the brightest at my personal base of operations chosen by Summer and Noah. This day was only my second time visiting it. The place was comically run down. There were two doors on opposite ends of the shack; one nearly falling off it’s hinges. A broken window delivered a wickedly cold breeze to the entire premises. I wasn’t sure it was any better than just sitting outside. “It could use some work,” Flags said as he taped a trash bag around the window to block the breeze. “I’m having some trusted guys move in some tables and seats for us,” Noah replied. I can also have them fix the door up with locks and maybe even work on the roof a little bit if it clears up.” “Something wrong with the roof?” I asked. “It leaks a bit in here,” Noah replied. Flags gave an elongated sigh and leaned against the wall. “This base is strictly for the Origins,” he reminded us. “Should we even let regular guys come here?” “Already taken care of,” Noah replied. “I’ve only called upon the guys that the boss entrusted enough to give BB guns to. They won’t bother us and they are elite troopers. If something ever goes wrong here they’ll serve as a great protection force.” “Summer is the one that found the base to begin with,” I said. “I want her to have access here.” “Consider it done,” Noah replied. Jacob was pacing around the place; trying to find something to do. He finally looked back and asked if there were any issues among the ranks. “The messaging team hasn’t changed much,” Noah said. “Neither have most of the other special teams. But the development unit is working on a vest of some sort that can holster the BB guns and other tools; they seem to me working more as a team now than before. It’s the masters and apprentices that have changed the most.” “You don’t make it sound like that’s a good thing,” Jacob pointed out; sweeping some rocks and dirt out the door with his foot. “Well,” Noah said carefully. “Some guys did get in trouble the other day. Guess some teachers spotted a fight up close between a unit of S.S.C members and a couple bullies unaffiliated with Ivan.” “What?” I shot back. Noah held his hands up to calm me. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They didn’t tell the teachers they were part of the S.S.C. And in retrospect I think we all know the teachers wouldn’t have even bothered to get involved if they weren’t in the immediate area. “We just need to be more careful is all.” I merely sighed. “How many missions have gone on since we changed the rules?” I asked. “No way to tell exactly,” Noah replied. “If I were to make an educated guess; I’d say about five. Even with their new freedoms; I’m still doing my best to keep everyone under control so things don’t get out of hand. Mask is doing a great job keeping guys in line so they still appear for training and not just fighting. It’s a shame he didn’t show up today.” I was silent for a while; finally just shaking my head and looking at the doors for a while. “There's something else you wanting to know?” Noah questioned. I sighed and turned back to him. “What about Calvin?” I asked. “Has anyone heard from him?” Noah could only look at me somberly as he shook his head. “No word from him or his apprentices,” he said. “Some other guys have failed to show up at training as well. I know it’s hard but… we might have to face facts that they’ve left us.” “I know that,” I replied. “But for what alternative?” Flags straightened up and walked to my side. “I’m sure they just need some fresh air,” he assured. “Best we not make things harder on ourselves by worrying about them.” I slowly nodded in agreement. “You’re probably right,” I replied. I was glad he didn’t see through that lie as well.

Calm Before the Storm:

Three days passed by and with each day it would seem more and more of my problems were vanishing. Calvin had not been spotted at school or home. His friends were either equally absent from the public eye; or strangely quiet. Ivan had made a similar disappearance once more. I had instructed spies to try and track him down; but almost all attempts had ended in failure. From the eyes of my followers; I’d suppose everything seemed fine - safe even. But these sudden disappearances of friends and enemies alike was no cause for peace in my mind. From time-to-time I considered asking Flags or Jacob to appoint some guys to guard me in case Ivan or Brandon would orchestrate some kind of hit on me; but I decided against it. The power was certainly there though. With my allowance for all units of masters and apprentices to work by their own will; Jacob and Flags had been set in place by me to be field-leaders so to speak. In the event that many of our units needed to come together either to fight, train, or meet; they’d be tasked with giving orders and keeping people in check. It was Flag’s idea really; and I could not help but agree. I hoped this might change our current standings towards one another; whatever those standings were. There was another matter as well; our new bases. The ones in Mellow Falls had been put up much faster than anticipated thanks to Jacob and Summer’s efforts. Teddy’s former apprentice Austin was in command of one base of operations while one of Mask’s guys was posted at the other on the opposite side of the woods. The other base in the school boiler room had taken form as well, but my business in reworking the BLB book prevented me from even seeing it’s completion or taking much note to who was leading it. And lastly there was the other wooded area; the very place I’d last seen Calvin. It’s trees and foliage much thicker than that of Mellow-Falls; making path-cutting particularly difficult and time consuming. Flags assured me that it would be completed in a couple more days. The S.S.C was changing all around me; sometimes I felt blind to it. I really had set the wheels in motion; and now they were nearly spinning all on their own; driven by new forms of energy. There were some new apprentices that hadn’t even saw my face; much less acknowledge Brice’s role in starting the whole operation. Sometimes I’d catch myself wondering if Calvin was right. Did the S.S.C really need me? Heck, would it even fall apart without me? In a world full of questions and changes. There was one thing I wanted to keep the same. The orders were silent and in a night they were done without any leak of information to be seen. I’d ordered for our ground zero to be maintained back in that old, dingy filed in the middle of nowhere. I circle of chemicals poured to rot away at any plants or weeds that might consider growing there in our absence. Even if we would one day fall; and fade into just that of memory; I wanted to make sure that our ground zero would remain burned into the Earth. A timeless reminder that we were here and that we stood for something. One night; after shopping at the store; I drove up to the hill and fled my car; shielding myself against the bitterness of the cold. I stood atop that hill I’d grown so accustomed to and just stared down upon the dark landscape before me. I stayed there for the longest time. And then I was gone.

Outcomes:

“Reports, reports, reports!” Noah exclaimed as he shuffled through papers at my desk. We were in my personal headquarters once more. Jacob stood vigil at one of the two doors. “Excuse me?” I asked Noah with a slight sigh. “I’ve been monitoring the activity of our units. Making sure their behaving according to code and whatnot.” “We have more units than I’d care to count,” Jacob said over his shoulder. “Doubt you’ve kept an eye on all of them.” Noah merely shrugged off the comment. “Fair enough,” he said. “I guess it’s not all my work. I’ve convinced our spy team to keep tabs on as much as they can. They work in unison with the messaging squad to collect data and then get it written down and sent to me.” “S.S.C spying on S.S.C,” I said. “That sounds like a problem waiting to happen.” “Oh, lighten up Jonathan,” Brice told me; taking a seat in front of my desk and handing me some papers. “Calvin’s no longer trying to put a leash on us, Ivan is dead to the world, and Brandon has been up to nothing of particular interest. We can afford one problem. I’m sure they’d understand anyways.” I merely rubbed my temple and and picked up the heavy stack of papers. “I want to meet with you tomorrow to show you some special things our guys have come up with,” Noah said. “Mellow-Falls sound good? We can meet at Austin’s base a-” “Noah,” I said finally with zero regard for tone. “You’re giving me a headache.” Noah’s smile faded and he sat a bit awkwardly in his chair. “Y-yeah,” he muttered. “Sorry.” I shook my head and looked down at the papers. I skimmed through most of them; very little had to do with fighting and more with simple warnings or targets of interest. But as I swept through the reports; instances of fighting increased. My eyes darted to the bottom of each page now. Operation Stump: Victory, Operation Ivy: Victory, Operation Keltz: Victory, Operation Hawthorn: Failed, Operation Blue-Point: Victory. The list went on and on. “This can’t be right,” I said; my face buried in the papers now. “I only recently gave them these freedoms. There couldn’t have been this many missions involving fighting.” Noah shrugged once more. “Time flies,” was his only response. “And all these victories,” I stated. “What are they doing now that’s making such a difference?” “We learn from our mistakes fast,” Noah assured me. “And we have some very capable leaders out there. Most of those attacks were done by Mask’s guys; who have been patiently waiting for an opportunity like this. Hell, Mask is so quiet; I doubt he ever would have even asked you if his unit could go on a mission if you hadn’t given the freedoms.” “I don’t doubt you on that,” I replied. I finally set down the papers and shook Noah’s hand as if we were at a sort of business meeting. “This is good stuff,” I told him; much to his relief. “Keep doing what you’re doing.” “Will do, boss,” Noah said; rising from the table. “And about that meeting at Austin’s base?” I sighed once more. “Fine,” I said at last. “Call me when you have a good time set up.” Noah smiled. “You won’t be disappointed. He said. With that, Noah left me with Jacob. “You doing alright?” Jacob asked me; turning away from his post at the door. “Fine,” I lied. “Why?” Jacob stopped himself for a moment but continued. “It’s just… well you look tired. Maybe try sleeping more.” “Sleep?” I repeated with an almost sarcastic laugh. I pulled up the papers once more and pointed to the few missions with FAILED written beside them. “So long as there are missions like this,” I said. “I don’t have time for sleep.”

New Tools:

As planned; I met up with Noah the next evening as the sun was just passing the blank horizon. Noah had brought along a large sack and was accompanied by a few S.S.C soldiers of whom I did not particularly recognize. Snow had been painstakingly shoveled into nearby bushes and trees. Most everyone running the base had left already; but Austin stayed behind just in case we needed to probe him for information on the base’s current standings. “Was this really the best time you could come up with?” I asked Noah as we made our way under an uprooted tree; leaning against one still standing; creating a canopy of sorts. It shielded us from any snow drifting from the branches far above. Austin kept watch from the outside. “Sorry,” Noah replied. “You know how difficult it can be to schedule around these guys’ jobs.” “So they’ll be speaking to me then?” I inquired; looking at the unfamiliar faces huddled nearby. “Yes,” Noah said. “They’re part of our development unit. With some combined effort they’ve worked out some plans for future weapons and tools.” I merely gave a small grin and raised an eyebrow at the others. “This better blow me away,” I said dryly. The guys seemed hesitant; nervous actually, but one finally walked my way and delicately pulled an item from the sack. It was merely a small satchel of sorts; with a buckle sewn into place around the back so as to be latched upon a wearer’s belt. Without so much as a word he brought the satchel closer to me and allowed me to look inside; finding leaves strewn messily around the bottom. I put my hand in for a moment to grab one; but the teen suddenly yanked the bag away. “It’s poison ivy,” he said breathlessly. “Maybe try telling me that before-hand next time,” I scolded; sticking my hand back in my pocket. “Sorry sir,” the teen replied. He shakingly grabbed a pair of plastic gloves from his pocket and put them on. “These gloves prevent any exposure from touching the ivy,” he pointed out. “But it holds the oils on the surface of the leaves. With enough time; one of our guys could merely touch these leaves for several seconds with the glove and use the oils on the surface to attack enemies. Obviously the effect isn’t immediate but… it has long lasting effects at least.” “A sack full of leaves,” I joked. “Why didn’t I think of that?” The group gave an uneasy laugh; minus Noah, who of course knew I was merely kidding. “Listen,” I said strictly. The teen stood ramrod straight in anticipation. “It’s a decent idea, but right now some of our best work is done merely by short-term exposure. Adults and the rest of the school might start asking questions if they see guys walking around with rashes all over their faces and arms. It would give us away.” The soldier's eyes lowered; yet he gave a quick salute and placed the satchell back in the sack. The next teen walked forward and pulled out a long object that had been jutting out from the sack the whole time. At first glance it appeared simply as a stick only a bit longer than the entirety of one’s torso and head; though upon closer examination; I noted the stick to have been whittled perfectly down all ends; making it appear almost like a sword to some degree. “Pretty much speaks for itself,” the teen joked. “I used a big fallen branch from just outside my house and used some of my dad’s cutting tools to chisel it down into this fine shape. I painted over it to avoid getting splinters from gripping it and drilled some holes towards one end to make it lighter to carry.” “Give it here,” I said; stretching out my arm. It was indeed lightweight. I whipped it back and forth for a while; listening to the air whip around it with each swing. “It’s very nice,” I admitted. “But how long did it take to make?” The teen’s previous look of happiness faded immediately. “A-about a week,” he mumbled. I nodded accordingly. “It takes far too long,” I said at last. “And there’s no telling how much force these things could even take before snapping. It’s not practical.” I handed it back to the teen; who did a similar salute as the previous one had done; before heading back over to the group. Our conversations continued like this for some time. With a few ideas being genuinely convincing; but simply to hard to make in mass quantities; or simply too dangerous. An entire hour must have passed without me approving of any of the tools. Noah seemed just as dismayed at this as I expected. He leaned back against a stump a merely sat with a blank expression as he eyed me. I wondered perhaps if he was falling asleep. “Hey!” Austin suddenly yelled from a few meters away. “What are you doing over here?” I turned my back on the team and looked out to the clearing; where two S.S.C soldiers were wandering into the base; pointing around. The taller one of the two merely smiled and walked up to Austin. “We’re Mask’s guys. Just getting a feel for the area before we head out.” Austin didn’t back down and merely positioned himself stubbornly in their way. Austin was much shorter than the two -shorter than all of us really, but incredibly strict. “That’s a good way to get yourself jumped!” Austin scolded. “We see guys roaming around here at night; we’re gonna assume they’re enemies! We do fine over here on our own, no need for you to get a feel for an area you’re never gonna visit again!” One of the two merely smiled and playfully nudged his friend. “Settle down there, half-pint. No harm done.” Austin’s face was red now and a vein poked prominently from his neck as he worked up the energy to shout at the two. “Settle down,” I finally interrupted; walking between the two. “What goes on between your bases is out of my hands. But I expect better behavior when I come to visit.” The two soldiers nodded at my every word; offering salutes and silent apologies; quiet enough not to be heard by Noah or the others still under the tree. Austin merely shook his head and strode back to his post. I could tell he was under a similar stress as I was. Teddy had left abruptly and made an apprentice into a master; who then was promptly put in charge of an entire base of operations. It couldn’t have been easy on him; I was just glad I wasn’t prone to the same level of anger. I guess I had Summer to thank for that. “Now,” I said; turning back to the development team. “What’s next?” Noah rose from the stump and crossed his arms. “That’s it,” he said at last. “That’s everything.” I sighed and approached the team; who whispered amongst themselves in frustration. “Guys don’t worry,” I assured. “There are more ideas out there. Don’t give up just yet.” My words seemed to sate them a bit; but Noah seemed no better. He walked along behind me as I bid farewell to Austin and made my way out of the woods. “You couldn’t have at least approved one?” Noah prodded. “Just one to help give these guys a little boost of faith.” “I’ve already given out tremendous freedom,” he told Noah; still heading to my car. “I’m not about to hand out stamps of approval on every new idea that comes my way. I need to keep a little order.” Noah merely breathed out in a silent frustration and stood to the side of my car as I hopped in. “Fine,” he said at last. “But next time you better at least say yes to one.” “Now you’re sounding like Calvin,” I joked; fastening my seat belt and readying to close the door. Noah seemed almost disgusted at the remark and his brow furrowed. He looked at me more seriously than he ever had before - a look that the old Noah never would have been capable of adopting. “Don’t compare me to him,” Noah said sternly. I looked at him for a moment before slowly nodding. “Yeah,” I replied finally. “Sorry. You’ve been with us from the beginning. That’s more than I can say for Calvin… wherever he is.” Noah and I offered a few more words to one another and apologized for our sternness a bit before going separate ways, but I could hardly concentrate on any of it. My mind was now only latching onto one thought. Where was Calvin?

The Call:

It was late in the evening and a storm had come our way. Not snow; but instead heavy rain which paraded loudly on the roof and tapped at the window beside my bed. I had been writing down some notes to hand out to the spy team; congratulating them individually for their efforts in keeping tabs on battles and potential targets. But the sound of the rain seemed to wash away my thoughts; leaving me nodding off; my consciousness flew in and out of reality. As I drifted further into this state of unconsciousness; there was a distant crack of thunder. I rose from my chair with a start and closed the blinds. It wasn’t the first time I’d mistaken lighting for something else. The sounds of rain became muffled and now only the sound of a ringing phone downstairs met my ears. Ever since I gave my troops the freedom to partake in any mission they wanted; I hardly ever received calls anymore. I glanced at the clock; 9:16. I could not think of anyone else who would be calling except for Summer. And so; still half-dazed I stumbled downstairs and picked the phone up on it’s final ring. “Hello?” I said over the line. There was a pause for a moment and at first I thought perhaps that no one was on the other line. Then a voice came. “Hello Jonathan,” came Calvin’s voice from the other end. He sounded calm; perhaps even at peace. Now it was I who stopped speaking. I stayed on the other end; trying to find the right words to say. An apology? A question? A piece of advice? Nothing stuck. “You’ve noticed my absence,” Calvin finally started; breaking the silence. “Y-yeah,” I muttered. I rubbed my eyes and pulled up a seat. More strikes of thunder came booming within earshot. “Where have you been? Nobody has seen or heard from you in a while…” “That’s not important,” Calvin replied in a calculated fashion. “All that matters is this final offer from me to you.” “What are you talking abo-” I began; but was quickly silenced. “Leave the S.S.C now or suffer the consequences.” It was so quick, so blunt, I should hardly think I ever would have saw it coming. Like the snap of fingers my confusion turned to anger. “What’s done is done Calvin,” I retorted seriously. “You don’t control the S.S.C and you do not control me.” Calvin seemed to laugh at the remark. For a moment I thought I heard a car humming from the other end; but perhaps it was simply more lightning. “I see,” Calvin spoke. “You’ rather lead your troops down a road to their own annihilation. The blood and tears shed by your comrades means nothing to you. It’s all just a means to an end.” “They are my friends,” I detested. “They are your tools,” Calvin shot back. “I won’t stand by and waste the days away watching as you march your soldiers into the fire. I will show them just what they’ve gotten into. I’ll show them the road they’re on leads to nowhere.” “Calvin whatever you think you’re going to do; stop now before you get yourself or someone else hurt,” I pleaded; my palms sweating and the rain growing louder. “I’m establishing a team,” Calvin replied; rage beginning to fill his voice. A team dedicated to stopping this turmoil you’ve stirred up!” “I have done nothing!” I yelled back; clutching the phone with all my strength. “Not yet!” Calvin shot back. “It’s the future I’m protecting Jonathan! I’m protecting it from you! I’m doing it for the future, I’m doing it for Brice, I’m doing it for the sake of this whole town!” I rose from my chair and slammed my fist down at the table; sending papers flying back onto the floor. “You’re insane!” I shouted over the thunder! “You’re delusional if you ever think I’d hurt these guys on purpose! I swear to god Calvin if you try anything to hurt my friends then you will suffer the consequences!” Calvin breathed for a while over the phone and his rage seemed to die away; replaced by the calm and calculated tone from before. “You had your chance,” he told me. “Had the chance to walk away from this as the hero, but now it’s time for me to step in and show you just how blind you are. Don’t bother hiding this from your troops. My guys are already calling Jacob, Noah, and members of your messaging team with the news.” “And what news is that?” I growled through my clenched teeth. “The S.S.C is about to learn just how defenceless it really is,” Calvin said. “The smart ones will leave and we shall never get in their way again.” Thunder cracked above my house and a flash of lighting nearby seemed to shake the entire floor. “But for those who stay,” Calvin continued. “They will find only what their blindness has led them too. Jonathan… pray you are not a part of that unfortunate few.” There was a light click from the other end before I could reply; but my rage was growing and I could do nothing to sate it. “We will find you!” I yelled at the top of my lungs; pounding at the table over and over again. “Do you hear me, Calvin!” We will hunt you down and beat you to a bloody pulp if you try anything! I’m in control! I will…” I stopped. There was a painful fluttering of my heart and my head seemed to grow light and weary. For a moment my surroundings faded to only light shades of pastel watermarks and the trickling of rain from every direction sent me spiraling. There was another sound to. My heart beating. Beating faster than it ever had before. Not out of fear; but out of anger. Then, just as fast as it had come - the feeling subsided. I blinked a few times; looking over to the phone still clenched in my fist; and my other hand which held tightly to my pounding chest. I didn’t move for what seemed like an eternity. I almost felt trapped in the moment; bound down within it. After a great long while I hung up the phone and dropped down to my knees on the kitchen floor. I was weak and my muscles gave no leeway for movement. My eyes now drooping and my breaths shortening I closed my eyes and fell asleep. Even the sounds of thunder hadn't the power to wake me.

Panic:

When finally I awoke from my comatosed state; it was not to the sounds of humming cars or chirping birds; but rather a pounding at my front door. I panicked for a moment; wondering if it was Calvin enacting the first step of his plan, but then called out the voice of Noah. “Jonathan open up! It’s us!” I slowly and painfully rose to my feet and gazed through the peephole; finding Noah, Flags, and Jacob waiting for me in the cold morning breeze. I carefully unlatched the door and let them in. Noah strode inside already in a panic. “You got it to didn’t you,” Noah said hurriedly. “The call… all of us got one… each from a different person. No clue as to location or identity.” “Calvin,” I said breathlessly. “He called me. This is all part of his delusional plan to prove to us that we are in the wrong here. He’s not stopping at anything to put a leash on us!” Jacob tried to hide his worry by looking away and gazing around the room; where papers now laid strewn about the floor. “That’s one of the only things they made clear,” Jacob said quietly. “Calvin’s setting up some kind of force to wipe us out. I tried calling you last night right afterwards but…” he walked over to the phone and grabbed it from the receiver. He was quiet for a moment and merely stared before showing it to me. What was once a strong and durable phone now remained nearly in two separate pieces; a large crack running down the center. Had I done that? “He could be bluffing,” said Flags. “We shouldn’t overreact.” Noah merely threw his hands up in the air. “It doesn’t matter whether we overreact or not because the rest of the S.S.C is figuring this out as we speak! Calvin’s going to tear apart this organization using fear alone!” This quieted Flags and Jacob in an instant. “No,” I finally replied. “I’ll talk to them. We can sort something out… so long as they know what we’re dealing with then we’ll be fine.” “But we don’t know what we’re dealing with,” Jacob pointed out. “Flags has a point. It’s either a bluff or Calvin and a few of his friends are going to try and scare us out. It won’t work though. Knowledge can overcome fear any day of the week. Jacob and Flags, I need you to two spread the message to everyone; utilize the messaging team if you have to. This threat; whatever it is, will be discussed in detail tonight at 6:00.” Jacob gave a quick salute and Flags put his coat back on. “On it, boss,” he spoke; and then they were straight out the door. “What about me?” Noah asked. I waited a while until I was sure Flags and Jacob were gone from the premises. “Those weapons from the other day,” I said. “Consider this my stamp of approval.” Noah seemed delighted at first, but his smile slowly faded as he realized what this must have meant. The thought that we might need them.

Us and Them:

The word spread faster than it ever had done before. Perhaps out of fear or perhaps even out of anger. I waited at Mask’s base in the Mellow-Falls woods and watched them pour in one by one. Droplets of blue into the ocean. They tried to be tough about it; tried to keep their chins high and their eyes forward; especially when Summer was nearby; but in their eyes I could see that familiar worry. Wind howled through the trees and came in quick gusts towards our faces; temporarily blinding us with the freezing cold air; which clung to our eyes and made them leak tears. Nearly all of Calvin’s friends were gone nowhere to be seen; and the entirety of his old unit had completely went up in smoke. I cursed myself that I didn’t put the clues together sooner. Hunting down Calvin’s apprentices would be relatively easy; they couldn’t all hide. But if they refused to own up to their plotting and we did anything to harm them; then the trustful relationship we had built with the school would whither away. At the brink of war and we were already stuck in a corner. Mask worked his way from the groups and walked to my side. “They’re ready for you,” he said quietly. I merely nodded in silence and gave a deep breath; letting the cold fill my lungs. I stood in front of the groups and waited for silence. “You’ve all heard the threat…” I began. “The threat brought forth by…” my voice trailed off. I saw everyone looking forward at me. Could Calvin be right? Was I leading these faces to destruction? I tried to speak once more; but could find no words. I saw Albert sitting near the back; his teeth chattering with every breeze. Had I really doomed him to? Was I all to blame? “No,” I said out loud. My feet began to move forward and the crowds parted as I neared them. I passed the confused and frightened soldiers before halting in the center of the crowds. I was not above them; I was with them. I was a part of them. “I won’t waste your time with stories to fuel your fear.” I continued. “And I will not let them diswayed us. As far as I am concerned, these threats have come from the faceless, the fearful, and the stubborn. I will not indulge them by stating their names or their motives. The moment they left us; they became nothing more than common enemies!” Heads nodded from the crowd; and it was not for the mere desire of pleasing me. “And that’s all it is,” I spoke loudly over the wind. “Us and them! They are not above that of the bullies who ran our lives for so many years. They are not above Ivan and they are certainly not above us. They are just another enemy. Nothing has changed and there is nothing new to fear! It is as it always has been; us and them!” I spun around to let my voice be heard from all directions. Jacob and Flags stood nearby; Jacob still looking unsure while Flags looked away; perhaps to hide how he felt. I could read him just as well as he could read me. “S.S.C,” I said at last. “You crawl and I crawl with you! You walk and I am right there beside you! You run and I have never left your side! I may have started the S.S.C; but you are the ones who fuel it! The ones who sustain it! We are in this together! Just like before! Just like forever!”

Driving Jacob:

I’d like to say everyone cheered for me following that speech. I’d like to say the fear dissipated and in it’s absence was replaced by a newfound hope. And while cheering did come and my words certainly helped close the wound; the gash was still there all the same; straining under the seems. Jacob lived close to Mellow-Falls and had walked over; but due to an incoming snowstorm; as evidenced by the white smoke just at the horizon, I’d opted to drive him back. All other members who had walked were also transported safely. Snowstorms in previous years could be long and increasingly dangerous. My car seemed to shake a bit as we silently and slowly cruised down the roadside to Jacob’s house. “You handled that real well,” Jacob told me. “I was worried you’d spend the whole meeting just ranting about Calvin or his guys, but you didn’t even mention them by name.” “It’s like I said,” I replied. “They are nameless to me now.” We sat in silence a bit longer and large flakes of snow drifted down on to the windshield. “I’m even more surprised there wasn’t any arguing,” Jacob said with a smile. I merely raised an eyebrow in response. “Austin and Mask’s guys have this hardcore rivalry going on,” Jacob elaborated. I nodded; recalling the way Austin had shouted at the two wandering soldiers the other day. “I told them that I wouldn’t step in,” I said. “At least not unless it starts any trouble.” We turned down Jacob’s road and pulled into his snow-covered driveway. Jacob stepped out and turned to me before closing the door. “In case things do start getting rough,” he said. “Just know that Flags and I are right here to start patching things up. There’s no task we can’t handle.” I paused for a moment. “Alright,” was my only reply; which seemed to surprise Jacob to some degree. He quietly nodded his head and closed the door. I was left to the silence to think; but just like Calvin; even my thoughts eluded me.

A Note:

I got home just as the moon crested overhead. It’s blue sheen was all that lit my path as I made my way to the front door. For a moment the hairs on the back of my neck seemed to stand up. I had that strange sensation in the back of my head. That feeling that I was being watched; being followed. Some bushes jostled slightly to my left; but my head snapped towards it in an instant; expecting the worst. Snow was coming down now. The storm was not as bad as I thought; but still I tried to calm myself by stating it was still far too cold for anyone to be waiting for me outside. I kept walking with the same stride; avoiding the primal instinct to run - bolt towards the door and slam it behind me. When finally I reached the door; curiosity it would seem got the best of me; as I gazed back to my yard one final time. Nothing but the dark of the night; pierced by the brilliant snow. I sighed and let myself inside; shutting the door and locking it up for the night. If my dad bothered to come home; he’d have to either wake me up or find another way in. I went upstairs and sat upright on my bed; just looking out the window at the large flakes passing by in the breeze. Some hit my window and promptly melted; giving off a stream of converging liquids spiraling down the glass and dripping to the snowdrifts below. It seemed calming really. For a moment I almost forgot my problems - the S.S.C’s problems and went to a better place. As I dreamt up what my perfect world would look like; I couldn’t help but think of my mother; the woman I’d known only through photographs. Would she have approved of this? Would she have understood? Then there was a knock on the door. Then another. And another. Silence. I rose to my feet and looked out my window to the yard below; no silhouetted figures met my eyes. Whoever had knocked had either gone another way so as not to be seen; or they were still at the door. My body became cold now as goosebumps rose up around my arms. My nose stung and my eyes darted around the room. I quietly removed my shoes and headed downstairs; being careful to avoid letting the stairs squeak. To an outsider looking in; I must have looked like some kind of maniac; silently and carefully creeping downwards; my hand clinging to the railing as my other brushed against the wall. It must have taken at least three minutes for me to reach that door. No knocking had occurred since. Finally I straightened my back and looked out of the peephole. Nothing. No sign of any person, car, or from my point of view; even footsteps. But yet my hand still lingered by the knob of the door. I told myself to let it be but it could not be helped. My hands turned the knob without my consent and the door suddenly blew open with a sudden force; striking the wall with a thunderous snap. My eyes were wide open and my heart stopped. For a brief moment I felt as if I was seeing my life flash before my eyes, but the feeling passed. The wind had blown the door open; simple as that. I breathed out a sigh of relief; and through my panting I looked down at my legs. There; on the step just below the door sat a heavy rock; the edge of a paper whipping around violently from underneath. Slowly and carefully I bent down to lift the rock; pulling the note out from under it. I did not think to look for tracks; nor did I scan the yard for life. As soon as I lifted the note it folded open in the wind and Calvin’s handwriting met my freezing eyes. I suddenly had no urge to look for more evidence. I drew back inside and closed the door one more behind me; locking it and then placing a chair in front of it; which I sat in for added weight; even though the door opened the other way; it still somehow felt safer. My spine was cold against the frame of the door; and that coldness seemed to creep all over my body and into my arms and hands. I was shivering now; fulling opening the letter for a better look. I didn’t dare turn on a single light. My eyes had grown accustomed to the dark and could just make out the faint scratches upon the sheet.

I gave you a chance and you didn’t take it. If you refuse to do what’s necessary to bring peace to this town; then I take that burden upon myself. Sleep well knowing that your part in my burden is small and forever fleeting. Don’t expect a note waiting at your doorstep next time.

~THEM Countermeasures: “THEM?” Noah breathed in a stark confusion. “What could he mean?” We were at the secret headquarters once again. I’d stopped several times on the roads to make sure I was not being followed and I’d asked Jacob, Noah, and Flags to do the same. “He’s taunting us,” I said quietly from over the table. “That meeting the other day… I refused to call Calvin or his friends by name. I just called them… THEM. He must think I did it out of fear.” Flags kept watch out the window for any signs of uninvited guests. Jacob guarded the door, but his eyes quickly shot open as he rushed to the table. “Are you saying that they managed to sneak into Mello-Falls and listen in on our meetings? Calvin is good but… could he really be that good?” Now even Noah seemed to show some fear in his eyes. “He’s not,” I replied. “But if he has someone undercover in our ranks… he could’ve gotten data on that whole thing.” Noah’s jaw tightened. “A traitor,” he responded. “I wouldn’t bet against it,” I said in honesty. “More than likely several traitors rather than just one.” “We can’t jump to conclusions,” Jacob said; trying to relieve the tension. “I’ll try and double down on tracking these guys’ affiliations,” Flags said over his shoulder. “I’m sure Noah’s spy team could also keep tabs on where these guys go after meetings.” Noah could only rub his neck as he winced at the thought. “And if the traitors are spies themselves?” None of us could find room for an answer like that. “What about this,” Jacob said. His finger pointed to an odd mark that had been left in the bottom corner of the sheet. A well-drawn circle about an inch wide and tall. Once colored in before the insides were viscously erased by a poor eraser; leaving nothing but large purple streaks filling the orb. I hadn’t been able to see it fully in the dark of my house; now we could all only stand there and lean over the oddity; which seemed just as accidental as it was purposeful. I took the sheet and brought it closer to me; brushing my thumb over the circle a few times. There was something almost familiar about the shape and the color. For a moment I felt almost as if I was reminiscing. Thinking of better times once again. “How do we know they’re not going to call the cops on us?” Jacob asked. “Give away our location?” “We don’t,” I replied. “But it would hurt them just as much as it’d hurt us. It goes both ways; they reveal us, we reveal them. And if Calvin truly wants to teach us a lesson; you can be sure he’ll do it himself.” “What do I tell the guys?” Noah asked me. I sat the paper down and carefully folded it up; placing it on the edge of the tale and weighing it down with a folder. “I don’t want anyone to know about this,” I replied sternly. “They know about Calvin’s issues with us already, so it’s not like we’d be hiding much. It would only instill fear among the masses. We don’t need more of that.” “Ay captain,” Jacob joked; though his voice was devoid of that familiar humor. “And what about Mask?” Noah asked. “Should I tell him?” “The less people that know about this; the better,” was my only response. I let Noah interpret that as he wished.

Hot and Cold:

Summer had called me one Wednesday afternoon; calling for me to meet up with her near Mellow-Falls to discuss some business. She was one of the few members who had control over me like that; most everyone else had to request to speak - Summer demanded it. I arrived around 7:00 to find her in a new car near where the road split from the woods to the town. It was not as cold out today and I was wearing a mere thin jacket to seize the small gusts of cold air. I pulled up beside her and rolled my window down. “You have a car now?” I asked. “Been saving up for it,” Summer made clear. “It’s about time right?” “I guess so,” I nodded. “I gotta read some new spy reports. Just got a new load in. If these guys are stepping out of line then I need to be able to step in a-” “Johnny can’t you take a day off?” She called with a smile. I paused for a moment and looked back at the Mellow-Falls entrance. “Is that the only reason you called me out here?” I questioned. “You know I don’t have time for this. I thought there was a problem.” “There is a problem,” Summer shot back. “We spend so much time with this S.S.C stuff and although I support it and all, we never get to hang out anymore you know? Me and you.” “We hang out in meetings,” I offered; though I knew it was a pointless argument. “You know what I mean,” Summer said; disappointment in her voice. “There are some great new movies going on over at the theater. If we hurry we can still catch one.” I thought over the offer, but the worries of Calvin and the preservation of the S.S.C started to weigh down on my mind once more. It was something I wouldn’t expect Summer to have understood. “Later, okay?” I finally responded. “We can go to the movies and maybe go out to eat afterwards. I just need a few more days to get a grip on all these changes.” Summer stopped talking and looked away to stare out her front window. “Summer, I promise,” I said. “I always keep my promises.” Summer’s head drooped and she finally looked back at me; disappointment still notable in her eyes. “Alright,” she said with a sigh. “I guess that’ll work.” There was a silence and I finally rolled up my windows to end it. Summer wasted no time driving off towards the town while I headed back home to continue my work. Someone had to do it.

The Rich and the Drathms:

I spent the entirety of that Wednesday going through papers and after an unremarkable day of school I found myself back at that lonely HQ flipping through files and reading reports forward and back. Jacob had procured some cheap filing cabinets which we set up behind the desk and near one of the doors; they made the place feel much smaller. Most every crevice in the house that had let in cold air had been all patched up; but the bitterness of that Thursday afternoon still managed to seep through the solid walls and nip at me. Missions were similar to many degrees and truth be told I doubt all of them could really be called “missions” to begin with. Simple disputes resolved, arguments broken out, small punches or threats thrown around here or there. We were making progress; but it was a slow one that bent to it’s own will. My hand reached out for one of the bottom files. It was not marked as a battle like most others. Instead this one merely read the name “Dante Felding”. The name immediately rung bells as I recalled Dante’s father Oscar being in charge of all Magna Oil operations in the town. What purpose could his rich son have had to do with us, was beyond me. I opened the file and read the quickly jotted handwriting.

