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  • Action Movies for the Weekend#²!

    Hello, Hello! It's been a while since I've posted a blog and even longer since I suggested films for some action-packed weekend fun! Life has been a little crazy on my end (let's not get into the details), and I realized I needed a break. Since I'm still away from my games (😭), I thought I could at least fall back to something else I liked. For some much needed time to recuperate. Maybe, just maybe, I'm not the only one? Here's some action movie suggestions for you and the family, some of which you might have never seen. Please expect more suggestions, and blogs, to come! Kill Me Three Times (2017). Let Simon Pegg take you on an a one-of-a-kind actiony adventure. Phone Booth (2002). A man with secrets stalked by a man who is a secret? A mystery in a phonebooth. A Janitor (2022). A Japanese action film about a janitor named Fukami (Fukushi, Seiji) with a bloody past. Don't worry. We get to enjoy from afar. The Childe (2023). A film following Marco (Kang Tae-joo), a half korean half Filipino taking care of his sick mom who needs surgery. Hunted and bombarded with danger, he's in for a shock. Set It Off (1996). Even if it's just been a while, it's worth a re-watch. If you haven't seen it, you just might have been living under a rock. An awesome film with 90s ladies leading the way to greener pastures. Starring Queen Latifah, Jada-Pickett Smith, Vivica A. Fox, and Kimberly Elise. Level 16 (2018). A Canadian science fiction movie. Two girls are about to learn that their "school" has a trove of hidden secrets. Who says they aren't perfect after all? Honestly not much action, more thriller but an interesting watch. Breach (2007). Eric thinks he's getting his big break in the FBI once he gets the chance to work with a big-shot in the field. Unfortunately, things aren't so simple. The Girl With All the Gifts (2016). Sennia Nanua stars in this film as Melanie. A girl who is immune to a virus plaguing the world, trying to understand herself and carrying the future's possibilities along with her. More wholesome than action. The Jason Bourne Film Series (2002-2007). Could you imagine being part of the CIA as a killer but diassociating the entire time and not sure you remember it? Five movies starring Matt Damon. Emphasis on the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum. The Witch: Subversion (2018) & The Witch 2: The Other One (2022). Out of Korea comes something interesting. An action-horror film about a high school girl, a group of strangers, and its sequel. Mayhem (2017). An action-packed performance from Glen--I mean Steven Yeun. It's not TWD but things do get messy! Chronicle (2012). Three teenagers gain powers from contact with the unknown, changing their lives and the bond they'd built. Anyone else sure that Michael B. Jordan's body levels up throughout his years in film but he forever has a baby face? BKO: Bangkok Knockout (2010): A Thai film showcassing a group of teens with a variety of martial arts under their belt kicking butt? Scoot over. Eastern Promises (2007). What does the death of a teenager, a pregnancy, and the Russian mob have to do with each other? In this movie? Everything. And Naomi Watts is about to find out. Deliver US From Evil (2020). Who says assassins are the only ones who chase? In this film, an assassin is chased down for a murder he committed while in Thailand to solve a kidnapping case. Re: Born (2006): Japanese action film about a supernatural soldier. It was new to me. Who knows, you might like it. Plane (2023). A pilot and a prisoner work together to save passengers. A film starring Gerard Butler and Mike Colter. It's worth a watch just because these two are in the same movie. The Departed (2006). Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Mark Walhberg star in the same crime thriller. Expect action and corrurption my friends. Safe House (2012). When Denzel Washington is smirking at you from the other end of the screen do you ask questions or just watch? I thought so. Ryan Renolds is there too. How neat is that? Clash (2009). A Vietnamese action film, also known as Bay Rong, for some extra Asian drama fun. Enjoy all the martial arts Veronica Ngo and Johnny Tri Ngyune have to offer as they team up for another movie (previously starred together in a film called The Rebel). Searching (2018). Although this film is a bit more thriller than action, John Cho made waves in the industry with this role, a father on the search for his 16 year-old daughter. It gives a similar feel to the 2013 film Missing starring Nia Long and Storm Reid. The Fearless (2006). Jet-Li is at it again in this martial arts film. I think that answers most of your questions. Just enjoy the butt kicking. Haha. Black Panther (2018) & Wakanda Forever (2022). I don't think that there's anyone out there (at least with the internet in the past 6 years) who hasn't seen these two beautiful- visually appealing-movies. I still can't believe how they did Auntie Angela Bassett in the second movie, but that's okay, we can enjoy them both a hundred times. There better be a third film to make up for the second. R.I.P Chadwick Boseman.

  • Super Sound Blake. Pt 2

    Hello, Hello Lovelies! Today, I'm back again. After a lot of medical trouble and illnesses last month, I've come with a treat--part two of Super Sound Blake! I wanted to post it last month but here we are. Thank you for your patience. I wish you all the happiest and healthiest of holidays! Please enjoy the next part of Blake and his family's journey💚💚. PART TWO. Day 91. It took longer than Blake thought to return to the forest. On their way, Ark cried often. He was scared. Blake couldn’t blame him for that. It felt entirely different with just the two of them traveling on foot such a long distance. They hardly stopped to rest in the two towns. A feat somehow made easier by Blake's generally sleepless nights. Whenever Ark was too tired to keep walking or refused entirely, Blake hoisted him up his back and held his legs, piggybacking him for as long as he could. Usually after a nap with his face nuzzled into his shoulder, his little brother was more willing to continue their journey. Sometimes, it even lessened his complaints for a while. For that, Blake had been more than grateful. For however long it lasted. The last official stop they'd made was the convenience store. The very same that Blake and their father stopped by. It was the only closed space he felt comfortable enough to sit still. Even if that wouldn’t have been for very long. Moreover, the store was much closer to the outskirts of the forest, and they were low on food. When Ark saw the Choco bars, his face lit up. Blake told him that they would be sure to get some but first, they had other things to get. He recalled the moment with clarity. The clerk stepped out of a brown door, tucked away in a corner behind the counter Blake hardly recalled seeing his last time there. The moment their eyes met, the man adjusted his glasses with a cheery smile. By some miracle, his shirt almost fit him that day. "Well, well. Welcome back. Did you enjoy the sweets?" He beamed. He looked at Ark and raised a brow. His eyes surveyed the empty space in the store. "Who's this little guy?" Ark quickly shrunk behind Blake. Maybe he'd learned a lesson after the incident with Jake. "This is my little brother. He doesn’t like people much lately. The candy was great, thanks." Blake was being honest. He'd forgotten about them when they initially left the motel, but on their long trek aiming for the woods, they occupied Ark for a time. "Man. Join the party. I haven’t liked people since the day I left the womb." He huffed, unoffended by Ark's behavior. Fog spread across his lenses, which seemed to go unnoticed. "Can't blame him for it. Especially with the people on your mom's side, right?" Blake blinked as he masked his uncertainty. He quickly realized he was referencing the previous conversation with their father. Although it had been full of lies. What had his father said about their mother's 'family' again? "Did anyone come here, looking for us?" Blake asked, careful. "Yep." The man nodded as he grabbed a Choco bar from the front, ripped it open and took a bite. Ark shuffled forward and stared at him with wide, unmoving eyes. Practically drooling. "I was planning to tell your dad, but I don't see him." "We're here by ourselves this time." Blake searched his brain for an unsuspicious lie. He wasn't sure where the ideas were supposed to come from. Lying wasn’t his specialty. The clerk choked on his chocolate. "There's nothing out this way, though? How far have the two of you..?" Blake shook his head. "Not far." He lied. "Dad said it is important for us to be able to survive on our own, but I don't think he really meant it." Ark's head whipped hopefully in his direction. Blake gave his hand a squeeze and shook his head as he spoke. He hoped he would understand. Or at the very least, keep quiet. "I've seen him watching us a lot and today's the last day. If you tell me what happened I'll let him know." He looked at his brother and then back to the clerk. So far, so good. The clerk silently looked them over and took another bite of the chocolate bar, prolonging Ark's agony. Then he shrugged. Maybe the lie was convincing. Or he didn't care enough to question it. Blake wasn't sure which, but it was better than him calling the police. Either way, their luck hadn't quite run out yet. As Black Diamond put it, many ingredients make a hero. Including 'a little luck and a whole lotta badass.' He was sure she hadn't said it about 10-year-old Super Sound, but he figured he would grow into it. Like a pair of shoes three sizes too big. "Well, you tell him that there was a whole group of military-esque looking fuckers around here a couple days ago." He quickly looked down at Ark, frowned, and shook his head. He grabbed a Choco bar and tossed it to him. "Excuse my French." Blake smirked. It pleased him somehow, to be on the other side of things. "Thank you for the Choco bar, those are his favorite, but he's heard worse." What did he mean, military-esque? The clerk laughed and went on. His smile replaced by a look of annoyance as he spoke. "So, as I was saying. There were a whole group of them wearing similar clothes. They didn't really look alike or anything but most of my cousins don't either, so I don't judge. They went around the store and one of them went in the bathroom. A few of them eyed the booze in the back, then they surrounded the counter. When they described your dad, I knew this was some sketchy stuff. "He was right, of course. They gave me the 3rd degree. Asked if I had seen him with a woman and a boy. Never seen your mom of course, but they described her real pretty-like." "Mom's beautiful." Blake nodded. Then he gestured for him to go on. This wasn't the time. The men that suddenly showed up looking for them were the current priority. "Right. Of course, she is." The clerk snorted with an amused look on his face. Blake didn't think he was being rude. It wasn't disbelief. "Well, they tried to intimidate me, but I don't scare so easy, right? I was thinking, these guys think they're so tough. I don’t know if your dad was ever in AA or what, but they kept hounding me!" "What's AA?" Blake asked curiously. "Alcoholics Anonymous. If you've got a drinking problem, you go to these meetings and talk about your feelings with a therapist. Other people share their stories about what made them start drinking away their livers and the whole deal. Basically, they help you try to get sober again." "I don't think my dad's ever been in that kind of program. Aside from work, he never really leaves." "No extended solo-trips? No hush, hushed vacations? He never left you with just your mom?" "None of that stuff. Unless trips to the grocery store count." "Was he there overnight?" "Who spends the night at the grocery store?" Blake asked sarcastically. Although now that he thought about it, a grocery store would have been much better than going to the forest right now. But those weren't safe. This wasn't like the Canine comics. Blake and Ark weren't dogs, and the world wasn't full of zombies, abandoned places and half empty stores ripe for the taking. "Oh? Probably not then." He shrugged. "But you wouldn't know it the way those guys were acting!" He smacked his hands against the countertop. "All of that just for some beer? They're too strict!" "Family, what can ya do about em?" Blake shrugged, mimicking a scene from a tv show he'd seen a couple years ago. He had no idea what the man meant, but he liked his accent, and it always got a good laugh out of whoever he was talking to. The clerk was no different. He slapped a hand across the counter as he laughed. Ark smiled a clueless smile, but he seemed amused enough. His attention was still focused on his remaining chocolate. That day, as excited as he had been to get it, he picked it apart in small pieces to eat. Maybe he was worried about not having any more, but Blake had told him they would buy some. That one he just so happened to get for free. The clerk pushed up his glasses with a proud expression. He tried to puff out his chest, but it did more with his round belly than it had for his upper half. "You tell your father that they didn't get me. "I told them that the store had been empty all day just like I'd said I would. The losers stomped right back out the door. They asked me about the video tape, as if they had the authority for that. I told them they needed a warrant for it but it wouldn’t matter because the video is backed up somewhere else by the owner and wiped from the store." "Is that true?" Blake questioned. Considering that he had already lied to them once. After all, he and his father had gone into the store that day. "Sort of. They do need a warrant. The videos go to this old school tape thing in the back, but the owner is the only one who can work the thing." "Then, you're not the owner of this store?" "I'm not," he chuckled, "but my grandma is. They don't need to know that. They looked like a bunch of bullies. I'd die before I let them intimidate my nana." "Thanks for doing that. Dad would say thank you." Blake gave a polite smile. On the inside he was grateful, of course, but he was also anxious. He'd wondered more than once who they were running from but he never expected to be this close to finding out. After all, if they'd only missed them by days then they were closer to them than he thought. It felt even more dangerous when Blake considered that they had no idea how close or far behind his parents were. Going back to the forest was probably the right decision. ... That trip to the store was three days ago now. The emergency money their father had given them was spent there. Mostly just on fruit, water, and Choco bars. Not surprisingly, Ark loudly complained of missing the motel bed and the tv. It was cold, much more so now than it had been weeks ago, and every night the dark unsettled them more than it should have. There was something about impending danger, a wet, forest night, and no knowledge to build a fire that solidified every wave of anxiety and fear crashing around inside him. Blake couldn't catch anything either because he lacked skill. He wondered if Super Sound should have used his power to render a wild animal helpless, but it felt too villainous for comfort. The world had enough of them as it were. So, Blake spent most of those three days mimicking forest noises and having Ark guess what they were. Day 92. The next day they had to stay put because of the rain. Which only made the cold that much worse. Their bodies shook, their shoulders brushing each other, huddled together under the motel blankets in a partly hollowed out tree trunk. For a long time, they silently watched the rain pouring down to the forest floor. Eventually, Ark was the one to break the quiet. "Blake, do you really have superpowers?" Ark asked quietly. Blake was surprised but tried not to show it. He supposed they never really talked about it. And with the motel incident, Ark had hidden himself under the bed where he wouldn't have seen anything. For his brother's ears, Blake was sure his headphones forced the world to a complete silence. It was probably a good thing that Ark only saw the aftermath. "Yeah." Blake sighed. "I do." "What kind of superpower do you have?" He asked with focused eyes. "I don't really know..? Sound powers, I guess. That's what it seems like. That's why they call me Super Sound." Blake answered and reached past Ark to grab hold of his headphones. "I hear a lot of stuff. A lot of the time, stuff no one else hears. Which is why I wear these. Mom and dad had them made for me so I could sleep. Well, not just for that I guess." "Wow." Ark mouthed breathlessly. "What did you think they were for?" Blake asked, now curious. Albeit a bit embarrassed by his reaction. "Dunno." He shrugged. "You always wear them. I thought it was music and I wanted to listen." He replied in a thoughtful tone. "Huh. Well, that does make sense." Blake nodded. "Too bad though, there's no music." "Yeah. Too bad." Ark shook his head. "Blake?" "Yeah?" "What do sound powers feel like?" Blake blinked. He'd never really thought about it before. "I guess.." Blake looked off in thought. "Kind of shaky." "Like an earthquake?" Ark asked, his mouth open. Blake shook his head. "Not that shaky. More like..the kind that happens when you say hmm. Like the vibrations in the back of your throat and it tickles a little, but in your ears." Ark nodded a bunch, as if he understood. Then proceeded to constantly say 'hmm' in different pitches. Then he went silent again. "Blake?" Ark called, breaking their silence for the second time. "Yeah?" "Hearing sounds is how we got away from Jake?" A pain struck Blake's chest as Ark's question sunk in. For a moment, he saw the man's image again. His broken sunglasses and awkwardly angled body against the cold metal staircase. The lack of noise around the motel as they made their escape floated somewhere nearby in the back of his mind. "No. Not exactly." He didn't have the words to explain what he had done to him. Nor did he know how to describe what it felt like to manipulate the sound from his throat. He didn't know if those red blotches that sometimes crossed his vision were related or not either. Luckily, Ark didn't ask. "Blake?" "Yes, Ark?" "It's cold." "Yes it is." Blake frowned. He felt emotional. He didn't know how to make a fire. If he did, he'd have done it days ago. The blankets weren't enough. He knew they couldn't keep this up forever. Super Sound didn't have the power to combat the cold. "If I had superpowers, I'd make it rain Choco bars." Ark said excitedly. "Oh yeah?" Blake gave an amused smile. "Yep! We'd never be hungry. And I'd start fires with my breath!" He exclaimed, blowing out his mouth with pursed lips. A swirl of air became visible ahead of them. "That'd be cool, huh?" Blake wrapped his arm around him with a nod. He tried to remember when and why his little brother became so obsessed with chocolate. Not that he didn't have a point. They wouldn't come close to starving if every drop of rain could potentially be chocolate bars. It was unique. He didn't recall a single super with that kind of power, but he knew for certain that he'd be sick of them after a few days. "Those would be very useful powers." "Yep! Super useful!" Ark celebrated. When he yawned, Blake knew he'd soon be off to sleep. Day 93. Near dawn, Blake awoke to the sound of footsteps. Realizing that he must have fallen asleep curled up in the remaining warmth between Ark and motel bedsheets, he woke his brother. "Someone is coming." Blake told him with a finger to his lips. "Don't move from this spot, okay?" Ark nodded, but his eyes were already filling with tears. Blake leaned forward on his hands, put an ear towards the open trunk, and listened. He filtered out the unimportant noises as he closed his eyes. Every raindrop. The sound of Ark's rapid breaths muffled by the sheets. The flapping of a nearby bird. The scurrying of a four-footed animal on the other side of the tree. Even an insect whose fast-fluttering wings nearly sounded like buzzing. Blake realized he recognized the tired footsteps shuffling through dry leaves. As they closed in on the other side of the trunk, he was sure there was no mistaking it. "It's okay, Ark!" Blake smiled. "It's safe! It's mom!" "Mommy?!" Blake watched as he fought his way out from under the blankets, kicked one of the pillows with his foot as he rushed out into the open. "Mommy!!" Ark cried as he rushed toward her. Blake couldn't contain himself and ran to her side too, immediately aware of his lip quivering. Their mother sobbed as she dropped to her knees, her belly pressing into Ark's face. They embraced each other as she kissed them noisily. "My boys. Oh, my sweet boys! Your father and I were terrified!" "Are you and the baby okay?" Blake asked. He remembered all too well how pale she'd been the last time they saw her. Just as well, their father's intense worry as they drove to Beckham's Motel. Last he'd heard, they were going to the hospital. "Yes. Mommy and the baby got a little sick and had to stay in the hospital until your sister was all better. Daddy