Dante Felding has been cited in this entry for recent behaviors attributed to that of the attackers from around our school. Actions were noted at the local library and parking lot of the Morson bank towards two separate individuals. Standard attacker etiquette is applied and not listed as such. Due to Dante’s non affiliation with the school; the S.S.C is yet unsure how such an individual is to be handled. Requesting approval from Jonathan Coldwel for permission to approach.

Below was a line for me to sign my name and it was as simple as that. I read the document at least four times over. Dante Felding? A bullie? An Attacker? Could we be sure? Indeed the document seemed nothing but sure. Although our reach mainly targeted attackers from our school, the regular me would have more than likely signed the paper and smiled as yet another instigator of violence was taught a lesson. But this was not the usual me. This name brought on to many memories to be overlooked. Before being snatched away by his dad for his home-schooling; I could remember the old Dante, the old Calvin, the old me playing outdoors and throwing rocks and sticks at each other for fun. Only now rocks were just rocks and sticks were used for much more offensive purposes. Back then it didn’t matter if we were rich or if we were poor. It didn’t matter what our home-life was or what serious business was growing around us. We existed in our own little bubble of peacefulness. Brice was there too. Standing by my side as we teamed up to outrace Dante and Calvin across the town. It was a game we’d made up. I think one of us had named it Drathm. We’d sprint from one side of Toparsburg to the other. Once there, we would pick up a piercing black stone from the river past what was now the Magna Oil field. It was the only place in town where such oddly colored black stones could be found. We’d run back home and place the rock on the front porch to signal we’d gone the distance. I’d cheated once; hiding a rock from a previous game in my back pocket and pretending to have gone all the way down to the river when I’d actually turned back much sooner. I’d never told any of them that. A tinge of guilt came over me as I realized I’d never have the chance to tell Brice and laugh with him about it. And although Calvin and Dante were still very much alive; I doubted there would be much laughter with them ever again. My friends as I knew them were memories now. Ghosts. Drathm was long gone and our friendship had dried up. I looked back at the paper again.

Requesting approval from Jonathan Coldwel for permission to approach.

So formal. My friends had never called me by my full name like that. I reminisced about the days when Jacob still called me Johnny because he knew it got under my skin. He hadn’t said it really for some time. Everything was formal now; even when I’d try to imagine it otherwise.

Requesting approval from Jonathan Coldwel for permission to approach.

I thought of Calvin, I thought of Brice, and I thought of myself. And I threw the paper away.

Changes:

The school was changing. It was becoming more and more evident by the day. Halls and corridors formerly lined with tall brutes now remained mostly empty. No more cries of pain echoing through the lobbies. No more crying kids or sobbing girls. Perhaps this was what a normal school was like. I wondered from time to time how Teddy was doing so very far away. Could he have arrived in his new town - his new school and find the hatred nonexistent? Could he have found that we were really all alone? That we were - dare I say it; rare? I’d never know. And I didn’t think I wanted to either. Members were becoming far craftier than they had when first I’d observed them. Spies no longer huddled in groups and separated themselves from the populace. They separated now and sprinkled themselves amongst the flocks. Regular soldiers often avoided talking “business” during school hours; instead reverting back to their old lifestyles; but ever-vigilant just the same. We were silent alright. Had I not been their leader I doubt I ever would have noticed them. Rumors abounded as to how much teachers knew about us. Stories of how Mr. Frankyl saw the S.S.C attacking a group of bullies but turned the other cheek, or how first and second graders had been bringing up our name and practices around instructors who thought it was some sort of joke or new television show. Did some teachers know? I wouldn’t doubt it. But it was the question of; did they really care? To them we were just more bullies. To them we toughened up the little kids, threw a couple bruises here and there, and were off. We were a product of the times. And the times didn’t give a damn.

Attack:

I was leaving the school in somewhat of a hurry. It was a Friday and I knew that if Summer caught up with me she’d mention the movies once more. My birthday would be coming in a several weeks and I was planning on stalling her to wait and see a film until then. And so I hopped in my car and jetted out of the lot before anyone else could even manage to start their engines. I pulled into the lot of a gas station to refill as I thought out my plans. I knew that going home straight away would only lead to her calling me or tracking me down; I’d need to find another spot. I stopped my crazed inner thoughts for a moment and realized what I was saying. Ignoring my girlfriend like this; one of the only people she had to count on was me and this was how I was treating her. But the work was far too large and my time was far to short. Around this time, most members were tasked with driving or walking to their respective bases. I decided to head over to Mellow-Falls for some time and oversee Mask or Austin training their soldiers. I pushed the image of Summer out of my mind and drove that way. There were quick blurbs of static from behind me as my walkie-talkie struggled to connect to the frequencies of other soldiers’. We all operated on the same frequency and since the walkie talkie was the same brand; it made communication slightly easier; though the sound was maddening as ever. A few garbled words came up here and there; either from members in cars around me or perhaps in a ditch or behind some foliage. “See any more?” came one voice. “The response came shortly thereafter in a surprisingly loud hiss of chatter. “We may have a problem over here,” I could just faintly make out. The signal was growing weaker every meter forward I drove. “H-Squad, you read us?” came the first voice. It was far clearer as I spotted troopers on the outskirts of Mellow-Falls standing in confusion off to the side of the road; awaiting a response. I quickly pulled over to the side of the road and opened my door. “What’s going on?” I asked; the crisp freezing air rushing inside. The leader of the unit stepped forward. “We’re heading over for training at Austin’s base,” he replied. “We’re going with another squad but they fell behind when they said that they thought they saw figures in the bushes back that way.” He pointed over to the other large wooded base of operations I had passed while driving. I leaned back into my car and pulled out my walkie talkie; speaking loudly into the mic. “What’s going on over there, squadron. Please respond.” No response came. We all stood there in silence gazing off at the woods; wondering what could be going on. There was an incredibly brief burst of static before the com went silent again. I turned back to the group and waved my arm. “All of you hop in!” I shouted. We’re going over there. The master rode shotgun to me as the apprentices squeezed into the back. “All units,” I said over the device. “We have no response from a squadron off by the outskirts of the wooded base just to the north of Light Avenue and south-west to the school entrance. Requesting all available troopers to head over and figure out what’s going on!” “Roger that!” came a few voices over the other end; although it wasn’t as many as I’d hope. My car spun around on the icy roads as I brought my foot down hard on the pedal; racing down the road as fast as I could. The master next to me hung tightly to his seat and grimaced as we nearly slid off the snow-covered turn of the road. “Mayday, mayday!” came the walkie talkie in my hand; practically vibrating at the intensity of the voice. “We’re under attack! Can anyone hear us! We-” The voice stopped and loud screams of pain and cursing emanated from the mic. “Calvin!” I screamed to myself; slamming my fist down hard on the horn. I swirved around several cars in front of me; nearly being hit head-on upon moving around one. Cars beeping and drivers shouting came from every direction; even piercing through my rolled-up window. I was running on adrenaline now as I came up over the final hill. Now looking to my right I found the squadron; fighting in the bushes surrounding the woods; kicking up dirt, snow, and leaves in every direction and making me and the others blind to whomever the attackers really were. With a sudden flick of my hands I drove off-road and into the grass; my head slamming against the steering wheel as I halted the car in a split-second. “This is as far as we can go by car!” I screamed to the others who looked at my bleeding head is horror. “Everyone out! Get out there and help them out until we can get some backup!” The master fled the car in an instant but his apprentices remained scared and timid in the back; unable to bring themselves to move. “Get out, now!” I shouted again. My voice now filled the car louder than any static and drove the members out; with them sprinting towards the scene as my head rang and spun. I shakingly pulled the handle to open my door and fumbled outside; having to lean against the side of my car to keep from doubling over in pain. Through the piercing headache and icy winds I could still hear the cries of pain. And I knew already that nothing would ever be the same again.

Pushing Back:

Every direction I turned yielded only blurriness. From time to time I’d eye the sun; whose intense rays only added to the vertigo. Two other cars pulled into the grass nearby; one nearly clipping me as it worked it’s way off the road. I could spot faint blue colors and familiar voices rushing past me; their voices sounding in and out. There was a sudden firm grip on my shoulder and I was spun to face one of the blue blurs. “John, you alright?” came the voice of Jacob. “I-I’m fine,” I struggled to say. “Don’t worry about me,” get out there before they cause more damage!” Jacob ran towards the fray and eventually my hearing and eyesight returned to me. The fight remained just where it had begun; right next to the bushes. Immediately I knew the attackers’ plan. Calvin had learned from the snow cloud effect from Operation Igloo. By setting his forces close to the bushes they could hide and avoid kicking up the smoke. We on the other hand had nothing but barren snow to work with. “It’s Calvin alright,” I said out loud; despite no-one being within proximity. I carefully worked my way forward; trying not to get to much snow in my boots before reaching the battle. The ground had become a thick slush now; with prints of boots and shoes littered about the area. Three members, including Jacob sat in the back with their BB-guns aimed forward. They didn’t risk hitting our own; instead waiting for an absolutely clear and safe shot. “Slowly work your way forward!” I yelled out to them as I passed in a hurry. “When enough of our guys start falling I need you to be in proximity to bring the hammer down!” I assumed they had heard me; but I could not hear them; my blood was rushing and heart pounding much too fast to note their responses. I finally reached the center of the conflict; two of my own were lying face-down in the snow; one with a bruise to the side of his forehead and another with a bloody. In a hurry I flipped the two to face upwards before advancing. One S.S.C soldier was being pushed back by an enemy in brown; with a purple circle strapped to his shoulder while yet another one attacked my soldier from the side. Acting quickly; I rushed forward and struck one of the attackers in the stomach; sending him down on his back. Before he could stand I delivered a harsh kick to his temple; incapacitating him in the snow. Everything was chaos; screams of terror and vulgar shouts of suffering or anger blew at me from every direction. As I struggled to find enemies to advance upon; the occasional white dust would fly into my face; blinding me just long enough to be hit in the abdomen or the chest by an unseen trooper. The enemies struggled to reach me for long though, soldiers knew of my presence and were protecting me within a wobbly circle. “Don’t worry about me!” I shouted to them over the screaming. “Worry about the wounded! Get them back to the cars and see to it they don’t freeze to death!” A few soldiers were quick to oblige; some dragging the wounded while others helped them up and staggered with their half-conscious friends and brothers back towards the vehicles. The enemy was doing the same; some unseen forces reaching from the bushes and trees to drag their counterparts back into the darkness. I stared back for a brief moment; finding the three soldiers with BB-guns getting closer and their weapons snapping and popping almost in rhythm with another as their aim became much more accurate. I was suddenly attacked from behind by an enemy who wrapped his arm around my throat and threw me to the ground with ease. I opened my eyes to view the horizontal field of snow; splattered with blood and other bodies yet to be rescued. My attacker grabbed me in a hurry and held me by the front of my shirt; drawing his hand back and preparing to launch his fist into my face. I looked at him; he was one of Calvin’s friends, a former S.S.C member, a traitor. My left arm hung limply from my side as I felt a piercing pain coming over it, but with my spare right I sent a sharp hook to his face; knocking him to the left and forcing him to let go of my collar. I rose to my feet and planted my foot firmly into his back before pounding him in the back of the head twice; knocking him unconscious. More shots rang out and incoming enemies found themselves without S.S.C shields to hide behind; instead being bombarded with BB shells to their chests, arms, and legs. Even with their heavy coats; they were hardly prepared for this sort of weaponry. “That’s the way!” I shouted to them. The corner of my eye spotted an attacker just to my left; giving me just enough time to duck; avoiding the shot and letting it pass over me. Now wanting to waste time standing or turning; I lunged backwards; pushing the enemy down with my back and stepping on him as I launched myself into the air; punching yet another incoming foe. The force of the hit caused my hand to snap and my pinky finger to break sharply to the right. This shattering pain traveled up my arm in an instant and I was sent doubling over in pain without so much as a push. As I laid on that icey cold ground I saw attackers working their way around the battle; trying to flank the troopers with BB-guns from behind. “Jacob!” I shouted; flaking and muddy snow flying into my mouth and eyes. “Behind you! Look behind you!” Two attackers stormed over me and one struck me upside the head with his fist while the other held me down with his heavy boot. Snow began to seep through my boots and jacket. Snow dust was everywhere and I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it anymore or not. All I could do was wait for the silence to take over. And with another strike to the head, it did.

Awakening:

“Put another blanket on him,” came a faint voice somewhere to my left. My body felt warm but my face and wrist were still stinging with an almost unbearable pain. “Oh thank god,” came Summer’s voice nearby. I slowly flickered open my eyes finding myself lying on the floor of an empty garage. S.S.C soldiers were storming in and out of a door near the back; where I could just make out them going to a small shed in the back of the yard. There were silent moans nearby and with a painful turn of my head I found several other members lying on their backs and on their sides. We were scattered all throughout the garage; most likely even more of us in the shed. Jacob, Summer, and Flags were looking down at me not saying word; perhaps trying to determine whether I was really still breathing or not. I tried to move my right hand but found it bound tightly with bandages. “W-where are we?” I asked; my voice cracking with pain and soreness. “I got here as soon as I could,” Summer said; beginning to sob and dropping to her knees to hug me. “We drove you over to Blue-Point,” Jacob replied. “A guy here said his parents wouldn’t be home and offered up his garage and other portions of the house for a quick infirmary.” I offered no response and stared at my throbbing right hand; trying to untie it. Flags quickly stopped me. “Broken finger,” Flags said starkly. “And possibly your wrist to.” I grunted in frustration as Summer drew back and silently laid by my side; still crying. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing now. Nothing but the pain. “One of our guys was able to pop your finger back into place,” Jacob told me. “But you still need to keep those bandages on for a while until we are sure tha-” “Who ran first?” I interrupted. “E-excuse me?” he asked. “I said, who ran first? Us or them?” I was speaking through my teeth; nearly feeling them grinding together in anger. Jacob was silent for a while and looked around in hopes that some other S.S.C member could break the news; but most - if not all; turned away. “We ran,” Jacob finally replied starkly. “They didn’t have enough remaining troops to chase us. I’d consider it a stalemate.” “We ran,” I repeated. “That’s no stalemate. I rose to my feet and felt the soreness spreading over every one of my muscles. Flags tried briefly to hold me down; but I rose to fast for him. “That’s weakness!” I yelled. “This was our chance to put Calvin in his proper place right out the gate!” The injured soldiers looked up at me from the ground; disgrace covering their faces. “Johnny calm down,” Summer whispered from behind; holding my clenched fist and drawing me back down to the floor.” I shook my head and gave a deep sigh. “It’s not your fault,” I said. “Not any of you. I should have kept fighting… kept leading. “Those two guys that knocked me out, I know they were some of Calvin’s friends.” Flags and Jacob looked at eachother in confusion for a moment before staring back down at me. “Boss,” Jacob said. “You weren’t knocked out. You beat the living snot out of those two. I was there. I saw it. You stayed awake and pretty-alert for about a minute more before we evacuated. We lost track of you for a while and eventually found you knocked out in the back of your car.” My eyes narrowed as I searched my memory for this rendition of the story. There was nothing there. Empty space. Blankness. “I see,” I replied slowly. “We’ll discuss the attack tomorrow. And hold a meeting too. I don’t want to be in those woods for a couple days. Meet up at the boiler room at about five o’clock.” “I’ll arrange it,” Flags said, pointing to Jacob and I. “You guys need some rest.” “My car here?” I asked. “Right outside,” Summer said. “You sure you’re okay to drive?” I slowly stood back on my feet and nodded. “I’ll be fine.” With Summer and the others offering no further objections; I began working my way out of the garage; trying to avoid stepping on any of the wounded. I couldn’t bring myself to looking at their faces. There was a sudden tug at my leg; preventing me from moving any farther. “B-boss,” came a sheepish voice from below. I hesitated for a moment before looking down; spotting one soldier whose eyes were swollen nearly shut. His nose oozed blood and their was a distinct scratch up one side of his face. He brought up his hand; which clung tightly to a small purple circle; the very same insignia that the attackers had worn. “I tore this one f-from them,” he said hoarsely. I nodded apologetically and gently took the patch from his hand. “You’ve done good,” I whispered to him. As his grip on my leg loosened; my clenching of the patch grew stronger; bending and deforming it beyond recognition as best I could. It was all I could think to do. At least for now.

Rise of THEM:

Another freezing cold day awaited us the next morning. I had arrived at the boiler room a couple hours early to make sure things were in place and figure out how to fit everyone inside. I took special care in parking my car at the back of the school; where typically only janitors would see it. I was indeed the first one to arrive. I kept busy by moving around tables and stacking boxes of gear in the corners. Before to long they began to arrive. Their was a surreal feeling to it all. Seeing those with faces scratched and beaten right besides those who to this day had still yet to see any real action. There were questions being thrown left and right; but none to me. They were speaking to each other; desperately trying to establish some kind of hive mind where they could make sense of it all. The sense never seemed to come. Mask had arrived unbeknownst to anyone and silently stood in the corner - arms crossed and facing me with that cold stare. I wondered what he thought of me after all of this. The sound of Flag’s motorcycle signified his arrival and Noah and Jacob weren’t far behind. I had expected Noah to rush forward at me with questions; but the moment I saw him walk inside I could tell he hadn’t slept well. Dark circles weighed down at his eyes and his hair hadn’t been kept. In fact none of the Origins came over to sate me; merely allowing me to sit in front of the incoming troops and watch the faces of the wounded as they felt at their cheeks and noses; struggling to move with much dexterity. Eventually the sounds of cars outside stopped and I stood to speak. “They’re calling themselves THEM,” I finally admitted to the crowds. I reached my hand into my pocket and took out the purple insignia; which had merely been cut from a purple cloth; most likely a thick shirt or jacket. “And this is the symbol they stand behind,” I continued; placing it back into my pocket. “You’ve heard the rumors about what they sent me. How they threatened me. And you all know what they did.” the crowds remained quiet and the soft whistling of cold air seeping through the door bounced around the room; causing many of the troops to shiver or huddle for warmth. “The Calvin you all knew is gone,” I said. “The soldiers who served him or supported him are gone. They’ve been replaced with a twisted sense of morality. They believe in a world where the helpless are forced to fight for themselves and that those willing to help are causing more harm than good.” Many in the crowd shook their heads in frustration or cursed Calvin under their breath. “Calvin is treating your safety as if it’s a game. Going back and forth on and on until somebody cracks… it’s a game to him… it’s Drathm.” Many of the troops could only stare in confusion. Only I could truly understand what it meant; but I wanted to imagine Calvin’s spy was there. And that the word would go back to him; maybe bring some light to his dark heart. The attack yesterday was their first stab at us,” I said. “And we bled… But that wound can be healed and our thicker skin will be all the better because of it. But hear me, S.S.C, if you try to hunt Calvin, or if you pick a fight with one of his followers; the whole school will think we operate out of revenge instead of out of safety. Therefore we must learn to coexist with them. It’s the only way to keep the school on our side.” “And what happens if they turn to Calvin’s side?” one member in the back shouted out. It was the first time an ordinary soldier had ever questioned me. “If Calvin seeks to divide the school in half then so be it,” I said. “Some will join him… some will join us. But no-one will be willing to fight our cause or stick up for us if they think we are fighting out of revenge.” “We have to fight them back somehow!” another soldier shouted. Flags stepped forward to lecture the soldier; but I motioned for him to stop. “We will prepare,” I said. “Just because we can’t fight them at day does not mean we can’t prepare for the worst at night. We have people working on new tools to help ward the enemy forces off; but they will never succeed unless donations keep coming in and developers keep developing. Those BB-guns were the only things holding the battle in order back there.” I let this sink in for a moment. “We will squash them like the parasite they are, but for now all we can do is prepare and hope that the next time any of them try an attack; we’ll be right there waiting for them.” No more arguments came. “Now,” I said; trailing off a bit. “Out of respect for those who fought the good fight yesterday. I ask that you not cheer for me; but rather for them. They are the real heroes here.” The groups of soldiers slowly but surely began to break into clapping and light cheers for their battered comrades. I was there cheering right by their side; and it stayed that way for some time even after I’d dismissed them to leave. As always; the Origins stayed behind to speak. It was rare for all of us to be in the same room together anymore. Noah looked as if he might pass out and Mask kept his distance; still standing watch in the corner as if nothing had changed. I sat back down and sighed; running my hand through my hair. “Some guys didn’t show up,” I said. “Doesn’t surprise me,” Jacob replied. “Some guys just tend to run when the going gets tough. Those guys who aren’t willing to go the extra mile will be weeded out before long. We’ll be left with the golden ones.” I shook my head in agreement and turned to Flags. “You spoke to guys,” I said. “Did anyone see Calvin at Drathm?” “You’re really calling calling it that?” Flags questioned. “Did they or didn’t they?” I pressed. “No,” Flags shot back. “No visual on Calvin whatsoever. And we didn’t catch any of the attackers so we can’t really know how they organized themselves.” “At least one of them has to know where he is,” I said under my breath. “Any word on THEM’s inside-man?” Flags shook his head. “Nothing on that either. Spy team says everyone seems fine so far.” I gave a sigh and put my coat on. “Noah make sure we have some of those new tools ready next time they attack. When they do I can almost guarantee it won’t be during school time. They’ll wait until afterwards. Weekends are prime attack times. We need to stay one step of Calvin at every turn.” “R-roger that, boss,” Noah said; still looking a little distant. I was going to ask him if he was okay; but I had bigger things on my mind. Preventing more war.

Neighbors:

Monday was hard for all of us. Not just those who were injured in Drathm, but the friends and colleagues of those people as well. We knew eachothers’ faces relatively well; and it was only a matter of time until you’d turn a corner and see an unfamiliar face with bruises and cuts… a THEM member. I was in my third class of the day when there was a soft noise to my right. I turned to find one of those unfamiliar faces sitting by my side. He glanced at me nervously and casually scanned the room for another seat; of which there was none. I knew I’d instructed members to turn the other cheek; to coexist with the enemy, but there he was. There he was just sitting by my side, a teen who had most likely hurt several of my comrades and instilled such fear into them. I imagined the knowledge he carried with him. Could he know when THEM would attack again? Know where Calvin was? I thought about how easily I could break him. My stare grew fiercer. All the answers I needed, all the problems that urked me in the night; he held the key to solving them all. Slowly I turned my head back to the front of the class. I did not look at him for the rest of the time. I was worried what might happen if I did.

More Updates:

The school day went on without any instances of violence between the S.S.C and THEM. Calvin must have instructed his troops just as I had. Or perhaps the spy had simply informed him of my ruling. Tuesday went equally well, though the bandages wrapped about my hand were beginning to bother me. Often times I found them to tight; making it nearly impossible to bend my fingers to pick anything up. Driving was equally difficult. I didn’t like feeling trapped. It was one of my biggest fears; the idea of being somewhere and wanting to do something but no matter how hard you try; you can’t get to it. From time to time I’d fancy a thought of taking the knife Uncle Stew had given me. Scooping it up from under my bed and cutting the bandages lose in a quick - single motion. I might have done it too if it weren’t for my phone ringing the moment I walked inside. I picked it up with my good hand and leaned against the wall as Jacob’s voice came from the other end. “Jonathan,” he said before I could even greet him. “We have news updates from the spy team. You’re going to want to hear this.” “Hit me,” I said. “Remember how you asked the guys to keep an eye on Summer’s brother; Brandon? Well apparently there was some weird activity from his end the other day.” I now stood straight up and brought the phone closer to my face. “What is it?”. “Spies saw him meeting with a THEM member at Jet’s Diner. Said they were speaking in hushed voices but overall seemed to be a pretty friendly conversation followed by a handshake.” “You think he’s joining THEM?” I asked. “Not quite,” Jacob said. “The spy could only hear one part of the conversation at the end. I’ll make some calls, Brandon  said to the guy.” I thought on this for a moment until the realization finally hit me. “Last time we met he made a point that he still had a lot of friends both inside and out of school. If he found out that THEM is against us… he could supply THEM with troops we haven’t even heard of or seen!” “So that’s Calvin’s next move,” Jacob stated. “Not so much a move as it is an insurance policy,” I said. “If THEM gets as many troops as us then they are bound to pose more of a threat. Had I not called in some teams in Drathm, we certainly would have lost. Without a doubt.” I tapped my foot anxiously as I tried to think of some kind of countermeasure. “You said it was at Jet’s Diner,” I said. “Was Noah there at the time? He might have overheard more.” “Already asked him,” Jacob replied. “He said he didn’t. And besides; I doubt he’d even notice them, really. He’s been a bit… off lately.” “I’ve noticed,” I said. Jacob continued, “He’s been so down in the dumps that he hasn’t been doing a real good job tending to our development team. Luckily Flags has stepped in and is sending out tools to the bases as best he can. It’s my understanding that the Boiler Room base is good, the base where Drathm took place is nearly good, and Mellow-Falls has yet to be supplied much.” “Their size will keep them protected,” I argued. “If they can learn to work together,” Jacob added. “I’ll talk to Noah when I get the chance,” I said. “We have enough to worry about and if he’s acting off I don’t want to start getting reports telling me one of the Origins is a traitor or something.” “No worries,” Jacob said. “Origins have immunity to being spied on. That’s why you don’t see guys with binoculars outside your windows at night.” “I appreciate that,” I said. It was nice to hear a witty-joke again. But it wasn’t like before. There was no laughter anymore.

The Flood:

“I had a feeling you’d be needing some more oak for that fire pit of yours,” Uncle Stew told me as he threw down a log from his truck to me. I had no response; he was right though; I was going through wood much faster than I ever had before. “It’s not supposed to get any warmer either,” Stew told me. “In fact I think we’ve had it easy so far. Only one snow storm and it hardly did much damage. I’m tellin ya, it’s all just building up for some grand appearance.” I still offered up no response as I caught yet another tossed log. Stew seemed to finally note my silence and gave a couple glances at my face. “You uh… got a couple of knicks there on you,” he said. “Not missing any teeth right?” “Not missing any teeth,” I repeated. My teeth may have all been there, but my mind was certainly somewhere else. Uncle Stew stopped throwing over logs for a moment and opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, but stopped himself; realizing I didn’t want to talk about it. “Magna Oil is really picking up production,” Stew said; changing the subject. “We’ve been shipping out like crazy and getting the attention of some real big-whigs. It’s only a matter of time until the money starts flowing back to us.” He stopped for a second to wipe sweat from his brow. He handed a rag over for me to do the same; but quickly noticed I wasn’t perspiring in any way and retracted the offer. “Yeah well,” he said. “Some old coots up at the station say we could be looking at lower taxes, prices, better jobs, and more funding to bulldoze the old and make way for the new. There’s houses just up north by the Garrison River that got built just last year but nobody had the money to endorse them, sell them, or keep them looking nice. They’ve already got weeds sprouting up all around’em. This oil business is doing wonders for everybody. You should consider maybe getting a job down there.” “I’ll consider it later this year,” I replied quickly. “It’s just,” Stew began. “You’re turning 18 real soon and I wish the best for you to be able to support yourself. The pay is good. I hear that the manager of the operation - uh what’s his name?” “Oscar Felding,” I replied; thinking back to his son Dante once more. And the thought of him being no better than Ivan now. “Yeah, that’s it!” Uncle Stew exclaimed. “I figure he’s raking in some serious cash right about now. Richest guy in the state before long, I’d bet.” “I scooped up the remaining logs from the back of Stew’s truck and added them to the heap. “That’ll be good for another few weeks or so,” he told me. “Johnny, try to stay safe alright?” I only nodded. “Think about that job,” he said as he stepped into his truck and revved up the engine. “Supporting yourself is the first step towards adulthood.” I offered no response and merely watched as he sighed and pulled out of the yard. He had no clue just how much I was supporting. The weight growing heftier on my shoulders and my mind constantly riddles with doubt or frustration. I no longer had the mind of a teenager; perhaps not that of an adult either. I was just… the product of change.

A Lesson:

It was my first time returning to the wooded base since Drathm took place just on the outskirts. To avoid confusion with Mellow-Falls, troops began calling it “The Eye”. There was a clearing just at the center of the woods which gave way to one lone tree standing vigil in it’s center. From a bird’s eye view perhaps it could look something similar to a pupil. I was in charge of overseeing paths and dictating which ones should be upkept and others abandoned. In doing so we could narrow the possibilities of THEM launching any sort of surprise attack. Details were everything; Calvin knew it just as much as I did. Where snow was placed, the bumpiness of paths, thickness of foliage, sloping hills, mud, it all had to be considered in preventing enemies from striking. I was walking with a master through the area and watching tiny flakes of snow wiggle their way past overhead branches and leaves. He stopped for a moment and pointed to the north of the base. “Just up this way is where they hid out and attracted that squad,” he said. “I could shut down a path or two and have the guys transplant some foliage from their property around there for good measure.” “Lemme take a look at it,” I replied. We worked our way down the path and eventually reached the center of the woods where the large tree was situated and multiple groups of masters and apprentices trained. There was a short spout of laughter from behind me for a moment. I turned to find apprentices a couple years younger than myself eyeing me as one whispered something to his friends. They strained to avoid laughter. I tried to turn my back and continue to the north but immediately more laughter sounded. “Something funny?” I barked, turning now and striding over to the group. Their faces drained of color and their nearby master immediately scolded them. “N-nothing,” one mumbled as he shuffled back to his master. The others, including the kid who had whispered offered up similar responses. “Don’t want any trouble,” I said starkly before turning once again. Then suddenly came the voice of the whispering apprentice. “Like that’s any surprise,” he spoke under his breath. My muscles tensed for a moment as I spun back around and pointed for the others to leave me with the boy. “Mind saying that again?” I asked. The apprentice seemed fearful at first; looking around for some sort of help from his team or his master, but nobody would step in his way now. “You know what I mean!” the kid suddenly bursted out to avoid looking weak. “We got our asses kicked in Drathm and you aren’t doing anything to get them back! It’s all just protection! Before long we’ll be all bark and zero bite!” I only scowled at him and drew closer. “I-I mean,” he stuttered. “That’s why we’re here! We’re here to fight! That’s who we are!” The entire base was staring at us now; waiting for me to respond as the apprentice could only stand shaking in front of me. My arm suddenly shot forward and clasped the boy’s jacket by the collar and drawing him forward to look me in the eyes. “That’s where you’re wrong,” I said through my teeth. “You want to see who we are? Why we are? Let me show you.” “H-hang on!” the apprentice shouted as I began to drag him with me back to the path leading to my car. “I’m s-sorry okay? Listen-” “I’ve had enough listening,” I responded without turning. With strict orders being thrown at him from friends and masters alike from every direction; the apprentice finally quieted down and followed me to my car. “Get in and shut up,” I said; opening the passenger door. Before long we were off; the apprentice not risking looking me in the eyes. “Where are we going?” he asked after a while. I gave no response. “You think you can just scare the truth into me?” he said mockingly. “The guys think the same way. We’re fighters. That’s what we are. Not protectors or defenders. Everyone is just like me!” I gave a sharp turn to the left and the apprentice stared out the window; eyeing gravestones surrounding us every which way. “What are you-” he began, though I gave a harsh break and opened my door. “Out,” I ordered. Slowly the apprentice left his seat and looked around at the snow-covered graves; the names glossed over with small snowdrifts. I pulled at the apprentice’s arm and took him to a grave near the center. Not particularly special in any way. The name was covered. With a harsh swipe of my hand I dusted the snow from the front; with Brice’s name manifesting from the white smoke. Forcefully I pushed the apprentice down to his knees so he could take a closer look at it. “This is what happens we don’t defend.” I said with by teeth barred. “This is what we leave behind when all we care about is protecting ourselves!” I grabbed the boy by his shoulders and turned him to face me. “We aren’t just fighters! We aren’t like THEM! We can be something more than that! We can be the reason why graves like this don’t pollute our town and grieving parents don’t have to spring up from our homes! We are a fire that burns for them! Not for ourselves! We keep their worlds alive by sacrificing our own!” The kid stared at me; unsure what to say; all of his words had been taken now. “You can either join that fire or be burned up by it,” I said; my voice beginning to lower as I looked back at the grave. “Think about that next time you want to tell me how to keep it growing.” With that I let go of the apprentice and drew back to my car. When I heard no footsteps behind me I turned to find him still on his knees; gazing into the headstone as if he had seen a ghost. The light snow sprinkled down on his hair and shoulders; turning his ears and nose, red. For a moment I thought I saw myself. I thought I could hear the rain. Feel the tears building up. But they were ghosts too. Perhaps the feelings weren’t mine alone to hold anymore.

Round 2:

It was an early Saturday morning that I had managed to contact Jacob and ask him about the current status of weapons. Noah had been increasingly difficult to reach over the phone and Flags didn’t have the luxury. As I understood it; he’d often either take up residence in his own tent outside; or on cold nights manage to mooch a room off of other fighters or girls he met at the diner. “We have got lots of those ivey-packs spread out to every base except for Mellow-Falls,” Jacob told me. “Same goes for the sticks and some sort of super-intense flashlight. Able to light up the darkness of the woods and even stun targets if close enough.” “I need numbers, Jacob,” I said. Jacob paused for a moment and I heard him rifling through papers on the other end. He wasn’t nearly as orderly as Noah had been. “Um,” he mumbled. “Upwards of about 30 packs and downwards of 10 sticks. No data on flashlights yet.” “Why isn’t the Falls being supplied?” I asked. “The place is really hard to run,” Jacob said. “Such a big place and Austin is making things difficult in how he treats Mask’s unit.” “Right,” I said. “We’ve been over this. I’ll speak to them tomorrow.” “Good,” Jacob replied. “If you’re still getting some proper donations then I’d recommend getting more BB-guns. They really help.” “And risk taking someone’s eye out?” I questioned. “I don’t want the police involved with this.” Jacob mumbled in agreement and continued flipping through papers for more information. That’s when I heard it - screeching; that same static from before. That noise so monstrously loud that it seemed to engulf all other sounds around it. The screeching was coming from Jacob’s end of the phone. I listened to him drop his papers and rush over to the mic; trying to talk out over it. There were hazy responses coming back to him; hardly distinguishable from the other noises. I listened as Jacob feverishly picked up his end of the phone. “What’s going on?” I questioned before he could say a word. Jacob was almost already breathless and his voice seemed to quiver at every spoken word. “Emergency warning!” he said; gasping for air. “We’re under attack!” I stretched the cord of my phone as long as it would go and grabbed a jacket off a chair. “Where is it?” I yelled back. There was another pause from Jacob’s end. Finally the response: “Everywhere.”

Drathm 2

We hadn’t seen it coming. Not like this. We had prepared for yet another surprise attack at one of the bases; there was no way around it, really. But Jacob had made it clear; all bases were being raided by THEM forces except for our secret shed for the Origins. Even the boiler room had been under siege. It was the first to be attacked as I understood it. With the attacks then spreading to the Falls and lastly to the Eye only moments afterwards. Only then did Jacob recieve word. I found myself in that same situation once again. Finding myself swerving in and out between cars as I worked my way to the boiler room to help anyone still in need. I had no doubt the situation would be dire. I made a sharp right onto a small street leading towards the school. The road was lined with bushes and untrimmed grass from every direction. With no driver in front of me I began to speed up; pushing my car to the limit and kicking up huge clouds of snow behind me as I drove. A sudden large rock was rolled onto the center of the road from the brush; giving me no time to slow and hardly any time to move. Still moving at top speeds I was forced to strike the rock; which clanged at the front of my car before traveling under the wheels and causing the entire car to lurch. No doubt my tires had been busted by the sudden contact. And it was no coincidence that the rock at made it’s way into the road either. They knew I was coming. Refusing to turn back I continued to drive towards the school; eventually seeing the lot where multiple S.S.C soldiers carried their fallen comrades to vehicles to stay warm. I turned into the lot and didn’t even bother turning the car off; instead opting to hop out and rush over to a master helping up one of his own guys. “What’s the status?” I spoke loudly over the distant shouts of pain. “We’ve lost to many!” the master yelled back to me. “They caught us completely off-guard! There is almost nobody left!” I gritted my teeth and felt the coldness around me beginning to fade away. I was burning hot. “I want as many people to help win this base back as possible!” I shouted. “Don’t drive the wounded off! If they’re still able to fight; they will fight!” The master hesitantly saluted and gave orders to the wounded as I ran towards the boiler room itself. A kid bleeding heavily from the mouth ran past me; moaning in pain as he hunched over and fall to the snow-covered concrete. The purple patches of THEM caught my eye the closer I got; with their forces surrounding the exit door to the room and slowly pushing their way in. A couple S.S.C fighters squeezed out of the room and sprinted past the attackers; one being struck hard in the gut and falling to the ground before being dragged back into the fray. The other one ran to my side. “Mask is in there!” he shouted out to me. “He’s holding them off but we’re losing guys to fast!” “Hang on!” I shouted to myself as I sprinted at the blockade by the door; hitting one upside the head and then whipping out the special stick Noah had given me to pin two attackers against the brick wall; strangling them with the rod as I used my spare hand to strike them in the forehead. “That’s him!” an enemy shouted; with some of the blockade tearing off to run at me. This allowed Mask and his forces to push through what was left of the enemy. I swung the stick harshly at one attacker; knocking him to the ground and allowing him to be trampled by his comrades. As attempted a second swing but the stick was caught and ripped away from me. Before I knew it I was being hit from every direction; one punch to my chest, another to the side of my face, yet another to my arm. My body began to numb and the coldness returned. I was feeling it all now. Mask rushed up behind two attackers and yanked one to the ground by the back of his hood before using a quick leg-sweep to knock the other soldier down. We were surrounding them now. Mask’s guys in the back, the wounded coming back in from the left, me at the front, and a brick wall to their right. Now breaking free from my attackers I jutted my head forward; hitting an enemy square in the eye before kicking him into a comrade. Mask jabbed one THEM member in the throat with a short punch and used his intense speed to slam his head into the brick wall. I was suddenly tackled; a THEM member clinging to my feet as my head struck the concrete; screaming at me. “This is it! You’re dead! You hear me? Dead!” I’d heard it all before. I freed a leg and kicked him in the mouth before grabbing onto the outstretched hand of the master from before; who helped me to my feet. “Tackle the rest!” I yelled out to the fighters. “All at once!” Like clockwork the soldiers who could here me dove forward at their attackers; pinning them to the ground from every direction and sending white dust flying into the air. It almost seemed for a moment like a ghost had engulfed them all. And the scene only became more ghostly as the noise died away and the falling white smoke became dotted with bloody faces and red hands. When finally the dust had dissipated I was left eyeing the remaining THEM forces trying to struggle against the weight put upon them. They were trapped and we had one. But this was only one battle of many. I gritted my teeth as I thought back to the other bases. There was no help for them now from me… at least… not physically anyways.

Questions:

“Headlocks on all of them!” I ordered. Let their wounded pick themselves up; the rest are coming with us! With only a bit more resistance; the THEM fighters were grabbed by the troopers on top of them and put into inescapable headlocks before being dragged to the boiler room; screaming for assistance. Mask stood by my side as some masters spread the orders. I noted one THEM member desperately trying to break away from the soldier who wrapped his forearm around his throat. Through the struggling; the THEM soldier dropped a black device from his coat; which clamored to the snowy ground and was almost overlooked by our forces. I carefully made my way forward and picked up the tool. A walkie-talkie. An even higher quality version than our own. “Impossible,” I said to myself. “They couldn’t be getting financed already…” I sudden flash of red-hot anger came over me as I threw the walkie-talkie to the ground; allowing it to shatter into tiny fragments all around the lot. I turned around to a master and apprentice behind me. “I want you two to drive out to the Eye and the Falls! Make sure everything is okay! Rally forces with you if you can!” “What about you?” the apprentice asked as he rubbed his beaten arm. I turned back to the boiler room and listened to the THEM members cursing and screaming from the depths; their voices becoming echoed like poltergeists. “I have other work to do,” I replied. With that I made my way into the boiler room, finding the S.S.C troops struggling to hang on to the attackers much longer. “Listen to me,” I said coldly. “You struggle any more, and none of you will be set free.” Slowly the fighting came to an end and our defeated enemies fell to their knees; still struggling for breath as they waited for me to speak once more. “What are you doing?” a master asked me as I came in closer. “Looking for guy in charge,” I said through my teeth. I began scanning the faces in the room. I recognized very few of them; many older than I’d expected. During the heat of battle the faces of enemies can seem distorted - inhuman even. But now that I saw their faces; I knew that they were just like us: humans. Many refused to look me in the eyes; some clinging to wounds and others appearing terrified as their eyes darted back and forth at every crevice in the room. There was one who didn’t however. One member with black hair and black eyes who’s hand only remained at his sides and his gazed stayed fixed on me. I stopped in front of him and bent down to look him eye-to-eye. There was no fear there. I was unsure if I was the only one who could really tell. But so long as his friends were there; he showed no fear. “You,” I said at last; trying to subdue my anger. “Me,” the teen replied at last in a somber tone. I turned to the others. “I want you to take everyone else outside and turn them free,” I said. “Just know that if any of you try and start something up there; you’re commander here will be in a real heap of trouble. Do you understand me?” There was no response; not even a nod. It had been a long time since I’d seen anyone defy me. “Take’em up,” I said again to my troops. Slowly but surely the THEM members were hauled back to the surface one-by-one and released; many of them sprinting away or hurling a word of insult back before making a getaway. Yet none did any worse than that. Now it was just me and the commander; with a couple other S.S.C soldiers guarding the doorway and another two bounding his arms with tape and spare rope. I glared down at the enemy soldier and pulled up a chair, sitting down, and leaning in to him. “Who are you?” I asked. The commander seemed almost unwilling to speak; though he was well aware that if he didn’t one of his wounded troops above could be treated harshly. “Thomas,” he said slowly. I grimaced and grabbed his face; directing it so it could stare up at me. “Not that,” I said strictly. “Who are you?” The teen ripped his head out from my grasp and he carefully leaned back to be farther from me. “I… am the commander of the THEM unit assigned to attack this base.” “And who assigned you?” I prodded. The teen hesitated; he was looking so much smaller now. “C-Calvin Supco,” he replied at last. I had known already of course. “Where is he?” I demanded. “”I-I don’t know,” the teen insisted; squirming away from me and backing himself into a corner. “Nobody knows! He sent commanders like me messages through the mail. We organized ourselves appropriately!” “Where did you get those walkie-talkies?” I questioned. “Some financer,” the teen replied shakily. “Gives us lots of money to throw around on items like that.” “How many of you are there?” I demanded. The teen did not speak. “How many!” I shouted. It was now my voice that echoed through the room like a ghost. Mask walked in behind me a watched from a distance. I drew close to the teen again. “Answer me now,” I said with my teeth barred. “Or I can’t guarantee your safety.” “A-Almost as many as you,” he mumbled at last. Perhaps he was beginning to sense the rage filling up inside me; for he quickly clamored “We are getting a lot of new troops… friends of some guy who want’s to see the end of the S.S.C.” Brandon. “We are also offering payments to guys that stay around long enough and don’t break code. The money comes from the financier!” “You know all this, but not where Calvin is?” I shot. “I p-promise,” he stuttered; his face red and his hands shaking behind him; partly due to the cold. I looked at his eyes. “You’re lying,” I bluffed. “Tell me where he is. Now.” “I swear!” the teen shouted. “I swear! I don’t know! I don’t!” I finally rose from my chair and turned back. I didn’t have any more time for him; the S.S.C was still in danger. “I better not see you again,” I said as I walked away. Suddenly an S.S.C member sprinted up to the door and saluted to me as he nearly toppled over; out of breath. “Sir,” he said. “We have word from the other bases. Fighting has stopped and reports are being compiled!” I stared at him for a moment and then turned back to the captured commander. “Well,” I said with a grin. “I guess we’ll have some more time to talk after all.” More screams. More echoes.

Burning Up:

“Thirty one confirmed wounded,” Noah said in a somber tone as he sat a paper down on his lap. “About $40 worth of damages… that’s not including smashed plant territory in the forested bases.” I sat in my chair across from him with my head hanging in my arms; slumping over the chair. “Twelve guys willing to work as a cleanup crew to get rid of any evidence of the fight at the boiler room,” Noah sighed as he continued to read from the list. “Rough enemy count… thirty five. Rough enemy wounded count… twenty three.” I rose my head up and slammed my fist down on the table. Papers from my desk scattered all around the room. Noah watched them flutter to the ground with dead eyes. Flags stood with his arms crossed beside Jacob; both of them bearing light wounds about their faces. “We were supposed to be ready!” I flung my chair out from under me. “This was our chance! Our chance to put them back in their proper place! A chance to show them we had the power to stop them!” I turned around and rested my head on the cold wall. “We knew they were coming and we still failed!” “Guys are calling it Drathm 2,” Jacob mumbled. “Calvin coming back to finish what he started.” I turned to the Origins. We were all there; even Mask, who stood silently in the corner; his arms crossed as he eyed me. Judging me. That’s what he was doing. “They can call it whatever they like!” I retorted. “We have better soldiers, better plans, better weapons, hell we have the home turf! How do they beat us? What are we doing wrong?” My yelling could surely be heard from nearly a mile away in that silent; desolate field. Noah refused to look me in the eyes with an answer. “What do I tell the troops now?” I demanded. “How do I tell them to keep holding their tongues and their fists back? What can I do to stop them from taking matters into their own hands, huh? Tell me!” “What’s important is that the bases are still under our control,” Jacob offered. I merely shook my head and sat back in my chair. My eyes drifted back to Mask. No change. There was still that empty stare. The foreboding look about him. He was blaming me. He thought it was my fault. “We can’t…” I trailed off. I couldn’t get his stare out of my head. “I won’t let them…” my gaze suddenly shifted squarely to Mask and I rose from my chair. “Leave us,” I ordered the others. A meeting tomorrow. A meeting at the Falls. This ends soon.” Flags and Noah were hesitant to leave; but slowly made their way outside. I heard everyone's engines start up outside and swerve off back to the main roads. Mask watched me closely; his eyes still darkened by the poor lighting in the room. Two gaping holes of darkness looking right through me. I began to feel the anger boiling inside me again. He wasn’t afraid of me. Much like the THEM commander from yesterday; only Mask didn’t need friends to feel bigger than me. Better than me. He always felt that way. I scowled and walked in front of Mask as he uncrossed his arms and stood straight. “Why do you wear that mask?” I growled. “Is it because you’re afraid? Afraid of them seeing your face? Afraid of owning up to the fact that under that cowl you are just like everyone else? You aren’t better than them! You’re not better than me! You’re no better than Flags, or Noah, or Jacob! None of us!” At first Mask did not reply. I heard the distant thundering clangs of the Magna Oil plant. “I wear this mask because I am you,” Mask suddenly replied. I shook my head in confusion. “And I am them. I am the S.S.C, I am the Origins. When those apprentices look at me they don’t see me as unique. They see me as one of them. They project their lives onto mine. Everything I do. Everything I say. It’s all them. All the S.S.C. I wear this mask to show people that anyone can be an Origin, anyone can stand up for what they believe in, anyone can make a difference. That, is why I wear it. It doesn’t matter who I am. Why I am. I am whatever they see me to be.” I drew away from Mask and clenched my hands. “I want you to stay out of my way,” I shot back. “You may embody what the S.S.c wants, but they don’t want to test me! To make me responsible for all this! It’s not my fault!” Mask did not reply. “It’s not my fault, Mask!” I yelled again; walking closer to him. No response. No movement. I finally rushed up to him; grabbing him by the collar and slamming him against the corner. “It’s not my fault!” I shouted. Silence. My heart beat rapidly as I began to think about the bloodied faces. The wounded soldiers limping to the cars. The cold nipping away at us; the enemies cutting us down. They wouldn’t leave my head. They wouldn’t rest. Without a word I let Mask go and backed away; my eyes wide open and my hands shaking. I turned away from him and made my way outside; feeling the cold air touching my bare skin and letting it flow over me. I left without my jacket and went straight to my car. I waited a long time to see Mask leave the base. He never did. And so I left.

Tensions on the Rise:

It was an uproar. Not even the masters could quell the angry shouts of apprentices. Some masters even joined in the shouting. We were at the Falls and thankfully the day wasn’t as cold as usual. Of course it wasn’t the cold that made them this way; it was the growing rage and the waves of frustration coming over everyone. No longer were members sitting and holding their tongues. Now everyone was reeling in anger; screaming and shouting to me as I made my way to some tall bushes and met with Jacob and Flags. “Where is Noah?” I asked. “Didn’t show up,” Jacob responded. “Mask isn’t here either.” “I wouldn't worry about Mask anymore,” I said with a tinge of disgust. “No more mercy!” one particularly loud soldier yelled in the distance. “We need to strike next!” came another. I looked over my shoulder at them briefly before returning back to the two. “Quiet them,” was all I said. Following their orders; Jacob and Flags worked there way into the chaos; trying to peacefully calm members down as best as they could. It must have taken them at least ten minutes to get the job done. Only when absolute silence was reached did I bother to speak. “We’re angry,” I said as my eyes drifted over the crowds. “But not afraid. No. The four members who quit this morning were afraid. Any member who quits hereafter is afraid. Don’t let that coward be you.” I pulled out the purple circle patch I had obtained in the first Drathm and held it before the crowds. “You want us to strike them first? Then so be it.” I tossed the patch into the crowds; where it was promptly caught by several members; who proceeded to struggle over it until one managed to successfully tear it in half. “My rule holds firm!” I shouted. “We don’t attack them at school… but an attack on them out of school is necessary.” “What difference will it make?” one leader shouted back. “Just about every unit here has been tracking down THEM members after school and fighting with them! You’ve seen the reports! We hardly have time to go after the bullies anymore! These small fights with THEM are either failures or they leave no long-lasting effect! It all just builds to another Drathm!” Many of the members cheered in agreement. “You’re right,” I responded as I drew closer; the snow crunching under my footsteps. “These small hit and run attacks just fuel the flames and it’s only a matter of time until a Drathm happens. But that is because we are focusing on the wrong people! THEM is only as strong as their resources. And judging by the quality of the walkie-talkies they were using the other day; their finances have increased considerably. In fact I learned from a commander of THEM that there is some sort of financier behind the efforts… and yet another who is supplying troops!” The crowds booed and I gazed over to Summer to see if she had any clue that the second supplier was her brother. Her face showed no sign of it. “We don’t attack the muscle!” I barked. “We attack the brain that commands it! We go after these suppliers and cut THEM down before they can even think of attacking!” “That’s the way!” one member shouted from the back. “Let’s make those traitors pay for ever leav’in us behind!” “But!” I interjected before more hollering could be made. “It’s vital that we wait until we know who these two suppliers are! Only then can we launch our attack. Otherwise we’ll be throwing punches in the dark!” Some younger members growled under their breath at the idea; but nobody could argue that a wait had to be made. “We will hunt them down,” I said to ease any remaining doubt. “S.S.C… that is my promise to you. We will have this ready before they can even think of attacking us again.” My mouth was speaking faster than my brain. “This Saturday!” I exclaimed. “We will have it all ready by Saturday!” Jacob shot me a look from the crowd. Not of anger, not of fear, but of doubt. He knew as well as I should have that finding the money supplier was no easy feat; especially if the supplier wasn’t a fighter. I ignored his glare and pumped my fist in the air. “S.S.C,” I yelled out. “Drathm 3 will be ours! The beginning of our strike against THEM! And the end of it!” And so came the chanting. “S.S.C, S.S.C, S.S.C, S.S.C!” droning on forever up and through the woods. Our numbers may have been diminishing; but our spirit hadn’t aged a day.

Unison:

The clock was against us the moment I proclaimed Saturday to be the outbreak of Drathm 3. Troops were already heralding our preemptive victory. I remained vigil at multiple bases throughout the day; overseeing training and making sure all masters were working as they were supposed to. Any master who failed to understand why our wait was vital was promptly stripped of their position. I was no longer in the mood for dealing with arguments. The troops were well aware of my intolerance towards the manner. Calvin rose to prominence because I had appointed him to it. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. In my mind; anyone could be THEM’s traitor. And so those who spoke out were dealt with as such. I was at the Falls again. In Austin’s territory. A master jogged with his apprentices around the clearing; telling them to keep their pace up as they wove in and out between trees. I watched them snake through the tall brush for a while; my eyes drifting towards the back where two apprentices were whispering to one another and falling behind. Just as the group darted behind some tall bushes; the apprentices broke away and hid behind the bush to catch an early breather. I wasn’t having any of it. I rushed over to the bushes and pulled them out by their arms; their unit turning back to eye them with disappointment. “Taking a breath?” I asked. “Do you think THEM will stand by while you fall behind and take a breath? Do you think THEM will show you - any of you kindness?” The young apprentices turned away from me and stared at the ground. I pushed them both away from me and into the snow. “Add six laps to your workout,” I told the commander. “Six laps for the entire unit. Let them understand that it one of you falls; you all fall with them!” The apprentices cursed under their breaths and the two stragglers returned to their furious unit before jogging once more around the clearing. Some apprentices from other units stared at me for a while. I turned to them and pointed back to their masters. “What are you looking at?” I spat. “No distractions! I want perfection! From all of you!” The apprentices quickly turned around and went back to their work. “Johnath- I mean- boss,” came Austin’s voice from behind me. “What is it?” I asked; cooling down from my anger. “There is something I want to show you,” Austin replied; leading me to where a small fort had been established via nailing together pallets and scraps of wood and metal. It didn’t seem like a safe premises; but it was big enough for about five men. Inside waited one of Mask’s elite troops who eagerly took my hand and shook it. “What is this about?” I questioned. “Thought your territories didn’t like one-another.” “That’s exactly why we’re here.” Austin said. “At least… that’s how it was.” I crossed my arms and sat down in a folding chair they had ready. “When Drathm 2 came our way,” Mask’s soldier said. “It attacked both our bases separately. There was so much chaos. So much fear that we couldn’t organize to fight back.” Austin frowned and looked away for a moment. “I blame myself for a lot of the wounded soldiers that day.” “Don’t bother,” I told him. “That’s my burden.” “Here’s the thing,” the elite soldier continued. When the goings got rough; we - the both of us, realized that apart we were helpless against THEM. But together… together we were stronger than we ever could have known.” “We put aside our petty differences;” Austin cut-in. “And worked together to fight THEM off. I fear that if we hadn’t… our losses may have been far worse… Which brings us to this.” Austin reached into his pocket and pulled out one of the many copied S.S.C maps. He pointed to the Falls; where two triangles had always been drawn on opposite sides to signify the different bases. “These two little triangles caused such disarray between us,” Austin lamented. “Two little triangles. And after Drathm 2 ended… and we looked around to find each other standing beside those who we had formerly hated so much... we realized how alike our bases really were. We weren’t separate… we were together.” “Which brings us to this,” the soldier said. He took out a small piece of blue cloth cut into the rugged shape of a diamond; a single black line drawn in the middle. “This is who we are,” the soldier said. “No longer apart. We are one.” “You want me to change the maps,” I stated. “No,” Austin replied. “We want it to be our symbol. The symbol of the S.S.C. THEM has there’s… and whatever purpose it serves is beyond us. But if it helps soldiers to realize just how close we really are… then a symbol like this is worth far more than the fabric it’s drawn upon. I carefully pulled the diamond from the soldier’s hand and held it in front of my face. I had never thought of a symbol. Not even once. A single marking representing everything we were. A single marking representing everything we stood for. All condensed into that small blue diamond. “I approve,” I finally said as I glanced up and tossed it back to the soldier. “I don’t have the resources to give you to make more of these.” “My girlfriend knows how to sew,” Austin said with a grin. “And you can bet I’ll find a guy with some blue fabric to spare.” “The cost is on us,” the soldier interjected. I managed a light smile and rose from my chair. “THEM’s symbol means nothing,” I wagered. “But this… this represents all of us. We can look at it and see everything we’ve fought for ever-” Mask’s words suddenly flashed through my head. “I…” I began; but trailed off. “Do as you will,” I said at last. I left without another word.

The Clock:

We were low on time. Saturday was fast approaching and we still had no leads on who the money supplier was. I’d called the other Origins to meet with me to discuss our plans of action in getting everything done in time. But only Flags and Jacob showed up to the base. “Where is Noah?” I asked as they took seats in front of me. “He hasn’t been showing up to oversee training,” Flags said. “Or to meetings between the spies and messengers. Should we find out what’s going on with him?” “No,” I said. “I’ll talk to him once we’re done here. What’s the status on Brandon?” “He hasn’t met with other THEM members since his time at the diner,” Jacob said. “He most likely does his work over phone at night. Nothing we can do to stop him then and there. Summer still doesn’t know… does she.” “It would only upset her,” I replied. “But we do need to deal with him,” Jacob said. “That’s one of the two suppliers right the-” “We’ll deal with him by way of words,” I interrupted. “I won’t fight him. Not unless he’s the one that throws the first punch. “The sooner the better,” Jacob shrugged. We paused and listened to the loud gusts of winds crash into the side of our hut. “I just hope we’re not too late,” Jacob said with a sigh. “Especially now with all the news of Ivan…” I suddenly sprang up in my seat and leaned in to Jacob. “What about Ivan?” I prodded. “Oh man,” Jacob said as his face drained of color. “I thought you already knew… I thought the messenger unit put it in their reports…” “I haven’t had time to read reports,” I replied sourly. “What about Ivan?” Jacob breathed in and spoke cautiously. “In Drathm 2… the attack on The Eye base was one of our biggest hits. Even though the Falls didn’t have nearly as many weapons; they teamed up and fought against the enemy forces. The Eye base wasn’t so lucky… they were struck completely by surprise and… reports show that Ivan was leading the enemy as a commander. With his orders and brutality the base fell faster than any other. Guys in the messaging unit were calling him The Victor of the Eye or simply The Eye.” My fists clenched and I gave a few deep breaths. I turned now to Flags. “You were at the base when it was attacked,” I said. “Didn’t you see Ivan? Didn’t you bother to stop him?” Flags hesitated for a moment and finally looked back to me. “There was so much… chaos over there,” he said. “I didn’t run into him… The guys have been talking about how he is hardly ever at school anymore.” “It’s clear that Calvin is accepting everybody he can take,” Jacob said; adjusting his jacket as the cold air outside seeped in some more. “Recruiting everybody that has a bone to pick with us… and that’s an awful lot of people.” “So you’re saying that even if we do stop Brandon then they’ll just grow regardless?” Flags questioned. “No,” I said. “I’m still talking to him. But with Ivan and other bullies getting involved with THEM… things are going to get rotten to the core. It’s our job to stop the rottenness from spreading any further.” “Clock’s ticking,” Jacob sighed. “And your best bet to speed up progress is by getting Noah’s support again.” “I don’t know that I can do that,” I admitted. “But I do agree with you… the clock is ticking.”

Noah’s Demons:

I left to Noah’s house immediately after the meeting. I had tried to keep my temper sated about Ivn joining the ranks of THEM; though it bothered me to the core. I had long since stopped being afraid of Ivan… but it was what he embodied that truly disturbed me. I wonder if this same sort of disturbance was what had begun to plague Noah’s mind. I pulled up to his driveway and knocked on his door. There was no answer and there were no cars around the house. “Noah, it’s me!” I shouted; my foggy breath striking the door. “I know you’re in there! We need to talk!” There was momentary silence followed by slow footsteps. Eventually the door creaked open and Noah stood before me; bags under his eyes and his gaze not directly looking at me. It reminded me of the way he used to react to my presence. “Noah,” I said; letting myself in. “You have not been showing up to meetings.” “Must’ve missed the memo,” Noah croaked as he shut the door and sat down on a sofa. I sat myself on the couch across from him. “You have not been speaking with the spy or messaging unit either,” I pointed out. “A lot of guys are stumbling over each other to get things done because of your absence.” Noah said nothing; but a quick strain of guilt washed over his face. “Tell me what’s going on,” I said. We waited in silence for a moment or two; with Noah trying to find room for words. “It… was after the first Drathm,” he said in an uncharacteristic scratchy voice. “I came there to where guys were being treated… saw those faces… bloody faces, and bloody knuckles, and busted lips, and blackened eyes. A-And I thought back to the day I told you to stay in the S.S.C… the day I’d forced you into making that choice… I had never regretted it… but then I saw those faces… A-And I saw everything that had happened and…” he trailed off. “You think it’s your fault,” I finished for him. “Did we make the right choice?” Noah said as he looked up to me; his eyes watery and his hands trembling. “Make the right choice to keep this bloody operation going?” “We’ve done a lot of good,” I reminded him. “And you never forced me to stay. The decision was mine and I took it. We stood up to Calvin and he made the choice to stir things up.” Noah nodded slowly and leaned back in his chair. “And it’s all happened again…” he said. “A second time… and now an upcoming third on Saturday.” “There can only be a third if we can get you back to keeping tabs on the spies and messengers,” I said. “And this time won’t be like the rest. We are going after two guys. And by taking out those two then we’ll be able to severely stunt THEM’s growth. Drathm 3 won’t even earn the name… but it will earn the fame. The day that the S.S.C showed it’s teeth again.” I rose from the couch and sat by Noah. “Picture it,” I said; waving my hand in front of our faces as if showing off some unseen prize. “A new golden age. New members, new respect, and no more THEM.” Noah didn’t reply. I only nodded and rose from the couch; zipping my jacket up and preparing to leave. “Think of it like this,” I said. “You blame yourself for creating THEM? Fine. But if that’s the case then you owe it to yourself and to us to end it.” Noah retained his silence and I left him with those words alone.

A Surprise:

I didn’t go to school that next day. I didn’t want to look upon the battered faces of enemies and comrades anymore than I already had to. Perhaps some of Noah’s words had rubbed off on me. I had been getting phone calls all throughout the day; but had refrained from answering any. All important messages would be sent directly to me either by a note or a messenger. I was spending the day going through files on Drathm 2. My intention had been to look for details on the tools THEM members were carrying and try to find an object that I could link to a local shopping center of some kind. I regretted smashing the walkie-talkie I’d obtained from the THEM soldier back at the boiler room. It may have been our only chance at pinpointing where the goods were coming from… and who the supplier was. I had even sent scouts to scan the battlefields in search of dropped enemy gear. Nothing. Calvin must have known we’d be looking and told his troops to retake anything they’d lost. My curiosity was only turning to frustration now. Reports slowly began to mention Ivan or The Eye. Comments were made on how he fought, the guys he took down, how he led. All of it sounded nothing like the Ivan I had fought back then. Reports showed he had been trained; but maintained in incredibly hard punches. At least five of our troops had been taken down by him alone; with even more suspected before he was taken note of. He alone held the record for most takedowns on the enemy side. Then there were rumor reports; files on enemies and students alike; commenting on possible leads towards traitors, Calvin’s location, and THEM’s money supplier. I had learned a long time ago to ignore reports like this; which had previously suggested that Ivan had moved to a different school, that Operation Igloo had been a set-up, and that Mask was secretly Mr. Davenport’s son; along with countless other bogus claims. But with little else to rely upon; I opened the folder and thumbed through some papers. Just as I pulled one out and leaned in to read; I heard a loud thump coming from outside. I drew away from my desk and to a window seeing into my backyard. The shed behind my house had it’s door swinging open and closed due to the wind. The problem was that I was nearly certain I’d locked it. It was relatively warm out now; but I still put on a jacket as I prepped to go outside. For just a moment I hesitated by my bed where Stew’s knife was hibernating. I shook my head and got the thought out of my head; instead grabbing the stick I’d been presented with following the losing of my previous one in Drathm 2. I quickly raced down my steps as the banging progressed. Carefully I opened my front door and stepped out into the snow. Multiple footprints could be seen now; all of them leading to the back where the shed was stationed. Someone was here. Now carefully creeping around my house; I began to hear hushed voices nearby; which stopped just as abruptly as they’d started when I rounded the corner. My grip on the stick tightened as I crept closer to the door. With one smooth - flowing motion I jutted my hand out and pulled the door to the shed wide open; finding Jacob, Summer, and Noah waiting for me inside. “Surprise!” they all yelled in unison. I quickly dropped the stick to the ground and staggered back in confusion. “What?” I stammered. “Happy Birthday, Johnny!” Summer said as she clapped her hands excitedly. “R-Right…” I replied. “You remembered.” “You seem shocked,” Noah said with his old smile returning. Indeed I was surprised, but not at them for remembering my birthday. I was more surprised that I had forgotten it. Jacob reached to the back of the shed and picked up two buckets of blue paint; one light in color and the other a tad darker. Before them sat a foldable table with a rectangular piece of cloth strapped to it. “What is this?” I asked as Summer rushed forward to hug me. “We heard about the logo,” Noah said. “I think it’s brilliant. And so we thought we may as well work on a flag to display it proudly. “I brought paintbrushes for everyone,” Jacob said with a smirk. Light blue for the background and dark blue for the emblem itself.” I could only nod absentmindedly as my brain began to lose focus on the trio and think back to all the documents I still needed to reread upstairs. “Guys I really am awful busy,” I said flatly. Summer’s smile faded from her face and she grabbed onto my arm. “It can wait,” she told me. I offered no reply and Summer interpreted the silence as acceptance. My mind still couldn’t shake the thoughts of the papers. What if the rumor reports were right this time? What if I could find the supplier? What if I could find Calvin? “Get painting,” Jacob told me as he placed a brush in my hands. It was enough to bring me back into the moment… at least for a while. And so; with the doors now mostly shut and our only light consisting of a small overhead bulb; we coated the cloth from head to toe in light blue paint until Summer proclaimed it was sufficient. We talked along the way as well. At one point Jacob took sandwiches out of a sack he’d brought along and we sat in each of the shed’s corners; talking endlessly about things not related the the S.S.C… not related to THEM… not related to the bullies… not related to… anything! They did most of the talking of course, but the feeling was so strange. Finally Noah reached over to the darker bucket of paint and dipped a small-tipped brush in it. “I think it’s only right we let the boss draw the diamond,” he said with a grin. “Seconded,” Summer replied. I carefully took hold of the brush and drew the outline of the diamond on the cloth; followed by the line in the center. I carefully began to lift the flag to get a better look; but Summer quickly rushed to my side and forced the cloth back down. “Still wet,” she said. “Give it a moment.” And so I stepped back and looked at the flag for quite some time. Of course it was much to hard to ever blow freely in the wind. It would most likely be used more as a strung-up painting than anything else, but it didn’t really matter. We had made it together. And for the rest of that day we just talked for hours and hours. For the first time in a very long time; my heart felt a little less cold. However, just as it goes with all good things… the moment did pass.

The Drempt:

That night I must have passed out long before I could even think of returning to the documents waiting for me upstairs. Instead I crashed on a sofa and remained there listening as the cold breezes outside began to blow away the warmth from earlier. The sounds put me to sleep and although I often didn’t have dreams; or when I did I could hardly stand to remember them; this one was different. I found myself out in the Magna Oil fields. It was dark outside. The clangs and shouts of men at work had subsided and I stood alone in front of one of the huge; unmoving rigs. I looked around for a long while; it was growing colder here; my skin grew goosebumps and I frantically looked around for a jacket. There was none to be found. My hands began to sting and my nose began to run as I stuck my hands into my pockets. A small item in my pocket found it’s way into my hand. I carefully pulled out the object; finding one lone match resting in the palm of my hand. Not nearly enough to stay warm. Snow began to come down now; bigger chunks of it than I’d ever laid eyes upon before. Then came the smell. Not of cold; but rather a dingy; crude one. The smell of oil. I slowly turned to face the rig behind me; splatters and dry patches of oil covering it’s base. For a moment I drew away from it; but the cold became more fierce and the match in my hand almost sharper. I knew what I had to do. Drawing back towards the rig I struck the match on one of it’s metallic sides. I held it there in front of me for a while; watching it flicker back and forth; growing dimmer by the second. And then I stared at the oil covering the rig… enough to last a lifetime. And so I threw the match at the oil; sure enough a fire began to spout from the base of the rig; giving off thick black smoke and spreading far faster than I ever would have anticipated. Now feeling the burning sensation at my cheeks I sprinted out from the smoke and into the open field. Sure enough the fire had multiplied far beyond it’s original size. And the falling snow had vanished. Something else was falling now; ashes… or so it appeared. The ashes appeared as light green. And it wasn’t until one fell at my feet that I realized these “ashes” were the remains of dollars. Money flying everywhere. Every direction all around me. I let the funds blow about the field; covering nearly every square inch until the snow had all but dissipated entirely. But the money did not dare touch me and that’s because it wasn’t for me. “It’s you, isn’t it Dante?” I said to myself. Just like that I jolted awake; the sun now risen and light flakes of snow lingering down from the sky. I ran to my phone and - still breathing hard, dialed Noah’s number. “Jonathan what do you want?” Noah replied with a yawn. “Get your things together and rally the Origins,” I said. “THEM’s money supplier is Dante Felding. And I know how to stop him.”

The Attack Strategy:

I paced back and forth like a madman as the Origins spilled into our small hut. “Dante is the only person to have the money to support THEM,” I said with assurance. “His father get’s the money thanks to his high position in Magna Oil… the money then trickles down to THEM.” “He was a friend of yours,” Jacob pointed out. “Both you and Calvin.” “I guess when the goings got tough he joined up with the side that offered power in exchange for profit,” I said in a disgusted tone. “No doubt they have him under watch whenever he sends money to make sure nobody intercepts him.” “You said you had a plan?” Flags goaded. “Dante may be working for THEM,” I began. “But he’s no fighter. Never was, never will be. If we can send a couple S.S.C units after him and flex our muscles a bit; it could scare him out of business. After all, with his anonymity spoiled he has nothing left to hide behind except Calvin.” “He may even know where Calvin is,” Noah pointed out. I relished the thought. “I can send a spy squad to talk to him,” Noah declared. “Figure out when he’ll be alone. How many units should we send after him when this goes down?” “The whole S.S.C wants their revenge on these guys,” I said. “They can all come if they want. Surround this monster and watch him squirm.” “Good idea,” Flags said. “The bigger we appear to Dante; the more frightened he’ll be. We’ll seem even bigger if we do it under the cover of night.” “Exactly,” I replied. “It will go down on Saturday just like it was planned. We can organize all this in time if we start right away! Noah I need you to rally that spy team; only your best. Jacob and Flags I need you to tell the troops we found our guy and to meet up at the location the spies will come up with. Stay in close communication with them and Noah to make sure there are no oversights. I don’t want you to give his name though. Not even the specifics. We can’t risk THEM’s spy hearing to much.” hey all nodded and I turned to the corner of the room to address Mask. “Mask I’ll need y-” my eyes finally caught up with my racing brain. Mask wasn’t there at all. I grew silent for a moment and listened outside for any light footsteps. There was nothing. “Boss,” Noah mumbled. “Guys have been leaving Mask notes under that rock at the school. Notes for training and meetings and… none of them have been getting picked up.” I crossed my arms and felt the cold breeze seeping through the cracks in the room. “Then stop sending them,” I said in a breath. “Abandon him?” Jacob asked; sounding hurt. “He’s an Origin!” “Was an Origin,” I corrected. “Guess he didn’t have the stomach for this after all.” The three sat before  and didn’t say a word as I put on my coat and grabbed a folder. I could almost hear their minds churning with questions and arguments. I had time for neither. “What are you still doing here?” I remarked. “Get moving! We have our man but the clock won’t slow down now.”