was there with me the whole time, but we were so worried about you two." She kissed them again. "We had to leave the motel." Blake frowned. "It wasn’t safe anymore." "Yeah. Blake used his powers to get rid of Jake. I think he died." She looked at him with wide eyes. "Who is Jake?" "The bad man. Not everyone with Choco bars is good, momma." Ark shook his head in disappointment. Almost as if he was giving them much needed life advice. He was the only one almost tricked by a villian with chocolate. Blake felt tears threatening to fall but he wiped them away. "He said his name was Jake. He tried to get into the room but I wouldn't let him. He almost tricked Ark twice, but it was all my fault. The first time I didn't know he had left the room. Even though dad said we had to stay put. And then he broke the door and Super Sound blasted him away. He fell on the steps, but Ark's right. I think he died. I left a note." His mother pulled them in even tighter than before and kissed them again. When she looked back at them, tears slid down her cheeks. "I'm so sorry. None of this was your fault. You did so good, Blake. Protecting your brother. We should have been there." "Did you get my note?" Blake asked. "From the suitcase?" She gave a curt nod. "Yes. The door was broken in. Our things were there, untouched. We found your note. We probably missed you by hours, at most. Only..there wasn't anyone on the stairs." Blake's heart raced away in his chest. He tried not to speak since he was sure his voice would shake. He didn't want to scare Ark again. His stomach was in knots again. "To be more specific, there was no one at all. Not a single soul around. Even the lady who checked us in, according to daddy, was nowhere to be seen. It was too empty." "What does that mean? There weren't a lot of people, just a few guests other than us, I think. But..." "Your dad and I had a few guesses. It looked like someone might have been in a rush to clean up something, but you don't need to worry about that now. We had some car trouble, but we knew where you were headed. Daddy was fairly confident that you would avoid people until you made it here. He was so sure." A sad smile crept across her face. "You made it here safely, so I guess he was right. We split up to find you so all we have to do is sit still. Daddy will come and get us." "We did talk to one person." Blake admitted. "The clerk dad spoke to before. Where we got fruit." "The convenience store where you..picked up the diapers and Choco bar?" Their mother asked, clearly avoiding anything close to the word steal. "Yeah." Blake nodded. "But he won't tell because we spoke to him last time. And probably because of his nana, too." "His na--I see." His mother clicked her tongue. Blake wasn't sure she truly understood but she didn't ask for details. "He said that 'military-esque' men came looking for us." Blake cleared his throat. He tried to be careful with his words. Maybe if he said it right Ark wouldn't realize it was something more to fear. "Military..." His mother repeated quietly, her face showcasing her unease. As she opened her mouth to speak, their father's voice bellowed from the distance. "RUN!!!!" The panic and urgency shrouding his voice made them freeze. They looked at each other. Their mother scurried to her feet and pressed her palms to their backs, forcing them forward. "Run." She said in a harsh whisper. "As fast as you can." Ark had begun to pant long before they took off. In no particular direction, their soles crunched against the leaves, their surroundings lost to a blur. Eventually, Blake and Ark fell slightly behind their mother, too worried to be in front as she struggled. Her hands cupped her stomach. Following the same motion of her chest with every rise and fall. Blake couldn't focus his ears well as they cut between the trees. He wouldn't be able to figure out where their father was like this. Panic rattled around his insides. He watched puffs of his warm breaths clash against the cold air as he followed at his mother's back. How long would they have to run? Their mother couldn't keep this up forever. A quick whistling through the trees redirected his attention and Blake turned his head to look around them. He heard another, then another. The sharp noise chased after them, but he couldn't pinpoint their original direction. As Blake turned his head back ahead of him, intent on warning his mother that something was coming, his eyes caught a flicker of light. It shot passed him towards her. Too fast for him to utter a word. She staggered. Ark slowed to a stop, having realized that something was wrong. Blake called to his mother as she took a few more unsteady steps ahead of her and fell forward. Down a large, uneven slope. "Mommy!" Ark cried, as her body rolled to a stop. Their father's voice called out to her. Blake could see him closing the distance between them. Only, he wasn't alone. A shadow of a man creeped out from behind a tree. Ark tried to climb down the slope after their mother as Blake screamed a warning in his father's direction. "There's a man behind you!" He shouted. He could hear Ark below him, trying to force their mother awake. As he started towards them and down the drop, he paused. His father struggled with the shadow as several other voices cut in from behind. "Fuck me." A man cursed. The wind blew past them. Blake could feel his body shaking. Was their mother alright? Ark was crying uncontrollably now. Could Super Sound do it again? The thing that he'd done to Jake? Even if he could, this distance would be too much. He'd have to let them get closer. He fought to keep his head fixed in their father's direction. If he looked back towards their mother instead, he wasn’t sure what would happen. "I told you to be careful with your aim, stupid." Another sighed in frustration. Their silhouettes just becoming visible slightly further behind their father and the first stranger. Their father was on his knees now. His breathing labored. He sounded hurt. Blake reiterated it to himself: he couldn't reach them from so far away. "What if the baby dies?" "Wake up! Wake up please!" Ark shouted in a broken voice. "How was I supposed to know she'd fall down a hill in the middle of the forest? It's uncharted territory in the area. Literally." The other dismissed with a tone of annoyance. "Kuh!" The man in the back made a stifled noise as his father broke away from him. The guy sucked air between his teeth with a curse. "You mother--!" As he began to chase after him, one of the others stopped him. Blake and his father met eyes for an instant. Just enough time for him to register his panic and fear as he stumbled towards him. But his father's focus was behind him. He wanted, Blake knew, to check on their mother. "E-Eliza!" "Daddy! Mommy is--!" Ark called from the bottom. Blake tried to keep still as their father continued to try and cut their distance in half. His movements were abnormal. He couldn't put weight down on his other ankle properly. Was it bruised? Broken? "Right. The next time you get stabbed I'll let the guy go too." The first man scowled. Obviously unhappy that one of the other two intervened. "They're not going anywhere anyway. Mom's out cold and might need medical attention. Plus, the others are only a few minutes--" A series of beeps cut him off. "Speak of the devil." Blake made out the sound of shuffling closing in around them. A crisp jumble of quick footsteps and snapping twigs. Distinctly forming the shape of a crescent as they inched near. He was able to make it out that time, as the small pointed metal passed his face. The thing that made their mother fall just minutes ago. If he'd have blinked, he would have missed it. Their father crashed to the ground on his side. His trembling hand stretched out in his direction. Blake could only take a single step forward before he felt something sharp sting him in the neck. He turned around on dizzy feet. Ark's sobs stopped abruptly as he slumped over their mother's chest. Blake could feel his body swaying moments before he dropped on his back. His head hit the ground with a painful thud as the men's faces came into view above him. He opened his mouth to send them flying but his voice was nowhere to be found. Day ?? "Thought we'd take a little off the top for the company's pain and suffering. You know? You understand, don't you?" "A little off the top my ass! You stole everything!" Blake made out the sound of his father's anger-soaked voice. He didn't know the other person. "What did you expect to happen? You ran off with Alister's favorite toy. Pretty little E-dash-zero of all things. I can't knock your taste; I'll give you that. Besides, who do you think paid you most of that money? "Although, all things considered, it did take a while to weed you out. What's it been? Five. Six years? Did you think we wouldn't find you? We've practically got unlimited resources nowadays." Who was he talking to? Blake became vaguely aware of opening his heavy eyelids. Of turning his neck in the direction of their voices. His head ached. The movement made his tongue heavy and moist. Was he going to hurl? "Don't you dare talk about her like that! Her name is Eliza! Where is she?!" Their mother? Blake felt every time he closed his eyes to blink it became harder to open them again. His vision was unclear. "Right. Well, she hasn't been Eliza since the day she fell into Alister's clutches now, has she? But you knew that. My God. I forgot you actually went and married her, didn't you? Eloped. You didn't even tell me of all people. Alister wants to destroy you." "I didn't know whose side you were truly on, and it was dangerous. I couldn't give you the option to pick a side. What if you hadn't picked mine? Why are you doing this, Cayden?" Who was Cayden? Blake had never heard that name before. "Uh, because it's my job? Unlike you, I love it here. So, I guess I can't blame you for the lack of trust. And it pays well, so who can complain? Oh. Other than you, I mean." "Fuck you!" Blake could hear the quick movement of his father's feet as he rushed forward in his anger. Overlapping footsteps stomped from different corners of the room then paused abruptly, eventually receding. They weren't alone. Blake couldn't handle the extra nausea that came with moving his head, so he opted out of looking around to see them. There were a lot of people along the edge of the room. His father coughed painfully as Cayden's fist struck his abdomen. Blake watched his blurred form drop to his knees with a grunt. "Come now, Gabriel. Don't you see the odds aren't in your favor? Although if I know you at all, that's kind of your thing. Isn't it? Any one of these men could have decided to end you right there. To make you a red stain on an otherwise clean and polished floor. Hell, I'm showing off my favoritism just talking to you here." Blake didn't like the way he spoke. If it was favoritism, why didn't he just shut up then? As he watched, his vision cleared up. Only, not nearly enough. Was that thing some kind of dart? Was it poison? Super Sound wasn't immune to poison. Or at least, he was fairly sure. How should he know? He'd never been poisioned before. What if it wasn't? What was that stuff? Would he ever be able to see again? If he remembered correctly, in one of his comics there was a blind guy who retired from being a hero. He said all his senses strengthened when he lost his sight, even his hearing. Which is how he defeated a gang of intruders one winter night. If he went blind could his power get even stronger? What are you thinking? Blake chided himself. Being blind would be bad. Very, very bad. Especially in some place you've never been. He focused his attention back ahead of him. Ugh. He shouldn't have gotten carried away thinking about blind retired heros. It didn't help his head. More than that, what if he had missed something important while spacing out? Super Sound might not make it to his own retirement if he kept that up. "If I'm honest, the place has been such a dud without you. And you were so good at your job, you know? I even asked Al to let you back in. Even if it meant we had to chain you to the equipment and watch you 24-7. I wouldn't even attempt that for anyone else. "Although I don't know if he will accept my proposal under the circumstances, you know? You brought her back pregnant after all. He hates your guts. He probably wants to string them across his office like a garland. It's been 5 days since you got here. You're lucky he's still deciding." Did this man, Cayden, like his father or hate him? His father, having recovered from the earlier assault, edged forward on his knees. "I didn't 'bring' her back. You bastards hunted us down and dragged us here. With my fucking children, no less." He locked eyes with Cayden and blinked away the expression on his face, though it was still out of focus for Blake. He assumed at the very least, his father's face was deluged in anger. He watched as he quickly pressed his forehead to Cayden's shoe. Something he'd never seen him do before. "Fuck. I'm sorry. P-please! Listen. Eliza..the baby. Is our daughter alive? When you surrounded us Eliza took a nasty fall. Cayden, please!" Cayden recoiled with a look of unmistakable disgust. Disgust that quickly morphed into anger as he yanked his father to his feet by the collar. "What the fuck is wrong with you, Gabe?! Sorry? You're sorry?! Don't lie! You used to hunt, didn't you? Say it!! We hunted you like wild rabbits!! "You meant what you said. What do you think you're doing right now, huh?! Groveling to me like some weak, pitiful, insect? Are you a dog? Do you lick shoes for fun now??!" He shouted, shaking his father violently. Then, in the heat of his anger, he raked a flurry of hard blows across his face and threw him to the floor. Blake felt a rage building up in him as his blurred vision eyed the scene in front of him. He couldn't move his body. He couldn't make a sound. His attempts only fueled his nausea. He wanted to help his father. Wanted nothing more than to send this man flying across the room or somewhere else, like oblivion. Oblivion sounded good, even if he didn't exactly know what it was. Maybe that was a good thing. If everyone knew where the end was, it wouldn't be far enough. What had they done to him? Doesn't matter, Blake thought crossly. He's one of the bad guys. His father spat a line of blood out of his mouth then looked up in Cayden's direction again. Blake could see his face already beginning to swell. He could hear the sound of his quick, raspy breaths clearly from across the room. His fists opened and closed. His wrists scraped noisily behind him, chained by two thick, heavy chunks of metal. Some sort of handcuffs from the look of it. Blake wondered if he was also wearing them. He didn't know. His body was too heavy. Too numb. As many of the booted men along the walls snickered and made snide remarks as they watched the scene unfold between them, Cayden turned his anger on them. "Shut the fuck up you worthless pieces of shit!! This man is worth his weight in gold three times over! His pinky is worth more than the sum of your lives!!!!" The men fell silent, though many of them still grumbled their displeasure as Cayden passed them. He headed towards the double doors at the other end of the room. Blake listened to several beeps and a rhythmic jingle as he pressed buttons on a box near the doors. When they opened, Cayden paused and turned back to face them, eyeing his father, still seething. "E-0 was taken to the infirmary." The doors began to close and jolted to a stop, likely registering him on a sensor. "She retained minor bruises excluding her broken wrist, and a bump from the fall. That baby is fine, shockingly. Although I don't know what Alister plans to do about it." His father's head dropped backwards and he let out a shaky sigh of relief. Cayden didn't share his feelings. The rage on his face seemed to increase with every passing moment. "That stunt you pulled a minute ago? Don't you ever do that pitiful shit again. I don't know what happened to you out there while you were playing house, but that's not a version of you we can use. He's the one that gets you killed." He turned back around and stepped the rest of the way through the opening. "Hell, I'd probably kill him myself if I see him too often. Even if Alister doesn't." He jeered, and the doors shut smoothly behind him. Day 100. A large man with tawny skin fumed his way through the doors. He passed another booted stranger with a glare as he went. His hand scratched away at his trimmed beard as he tramped across the floor. Blake thought, if not for the endless noise, he might've been able to eavesdrop on the people around him. Especially the ones that strolled in and out of the double doors at all hours of the day. Not that he had a good concept of time in the well-lit building, but he would have known what was bothering him. Maybe, he'd even have made better sense of the other men as well. Truthfully, Blake would rather hear some news of his family than listen to any random bit of information he could otherwise acquire had he been less bothered. He hadn't seen his father since the heated exchange with Cayden. In fact, save for a few similarly dressed men with rock hard expressions and little words, he'd seen no one. The man with the dark hair and copper glasses was the first face he'd seen wearing an actual readable expression in front of him since he found himself behind the bars of his current boxed space. "Hurry up my ass." The man scoffed bitterly. Blake swallowed. Mustered up his courage to try and talk to him after days of radio silence from the others. "What's wrong?" He asked as he looked over the man's clothes. Like the others before him, he wore all black attire. Save for his colored glasses and a blue-pocketed belt around his waist. He flicked his thumb across the corner of his mouth repeatedly, then frowned deeper. "Can't smoke in here." He seemed to say more to himself than to Blake. "You got any friends?" He asked. Blake nodded. "Well, you're a kid so you probably don't know it yet, but not everyone is your friend. There's different levels to it. That's why we give people labels. So, we can distinguish between the ones we like, hate, and anything in-between. There are people in this world that will stab you in the back. Some people are just jerks. Some hate you secretly. "Hell, even the ones you save could stab you in the front-end while they look into your cold, dead eyes, and sleep like a baby the next day. You'll learn that lesson when you're older. We all do." He stopped talking with a groan then shook his head. Blake was only certain that the man was bothered. Why did he bring up friendship? Why death? Had someone betrayed him? "We have to get going. You've got somewhere to be, apparently, and I'm your escort." Blake didn't know what he was talking about, but he was afraid to go. Maybe it was worse than the cage with the constant hum. He'd seen how they treated his father and last he'd seen him, he wasn't even in one. Besides that, he still felt drowsy. His body was heavy, and it felt like he had water in his ears. Still, his mind was clear enough. And right then, he was attempting to use it. Blake recalled the conversation in the car with his father the day they met the foggy-glasses clerk betting on sports games from the radio. He'd said "talking to people can do a lot of things. It can give you information about people and how they are feeling--It can even buy you time in an uncertain or dangerous situation." Now seemed as good a time as any. They were alone, and this guy, Swanson as per the shiny name tag, was already talking. "Is Alister hard to get along with?" Swanson paused, squinting behind his glasses. "What do you know of him? I've only seen the guy once, but damn right. He's all of the list and then some. Bastard thinks he's better than everyone, too. "You don't have to be around him long to realize he's a sick one either, but being a psycho must pay well since he heads all this lettuce." He gestured to the space around them then leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. "If I didn't need the money and hadn't owed a favor, I'd have left this dump my first day here last week. Or never shown up at all." "I've never met him. I've only heard his name. In my comic books, we call people like that a villain. Is he a bad guy?" Swanson laughed, amused. "He is in my book. I'm sure I'm not the only one with that edition, eh? Then again, I don't think anyone in this line of work belongs exclusively to the light." Blake shook his head. "My dad isn't a bad man and he's here. Used to work here..?" He wasn't sure which was most relevant to their conversation. In any case, he knew his father was a good man. That wasn't up for question. Swanson gave him a long look and clicked his tongue. "Well, I wouldn't know him. I just got here. Who knows? Your dad might be a white knight in this place." He cleared his throat and scratched his head. "So, you like superheroes and comic books, eh? I used to love that kind of stuff when I was a kid. What do you like? Got any favorites?" Blake nodded. He was fairly sure this conversation was going well. At the very least, Swanson smiled at him now. That, and he hadn't stopped talking yet. "I like to read Captain Bubble, Canine, and The Invisible Spark. Sometimes I watch Gyre Power on tv. And I like Black Diamond too, even though everyone says that's for girls." "Black Diamond, eh? Sounds like a hot chick. Is she hot?" Swanson smirked, rubbing his hands together. Blake shrugged. "I don't know." "Damn, you must be young. You look it." He shifted on his feet against the wall. "I got it. What kind of suit does she wear, this Black Diamond hero?" Blake thought back to the images, not entirely sure what importance it had but didn't mind it so long as he kept talking. Maybe he could stay there the rest of the day if he kept him going long enough. "A black leather suit. With gold and blue jewelry and stuff. And her weapon is made out of diamonds." Swanson clutched his hand closed and clicked his tongue triumphantly. "Hell yeah. A leather suit with blue and gold accents? And she's loaded? Hot. I knew it. She's a babe. Bonus points if she's deadly. How good is she at getting the bad guys?" "She's really good, actually." Blake bobbed his head. He was being honest. Black Diamond was probably the most capable lady hero he'd seen. It was his personal opinion that she made even better known heroes look like amateurs. Of course, Super Sound aimed to one day surpass her in the hero business. The box near the door beeped twice and flashed green. It really was the same kind Cayden used when he abused his father. Even if this one didn't play a beepy tune. The large doors slid open and another man, dressed similarly to Swanson, shook his head at them. "Yo, Swanson! What's the hold up? You were supposed to bring W3 for a check-up 10 minutes ago." "I dozed off," Swanson lied. "What are you gonna do?" "You don't look sleep to me." The man scoffed. "Because that stupid door beeping woke me up, asshat." "I told them they need to get rid of the old guys." The man shook his head. "You already losing your memory, old man? We have to get moving! Put today's code in. I'm not getting docked for you." "What do you mean today's? And fuck you, you infant. I'm 35. What are you even? 13? Do you even have hair on your sack yet?" The man stomped over to them, slid down a black matte cover from a keypad on the outer column, clicked an asterisk, then angrily stabbed a series of buttons. Blake read the name on his chest. Reede. "The fucking codes change every week, grandpa." He glared at Swanson as he turned around. The constant hum finally slowed to a stop. Almost a dream come true, if only Blake was allowed to stay there and sleep instead. A few seconds later, the bars quickly disappeared into a space above his head. "And I'm 19, for the record. Move your asses. Now!" He tipped his head to one side then the other as he pitched his voice higher. "You even have hair on your sack yet?" Reede mocked. Swanson watched him go towards the doors and flicked him off when he wasn't looking, motioning for Blake to follow. "Right. 19. So, that's a no on the sack then!" He looked down at Blake and raised an eyebrow with a wink. "Apparently even the young ones are screwed too, eh?" Blake found something about their interactions amusing but he was much too afraid to laugh. Where were his parents? Was Ark okay? What was going to happen to them? Where were they taking him? Day 102. "I came bearing gifts like the wise men and that little shit tried to turn me away." Blake eyed several men as they walked through the door from his place in the corner. He slowly crawled forward to get a better look, almost certain he knew that voice. "When that didn't work, he nearly rendered me deaf. For three days I couldn't hear shit. And I had a concussion. Don't get me started on the rest. It was ugly business. I told them to do something about his mouth, but apparently my word's not good enough." The man, who once claimed the name Jake, strode towards Blake as he spoke. His heart pounded painfully. He could clearly see his silver bangs now. On his face, he sported a new pair of sunglasses. A dark smile spread across his lips as he slid them up his forehead to reveal his light brown eyes and peered down at him. When their eyes met, Blake thought he'd have to clutch his soul to keep it from leaving his body. He blinked away his disbelief. Super Sound had made a rookie mistake. He hadn't made sure the villain was dead. The dead don't talk. Or at least, he didn't think they did. He eyed the tag on his shirt. Willow. Blake knew it the day he saw him. His name totally wasn't Jake. Still, it couldn't have been good that Jake-not-Jake was alive and well. Especially now that he was there in front of him, clearly healed up like new and still sending chills down his spine. Save for the man's words and his own memory, Blake had no indication that their motel showdown ever happened. Why was that? Where were his scars? His broken bones? Worse than seeing him was knowing he remembered their entire encounter. His fall to the stairs hadn't been enough to make him forget what happened. Nor did it instill fear in him that would keep him from opening his big mouth in the first place. He fit the expression too well, this 'Jake-not-Jake.' This Willow was a wild card. They don't exactly teach you how to deal with those in the comic books. Blake registered the annoyance that poked its head out from beneath his blanket of fear. He had been worried about him that day, and haunted by his image. Now, as he stood in front of him, Blake wished nothing more than to go back in time. For Willow to have never been capable of peeling himself off those cold, metallic steps of Beckham's Motel. "Willow, sir. It looks like he doesn't like you." One of the others laughed from behind him. Sir? Was he important? Even more reason, Blake thought to himself, that it would have been better for him to have never returned. Had Ark seen him? He hoped not. "I'd say so." Willow flashed him a dark but entertained smile as he leaned in towards the bars in front of him. "The feeling is mutual, little shit." Blake imagined grabbing him by his ears and ramming his face against the bars. Maybe it would break whatever was causing the hum if he did it right. In reality, of course, he knew he was too weak to do it even if he tried. And it probably wasn't a good idea either way. He was locked in a cage-room. Totally at a disadvantage. "What happened to your ear anyway?" Blake frowned as he looked him over again. His left ear had a sizable chunk missing from the top. Curved and jagged. Almost as if it had been bitten off. "Mr. Jake-not-Jake?" His words must have struck a nerve. Williow's face fell dark as he grabbed hold of the bars and his sunglasses fell noisily back over his eyes. Blake could hear the sizzle and broken pop pattern as smoke rose up from his hands. His body jerked, but his twisted smile didn't fade. The men behind him took an uncomfortable step backwards. "Sir, let go of the bars. You'll be killed!" One warned. Willow didn't listen, assuming he could. He didn't spare them a glance. Blake swallowed as he saw his hair jut out from its proper place. A peculiar smell filled his nose and Blake realized with every jerk of Willow's arms; he was being shocked. There was no possible way that he wasn't in pain. "Sir!!" The other called. Both hesitated to touch him. "We can't let you touch W-3. Alister's orders!" Again, with the strange title. They'd done it with his mother too. What were they calling his father? His baby brother? They couldn't open the cage. Which meant Willow would continue to be shocked. It disturbed him to be watching, but somehow Blake couldn't turn his eyes away. Especially with Willow's glasses trained on him. Almost as if he were daring him to be afraid. Instead, they rushed out of the room, informing them that they would return with help and a medic, as quickly as possible. Blake got the feeling that this man, with the chilling smile, would not die so easily. Willow, as far as Blake was concerned, was crazy. And crazy normally didn't. In this case, he definitely hadn't died the first time. The question now: How much of Willow's crazy was going to pose a problem for his escape? Not that Blake had it all figured out yet. In fact, he had very little figured out at all. Day 104. Swanson shut the doors and quickly shuffled over to the bars, peeking away occasionally. When he stood across from Blake, he sat down on the floor with a childish sway to his movements. The smile on his face and the glint in his eye revealed the level of excitement his large frame couldn't openly display. "Check it out. I got a surprise for you, kid." Blake scurried forward, putting his hands on the bars. The steel bars zapped his palms. With a grimace, Blake quickly pulled his hands towards his chest and took a step backwards. Swanson cursed under his breath and a part of his glee faded away with it. "Don't touch those things. They'll fry you quick. It increases every time it registers touch within seconds of each other. Although holding them won't get you any better result than playing hot-and-cold with it." Blake thought back to Jake, aka Willow, with a slight nod. He knew as much. He'd witnessed it first-hand. "Look there." Swanson motioned to a long horizontal piece the bars of the enclosure attached to towards the polished floor. "There's about a quarter of an inch between the floor and the base. I'll pass it under there." Blake nodded, crouched down, and carefully pulled the booklet inside. In his hands he held the first issue of Canine. He looked up towards him after admiring the cover. Swanson gave a series of short, quick nods. The man looked very pleased with himself. Blake could almost see the glint in his eyes shining past his lenses. "I figured we could pass some time like this. Since I'll be keeping watch over you for a while." He pulled out another book, held it up to his chest, and pointed at it. "I even got this one." He said, a shaky smile slowly forming across his lips again, betraying the rest of his composure. He smiled back himself as he eyed Black Diamond's powerful pose on the front. Blake wanted to be happy about this moment without reservations, but he couldn’t. What if this was simply a ploy from Alister or whomever else? What if Swanson was doing this for some nefarious purpose? To trick him into trusting him? To use him? Maybe that didn't matter. After all, he used Swanson to stall for time before. It wasn’t as if things were getting better in the cage. The noise never stopped so he couldn’t sleep. Blake was sure he could read anything a million times a night if it would pass the time. Especially comic books. At least this was something he liked. And he did need more time. Time to figure out how things worked there, to gather information, and plan his next move. That was the kind of thing superheroes had to master if they were captured. Besides, even if it turned out to be true that Swanson was simply trying to build his trust and use him, how would it really matter? Right now, Blake himself was willing to do the same thing. He wondered if he had to lie to do it. Even though he managed with the clerk in the convenience store, he didn’t like it any more than he had when he did it to Ark. So much for hoping he would never have to do it again. But maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t have to. At least, maybe not to Swanson. Day 106. "Sound has to reach roughly 105 decibels to shatter glass. 150 to burst an eardrum." "And your son? How does he do?" "I don't know." Blake looked across the room from his place in the bed. Rhythmic beeping sounds overlapped each other. His father stood next to Cayden, eyeing him sadly, their bodies partially blocking a large computer screen from his view. He could see the hint of his face, a graph, and words too small to read from the distance. He wanted to talk, but the thing the men before them stuck in his mouth forced him to silence. "What do you mean you don't know?" Cayden scoffed as he followed his father to something on another side of the room. "I mean, I don't have a damn clue." "And you actually believe I'm going to believe you?" "Fuck you and whatever you believe!" His father hissed. Blake still wanted to send him to oblivion, this Cayden. He struck a wounded man to the face and dropped him like he had meant nothing. Even though his leg, from the sound of his father's footsteps, was all better now, and so too the swelling from his face. Even though Cayden also said that his father was worth gold. Blake didn’t understand him, but he didn't like him either. "Fuck you too, Gabe. Come on, even if you never actually did it, there's no way you weren't curious. You mean to tell me that you never, not even once, wanted to study him? You know? Never once felt that itch?" "He's been a kid as much as I could let him. Some itches you just don't scratch, Cayden." "Bullshit. You know, I bet you did. Of course, you did?" His father slammed him against the machines whirling and beeping behind them. Tracking some sort of data and feeding it into the computers. Blake's heart jumped as his father's voice dropped, as cold as winter. "Did you not hear what I just said? Do you think being my son is a joke? This is the problem with you! Back the fuck off! I said I'm not doing it! You can try to make me but it'll be over my cold, dead, body!" Cayden raised his hands in the air, a gesture of submission, and shook his head. "You're right. It's the same reason I didn’t end up being found, living in the middle of a forest. Some fucking father of the year you are." "I will end you." His father spat, smacking him against the machines again. They shook in unison. Blake willed them to fall. They didn't. He wished he had telekinesis. Maybe in another life. Sometimes heroes got those. "Look. This is more complicated, you know? If you can think about killing me, and I've been helping you, your head's not on straight. There you go again with that pitiful bullshit." "Are you telling me not to think like a father? Not to care about my family and my kid?! You are helping me now, is that it? But you also helped them find us. Don't you start with this trust bullshit today. You don’t have a family to protect!" Cayden flinched at his words. He struggled to loosen his father's grip. "That's why I'm saying your head's not in it! You said over your dead body. That's the truth, isn't it? If you aren't useful, you fucking die. Alister still wants you dead. His hatred clouds his judgement! Don't let being a father cloud yours in the middle of a goddamn minefield! You know? Your son is in the same spot!" Blake watched a shadow fall over his father's features as some realization hit him. He glanced in his direction looking more than wounded. With a tone heavy with misery, he stepped away from Cayden and stopped in front of Blake on the bed. He gritted his teeth and dropped his head as he lightly stroked his face. "You bastard. Why didn't you just come out and say it? You gave me all that shit about not saying what I meant.." Cayden straightened his clothes and cleared his throat. "You're just having a hard time hearing. If you had your son's ears that wouldn't be a problem." Blake wanted to ask him what was wrong. He hated the look on his face and the tears filling his eyes as he looked at him. And he still hated Cayden. He wasn’t sure he was helping them at all. He heard his words but didn't understand him well enough. "You're saying that it could be over my dead body or his. That if I don't do it, if I don't test my son and give Alister the information he wants, someone else will." What kind of test? What did Alister want? Blake wanted to know how they could escape. Where was his mother? Where was Ark? He was probably terrified right now. In this large, endless building with booted strangers, alone like he'd never been before. "I'm so sorry, kiddo." His father closed his eyes. "I'm so sorry. I wish I could have your ears. I wish I could take your place." Blake's eyes shook painfully in his sockets as his father fed something from a syringe into his I.V. He quickly lost focus and a threaded darkness surrounded his vision. They continued to swipe across his father's figure like pen marks to a detested photo until he couldn't see him or anything anymore. "Good choice." Cayden's voice arose, sounding far away and garbled. Like he'd been speaking underwater. Blake hated that it was the last thing he heard. Why had he almost sounded impressed? He thought that if he could see him, Blake would have found a smile spread across his lips. Day 110. At some point, Blake could no longer feel excitement when he was wheeled in the bed, chained at the wrists, and brought into laboratory 6 where his father and Cayden were waiting for him. They never got to speak. His father's eyes glossed over into a nothingness, and his tone gave nothing away. He never asked Blake how he was doing. It was almost enough to question if he had really stood up for him that day with Cayden after all, or if he had simply imagined it. Every time, Blake had only a handful of minutes to take in his surroundings. To peep a few sentences from the open tabs on the computer screen, and then be sent into an etched-out darkness. Only to wake up an unknowable time later, back in the humming cage. The sore veins, a pricked finger, and a few new band aids were all that remained from his time there. That, and the headache that he suffered for several hours upon waking. He tried to think positively. At least he was resting in a way. He didn't feel so exhausted after the drowsiness wore off. And, he knew that his father was okay. That Alister, whoever he was, hadn't decided he wasn’t useful. But aside from his conflicting emotions concerning his dad, Blake was anxiously awaiting news about Ark, or their mother. He didn’t like the knowing. And it was at precisely that time, when he was raking his brain on how to find out, that Blake saw an opportunity. Swanson, for whatever reason, was not in the chair across from him. He eyed the stranger, who looked much too like all the rest, snoring with his head rested against the wall. He couldn’t see his nametag clearly. He called to him, anyway, echoing a "Mr." in the most child-like voice he could muster. Eventually, when he finally stirred, the man walked towards a squirming Blake. He pressed a hand towards his legs and the other behind his butt. In a similar way to what he once saw Ark do. His little brother had been even younger then. "What?" The man asked with a hint of annoyance. "I'm sorry mister but I have to go, really bad." "You can't hold it for another hour? I'm trying to catch some Zs." Blake made a show of squirming again and shook his head furiously. "Damn it." He mumbled under his breath and jabbed the keypad with his thumb. "It's hard enough to sleep under these damn lights." The cage's sounds faded to silence and the bars disappeared above him as they always did. Blake tried not to scoff. He complains after hours. Meanwhile, he himself had been stuck behind bars like he'd committed a crime. Blinded by the same lights every day without end, trying to keep his sanity intact in spite of the annoying hum. He almost welcomed the looming unconsciousness laboratory 6 would afford him. Swanson had tried sharing some eye band he was using a couple times, but the noise was so loud it chased away Blake's exhaustion. Nowadays, Swanson came prepared with an arsenal of goods to watch him. Where was he anyway? It was probably for the best. If he'd been the one watching him now, Blake wasn’t sure he would feel up to putting the plan he had into action. It was easier than he suspected, duping a sleepy booted man into a trip to the bathroom and rendering him unconscious with the sound of his voice. Even though Blake understood nothing about the mechanics. He just pretended to stumble, waited until the man bent his head down towards him, and put his mouth to his ear. He almost wished he could ask his father about it as he struggled to pull the man into a stall. Super Sound needed a sidekick for moments like these. Maybe someone who could slinky any of those booted oafs into a stall without difficulty, so he'd never have to do it. Or strong enough to break through the bars of his cell and stroll out the doors without breaking a sweat. Blake looked at the nametag and read the name. Tyler. He nudged him with his toes as a trickle of blood slid out the man's ear and to the floor. He shook his head as he unclipped the man's access card, locked the door, climbed out the stall, and exited the bathroom. Super Sound would be rendered the sidekick if ever a man like that existed beside him. He couldn't step out of a person's shadow as big as that. He'd probably end up nameless. That wasn’t going to work. How could he expect Super Sound to one-up Black Diamond if he was swallowed up in someone else's shadow? Blake shivered as he peeked around the corner. The floors were cool under his feet. Colder than in his cell. A part of him wanted to go back to the bathroom, huddle up in a stall, and take a rest in the absence of the hum. He let the thought pass. It was possible that he wouldn't have another opportunity like this. There was a clock on the wall diagonal to his current position. It was 3am. He ducked back towards the bathroom and focused on the space around him. He hadn't seen anyone