The Final Phases:

I stood very tall at school now. Taller than ever before. The end of THEM was approaching; and I couldn’t help but smirk as I passed the bruised faces of the unfamiliar teens walking through the halls. I knew what the were. And they knew what I was. But I’d like to think that my smile injected some fear into them. They were faceless; just like they’d always been. Calvin didn’t dare appear to anyone and The Eye of course was seldom ever seen on school territory. THEM’s backers, their leader, their spies, their leading commanders - they were all faceless. And then here I was; showing my face for all to see; showing them that there was no fear in my eyes for their kind anymore. The age of THEM was coming to pass; perhaps they could sense it too. I spotted Summer waiting for me near the art room. She knew I was busy and often waited several minutes before realizing I had gotten far too caught up with work to meet with her. She didn’t complain, for she knew how important all of this was to me. She smiled as she saw me coming her way; but there was perhaps something else there too; a look of worry masked behind the smile. “You came,” she said with some surprise. “The work is done,” I told her. Tomorrow is Saturday. You heard the meeting place, yes?” “R-right,” Summer replied with hesitation. I shot her a glance of frustration. “What is it?” I asked. “It’s going to be awful close to your secret headquarters,” Summer replied. “What if somebody sees something?” “It’ll be far too dark,” I said; brushing off the remark. “Spies have confirmed it; Dante walks down that way every weekend so he can meet up with a girlfriend in secret. His father doesn’t know and far as Dante is concerned; neither does anyone else.” “What do we do about the girl?” Summer asked in a worried tone. “We’ll cut off her path and either tell her to leave or restrain her if we have to.” Summer’s skin seemed to turn pale at the uttering of my words. I was getting aggravated now. “Calm down,” I ordered. “She won’t be hurt. And just in case things go wrong out there; I’m going with you and Jacob into the headquarters so we can watch it all go down from the windows. A couple binoculars should do the trick to see that far. Not that Dante is going to be much of a threat when faced with the faces of the people he had a hand in taking down.” Summer still seemed worried about something. “I heard a weather report last night,” she murmured. “There is a high possibility that we’ll get a snowstorm late at night tomorrow.” I nearly laughed at the comment. “Weather forecast?” I said. “You know those things aren’t reliable. And even if it is; we’ll be done with Dante long before it ever sweeps over. Even in the dead of night you can still see when one is coming. Stop trying to halt progress.” “Right,” Summer replied shortly. “S-sorry. She turned away and then looked back over to me. “What about their other supplier?” she asked. “The one giving troops? I’ve heard no word about him.” I paused for a moment. For just a split-second I considered telling her the truth. Telling her that her brother was responsible for it all. Ousting his identity and plans right there in the hall. But I stopped myself. She’d never be able to look at him the same way again; just like how I couldn’t stand to look at photos of Calvin. We may not have been brothers by blood, but we were as close as it came. There were too many memories in looking at his face, and the bad had long-since overshadowed the good. “Uh…” I stammered; my head no longer so high. “Still hasn’t been confirmed I guess,” I lied. “In time though… in time.”

The Big Flex:

It was seven o'clock at night when we met. One of the biggest turnouts I’d ever seen. Members who we’d thought had quit after Drathm or Drathm 2 returned to stand among their colleagues. Everyone wanted to be there. To show their faces to one of the most powerful people in THEM. Show their faces and make it clear that they were not afraid. The Big Flex. That’s what we called it. The day every S.S.C soldier would get to stand in unison and show their strength. I saw Albert in the crowd too; standing expressionless as Jacob called out some orders on what troops could and couldn’t do. We were not allowed to physically attack Dante; and the Big Flex itself could only last for about an hour or so; most likely less. The troops were all huddled just on the other side of a large hill adjacent to the path Dante was set to walk in half an hour. Some small snowflakes struck my face as I stood on the hill and overlooked the troops. They hid their shivering and chattering teeth; masking it with stern glances and the occasional nod to Jacob’s words. For a moment I caught myself looking at the horizon; checking to see if any signs of a snowstorm were approaching. There was nothing of course. The weather report had been wrong just as I’d thought. “Caught the girl,” Flags said as he walked up from behind me. “We told her to head back home. Lied and said Dante was on a trip to New York.” “Think she bought it?” I asked without looking at him. “We were very persuasive,” Flags replied. “Jacob, Summer, and I will be watching from the HQ,” I told him. “Flags I’m counting on you and Noah to keep guys under control out there tonight. I didn’t expect this many people to show up. If any of our guys throws a punch at Dante then we can kiss our relationship to the school goodbye.” “I’ll handle it,” Flags replied; though there was a tinge of uncertainty to his voice; one of which I had never heard before. Summer and Jacob soon approached me from the crowds and we made our way in silence to the HQ. My walkie-talkie sounded off in unison with Jacob’s. “We’ve got Dante in sight,” came a muffled voice on the other end. “Parking over in the public lot. Wearing a heavy green jacket.” “Follow him,” I said over the com as I walked into the HQ and locked the door behind us. “But make sure he doesn’t spot you.” “Roger that,” the voice replied. “You got the binoculars?” I asked; turning to Jacob. “Right here,” he replied; removing them from a bag he’d brought along and handing them to Summer and I. “For the record, I could’ve looked pretty menacing out there too,” Summer said. I offered no response; she knew that I would not allow it. After a minute or so we began seeing some flashing lights on the far end of the field. Though we couldn’t see their faces; the silhouettes seen in the light must have been S.S.C spies or straglers; getting to their positions as Dante inevitably grew closer. There was a powerful silence in the air. Everyone knew that a single word, cough, or snapping tree branch could alert Dante to what was going on. If worst came to worst, we were ready to chase him. Then; just in the distance walking alongside the greenery of the woods came Dante. His hands were stuffed deep in his pockets and his expensive coat’s rustling was the only noise that emitted from him. The three of us leaned in for a closer look and I silenced our walkie-talkies to prevent any sudden outbursts. As Dante worked his way towards the large patch of trees where he was to meet his girlfriend; I noticed a sudden glare of light coming from behind him on the hilltop. Jacob saw it too. “What was that?” Jacob asked as he looked at where the glare had come from. “Some idiot of ours must be running late. He better not ruin this or I swear-” There was a sudden rush of shadows. S.S.C soldiers bolted from their hiding spots behind hills, and trees, and bushes and sprinted towards Dante; running in every direction to effectively surround him before he could even realize what was going on. Dante stumbled back in surprise against a lone tree as our troops began closing in; shouting from all directions as Noah and Flags attempted to calm the frustration. We had him. He was ours. The question was what we’d end up doing with him. S.S.C soldiers turned their lights on in unison and shone them like a giant spotlight at Dante; illuminating his terrified face as he cowered down by the roots of the tree; struggling to see past the blinding lights and deafening shouts. Some members jutted their heads and hands out at him; revealing scars and wounds all about them. “You did this!” the soldiers would yell. Dante seemed far too stunned for words. And then there it was again; that sudden glare coming from a distance; much closer now yet traveling behind the trees. I turned my binoculars to face the flash. Then suddenly it went off again; followed by a second one nearby, then a third, a fourth, dozens. The silhouettes were not of our own. They never had been. “No,” I said through my teeth as Jacob and Summer turned to see the sprinting silhouettes heading for our forces. “No!” Drathm 3 had come like a thief in the night.

Drathm 3:

I threw my binoculars to the ground as our units of shouting soldiers turned in horror as they too were now blinded by oncoming lights. Screams splintered through the crowds and Jacob, Noah, and Dante quickly became swallowed up in the ocean of bodies and flying fists. I sprinted to the door but was suddenly caught by the arm by Jacob. “Don’t go out there, boss!” he yelled. “It’s pitch black for those guys and it’s gonna be pitch-black for you! What they need right now is somebody with eyes on the fight! They need us to instruct them from the dark!” I shoved Jacob’s arm away from me and grabbed the knob. “They need me!” I shouted as my heart quickened. Jacob now rushed forward and forced the door shut. “They need your brain!” he corrected. I finally drew away from the door and picked my binoculars back up. “Summer turn the coms back on! Now!” I knew what to expect; that awful sound of static mixed with the cries of my friends. I’d heard it all before; but it never stopped haunting me. Sure enough the coms flicked on and our humble HQ came alive with more voices than ever before. “We need several troops to guard the shack due north!” Jacob ordered on his com; referring to us. “Make sure nobody gets inside!” Summer was breathing heavily and I could hear her masking her tears. Four troops from the fray sprinted to our base; one letting himself inside while two guarded one door and another lone soldier guarded the other. I turned my attention back to the fight and began speaking over the com. “Group up!” I yelled as I looked on over the war. “Get away from the trees! Out near the fields where you can see better! Turn off lights when you know you’re near your own guys! Try and make sure they can’t see you; but you can see them!” Lights began flickering off sporadically as our troops ran away from the battle and took it into more open grounds. I spotted Noah for a brief second. He was overwhelmed by it all; staring emptily back and forth in his confusion to comprehend what was going on. “Noah!” I shouted on my end. “You need to move! Keep these guys protected and make sure my orders get out! Communication is everything!” Noah heard my proposal and fell back with the others without giving a response. But we did not escape without notice. THEM soldiers began jumping from the bushes and trees; running forward and socking our straggling members in the back of their heads or in some cases dragging them into the dark depths of the woods. Other THEM members began running out into the field and intermingling with our soldiers; soon punches were being thrown in every direction; friends accidentally tackling each other, striking one another, throwing themselves in every direction to try and escape the madness. My grip on the binoculars became tight and my palms grew sweaty as I was reminded of Operation Igloo. It was happening all over again. The blind rage being taken out on partners; not on enemies. “Johnny,” Summer said in a whimpering voice to my side. “You’ve got to think of something! You’ve got to think of something now!” An idea suddenly leaped into my racing mind as I brought the com back to my lips. “Flags, Noah,” I said. “Make sure every S.S.C member has their flashlights on! Tell them all to turn them on! Hurry!” Although no decipherable response was made; slowly but surely the lights of our soldiers turned on and better illuminated the purple patches on the shoulders of the THEM attackers; but the darkness still fed to the chaos as our troops still could not manage to know for sure weather they were attacking an enemy or and allie. When I was finally sure all of our lights were turned on I brought the walkie-talkie back to my mouth and yelled as loud as I could. “Turn your lights off on my count of three! One!” Chaos. “Two!” Fear. “Three!” Blackout. The lights of our soldiers went out all at once; the sudden loss of light confusing the enemies and making them the only people with lights still in their hands. Now able to decipher between friend and foe; our remaining soldiers rushed into the THEM forces; pushing them back with tremendous force towards the HQ. “You’re getting to close to us!” Jacob yelled from his com; but his voice was easily overshadowed by the screeches of pain and yelps for assistance from every angle. Suddenly five figures dressed in white bursted out from the trees where the battle had begun; all of them appearing huge in size and running for our troops from behind. They were in football garb; their heads shielded with helmets and their torso covered with padding. The largest of the five caught my eye more than any of them. Ivan. “Turn around!” I shouted on my walkie-talkie as Jacob did the same. “Turn around now! Turn around!” A few of our men managed to swivel their heads just in time to see their attackers before being trampled to the ground; their legs being pierced by the spikes at the bottom of the football shoes. “Ivan!” I shouted to deaf ears; my teeth clenched and my hands snapping the binoculars into two pieces. There was a thud to the left of the base and I could only watch now as our troops fell in the wake of the attackers. “Lock and barricade the doors!” Jacob screamed to the other soldier and Summer as they quickly began moving tables and cabinets to the doorways. “Wait!” came a call over the walkie-talkie; the only reason I could understand it was because it was the voice of Flags. “Keep the back door unlocked!” he yelled. “One of our guys got stepped on! Right in the throat! We need to get him out of the cold now!” “We can’t risk the boss!” Jacob yelled back over the com. “We’re shutting the doors!” “Please!” Flags said in a voice so full of desperation that I could hardly believe it came from him. “Our troops our luring THEM away from the HQ! We can get in without anyone seeing! Please! He needs help now!” Jacob silenced his walkie-talkie and grabbed a couple chairs to place in front of the knob to the backdoor. With no words and too much madness to think I pushed myself in front of him and prepared to unlock the door. “Boss no!” Jacob screamed. “We can’t risk it!” There was a sudden pounding from just outside; I looked out a window and saw Ivan and most other THEM members gone. “Guys it’s me!” Flags yelled from the other side of the door. “Open up! He needs your help! He needs you!” Summer hid her face; terrified at what I may or may not do and Jacob remained at arm’s length; staring i fear as the cries of Flags became louder and the pounding more persistent. I looked away from Summer and Jacob and unlatched the door; pulling it open for Flags. Immediately a foot wedged itself into the corner of the door; preventing it from being closed again. I stared at the foot and slowly looked up; only to find Flags standing in the doorway; no soldier in his hands and a smile upon his face. Behind him was Ivan and three other THEM soldiers. My heart stopped. “What’s that you said to me once, John?” Flags asked with a crooked grin. “We make our own demons?” With a lunge faster than anything I’d encountered ever before; Ivan sprung forward and pounded in the side of my head. My trembling body fell to the ground of that cold, wet room and my vision darkened. The last sounds I heard were Summer’s screams.

My Demons:

The world was black. So was my mind. I had no memory of what happened after our capture; but I awoke with a start to the sound of an engine humming nearby. Just as soon as the noise began; it quieted itself and my blurry eyes gazed around the premises. I found myself in the back of a van; my head still throbbing and my heartbeat’s percussion echoing through the empty back. There were soft voices outside and the sounds of more cars pulling up. I began to panic; finding my arms and feet bound with tape. Even more frightening; I was not alone. Lying by my side - goose eggs manifesting on their foreheads were Jacob and Summer. Summer’s face was still stained with tears and Jacob’s eyes were wide open despite him being unconscious. Suddenly there was a loud creaking noise from the door of the van and the back was opened up; letting intense gusts of winds fill the space and send a shiver down to my core. Three teens with flashlights hopped into the back; one grabbing Jacob and another lifting me; unaware that I was awake and partially alert. The third headed for Summer and began to lift her as well. Despite all the throbbing pain and dizziness I felt; I somehow found room for words at that moment. “L-Let go of her!” I shouted; much to the surprise of the three teens. “Don’t you lay a hand on her! Do you hear me?” The teen hesitated but looked away from me and began lifting her once more. I began convulsing in the grasp of my carrier; kicking and straining against the tape with all of my might; allowing it to dig deep into my skin and draw blood. It was of no use. I was led out into the snow now; where I eyed several other cars parked in a circle formation around what had to have been a small field of some kind. These members carried flashlights much brighter than the ones from earlier. My heart ached even more as I looked down to my waist; finding the walkie-talkie gone. I was promptly thrown to the ground beside where Jacob had been set. He was waking up now; still drowsy as to what was going on. “Sit up!” one THEM member ordered me as Samantha was dropped to my left. “Make me,” I shot back; though with no more emotion in my voice. This was it. I was losing it all. A hand grabbed the back of my collar and straightened me up by force. The three of us were facing a large tent in the center of the cars; with muffled coms sounding from within and faint lights glowing in and out. I looked behind me for a moment; finding Ivan standing at attention behind me; the purple emblem latched onto his side and his football gear not to far off. He did not speak a word; nor bother looking back at me. He - like everyone now was looking at the tent; where a dark silhouette from within moved back and forth. “W-What’s going on?” Jacob said in a raspy voice as Summer began to awaken as well. “Stay quiet,” I whispered. “I’ll talk us out of this.” Now Jacob’s eyes began lighting up and he began to realize what was happening. He began struggling against the tape; drawing blood at his wrists too. THEM members from behind laughed at the attempt. Summer began to straighten up. “Johnny,” she said in a daze. “Flags was the spy... h-he was…” “I know exactly what he is,” I replied. Just as I’d said it, I felt Flag’s eyes to my left; staring me down. I turned to him; still on my knees and feeling the cold snow seeping through my jeans. Sure enough he was there; standing along with the other members; the THEM patch embroidered onto a new jacket he was wearing. He looked at me and grinned ear-to-ear before focusing back on the tent. “Don’t you look away from me!” I yelled breathlessly. “You’re a spy! A traitor! You were an Origin, damn it! One of us!” Flags briefly looked back to my steaming face; but offered nothing more than another smile. “Answer me!” I demanded as I tried to rise to my feet. Ivan stepped forward and weighed down on my shoulder with his heavy hand. I was promptly forced back to the ground. “Answer me!” I shouted a second time. Then came a voice from the tent. A voice that had remained elusive for so long; I’d nearly forgotten the sound of it. “He won’t talk,” came Calvin’s voice as the tent was unzipped. I had no more room for words as Calvin stepped out of the tent; covering his face briefly from the sub zero winds. “I swear to god, Calvin,” Jacob said with his teeth clenched. “If you try anyt-” “Quiet,” Calvin interrupted. “You or the girl speak again and you’ll both be punished. Summer and Jacob looked at eachother for a brief moment before bowing their heads down in defeat and staring at the icy ground. Calvin walked to me and bent down so he could look me in the eyes. “Look at what you’ve done,” he said emptily. I was feeling dizzy again. Not from the hit; but rather from the sheer immensity of it all. Everything hitting me at once. My heartbeat and become indecipherable from the rhythmic blinking of the busted flashlight within Calvin’s tent. “This is n-not on me,” I replied; the rage building up once more. “Look to your left,” Calvin said; gesturing to Summer. “Look to your right,” he said again; now pointing to Jacob. “They joined because of you. And now they suffer because of you.” I scowled at him and tried to keep my gaze on his empty eyes; even as the falling snow blew into it. “And it’s not just them,” Calvin said. He reached into his pocket and took out a walkie-talkie. My own. With a flip of the switch; the cries of my men could be heard over the static. Constant screaming. No end. And no beginning. “You should have heard them earlier,” Calvin said as he turned it off. “Screaming where is the boss? We need help? Where is he? Now they all suffer out there as they fight against our super soldiers.” Calvin motioned to the football garb Ivan had been wearing. “The future of battle,” he said with a scowl similar to my own. “You forced our hand. And now we force this upon you. Your troops will soon find themselves far to outmatched. And they’ll know that thanks to Dante and other supporters, we’ll only get more unless they cease.” Calvin got up and walked over to Jacob; grabbing the embroidered S.S.C logo stitched on to his jacket and tearing it off; throwing it to the ground. Jacob growled but kept his head lowered. He’d never risk putting Summer in danger. And Calvin knew it. But I knew something he didn’t. “You’re a joke,” I said coldly. “You think fighting my guys will make them back down? You think that’s what will drive us back into the dark.” Calvin barred his teeth and grabbed me by the throat; forcing me to fall to the ground. “Calvin, no!” Summer screamed from behind. “They w-want revenge,” I strained to say under the pressure. “And they’ll never quit fighting until they see you begging them for mercy!” Calvin’s grip became tighter and Summer’s screams only grew louder. Calvin slowly removed one hand from his choke-hold on me and drew it back into a fist. “I won’t be the one begging!” He yelled. “Not on this night!” Suddenly Calvin’s arm shot forward; striking me hard in the face. My mind tried to blackout, but my body wouldn’t allow it. I wouldn’t leave Summer to the Darkness again. Calvin’s fist drew back once more before rocketing into my nose. Now he pulled back faster; another strike to the jaw. “Stop it!” Summer shrieked; her words gushing with tears; making it difficult for her to speak. “This is what you wanted?” Calvin yelled as he struck me again. “This wasn’t us! This wasn’t what we were supposed to be!” Another strike to the forehead. Another to the throat. “We were supposed to save the school! Set an example!” Another strike to the eye. “Not save the entire country! Not refuse to retire!” Another strike. Windpipe crushing in. Eye swelling up. “Not becoming a dictator! Someone so obsessed with revenge that they can’t see what’s coming!” Another strike. Nose bleeding. Hands shaking beyond my control. Calvin pulled me closer to him and stared me down; his eyes watering and his mouth drawn downward in a look of horror. “This is what you made!” I said; choking up a bit. “This is the price of your stubbornness!” With one final drawing back of his fist; Calvin shot a finishing punch to my temple; letting go of my collar in the process; sending me straight to the ground; Summer whimpers being the only thing tying me to consciousness. I tried to speak; but my jaw had become powerless. My arms and legs trembled uncontrollably and the world flashed between the darkness of the night; and the sheer emptiness of my shutting -down mind. “You monster!” Summer yelled to Calvin. “You’re sick!” Calvin slowly walked to my side and grabbed my hair; pulling my head up to stare into the distance. “You might not be able to see what’s on the horizon for your future,” Calvin said solemnly. “But I’m sure you can see this.” Through my blurred vision I stared into the sky; where a thick white fog was beginning to sweep in. The snowstorm. Summer was right. “Eye, Flags,” Calvin spoke silently. “Knock them out. Send them to the field. No coats.” “But,” Summer argued. “That snowstorm is coming! We’ll die out there!” “You won’t die,” Calvin breathed. “You’ll learn.” Ivan and Flags approached Summer and Jacob as the two struggled to stand or move out of the way. Jacob fell helplessly backwards and tried to bend his neck around to face Calvin. “Calvin, you’ve won!” Jacob yelled. “If you’re going to punish anyone, make it Jonathan and I! Leave Summer out of it!” “If Summer does not learn then Jonathan will never learn,” Calvin replied sourly. The sounds of whipping winds began howl in the distance. The storm was growing closer. My left eye started to swell shut until I could no longer bare to keep it open. I listened in a blind horror as Summer and Jacob cried out in pain before being silenced. I wanted to say so much. Do so much. I wasn’t myself anymore. Ivan and Flags picked me up under my arms and began to drag me to the van. As they did; I tried to dig my feet into the ground. A final attempt to rebel against Calvin. As the two struggled to keep their pace; I was able to stare back at Calvin; blood oozing down from my forehead and streaming past my eyes; converging with that seeping from my nose. Calvin stood; the wind now blowing in his face as he stared back at me. “It didn’t have to be this way Jonathan!” he yelled.”Do you hear me? It didn’t have to end like this!” I did not give him the luxury of a response. Calvin pointed to the purple patch on his shoulder. “You never saw it did you?” he yelled. “The circle! Our ground zero! The peacefulness of it! The tranquility! The way the sun set on it’s trampled dirt and glowed that brilliant purple! Do you remember that?” His eyes were watering again. “Do you remember the tranquility? The real peace? The real purpose?” Winds were picking up and his voice began to fade with it; the other THEM soldiers beginning to retreat to their cars. “No,” Calvin finally said as he looked down at his feet. “Maybe you were never there…” Darkness.

Cold World:

I awoke to a wild shaking. Muffled speech soon followed. There was a stinging pain all over my face; and searing cold on my arms and legs. I slowly opened my good eye; finding myself lying in the snow; a white mist of flakes surrounding me in every direction. “Johnathan!” Jacob yelled as he shook me again. “Oh, thank god you’re awake!” Summer now rushed over from behind me and wrapped her arms around my waist; crying into me. “W-Where are w-we?” I barely managed to say. “Calvin’s sent us to die,” Jacob said with his mouth clenched tight. I looked down at myself. My coat was gone. My cap as well. It was the same for Summer and Jacob; all of us were dressed only in our casual garb; not nearly fit to survive in conditions like this. Our hands and feet were no longer bound; but the blood now remained frozen on our wrists. I felt at my face; frozen blood clinging tightly to my skin. My left ear was ringing and my nausea only grew worse as I rose to my feet. “What do we do?” Summer yelled as she cradled herself for warmth. “There are no tracks! I know no clue where we are! We’ve lost… we’ve…” Summer stopped to sob to herself. Jacob stared up into the the mad winds; perhaps trying to hold his tears in. “We need to m-move,” I coughed. “N-Need to keep heading in one direction… f-find our way to a road.” The winds persisted and the falling snow clashed madingley into the right side of our faces. Summer was visibly shaking already. She had only been wearing a short-sleeved shirt under her coat. Her hair blew all about her face and was slowly riddled with large - unmelting flakes. “Summer, stick to me,” I said; wrapping an arm around her. “Everything will be f-fine… we’re going to be…” I looked out into the nothingness; hoping the darkness would hide the look of fear upon my face. “We move this way!” I yelled over the gusts of wind; leading us blindly forward into that white canvas of snow. Jacob stayed close behind us. He had worn a thermal shirt under his coat; allowing him to sustain the cold slightly better than the two of us. Summer’s teeth chattered and none of us dared speak; for we feared breathing in the cold. We shared a silent mourning. Not just for ourselves… but for everything. It wasn’t long before the cold began to nip at my fingertips; which then spread promptly to my forearms. It felt as if the air itself was tearing my flesh open; injecting the snow and sleet into my veins and pumping it all across my body. I could nolonger breath through my nose either; for it had become clogged with blood and snot. Summer’s nose and eyes wept in unison; many of them freezing to her chin and cheeks and leaving an icy trail down the sides. I could not look at her. Nor her to me. “Tracks!” Jacob suddenly yelled from just behind us. Sure enough we came upon the light indents of footprints; almost completely covered in the snow. “It’ll lead us back to the THEM base,” I gasped. “We can f-find Calvin… stop him.” The others did not answer me; merely heading to where the multiple tracks pointed. The snow was blowing in our faces now; stronger than ever before. Soon my entire head became numb and my one good eye struggled to see past the tears welling up in it. We followed the tracks forward for the longest time. Hoping that every single step we took would lead us out of the storm; that the whiteness would be washed away and replaced with the comforting night, but no end ever came. Time was standing still it seemed; but we all began to realize that the tracks were leading us nowhere. “Wait,” I said to the others as we stopped following the tracks for a while. I hesitantly outstretched my foot and placed it over one of the footprints we had been tracking. It was a perfect match. “We’re...” I trailed off. “We’ve been…” Summer reached the same conclusion as I and pulled herself closer to me. “We’re not going to get out!” she screamed. “Oh my god, there is no way out!” I tried to pull Summer closer to my side; but my muscles were numbing up; nolonger able to move her; and hardly able to move myself. We stood there in the cold world and waited for the nothing to come. My hands soon shook and my heartbeat did the same. I was becoming a statue. My arms couldn’t lift themselves. My legs couldn’t move themselves. We were all frozen there; tethered down to the snow. “Jonathan,” Jacob said hoarsely. “Here.” Jacob’s thermal shirt was thrown to my shoulder. I turned to find Jacob standing shirtless in the cold; his arms wrapped across his chest as if he was trying to hang on to any warmth left inside of him. “Jacob,” I began to protest; but his hand was held up to stop me from wasting my breath. “Protect Summer,” he tried to say through chattering teeth. “Protect Summer…” I could nolonger feel the shirt in my grasp; but through the blistering pain I managed to tie the shirt around Summer’s head and face. She didn’t argue. She didn’t do anything. Summer only stared at the nothing. With all the power left within me I began to trudge forward; leaving the tracks behind and heading into the unknown. My throat felt as if it had an icy stone lodged within it; and my tongue had long-since become far too numb to feel, but words still came. “Help!” I cried out. “Anyone!” There was no response, but we were undeterred. “Help!” Jacob called out as loud as he could muster; fighting back against the wind. The two of us called out together; smoke bellowing from our mouths as we screamed at the nothing. “H-Help us!” Summer now hollered as well. Soon that icy atmosphere became filled with our voices. Through all the pain, all the suffering, all the cold, we fought that nothing and we didn’t stop fighting it. My eye shed tears not of sadness; but of desperation and my voice reflected it. “Anyone!” I yelled again. “Someone!” I’d like to think the nothing saw us persisting. I’d like to think Calvin saw it too. But I wondered how pointless it must have seemed to them. Seeing three statues trying to move. There was a sudden shift within me at that moment; and all my my muscles shut down. I collapsed into the snow; sending plumes of it barreling up over me. Summer fell as well; she had lost the ability to move a long time ago. I was the only thing supporting her. The support had failed her. I had failed her. “I’m sorry,” was all I had the strength to say as I stared at Summer’s empty face; half-buried in the snow. No more words came, but just as the darkness began to take over once more; there was the sound of a car. The statues had been found.

Savior:

I drifted in and out of consciousness for the next few hours. Brief glimpses of lights, the sound of spinning tires trying to find traction in the snow, the moans of pain coming from both Jacob and Summer. It all came in quick spurts before dying out again. Then suddenly there was movement. I was being carried. A door opened and I was placed hurriedly next to a couch. I felt pressure on my face; but could no longer feel pain. I was numb all over. A part of me wanted to scream. Shout to make the pain end. But my jaw was now firmly clamped shut by the pain and by the numbness. I lied on that floor like a mute icicle until finally finding the strength to open my eye to the light. The wind was still howling outside. Doors and windows were shaking at the force. I shook with them. Finally some feet stepped in front of me; arms dropping from above and picking me up to len against the couch. I was wrapped fully in blankets now; bandages applied to my wrists and to my face. It took me a while to realize it, but I’d seen this house before. Summer’s house. “You’re awake,” came the voice of Brandon nearby. “Aren’t you?” I began to grit my teeth. We were captured again. He was after us to. Wasn’t he? Brandon walked in front of me and sat at a table. “Don’t worry,” he said; trying to keep calm. “My parents aren’t home. They’ve gotten shut in at my Aunt’s house when the storm hit. Nobody is going anywhere outside. You’re lucky to have made it through all that, alive.” I didn’t answer him. I tried to feel the pain covering me, but the numbness had removed it all. “I know you know what I’ve been doing,” Brandon said as he leaned in to me. “Yes. I supplied THEM with those troops. Old friends of mine… and friends of theirs and so-on.” My gaze on him sharpened. “I had one deal with THEM,” Brandon said. “To leave Summer out of this. Calvin promised me… I should have seen through the lies. I caught wind of your capture and exile from one of my friends. But by the time I got to the site… everyone was gone… everyone. The very same people I helped to recruit to THEM… they were the same people who helped hurt Summer.” Suddenly as Brandon opened his mouth to say more; Summer shot up from the couch to my left; rushing at her brother and slapping him hard across the face; leaving a bright red lash to his cheek. “You did this!” she yelled. “You were the supplier! How could you not have told me?” “I was trying to protect you!” Brandon shot back as he held off her other hand from hitting him again. “I’m not like you people!” Brandon said as he pointed to me. “I’ll never be like you! I don’t fight! I’m no THEM member… and I’m no S.S.C member!” Brandon carefully let Summer’s arm go as she cried a bit to herself at this betrayal. “But I’ll tell you this.” Brandon muttered. “What THEM did to you in inexcusable. If they’re willing to nearly kill three innocent people… then think about what will happen if they see someone else at the school as a threat! Could anyone stop them? Anyone but the S.S.C?” “We will stop them,” came a gravelly voice behind me. I didn’t recognize it; and at first thought Summer’s father had come home. But the figure stepped in front of me now; a tall-muscular-figure with a dark red scarf tied tightly around his neck. He stopped for a moment and looked back at me. Only then did I realize it to be Jacob. “We aren’t going to rest until these sick bastards get put in their proper place.” “Jacob,” Brandon said; standing up to him, but looking so much shorter. “I want to see them suffer,” he said. “But leave my sister out of it.” “Summer makes her own decisions now,” Jacob said as his hand reached to his throat for a moment. “Jaco-” Brandon began, but was cut off. “Phaze,” my friend replied starkly. “I don’t think Jacob ever made it out of that field.” Jacob leaned down and picked me up; slinging my arm across his shoulders to keep me from tumbling back to the ground. “Where are you going?” Brandon asked. “To our guys,” Phaze growled. “To our home.” “Are you crazy?” Brandon shouted. “It’s still freezing out! Nobody is out there! All you’re going to find outside is more pain!” Phaze hesitated and looked to me for my thoughts. I tried to feel some sort of pain through the numbness; but it was still all absent. All you’ll find outside is more pain. The words circled within me. For a moment I felt like I could almost reach out and touch the words themselves. “Let it come, I spoke in a strained whisper. Somewhere in those ice clouds there was revenge for me to discover. And I was very sure I would.

Combustion

The Hunt:

We were - it seemed - shattered. Broken.  Fractured. I’d seen our world rise in golden sunlight. And watched it fall in black emptiness. Today was the first meeting between myself and what was left of the S.S.C. I had not been able to speak for the past few days; let alone move with any dexterity. I had stopped going to school as well; for I had no doubt that it would only make tensions rise. I didn’t expect a turnout to this meeting. It would only be filled with the same false hope. The same false dreams. Most - if not all - members would only come to really see if the rumors were true. Jonathan Coldwel was alive and well. And while I was very-much alive; I wasn’t so sure about the latter anymore. We were meeting at The Eye. It remained as one of the bases that lost the least amount of troops after the Big Flex. It was the only place I trusted visiting anymore. At least for now. I no longer cared about arriving early. Those who wanted to hear me would wait. Those who didn’t have the patience for victory would leave. Just that simple. There was no snow tonight; Jacob and I had planned it that way. And as I drove down those empty roads; paved with the light-fluffy cotton; I found it difficult to believe that only days ago I had nearly become a part of it. And my friends with me. I pushed the thought out of my head and retained my silent mind for the rest of the drive. When finally I did arrive; I was greeted by two battered members of the newly established; security unit. Some of the most well-trained and trustworthy soldiers we had were now employed to watch over me and make sure another kidnapping was impossible. I’d argued against it of course; but Noah had set the operation up anyways. “Right this way, sir,” one security member said as he gestured towards the path I’d walked more times than I could ever hope to count. “Shut up,” I shot back. He quietly nodded and followed from behind. We eventually reached the central clearing; where all noise had been practically muted. A couple dozen troopers brooded quietly as they stood in the snow. Slowly their hivemind kicked in; and eyes were drawn to me. I saw bloodied lips, bruised faces, broken noses, blackened eyes - the usual suspects. Noah and Phaze stood side-by-side near the tree; Phaze’s dark red scarf flowing in the cool breeze. “I failed you,” I said coldly before I even stood before them all. “I failed all of you.” The silence persisted. No one dared argue it. “And some of you have failed each other,” I continued with a sneer of disgust growing on my face. “Those who quit after Drathm 3. Those who looked upon the suffering of their comrades and left them behind. Left them to lose!” Members nodded in stark agreement. “Don’t be like them!” I shouted. “Don’t bow down to Calvin and his troops! Because they sure as hell won’t bow down to you!” A cold breeze swept over the crowd; making some of them shiver; and other draw their jackets tighter. “That coldness you feel,” I said. “Rest assured that it’s just as cold for THEM! They are human. And that makes them beatable!” “B-But our forces are dwindling!” one member protested. “There’s nothing left for us to fight with!” “Troops will come,” I assured; referring to Brandon’s newfound efforts to send recruits our way. “Revenge will be ours! I vow to you - to all of you that we will find Calvin; and that we will make him pay! All of THEM will know our strength! Our resilience! Our-” My throat burned and scratched at itself for a moment and my thoughts became fuzzy. I’d grown used to it. Calvin’s punches still remained fresh in my head and on my body. His words had practically been ingrained in my head. Sometimes I’d lose focus and just repeat them endlessly; trying to decipher every last letter. Nothing went unnoticed. I finally snapped out of my trance and looked back to the crowd. “The hunt has begun,” I said at last. “Be there to see the end and get your revenge… or don’t.”