yet, but he could hear talking in the distance. And a soft whirling sound, overlapping at slightly different intervals nearby. It didn’t take long to realize they were the sounds of cameras. He needed to get a closer look. Blake expected more men to be guarding the halls at that time of the night, but he soon realized why it probably wasn’t necessary. He eyed the large round glass with a series of lenses behind it as he pressed his body against the wall and tip toed in the opposite direction than where Tyler had brought him. The camera followed. Flashing a menacing red in the middle. Blake tested the device, and even tried to escape to what seemed like a blind spot underneath it. When the dot disappeared, only to reappear larger right above his head, Blake shuddered. Creepy. And totally not safe. Blake realized how crazy it was for him to have any plan in his head about a place he'd hardly seen. And with a series of freaky stalker cameras along the walls, without a man on the inside to hide your movements, or some electric superpowers, sneaking around was out of the question. A heavy dread swept over him; anxiety close behind. Just minutes ago he thought he needed a sidekick. Now he knew why superheros worked in teams. He needed a group. His own arsenal of capables just to get out of there. What does a superhero do when their plan is not an option? Blake sighed and pushed himself off of the wall. They wing it. What choice did he have? The reality was, he might have been caught already. But if that was the case, why wasn't he rounded up by the bootmen? Either they were laughing, enjoying the show like that had the day Cayden struck blows to his father's face, knowing there was no escape, or maybe they weren't doing their jobs. Someone was off getting a snack, or maybe even dozing off. Even Tyler was attempting it before. Blake made up his mind. His bare feet tapped quickly and quietly across the floor. His ears could steer him away from people, even if he could do nothing about the cameras. He would just try to take in as much information as possible and get a good look around. Maybe he'd stumble upon a few exits that they could use to escape in his next plan. Whatever that was going to be. In the back of his mind, Blake thought about what he would do if he really found an exit. Could he make it out the doors and find his way to freedom? No. Probably not. And even if he could, his family was still inside somewhere. Or at least he was pretty sure they were. Likely trapped behind a door or another set of bars in the seemingly endless, nearly identical hallways. Just as he was rounding another corner, Blake heard the sound of a familiar voice. He scurried backwards and pressed his body to a corner as doors slid open. Two men with their arms full exited. "Just throw one of the boxes down there. I'm tired of using the card to open it with my arms full every time." "But protocol.." the other began. "No one cares about that in the middle of the night. Most of the guys are living it up in the rooms right now. Lester brought back a bunch of goodies from his last trip. While we are stuck here slinging boxes. If we hurry up, we can get something before it's all gone. Or are you saying you want to miss out?" "I missed the last two guys bringing stuff back too." "Exactly. So just leave it. We're going right around the corner dipshit." The first ordered as their voices drifted further away. Blake supposed that answered that. He didn’t know who Lester was. Nor did he care, but he'd given him an opening. And because of him, apparently no one was watching the cameras tonight. Even side characters have their uses. Though, Blake was cautious. Blessings in the villain's lair never lasted. He followed the familiar sounding voice to the other side of the doors. He walked around stacks of boxes with sticker labels, detail numbers and words he couldn’t begin to understand. Past a large desk and swivel chairs to a old chunky box in the corner. A fuzzy video played on the screen. Behind it, a wall with a solid white bottom and large glass windows. He could just make out the image of several other men on the other side. "What are we even looking for in this mess?" "Some damn video for the boss upstairs. Who even has VCRs anymore?" "Alister is old-fashioned. Of course, he wants to watch old movies." "Will you two shut up? I'm trying to get out of here." Some mixture of arguments and complaints ensued as Blake caught the shadow of the first two men skate across the glass. He ducked behind the desk as they loaded their arms up again. As they went out again, Blake realized the voice he knew was coming from the video ahead of him. It was his mother. He could just make her out in the dark corner of the screen. She was wearing a long dress. Her hair, too, was much longer than he'd ever seen it before. Someone, out of view of the camera, called to her. A slither of her face caught the light. "A friend?" His mother's voice sounded small and insecure. It didn’t hold the same presence as it did today. Still, he was sure it was her. He'd heard her voice all his life after all. "Yes. I want you to be happy, E-0. You're better when you're happy. The light's going out of your eyes again. And that won't do. So you can pick one from the laboratories downstairs. Any one you want." Blake watched his mother's face bathe in the yellow light in the room as a man's hand turned her face from one side to the other. There was a visible open scar across her cheek and a line of blood dripped to her shoulder and stained her dress. Blake stomach churned. His mother's eyes looked empty. As hollow as the tree trunk he and Ark huddled inside those days in the forest, waiting to be found. The man was right. Light reflected in her irises, but caught nothing. As if they were the eyes of a new doll. The video ended there. And when the men came back to grab another arm full of boxes, Blake ducked out from under the desk and made his way back to the hallway. He felt an unnatural sense of urgency as he followed the halls further away. It took everything he had not to shout after his mother. Where was she? Locked away in this fortress of a building. Behind one of those doors? Which one? His thoughts became more jumbled and panic stricken as his feet slapped against the floors. At some point, he stopped caring about being stealthy. He wasn’t so careful with his path or to keep away from the voices on the other side of the doors. He didn’t understand what the video was, why it was taken, or what it meant. He only knew that it was that place, or one just like it, that was responsible for that nothingness behind her gaze. They had been there for too long already. He needed to find her and the rest of his family. And as if by luck, or by curse, Blake bumped into a booted man. One accompanied by a woman marking something off a board in her hands, and Ark. His wrists weighed down with the same heavy metal cuffs he'd seen on his father after their capture. As their eyes met, Ark's eyes bubbled with tears, and he immediately crashed into Blake's stomach. His sobs echoed through the hallway; his words muffled by something in his mouth. Blake only had moments to embrace him before the booted stranger, with the ugly spiked hair, struck his face with his fist. For a moment, Blake thought he'd been sent to oblivion instead. Day 118. A series of events followed the day of Blake's temporary escape. Several, of particular importance. First, Blake awoke with a raging headache and a very tender blackened eye. He had no clue where Ark was taken but he had heard several complaints as he was wheeled through the dizzyingly florescent hallways of a little brat that kept biting everyone. A problem that immediately got worse after the day's events. It was then that Blake understood why his brother's mouth had been closed. He figured maybe Ark's questions had started it, but turns out he had been fighting in his own way. On the one hand, it was impressive. On the other, very worrying. That spikey haired bootman didn’t hesitate to punch him square in the face. What about his little brother? The thought of them touching a single hair on his head made his mind haze with fury. That was, until his conscious mind was swallowed by nothingness. The next time Blake remembered anything, he'd heard his father and Cayden. Arguing in harsh whispers about what would happen when Alister realized he had altered the data. Which would, according to Cayden, happen sooner rather than later. His father's words, besides something directed at Blake's bruised face, floated away from him like a dream. At just the moment that his father, given Cayden's audible reaction, punched a sizable whole through one of the computer screens in the laboratory. The time after, Blake's wrists and ankles were dreadfully weighed down by large cuffs. Identical to those he'd last seen on Ark. He was shoved into an unfamiliar room with even more unfamiliar people. Dressed in white coats, comparing something on charts to the rest of him. Soon to be strapped to a chair, loaded up from syringes, in a dark room no one else would enter. Wires connected to everywhere he could see, practically glowing in the dark, were his only company. Save for the voice on the speaker that asked him questions that he never knew if he answered. The voice became quieter every time it spoke. Until it was practically not there at all. Blake had been glad to be out of the light, but he'd had the faintest feeling that he had some reason to be worried. What followed the eventual disappearance of the voice in the dark room was only disaster. Blake could hardly recognize his own thoughts in the moments of silence. All short lived. The black box soon became his own living hell. An uncountable number of distinct noises and sounds of every day life bounced around the room. Each one louder than the next. And more painful than the last. Until a sickness overcame him, and he cried. Until vomit burned its way up his throat and his eyes rolled to the back of his head, finally ending his torment. Only to repeat again and again. Encouraged by the speaker's voice, between questions he no longer understood. For an endless time. To the point that Blake almost no longer knew that Super Sound ever existed at all. Day 122. It took several days for the fog in Blake's mind to lift. To recognize that he was back in the place he'd started, behind the bars of the steel-caged room. At first, he didn't even hear the hum. Swanson was back. Assuming he wasn't hallucinating, of course. Blake was vaguely aware of something like that. Some memory teasing his consciousness. Something recent.. A conversation about comics and heroes and villains. Of the mystery man Alister's head on a spike, roasted over a fire by Jake-no. Willow's hand. The entire building melted away like warm ice cream. Into a sizable puddle. Not unlike Captain Bubbles the time he was tricked by Spike. There was more, he was certain, but couldn't make it out. "Kid?" Swanson called from the other side of the bars. The free side. Or so it was supposed to be. The expression on his face made Blake think that he was the one trapped inside instead. He felt a kind of pity for him but it soon got lost in the thickness swimming through his veins. It both terrified and disgusted him. Blake didn't know what they'd been giving him, but it felt foreign and intrusive. A sneaky nano culprit, altering his body chemistry. Stealing his functions away. Probably to control him. Blake looked at Swanson weakly. Had he always been a twin? God. Why couldn't they stay still when they spoke? "It's the first time you reacted to anything I said since they brought you back." His voice was distorted by his double. Their voices overlapped at the wrong intervals. "I met your father recently." He continued. "When he thought I was responsible for your black eye." Blake wished one of them would shut up so he could hear. "Dad..?" A small, dry voice asked. It sounded like his own, sort of. It took time to register that it had been. "Your father's ballsy, eh? Seems like." Swanson smirked. "Maybe." Blake shrugged. Or at least, attempted to. He wasn't sure he ever moved his shoulders. "I did some digging. Your mom's E-0 right?" "No!" Blake shouted, making his ears ring. Swanson winced. "Eliza. Don't call her that." He fumed, though he hadn't meant to yell. "Shhh!" Swanson cursed. "Keep it down, boy. The security's tight as is. Since your little escape." Swanson explained. "I get it. Got it. Eliza, then. Though apparently that's what they call her in here. She had a baby recently, right? A little girl. Couple weeks ago, I think." "Mom had the baby..?" Cayden's words came back to him then. Alister hadn't decided what to do about it. He'd made it sound like he had a bad plan in mind. Blake remembered that. His mind battled the heaviness in his head. He felt sharps pains attack him from the inside. He could hear himself whine. His mother had the baby in that terrible place. "H-hey, don't cry." Swanson said, his hand zapped from the bars. Blake couldn't tell if his arms were moving towards his face to check or not. Was he crying? "Listen. In a few days, we might have a shot. I don’t know if everything I heard about you is true, but it doesn't matter right now. On the third day, you can't take the medicine. Whatever you do. Fight it." Last time he got in trouble, they sent him to the box. Blake didn’t want to go there again. "To the box again? No..please." Thinking was painful. He wanted to stop thinking. "The box? What box? Did they put you in something last time? Don't worry, eh? Wherever they put you, if they do, I'll find you and bring you out." "I don't know days." Blake attempted to explain his loss of time. He didn't know one from the next. How was he supposed to know what to do or when? He didn't even know when they gave him medicine. Had they done that today already? What about his family? "I'll be here. You listen for me and I'll tell you. I'll count them up." Swanson offered. "They've gotta come in the middle of the night and top it off." Was it a trap? What difference would it make if it was? Blake couldn't ask another question. He couldn't try to make sense of anything else anymore. And listening to both of them was numbing his mind. Or maybe the pain was doing that? He didn't know anymore. In what felt like seconds, the world was swallowed up behind Blake's eyes until there was nothing left. Day 123. "One." Swanson's voice echoed out into the nothingness around him. Blake wasn’t sure if he'd ever opened his eyes that day. For all he knew, the world could have come to an end. Was it a consequence of the medicine or his time in the box? Day 124. "Two." He definitely never opened his eyes. Nope. That wasn't it that time. A temporary blackout? At least according to a fitful curse on the other side of his cage room. Had there always been someone on the other side? Blake knew it was really happening now. Or at least, that something would. It was easier now, somehow, to pinpoint the sounds nearby. Even though the medicine still filled his veins. Blake heard the sounds of heels clacking away towards the doors. Fifty-two heels to the exit, though he didn't exactly remember counting them. He heard Swanson shifting in the corner. Could almost see his shape outlined in the dark. "Right on time." Swanson's low tone suggested a mixture of pride and relief. Day 125. "Three." At the sound of Swanson's deep voice, Blake felt as if his entire body was on fire. Heated like a gas flame whose knob had turned too quickly. Swanson's words echoed through his head. Whatever you do, don't take it.Fight it, he'd told him. He would fight. He had to. Super Sound had to. If it wasn’t a trap, this might've been the last opportunity he had in the making. There was something in his mouth. And a band around his head. His eyes shot open. Blake made out the woman with the familiar footsteps. Accompanied by four men he didn't recognize. She smiled in his direction. He didn’t know if it was genuine. Or even if he wanted it to be considering the woman was walking towards him with a double syringe. Blake wasn’t confident he could take on them all in his current state. He tried to force a whistle past whatever was obstructing his mouth as words or screams weren't an option. Nothing. They'd expected, as per the woman's words, that he wouldn’t wake up as always. The smile on her face had been mostly one of surprise. She didn’t seem worried, even though only his chest was strapped in place. How lucky for him. He would make them regret it. As the woman came closer Blake lashed out like a madman. He kicked her in the chest, hard. She cried out and dropped the syringe. The needles broke and bounced off the floor. The containers cracked but didn’t break open. The men in boots wasted no time to charge at him. Before they could secure him, or maybe punch him unconscious as he'd experienced recently, Blake wrapped his fingers around the I.V. tubes in his left arm and yanked it as hard as he could like he'd seen in the movies. He felt his face contort and a broken whimper escaped his shaking lips. He blinked, trying to will his mind to the other side of his pain. To the place where it wouldn’t hurt anymore. Or at least, that he would be more capable of ignoring it. The second whimper told him that it wasn’t working. He felt blood running down his arm but still reeling from the forced out I. V., didn’t manage to get a good look at it. What followed was a colorful amount of curse words, fumbling about, and the woman scrambling to do something about his arm. They forced his arms under the straps while she fixed him up and two of the men slammed his legs back down and held them still. He should have known better. The stunts on tv didn’t prepare him for this. No one ever bled that much when they ripped out their I. Vs on television. No one said how painful it was. It was better now than the first 30 seconds but there were still lingering sharp pains, throbbing, and the memory of almost passing out the moment he'd done it. Blake eyed the broken syringe. At least he didn’t take the medicine. She'd have to get a new one, or transfer the contents, assuming it was possible to do. For the moment, he accomplished the goal, but what about now? How was he going to keep it that way? As he began to wonder how he was supposed to take out four beefy guardsmen in leather boots and the medicine lady in the current situation, Blake saw a figure dart past him. The two men responsible for tucking his arms hardly had time to struggle before they dropped noisily to the floor. By the time Blake's brain registered the familiarity of Swanson's form, he had already taken care of the other two men at his feet. He wasn't sure what impressed him most, the short time it took him to deal with four men, or how light the sound of his movements was. The woman squealed and Swanson tutted at her. "Quietly finish up with him. No medicine. Then you wait here without a word, or I'll deal with you like one of these annoying men, eh?" The woman bobbed her head quickly as Swanson freed Blake from his confines and watched him sqeeze all four men under the straps in his place. It looked like someone froze the frame during a very uncomfortable gymnastics stunt. Even when they get unstrapped, they'd have to unwind from each other first. For some reason, it made Blake uncomfortable just thinking about it. But the feeling passed quickly, replaced by amusement. The woman soon finished with Blake's arm and was directed to a back corner. She slid slowly to the floor in quiet submission. Then, Blake supposed for good measure, Swanson used a extended I. V tube to tie her up. When he was satisfied with his work, he turned towards Blake and asked if he was feeling well enough to walk. "I can walk." Blake nodded. He was fairly certain of it, though he hadn't taken many steps from the immediate area yet. He was no longer bound, but his heart was still racing and he didn’t quite feel less trapped. They still had to find his family. They still had to get out of the building and away from what was probably a terrifying amount of bootmen. Swanson released him, and as grateful as he was, he had questions. Was he really helping him or was it a trick? Maybe he was set up since he escaped last time? "Perfect. You did good, eh?" Swanson gave a hearty pat on the back. Blake stumbled. He wasn’t feeling that good. "Oops. Sorry about that. Let's go. We'll be short on time soon." He started towards the doors. Blake hesitated. "You said you heard a lot of stuff about me. I escaped last time. Did you hear about that?" "Don't do this. Let's talk and walk, eh? Our window of opportunity is small." "I need to know." Blake answered, his voice less forgiving than intended. Even if he was telling the truth. "I heard about it. Everyone has. Plus, the stuff Willow has been saying. They were getting something big ready. And a series of new rules were going to be set in place tomorrow. For you. Or you and your family. So, we are right on time." "But I lied. I used that man to get out.." Blake started. Feeling a tinge of guilt, but he knew he would have done it all over again. If not for that day, he wouldn't have seen Ark. Or understood how dangerous that place must have been for his family. It was one thing to see Cayden's interactions with his father or hear their exchanges. It was a whole other to know what it could do to his mother. She was so kind and lively. In the video, she looked almost lifeless. Beatings and pain were bad enough but there was something much more terrifying about a place that could take you away from yourself. "I know you used him. Messed him up pretty bad too, eh? He's deaf or something, I hear." Swanson shrugged. "It doesn't come close to anything I've done. I would've done it too. Sometimes you gotta use people." "Did you also know I was using you?" Blake asked nervously. He didn’t know why it was important. It just was. "I know you tried." Swanson sighed. "And you're still helping me? Why?" Blake asked. Maybe this was why it mattered. He needed to know the motivation behind this man's actions. Why risk helping him? Unless he wasn’t helping him at all, really. Swanson could lie. Maybe he would, but Blake hoped he would be able to tell the difference. "Of course, I knew. I didn't know if you were just a master at manipulation or what. I wondered if you were as dangerous as they say. But I was also so God-damn amused. I thought, 'man this kid's got some balls, eh?' And I really did end up venting here or there, just like the first time, without meaning to. You were a good listener and a better conversationalist than I expected. "Also, like I said. I'm new here. This whole thing," he said motioning frustratedly with his hands, "is not my thing, eh? If not for owing a favor, I wouldn’t even have been here. I know something weird is going on in this building, and you're part of it. I heard some wild shit about you every day. All of what's going on here's just about anyone's guess, and we can't afford to have that conversation now when we hardly have time for this one, but there's a few things I am sure of. "One, you're still a damn child. Whatever is going on, there's no way you should be doped up in here like that, losing your senses half the time, and constantly separated from your family. Two, I'm not a good guy. I've done some messed up shit in my lifetime. I've killed many people, even caused deaths of more than a few children. Whether I knew it or not. I have tried to live, and want to continue to, making up for those mistakes. Some shit, I don't feel a shred of remorse for. But there's also things that I have and would regret. "This is one of those. So, I'm also using you. To absolve me of a little guilt. To confirm that I'm still choosing the light in spite of other circumstances. Sometimes, usury is multifaceted and mutually beneficial. "Last but not least, number three." Swanson urged him forward then. Hearing his words, Blake was fairly sure he was being honest. It wasn’t that he understood everything. Nor that he had any real way to check his statements. It was just a feeling. Some solid, warm inkling settling in his body. Something that, without clear explanation, gave him the confidence to be led forward. Swanson gave Blake a bright wink. His face exposed a mixture of pride and absolution as he finished, "Alister can kiss my ass." ... Blake followed Swanson closely through the building. Not particularly paying attention to anything around them. He ignored the labels at the doors, felt no need to peek through windows, nor cared about the secrets hidden behind the other doors. He was worried about his family and how much time they had before someone looked for the missing men strapped in his place, but Swanson had reassured him that they had a plan. In fact, between his time stealthily taking down men that Blake made sure to warn him of nearby, Swanson quietly offered him more than just reassurance. He'd given him useful information and boosted his mentality because of it. Though Blake had mixed feelings about one part in particular. According to Swanson, the building has 13 floors. They were currently on the 6th. Which is where they've been keeping Blake since their arrival. Downstairs, unsurprisingly, the security is the tightest. It's where all the exits are, "plus a shitload of nasty stuff they don't want getting out the doors," Swanson remarked. He said that it was never an option to go out the from the first. Or floor zero which is some sort of unofficial basement level. He never offered details about it. Alister's office takes up half of the 13th. Clearance is crazy difficult up there so he's never been. However, he gathered enough information to know that on the opposite side of the same floor Blake's mother was there. Which highlighted a potential problem. She would have been the most difficult to reach. A problem, which found an unexpected resolution. It was also the part of the plan Blake was most conflicted about. Even more than how ever they would actually get out of the building. The solution to getting Eliza from the top floor was Cayden. Someone who apparently laughed when he found Swanson snooping around. And showed footage of catching a glimpse of him sneaking away from restricted areas. When Blake questioned him about it, Swanson shook his head. "There was no way to know it was actually me. Nothing was caught on video that even suggested it. Not a hair, eh? I wasn't wearing a nametag when I did it. I took every precaution. Ones that you wouldn't understand if I told you. "To top it off, my friend that got me into this mess took care of those cameras. He's good at what he does. It was some lesser scale of what we are using now. A device that slowly disables the links the cameras have to each other for seconds that don't show on the clock. Somehow without detection. He explained it but I don't understand all the fancy bits, eh? I just about zone out when he gets all 'genius brain' on me. "Anyway, that Cayden bastard confronted me and somehow knew it was me. He laughed and left. After three days of silence and no one coming after me, I assumed he either wanted to blackmail me with it, or had something to hide himself. I'm not the guy for waiting around to see which one, eh? So it was my time to confront him. "Before I knew it, I was having hushed conversations in a dark room. Like he was waiting for me to come to him. He didn't explain much. But I've done sketchier ops on less info with people even less trustworthy than him so when he said I wasn't going to get it done without him, I chose to believe it. All in all, he was right. At least not without some more guys, resources, and time. I was short on them all. There weren't a lot of options." After hearing Swanson's explanation, Blake figured he couldn’t argue with the logic. He wondered if Cayden really knew it was Swanson sneaking through the building and what he might have seen doing it. He questioned if Cayden was a double agent in their plan. Could he really be trusted? If memory served, his own father opted out of that when they escaped before. Blake tried not to let his mind run wild. He had other questions too. About his mother and father, their relationship. Why they escaped the last time and why he felt something familiar tugging at the back of his mind every time the thought crossed it. He didn't have time to get lost in those curiosities. It was obvious that Cayden had enough clearance to get to his mother. Who, Swanson reasonably suspected also had access to the baby. I.e. Their new little addition to the family. Who was also undoubtedly being watched sound the clock. If nothing else, the baby was a bargaining chip. Swanson said that Cayden told him very matter-of-factly that he would have two guys pushing her in a cart away from level 13. Apparently carts regularly exited the floor for different reason. He wasn't going to man the cart himself because it would raise suspicion. At that point, Swanson was sure to tell Blake that he thought there was some truth to that, but Cayden also said he "never does those meaningless tasks" so he was pretty sure it was more about him seeing it as being beneath him than trusting the process and lack of suspicions. Blake considered what Cayden had said about his father when they first arrived. It seemed extremely likely that he was right. "What about Ark? He's my brother. And dad?" Blake eventually asked. Surely their plan had to include them too. Somehow. "Cayden said your brother has been kept on the 10th floor somewhere. He and your father came up with something so he could go get him. They're probably together right now. Our meet point is on the 8th floor. Since there's a space we can use if we are quick enough." "Dad will definitely bring him." Blake said with conviction as he followed Swanson up a large staircase behind an unmarked door. He read the sign on the wall. Level 7. Just as Blake turned his attention back towards Swanson, a deafening sound pierced his ears. So unexpectedly loud, high-pitched, and excruciating that it stopped Blake in his tracks. He uselessly covered his ears as his tears dotted the floor. He couldn't scream. He couldn't speak. Blake barely registered Swanson's touch as he caught his arm. Saving him from a all-too-possible deathly fall down the stairs. He didn't seem bothered by the sound. Almost as if he couldn't hear it. Blake could see his mouth moving, probably full of silent curses as lights flashed around them. He knew then that someone realized they were missing. One of them, or all of them. But it did nothing to keep him from losing consciousness a moment later. Day 127. By the time Blake regained consciousness, he saw that he was no longer on the stairs. He was in a dark room, with minimal light touching the floor from small, single square windows lining a wall to his left. It was an incredibly large wall. Nearly identical to a blank canvas if not for some box and a switch in the corner. He looked around, almost expecting to see something terrible. Instead, he saw his family, Cayden, and Swanson who had him fastened onto his back by a dark strap. Not unlike the ones that held him captive during medicine time. Just a different color. And thicker. Blake felt a familiar weight over his head and took comfort in the silence around him. It took some time to realize he was wearing his headset. Or at least, he saw after pulling it down around his neck, one similar. When Swanson felt him shifting against his back, he quickly set him free again. "You good?" He asked with a face showing genuine concern. "The color's back in your cheeks at least, eh?" "What happened..? We were on the stairs..." He tried to offer up his memory quietly. Aware that something else was happening now and they were right in the middle of it. "You were knocked out as soon as the alarms went off. You were bleeding out your whole face. I've never seen that shit before." Swanson sighed. "I hauled you up the stairs and everyone just barely made it to the 8th floor. The safe spot was compromised. Your dad handed me those headphones and said they were special. I asked if he knew what was happening to you and he said that he saw something that gave him pause after news of your escape. When they took you to a black room. "I guess it was the box you mentioned, eh? He said that he eventually managed to get the data from those days. Something about testing frequencies and your threshold in the dark room? He used it to make that headset. I understood that much. The rest went away from me. Your father has a 'genius' setting too, seems like." Blake was in awe. He had no idea his father made the first ones. He was equally thankful and impressed. Every day he was more convinced than the last that his needed to learn more about his parents. "They really helped." "That's good, but the situation was still a shitfuck. We couldn’t stay exposed so we had to make up another plan. We ended up finding a suitable entrance into the ventilation shaft. Spent a day backtracking and then finding our way up towards the top floors. "Security on the lower side would be a million times worse, not to say most of the building isn't similar. Some of the men are off on other jobs for Alister so that helped. We ended up following Cayden here. I know a way to another exit out of an unused room, but we are on the 12th floor. Which we can't stay on. "We ended up in here and they've been talking since Cayden closed this room off from the other side. I've never been in here but once we are out I can get my bearings. Only thing is, there's two controls in here. Cayden seems to know something about it." Blake wondered if this was the moment. Where Cayden would show his true colors. If he was about to betray them and use his secret knowledge against their family amidst their escape. If he tries it, Blake thought, Super Sound will send him flying just like Jake-not-Jake. Or Swanson can pummel him. At least, he was pretty sure he could with the way he took down those other men. "I was being honest, you know? When I said this place was a dud without you." Cayden scoffed as he spoke, facing their father. "I was hyper focused on getting you back here after a while. Especially after S-4--I mean, Sarah.. Especially after Sarah was gone. It's been so long since I said her name. "It struck me that day in the lab, you know? When you got angry at me for bringing you to work on your son. When you said I didn't have a family to protect. I haven't been able to say it aloud since. Since she died..the two of you, and E--"He cleared his throat. "The two of you, and Eliza by extension, were the only family I had. I could bury myself in my remaining interests. You know, scientist by heart and all. But I couldn't escape it. The mudane. The atrocities committed behind every door. I couldn't escape my place in it. Likely, I never will. This place will follow me. Karma, you know? For us following you, maybe. "I was too afraid to leave when I should have. If I had been brave, Sarah and I could have found you two on the other side somewhere. We could have lived some kind of life. Who knows? Living in a forest wouldn't have been so bad either, you know? "We would have made it. The four of us. I thought it all the time. More since you've been back. Hated myself for not doing it. I should have followed you back then. If not for me, Sarah would still be alive. I should have escaped with her, you know? "I think I always saw it when I looked at you. Especially since you've been back. We're so alike, you and I. You once offered to be my brother, do you recall? I couldn't give you an answer. "Likely because we felt like that. Actually, much more. So similar in any way that mattered. Like the same soul in different bodies. A few more of my choices and you would have been me. A few more of yours, I could have been you. It's uncanny when you think about it, you know?" "Cayden I--" his father began, stopped by a shake of the head. "Don't interrupt me damn it! Just listen." Cayden hissed. Blake watched his father's frown deepen but he obliged. Cayden continued on, his voice calm yet solemn again. As if he'd never been interrupted. Somehow, his ability to do so creeped Blake out to no end. "If I'd known what I do now, I'd have probably steered them away every time they got close. You know? Kept them far away from your family. I can't erase that. Sarah and I couldn't escape it. But you and your family, you just might. Forever this time." "Then come with us. There's room for you too, Cayden." His father said, his voice hoarse and emotional. He stuck out his hand but Cayden slapped it away and took several steps backward. "I don't know what your son did, but he got one of the only good ones by his side. The kind that played by the books in everyone's faces but did his own thing when no one was looking, y'know? Swanson doesn't take any shit. Never seemed to like Alister either, by my estimation." Blake turned his eyes toward Swanson who shrugged a shoulder with a tilt of his head. Seemingly in agreeance. "Swanson is very experienced. He's patrolled the outskirts as well. You always did like shotty chances, didn't you Gabe? Well, the odds are against you, but I think you can make it." Cayden turned his eyes towards their mother. She looked tired but more alert than Blake expected. Her eyes were sad. It hurt him to see her expression, but he was glad to witness any feeling in her at all. It was better than the doll eyes he saw on that video. He hoped he would never see it in person. Hoped, she would never go through it again. A bundle was in her arms. Ark clutched her leg tightly. "Sarah always loved Eliza. And your love. She's probably going to escort you out of here personally. From wherever souls go. Assuming they ever go anywhere. I'm a man of the technical side of the sciences. I'm not very informed on the rest. But I hope she is here, watching me get my shit together." "Just come with us already, you damn idiot!" Their father shouted. Blake took notice of the blood staining his shirt. Small splatters were on his pants too. Just what else happened when he wasn't awake? How did this change things? Did this make Cayden a bad guy or a good one if he didn't betray them? "He's one of the greys," Swanson said with a curt nod, almost as if he had read Blake's mind. "The guys that aren't hero or foe. Right now, you're watching a grey with a whole lotta dark, officially turn to the light." Swanson's words felt heavy and meaningful. Like the kind of quote that deserved a fancy speech bubble with bold letters in the comic books. He was sure he'd never forget it. Blake's mother cried silently. He didn't know how to feel, but wondered if she pitied Cayden. "Let's go together. We're one soul. Remember?" His father offered in a desperate tone. One that suggested to Blake that his father's feelings towards the man with the light brown ponytail, still wearing a clean white lab coat, was much more complicated than his own. "That's just it," Cayden said, typing away on the keypad across the room. "That's not probable. Once I figure this out, we have one shot. You have to put the code in simultaneously or it won't work. It will lock and the code will reset in seconds. There's no conceivable way I'll get across this much distance in time. Don't be an idiot. You see it, too." "There's another way. There's always another way." His father voiced, his poster deflated like an old balloon. "No. This is it. This is the right way. Besides, you think I came out here, showed my cards and then want to go back to the magic show by tomorrow? I'm not that pitiful, you know? This place is going to die forever. And all of us left are going with it." He said, revealing a flashing red button stowed away in his coat. A timer slowly ticked away, silently flashing 27 minutes left on the countdown. "Swanson knows where to go for the quickest way out of this place. And, as luck would have it, he can fly a damn helicopter. Get out before you get swarmed in the building. Alister's leather-booted-trash fucks are looking for you as we speak. Of course, they don't know time is running out. Nor who is helping you. Yet." Cayden and Swanson's eyes met, their stares unwavering and stark. "He'll probably be waiting for you out there, you know? Somewhere. Too bad I can't tell him off to his face after all of this. But actually, I'm okay with it like this, you know?" A soft smile lit up his face. For the first time, Blake couldn't see anything malicious or uncomfortable behind it. The keypad shined green beneath his fingertips. He turned around and nodded towards the other side of the room. Swanson quickly shuffled across the floor as if he'd been waiting for the opportunity. Then put his thumb in the air. "Go on." Cayden prompted. Their father hesitated. "Daddy?" Ark called, his eyes filled with tears. "I want to go home." Blake blinked away his own. This was no time for Super Sound to get emotional. The danger wasn't over yet. "Gabriel, please." His mother implored weakly. "We need you." Their baby sister cooed against her. Younger siblings had it easy. Most of the time. He really hoped she'd have the easiest life of all. Blake turned his attention back on his father and watched nervously as emotions fluttered across his face. He knew his father was fighting in that moment. Some cruel battle between his past with Cayden, the present, and the future. Important men tended to have that problem because they cared. Heros too. His father was probably a hero in his last life. "Same souls." His father echoed painfully. A final attempt to oppose the inevitable. Cayden laughed and shook his head. "I'm actually okay with it like this, you know?" He repeated. "Because the truth about the two of us having the same soul in different bodies is...we wouldn't do so well in the same one. Eventually, we'd have to make a choice. About which of us would obtain limitless freedom and happiness. "I don't want to rough it out with you, Gabe. My joy left me a long time ago so it's not a hard decision. And I like being the one making all the choices. This time, I just so happen to be making this one. Although, it might be the dumbest one I've ever made. Or, if you live, I guess it would be the smartest. So, please make my dumb ass, fucking decision the right one. I almost wanted to live for a second, you know." A tear slid down their father's face and he turned around and let Blake and Ark lead him to his mother's side. There was relief in his eyes when he met Blake's, but the sadness on display never