The New Game:

“You were able to speak clearer than yesterday,” Noah said as the troops began to leave in the same silence in which they came. “I was worried you’d still have some… discomfort.” From the corner of my eye, I saw Phaze briefly massage his wrapped throat; but he stopped as soon as I turned to him. “I need to stay true to my word, Phaze,” I told him. “I want all units trying in some way or another to get information on Calvin’s whereabouts.” “We drove out to where you were being held prior to the…” Noah hesitated to say more. “Death sentence,” I growled in response. “Yeah… well it looks like Brandon was right. There is no base over there. Just an empty field near Arthur’s; which is where the trucks dumped you. With all that snow and darkness; we can be pretty certain that Arthur didn’t see the trucks drop you off… or that he heard your screams for help.” “Calvin had a tent set up,” I said as I began to walk out back to my car. “The snow covered any sort of tracks,” Noah sighed. “No trash left behind either. We can be sure that Calvin was fully anticipating our search of the place. If it weren’t for Brandon; we probably wouldn’t have even known where it was.” “What’s the word on Brandon and Summer?” Phaze asked in a thick; raspy voice. “Summer is still one of us, even though Brandon is trying his best to talk her out of it. Brandon is still helping to supply troops. He’s gotten some former THEM members to come our way as well; but others refuse to turn traitor. The guys that are turning to us were kept at a low rank. They don’t know anything about Calvin. It’s the same story every time.” The talk of traitors made me glance over to a patch of ground underneath one of the oaks; the impression of Flag’s motorcycle could still be vaguely seen. He’d often park it within the woods for safety when he visited. It remained as a stark reminder of the past. “Why would he do it?” Phaze said to himself. “Why leave us like this? Why kick us while we’re down?” “Because he was power-hungry,” I replied; still staring at the spot. “Back when he stopped those druggies at our school, and I confronted him about it - lied to him - I don’t think he ever really recovered. I think he felt like he was on a leash he couldn’t escape from. And so he turned to the group that promised him power. And now he’s got it.” There was a silence. I think we were all realizing the terrible truth; that now two of the Origins were gone. “The spies didn’t check the higher-ups,” Noah said under his breath. “They were looking for spies in all the wrong places. He was under our nose the whole time. No wonder THEM was always a step ahead. I clenched my jaw and strode back to my car; feeling the heat in my mind beginning to rise to a boil once more. I thought of all the wounded I’d seen, all the conflict, all the times I’d taken responsibility for losses. It was never my fault at all. I opened the door to my car and looked back to Phaze and Noah before getting in. “The circle at our original meeting place,” I began. “Our ground zero?” Noah wagered. “I want whatever’s left of it destroyed,” I ordered. “Tear up the ground and put chemicals down around the area so nothing can grow again.” Noah looked at me in confusion and began to open his mouth to say something. “Now,” I specified again. And he obeyed.

A Final Visit:

I was in my room looking over papers again. It was all I did during recovery. Feeling my own pain while reading about the pain of others. What frustrated me more than anything was Dante; who had escaped Drathm 3 without so much as a scratch. He’d known we were coming all along of course. Flags had made that clear. Even his girlfriend probably had some idea what was going on. Every sentence I’d read made me realize just how foolish I’d been. It allowed me to see each and every little mistake. I dwelled on them all. Every word I spoke and every action I took. We’d fallen into THEM’s hand from the beginning. Our troops still had no doubt that Dante was still funding THEM, and allowing them access to the football gear used for their super soldier program. Getting ahold of our own gear was impractical. As soon as we’d make an advancement; they would too. And it would only go back and forth until one of us ran out of money. And that would be us. There was a sudden thumping noise from just outside my door; and the sounds of faint voices following it. I walked to my window; spotting footprints leading up from my driveway to the side of the house. Night was fast approaching; making it more difficult to distinguish shapes in the shade of nearby trees and hedges. Drathm 3 had taught me that hiding inside would only allow enemies to take me down with more ease. And so I decided to meet them head-on. I went downstairs and swung the door open; finding the empty yard set before me. I took a step out into the snow and heard a branch snap from behind some tall grass just beyond the fence. “I see you,” I bluffed; striding closer to the fence. “Don’t make me drag you out of there.” My throat burned for a second a briefly made me flinch with a tinge of pain. In this exact moment; two attacker sprang from the tall grass and tackled me to the ground; sending plumes of snow dust barreling into the sky. In their haste; the two butted heads against each other; leaving them in a tizzy and I desperately writhed out of their grasp. I quickly lunged forward and grabbed one attacker by the throat, lifting him to his feet, and punching him hard in the nose. The attacker’s head hung back loosely and I dropped him; only to find the second one grabbing for a nearby fallen tree branch; which he turned to me before lunging forward. I was to slow to react; the branch cutting into my chest before breaking into splintering pieces. The strike left me breathlessly and defenseless against a blow to the head. I fell to the ground; enjoying the silence of it all. They did not bother to speak; and neither was I. We’d all lost our words a long time ago. Taking in the silence; I was quickly held down to the ground with the foot of the attacker; as the other one rose from his incapacitation. This was it. The moment THEM had been waiting for. Suddenly screeching. The fast break of tires and roar of a powerful engine. Headlights shone in our faces; dazing the three of us in unison as the door to the vehicle swung open and Uncle Stew stepped out with a shadowy object tucked into his hands. “Back the hell away from him or I will blow you to kingdom come,” Stew roared as he lifted the shadowy object to the two attackers. Completely taken by surprise; the attacker let me go and ran back behind the house with his partner; jumping the fence and making his way out to the town. Stew clung to his heart for a moment and let the shadowy object fall from his grasp; nothing more than a small metal pipe. His face was difficult to see with the light shining past his silhouette; though I could tell his brow was furrowed and his mouth drawn back with a look of searing pain. His heart wasn't prepared for this kind of action. I rose to my feet and approached him; carefully reaching out for his hand; only to be pushed back. “This is the kind of life you’re wanting to live?” Stew screamed breathlessly as he slowly took his hand away from his chest. “You’re going to get yourself killed! You’re better than this Jonathan! Better than these thugs!” “I won’t die until I have what I want,” I said distantly. “What you want,” Stew clamored as he got into my face. “Is not happening!” I merely stared at my uncle; indifferent to his feelings. My gaze then carried over to his truck; where he had prepared logs for the fire. “Take them back,” I said; pointing to the wood. “I won’t be needing them anymore.” Stew’s face further steamed with anger. He would never understand my goals. And he’d never understand that he was only getting in my way. “Don’t be like your father,” Stew barked. “Don’t shut me out! It’s cold. And you need to keep the fire going! Aren’t you cold, Jonathan?” I did not reply; my gaze suddenly shifted down to my torso. This whole time I had been wearing a thin; sleeveless undershirt; mere shorts on to boot. My hands wore no gloves, my head bared no cap, my feet were without shoes. Stew’s gaze followed my own. Somewhere in the back of his mind I think he realized that I couldn’t feel the cold anymore. I stood in the face of that freezing winter’s night and only felt the air; brittle and unmoving. Stew finally looked back into my eyes. He must have stared at me for a minute or so before backing up to his car. It seemed he’d lost his words as well. My plague had spread. The car steadily backed out of the driveway; it’s lights growing faint as they retreaded. Soon the darkness engulfed me again. But it was alone now. No more cold to follow it. Stew was gone, but his words were still fresh in my head; circling around forth and back. Aren’t you cold?

Our Move:

“A list of targets,” Phaze gruffly said as he set a small stack of papers down at my desk. We were nolonger in the old HQ. THEM knew where it was now; and that meant that the only place I trusted to stay now was in the large shed just behind Phaze’s house. It was a petty set-up and everyone knew it; even though they didn’t say so. The leader of the S.S.C condemned to work in a vile-smelling; crumbling barn stuffed with hay and pallet boards. Summer had come with me and Noah was speaking with my security team near the entrance. I flipped through the pages; finding some names circled and other underlined. Phaze knew I had nothing to say, and so he continued. “It’s the names of as many THEM members’ names we could get our hands on. We owe it to the spy team for increasing their workload.” I briefly counted the names. My fears were correct; THEM had more men than us; at least in terms of numbers. “They outnumber us by over 20 guys,” I said flatly. “Brandon says he’s still trying to get more guys to join u-” Summer began to say; though I quickly cut her off. “It’s not enough,” I said. “We need to take down THEM’s heavy-hitters. The big guys on top that carry out the orders that Calvin gives. Eventually they’ll be left with commanders that have no clue what they’re doing.” “It would take to long,” Phaze argued; holding tightly to his wrapped throat. “Not quite,” Noah replied. “There is one name I highlighted on the list. A commander of THEM who we have high reason to believe takes orders directly from Calvin. Brandon confirmed he was there the night you three were taken. He also had a huge hand in leading forces appropriately in Drathm 2. The guy has been a silent thorn in our side longer than any of us could have known.” “Capture him then,” I ordered. “We’ll demand information on THEM’s current standings… and use him to find Calvin.” “I’m on it,” Noah said with a quick salute. He left the barn immediately; knowing I’d shout at him for wasting time otherwise. “We’ll work to find those attackers of yours last night,” Phaze said before breaking into a sudden, loud cough. “Their not afraid of us,” I said through my teeth. “What was that?” Summer asked. “They aren’t afraid of the S.S.C,” I said bitterly. “THEM has beaten us three times now. We’re their play-thing. The mouse to their cat. And if we don’t do something to strike fear into their hearts; then it won’t matter if you find my attackers. More will rise up to take their place.” “Well what do you suggest we do?” Summer asked. “I have a couple ideas,” I stated. “We’ll get to it later though.” “Roger that,” Phaze began. He tried to speak again; but suddenly grabbed his throat and began coughing several times over; his face riddled with pain. “Summer,” I said. “Leave us.” Summer nodded and left back to her parked car up front. Phaze finally collected himself and adjusted his frayed scarf. “What’s wrong with your neck?” I asked. Phaze seemed hesitant to answer me; gazing off at the rafters. “Phaze…” I prodded once more. “It’s cold,” Phaze finally replied. “Every time I talk I just feel… the cold. The freezing winds and frigid air from that night.” “You seen a doctor?” I questioned. “My parents don’t care what I do,” Phaze breathed. “And I don’t have that kind of money. It’ll pass… I just…” Phaze trailed off; fading back into his harsh coughing. There was no more to say. I was indifferent to his pain. His was of the body. Mine was not. And so I left.

Similar:

One morning I awoke and made my way outside. I was stopped from advancing by a small black stone perched upon my front porch. It was seated dead-center for me to see it and the harsh winds flowed like water off it’s sloping edges. I picked up the rock and looked around for some time. I could sense no enemies; nor much of anything. This wind must have carried it here. And so I tossed the rock back into the wind and all was done.

The Rebound:

The few that remained in the S.S.C were some of our best. I called it the Rebound Theory. The idea that so long as an individual felt denied of their purpose or appropriate gratification; they’d never truly abandon old habits. I’d called to watch these remaining troops spar in the boiler room base; the younger members near the back and older ones towards the front. As I paced back and forth through these troops; I could practically feel the anger inside of them. Every punch, kick, lunge,shielding; it called screamed of anger. They all wanted to be better. They all wanted the satisfaction of being able to stand up over the defeated forces of THEM and raise their fists in victory. It would be just like the Golden Age again. Everything would be the way it was. “Straighten your backs!” I called out. “Appear larger than the enemy! Stronger than the enemy! Defeat them mentally before a battle and you will always win!” The troops abided by my orders and continued to face their challengers. I couldn’t help but see myself in their moves. And the other Origins too. Mask and Flags sparing for the first time nearby. Jacob and Noah running laps around the field's perimeter; shouting words of encouragement as they’d pass us. It’s was almost like we were all still there. The vision suddenly faded as one soldier was pushed down in front of me. I stepped on his arm to keep him down. “Never fall!” I shouted. “You stand your ground and you keep that balance. The moment you fall is the moment you submit to the enemy!” The soldier nodded and stood back up to continue the spar. Towards the front; two of our best soldiers stayed in a steady grasp of one another; trying to push the other one back; but canceling out the other’s force. As such they remained in an internal force against one another. An unstoppable force and an immovable object. But it was flawed. “A waste of time!” I yelled out to them. “Don’t show the enemy the kindness of a long battle. You make it quick so as to better move on to the next! Your partners are out there, and they need you just as much as you need them!” The troops listened; with one managing to free an arm and uppercut his opponent; sending him staggering back; his fists still raised high to fight. “After this training I want all of you to run around the Magna Oil fields,” I ordered. “Ten laps! Even more if one of you falls behind!” None of the soldiers bothered to argue; only nodding their silent agreements. We were indeed getting stronger, but could we be strong enough? As I made my way to the door in the back; a younger member was pushed by his opponent against the frame. The boy briefly cursed under his breath and felt the back of his head before noting my presence and stopping to offer a hesitant salute. I was ready to lecture him; but instead saw a face I’d almost learned to forget. It was Albert. “You’re still around, Albert?” I said with some surprise. “I never left, sir,” he replied. I looked into Albert’s eyes and saw that ability to fight. There didn’t seem to be any rage there. Almost a sort of peacefulness about him. I wasn’t sure what to think of it.  “You’re a good trooper,” I complimented. “And maybe someday… an even better leader.” Albert’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open for a while. I knew I couldn’t be around forever. Either I’d get what I wanted and retire; or maybe THEM would overtake me after all. But in my absence I wanted the S.S.C to live on far longer than myself. Albert and the others in the back of this room were a part of the next generation. I could only pray we’d reward them with a future far brighter than our own.

Drastic Measures:

There was a huge rise in moral the following day; with word circulating that the THEM commander associated with Drathm 2 and my capture had been caught by some of our spies; who recognized his face from pictures they’d been presented with and used their strength to overpower his efforts to escape. The original plan was to interrogate him at the boiler room; but Noah made it clear to me that the guys would want his head if he made it anywhere near where they trained. So instead the commander was stuffed into the back of a truck and driven to the barn HQ; where he was blindfolded and led by Phaze and another soldier to the far back; where no light would show through the cloth. The soldier reached around to untie the blindfold as the doors were slightly closed; but I stopped him. “Leave the thing on,” I ordered. The soldier nodded and joined my security team guarding the post on the outside. Phaze stayed inside with me and joined in with the silence. The commander had said nothing during his entire transportation, but now that he knew we were alone; he finally spoke up. “So this is how it is?” he questioned; still blinded. “Capturing one another and stuffing them inside buildings against their will. Good luck making that last. Somebody’ll squeal on you eventually.” “And let the police handle things?” I scoffed. “I think Calvin would be real disappointed to learn that the enemies he’s worked to exterminate for so long were simply taken down by the cops. In fact you could say he’d be really upset with the person that ruined his plans.” The commander immediately quieted down. “Speaking of Calvin,” I remarked; pacing my foot on the commander’s chest and pushing him back onto the ground. “Perhaps you could tell us where he is.” “I don’t know,” the commander responded starkly. “I’m not that high up on the food chain.” “You were high up enough to lead Drathm 2 under Calvin’s orders. “Phaze argued. “And high up enough to join in on the effort of transporting Jonathan and I to your tent set-up.” The commander was suddenly silent. “We know a lot about you,” I told him. “Probably more than you’d feel comfortable knowing.” “That’s enough,” the commander tried to cut in. “We know your teammates,” I interrupted. “We know you, we know your friends, we know your family.” “I said that’s enough!” the commander suddenly shouted. “It’s a breadcrumb trail, you see?” I remarked as I pressed more force against his chest with my foot. “The longer you’re a threat to us, the more we’ll dig. And the more we dig, the more we find out about your life inside of THEM, and out.” Tere was a thick silence now; as the commander desperately tried to keep himself under control. Trying to keep from falling into the fear of the situation. He had been trying to ignore it, but it was becoming ever-so-clear that he wasn’t in control anymore. “Calvin was stationed at the city dump during Drathm 2,” the commander finally blurted out. “There is a small little accounting building near the back of the lot that nobody even uses.” “His headquarters?” Phaze asked. “Not anymore, that I know of,” the commander replied shakingly. “He moves around all the time! Sometimes stationing himself at a teammate’s house for food and water. And other times going off on his own to find areas to camp out in. He’s never been in the same place for longer than three days!” “What about Drathm 3?” I questioned as I drove my foot deeper into his chest; taking some air out of him. “I… he… he was driven down there by one of our lower guys,” the commander gasped. “I don’t even know who the soldier was! Calvin told him to drive off as soon as he arrived, then he set up the tent to relay orders!” “He’s paranoid,” Phaze remarked. “He’s beyond paranoid!” the commander shouted in pain. “He keeps tabs on everybody! If even one guy goes missing or acts strange; it’s reported straight to him and he handles things through various troopers!” “This still does not tell us where he is,” Phaze growled. “That’s because now he’s completely gone missing!” the commander shouted. “In the past we’ve at least heard his voice over com, but now we only receive orders through The Eye and Flags! They are the only people he trusts to stay around after Drathm 3! The only ones!” Phaze looked over at me; pondering if I believed the commander’s story or not. “And where can we find Flags and The Eye?” I demanded. The commander opened his mouth to speak; but no words came out. “Think carefully about what you’re about to say to me,” I remarked. Finally the commander gave a sigh; his body becoming limp under my foot as he relinquished his power at last. “There’s an abandoned concrete complex just on the outskirts of town in a small wooded area to the north of Dun’s Creek. There’s no roof, doors, or windows, but they’ve taken to building up on it; making it into a safe house that they visit when the weather is agreeable. I’ve only been by there once; it’s much too well-guarded for one of your units to attack. And it’s only gotten stronger, I’d imagine.” “What do they do there?” I shot back. “Talk about recent orders… they’ve also spoken about the Super Soldier Program and how we spend Dante’s money.” I ran this through my head a few times; trying to figure out how it had taken so long to learn of this vital base of operations. “Can I go now?” the commander pleaded. “You’ll be transported away from here by truck and dumped in Blue Point,” I responded as I ordered the security team to pick him up off the ground. Before they could carry him out of the room; I leaned forward and spoke to him. “Remember what I told you,” I whispered. “We know you. And we know the people you love. What we spoke of today. What you told us. It never happened. Got that?” “It… n-never happened,” the commander responded. The team carried him outside as he frightfully repeated himself over and over again. “It never happened… it never happened…” “That’s fear. I said to Phaze as my security team came in to see me back to my car. “That’s how you get results. Our next step towards this kind of respect happens tomorrow at my shed. Bring Summer and Noah. They deserve to see it.” Phaze tried to respond vocally; but I could tell he’d already spoken to much for one sitting; as he reached for his throat to massage at it some more. He held his thumb up and nodded his response to me. I was beginning to see weakness in him, but it didn’t matter. While Phaze faded away; the rest of the S.S.C was only growing stronger… and only growing closer towards our revenge.

A New Symbol:

Just as according to plan, Phaze, Summer, and Noah arrived t my shed late the next day. To some degree I think they knew why they were there. Why they had to be there. It was all too familiar. I had set up a small table in the center of the shed; and purchased a large black cloth; with red paint along with it. “What is this?” Noah questioned as he stepped in. “The beginnings of our new symbol,” I replied. Carefully I took up a paintbrush and dipped it in the red paint; handing it to Noah. “You start,” I said. “The same as before. The diamond. Once blue; now turns red.” Noah seemed almost weakened by the presence of the brush; stepping backwards as if coming too close to it would harm him. “But sir, we have already distributed the old l-” my slight grin now turned to a disgraced frown; as I instead turned to Phaze. “You do it then,” I said. Phaze seemed just as taken aback by the brush as Noah; though he slowly reached up and took the brush from my hand; leaning over the table and drawing the two conjoined triangles just as perfectly as before. “A black flag with a red logo,” Summer remarked cautiously. “That seems awful… dreary isn’t it?” “What it is will be our first step towards showing THEM that we are done playing around,” I retorted. “What about the blue uniforms?” Noah asked. “And the logos we’ve already stitched up!” “We throw them out,” I replied coldly. “You need to be willing to let the S.S.C change with the times… unless you’d rather we continue to let THEM trample over us every chance they get?” “N-no sir,” Noah said; finally trailing off. At last Phaze finished drawing our symbol and I brought myself back to the table and began to lift the sheet; only for my arm to be caught by Summer. “Leave it to dry, remember?” “I remember,” I responded; pushing her arm off of me and lifting the flag so it was completely vertical to the ground. Sure enough; the red of the symbol began to ooze in areas; sliding down to the base of the flag; giving off the illusion of dripping blood emanating from the diamond itself. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. The others sat in an almost stunned silence as the dripping blood froze to the sheet; now sitting prominently on its surface. At last I placed the flag back to the table and looked to the others. “I’ve been saving up money,” I said as I reached down to a bag and picked out some bills. “Noah,” I spoke. “Take this and buy new uniforms. Black as the night itself. With any luck THEM will flinch in terror at every passing shadow.” “U-understood boss,” Noah said lightly; taking the money from my hand. “Hold your heads high,” I said to the others. “The fear we live in will soon be replaced with a sweet victory. The S.S.C is burning brighter than ever.”

Control:

I was beginning to revile the separation of our forces. The usage of multiple bases only served to separate our brothers from one another. With little effort; I decreed that every meeting would take place in one singular location each day; with the location varying occasionally so as to keep THEM off our tracks. It was better this way. No longer would distance stand in the way of our troopers. I’d be right there by their side the whole time; now hiding away to watch from behind the curtain. No - now everything had been moved to the forefront; nothing hidden away. “Move faster!” I shouted to the troops as they breathed heavily; their sparing punches growing weaker as their muscles began to ache. “You think THEM will stop fighting when they see you growing tired?” I shouted. “You think they’ll soften their punches and retreat? They will jump at the occasion to tackle the weak! Keep a stiff upper lip and refuse to show any sort of pain you feel! Pain is all in the mind! The sooner you learn that, the better-off you’ll be!” “We’re supposed to get nice weather here soon,” Phaze told me as he walked over. “You still considering an attack on that base where Flags and The Eye take up shop?” “Attacking was never the plan,” I responded. “When we want them to fall; they will fall. But right now I only care about finding Calvin. We need spies over there to listen in, write down what they say, and give us the details.” “But it’s bound to be guarded all over,” Phaze argued. “None of our spies could hope to get close enough during a meeting.” “That’s why we send them before the meeting,” I replied. “Let them find places to hide and make them stay there until the meeting begins. THEM will come to us. Not the other way around.” A  timer went off and the soldiers suddenly stopped their fighting; with Noah and others interjecting to hand out the new black garb for them to change into. It wasn’t long before our ocean of blue turned into a thick shadow of black. The troops threw their old identity into a giant cyan pile. Their old failures were disposed of now. They had a clean slate. Before Phaze could speak again; I suddenly heard voices just off to the bushes near the west-side of the Eye base. Phaze heard it too and stepped in front of me; holding his hand up to the troopers to fully quiet them and round them up into a single group. Sure enough; human voices in the bushes could be heard whispering to one another; with the soft crunching of branches and leaves underneath distant feet. “Spies,” I said with a sudden look of disgust. I gave a quick wave to Phaze; giving him control over the forces for the time being. “Behind the trees!” Phaze said to the others. “Stay quiet!” The troopers rushed back behind the trees and fauna; some grabbing back at their BB-guns or special sticks in case things turned ugly. “We’re getting close,” came a small voice which was growing closer. I stationed myself with Noah behind a large fallen oak; peering out over the top only to find two young THEM members trodding through the tall grass only several feet away from where our soldiers were hiding. “I don’t see anyone,” the young enemy soldier replied with some fear showing in his voice. I left the decision to Phaze as to how to respond to the minute threat. Phaze looked back at the kids for a while and then looked to his troops. “Chase them out,” he ordered. “Nothing more.” Like a well-oiled machine, the troopers sprang from their hiding place and sprinted at the kids; shouting and waving their arms and weapons to appear much larger than they really were. The kids looked back in sheer terror; make a sharp turn back to the tall grass and heading that way. “At least it was simple,” Noah said with a sigh of relief. I remained less moved. “Something is not right,” I said; my focus shifting to the tall grass again. “It’s almost like they’re…” I suddenly shot up and leaped over the log; holding my hand out to the troopers chasing the kids. “Stay out of the grass!” The yell stung at my throat more than I’d anticipated; and the sudden shock left me in a brief dizziness. Yet in some way or another; the soldiers heard my cries; and slid to a halt; just before they could enter the grass. Only then did they see it; other spies hiding in the grass shield; only these spies were not kids. “Super soldiers!” a master yelled back to the others; with weapons being drawn and pointed towards the hiding forces. Not to be outdone; the large armour-clad troopers sprung from their places and rushed at our forces; mowing down the first couple lines with their undying force. Shots were fired from our troops; but bounced harmlessly from the enemies helmets and chest padding. There were four of them total; with two circling around to attack our team from behind. I wouldn’t let that happen. With Noah sprinting at the enemy not far behind me; we advanced towards the two super soldiers; neither of them seeing us as I attacked one and Noah tackled the second. My opponent bent his head sharply forward to deliver a headbut; his helmet crashing hard against my skull and sending me into yet another dizzy spell. My surroundings now a blur; I blindly shoved forward; pushing my attacker against a tree which he then used to catapult himself forward; driving his fist into my stomach. Just as he rushed at me to finish the job; I pivoted on my right leg and delivered a sharp kick to the side of his helmet with my left. The power of the kick sun the helmet around just right; effectively blinding the attacker with his own headgear. With no more sight of me; the super soldier tried to swivel his helmet back around; only for me to intervene with another steady kick to the chest; which sent him into the awaiting arms of some nearby troopers. Noah was quickly assisted as well; with all of the super soldiers being successfully captured along with the kids and anyone else we found around the area. “Is that it?” Noah breathed as he felt at the bruise forming on his right cheek. “This can’t be all.” I gazed around the area for any other sign of eternal life; but nothing caught my eye. Nearby; one super soldier had quickly awoken from his incapacitation; and was trying to escape the grasp of a few soldiers. One of his legs flailed to high and struck one of our own in the jaw. Now steaming with anger; the soldier grabbed the enemy by the collar and ripped his helmet off; shaking the THEM trooper back and forth while yelling into his face. “Who sent you! Who sent you! Tell me right now, damnit!” Our soldiers was quickly pulled away and the enemies were promptly dragged to the center of the base; where Phaze began some questioning. We knew we wouldn’t have much time with them before THEM noticed their extended absence. Noah approached me as the talking went on. “They clearly had some sort of plan,” he told me. “Trying to lure us to the tall grass with the children… but a mere four super soldiers against the whole of the S.S.C… it was never going to work. It was practically a suicide mission.” “We were sent by Sol!” One of the younger kids cried out upon being pressed for info. “Sol?” Phaze questioned. “Calvin… the boss… that’s what we c-call him!” the kid frightfully elaborated. “There definitely is something off,” I whispered as I turned back to Noah. “Calvin doesn’t order attacks like this. Not unless he has something bigger up his sleeves. He’d never send kids this little out on such a dangerous task. He’d know they’d rat on him.” “You saying the kid is lying?” Noah responded. I turned back to eye the kid and looked at the faces of the older guys around him. They all looked like they were in pain; like every word the kid spoke hurt them a little bit inside. They truly did not want him to talk.” “Perhaps not,” I replied to Noah. The bruise on his cheek and spread prominently; and Noah slowly reached up to his mouth; where he wiggled at a tooth near the middle of his mouth; which now wiggled upon the touch. The movement of the tooth sent blistering pain ricocheting through Noah’s body. “You need that checked out,” I told him. “You have my permission to leave. We’ll handle the questioning from here. “What’s the point,” Noah said through the pain. “So long as these super soldiers keep getting funded by Dante… then there’s no way we can prevent future trauma. The super soldiers are Calvin’s ace in the hole. Maybe this was his way of showing what just a few could do.” Noah quit talking due to the pain and I stared back at the super soldiers; their uniforms now splattered with blood, dirt, and melting snow. We’d seen four in action… but what about an entire unit… an entire army. Noah was right. Something had to be done. And I had just the idea.

Hot World:

Darkness. Nothing now but darkness overtaking the sky. I’d ordered only my most trustworthy soldiers to assist me. A mere handful consisting of Phaze and three others. I would have let Noah come as well; but he had been receiving treatment for his loose tooth; and was recommended to stay at home for the next few days to douse the stinging with painkillers. We didn’t tell him our plan. I figured he’d know afterwards. But that would be the end of it. No-one else could ever hear the story. It wasn’t their place to hear it. There was an eerie silence in the air as the five of us stepped onto the empty Magna Oil fields. The hustling bustling sounds of machinery and shouting crews had been replaced with absolute muted silence. The world - it seemed - was dead. And we were dead with it. I stared up at the rig for a while; and at the other nearby machinery cluttering the field. This was the heart of our town. The thing that was trying to breath life into it again. But with that breath came consequences. So long as Magna Oil persisted; the S.S.C could not. This wasn’t about fighting for the whole town. We weren’t what Calvin demonized us as. This was about protecting the safety of the students. “Pour it,” I ordered to the three soldiers; who carried about large red containers of gasoline. Ever-so-carefully; the troopers advanced towards the rig; bathing the base of it with the foul-smelling liquid and then spreading it to other parts of the field; connecting with machinery and struts. Phaze and I stood in the darkness and watched that field become bathed in gasoline; which reflected the light of the moon overhead; making the entire field seem to light up and glisten from every-which-way. Finally the soldiers emptied out their containers completely and rushed back to our side. I reached now into my pocket; where a matchbox sat waiting for me. I thought about all the pain I was about to bring. I thought about all the lost jobs, lost money, lost families. For a moment my hand stopped and I couldn’t bring myself to go through with it all. But then my mind churned hotter. I remembered Dante. I remembered what he caused in Drathm 3. I remembered the weapons he’d given to THEM. All the support. All the money. I recalled on the pain he’d bought to me. And all the pain he’d brought to Summer. Do it for Summer. My mind whispered. Fight for Summer. And so I clutched the matchbox and took it from my pocket; rubbing my thumb back and forth on the rough side; letting every single little bump scrape away at my skin. With a sudden flick of my wrist; I swept a match over the box; igniting the end with a steading flame glowing bright yellow; the rustic smell releasing into the air and giving off it’s tiny puffs of smoke. The flame had been made. It had sustained. Now it had to combust. I turned now to Phaze; the yellow light illuminated on the right side of my face. “We tried… didn’t we?” I asked softly. Phaze didn’t seem able to answer for a moment; his focus had absorbed on the fire. He was a part of it. We all were. He knew just as well as I did that just like this flame; the S.S.C would live on and burn brighter than ever. He knew that. And so, I tossed the match into the trail of gasoline at our feet; letting it catch fire and transport the flames towards the strut in the distance. “Let’s move!” I shouted out as the flame grew closer to the machinery. For a moment Phaze wasn’t able to move; still taken aback by the beauty of the fire. He knew it had to be this way. I gripped his shoulder. And together; with the three soldiers not far behind; we left Magna Oil to burn. And burn it did.

Inferno:

We returned to our respective homes just as the sirens started to blare. My first instinct was to look out my window and gaze at my tremendous work. Sure enough, a glance outside revealed towering plumes of smoke and flames. It could be seen for miles upon miles and the sounds of firetrucks attempted to mute the raging fire. Some people began leaving their homes to see the commotion. Some stared out in a stunned silence as they slowly realized what was going on. Others screamed in terror, for never had they seen such flames before in their lives. I couldn’t stand to watch the screaming of parents and children anymore; so I turned back to my room; only for their to be a sudden explosion. The force of the distant blast shook the very ground we stood upon; throwing some residents off balance and bringing down some of my photos. The explosion at the rigs was followed by yet another. And they didn’t stop. The shaking grew worse and worse to a point in which my entire home seemed to twist and fracture under it’s own weight. All residents now were shouting in a panic; running through the streets or in and out of their homes to retrieve goods or family members. This was the inferno. This was the end of their world. For but a brief moment, I too picked up treasured photographs and other necessities and began to pack to leave the house, but then my ears finally picked up a sound I hadn’t heard before; the sound of the flames. Although muffled before by the sirens and shouting; somehow I managed to hear it now. A thick roar. Like the sound of a great dragon or beast. The roar spit power and dominance over the town; and it all came down on me. It was almost like I was buried underneath the flames. It was all on me. All of this fear was on me. If my actions were truly wrong - I thought - then the house should come down on me and end it. Leave fate up to the universe. And so I unpacked, sat on my bed, and waited for the end. Yet another explosion; the windows downstairs now shattering along with the windows of many neighbors. More cracking emanated from within the walls. Then all became silent and still. I set a photo of Summer and I on the desk in front of me, it’s edges torn and crinkled. The image sat upright and stared back at me in this moment of silence. “Let it be,” I said to myself over and over again. But the end never came. Instead another deep shake. I looked out the window once more; seeing those piercing black waves of smog barreling into the atmosphere. There was a sudden shift; the smoke changing direction and the fiery plumes descending. The oil rig was falling. There was one final quake as the tower attempted to steady itself one last time. But the damage had been done. At long last the rig doubled over on itself and crashed to the fiery depths below. No more shaking followed. Only the sounds of sirens, screaming, and flame.

Through Outer Eyes:

I fell asleep right there at the foot of my bed. My eyes closing with me being unsure if they’d ever open again. But they did. The universe must have approved of me after all… but could everything else? I hesitantly rose to my feet. The air smelled like gasoline. I didn’t want to look out the window anymore. I didn’t want to see the charred fields still steaming in the distance. I wanted to see the world from my real perspective. With my real eyes. The window in my kitchen had been shattered. Glass was spewed onto the kitchen floor and some laid in the sink. Yet another window had bursted near the back of my house; but little else had been directly affected. I walked outside and stepped into the early morning snow. No houses had collapsed, but some had lost a great many more windows than mine. There was roof damage as well to a couple of older houses. Mailboxes and anything not tied down directly to the earth had either been swayed by the explosions or trampled under the feet of frightened residents. Some families had taken to their cars and fled the neighborhood completely. Others who had stayed brave returned to their homes and talked in hushed voices to one another as repairs were in progress. The thing that stood out to me the most was the sky - the usual shining golden hue now replaced with a starkly gray fog. It was like the planet itself had become scorched. One neighbor - an elderly gentleman - walked to the edge of his lawn to throw out the early morning paper. While his back was turned; I walked over to snatch it. An article had been quickly typed up overnight regarding the fire. I ran my fingers down the page as if I could feel each and every letter.