faded. His father kissed their sister's head and turned to look at Cayden again while their mother thoroughly checked Blake's face and ears. "I'm sorry for not trusting you back then. Maybe things would be different now." Their father said. And Blake knew it was an honest statement. "Maybe," Cayden shrugged as he turned back to the keys. "Or maybe not. You chased your freedom long before I could ever look straight at mine. My fear trapped the love of my life here, too. So, you know, it actually could have been just the same. As for your sorry...apology accepted. "Asterisk!" He called loudly as he pressed the button on the keypad, effectively ending their conversation. Swanson quickly followed suit. "Asterisk." He repeated. "E. Zero. A. Six." "That sick son-of-bitch." His father hissed under his breath. E-0. Their mother's alphanumeric title, although Blake couldn't place any relevance to the others. "E, 0, A, 6." Swanson echoed back as he fumbled his way around the keys. "Nine, four, K, One. Pound." "9, 4, K, 1, #." Swanson finished. Both keypads strobbed green, and the doors opened. Their father and Swanson directed Ark through the gap as soon as they were able. Then passed him their baby sister and told him to craddle her head. It was smart. Going as it opened could give them a few more seconds. As their mother stepped through the opening, Blake felt time stand still as their father bolted across the room in the other direction. Just as quickly and without thinking, he followed close behind. Blake felt like he had seen it coming all along. Knew in his bones that his father would try something. Shocked, their mother cried out to them at their backs. Swanson cursed as he paused, then forced her forward. The doors were nearly completely open now. His father's face fell as he looked over his shoulder to Blake dashing a step behind him. Clearly terrified that they could all end up trapped on the wrong side of the door. Truthfully, so was Blake. But, he had an idea. Cayden's face was full of surprise as he registered what was happening with the two of them thundering his way. Gabriel, his father with apparent nerves of steel, had decided they were going to make it out - if they could- together. Even if he hadn't accounted for one of his sons following suit. They lept across the last legs of space between them and his father grabbed Cayden by the arm, dragging him towards the opening as fast as they could go. Their window of time was closing. The doors were beginning to shut. And if they did, they'd be lost with the rest of the building soon enough. To make matters worse, according to Cayden, those doors weren't controlled by motion sensors. Please, please work. Blake pleaded with himself. Be, Super Sound! He demanded as he turned and pressed his back clumsily against their large adult frames. He grabbed hold of their clothes at the sides, nearly toppling over. Then when he found some semblance of footing again, he let out a loud, hard, reverberating belch. The sound sent harsh waves around the room and broke apart the first door and the opposite wall, yet somehow left the keypad untouched. Blake, his father, and Cayden were hurtled across the room. Their bodies rotated to the side as they flew through the doors and crashed painfully down several feet away. Ouch. From their messy pileup on the floor, Blake eyed the doors and the red button Cayden had been keeping tucked away in his coat. In just enough time to see the number 10 get crushed between them. Swanson, Ark, and their mother, now with the baby back in her arms, rushed over as the three of them groaned. They untangled themselves and made their way to their feet. Cayden, suddenly enthusiastic, slapped his hands on Blake's shoulders. "YOU'RE A HOLY FUCKING GRAIL, KID! How did you think that one up??" He turned towards his parents. "How did that sound not kill us? Or the crash?! Your son might be a genius! You know?!" Their parents scowled. Clearly unimpressed. "Or not so much a genius..." their mother shook her head. "--As a very, very, dead Super." His father finished. "No time." Swanson said quickly, forcing them away in another direction. Thank you Swanson! Blake sighed as they were guided quickly down the hall. They turned right. Blake allowed himself to feel just a moment of relief. Somehow, they managed. He wanted to celebrate their lives, but his parents had been upset. He hated when they went all angry-in-sync. He was going to get in so much trouble later. Swanson may have saved him for the moment, but sooner or later he wouldn't be able to save his ears from all their shouting if they ever made it out of there. The noise of their narrow escape had attracted more than a few men in boots. Blake warned them as they inched closer, tried to tell them each direction as they went. Until, eventually, they were closing in on them from every direction. He was really getting tired of being surrounded with his family. The men in the hallways were clueless. Meanwhile Blake, just like the rest of the group, had the misfortune of being aware of a very important detail they were not: the entire building was minutes away from being blown apart. Cayden had made sure of it. Blake didn't suppose there was an undo button. "We tried." Cayden shook his head. "We really tried." Swanson slid between them and rushed to a nearby window. He looked out and motioned for them to join him with a smirk. "You heroes afraid of heights?" "Probably." Blake answered nervously. "Especially from this height..." They were 12 floors too high for his comfort. If his feet were going to make contact with the ground and not air the moment that he stuck a foot out of the window, he'd have had no complaints. Clearly that wouldn’t be the case right now. Blake watched the adults look out the window and his mother cast a look of concern in their father's direction. Whatever it was, it wasn't good. Maybe worse than he thought. "Seriously? With the baby?" His mother asked, hesitant. Their father clicked his tongue. "It's the only way," he said as he took their sister from her arms,"but I'll protect her. I promise you." Their mother didn't argue. She simply grabbed hold of Blake and Ark, directed them to keep their eyes closed and their hands over their heads. "Tuck your knees in really hard towards your stomach. And pull your elbows in as tight as you can." She said sternly, showing them as best she could what she meant. Blake's heart thumped away an anxiety induced crescendo as he tried to imagine what was next. Swanson used a small tool to scrape the glass. Then, kicked his boot hard against the window until it broke away. Then again for the rest. And, without pause, used the bottom of his foot to swipe away the excess shards. Swanson pressed Ark to the floor in the position their mother said to do. Again, just the same for Blake. Without warning, he felt his body sway. Moments later, they were freefalling. Blake could just see Ark ahead of him, his eyes shut tight. His clothes shook wildly as he teetered from one side to the next. The only sound audible as they continued to fall was the wind as it loudly whistled around them. His own clothes flapped like birds with broken wings. Soon, Blake found himself wishing he had listened to his mother and closed his eyes. The air stabbed away at them like sharp, angry needles. He would have screamed too, if the wind hadn't kept his mouth shut. And a bubble of air hadn't been pressed to the back of his throat. Their terrifying descent led to a long shade attached to the side of the building by brown ropes. The diagonal slope kept them sliding down the fabric, faster with each passing second. It was uncomfortable, and Blake was sure that nothing good could await them on the other end, but it was better than pins and needle eyeballs in the sky. Grunts of effort made him turn his head. Spinning down the shade to his right, Blake made out Swanson quickly passing him by. His copper glasses, he was almost sure, had been clenched between his teeth. And once he was several feet ahead of him, Blake watched curiously, albeit nervously, to see what would await him. Swanson, however, looked more focused than nervous as he grabbed a knife from his pocket. How was he able to do anything while rolling that fast? "To me!" He shouted towards Blake, holding out a hand. "Roll down, now!" Blake gulped, but tried his best to channel his fear. He reached out a hand and pushed himself forward on his side. At first he wasn't sure how it would work, but his velocity carried him on. His spin down the shade rocked the rest of the world around in an almost nauseating loop. He could hear the sound of decompressed air and the fabric underneath them coming apart as his body suddenly jerked and swung painfully to the side. When he opened his eyes again, Blake let out a small cry. His body was dangling over the edge of the fabric, caught by his Super Sound Cape rather than his arm. Unsure about the slight blue movement below him, he instinctively clutched the fabric nearest his neck. Afraid the thread would snap and send him to his death. Swanson's knife had cut the shade apart and effectively slowed them down to a stop mere inches before the fabric ran out. Ark was caught on his other shoulder, wrapped around his arm, staring at the blade with wide eyes. The rest of his family swayed against the far end of the shade. His father held their sister in one arm and a large bundle of the knife-cut fabric in the other. Cayden's elbow was wrapped around his feet. And their mother's arms and legs were clutched tightly around Cayden's body. Her feet pressed into the back of his knees and one of her hands clawed nervously at his hair, yanking his head backwards. Blake wondered if it hurt as much as it looked like. In the end, they were told to let go and dropped down into a bed of water Blake hadn't clearly seen from above. He hadn't lost his mind from spinning after all. By the time they came up for air, the building had begun to blow, several floors at a time. The sound was too much for Blake's ears and he fell back into the water. Lost to time. Day 128. When he awoke sometime later, Swanson was carrying him again. This time, towards a large truck. "Swanson?" Blake called, groggy. He looked down at him and motioned towards his parents slightly behind them. "What happened..?" He said, his head throbbed. Blake felt sick and his ears hurt. "You passed out on us in the water. Do you remember what happened, kiddo?" His father asked over Swanson's shoulder. He looked relieved. Without the sadness this time. Nothing in front of them looked familiar. Blake touched his ears, seeing blood. "The explosion was loud. Why did you use the knife on the thingy?" Blake directed at Swanson as he put him down and fastened his seatbelt. "So we didn't die." He answered back with a chuckle. The point of stopping, Blake had been told, was to save them from hurtling themselves straight into the water. The pressure from the drop, going that fast, could have easily killed them. A dislocated shoulder was better than death. Swanson looked fine enough. If he dislocated something, Blake couldn't tell. He smiled and closed his eyes. Maybe he was getting good at this. Superheroes escaped death often. How many times had it been now? He was exhausted. ... The seven of them were still trudging forward through unknown terrain when Blake stirred awake. His head still hurt, but it was manageable. His ears ached, but they had stopped bleeding again. He was fairly sure the dried blood had clogged them a bit. A surprising comfort for the time if there ever was one. His mother sat across from him, asleep. The baby was awake but quiet, cradled in his father's arms. Ark snored away splayed along the third row seat behind them. "Where are we going?" Blake asked through a yawn. His father looked up and shook his head. "Somewhere else." "To the helicopter?" Blake asked. He'd never been in a helicopter. In the comics someone was always dangling from them with the threat of death looming overhead. He never wanted to see one after that. But now, having been thrown out a window a deathly number of floors above ground, freefalling, and pretty much dangling nearly to his death anyway, they didn't seem quite as terrifying. If he was in danger of falling maybe he could belch himself to safety or something. Although he didn't have a clue how to do it. He'd never meant to burp in the first place. Not to mention, he didn't really know how the other part of his power worked. The only things he ever tried to 'train' were his ears. "Not the helicopter." Swanson answered from the driver's seat. "It's not an option anymore." "Why not?" Blake asked. The car fell silent until Cayden broke it. "What's the point of not telling him? Might as well. He is going to deduce it one way or another with those ears." He huffed. "We went there, to the place with the helicopter. It was gone. You and your brother wouldn't know that though. You were out cold and he cried himself to sleep, you know? The boy's definitely a crier. I can tell. Pitiful fucking thing." "Cayden you watch your mouth or we'll have to stop this car." His father threatened, not missing a beat. "I meant it in the least offensive way possible, I assure you." He mumbled. "What do you mean? Why was it gone?" Blake asked, not bothering with the other topic. "Alister took it." Swanson scoffed. "By my estimation, right around the time you blasted us through the doors." Cayden sighed. "According to a note tacked to a nearby tree, he heard everything. Or rather, most of it." "The intercom system is very advanced in the building-or rather, it was." His father chimed in, watching their sister shift in her blanket. "To put it simply, he eavesdropped on us in the room. Not that he was should've been awake but most of the building is like that. Excluding the ones with the most equipment, since it interferes with the rest of the tech." Cayden explained. "So, places like the labs and security room are excluded. Although, there are a few exceptions outside of those. Most notably, the ones related to the barracks. Anywhere his leather-booted shits stain the place on a regular, masturbate, or rest their heads, aren't on this list." "Cayden!" His father exclaimed, trying not to shout. Cayden raised his eyebrows with a laugh. "What? He's a growing boy. I mean, he's probably already done it. Right? You've done it haven't you?" He asked Blake, turned around in his seat. "Done what?" Blake asked, aware of his father's unhappy, watchful eye. He was absolutely lost. "Solo time with your winky. You know? Extra fun in the saddle? Tissues for your lotion issues? I don't know what you might call it instead." "What's a winky? Why would I have a lotion issue that needs tissue?" Blake asked, genuinely confused. "Oh. My. God. What kind of-what do you do all day at home??" Blake shrugged. "Read comics. Eat food. Play outside?" "Play outside? As if children do that anymore. You surprise me. You seemed more mature for your age so I just assumed--" Cayden rambled. Blake was still uncertain. "He's talking about bullshit you will be interested in at your own time." His father said. His eyes sharpened daggers ready to plunge into their next kill. Cayden, amusingly enough, seemed first on the list. Blake didn't know if he was still supposed to want to blow him to oblivion or not. "Cayden you sound like a damn pervert. Mature for his age? Maybe he's just smart enough to care about other things more right now. If you ask him another question even a foot away from that line, I will wrap that lab caot around your neck and have Swanson go for a joyride." Cayden gasped sarcastically. "You would go through all that trouble to save me just to kill me? Besides, maybe it isn't that he cares more for other things so much as he doesn't know what he's missing and you got lucky. The boy idolizes humans in spandex for crying out loud." "I tried to save you when I felt bad for you. My son selflessly saved your life and now you want to corrupt him. The moment has passed. I can get rid of you without guilt now." His father scoffed. "Swanson we've worked together in the same hell. We just survived death together. Would you kill me?" Cayden asked coyly. "A few weeks ago I didn't even know you." Swanson said dryly. "And you're not his father, eh? Don't overstep." "But a few weeks ago you didn't know them either, you know?" Cayden emphasized with an air of disbelief. "Yeah, but I like them." Swanson smirked as he turned into a dirt road. Blake smiled. He didn't know that his conversation with Swanson would lead to this moment, but he was really glad it did. "Then luckily for me, I know Gabriel secretly loves me and doesn't actually want me dead. You prick." "I thought you loved mom." Blake more stated than asked. "You know I do. There are many kinds of love in relationships. He's saying useless bullshit. Ignore him." His father said with another quick look to the passenger seat. "Does Alister know how to fly a helicopter too?" Blake asked. Cayden said Swanson could do it. As if he couldn't be any cooler. Maybe Swanson could become Super Sound's sidekick. Wait, he ruled cooler people out of that. Swanson would definitely overshadow him. "Nah. He's the egotistical type who thinks everyone is beneath him. As far as he's concerned, most of the world is his for the taking. Filled with endless servants to do all the things he can't be bothered about, eh? Learning to pilot a machine? It's not his thing." Swanson said, certain. "Which means he would have left knowing the place would blow up, and took someone with him that could. Apparently Swanson wasn't his regular." His father chimed in. Swanson nodded. "I never flew it once. He must have a few options. My work changed often but I ended up babysitting as soon as you guys got there." "One of Alister's worser qualities, considering his personality, is that he isn't totally mindless. When it comes to planning, he's methodical and persistent. If he wasn't, all those resources would be for nought, you know? Although, I'd say Alister is more psychotic than he is smart." "Still, a smart villain is the worst kind." Blake sighed and rubbed his neck. Swanson had said he was a sicko. When would be a good time to know more about him? He didn't think asking right that second would be a good idea. "Can't argue with that, eh?" Swanson let out an amused cackle. "But right now, we need time to figure out a gameplan. Alister, I'm sure, has not one iota of forgiveness in him. Like lab coat said, he's relentless. Which is why he found you guys in the first place. There's no way in Jake Jack's green asscrack that sick bastard is going to let us free either. He said as much in the letter." Jake. Willow had used that name. Blake scrunched his nose. He didn't want to think about his butt. "You know, Willow is his favorite. And his nephew. He wouldn't be quick to leave that building without him. He treats him like his son. He probably took his usual pilot, his sharpshooter and his bodyguard with him. Even if that meant he had to pile them in that helicopter like a clown car." "So how bad are we talking here? Sounds like a band of misfits to me." Swanson shifted in his seat. "Not so bad." "Yes, pitiful piece of shit that you are, you don't have a clue. If by 'band of misfits' you mean fully trained, multipurpose killing machines then, yes. They're a silly misfit pile of shit and we can all go live happily ever after over the rainbow." Cayden said spitefully. "The way you talk is really starting to get on my nerves, eh?" "Enough you two. Silence. For sanity. Please shut the hell up for a while." His father sighed deeply. "Well, before we officially 'shut up,' we should find somewhere to ditch the car as soon as possible." Cayden sighed. "Why?" Swanson asked as he turned down another dirt road. "Because it has a gps tracker in it." "Whaaaat??!" Swanson stomped on the break and brought the car to a screeching halt. "What do you mean it has a tracker? This old ass model? Why didn't you say something sooner??! We've been driving for hours!!" Ark slid to the floor noisily, their mother jumped awake, startled, and the baby began to cry. His father cursed and glared towards the front of the truck. "It is an old model, but the specks, where they matter, are custom. I was around when they changed everything over. Under the hood and in the shell, there's an unbelievable number of additions. I thought you knew. Alister likes to give the illusion of freedom and dangle the good bits in front of you, you know? I assumed you were aware." Swanson apologized to the rest of the car and then turned back to Cayden. "Why the fuck would I know that? I just got here for fuck's sake." He turned around and let out a frustrated sigh. "What do you want to do now?" His father frowned in thought "I might have an idea." Blake held his nose as the stench of burned rubber circulated around them. "But you might not like it..." There it goes. The end of part two. I hope you all loved this one at least as much as the first! Thank you for reading. After creating both Cayden and Swanson, I had a fun thought: imagine them in a long debate. All I can hear is Cayden constantly saying, "You know?" To Swanson's "Eh?" Both on a constant loop😅🤭.

  • Pumpkin & Spice: An Autumn Story.