Fire now rages in the Magna Oil district of Toparsburg. Details are scarce but two things are certain, residents are fleeing in mass panic and the flames show no sign of ceasing. With oil residue still actively present on the base of the struts and yet more oil within the rig itself; the fire is set only to rise in the coming hours. The effects of this fire on the strut and on Toparsburg remain to be seen.

The article rambled on for a long while regarding assumptions and quotes of the chief of the fire department. For a moment I worried that perhaps they’d find evidence of our starting of the fire. But with flames so large and explosions so powerful, I suspecting evidence would be practically impossible to come by. I went back inside and tried to dial Summer’s number on my phone; but there was no connection. Power Lines must have fallen in the chaos of the previous night. With phones no longer being an option, I took to my desk upstairs and grabbed a pen and a small slip of paper to write upon. Noah and I had prepared for a moment such as this where communication was limited. I could hand this note to a member of the messaging unit and be ensured that it would be copied by hand and effectively distributed. Obviously all connections to my presence at Magna Oil could not be mentioned. Any uncertainty had to be quelled right away.

With the unexpected fire outbreak at Magna Oil; we are put into a precarious position. A position in which Dante’s funding has been cut indefinitely. With the death of Magna Oil; the S.S.C breathes new life. The Super Soldier program is nolonger going to fuel our fears; but rather remain in our memories as a demon of the past. Now S.S.C - I say look to the future. Look to capturing The Eye and Flags, and finding Calvin Supco.

And with that I folded the note and took it to a messenger’s house. It would be the first step of many, but a positive step nonetheless towards easing nerves and raising spirits. The S.S.C needed to believe fate was on it’s side… and not a lighted match.

Pieces in Motion:

There had been no THEM activity for two days straight following the grand fire at Magna. The weather had been particularly dreary; raining and sleeting during the nights; preventing any sort of meeting by The Eye or Flags at their secret base. And with phones still down; we knew that communication between THEM members had been almost nonexistent. We’d pulled the rug right out from under them. They’d never seen it coming. I’d drove to Phaze’s house today to speak about the events of the past several days. It was a meeting done behind closed doors. Not even my security team could be trusted to follow me there. I had no way of warning Phaze of my visit; though somehow he already seemed to know; standing in the window of his front door, staring up at the sky and ignoring my presence as I stepped out of the car. “We need to talk,” I told him through the window while signaling to the barn. Phaze offered no reply, merely opening the door and silently following me to the HQ. “Who knows?” I asked him once the doors were shut. Phaze paused. “Only the five of us that were there,” Phaze finally replied. “And one of our guys is going to discreetly inform Noah later today. Once he understands what an upper hand this gives us; he’ll probably double the work of the financing and spy team in order to get an edge on THEM while their down.” Although we were completely bathed in darkness; I could hear Phaze hopelessly tightening the scarf around his throat; desperately hoping to sate the coldness. “You’ve seen the message I sent out?” I wagered. “Yes,” Phaze replied shortly. “Weather is supposed to be good today. I could send our best spies down to that THEM base. Guys who will follow orders and simply jot down what Flags and The Eye have to talk about that’s so important it can't be done over phone or messaging.” Phaze coughed a bit and cleared his throat to alleviate some pain. “Only send two,” I said. “Anymore than that and they might not find enough hiding spots. You’ll need to make sure they have the new black suits so as to better blend in with the night.” Phaze grunted in agreement. “There’s one more thing,” he said. “We intercepted a letter THEM is trying to send out to it’s guys. Nothing important, just details on uniforms and patches; it was written just before the fire. They keep mentioning a name though towards the bottom. The Blood Man. Looks like THEM has some sort of new helper in their midst perhaps. I’ll send you a copy of the letter in the mail.” “Good,” I replied; tuning out the bad in favor of all this newfound good. I finally stood from my seat upon a hay bail and walked over to the door; turning back to Phaze just before opening it. “We’re so close,” I told him. “So close to finding Calvin and ending this thing… I need to know you’ll stay quiet about the things you know.” There was a long pause. I couldn’ see Phaze’s face, nor he to mine. If it were not for the muffled sound of his scarf being wrapped; I would have doubted he was even still in the barn at all. “All is good,” Phaze finally replied. “Glad to hear it,” I said with a fake smile. Finally I pushed the door open and let the light wash back into the barn; where Phaze still sat motionless on one of the bales; staring down at his feet. I began to make my way to my car; until recalling a small forgotten detail. “Oh, one more thing,” I said as I spun around to face Phaze again. “I feel like our interests may be in danger if one of the other three guys decides to spill the beans to anyone. Once they’ve informed Noah everything he needs to know; I’d like them to be put under some relatively heavy watch from the spy unit.” Phaze’s stare shot up to look at me in confusion. “Tell the spy unit that the three are suspected traitors. If they say something they’re not supposed to… well they’ll be cut out of the equation. Simple enough?” “Simple enough…” Phaze repeated. He understood.

Our Great Many Names:

Calvin Supco, Sol, Soul, Soulless, The S Man, Mr. S, Supreme, Calvin the Supreme. Everyone had a different name for the phantom Calvin Supco. Some so negative that you’d think he was the most reviled person on the planet. Some so extravagant you’d believe he was some kind of god. The S.S.C as well was subject to these name changes. The Flames, The Blue Crew, The Fighters, and The Black and Blues. It amused me just how much the name changes differed across the grades and beliefs of those who favored them. And while I tried to hide my true fear of all these changes by embracing them; I realized in the back of my mind that someday I’d have to open up to the fact that the S.S.C would be forever changing long after I was gone. And if I didn’t catch Calvin… or perhaps Sol as he now preferred it - if I didn’t catch him and prove the S.S.C’s worth… then there would be nothing to remember. Nothing but the hazy recollection of the leader who rose the S.S.C up from ashes; only to burn it right back down. I was about to test the phone again when their was a frantic knocking at my door. I briefly glimpsed out of the broken window; which I’d applied a trashbag to in order to keep out the cold. Through the crevices I could just barely tell that the sun was setting. It was around this same time before that I’d been attacked by THEM forces. Only this time I wouldn’t have Stew to back me up. The hysterical knocking persisted; until finally a voice rang out over it all. “Jonathan!” came the voice of Noah. “I know you’re in there! Open up! Now!” I rose from my chair and - sensing no danger - opened the door for Noah; who seemed almost surprised that I’d actually let him in. “What’s the problem?” I asked. “You know damn well what the problem is!” Noah screamed at me; pointing his finger at my face and backing me into a chair by my table. “You’re a maniac! That fire! That was-” “Quiet down,” I interrupted; signaling for him to close the door. Noah hesitantly obeyed. “You needed to know,” I replied before he could say any more. “We need you to organize troops appropriately now that we’re ahead of the curb.” “Is that all this is to you?” Noah yelled; his face growing red and flustered. “Some kind of back and forth game between the S.S.C and THEM? Do you have no boundaries? No interest in keeping the public safe?” “I said, Quiet down!” I now yelled in response. It was the first time I’d truly yelled in a long time. Not out of fear, but of true anger. “We are the S.S.C! Our job is to protect the public! This was in their interest!” “It was in your interest!” Noah shot back, refusing to take a seat. “This was wrong! You’ve ruined jobs! You’ve ruined lives! You-” “If you don’t understand the gravity of the situation,” I interrupted. “Maybe you should go back home and think it over before you say something you regret.” Noah stopped himself now and looked at me in shock. A similar stare as what Phaze had given me. “Don’t understand the gravity of the situation…” Noah repeated under his breath. “It’s the exact opposite! Am I the only one who does? You have power over the S.S.C, and you have power over me, but you do not have power over this town!” I finally let the disgust show on my face as I rose from my chair and pointed my finger back at Noah. “I’ll do whatever I have to for the greater good! And nobody - not Calvin, not Flags, and certainly not you - will stand in my way of that! We protect the kids of that school. That is our purpose!” Noah stopped for a moment and looked at me; his eyes growing teary. “When is the last time we saved a kid?” Noah sputtered. “When’s the last time you looked through those papers of yours and thought of anything else besides finding Calvin and stopping THEM?” I did not respond; only staring at him. “Can you tell me that, Jonathan?” Noah asked. “Can you tell me that?” I turned my back to him and sat down in my chair. “You know Jonathan,” Noah said. “When I joined the S.S.C… I was terrified… I was always terrified. But you know what always kept me going? The idea that I could save kids from ever growing up to be like me! A coward that let everyone push him around because in his mind; they were all better than him.” Noah’s eyes were turning red and coated with a thin layer of tears. “I feared going back to that… I feared becoming that kid… but even more so - I feared becoming the ones who pushed me around to begin with. Those people who can only feel alive when they’re causing chaos for others. Maybe now I’m finally seeing that that’s about to happen to all of us. Maybe now I’m seeing that the road you, and Summer, and Jacob are going down… is a road that I can’t follow.” “Noah…” I warned; trying to keep him from jumping to any more conclusions; but he interrupted me once more. “I don’t want to be like you,” he said; a tear finally dripping down the side of his face. “Because Jonathan… you’re worse than them all…” My heart was unmoved. Noah saw it too. Saw it in my eyes that I didn’t hear a word he said. That it all was pointless. “It doesn’t matter,” I said at last. “What about what Mask fought for?” Noah cried. “It doesn’t matter.” “What about what I fought for?” “It doesn’t matter.” “What about all those lost jobs?” “It doesn't matter!” “What about those struggling families?” “It doesn’t matter!” “What about Brice?” “It doesn’t matter!” Noah finally stopped. I stopped to. “I see…” he finally said silently. There was no more I could tell him. No more I could do but replay what I’d said again and again in my mind. I had been the one to say it. He made me say it. Forced me. Noah reached over to the black logo patch that had been sewed upon his shoulder... and tore it off. He reached to his left pocket and took out the blue logo from the old garb. He held the two in his hands for a while and then tossed them down at the table. I didn’t try to stop him from turning his back on me. Nor did I stop him from opening the door to let himself back out. I sat in silence at that table and listened to Noah’s car start up and pull out of my driveway. Soon I was all alone again. Alone with the patches skewed across my table. I slowly rose from my chair and took the two patches up into my hands, looking at them for a short while. Noah had turned them to nothing now. No meaning anymore. And so I chose to put those patches out of their misery, and threw them into the cold embers of the fireplace.

The Strange Meeting:

Most everyone didn’t know for the first couple days. Didn’t know that Noah wasn’t coming back to our meetings, to our battles, or to our victory. But word eventually did trickle down through the ranks. Yet another Origin had abandoned the very group he’d helped create. We reviled him. In Noah’s indefinite absence, the spy and messenger units suffered greatly from a lack of direction. Fixing the issue took all of my time and energy. All the while I had to worry as to whether or not Flags or The Eye would meet at their secret base soon. All attempts days prior had led to nothing. And stories circulating about spies hiding in the cold for hours on end, all for nothing was not good for moral. Our emotions seemed very much to mirror the charred sky. But today was different; for our spies did not return from the enemy base at their usual time, which insinuated two things; they’d either been captured or the meeting had actually occurred and was ongoing. I stayed at the Eye base; waiting with our available troopers as the sun went down. We spent time in silence making sure that the coms were working, so that if anything went wrong we’d be right there to get the message. Of course we were much too far away from the spies location to receive a message, and our numbers were certainly not fit for an unexpected battle with THEM, but it did the S.S.C some good to see their leader taking every possible precaution to keep members safe. Suddenly there was a crackle on one of our eastward facing coms. I eased in with the others and listened; anticipating only the worst, for that is the news I’d grown the most accustomed too. “Infiltration was successful,” came the voice of one of the spies over the com, relieving us all. “We are nearing Eye base now, over.” “This is Eye base,” one of the soldiers replied. “We’re right here expecting you. Great work out there.” I turned to my security team and pointed eastward to where the spies would be coming in. “I want two of you to head down there and guard them. Make sure they aren’t being tailed. This is a big break. This is the moment where we hear how THEM truly operates. I won’t have it hindered now.” The security members agreed and headed into the dark depths of the woods; leaving me with hardly any protection in this open clearing. It was a risky move, but I was growing accustomed to taking chances. Luckily enough, no issues ensued that night; as the security team returned with the spies intact. The two handed over their hand-written drafts of the conversation that went on at the enemy base. Some of it had to come from memory; while others parts were directly written as they spoke. While the security team and spy team congratulated each other; I took to reading the drafts by flashlight.

-Location Reached: 5 high ranking individual THEM members noted in meeting room. Consisting of Flags, Dante, The Eye, and two other unknown individuals-

I frowned for a moment, realizing that Calvin wasn’t there. Not that I had expected him to be there anyways.

-12 security guards posted. Possibly more unseen surrounding the perimeter of the building or in the forested surroundings-

-Flags called to be primary speaker of the meeting-

Flags: We all know things are not working according to plan. Not after the incident with the fire. Today I hope we can work out how much money Dante will be able to supply us with at this point.

Dante: Don’t you get it? There is no more money! My family lost everything in the fire! I’m not even sure we’ll be staying here. Things are happening too quickly for me to follow. I have no more resources to give! Do you have any idea how many of our factory buildings are getting closed down? How many foreclosures are going to happen all over this city? We’ll have abandoned buildings as far as the eye can see!

The Eye: It’s just as bad as I thought. The Blood Man is going to have a field day at our expense.

Flags: With or without Dante we still have other; smaller financial backers. It won’t be enough to revive our program but… at least we’ll be able to work out driving and food expenses.

The Eye: What we need is a new means to get at the S.S.C. We’re beginning to exhaust all our ideas whether you want to admit it or not.

Flags: Quiet down. We don’t want the guys to hear this.

The Eye: The S.S.C is already probably suspicious of that attack we placed on them a little while ago with the spies. The Blood Man is going to keep dipping his hands in his unquenchable thirst for revenge until we step forward with something else. I joined you people on two conditions, that I’d be seated at a high level of power and that we’d get back at the S.S.C for good. The way I see it, the S.S.C is still alive and I’m seated way higher than I ever wanted to be.

Flags: The S.S.C is fighting for their every breath. This fire might have worked in their favor, but we still have enough influence to make things worse. The Blood Man’s conquest will no longer be necessary in the end. I move that we begin preparations for a Drathm 4 near river system just a little ways from here. All it will take is a kidnapping of one of their officials and they’ll go ape. They’ll play right into the palm of our hands whether we like it or not.

Unknown: Seconded.

The Eye: I suppose.

Unknown: I agree.

Dante: Do as you will… I have no real part in this scheme anymore… It’s all on you people now to pick up from where things were left.

The documents droned on for a while regarding the rest of the conversation; though nothing of importance compared to the information about the possibility of Drathm 4. I folded the papers and placed them in my pocket before turning to question the spies. “The two unknown individuals,” I said. “You had no idea who they were?” “They’re definitely not on our list of confirmed THEM members sir,” one replied. “They didn’t look like fighters either. Real scrawny guys. Didn’t even have THEM patches.” “Financial backers?” I asked. “That’s incredibly likely,” one spy recalled. “Flags was looking to them when he mentioned the money situation.” “And this Blood Man?” “Only mentioned those few times we recorded.” “They could be speaking of Calvin,” one security member offered. “I don’t see it,” I replied. “In fact I don’t see anything of Calvin’s design here. What gives them the right to make battle plans without his orders?” “I can only assume that the idea is sent to Calvin discreetly somehow,” a spy wagered. “And then he’ll approve it.” “So we still have time…” I said to myself. “Security team,” I ordered as I turned to them. “I want you to send out a message any ways you can that all members need to be on their toes. If THEM is planning on kidnapping one of our own, then we’ll just have to beat them to the punch.”

Playing With Fire:

I allowed very few troopers in my home. In fact I tried to keep business out of my house as much as possible now. But for all the bad memories I had in that place; it was still the best location for discussing plans as vital as this one. The moment that S.S.C soldiers had been demanding since the very first Drathm. The moment where the S.S.C punches first. THEM was weakened now more than they ever had been before; with Brandon’s friends leaving the ranks, others quitting out of annoyance, and zero funding from Dante. If we didn’t hit now; and hit hard, then we’d never stand a chance again. And so I invited Summer, Phaze, and a couple others to my house to discuss “Defensive Plans”, of course this was merely the tag in which our meeting was touted as to the rest of the S.S.C. Those arriving here today must have known that a fourth Drathm was brewing. And my house was the mixing pot. This was the first time I’d seen Summer since the fire; she looked tired as she walked up my lawn and came inside. I didn’t bother to ask her what was wrong, for I assumed she’d just been frayed over Noah’s leaving and the fire breaking some of her windows in the night. The memory of flames was enough even to keep the best of us awake at night, which is why I chose to lock it away in the back of my head. Never to be opened again. Summer did not speak to me as I scribbled away at a large sheet of paper; copying one of our drawn maps of the THEM base onto a much larger sheet for all of us to gather around. Summer stood over my shoulder and watched me shade in some trees from the bird’s eye view. “Y-You could really use a teacher on how to draw leaves,” Summer joked, her voice sounding frail. I didn’t respond to her humor. Now was certainly not the time for it. It hadn’t been the time for quite a long while. Soon Phaze and the others arrived and made themselves to the table; their minds already racing to come up with some sort of idea. The phones had begun working again last night, and I’d seized the opportunity to inform the four of them of the THEM meeting. Finally I put down the pencil and stepped back to view the enlarged map of the base. “We’ve got a river system flowing south of the target,” I said, pointing to the picture. “It travels upwards on a steady incline to the far west. We can’t risk sending soldiers through there or we will be soaking wet by the time we reach the base. And the cold would freeze us solid.” “The same goes for THEm then. If we attack from the northeast and they try to retreat; they’ll have to go through the river.” “The only problem with that is that the northeast is devoid of trees. It’s just an open clearing. They’ll see us coming from miles. The woods rest only to the east; here.” I waited for Noah to interject with a word of advice. Perhaps some sort of tip on a special weapon we could use to avoid detection through the thick and swampy marshes associated with the woods, but as I looked up to gaze at Noah’s old spot, all I was greeted by was emptiness. He was gone, but I still hadn’t quite grasped it yet. “The swampy ground of the woods is going to tire out our guys or be too loud for us to make it near the base without them hearing.” “How to the THEM members get in?” one of the soldiers asked. “They either come in from the north or the southeast,” Phaze replied. “Our spies said the southeast offers some slight tree coverage… but it’s not enough for an army. And sometimes the snowdrifts get to high and you either have to cut through the forest to get in safely or use the north entrance” We sat there, puzzled for a while, THEM had chosen this base for a reason. They knew it was practically impossible to attack. Summer was running her eyes up and down the map as if trying to decipher every little detail. “When do we want to do this attack?” she suddenly asked. “As soon as possible,” I replied. “We’d do it right now if we had the chance.” “The weather tomorrow is supposed to be decent,” Summer replied. “What if instead of waiting for a snowdrift to block off the southeast, we make our own.” We all ran the idea through our heads for a while. “Think about it,” Summer said. “We use shovels to pile up the snow in the southeast so that it’s to high to trek through. Then when THEM arrives they either be forced to go through the swamp, or head in from the north!” “Where we’ll be waiting for them,” I finished for her. “Or better yet, so long as we hide in the trees correctly, when they come from the north we can jump out and effectively corner them. They’ll be trapped in their own base; left with no escapes except for a frigid river, thick and swampy forest, or deep and freezing snowdrift.” “I can get the guys to bring shovels if they have any,” one of the soldiers stated. “And we can smooth out the snow by carefully sliding the backs of snow shovels against them. I used to do it when I was just a little kid. You can’t even tell it’s not a natural snowdrift.” “Sounds like a plan,” the other soldier replied with some enthusiasm. “We need to set this up as soon as possible tomorrow afternoon,” I stated. “I want every S.S.C member in attendance. No exceptions. Tomorrow, we show THEM that we can really play with fire and come out unscathed.” The next few minutes were sent discussing the minor details of the plan. Where soldiers would hide, what kinds of weapons to carry, when to show up and begin our snowdrift build. Everything had to work out perfectly; and hours flew by before all the details could really be smoothed out. The entire time, Summer was offering relatively helpful input, which everyone repeatedly thanked her for. I refrained from offering praise, it would only distract me from the matter at hand. Sometimes I felt as if I was the only one who truly understood the importance of this mission's success… and what we’d have to do to really leave our mark. When all was finally said and done though, Phaze made his way back outside with the others, leaving only Summer and I to look over the map one final time. “This is it,” I told her as I jotted down some notes for the attack strategy. “Tomorrow is going to go down as the day the S.S.C-” “Finally came out on top?” Summer completed for me. I looked at her in confusion. “It’s all you’ve been saying,” Summer elaborated with dark bags appearing beneath her usually chipper eyes. “It’s what people need to hear,” I responded gruffly. “That may be true,” Summer replied. “But there are things I miss hearing from you.” I turned away from her and put the papers away back in their respective files. “You know…” she said. “Like old times. Remember all the things we used to talk about back then… it’s just… you’ve been awful quiet lately.” “It doesn’t matter,” I replied distantly. My head suddenly snapped up as those familiar words came rushing back to me. I tried to lock them away. Tuck them back into the dark corners of my mind, but it was all there again, Noah’s words still cutting into me. “Alright,” Summer said in disappointment as she walked over to the door. I wanted to scream. I wanted to call out to her and tell her to turn around. I wanted to see her face. I wanted to speak, but my head kept repeating the phrase over and over. It didn’t matter. And with that thought; my jaw seemed to lock up just as it had done back in that snowy field. Back in the cold world. Only this time I was alone. And this time the physical cold had been replaced with something far more internal.

Drathm 4:

The chips - it seemed - were falling on our side of the table. Weather was inexplicably decent; just as Summer had stated. I had grown worried when I didn’t see her arrive at the base at the same time as the others, but as it had turned out; she’d only arrived late. Eight members of our crew busied themselves scraping snow from around the base and carrying it over to the southeast entrance, piling it high enough to reach a man’s thighs. No-one would dare try to walk through a drift to large. We then worked to smooth out the sides; with members gathering at every corners; using shovels, beams of wood, and even their hands to makes the snow level and as natural-looking as could be managed. The night worked for once as our ally; covering up any mistakes we’d made, and hiding our footprints. Of course for all this work, we still had no idea if THEM forces would even arrive. And our plan hung by a mere thread if their forces tried to go through the swamp instead of looping around to the north entrance. I buried my worry with pride. Pride in all the soldiers that had appeared. We didn’t need Mask, we didn’t need Flags, and we certainly didn’t need Noah. Just as the moon peaked over our snowy wall, along with it came the voices of THEM. “Behind the trees,” I ordered in a whisper. “If they try to cut through the swamp then wait till they’re all the way out; then pin them against the drift.” Our troops gave thumbsup or briefly flashed their lights twice to signal they’d heard me. With lightning-fast precision; our troops took up station in the trees; trying their best to stay out of areas to swampy to stand in.  The voices grew closer, and with every word I could hear; I could feel my heart beat increasing. Not out of fear, but out of adrenalin fueled by anger. Flag’s voice only drove that feeling upwards. “Damnit!” Flags said under his breath as he stepped into the early portions of the snowdrift. We all sat with our teeth clenched and our breath still, waiting to hear what the reaction would be. “Snows piled to high again,” Flags finally stated. “Work around and we’ll just use the northern entrance. Get the car so we don’t have to walk.” And with that, the noises began to fade. Everything was going according to plan. They had no idea we were there. “What’s the visual like?” I asked the soldiers closest to the drift. “Flags and The Eye are there,” a soldier replied with a salute. “But no sign of Dante. They’ve got three super soldiers with them too. “We outnumber them,” another soldier called. “But we have to consider they’re reinforcements.” “Already taken care of,” Summer said. “They’ll be in for a surprise when they arrive.” “Everyone rotate around to the other side of your hiding spots!” Phaze barked. “They will be coming in from north here soon! Be ready!” I wondered to myself if Phaze would be ready for combat. Even with the decent weather; he still had to have been cold. The sky grew darker and before long we heard a distant creak from the north; followed by those similar voices from before. I gazed around at our troops. Every last one in the appropriate position. All of them just as motionless as the trees themselves. Though small in numbers, I believed we were mightier than ever in power. I’d prove that theory no matter what tonight. Nothing would stand in my way. The group of THEM members moved silently from the north and began to walk past some of our hidden soldiers. I dared to peek around; where I could visualize the enemy through some low-hanging branches. Flags and The Eye talked in a hushed whisper to one another; as if they didn’t even want their soldiers to hear what they were saying. Surrounding them were multiple high-ranking THEM officers and the aforementioned super soldiers. Flags and The Eye were in the dead-center of all of them; acting as the nucleus to the beast itself. We’d slay the beast. Finally the entirety of their group moved past us and worked their way over to the fort; where some officers suspiciously began to notice all the shoveled snow. But by then, it was far too late. “Now!” I shouted out to my soldiers. With their backs formerly turned to us; we could see the horrified faces of the beast as it turned it’s great many necks in unison towards our stampede. I was right there amongst the wave; clashing with the enemy team and helping to push them back towards the freezing river. Some officers broke away and began to signal for help; only to be tackled or shot at by guys already hiding in the fortress itself. “Keep pushing them!” I shouted as the body of one of my comrades fell limply to my side. “Don’t any of you dare fall down!” An enemy fist was slung my way, but not fast enough to avoid me catching it with my palm and bending it backwards; causing a thick snap to emanate from the wrist and sending the attacker stumbling over in pain. I tried to look around for any sign of Flags or The Eye, but the darkness made it difficult to pinpoint any faces in particular. Our black suits were the only things allowing us to differentiate friends from enemies. Yet another one of our soldiers was shot twice in the chest with a BB-gun before being kicked in the stomach and whipped across the face. I sprinted forward through the crowds; elbowing whomever walked into my path. Standing still only made you an easier target. Before I could react; an enemy hopped from the beast’s innards and kicked my shins, effectively knocking me down to my knees. He grabbed me by the shirt and threw my body against the concrete wall of the base. I looked at him. It wasn’t The Eye, nor was it Flags. Just another faceless monster. Still pinned against the wall; the enemy drew his hand back to hit my head; only for me to duck just in time to send his fist crashing into the solid wall behind me. Now letting go in an angered shock; I slipped behind the attacker, grabbed the back of his head, and thrusted it forward into the wall. There were more noises now. Running in from the north was two small units of THEM forces - their only hope at winning this frey. “Pull it!” I screamed into the trees. Like a well-oiled machine; a rope was pulled from both sides of the northern entrance. The darkness shielded the obstacle, sending the incoming reinforcements toppling over each other as they carelessly rushed in. “I want guys keeping those reinforcements down!” I ordered. “Use BB fire while the rest of us finish off the group!” THEM officers were yelling orders as well; but they had been so grossly unprepared for an attack, that many of the instructions conflicted or overlapped with one another. No one on THEM’s side knew what was happening. For the first time ever they were feeling our chaos. BB-guns began firing into the downed reinforcements, piercing the skin of their shoulders, hands, and feet, and driving many of them away to seek medical help. A super soldier rushed past me for a moment; grabbing Phaze in a tight headlock and slowly squeezing the air out of him. Phaze freed an arm and began repeatedly elbowing the attacker in the side, to little avail. I quickly sprinted behind the foe; throwing myself at his back and wrapping my arm around his throat. Like a real-life giant, the super soldier groaned and toppled over onto his back; trapping me beneath him. As Phaze worked to push the fallen trooper off of me; BB-gun fire suddenly began to cease as our troops started to run out of ammo. Even more reinforcements were beginning to pour in; taking out members by surprise and hitting them upside the head with metal bars or slabs of concrete found lying in the vicinity. I was suddenly flanked by two THEM soldiers; one running to my left and the other to my right. Although I attempted to move; the two were able to rush at me and hit my chest and side. I stumbled over awkwardly; my own speed getting the better of me as I fell into the fake snowdrift. My entire upper body became engulfed by the snow; but of course I felt none of it. As I rose and wiped the snow from my face; I witnessed Phaze defending me from the two attackers; kicking one in the gut while nailing the other in the jaw with a swift uppercut. Both came tumbling down, groaning in pain as Phaze fled to assist others. As I tried to stand back up against my splintering headache, I watched as two THEM soldiers rushed to their wounded friends and began dragging them behind the base; where the medical aid was occurring. Three of my soldiers ran past the enemies; seemingly not noticing them at all and instead helping one of our wounded into the woods where he could receive help. It was almost like an unwritten rule, that we’d stand by and watch as the very THEM members who wounded our brethren and beat them senseless time after time again fled the battle to assist the other fallen troops. It wasn’t right. The wounded were not above us simply because they lacked what it took to win. And if we didn’t teach them that, then who could? THEM was hardly managing to fight back; growing closer and closer to the edge of the freezing water. I knew what we had to do. The only thing that would really stick in their minds. The only thing they’d truly fear. I ran back to the woods, where our wounded were being treated. Ice applied to heads and swollen eyes, bandages used to patch deep cuts or wipe blood from hands and arms. It was pitiful. These were not soldiers. They were liabilities. “Listen to me!” I called out over the screaming. “I want all wounded soldiers to help us in this fight!” The medical soldiers looked at each other in a brief panic of confusion. “A-Alright,” one replied. “If there are any injured soldiers here who can still manage to fight… g-go on out there!” I gritted my teeth and rushed over to the medical trooper. “Not just some,” I corrected him. “All of you! Now! It’s not an option! It’s not a debate! We don’t accept the wounded! And we won;t accept theirs either…” Now pulling out my walkie talkie; I transmitted a message to every single fighter in the field. “You want progress?” I shouted. “You want victory? You want dominance? Then we go after the wounded behind the base! Nobody is safe from our grasp! Nobody!” My head was beginning to throb with pain; and my eyes couldn’t seem to blink. All the rage I’d felt was now being released. This was our moment to shine. Perhaps it was an unwritten rule to not harm the injured. But of course… it didn’t really matter. A few soldiers broke away from the fight near the lake; running back behind the base to confront THEM’s wounded warriors. I ran to the back with them; only to find our troops looking over the injured enemies, not able to move; just as frozen as they’d been behind the trees. “What are you doing standing around?” I shouted. “They are the enemy! Wounded or not! They are the people who beat us in Drathm! They are the ones who made fools of us in Drathm 2! Who took everything from us in Drathm 3! If you don’t want revenge, then why the hell are you still here?” The troopers nodded; agreeing with my orders as they strode up to the wounded; taking down any medical enemies standing in their way. I watched as we kicked at them, beat their heads in, bashed their eyes, and smashed their throats. Over and over and over again. I watched the wounded squirm and cry out in a muted pain. It was almost as if I’d learned to grow deaf to it. I turned to watch as our soldiers pushed what remained of them into the freezing river; covering them from head to toe in frostbitten water. A cry began to emerge from our soldiers as they pushed every last enemy into the depths. The cry that never changed. “S.S.C!” they shouted in unison. The wounded THEM soldiers were begging over our chanting. Begging to be let free, begging to make the pain stop. “S.S.C!” we shouted over them. I turned back to to where the wounded laid and watched them slowly going out like lights. “S.S.C!” And I joined in the creation of their suffering. This time it wouldn’t be me who faded away into that black emptiness. No, now they’d know the feeling. The feeling of fading away to that immortal chant. “S.S.C! S.S.C! S.S.C!” All was good.

Tearing Tears:

“Read it to me,” I ordered as I slouched back in my chair, leaning against a tree in the heart of Mellow Falls. “20 known downed comrades,” the soldier replied as he read from the paper. “6 above-average injuries, an-” “No,” I interjected with a scowl. “I want information on THEM.” The soldier nodded and read from the other sheet. “29 known downed enemies,” he said, shaking slightly. “And what became of Flags and The Eye?” I asked. The soldier’s shaking grew a bit more fierce. He stuffed his hands in his pockets to hide it as some sweat built up on his nose. “S-Sir… there are no records of them after we attacked… they m-must have fled the battle through the woods or the river without us noticing....” I sighed and frowned at the ground beneath me. “It doesn't really matter,” I said. “They’ve seen our work… They know what we’re capable of now.” “We captured one of their guys last night,” one master cut in. “He says he’ll give us information on Flag’s and The Eye’s backup base in exchange for protection against THEM’s punishment of traitors.” I turned to the master. “Whatever THEM’s punishment method is, tell that rat that I can guarantee something twice as bad will happen to him if he refuses to speak. I won’t negotiate with scum like them.” “Roger that, sir,” the master replied before returning to his post. “Where is Summer?” I asked the others. “Phaze as well. I haven’t seen either since the fight last night.” “Neither were checked in at our medical station,” a soldier responded. “I can only assume they went home to do some minor recovering.” I nodded, a brief glimpse of one of THEM’s injured soldiers pleading to us briefly flashed through my head. I tucked it away. Deeply away. “They won’t be finished with us yet,” I told the group. “I’ll hold a meeting congratulating everyone when THEM is wiped out for good. Until then I’m done wasting their time with speeches. I want them to double work. Double the training time, double the tool development, double the spy reach, double anything that might be dwindling. We need to be ready for anything. Expecting to take anything Calvin, The Eye, and Flags can throw at us.” I began to walk away, but one officer stopped me for a moment. “Boss,” he stated. “After such an effective victory, it’s only a matter of time before guys at the school will start taking interest in us again. With such a possibility of new recruits… how should we explain to them the rumors about how Drathm 4 ended? The stories of… all the blood… all those injures…” “We say they’re rumors,” I replied at last. “Propaganda spread by THEM forces to make it look like we won by playing dirty.” “We lie?” one younger soldier questioned. “It’s not a lie,” I shot back. “We saw an opening and we took it. We tore into it and disregarded tears. Tears don’t win wars. They never have.”

Cold and Hot:

I drove back home in preparation for what would hopefully be my first full night of sleep in ages. I’d had no time for rest before, not with THEM constantly in the back of my head. It still tried to nag at me as I drove - as it often did. The thought that Calvin could be in one of the buildings I passed. Perhaps just behind that tree. Just above the horizon. Just across that field or down that lonely avenue. My brain seemed to think Calvin was everywhere, which at least dictated he must be somewhere. However something was different when I arrived to my house that afternoon. And parked car in the driveway. Summer’s car. I stepped out of my vehicle and walked around to the driver’s window, where she was surprisingly absent. “Summer?” I called out. “I’m here, Jonathan,” came a frail voice from the doorway. There stood Summer; her eyes dark and empty and her lips pursed so tightly they could hardly be seen. She’d been crying, her face remained damp with wiped tears. “What’s going on?” I asked as I came inside with her. “Are you alright?” “Are you?” Summer stammered. “Jonathan… Noah told me everything… everything about Magna Oil.” A look of pure hatred spread across my face. “That traitor!” I shouted. “When I get my hands on him-” “I didn’t believe him,” Summer interrupted. She began to weep and give a pitiful laugh as she spoke. “I… I told him he was crazy…” “Summer…” I tried to say, but was quickly spoken over once more. “I told him… you would have told me… you would have confided in me… I told Noah that you were still the same person… just tired a-and stressed.” I struggled to speak. I’d had this same conversation before. “Summer,” I spoke again. “The S.S.C needs to protect it’s interests… sometimes those interests can lead us places we don’t want to go.” Summer turned away from me and rested her head against the doorway where Noah had given his goodbyes hardly a week prior. “I only believed him after Drathm 4,” Summer finally replied. “I heard your voice over the com… and… and… it wasn’t the voice of the guy I fell in love with. The guy I met on that sweltering hot day by the baseball diamond. He wouldn’t have burned Magna to the ground, destroyed this town’s chance at a future, beat down on wounded enemies, and send his own wounded to the slaughter! That wasn’t him!” Summer’s speech slurred now; mixed with her sobbing and tears. “Don’t do this, Summer,” I said, hanging on to her shoulder. “I’ve lost a lot of friends to this… I’ve lost family to this… don’t make me lose you too.” Summer turned herself and grabbed my hand; slowly brushing it away from her shoulder. “You’re not him,” she said softly again. “I think he left a long time ago… Maybe… it’s time I stopped looking…” I drew away from her in anger, punching the wall behind me. “Don’t pin this on me!” I barked. “I can change! I just need more time! Time to find Calvin a-” “It was never about finding Calvin!” Summer cried. “At least not anymore! It’s gone too far beyond that! So far that you can’t even see past your own nose anymore!” My hands shook and my teeth chattered with every breath. Summer’s hand was on the door, ready to leave. “I think I get it,” I stammered. “It’s not about me… or any of the others. It’s all about you isn’t it? You’re upset that you haven’t gotten to spend enough time with me because of it! Now you come here trying to guilt trip me into coming back to you!” Summer stared at me is a disgusted disappointment. I’d never seen such an expression on her face for as long as I’d known her. “You’re insane…” she said in a whimper. “You’re greedy!” I shouted back in anger; striding closer to her and pointing straight at her face. “You’re a traitor! You care more about your safety and happiness than you do about our creation! It’s you’re fault! You’ve been holding us back! You’ve always been holding us back!” Summer finally looked away from me, turning the doorknob and walking out in silence to her parked car. “It’s all on you!” I screamed. “Anything that happens now is all on you!” No response. Only silent strides through the snow. I wanted her to look back. Look back for one second and come running to me, arms spread open. But she didn’t turn. She didn’t run. She got into her car and silently pulled out from the driveway. It’s was like Noah all over again. Phantoms breeding phantoms. I was better off without them. Only now did I cry. Only now when I realized truly what I’d lost. And I stayed standing in that doorway; letting the cold air flow into me; freezing the tears to my eyes and cheeks. I stayed standing until the sun had vanished from the sky; replaced with nothing but the muted light of the full moon. In haste I rushed up to my room, forcing my door open, and eyeing the photographs I had displayed at the table. I saw them all. Mask, Flags, Noah, and Summer, all of them standing there, staring back at me. Their grins, their actions, their personalities; it was all a front. And I’d fallen for it. I’d been weak and I’d played the pawn on along. Their pawn. But no longer. Seething with rage; my entire body shaking and steaming hot, I rushed at that table, knocking the photos off with a single stroke of my forearm across the table. The photographs rained down onto the floor; shattering their frames as others crashed against the wall. I looked up at the dresser; seeing my own face in the mirror staring back at me. My head bathed in shadows; beady white eyes poking out from within the darkness. “No more…” I said softly to myself. My fist suddenly rocketed forward; smashing the mirror to pieces and leaving shards embedded in my knuckles. Now grabbing the entire cabinet; I forced it to the ground; smashing it into tiny pieces and breaking the window by my bed. Glass was everywhere; blood was dripping all across the floor and flowing down my wrist and forearm. I fell back upon my bed; my heartbeat increasing exponentially and showing no signs of ceasing. I felt the energy draining from me; the crashes and clangs of falling objects all across the room emanating from every direction around me. “No more,” I said to myself as I lied upon that bed; the blood from my hand seeping all across the blanket and below my collapsed body. And yet even as I faded away into the darkness of that night, I could still see the four of them. Standing there. Staring back at me. I reached out to them for a moment, reached out to their smiling faces, but my hand slowly retracted and returned to my side. They didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now… but the goal.

Recovery:

When I awoke the next morning; I found the photographs shatters and torn all about the floor; some even resting on my feet. Strangely enough, my cabinet was standing again now; it’s mirror broken to pieces that still littered the floor. The window by my bed had also miraculously seemed to repair itself. I paid these details no mind. I wouldn’t let Summer’s leaving throw me off balance, making me obsess over the unimportant. I had to become stronger. I had to become smarter. Only then could we prove Calvin wrong… and get our revenge. Whether Summer or Noah were there standing by my side as I enjoyed this long awaited victory, was unimportant. I rose from my bed, a stinging pain coming up over my hand where two large patches of blood now remained dried on to the sides; turning my whole fist into a brilliant scarlet red. My phone suddenly rang from downstairs. I carefully worked my way downstairs, ignoring the rhythmic stinging from my wrist. For just a moment as I lifted the phone to my ear, I almost expected to hear Summer’s voice on the other end. I caught myself before the thought could go too far. I had to stop thinking about the past and look to the future. “Boss,” one of our masters said from the other end. “We have news on that captured THEM soldier. Getting information was like pulling teeth, but we have something.” “What is it?” I replied. My voice sounded different, deeper and raspy. It was as if a bit of life had been pulled from the very words I spoke. “The backup base for Flags and The Eye,” the master replied. “Apparently it’s your HQ from before Drathm 3… the one situated in the center of that field… They know we’re aren’t going back to it… and they know that if you trusted it to protect you, then they can do the same.” I was quiet, thinking over the situation. “The farmer that owns that field will return when the weather gets hotter,” the master said. “They’ll be forced to leave then… perhaps we could wait until that happens before we go after the-” “No,” I interrupted. “Magna Oil has fled the town entirely; leaving huge factories now abandoned. There’s even a great many houses that are now going to sit and rot because nobody can afford them. If we wait, it’ll only be a matter of time until Flags and The Eye figure this out and set up shop in a base so well-protected, we’ll never stand a chance. If what our prisoners says is true, then THEM has made a huge mistake taking our property.” “How’s that?” the master asked. “A home field advantage,” I replied. “We need to plant a spy in that base to get us some information. Dress him up in convincing THEM garb and make sure he’s the best we’ve got. I want this done right. And I want this done now. Is that understood?” “Yes sir,” the master replied. “I’ll send you a drawn map of the area so you, Phaze, and Samantha can get to work on figuring out a gameplan.” The thought of Samantha was suddenly shot back through my brain again. “Do me a favor will you?” I asked as my head began to burn. “Don’t mention her name to me again. Let the rest know it to. From this moment on, she’s just a distant memory.”

Loose Ends:

Phaze never asked me what happened to Summer. Maybe he knew - maybe he didn’t, but he never once asked. Nor did anyone else. In one mere day Summer had gone from a pivotal member of the S.S.C; to a phantom, just like Noah. With distractions now absent from my life, S.S.C efforts towards finding Calvin and learning the plans of THEM went into full swing. We had received over 15 new recruits thanks to Brandon’s efforts and also thanks to our victory at Drathm 4, but I knew better than anyone that it wouldn’t keep increasing. It was a bell curve. The moment we reached our pinnacle of capabilities, there was nothing we could do but fall back down again. And that’s why time was of the essence. Every day, hour, minute, second, THEM could launch their next attack and change everything. Revenge for their fallen - they were feeling it too. To step up our progress; I initiated a movement called the Loose Ends Program. This program was directly commanded by me and noone else; with Phaze being in charge of getting information on places Calvin or those who knew of him could be stationed. One mere day after the plan was initiated, an overwhelming number of reports came in not only from our members who had their own theories in where Calvin could be found, but also a great many recommendations from the school. Sightings by gas stations, a dark red pickup truck driving down an abandoned avenue in Blue Point, a makeshift camp found under a bridge near the river up north where Drathm 4 had taken place, and even supposed photographs and descriptions of Calvin meeting with two others at the new park down south. In the end, these tips teetered near 100. Phaze and I had discussed it a few times, we knew not all the tips could be true, it simply wasn’t possible for Calvin to be on the move in so many locations over town and not be definitively spotted. What was important now was separating the pranks and mistakes from the actually definitive leads. I spent every day and night sifting through the piles; separating them into several different stacks ranging from highly possible to completely preposterous. I couldn’t quite sleep right anymore it seemed. For every moment I’d lay down to close my eyes; my mind would linger near the documents again. What if I’d misplaced one? What if I’d misread a paragraph? Skipped a page? What if I hadn’t stared at that picture in the right lighting? And my eyes would shoot open; my body springing up and out of bed before returning to that desk, putting all the papers back together and sifting through them a second time, and a third, and a fourth. The skin beneath my eyes grew dark and my pupils sensitive to light. As time went on, one thing started to flash through my cluttered mind more and more. The Blood Man. An individual that seemed to hold more power over THEM than even Flags or The Eye. If The Blood Man could be found, then maybe - just maybe Calvin could be found along with him. Sometimes I’d lose myself to the work, not eating or drinking as I simply sat awake at that desk, thinking about Calvin and The Blood Man. I wondered what they looked like. I wondered how they met. I wondered where they were. I thought about what I’d do when I found them - the things I’d say. These fantasies were all I had left. It seemed as if nothing could truly surprise me anymore, for I had planned every outcome. Every loss, every win, every stalemate, and everything in between. But none of it could really begin until we learned of THEM’s next move. Which is exactly what happened next.

The End-Maker:

“It’s just as threatening as we anticipated,” Phaze told me as we quickly strode through the paths of Mellow-Falls. “Our spy barely managed to make it back to us, right now he’s being patched up. He might be to beat-up to give us any definitive answers.” “Is he conscious?” I asked; my scraggly voice almost rivaling Phaze’s. “He is,” Phaze responded. “Then he’ll talk to me,” I replied. “I’ll make sure of that.” We exited the path and I immediately located the fallen spy being patched up underneath some logs that shielded him from the light flurries. “What are his injuries?” I asked the medical soldier above him as we approached. “Nothing to severe externally,” the soldier replied. “He got nicked on the cheek and the eye. I’m just applying some ice and bandages. Other than that he just took some heavy hits to the chest and head.” “Then leave us,” I commanded the medic. “But he still needs so-” the medic began, but I cut him off. “He gets treatment once he’s told me everything he remembers. The pain can help keep it fresh in his mind. The medic did not argue with me, he knew what happened to those who did. I now walked over the dazed spy and spoke. “What did you see over there? What did they say? How did you get caught?” The spy looked up at me in a daze;struggling to comprehend all my questions at once and simply giving a pitiful whimper. I grew hot again as I picked him up by his collar and pushed him up against a log. “I don’t have time for this!” I yelled. “If THEM is planning something then we need to know now! Understand?” The spy’s eyes lit up with a sudden panic as he tried to form words. “There w-was… h-high,” he began, but it was still far too weak for me to hear. Now baring my teeth in frustration; I threw the spy out into the snow; letting the flurries rain down on to him as he helplessly tried to crawl back under the cover. “You get out of the snow when you answer me like a man,” I said through my teeth. “Security w-was high,” the spy yelped as his hands dug into the snow and his eyes flashed in every direction. “I blended in long enough to hear the meeting… b-but I didn’t know the policy for how to leave when it was over. They n-noticed me acting different and chased m-me.” The spy tried to keep crawling towards me, but I hadn’t heard enough yet. “Hold him down, Phaze,” I ordered. Phaze carefully approached the spy, hesitantly placing his hand on his back and preventing him from crawling anymore. “What did they say?” I asked. “It’s s-so hard to remem-” “What did they say?” I was shouting now, but it didn’t matter. “They - I think they talked about The Blood Man,” the spy said in a whimper. “They’re afraid. They s-said the soldiers are afraid and don’t know what orders to follow. They s-said they needed to make the S.S.C pay for what they d-did at Drathm 4!” I motioned for him to continue, which he struggled to do until the snow began to melt through his shirt. “An end-maker!” the spy screamed through the cold as clouds of breath barreled from his nose and mouth. Phaze looked away from the scene. “They say that they plan on initiating a Drathm 5! The Drathm to end all Drathms! The end-maker!” “When?” I prodded. “How?” “I sear boss,” the spy cried. “I don’t remember when, but they say they’re going to pool up all their resources for one final raid on one of our bases… they’ll severely injure the guys training there and then hold them captive and wait for reinforcements. Slowly but surely they’ll chew up and spit out anyone that comes to the rescue! Those were Flags exact words!” “Flags and The Eye having enough power to organize their very own Drathm?” Phaze said. “Calvin has to have input of some kind on this. Those two guys shouldn’t have the power to make that choice.” “No,” I said. “No, they shouldn’t.” I stared down the spy, waiting for him to explain himself, but he had nothing. “I haven’t done anything wrong!” the spy clamored as he tried to kick around the snow. “Oh but that’s where you’re wrong!” I shouted back. “You got caught! Now THEM knows that we’ve heard their plan! This was our chance to prepair! This was the pivotal moment where we could expect the unexpected! You ruined that opportunity! Now we have no clue what sort of plan they’ll replace this one with. For all we know, it could be far worse!” “I’m sorry!” the spy gasped through each breath. “I’m so sorry, it won’t happen again boss! I promise!” I was indifferent to his please and suffering. He’d brought all this upon himself. “There’s one m-more meeting,” the spy screamed. “One more meeting coming up in a couple days. If they show up… you could t-try and c-capture them then!” “Is that all you have for me?” I asked. “Vague memories and your apologies?” The spy was silent, drooping his head down into the snow. “I see,” I stated distantly. “You may go now. Don’t bother coming back either.” Phaze released the spy; allowing him to shakingly stand and look at me. “Boss, I’m so-“ “I don’t want your apologies!” I barked. “I want results! Now go!” The spy grew flustered, clenching his fists, and limping towards me. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he shouted. “All I’ve done for you! All I’ve sacrificed to make it this far!” My security team suddenly rushed in and quelled the problem; grabbing my attacker before he could come within 10 feet of me. “Take him out of here,” I ordered them. “And make sure he doesn’t some back.” The team silently nodded, knocking the spy off his feet and physically dragging him out of the clearing as he kicked and screamed vulgarities. “I’m one of you!” the spy shouted before he was swept into the trees. “You’ve all lost your minds!” Finally his cries grew faint and finally ceased entirely. Phaze strode over to me and looked to where the spy had been dragged off. “If there’s even a chance that they’ll show up to that old HQ of ours in a couple days,” he said. “We need to seize upon it… unless you think they’ll expect it.” “I know they’ll expect it,” I replied coldly. “And I’m fine with that.”

The Fear Unknown:

It was 12 at night. Phaze was to meet with me to discuss plans our plans of attack. He was the only one I trusted anymore. The only one. “Only two days,” I reiterated. “One if you’re counting the fact that it’s already tomorrow,” Phaze replied flatly. I looked at my window for a bit, watching the silhouettes of a couple cars passing in front of some streetlights in the distance. I turned back to the table and spread out the drawn map of the HQ. Phaze was looking over at my broken mirror now, he knew better than to ask questions. “Here’s the problem,” I pointed out, drawing his attention away from the fractures. “That base was our HQ for a reason. There is nothing but wide expanses of field from as far as the eye can see. The only exception is the small little forested area where THEM ambushed us last time. Only difference is that all our guys were right next to those trees and bushes in Drathm 3. THEM won’t make the same mistake. They’re gonna stick close to that building and they’ll be on the lookout for any weird activity in the woods.” “There are some hills to the east,” Phaze pointed out. “If they’re expecting us in the woods, we could throw them off guard by coming in from the hillside.” “They’ll still have time to see us coming,” I argued. “And by the time our troops get down there, they’ll be winded. We can’t let THEM have any sort of advantage. We can’t allow for even a single mistake this time.” We both sat in silence as we stared down at the map; gazing at the utter emptiness of it all. Neither the hills nor the woods offered us any resolve. “Seems like just yesterday we were all here,” Phaze remarked with some nostalgia in his voice. “Standing downstairs and looking over the map of their previous HQ.” “No time for memories, Phaze,” I replied. “Sorry,” Phaze answered. “Things have just been moving so fast… Are you sure the guys have recovered enough to fight so soon again?” I pushed the map to the side and glared at him. “If you’re questioning my orders, then I highly recomend you think twice before saying any more.” Phaze grew silent again. “Their troops are in even worse shape than ours after Drathm 4,” I reminded him. “If we don’t act now then we’re just giving them time to heal up and come after us. That’s the only reason they haven’t come after us yet!” “Understood boss,” Phaze coughed. I pulled the map out once more and scanned it again for something I might have missed. Ofcourse I hadn’t missed anything at all. Phaze didn’t know that I’d been looking over this map days prior - for expanses of time lasting well over several hours. But every scan jst brought with it the same results. Nothing. It was impossible to every degree. No amount of sneaking, no amount of speed, no amount of power could get us to that base. My attention was drawn to my window once more, where yet another silhouetted car passed in front of a streetlight not far away. Only then did the solution come to mind. If strength couldn’t get us into the base, then we’d need wit instead. And I knew just how to do it.

The Last Meeting:

We met in the boiler room the following day. All of us. Every spy, every messenger, ever master, and every apprentice. It was no secret to anyone; the final strike against THEM was happening tomorrow. Whereas Drathm 4 brought THEM to it’s knees, this last attack would drive the final nail through its coffin. Every member was screened before entering, making sure no spies were amongst our ranks. When nothing turned up, I was left with a silent room of S.S.C troopers; awaiting their orders. Their final orders. I walked amongst them, looking each in the eye, scanning both the familiar faces and the faces of the new. There must have been excitement among the asses, but they strived not to show it, for in the back of their minds they knew the tension in the air. Either THEM would go, or we’d be next in line for the coffins. “They’re limping,” I shouted as I passed each and every trooper. “They are crawling!” A couple brave souls gave a quick cheer. “I can’t promise any of you that this is our final meeting. That this will be the last we ever speak of THEM. I can’t promise any of you anything except for what I know. And what I know is that I will be out there fighting by your side as hard as I possibly can!” More cheers. “Now I ask the rest of you to be sure of something as well,” I continued. “To be sure that you’ll be fighting besides me as hard as you can!” “Yes sir!” came the calls of the soldiers surrounding me. “The plans are already in motion!” I yelled. “Supplies are being put together by the few of you that know your role in this attack. This attack happens tomorrow! And it will bring the hammer down over THEM’s head, Flags’s head, The Eye’s head, The Blood Man’s head, and yes - harder than any before onto Calvin’s!” More cheers and more clapping. I put on a fake smile and listened to the chants droning on from all around me. “S.S.C! S.S.C! S.S.C!” I turned around and eyed the back of the room, suddenly two figures met my eyes. There was Summer and Noah. Standing there side-by-side. They were smiling ear-to-ear. “S.S.C!” Noah shouted as he adjusted his glasses. “S.S.C!” Summer bellowed; her cheeks and nose turning a beautiful pink in the cold. They stood, cheered, and clapped for me along with everyone else. My eyes were split wide open as I walked towards them; pushing my way past the cheering crowds. My fake smile was beginning to fade into a real one. And just as I reached the wall; there was a sudden feeling. A sudden whip of feeling. For just a moment at least; I felt cold. I had nearly forgotten the feeling, and there it was. And there it ended. And with it; the cold swept the visions away; leaving me staring at an empty wall, the cold now vanished. The cheering died down and I struggled to turn back to them. How could I face soldiers who saw me feeling this weak? I was better than this. I didn’t need Noah. I didn’t need Summer. I’d transcended them in favor of a better future. A future where my supremacy led the town to a better tomorrow. And once our victory had set in, and soldiers moved from their homes and scattered themselves all throughout the country - soon the whole of America would follow in our footsteps. We’d already planted the seed of fire. We watched it grow and kindled the flames. Now it was time to sit back and feel the snow melt away in favor of that everlasting heat of combustion. I turned back to my soldiers and placed my fake smile back upon my lips. “Here is the plan,” I said. And so it began.

Frost:

It was 9 o'clock at night when Phaze, myself, and two members of my security team drove up the the road behind the hill which sat above the enemy HQ. We had not spoken a word for the entire drive. I had nothing to say. When finally we pulled to the side and I opened the passenger door to disembark on my own, Phaze grabbed my wrist. “We can send someone else,” Phaze told me. “They’re expecting one of our own, but not expecting you… what if they do something? What if Flags sees through your lies just like he did way back before?” I freed my hand from Phaze’s grasp and got out of the car. “Get going,” I ordered. I turned my back on the car as it steadily drove off into the night; leaving me alone in the darkness. I silently began walking up over the hillside. I eyed the enemy HQ below. THEM troops tried to shine flashlights at me, but they were not powerful enough to stretch the distance. Brandon had put us in touch with one of Flags’s closest advisors. We’d told him that tonight we’d send one of our own - an S.S.C delegate of some kind to discuss the rivalry. We knew the message reached Flags, but a reply was never given. Instead I was walking blind, unsure what I’d be met with when I reached that puny hovel. They indeed were expecting me it seemed, for all of their soldiers faced my direction; readying BB-guns and other tools in case something went awry. They were prepared for anything. Almost anything. As I drew closer, I began to count the enemies. They must have all been there, for their forces numbered over 30, the largest I’d ever seen THEM before. Now the lights were pointed into my face. I didn’t flinch at them, for it would show weakness. I was not weak. Suddenly murmurs began to circulate between the soldiers as they all began to realize who I was. When finally I stepped amongst their ranks, no soldier lashed out at me, all of them instead parting like the red sea as I silently strode to the door of the HQ. I placed my hand on the door and briefly turned to face the THEM soldiers watching me. They avoided eye contact - all of them now staring at the ground or up into the starry sky. They knew who I was and what I was capable of. And they feared it more than anything. I now entered the base; shutting the door behind me. Now bathed in light, I found Flags and The Eye sitting at a new small table they’d introduced to the building during their stay. “Check him,” The Eye said to a security guard by the door. Now carefully approaching me and checking my body for some kind of weapon, I remained quiet and merely glared at the two. They tried not to show their surprise, but for only a moment I saw Flags’s hand shaking at the table. It was quickly drawn back to his side, but not before I’d noticed it. “He’s clean,” the guard said as he stepped back to his post. “They told us they were sending a soldier,” The Eye said deeply as he stood from his chair; showing his tremendous size over me. “I am a soldier,” I replied starkly. “I can’t say the same of you two. You hide yourselves behind your soldiers and use them as a shield. They are props to you.” My tone remained steady all throughout, no hint of emotion as I spoke. Flags gave a short laugh before also rising and approaching me. “You dare come into my home and talk me down?” he said. “That’s a mistake you won’t make again. Understand?” I stared at him with no remorse. The Eye briefly glimpsed my tattered hand and the darkness below my pupils. “We’re all mistakes,” I said flatly. “Everything we fought for. Everything we’ve done to harm one another. I’ve had enough of it.” The Eye smirked and looked down upon me. “You’re surrendering,” he wagered. “Something like that," I replied. I suddenly took a step forward, surprising Flags as he staggered backwards and one of the guards flinched to the side. "But first I want to know something," I spoke through my teeth at my old accomplice. "I need to know that this is really what you want. That this is really the person you desire to become." "You're in no position to criticize me for my choices," Flags shot back, regaining his composure. "The S.S.C is a cancer to this community and to every other community it's spread to. THEM is the only cure for this disease! We control students without the need of weapons, fighting, or intimidation. We exist only to remove the S.S.C from the equation and replace it with an order. An order where we use words to lead students in the right direction. We don't hope to end violence with more violence!" "And yet you stand beside the monster that caused all this!" I remarked, pointing to The Eye and scowling. "He hasn't learned a damned thing! None of you have!" There was a thick silence, no words emanating from beyond the doors. The soldiers were listening, taking it all in for themselves. "You know you're not leaving here?" The Eye said without a tinge of emotion. "Not until we hear it out of your mouth. Hear that the S.S.C is going away and hear the measures being put into effect to make that happen." I pulled myself back together and smiled at the two for a moment. A response that even seemed to surprise The Eye to some degree. "Well you see," I began. "That's the thing. I've been thinking a lot really. About us and you. All the times I felt that this war between us was unfair. I... think it's time that the fairness was restored. An equilibrium... that we both go out together." The Eye held to his stomach and bellowed a deep laugh at the remark, while Flags was more quiet and seemingly skeptical of what I was really talking about. "This little hovel," I chimed in, belongs to farmer and his family around this area. The names escape me at the moment, but they're very weary against outsiders... even more so against trespassers." The Eye immediately silenced his laughing and drew closer to me. "What are you try'in to say, Johnathan?" he growled. "I'm saying that as we speak, some of my guys are placing some anonymous phone calls. Calls of concerned citizens hearing shouting and seeing lights turned on all around here." The Eye suddenly shot forward, grabbing me by the neck and slamming me against the wall. "Turn off the lights!" Flags shouted in a near panic to his soldiers as the power was also cut to the base itself. Now there was murmuring from outside as THEM soldiers began to question the situation, wondering if I was bluffing or not. I let The Eye overhear the worried discussions. "Shut up!" he yelled as his grip around my throat tightened. "All of you shut up!" Now only silence once more. "My guys... may have... thrown in a few white lies about weapons here as well..." I gagged with a grin spreading over my face. "Those BB-guns might look awfully suspicious out here in the dark... I do hope the cops will recognize that before they reach for their holsters." The Eye's face lit up with rage as he pushed me harder against the wall. Flags was nearly in a panic, opening a window and looking outside for any sign of police vehicles. The murmuring from outside had increased again. "I said be quiet!" The Eye boomed once more. All became silent again. "You want to die here?" The Eye whispered into my ear. "Got nothing else in your life anymore?" "It's... hrrk... about equality... I chocked, maintaining my dazed smile. We all go out together. Not by eachothers' hands, but by the hands of the outside world. The lucky ones will be thrown behind bars... the unlucky ones... hnng... well... you know the rest." The Eye's pupils seemed to grow with every word I spoke. Against all odds, the asphyxiation seemed to be doing no good. He was right. I had nothing left to lose I my life. He knew I was right. Flags knew as well. "It's been fun," I finally said, allowing my head to fall to the wayside. Now from beyond the doors, the soldiers exploded in an uproar of questions, some pounding to be let inside while others approached the window to ask for orders from the two commanders. The Eye remained clutching my throat, his grip loosening as he looked wildly around at the crowds. "Quiet! Quiet now!" Only this time they didn't stay quiet. Questions were thrown from every direction, filling the small cabin with an immense pressure. The two commanders seemed to be drowning in it now, unsure what to do. What to say. And then they all heard it, the sounds of sirens. And lights of red and blue on the horizon.

Tipping Point:

Panic was the only word to describe the responses. The Eye immediately released his grasp on me, allowing my body to fall to the floor, where I remained, motionless. The Eye and Flags stood helplessly in the windowsill, pushing soldiers out of the way as a car with red and blue flashing lights drove up over a distant hill, allowing itself to be siloghetted by the moon. Then more sirens, as a second car drove up besides the first, it's lights also flickering wildly in the otherwise calmness of the night. Two soldiers immediately sprinted away from the window, their footsteps and wild panting now being heard running far back into the forested area beyond the base. They were running away. "Flags what do we do!" a soldier yelled as yet another THEM member slipped away into the night. Flags was unresponsive, staring endlessly at the cars, flabbergasted by the sight. Before anyone would dare speak again, there came a third cop car on the horizon, pulling up beside the other two. "We..." Flags trailed off. "We need to..." Then the tipping point. The doors of each cop car swung open as two siloghetted officers removed themselves from the vehicles. The figures began sprinting towards the base, leaving some members frozen like dear in headlights, while others ran away, refusing to listen to The eye as he called out for members to stay. Then a gunshot. Then another. At last the remaining soldiers screamed in sheer terror, all of them fleeing the premises as more gunshots echoed through the night. "They're firing at us!" Flags said, flabbergasted. "They're firing at us! Those bastards!" The figures drew closure, losing none of their speed and still sending off gunshots. They were no more than a minute away. "We don't abandon ship," The Eye stammered, though it seemed more like a question than anything else. In a swift motion, the only other guard left in the room bailed out the door. It was only the three of us now. The three of us and the six officers, with undoubtedly more on the way. "W-we need to go!" Flags said in a shaky voice. "Rethink the plans, find a new base!" He reached over to his coat, quickly throwing it on as The Eye hesitantly reached for his own. Just as the two approached the door, ready to escape, I suddenly threw myself at them from behind, tackling both the commanders to the floor with a single bound. Before either could hope to react, I dug my knee into The eye's throat, while attempting to hold Flags to the floor in the same fashion with my right arm. "What part of going out together do you not understand?" I said to them with crazy eyes as the shots outside seemed to draw ever closer. "You're insane!" Flags cried out; grabbing onto my arm and forcing it off of him, regaining his stance and swiftly kicking me off of The Eye. I hurtled briefly to the floor as the two once again turned towards the door and swung it open. Refusing to give in, I leapt from my position on the floor, grabbing on their fleeting ankles, tripping the two and sending The Eye's head crashing into the doorframe. "I'm not insane," I replied starkly, rising to my feet and dragging the two fully back inside, ignoring the harsh kicks the two were delivering to my arm and side. They were fighting for their lives now. "I'm fair." I finished; now catching Flag's incoming foot and swinging him hard against a wall. The Eye regained some consciousness and escaped my grasp, unleashing a series of blows to my chest and stomach. The deadly barrages pinned me to a wall as Flags slowly rose to his feet, staggering towards a door and abandoning The Eye to finish me. "This is what you wanted!" The Eye shouted as he landed more hits all over my body, my reflexes to slow to block a majority of them. "If you want us dead then you can be damn sure we're gonna drag you along with us!" As Flags hobbled towards the nearest door, I summoned up all my energy to grab one of The Eye's incoming fists. Time reached a standstill as I grabbed at The Eye's arm, using all my strength to pull him over my shoulder; his weight nearly sending me to the floor. But I was through falling. I was through waiting for luck. This was the time for me to make my own. Utilizing all the emerging left in my muscles, I tossed The Eye away from me, sending him hurtling like a cannonball into Flags just at the door's edge. Flags moaned and cursed in pain as the dazed Ivan slowly rolled himself onto the cold, dirty floor. I stood to the side, allowing them to steadily rise to their feet. Nolonger having the confidence to waste more time facing me, Flags reopened the door, Ivan not far behind. I only stood smiling as the door was opened the rest of the way, revealing Phaze standing in the doorway, blocking the exit. "No..." Flags said to himself as he drew back inside, attempting to slam the door shut. Phaze's foot prevented this action as the door towards the back of the base was flung open, revealing the five other figures which had been seen running this way. More S.S.C soldiers, their weapons raised to Flags and the Eye as they spread out all over the base. One trooper turned on a flashlight, flickering it two times to the cars on the horizon, who swiftly turned off the fake lights planted above them, as well as silencing the noises of gunshots and sirens being broadcasted by loudspeaker just over the nearby hill. Now the world was silent again. And I embraced that cold silence as I approached the two commanders, signaling for The Eye to be dispatched. In two swift motions, the nearest soldier sent the butt of the BB-gun rocketing into The Eye's forehead, sending him down against the wall, where he hit his head and was subsequently knocked unconscious. Flags was on his knees now, perhaps ordered to do so by Phaze, or perhaps doing so by his own accord. "No," he pleaded quietly. "Please no." I stared at him, my fake smile long gone and replaced with that cold stare. "Yes," I replied. And he too, was dispatched.

Transfer:

The air had grown bitterly cold as the night pressed on. We were all silent, allowing for only the sounds of wind and the occasionally absentminded groan from our two detainees to meet our ears. We were transferring them to a shed provided to us by an older S.S.C recruit. The structure had been built quite practically in the middle of nowhere. Far enough from any houses or roads to cause a disturbance. The plan was originally to transport them by car, though I couldn't resist the opportunity to see the two commanders, once so high and prestigious, now being dragged through the grime and snow. We were flanked from every side by our absolute best soldiers. Armed to the teeth with BB-guns, combat sticks, and other gadgets that even I was not made aware of. We were taking no chances this time. No surprise attack. No booby traps over the next hill or past the next tree. Every step we took was monitored through each of our eyes. We acted as some kind of giant creature of sorts. Slowly crawling through the desolate fields of icy snow. It's many eyes flickering every which way, piercing through the dark like a hot knife through butter. It was only once we saw the lights of other awaiting S.S.C members at the barn that I truly knew we'd succeeded. The troops watched first in shock and awe. Watching this great beast approaching them, dragging with it the two rats of prey they'd been waiting to sink their teeth into. As soon as the faces were identified as Flags and The Eye, the crowd went into an uproar, some shouting cheers of joy, as others lunged forward, giving brief strikes to the commanders' heads and backs. The commotion awoke the two of them, at least partially. Their heads bobbed unevenly, trying to look in some direction without the screaming troops. But they were surrounded. It must have looked like pure chaos to them. My heaven had become their hell. Two rocks shot from the crowd at one point, both striking The Eye in the side, causing him to flinch in a distinct pain and loud out a low whimper. Neither bothered to struggle now as they ducked their heads down, to cowardly to look upon my troops. They knew how alone they were. And it terrified them. But I wasn't done yet. I'd show them what it truly felt like to be alone. And I'd show them true fear. It was what Noah had wanted. And inside the barn they went.