    🎃HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!🎃 Today, I have another short story to share with all of you! An autumn story centered around a young girl, a dagger, and a magical Jack-o-lantern. I hope you all enjoy it😊. 🍁🍂Note: _Pronunciations_ ▪︎Cassia is pronounced kas-see-uh (normally ka-she-uh). ▪︎Kalla is pronounced Kah-luh. ▪︎Jensen is pronounced Jin-sin. The chilly October evening that Cassia's father finally fulfilled his promise after many years of disappointment, neither of them knew their lives were about to change. Drummel and Cassia lived frugal, unstable lives. Constantly teetering the line between poverty and something lesser. The shelfs in the fridge held hardly anything more than cans of cold beer, at least when it worked. And the cabinets always remained bare, save for the insects that found their way in through a crack somewhere behind them. Even those didn't stay long. If the heat was outside, it was also inside. Same with any freezing temperatures or the rain. It rained just the day before their trip to the pumpkin patch, in fact. And Cassia had gone about the house with dusty bowls and one of their two tin buckets. She plopped them down on the floor, where she knew the water would eventually make its way. After years of it, she had long ago been desensitized to the ritual. Drummel often assured her that he would fix it, but like most things in his drunken stupor, he forgot before morning. And by the time he felt any such thing resembling sobriety, he'd drown it away in several more pints of alcohol. Some part of him knew Cassia deserved better. Deep inside ached endlessly when he thought of everything he never gave her and probably never could. As ashamed as he was to admit it, he wanted to rid himself of his pains and frustrations even more. So, he did. He bought more beer than he bought food. And more disturbing still, managed to live with it. Money wasted away with him no differently than the house did. One brick, one chunk of lumber, at a time. He ignored the meager dollars Cassia took from his wallet every payday because he wanted her to eat. Sometimes, he wished she would take it all and walk out the door never to return. Probably because she'd acquired her large hazel eyes and beautifully frightening cream colored hair from her mother. He wished that whatever force had ripped her away from them in the end would have come back for him too. Or at least that he'd had a moment to spare her and meet his end instead. Auburn should have lived and shown their daughter the world. She would have cooked her delicious meals and sung her sweet songs. She would have loved her like Cassia deserved. And like his late wife, their daughter's eyes constantly looked deep into his wretched soul and stayed loyally beside him with love pouring out of her like a fountain. She was a loyal dog. She always returned every evening after payday and ate bread, jams, cheese, and the only thing he ever taught her to cook: a potato soup Auburn loved. Cassia had begged him for years to take her to the pumpkin patch. He didn't know why, but he'd been determined to see it through that year. Maybe it was the lack of light he saw when their eyes met as of late, or maybe he had just grown tired of their routine. Drummel didn't know the answer. He only hoped it was something more meaningful. That it had something to do with being a father to a precious young girl. He hoped, maybe he was changing. Even so, it probably wasn't enough. He couldn’t do it sober. They held hands as they walked, and Drummel tossed his empty can to the side with a loud belch. Cassia ignored it. She walked with a small, pleased smile spread across her lips. While he watched her, he realized her smile was different from the one she wore in front of him any other day. Different from the times she brought his beer to his place on the broken, stained couch in their living room on command. He wondered, possibly for the first time as she peered over her shoulder at him, if things had been different would Cassia's voice be filled with her mother's grace? He would never know the answer to that question and on most days it angered him. It seemed too cruel for words that she was mute. He'd never hear his wife's voice again. And there he had her near identical image but she'd never speak. If Drummel could see things from Cassia's perspective as she looked up at her father in the pale autumn daylight, he would have known that she saw him just as handsome as he'd ever been. Though she couldn't tell him. Even though he reeked of alcohol, his hair was a mess, and his clothes needed cleaning. Her excitement increased tenfold when she caught his eyes brighten as he looked at her. And, to her surprise, smiled softly in her direction. It had been a very long time since he seemed to see her, and even longer still since she could recognize anything like happiness in his features. At the pumpkin patch, Drummel sat on a large stump and watched Cassia search through the field. He'd never seen her face so determined. As if she were on a mission all her own. How much effort did one need to simply pick a pumpkin from a slew of identicals? He thought it odd, but let her go about without voicing it anyway. It was what he promised her. He eyed her back for a long time. And sighed as a sadness gripped him as her cream curls lightly shifted with her movements. He could almost see her mother there in her place. He remembered his wife's back well. Her long hair and skin the color of midnight. The light across her body as if the stars themselves were embedded there. He'd thought it the moment he saw her for the first time and many, many times since then; what all-encompassing yet terrifying beauty. Cassia was nearly the same. Only, she hadn’t inherited her mother's stars or her midnight skin. It was his own pale complexion that was probably to blame; it lightened hers. Drummel wondered if he'd have been able to love her properly if she'd taken more after him. Would facing his own dark eyes or brown hair have made it easier or harder? Did he actually love Cassia's image because he could see Auburn's shadow within it or because she was herself? Did he simply like being tortured? Those were Drummel's thoughts as he shivered when the autumn wind ruffled his clothes. He should have bought Cassia a proper coat. How many of their years had she suffered without one? How had she survived their winters? He cursed under his breath. He was more sober than he liked. The pain shrouding his every bitter thought was all the proof he needed to confirm it. He wanted to return to his place on the couch and numb his heart and mind. For the alcohol to overwhelm him and down out his emotions again. How long did it take to pick a stupid pumpkin? Cassia soon woke him from the stump with a large smile on her face. She grabbed hold of his hands and urged him to his feet. He gave in. With a groggy groan, he looked towards the other clusters of children and their parents as their eyes followed them them in the patch. Their shameless stares did not seem to deter Cassia. Drummel wondered if that was the kind of strength she also inherited from her mother, or if she simply hadn't noticed. Auburn would look people like them directly in the eyes and interlock their fingers. Or even, kiss his lips and lead him forward with some unwavering sense of purpose. In either case, it filled him with love and admiration. He never noticed the onlookers after that. Drummel could admit that he was nothing without her. To each judging look, disgusted or curious expression, and his alcohol, he submitted. He was weak to the world. When Auburn went, she took all that she'd given him and more. He had nothing to offer their daughter. At least, except this. So, he fought his shaking resolve to continue following her further away from the others. Far to the left corner of the pumpkin patch. An area she must have gone when he fell asleep. And when Cassia pointed towards a sizable, grimey-white pumpkin, he confirmed her choice and then slowly propped it onto his shoulder. They walked back the way they'd came, past the other parents and children and to the two men at the front accepting money. "How much for this one?" Drummel asked with a huff. The two men in flannel and overalls stepped back from the table and looked towards the other. Eventually, they decided the pumpkin was free. A sign of good will for the season. Or so they'd said. Drummel realized that they'd either pitied them or simply wanted to rid their fields of their presence, but he didn't care. When they left, he decided that there was another stop they should make. Cassia herself had been overjoyed at their gifted pumpkin. Almost as much as she had been to find it. She'd never seen a white one before. She hadn't known they existed. And with the money they saved, much more to her surprise, her father took her to a small shop in the square to buy her a coat. It hadn't been new. A button was missing and there was a tiny hole in one of the pockets, but it was hers now. She made sure to show her gratitude with a tight hug and a kiss to her father's cheek before they left. Back at home, Drummel placed the pumkin on their lopsided table, grabbed a beer and quickly gulped it down. He tossed the can aside and grabbed another. The faster he could forget, the better. He soon realized Cassia was staring his way, with a pouty look on her face. They weren't done with the pumpkin, were they? He set about going through the house until he found a couple candles that hadn't nearly been burned to the wick. Then he dragged himself to a closet near the back of the house and to an old box of Auburn's. He paused with his hands in the box and took a long whif. Somehow, it still smelled of her. They didn't have a good knife for carving, but if memory served.. "Found it." He grumbled, wrapping his hand around the grip of a short dagger still in its sheath. He slid the blade out to inspect it, pricked his finger on the point with a hiss, and licked the blood from his thumb. He never knew where his wife had aquired it, but she'd always carried it with her. He took another large sniff of her scent and buried his face in her old scarf before closing the box. He swallowed his tears on the way to the kitchen. Cassia wiped away a layer of dirt from the pumpkin with a wet rag as her father made his way beside her. In his hands he turned over a two-toned knife. Equal parts gold and silver. The shape of a large golden leaf was burned into the steel. Much like white pumpkins, she'd never seen a knife like that one either. "It was your mother's." Drummel said with a far away look in his eyes. "She would wear it over her arm, or wrap the ties around her waist some days. I never knew why she had it. It never left her side until the day she..." his voice faded into a sad silence. Cassia wondered why her mother would leave a treasured item behind. Especially one that could have saved her life. She'd heard the story of her death only once, long ago. The last time she remembered her father level-headed. Or at the very least, the last time he spent a night sober. Seeing him grabbing several cans from the fridge as he spoke now, Cassia knew tonight would not be another. Her mother had been attacked by something in the dead of night. "You'll have to be real direct, understand? If you want it to look like anything. Use your fingers and I'll cut it with the dagger." Cassia nodded eagerly as she set to work, dragging her fingers around the pumpkin. To her surprise, between her father's chugs of alcohol and smelly burps, he had steady hands. When he shaped one eye, he popped the piece forward and used it as a stencil for the other, so they were symmetrical. His brows creased and he leaned forward with a sense of focus and diligence. She noticed he slowed his drinking as they went. And periodically asked her a question or two about what she wanted or if he was doing it right. He even stopped mid cut to ask if he should get rid of the looped vines that stuck out. She'd shook her head no. She thought, it gave the Jack-o-lantern a sense of personality. She wondered what exactly that personality would be as she admired her father's careful hands and breaths of effort. It was another side of him she'd never witnessed. She wished she'd seen more of it. By the time she'd done what he called the 'messy work' and scooped out the pumpkin scraps and seeds, he handed her a candle and matches, and placef the othet on the table. She nearly dropped them when he pecked her forehead. The first kiss he'd given her in a long time. It was the way she counted her age, for he only gave her a kiss twice a year. Once on the day she was born, and the other on the day of her mother's death. Cassia never wanted the day to end. Or so she allowed herself to wish for the moment. Until reality set in when he knocked over his open can of beer near the fridge. He picked it up with a silent curse then swallowed whatever was left inside before grabbing another. It seemed to unleash a sort of ravishing inside him. For after he spilt one, he opened three more and downed them messily. Spreading a liquid trail all the way to the living room couch he'd long ago used instead of his bed. It stung to watch him go, but Cassia knew it better to leave him be. Instead, she hugged the candle to her chest and cried with her head pressed against the jack-o-lantern, company to her anguish. And when she recovered, raw but still feeling the remnants of Drummel's love, she lifted the stem and stuck the candle inside. Cassia struggled with the matches. She broke most of them and sent many splintered pieces across the floor. When there were nearly none, she finally managed to strike a light and quickly tilted the candle towards the small flame. As she placed the flickering candle in the rounded mound her father crafted, she took a step back to watch as an orange glow flickered in the openings. Only, it didn't stop there. Before she knew it, threads of bright light and flames burst from the jack-o-lantern. It shook erratically on the table, making her fearful that the broken leg would collapse beneath it. As the flames continued to grow and the sparks of heat flew across the room, they kissed the liquid line of Drummel's alcohol and ignited there, too. In a panic, Cassia slipped past the flames in the doorframe and rushed to her father's side. She attempted to wake him. Over and over again, but he didn't budge. In her overwhelming fear and frustation she struck his shoulders and shook him violently between tears that the heat of the flames quickly dried away. Not knowing what else to do, Cassia clawed at his clothes and yanked his limbs. She tried to pull him off the couch and onto the floor, intent on dragging him out of the house and to safety. She couldn't. He was much too heavy. When the fire traveled toward the edge of the couch, she jumped away and screetched a silent scream. Her eyes and throat burned. Black smoke spread across the room, cutting her vision in half. Shuffling from the direction of the kitchen caught her attention. At the sound of a voice Cassia rushed, even through a part of the flames, to seek help. She'd hoped someone nearby was coming to their rescue. At the very least, it meant someone to help her carry her father away from danger. "Quickly! Outside!" The voice shouted. "Now, child!" She didn't know why, but the voice seemed to jolt her into action without her consent. Despite her worry for her father's life, she grabbed the other candle, the remaining matches, her bread, and her mother's dagger as she bolted out the door. By the time she realized that she had left her father all alone inside, the fire overtook the door. Seconds later, the white jack-o-lantern crashed through the kitchen window and rolled across the grass. Cassia darted its way to catch it, craddled it in her arms, and then sprinted across the yard towards the window. Surely her father had thrown her gift out first. Surely, any moment now, Drummel would somehow climb his way through and out to the other side.. "Step away." The voice demanded. It sounded much closer than before. She turned about her in search of it. Hoping that this was not some trick for the season. Or, worse, that there was a bystander simply watching the events unfold while their home burned. Could anyone be so cruel? Eventually, Cassia stuffed the items she carried out of the house into her pockets, took the pumpkin back into her arms and scurried backwards towards the trees. The sound of voices closed in on their home as serveral neighbors finally found their way there. None of them had a voice like the one she'd heard. None of them could put out the fire. They stood at a distance, watching Cassia and Drummel's home get swallowed up in the rest of the hungry flames and contemplated possible happenings. What started it? How long would it burn? One or two even wondered if anyone had been inside, yet never cared enough to check. And long after the last of the fire died down and the neighbors left, unwilling to go inside, Cassia stood rooted in place. Even when the night was closing in around her and the temperature dropped. She wept silent tears for the only family she had. For her father, a man drowned equally in sorrow and alcohol. And for herself, who couldn't save him. As she looked down at their last project, she realized that the jack-o-lantern was still warm. The light flickered on from the candle and casted their unsteady shadows against the trees. When she turned its expression around to face her and saw it blink, she felt too numb to react. And when it spoke moments later, she was sure that she'd have never found her words even if she could. "I'm terribly sorry, little one." It said with a frown. "I'm so terribly sorry." She registered then that this was the same voice that had urged her out and away from the house. It hadn't been someone to save her father. It was never a person at all. It was a pumpkin. Some un-alive thing that Drummel carved her wishes into hours before. She had no idea if she was losing her mind. She only knew that the only thing she wished for now was for her father to return. Or for her to go back in time and never light the match. Maybe she'd done it wrong. Was the fire her fault? She cried again for an endless feeling time, then retreated deeper into the thicket. She had nowhere else to go. Her home was gone. She didn't know the neighbors. She was alone. Save for the talking pumpkin, assuming she wasn't imagining things. ... "Sometimes you look at me as if you're waiting for me to disappear altogether." The jack-o-lantern spoke. Cassia nodded her head. It didn’t take long for him to realize that she was mute. When they watched the house fall apart, he'd noticed that he could only hear her sniffles and some strange sound from the air getting caught at the back of her throat. And after sitting with her through the cold while she hugged him for warmth until she fell asleep, he never heard a proper snore. She didn't attempt to ask him questions, even though it looked like she had some on her mind. He didn't know if that was because she couldn't or she was simply accustomed to it. The truth of the matter was, even if she had been able to ask, there wouldn’t have been much to tell her. Or at least that he could explain about being a pumpkin. The circumstances of his current form were somewhat a mystery, even to himself. One moment he was unbound, and the next, he was stuck in a pumpkin shell. And the moment he found himself there, he became aware of other lengths of time. Of time since the moment she pressed a hand to the rind in the outskirts of a pumpkin patch, and every second that passed until the fire. What a strange thing it is, to watch something like a jack-o-lantern come into creation from a first person point-of-view. It was worse to see this child in front of him without the happy smile she'd had plastered across her face before. "Don't you have some other family? Any relatives at all?" The girl shook her head. "My name is Jensen." He offered, wishing she could return the gesture. The girl's father never said her name. "Can you read and write?" She nodded slowly. If only they had paper and a pen. There was no use trying the house for them. And he got the feeling, considering the fact that she never revealed herself to the neighbors, that trying to get her to seek their help would not be well received. As if she'd also been contemplating a fix, Jensen watched the girl scrape the dagger through the ground. Then, she quickly picked him up so that he could look down upon her work. "Ah. How astute. Your name is Cassia then, like the spice. My mother once had an entire row of them in her garden." Cassia nodded, although Jensen pronounced it differently. It wasn't his accent. Cassia recalled her father once telling her with a look of amusement that his mother pronounced the name of the flower wrong. Yet, he never had the heart to correct her since he found it so endearing and it was her favorite plant. When she was born, they quickly decided she'd bear the same name. And carry the weight of her mother's love along with it. Drummel was unwilling to talk about it again. The thought was but an excruciating reminder that she'd never hear his voice again. Drunk or otherwise. And it quickly brought her back to tears. Another day passed, the two of them sat in near silence, with Jensen tightly craddled in her shivering arms. Every so often he would blow an airy whistle and the candle inside would burn a little brighter and she would be warmer for a time. Cassia refused to eat any of her bread or search for water while Jensen stewed in worry and questions. By the third night, he decided to tell her a story to pass the time. "There once lived a boy in a small corner of the world. In a place with an unimportant name and a dwindling population. Many of the young adults left in search of an exciting life of their own, often leaving the elderly to fend for themselves. Most expected it. And since the old women and men were generally able-bodied, they did nothing to fight against it. Not even when the young also took most of their food and money when they went. "When the boy asked why, they often said that 'life was for the young.' And their small, unimportant village was 'no place to fill the emptiness the others felt.' They had lived longer lives and had no need for chasing thrills or trying to clutch life between the palm of his hands. "The boy, even as more years went by, lacked any such thrill seeking. He never felt that life was passing him by or that it was some sort of thing he needed to hold hostage between his fingers. He never wished for more children in the village, nor ever wanted the others to return. "The boy's mother tended a great garden with vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices. If a green thumb exsited, his mother was made of it. And each harvest time the villagers would praise their bounty and prepare a feast. They served every household. "The boy was happy, well loved by his mother and equally well-fed. He doted on the old women and men. Blind to anything amiss. That was, until a particular day when the boy returned home early from his trip across the rolling hills. When the sunset burned red and the birds croaked so loudly it pained his ears. "In the house the pots boiled over on the stove and the rest was in disarray. The boy put out the flames and searched for his mother. She never went far from a hot pot, after all. "By the time he found her, he'd found himself on the far edge of her expansive garden. Too far for a person watching a pot. Too far for her to ever make it back in time before their food burned. She stood upright with her back towards him, silent and stiff. She never answered his calls or turned to face him. And when he stepped ahead of