Truth of The Blood Man:

"He's fully awake," I was told as I sat silently with Phaze at the entrance to the barn. Other members had been removed from the premises to avoid... unfortunate accidents that could have occurred had Flags or The Eye been left alone. Now only five soldiers, myself included watched over this place. I knew an attack would never happen. Not with two commanders on the line. In fact, I doubted a single THEM soldier was even aware of the ruse. Nor would they be anytime soon. "We've checked him for communication devices or weapons," the soldier continued. He's been stripped of any gear we found on him. And we have him bound tightly to the wall. The Eye is not going anywhere." "Good," I replied quietly. "Phaze and I will speak with him now. You and the others work on waking up our other special guest." With that, Phaze and I stood and slowly worked our way towards the portion of the barn where The Eye was being held. We found him in the very back, bound to a wooden pillar by his feet. His arms remained in a tied state behind his back. This left The Eye strewn diagonally, his face stuck against the splintered wooden floor of the premises. This awkward position make him seem weaker than ever before, now simply rubbing his head up against the ground and murmuring quietly to himself. Phaze stopped to stare as I bent down at his side."Drathm 5," I said robotically. "We know you had a plan. We know you had a date set. Now we need to know the details on what's changed." The Eye offered no response, still rubbing his head into the floor, scraping his cheek against the boards. He had been tied in such a way that lying like this, with his head to the floorboards, was the only proper way to avoid neck injury. Moving his head in the wrong way could make for a severely unpleasant experience. "Drathm 5," I reiterated, now in a more commanding tone. "Call it off. Whatever you have in mind. It's all being called off tonight. Calvin can't make a move without his commanders." The Eye growled almost like a wild animal. His fists clenched behind his back as he desperately struggled to free himself from the bonds. I slowly reached over to the cords wrapped about his wrists, carefully taking them into my hands and tightening them as far as they'd go, slicing into The Eye's flesh and cutting off circulation to his hand, which was growing a pale blue. The Eye refused to open his jaw, for doing so would risk disbalancing him and sending him down on his neck. Instead he only cried out from his clenched teeth. A inhuman sound of agony. "I want it called off," I whispered in his ear. When still there came no response, I swiftly stood myself up, grabbing onto the hair at the back of The Eye's head and lifting it from the ground. Now The Eye's mouth shot open, as he gasped for air, feeling the soreness in his jaw and the pain flaring up around his neck. I stared at him for a while, his eyes wide open like that of a frightened deer. His mouth almost panting like an exhausted dog. His upper lip was busted and still bleeding despite the cold, and multiple splinters had wedged themselves in his cheek. It was pathetic. This was not the face of the feared commander Eye. No. This was the face of something so much less. Something pitiful that had been hiding under his facad all along. Ivan. The boy. The Eye was dead now, or maybe he had never really existed at all. But what I saw in those eyes now was a broken spirit. The eyes of Ivan. The true Ivan. "It... is stopped...." Ivan breathed through the pain. "Without us the plan is completely halted... n-not even a chance at b-being brought back..." "Calvin will find a way eventually," I finally made clear. "Through The Blood Man if he has too." Ivan seemed surprised at the name, staring at me with a combination of pain and confusion. "Flags is the guy you want about C-Calvin," The Eye stuttered. "I swear I don't know anything myself." "Maybe I should jog your memory then?" I whispered to him, slamming his had down into the floor, causing him to slide under his own weight and futher scrape up his cheeks with the rotten floorboards. "How does it feel?" I asked after a while. "To be lying there in the filth... knowing that it's all over? All of it." I asked. When The Eye offered no reply, I continued. "This pain you've caused. Now being directed right back at you. And soon to Flags... then to The Blood Man... then to Calvin... and then to everyone else in your pitiful little armada that dares try to pass off as something their not. Or are you still to blind to realize any of it?" Now, with his energy and spirit drained, The Eye finally lifted his head up from the floor, causing his body to shift forward, crushing down at his neck, his head bent backwards precariously touching his shoulder blades. He had reached a point almost beyond pain now. Where no noise, no yelp, no plea could possibly express his agony. Instead he was left with silence. I was all to familiar with the feeling. And now here we were. Both feeling it together. The pain of the body and mind. "It's best you don't point fingers," The Eye struggled to say. "The only one blind in this room, is you." "Really? How so?" I asked, now drawing my foot forward, stepping on the back of The Eye's sagging head. "Y-you organized the S.S.C," The Eye growled through the pain. You're smart enough to make everyone beneath you into mindless fools who follow you at a whim. To what end, even they don't know. And even after all that... y-you still d-don't understand that just as you are more blind than all the rest... The Blood Man... is also you."

The Red:

We left The Eye in his position of agony, exiting the back and heading towards the front doors. When our footsteps finally ceased, we at last heard The Eye moaning to himself, spilling out all of his agony to that silent space. "You think he's telling the truth?" Phaze asked. "About The Blood Man? And about Flags knowing more about Calvin?" I stared emptily back at the doors. "They're not going anywhere," I replied at last. "The more they lie, the longer they stay." Phaze paused a moment, seemingly biting his tongue at the words, before finally speaking. "I... uh... The Blood Man story might check out... It would explain those conversations we have on record. THEM never spoke of The Blood Man fondly... nor ever speak about a meeting... it... most likely was you." "I don't care," I replied, annoyed. "You think such lowly talk from such lowly people can effect me?" Phaze hook his head, no, stopping a moment to cough silently into the dark. Finally there were footsteps. "Boss," came the voice of one of the guards. "Flags is awake." I nodded and walked towards the makeshift room with Phaze at my side. "I want all guards to leave the building for a while," I said over my shoulder. The troops nodded obediently and fled the premises. Finally we entered the room, finding Flags tied up, slung into the corner. His gaze shifted almost nervously between Phaze and I, before finally darting away, to stare up at the ceiling. "My troops will come for me," Flags spoke. "And what do you think they'll find when they do?" I replied. Flags gave to reply, still avoiding eye contact as we drew closer. "You know what I saw out there?" I said. "I saw fear, weakness, cowardice amongst your ranks. And in you to. Your troops aren't going to rescue you. Cowards saving cowards; it never stands a chance. And it never will." Flags shut his eyes ight, finally mustering up the courage to turn to face me, scowling in hatred at the two of us. "What do you want from me?" he asked. "You know what we want," was my only reply. "You won't get information out of me, Jonathan. It's been a long time since you've heard that name am I right? You prefer overlord now, yes? Am I correct, Jacob?" Phaze turned away, but I only drew closer. "Where is he, Flags?" A thick silence enveloped us all now. I grabbed Flags by the throat now, pounding his head against the wall as he struggled against me. "Where. Is. He?" I reiterated. "That's what it's all been about, hasn't it?" Flags asked as a bloody gash on his forehead began to seep fluid into his right eye. "All about revenge... that's why you fight. The Blood Man, dipping his hands into the filth, and forcing everyone along with him. Only he's not concerned with what happens to the hands of others. He only cares about his own. Good luck ever getting your hands clean with so much blood upon them." Even more blood now ran onto my piercing white knuckles, as I grasped his throat tighter. "Look at me, Flags," I ordered as his eyes drowsily drifted away. His pupils managed to meet mine again. "I don't care what happens to me anymore," I said. No blinking, no turning away, not even the slightest change of expression fell upon my face. Finally Flag's eyelids drew down, as a realization seemed to overtake him. "You don't... do you." More silence. Finally Flags lifted his head. "You want to know where he is? I'll tell you."

Seeing Red:

"It was Drathm 3," Flags began. "Calvin had just sentenced you to that field... After the three of you were dropped off... I had to help put up supplies and move the base camp to a new location... Calvin was always on the move like that. Always had guards around him all the time. Sometimes even swapping them out with new one's so nobody could get to know his regimen to often." My mind began drifting back to that field of ice and snow. The cold world. So long ago, it seemed almost like a dream... or rather, a nightmare. "One thing was always the same though," Flags muttered. "I was always aware of where Calvin was being moved... in case something went wrong, I needed to be aware so that reinforcements could be called in. I don't remember much of what was said when we packed up that base after Drathm 3... I just remember a silence... much like this one. We packed into our cars and headed up to the city. The weather was so fowl..." Flags trailed off. "Calvin was in his own, separate car. Five others around him. We were just on the outskirts of the city when all visibility was lost. We radioed each other and said to pull over and wait for the storm to subside." Flags suddenly stopped, not wanting to say more. "Keep talking," I ordered. "What if you don't like what you hear?" Flags replied, avoiding eye contact again. I gave no response, standing to my feet and delivering a crippling kick to Flag's stomach. Flags lurched over in a fit of pain, coughing up blood onto the floor as his wound shed even more fluids down the side of his bruised face. "Last time I ask," I made clear. Flags gagged in pain, slowly drawing himself back up again. "W-we... all pulled over..." Flags huffed. "We could only see headlights... headlights and each other's siloghettes... It must have been ten whole minutes before we realized it..." "Realized what?" I questioned through my teeth. "He was gone," Flags said at last. "He'd kept driving through that storm... and we never even noticed it... the snow covered his tracks and even when we sent out half a dozen troops to search for his vehicle... nothing was ever found." Flags stopped and looked up at my confused face. "He left us, Jonathan. He vanished off the face of the Earth. And we've heard nothing since." I stood back in shock for moment, my mind racing with thousands of questions. Finally my scowl returned, as I strangled Flags against the wall once more. "You goddamned liar!" I roared. "He can't be gone! Who's been making the plans? The attacks! Everything!" "It's been us, Jonathan." Flags said quietly. "We decided to keep THEM in the dark about Calvin's absence, stating he was still in hiding and that we were getting orders from him. In actuality... The Eye, myself, and several others were running the show. Establishing ourselves as the leaders THEM didn't even know it had." I began to grit my teeth as he continued. "We... The Eye and me... worked on attack strategies... our several accomplices mainly provided money or troops... Dante was one of them... until his finances could nolonger come in..." "No..." I said under my breath before lifting Flags by his throat. "No! He's not gone! You know where he is! You're protecting him!" Flags coughed and wheezed, unable to say more. "You're covering for him!" I yelled again. "I see through your damned lies!" With these words, I threw Flags across the room into the wall, where he collapsed and quivered helplessly on the floor. "There are..." Flags coughed as his bloodied forehead dripped further over his face. "No lies to see through... but looking at you, Jonathan... all I see... is red." I was steaming now, my hands balled up into fists and my teeth barred. Phaze suddenly placed his hand on my shoulder. "Boss-" he began, but I wouldn't let him continue. "Leave us!" I shouted back, throwing his arm away from me. Phaze hesitated, before silently removing himself from the room. Flags was shaking now, desperately trying to ease himself up the wall and stand as I approached him. "It's not my fault!" Flags shouted in a shaky voice. "It's not my fault!" "Not your fault?" I repeated, kicking him back to the floor. "You've ruined everything!" With that, my fist shot forward, striking Flag's in the jaw. "You could have had it all!" I yelled, delivering a second harsh punch to the nose, breaking it immediately. "You left us!" Another hit to the throat, blood oozing profusely from Flag's nose. "You left us to rot!" Another punch. "Left us to die!" Another. "You took our trust! You took our faith! And you stabbed us right in the back!" Another stroke. Eye's blackened, bruises forming, tooth missing. "All we did, to make this dream!" Another. My eyes streaming with tears. "And you tore it all to hell!" Another. Water flowing down my face. "It is your fault, Calvin! It's always been your fault!" A final punch to the side of the head and I released Calvin from my grasp, letting him fall to the floor, unconscious, a missing tooth lying beside his head as a pool of redness enveloped his busted head. I stopped for a moment, looking down at my knuckles, now stained red, dripping with blood. My hands were coated in it, sunken within my fingerprints, wedged beneath my nails. I looked down at the broken prisoner. The image of Calvin faded away, leaving only a lowly pawn in his place. I stood there for the longest time. Seeing red.

Turnless:

Their eyes were wide open, along with their mouths. My troops seeing me leave that base with my hands painted in a thick maroon coating. Two soldiers out from the corner of my eye began to walk back into the enclosure to escape from the chilling breezes of the night, but I held up my hand for them to stop as I approached Phaze, neither of us finding the right words to convey how we felt. Finally I looked up at him. "He never went by Sol," I realized out loud. "That name... just another cog in the machine of lies The Eye and Flags constructed." "How can Calvin possibly hide from the likes of the S.S.C and THEM combined," Phaze asked with a cough. "THEM stopped looking," I wagered. "And we... we've been looking in the wrong place all this goddamned time." I rolled my fingers back into tight fists as I hung on this fact. "He ran because he was scared of us," I growled. "That has to be it. He knew it would lead... lead to all of this!" Angrily, I swung my arm back, gesturing to the troopers in black and red and to the fortress where the Eye still howled in pain. "He thinks he can just walk away and let THEM and the S.S.C blow eachother to hell!" "We still have a few turns left in our fight against THEM," Phaze said, holding his throat. "The Eye and Flags can tell us who the other leaders are... who other undercover members are. We can cut of recruiting and funding while THEM is at it's weakest. Calvin can wait for now." I glared back up at Phaze now. "All this time and bloodshed and you still don't get it," I replied. Phaze looked at me, confused. "The eye and Flags ran the show," I elaborated. "The rest have no fighting expertise. THEM has no legs to stand on. We're so above them now that our only goal. The one thing we're after, is Calvin and Calvin alone." Phaze shook his head for a moment, speaking up louder than I'd heard in a very long time. "Boss," he began. "THEM might be without primary leaders, but we still have kids to protect. Members are still active and new leaders will eventually rise up to the occasion. Calvin can wa-" "I've heard enough," I interrupted. "My word is stone, Phaze. I say we hunt for Calvin. And that's what we're going to do. From this day on, the hunt for the one man who started it all has truly begun. No more distractions." Phaze's eyes and voice lowered once more and he gave the expected salute. "What of them, then?" Phaze asked, gesturing back to the enclosure. "It's time for our final goodbyes," was all I said.

Bidding Farewell:

We kept them there for three days and three nights. Minimal food and water provided by our guards. We were waiting for the right opportunity for both former leaders to bid farewell. And on that third night, we got what we wanted. A final snowstorm. Or at least one of the last before the weather truly shifted back to the warm days. I needed no forecast to alert me to it's presence. As I looked up into the deep black skies of the night, there was an invisible feeling of the storm to end it all. It was in the air, and I recognized it. And so, at almost midnight that evening, Ivan and Flags were awoken from their slumber and transported to a vacant field where I and several other troopers waited for their arrival. Flakes of snow - large ones, were already raining from the darkened sky. Finally the trucks arrived, throwing the two prisoners out the back, both of them still very dazed. I kept them both at a distance as I spoke to the drivers. "Take Ivan to the field... that very same one where I was doomed to die. Take him there just as the storm strikes. And leave him to struggle as I did." Silently, three troops approached Ivan and grabbed him by the arms, hauling him back to the open compartment of the nearby van. Ivan lashed out wildly at the trio, desperately digging his feet into the snow, but to no avail. His jacket swung violently back and forth and he tried escaping. "Remove the jacket," I spoke. And it was done. Ivan was at last tossed into the back of the van, where he lied pitifully on his side, staring my way with his dark eyes. He was shaking. Shivering. His teeth clattering among themselves. And then the doors slammed shut, and the car disappeared into the night. Flags spoke no words, he hadn't spoke at all in his final days of custody. Perhaps it was that, which irked me the most. I wanted to see him shout. To see him kick and scream as his face turned red and his eyes bulged. But he only stared down at the snow now, hiding his broken face from the world. If Ivan could make it through the perils that night offered him, then I'd be done with him. But Flags was different. Flags represented rebellion. He represented lies and backstabbing. I knew in my heart that I'd never want even the slightest chance of ever seeing him again... or... it would be the truly last time. And so his motorcycle was wheeled out from the back of the last remaining truck. "He is to ride aboard that cycle in whatever direction he pleases when the storm strikes," I ordered, within Flag's earshot. "But he leaves this town for good," I made clear. "He leaves it far, far behind. And if he tries to stop, if he attempts to turn back... then you 'convince' him otherwise." Three soldiers approached the silent Flags as the motorcycle was prepped to go. Soon the winds advanced dramatically, sending the snow flying along with it. Flags and the three soldiers faded away into the white mist, becoming only pools of black before at last vanishing completely into that storm. No final words were spoken between us that day. Everything that needed to be said, already had been. This was no time for talk, no time for victory - no. This silence represented leaving us behind. Bidding farewell to our world.

Changes:

And so time went on. The cold of winter gave way to the blistering Summer heat. It seemed as if we took just as long to make changes in ourselves. All operations and attack strategies against what was left of THEM faded away into that empty void. The S.S.C became everything, ears constantly listening and eyes constantly watching. THEM on the other hand became the immaterial. THEM fortresses soon grew abandoned and were either reclaimed by nature or claimed by us. And with the absence of Magna Oil, warehouses and other similar buildings that were once the start of a town-wide spread, became desolate and empty reminders of what could have been. But while the town and THEM hung their collective heads heavy to these losses, the S.S.C stood taller than ever. For all of us in the S.S.C now, there was one objective and one objective only - finding Calvin. And hunt for him we did. We started from the far northern reaches of the state and country, where his car had last been driving the day of that fabled storm. The S.S.C's connections spread far and wide, and I was able to dip my hands into whatever portion of it's being I desired. When nothing turned up from the north, then so came the East, our eyes scanning the horizon straight to the coast. Calvin became a household name amongst those affiliated with the S.S.C and it's business. Fables spread far and wide, some calling Calvin a phantom, lost to the world, while others dared to claim he had never existed at all. When time came to search the South, three months had passed since the great fall of THEM. Slowly I became detached from search exploits, confining myself to outposts far more than my own home. I sat alone in these buildings, constantly awaiting the same news time and time again, the failure of one endeavor and the rise of another. Lastly came our hunt in the west, calling upon whatever factions of the S.S.C were left and willing to assist us. Over eighty-six S.S.C's were planted across the country, those seeds all arising from that one central plant here. It would keep me up sometimes. I wondered if they'd ever know my name. Know my story. Know that I'd ever existed at all. Every such time I'd quell myself with the same manner of thinking. When Calvin was gone, so-to would I. It was not a happy mindset, but it kept me focused, held me steadfast to a goal. Maybe the world would keep spinning long after I had been swallowed up by the passing of time. But I swore to myself that the world would never overtake me until Calvin was found. Then - and only then, would the world know I had won. And then the news came. The news of more silence. The news that the west - to, had nothing to offer us. And that's when I realized that it was just us again. Just our S.S.C left to do the heavy lifting. The outside didn't know our struggle. It didn't know what we were. It didn't know what Calvin was. They didn't understand any of it. And that is why they failed. But we were different... we were the origins to the fire of the S.S.C and we still glowed hotter and brighter than ever before. Those who began to question my orders were expelled from the S.S.C at once. We had no time for distractions, no time to revert back to the way things were. If one soldier refused an order, he could be sure that three others would gladly take his place, and that he would be trampled over in an instant by our never-ending stride forward. Everything and everyone could be replaced. They were all means to an end, and they knew it. But it was only the intelligent who accepted their part with open arms. They were not students, they were not teenagers, and they were not heroes. They were the S.S.C. The final set of searches began in early July; the original S.S.C, in their original homeland, searching for the original threat. Because I felt it in my heart now, Calvin had never abandoned the state. He was still here. And so we kept hunting.

Stains:

It was a few weeks into our sweeping of our home turf that I began losing sleep, more so than ever before. I'd find myself awakening from dreams I couldn't recall, or in some instances being unable to so much as keep my eyes closed for more than a few minutes at a time. Only exhaustion could send me into that blissful night. I blamed this ordeal on the threat of Calvin still being one step ahead of us, perhaps working out some new plan to overcome the S.S.C, making THEM a thing of the past in favor of somethin far worse. Phaze would worry occasionally about me, but I would always assure him I was fine, and tell him to continue search efforts. Sometimes Phaze's worries of me came off as strange, as if he wanted information from me, as if he was prying me for reasons that I might be coming unsound. I caught myself wondering often if perhaps he was working against me, secretly leaking information to Calvin on what places to hide and when to escape from our grasp. Phaze would be the perfect traitor, one to surpass even Flags at this point. And then there were the soldiers, who I'd catch staring at me when I passed them, as if they were looking through me like a paned window. What were thy looking at? What did they see in me? Could they be spies, watching my every footstep, delivering my every move to Calvin for his own personal gain? The threat was very real. And so I became a thing of a ghost among the S.S.C, only appearing to high ranking soldiers of which I could trust, and even then I'd refrain from letting any one person know to much about any endeavor. Yes it seemed Calvin and I were to forever me in an infinite game of chess, in which nobody was willing to move. There was... something else to. Something I hadn't told anyone... no matter the rank or the closeness. It had been the week prior, I had gotten to thinking of Flags and Ivan, and if perhaps we'd let them go to easy. If perhaps they'd sold us all in an elaborate plot to keep Calvin hidden in the shadows. Later that night I had made my way to the bathroom, wherein I showered to perhaps drown out these fears. But what I saw when I stepped out and looked into that foggy mirror above the sink was something straight from a nightmare. Blood. Blood coating my knuckles, dripping into the sink and swirling endlessly down the drain. A constant stream of crimson working it's way down my fingers. I quickly turned on the sink, thrusting my hands into the clear water and watching it turn into a subdued brown. But the blood never left. Again and again I tried to wash it away, shutting my eyes on every encounter with the cool water, hoping the red to vanish at each opening. It never did. My head spun and a ringing pain was forced through my wrists and through my head. Reality became fuzzy and the sound of my heartbeat became more apparent, I stumbled back, striking my head on the wall in my repulsed state, and then slipping to the floor. The blood still came. Desperately, moaning now with sorrow, I covered my eyes with those bloody hands, and let the fluids seep over me. I'd never open them again. Not like this. The pain in my head became stronger and stronger still. And then eventually I blacked out to the world. Everything following this oddity was a blur to me. The next morning I struggled to recall how I had ever left the bathroom, for I had awoken in my bed with no signs of damage or bloodshed on my hands. Despite this, my towels were still clearly present in the bathroom, and that distinct metallic smell of blood covered the air, and coated my mouth. Reality and dreams were the same entity now, it seemed. And it hadn't stopped since. Sudden flashes of red on my knuckles persisted every day, always when I'd least expect it. And the worst part... was that I feared it. Feared it more than any attacker, any THEM soldier, or even the threat of Calvin. Those things I could fight... those things I could overcome. But those splotches of blood, meeting my teary eyes in that cold and lonesome room of mine... that was something even the S.S.C couldn't fix. I could still feel the blood dripping over me. Consuming me. From the inside, out.

A Suspicious Return:

It was a dewy Saturday morning when I was called down to our Boiler Room facility my way of an urgent call from Phaze. He did not wish to discuss the matter over the line, so I instead approached the area in-person, a rare feat for me at this point. My guards were ofcourse at my side, and standard troop had been removed from the premises, leaving only those who I trusted to be within earshot. I had no doubt that the news involved Calvin. A breakthrough at last. Our first step towards a better tomorrow. On my way to the boiler room, I had to pass windows looking into the school. It had been so very long since I'd been inside. I wondered if anything had changed. I wondered about the impact we'd installed upon that building, without some even realizing it. And then the reflection. The reflection of myself, and a red tint hanging my y hands. I quickly diverted my eyes back up, it was not something I wanted to see. Suddenly a voice met my ears - two actually. One of Phaze, and then the second, of which sounded so familiar, yet so very forgotten. "Wait here," I ordered my guards, leaving them to keep watch of the area. I carefully twisted at the doorknob and let myself in. Within the boiler room were only two individuals. Phaze... and beside him, Teddy. "Surprise," Teddy exclaimed with a smile, though he seemed almost taken aback by the sight of me. "Teddy," I said out loud, unsure of how or why he could be here. "The folks and I are back for the weekend, Teddy explained. "Meeting up with some relatives and all that large charge." I was unable to answer him, instead shifting my gaze down to his bright blue S.S.C jacket, with the accompanying diamond patch of a similar shade. I then stared over to Phaze. "This is why you called me here?" The smile on Phaze's face dropped away, as he instead scratched the back of his head and looked to the floor. "I... thought it might get your mind off things to meet an old friend..." Teddy put his hands in his pockets and avoided eye contact with me as he scanned the room. "This place sure has changed a lot since my leaving," he said nostalgically. "We have similar posts in my district but... you've really got things set up just right over here... hey speaking of old friends, where's Calvin? And Flags too. I've been dying to see if they fixed up that old car they found in the lot up north." My eyes narrowed as I walked closer to Phaze, who still avoided looking at me. "You didn't tell him?" I asked through my teeth. "His unit wasn't notified about the search. I... thought maybe you could explain things..." Phaze said with a cough. Teddy seemed more confused now. "Uh. That cough doesn't sound good, Jacob. Maybe you should clue a doctor in on that." Phaze raised an eyebrow at the sound of his own name, having not heard it in such a long while. "Thing's have changed," I finally said, facing Teddy. My old friend backed up against the wall a bit and gave a nervous smile. "Uh... yeah. No kidding," he stuttered. "The black uniforms... the... new diamond color... I... don't think Noah sent us a memo on that change." I tilted my head to the side, scowling at him in disbelief. "Why are you here?" I asked. Teddy's nervousness increased. "I... already told you that, Johnny... I'm visiting releti-" I now stepped in front of Teddy, pinning him to the wall as Phaze stepped outside. Teddy's face lit with a sudden combination of terror and confusion. "You come here after all this time," I said. "Wanting my thoughts on Calvin, bringing up names that I never wanted to hear again, and daring to show yourself in those disgraceful colors?" Teddy shook his head in disbelief. "John, what's going on?" he yelped. "Where's all the troops? Where's all the old faces? What happened to the life here?" "Stop changing the subject!" I barked in his ear. Teddy stopped talking for a moment and dared to look at my face. He stared for what seemed like an entire minute. "Your eyes..." he muttered in a tone of near horror. In frustration, I grabbed Teddy my the collar now, throwing him to the ground, he put up no struggle. "Calvin thinks he can get to me by planting these seeds of doubt in my home?" I yelled. The guard unit quickly shuffled into the room, breezing past me and grabbing Teddy's arms, preventing him from moving. "John I-" he began, but I cut him off once more. "He'll have to try better than that! I won't be fooled any longer! I see through you! See right through what you're trying to do, what you're trying to stir up in me! But it won't work! Take that message back with you." I gave a silent order to the unit to drag Teddy away, but he refused to be silent. Instead he spoke back to me, something I hadn't heard in ages. Something I'd never hoped to hear again; a voice that questioned my authority. "What are you talking about?" he yelled as he was dragged out the door. "I'm one of you! I built this! I helped build all of this! Has everyone lost their minds? What have you done with the life! Where has the flame gone? Where has it gone?" The voice eventually died away, and Phaze returned, coughing once more. "We have connection to soldiers in Teddy's unit?" I asked. "I believe so," Phaze replied. "Why?" "I want you to make some calls. When Teddy returns to his S.S.C, I want him to be watched. He nolonger embodies the dream of the S.S.C and he questions it's values. If it comes down to it, set a new leader in his place." Phaze seemed pained by the orders, and did not salute to me, nor turn to leave, instead only standing there. "Do you have a problem with these orders, Phaze?" I asked, drawing closer to him. Finally the salute came and Phaze shook his head. "No, boss. No problems... but... you really think he could be working for Calvin?" "Not necessarily," I made clear. "But we can't allow one disbeliever to pollute the entire system, Phaze. Misinformed members who dare to talk back to their superiors are a cancer to the S.S.C. If it takes disinformation or internal spying to keep Teddy in-line, then so be it. Calvin's plans are growing by the day. Anyone who tries to sway you, both physically or mentally may be falling in line with his new idea of warfare. The moment we let someone slip by us... let them sway our minds or the minds of our followers... that's the moment Calvin drives the nail in our coffin." Phaze nodded. "I understand," he said at last, holding the salute before exiting the doorway to make the necessary calls. Alone now, I felt that stinging pain echoing through my hands again. It seemed like my own mind was turning on me, trying to thrust doubt down my throat. I wouldn't let it happen. For I knew it was the work of Calvin. Mental warfare had begun, and I would not become a casualty of that combat. And so I stared down at my bloody hands and smiled. For no other reason than to show Calvin that despite all his efforts, I was still a survivor.

Covered:

We must have scowered every public location, wooded area, and field in all of Toparsburg for some trace of Calvin. And while initially we were greeted with the familiar notices of potential hiding spots or leads, they were all explored to the fullest extent, with us coming up empty-handed each time. I watched my expansive list of leads slowly fade away, until there was only a handful of areas left to look, some of which were merely repeats from the past, perhaps the soldiers didn't think I'd notice. And then there came a day when I awoke, gathered news reports that were always hand delivered by different guards every other morning, and opened the report, only to find that the list had vanished entirely. No new leads, no new ideas, no Calvin. I was filled with rage, but not in any way I had felt before. Instead this rage simply took on a deep sense of longing... a deep sense that I had all this anger built up, and nothing to throw it at. That was the first day in long, long time that I didn't bother interacting with anyone within the S.S.C. Now Phaze, not my guards, not anyone. That day I kept myself company, and no one tried to stop me, for they all knew why I hid away. I had failed them. Failed our fallen soldiers, lost friends, hopes at a better tomorrow. Even with all this power, I had failed them. I thought back to Teddy and how he had looked at me, almost in such a way as if he didn't recognize my face. His words took on muffled shapes within my head, blurred images of people I had moved past long ago. I might have stayed there in my house for weeks, had it not been for a visit from Phaze the following afternoon. I knew it was him before even opening the door, for his knock had become just as persistent and predictable as the search for Calvin had been. I opened the door and looked up at Phaze, ignoring his salute and motioning him inside. Neither of us spoke, for there was little to say. "I'm... so sorry," Phaze coughed after a few minutes of silence had passed. I didn't reply, now merely leaning on my kitchen counter, staring out the window at the dead sky hovering above the dead town. "I got to thinking about what Teddy mentioned a couple weeks back," Phaze continued. "About that old spot where Calvin and Flags used to patch up that car." "What are you getting at?" I asked in a voice that now seemed more scraggly than even Phaze's. "It was situated near one of Magna Oil's shipping facilities," Phaze elaborated. "After Magna bit the dust... the place is a ghost town... We checked the building... but ya know... I don't think we ever checked that little old car... or the houses surrounding it. There was never anyone around there to give us leads..." "That's not enough of a reason to go down there," I spoke, though I knew in my desperation that I was lying. "I thought the same thing," Phaze replied starkly. "Until just a couple days ago we heard that some old attackers were frequenting the area. Bringing up food and other materials tied to the tops of their cars." My eyes finally opened wider as I turned towards Phaze. "Attackers?" I repeated. "Not THEM soldiers?" Phaze nodded his head gravely. "Yeah, they have no connections with THEM... I'll admit... I don't think Calvin would waste his time around some untrustworthy gang of attackers." "But there's still I chance," I said breathlessly, clinging to all the hope I could find. "Boss," Phaze said as he shook is head. "It's our last chance... the troops are becoming unstable... they're sick of the searches and if this one turns up nothing... I fear we won't be able to keep them in line anymore. We'll... have to move on..." I stared blankly at Phaze for a few moments, taking in what he had said. "Phaze," I said emptily. "I decide when we stop." Phaze nodded in agreement, but his face remained set in stone. "I realize that, boss. But... they decide who they are." I pursed my lips closed, and sat down in the chair beside Phaze. "When are you going to this last location?" I mumbled. "Tomorrow morning, with your permission," Phaze replied. "We'll have a report for you within the hour afterwards." "No need for a report," I replied, staring at the floor. "Because I'm coming with you." Phaze's face finally shifted, a look of shock in his eyes. "Boss," he began, but I held my hand up to stop him. "I was there to see it all begin," I muttered. "I want to be there... to see it all end." Phaze stood from his set, nodded, and gave a parting salute. "We'll meet you tomorrow then," he spoke. And then he was gone. When finally his car was heard pulling from my driveway, I picked myself up from the chair, and shuffled slowly upstairs to my room. My movements became robotical, each motion became delicate, and simple. I dropped to my knees now beside my bed, and reached down beneath it until my fingers met an icy capsule of some kind. I was all to aware of what it was.

Perfect Harmony:

Such a strangeness to it all. To walk from my home, and tell my guards to leave my side. To face Phaze and a unit of several other fighters, their faces unknown to me, and mine to them. How strange it was to feel wind in my face again, to feel my heart beat, not merely to stay alive, but now to build pressure within my soul. These were feeling so far forgotten, I should have thought to never experience them again. It was a long walk to that old shed, where Calvin and Flags has spent their mornings and afternoons working alongside eachother, long before any soldier had shed a single drop of blood. Perhaps it had been there that Calvin had tempted Flags to his side, perhaps it was there that the seeds of our downfall had all truly began, and - god-willing, where the cycle of nothingness could break, and the S.S.C could escape from the smoky suffocation of our burning flame, into this new clean air, striking my face. I wanted to breath again and watch the blood wash away. And so I treasured every footstep and every breath I breathed. Treasured them as a grown man would treasure the toys from his past. A longing nostalgia, for simpler times. At last we saw it, the abandoned Magna Oil facility, already weathered down by the forces of nature, it's brittle bones shaking in the frigid breeze. And there, in it's far-reaching shadow, sat the remains of a derelict shack, alongside it sat a variety of small houses, long-since abandoned. "Weapons at the ready," Phaze barked. There was a nostalgia in his voice as well. This. It had all been building to this. All our hard work. all the blood, sweat, and tears. Hours upon hours of sleepless night, painstaking research, aching muscles and roughened skin... all leading to something so small. A tiny band of soldiers, facing a tiny building, in a tiny, forgotten landscape. "Boss," Phaze breathed. "For safety, you stay in the back. Only assist us if absolutely necessary." I could hardly focus on his words, my body simply drifting behind the group as I stared off at the morning sun. There was a silent chatter coming from the shack, where multiple sets of eyes now peered back and forth out at us. "They know we're coming," Phaze stated as we drew within 100 feet of the premises. The other soldiers raised their weapons higher, their eyes locked on the shack and nothing else. Pure, unadultered determination in their eyes. Those steady steps, and rock-hard gazes, I'd seem them before. Suddenly a large hammering sound, as attackers poured from the shack, at least a dozen, all defending their turf from the likes of us. Troops shot in all directions, Phaze remaining at their aid, shouting orders to each and every one. They were a single entity, one giant beast. The two great animals collided with one another, a mixture of the S.S.C's black and the attackers stale grey. "Loop around!" Phaze shouted. "Round'em up!" I had not taken a footstep since the violence broke out, instead shifting my gaze all around this tiny little landscape. Looking for any sign of Calvin, the old car, some kind of evidence to prove that all our efforts had not been in vain. I looked. And I stared. And I scanned for what seemed like forever. The shouting voices of the fighters faded away, and soon I found myself with nothing left to observe. Maybe... he wasn't here after all. And just as I began to close my eyes, awaiting that singing pain of blood at my hands, instead I felt something else. Something warm and peaceful. I turned my head, finding Summer standing at my side. I heard a muffled scream from Phaze, but it was much to far for me to understand. I opened my mouth to speak to her, to talk to that smiling figure in that beautiful blue dress. But there were no words to speak. She smiled to me, that warming smile that gave me hope. Then another feeling, as I turned to find Noah to my right, his arms crossed, as he shook his head and smiled to me in awe. He looked up to me. He showed me that I could grow, just as he had grown. Yet another cry from Phaze, so distant, it seemed to come from nearly a different planet. My eyes shifted back to the battle, finding the black of the S.S.C now intertwined with the brilliant purple... of THEM. The circular patches, those old and familiar weapons, those fighting tactics so much like our own, yet so very unique and different. The two great beasts, battling in that game of checkers. This game however, with an end in sight. Suddenly the great beasts parted, some fighting to the left of the shack, others to the right. But one remained in the center, clinging to his leg as he struggled to stand and continue the battle. I recognized that stature, that hair, those old wounds... I remembered the face of Calvin. My eyes began to water and my feet moved slowly forward, driving me closer and closer to him. Summer and Noah remained in the corners of my eyes. Soon they too, walked by my side, Mask appearing next to them, giving me that mysterious nod as Flags gave that old salute, a spark in his eyes. We were all here again. And soon Phaze's cries died out completely, as he instead turned to me butting shoulders as he walked to my side, that crooked smile on his face. My eyes flooded with tears, and shed down my face, as that warmth of us all standing at eachother's sides became stronger. Calvin looked up from his leg now, seeing me approach, his face flat and eyes so unsure. But my gaze was solid now. My footsteps constant. My heart throbbing. Calvin must have saw it in us as we approached him, seen that confidence in our eyes... seen that hope that we all carried, and the love and respect we all had for one another. He had seen it... right? And so Calvin snakingly stood, looking at all of us and feeling that in which we fought for. Tears dripped into my smiling mouth as I reached into my pocket. There sat that familiar icy capsule, now planted in my hands. Now hardly a foot away from Calvin, I nodded to him. That old signal of friendship, shining through those tears. And so... I steadily took that knife from my pocket. Maybe he wouldn't understand why it had to be now. But Calvin must have seen one thing. That look of pride in my eyes. Maybe the S.S.C would forget us. Maybe it would never understand that sensation of ours. But... I was very sure... that I would. And I did.

THE END

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