her and searched her features, he found none there. Her eyes glossed over like wet stone, and her expressions faded away to nothing. "Every day, the boy would go to her. Some nights he slept at her feet. When he bled from a fall and rushed to show her, looking for any hint of the loving mother he knew, he found nothing. He made excuses for her disappearance. Plucked from the garden and delivered the goods around the village with the excuse that his mother was ill. "Until the day he returned home and witnessed the very same garden swallow her whole. And a green gem sat in the place where she'd spent her last days. The garden slowly died. Leaving the boy to dispair. He was obsessed and broken for a time. Driven almost to maddness with questions and anguish. At least until, he picked up the green gem that he'd long tucked away as a bittersweet keepsake and it brought the garden back to life. "It would be years still, before all the pieces fell into place. Until that boy grew into a man who uncovered the truth. Thanks to research and a quiet woman in the village who was once her best friend. The truth was, magic existed. "The sort made for spellbinding and epic tales. And his mother had used it. She had wanted to help the village elderly more than anyone else. A feeling that burdened her more heavily with each wave of younger generations adventuring off and leaving very little for the rest to survive on behind. She could do very little about the money, but she could grow a garden. She could feed them and grow herbs for medicines and keep them well. "The soil rotted away her efforts. Else, the cold season froze her buds. She didn't want to give up. Without money, she could not buy necessities from nearby villages. And she didn't know where to find the family members who left just to plead their return. "Her friend tried to tell her to give up. That she was fighting a losing battle. They knew for years that at some point there would be no more farms on the land. She convinced the boy's mother to leave with her. At some point while away, she met a man, became with child, and happened across a peculiar merchant. Someone who seemed to have the uncanney ability to read her unfulfilled desires. "He offered her a gem and claimed it would be the answer to her prayers. She could return to her village. She would save them all. Whatever his exact message, the merchant was clearly convincing. And when asked about compensation, the merchant told her that they would be paid in full by other means, in time. And against the advice of her closest friend, she returned to the village. "She settled back into her family home and looked upon the acres with newfound hope. The gem worked, of course. So she continued to use the gem. And it grew her a healthy, garden that never needed new seed. "But she had no idea that not every magic was good magic. That some are the catastrophic kind. And every day that she used it, her lover grew more ill. He succumed to his sickness before the baby was born. "In her sadness, she used it less. Just enough gem magic to keep the garden going, but still without understanding what it took from her. Without knowing that one day, the magic would take her too. The gem was cursed. "Those decades later, when her own son brought the very same garden back to life, he sealed himself a different kind of fate. One that would send him scouring to learn about the very thing responsible for taking her away from him, and eventually ending the village; magic. Over the years, he came to appreciate it in all it's forms though he found it heinous in the beginning. He learned many things. Even though its origins are still a mystery. "On this journey of magic discovery, he found himself delighted. As if he'd found his life's purpose. So much so that the pain and confusion of the past weighed on him less heavily than before. This delight was unkindly ripped away from him the day he himself ran into a sketchy merchant selling cursed items. The man was no fool, he was unconvinced by the bearded man's sly words. And the moment he threatened to reveal his trickery, everything changed. "The seller became enraged . Mumbling a strange lost tongue that the man was certain he'd once heard before. Moments later with glowing eyes, the bearded man broke a small round glass against his chest and his soul was forced out of his body. The boy who had grown into a man that accepted magic, became an unbound spirit by the same means. "His body was carried off away from him, eventually lost. His connection with it dwindled with time. Until it became a whisper in a slither of his soul. His concious mind slipped away from him over and over again. Making it even more impossible to find his way. "Then, while following a familiar tether, his consciousness melted away. Only to be reignited an unknowable time later by a little girl lighting the flames of a jack-o-lantern. And as a consequence of what he could only assume was magic, she lost her father and her home. Later, saddened with loss, under the shelter of trees with a talking pumpkin to keep her company..." ... Cassia didn't recall the exact moment that she fell asleep, but she remembered well Jensen's story. Hearing it dulled the numbness she felt and somehow gave room for sympathy and pity. It wasn’t a good thing, his story. And yet, it made her feel less alone. There was something there in knowing that he'd lost his parent too. In knowing he was young and alone yet managed to survive it. Maybe, she too would outlive her heartache. Cassia turned over the thought of magic in her mind. If what she saw in the kitchen was the result of magic, then how had she conjured it? Jensen didn't seem responsible for it, at least. And she couldn’t imagine that it was her father's doing. After all, if Drummel had been holding on to something like magic, she didn't doubt that he would have used it. Or, if nothing else, brought it up to her on his many drunk nights in. Cassia was both interested and hesitant as she scraped the tip of her mother's beautiful blade against the ground, giving shape to her thoughts as simply as she could. Jensen eyed her curiously as she went and waited for her to position him above it for reading. "Ah. Thank you for your condolences. I settled my feelings for my mother's death quite some time ago now. Time is unforgiving that way. Wether you agree or disagree, it will pass you by regardless of your feelings. And with it, it takes some of those without consent. One day I could think of nothing less than her end and my void. The next, I went almost the entire night without reliving the memories. "Yours is more of a worry. A fresh scar is the worst scar. Hmm? What's that? You want to know about tethers?" Cassia bobbed her head. "Well, I found out about their existence much later than I wished during my journey. It took a number of years following my mother's death to even begin to notice them. To gain an awareness of something fluttering within my vision. When I tried to look at them directly, they were gone. Even though I felt them there. "I've since learned that prolonged exposure to magic makes one more sensitive to it, thus enabling them to see magic tethers. Unbound spirits can see them with ease. Or so I understood after the merchant incident. And I noticed immediately that I've become less sensitive to magic since I'm no longer unbound, but tied to a plant of the squash variety. A real hindrance, wouldn't you know, to finding my body now." Jensen listened to the scrape of the blade as Cassia wrote again. Another question. "Ribbons?" He read aloud. As he mulled it over in his mind, he let out an airy chuckle. "Now that you mention it, I would say so. Tethers look very much like translucent ribbons. I don't suppose you've seen one?" Again Cassia nodded, this time in a more erratic fashion. She never knew what they were, but she often saw the ribbons. Sometimes leading out of a window from an old building, or wound tightly around a tree. She saw many of them cutting through the town square. Initially, she thought them to be beautiful decorations. One day after to suddenly realize, as if by a stroke of light, that no one else seemed to see them. Not a single person acknowledged their existence. They did not look towards them, nor did they try to avoid stepping through them like she did. For that very reason, they unnerved her. Their beauty remained but she was without any desire to be near them. She supposed it was something like what Jensen said before. In time, it became easier to ignore their existence. She got better at avoiding them, and her father stopped wondering what silly game she had been playing at. Yet, they remained part of her life. Even now, she saw them clearly--the so-called magic tethers. Were they good or bad? They could somehow lead Jensen back to his body. He couldn't see them anymore. She didn't understand what she'd done in the kitchen but his current circumstance, as he put it before, and inability to do so now were inexplicably tied to that. She couldn't help her father, but maybe she could be of use to Jensen. In truth, Cassia liked feeling his warmth and seeing his flickering light. She also liked the warm, roasted scent he gave off. Like a pumpkin pie. Though she'd only been near them and never ate one. Still, she couldn't imagine what it must be like for him now if he'd really once been human. Of course, she couldn't know with certainty but Jensen seemed the honest type. And she was thankful for it. She knew him only a short time but she liked him very much already. She quickly scanned the area with her eyes and pointed at several tethers nearby. From there, she could clearly see three of them. 'I can help,' she scribbled into the dirt. Jensen frowned. "I appreciate the offer, little one. But, this is no childsplay. Magic itself is dangerous enough without adding a defenseless girl to its complexities. I will find a way, without using a child." The moment he saw the look on her face, however, Jensen hesitated. Her eyes bubbled with tears and her expression said that he'd nearly ripped her heart out. Had he worn the same expression in the past? Had his fear of being alone been so easily read, as if it were painted messily across his face? He watched her write again. "While it may be true," Jensen frowned as he read her words, "that you can see the tethers and I'm a pumpkin, I don't think it needed such blunt expression. You're young. Getting so wrapped up in the life of someone you hardly know is dangerous." Cassia's face fell sadder each moment. Her hands shook visibly as she gripped the handle of the dagger and etched another question below. "Are you dangerous?" Jensen sighed heavily. "I don't believe myself a particularly dangerous man. At the very least, in my own opinion, I post no negative risk to you. And for the record, I'm a magic pumpkin, thank you. But it's the magic I worry about most. You've never interacted with the tethers in spite of seeing them. You should aim to keep it that way." When her large tears swayed across her eyes and quickly slid down her cheeks, Jensen felt weak. He pittied her and himself of the past that he saw in her. She scribbled desperate, messy letters into the ground. A-L-O-N-E. She was alone. And if he left, she would still be alone. If he still had his body, he could have at least properly escorted her somewhere. Being a pumpkin was useless. If ever he attempted to talk to anyone untouched by magic, he was sure they'd faint of fright. Else, the time of year would make them a whimsical party trick. Jensen cursed his bad luck. The possibility that he was making a mistake was high. But he wasn't so heartless as to leave her by herself. Especially now, while she grappled with her father's death. The first time he recalled wishing for company had been after his mother was no longer an option. "I understand. Please, stop crying. You can join me. Only IF you finish that bread you had, and we find some source of water for you to drink. I don’t care if you must steal it from the neighbors. Otherwise you'll waste away. Sadness has a way of numbing your body. It fools you into thinking you need nothing at all. I won't be responsible for convincing you to eat again. If there is food and water, you must nurish yourself. Have I made myself clear?" Without a word, Cassia spun him around in what he could only assume was a moment of celebration. Soon to send the world spinning while they were still again and they crashed noisily against a tree. "Don't get carried away! You'll break me!" Jensen shouted. He didn't know if it could happen considering that he was somehow running on magic-or so was his best explanation- but he hadn't known he could ever get dizzy either until a moment before. "Ugh." He groaned. "I think I'm going to be sick." ... As luck would have it, Cassia managed to swipe a very warm Sheppard's pie cooling in the window of a neighbor's kitchen, albiet not without a blanket of guilt. She had heard of it, but never expected it to taste so good. And probably finished it a little too quickly. Just the same with the glass bottle of milk from the six recently delivered to another neighbor several houses away. With her belly full and taste buds satisfied, Cassia listened to Jensen's remaining explanation about tethers. "Tethers are peculiar things of magic. They have different colors, different thicknesses, and temperatures. They almost feel alive, in a way, with the emotions and scents attached to them. Not all tethers have every aforementioned property, but they are perplexing all the same." Cassia walked in the space between two tethers going in opposite directions. To the left, a pink ribbon. On the right, a white one. Both danced softly in the wind. When she ran her fingers along the left, she felt a strong sadness. Heavy and unforgiving. Even though a sweet scent filled her nostrils. The other, cool to the touch, but lacking any other specific characteristics. In a way, she felt drawn to it. But it may have also been her aversion to anything else miserable that caused her to leave the sweet pink ribbon behind. Cassia motioned to the space on the right. She would follow that one. She wondered if it looked to him as if she gestured to nothing at all. He registered her movement and told her to follow it. "At the end of a tether," he continued, "is a shimmer. Something akin to a snippet of magic. Or, in some cases, people that are connected that specific magic tether. Be it past, present, or future. There's no exact way of knowing what you'll get, how far you'll travel, nor how exactly you arrived there. If you want to find a tether that's not afixed to say..oneself, only the proprities of that tether will help you find it again." ... As the two of them patiently followed the tether, Cassia shivered with a chill. It felt colder now than it had further back, closer to the trees where they'd spent a number of autumn nights out of sight of her neighbors. When she breathed, her eyes followed spirals of her breath. And even with Jensen's light, the edges of her vision were murky. "This place feels strange, doesn't it?" Jensen asked in a hushed tone. Cassia didn't know why he had taken to whispering, but she nodded her head. It was as if the light emanating from Jensen's form was shrinking away. She could hardly make out the tether strip. It's white color had contrasted the dark around them until just minutes ago. Jensen eyed the dour space. He lacked perception of anything beyond it. It was the first time since he found himself chained to the being of a pumpkin that he felt meager and drained. He knew with certainty that wherever they were headed, it was an unnatural place. In the midst of wondering why Cassia had chosen the tether responsible, he felt her jerk to a stop, fighting against the air, tugging her arm backwards. "What's happened?" Jensen asked, concerned. But before she turned her face to look his way, the two of them sprung forward through the air. Their shift from Cassia's feet being firmly planted on the ground to racing horizontally forward, swaying uncontrollably, was an unforgiving sort. It disolved their senses and exasturbated the weakness Jensen felt before. Cassia worried that their movements would send her milk and sheppard's pie back up her insides and out her mouth. She'd felt the change in the ribbon under her fingers. Still cool to the touch, but sticky and soft. The sudden difference stopped her in her tracks. And the moment she tried to let go, she couldn't. Somehow, it was affixed. With such a great hold that she couldn't fight her way free from it. And before she knew it, the tether which didn't seem quite so much a tether anymore, yanked her forward and off her feet. It took all she had not to let Jensen slip from her grip in her other arm. The sticky line coiled up the length of her limb, almost as if it were alive. It was an awful feeling that left her clentching her jaw. A feeling that soon spread to the rest of her body as she felt it turn in the air and catch along the length of her back. She hung there, upside-down, with her hair drooped over the length of her face. She couldn't move her neck to see Jensen, but Cassia knew he was close. She could make out the edges of his light several feet away. And in it, between strands of her hair, she made out a very large shape coming closer. Cassia gulped as eight round eyes looked back at her and its front legs rubbed together as if it were happily anticipating what would come next. Her frantic movements did nothing to save her and she quickly realized that she was trapped within a large spiderweb. One that, without a single touch from the large eight-legged beast she now knew was the spider itself, was quickly encasing her. As her eyes darted around in a panic, she became aware of something else. Tethers. An almost infinite number of them, a myriad of shapes and sizes, were entangled in the web. Leading the way to countless shimmers. They were enwreathed, if only she could reach one, with ways to escape. Still her struggle was fruitless. The pressure inside her head was making her lightheaded. Just as she began to wonder, having suddenly recalled her life was likely in danger, what the enormous spider would do to her, she saw a line of flames cut across her vision. "Cassia! Shut your eyes!" Jensen shouted. And she did as she was told. Noticing that his voice demanded things of her in much the same way it had the first day they met. She listened without thinking and felt a thick, warm, cloud brush against her. Grateful for the cold it chased away from her body. "Hurry!" Jensen shouted, closing their distance. He bounced against the web in front of her and his flames kissed the silky cold threads holding her captive. They burned, curling in on themselves. Cassia dropped next to Jensen, trying to recover between the dizziness and the throbbing ailing her. Another puff of smoke released her again, and small residual sparks ignited the web it touched. She would have found it beautiful if not for the danger. Jensen urged Cassia to stand up. She had been stuck in an inverted position for much longer than intended, but it took longer than he imagined to conjure his flame. Albiet, he hadn't been certain he was capable of the feat at all. And when he set himself free of the spider's web, he worried that his fire would burn Cassia just as quickly as the sticky threads. Rather than the smolder that occurred instead. Somehow, he managed to keep the beast at bay with a ring of fire. But he understood, all too quickly, that it would not last. So he set himself to freeing Cassia as quickly as was possible. The hot clouds whose sparks still ate away at the webbing was merely a stroke of luck. Surely of hers and not his own. He was the unlucky sort. Her's seemed to know no bounds. If he could call anyone young with a dead fther truly lucky, that is. Jensen had been right. The place was unnatural. Since the moment they'd followed the tether, he no longer felt himself. Or at the very least, as much of himself as he could feel living out endless days as a child's jack-o-lantern. His light also waned. He felt even that however he'd managed to use magic tied to himself as a pumpkin, it wouldn't be without consequence. And although he had warned Cassia of the dangers, he did not want her to become prey for a giant, man-eating spider. Cassia crawled forward and under Jensen's direction, found her way onto unsteady feet. He told her not to look back, but since he was facing the direction with wide-eyes, curiosity teased her mind until she gave in. Only to see the spider racing toward them. It swiped in the air angrily as it charged at them, one of its legs alight. Several of the others were uneven and she assumed, charred enough to disappear into the dark around them. In a way, with its swift uneven movements, she found it twice as ominous. As soon as there was a tether within reach, she hurried to its other end. Jensen's whiffs kept them free on the way. She wondered if they would have been doomed had his fire not torched its legs. ... The next shimmer sent them to a quiet land with a blue blanket across the sky. And Cassia's feet stood firm on an old metal. Walking forward under the cover of hundreds of bright stars, she realized their path was a large, rusted, train. One that had long ago stopped working. The scene in the distance at her back suggested that one of the traincars had crashed and the rest slid forward to an eventual stop. However it had gotten there, wherever 'there' was supposed to be, weeds and other plant overgrowth made a home of it. She even made out small wildflowers near her feet. She bent down to touch them and thumbed the frost coating their petals. Still reeling from their encounter with the spider and its web, she looked back towards the way they came. Nothing was after them now, it seemed. Relieved, she dropped heavily to her knees. Between her arms, Jensen's light paled in comparison to the sky. But in another frosty climate, she was glad for his constant warmth. He mumbled something under his breath. She couldn't make sense of his voice, but she was exhausted. So, she laid him down ahead of her and spread out on the train top. It was a bit cold there too, but not enough to worry. The sound of her movements caused Jensen to stir. She picked him up and let his warmth work its way through her before she started back up the length of the train. He hadn't responded to her when she first treaded on. Nor when she took a break. His eyes were shut and the light was barely visible behind them. Did magical pumpkins need sleep? She didn't think she'd seen him do so before. Even on the nights she drifted off surrounded by trees and autumn chills, she always awoke to him blinking and looking off into the distance. A myriad of emotions wrapped up in his expressions. When she asked him if he was alright via a very noisy point of the blade against metal, he reassured her. Only, seemingly without his notice, Jensen's time of consciousness lessened. To the point that he spent much more time with his eyes closed and unresponsive. She felt guilty for it, but she even shook him once. He never stirred. Nor did he remember it when he woke. She thought she would feel very alone those days. She found herself missing his commentary, but not feeling utterly by her lonesome. She always felt that he would wake up soon. As he normally did. Be it hours or a day. And at night, even if he slept, his candle would still continue burning and lighting her way through the dark. That might have been why she could manage. Every time he woke from a sleep she could show him the things she scavanged that day or scrape a message into the steel for him to read upon waking. Even if it was possible that she was simply convincing herself everything would be fine. It was better than facing the anxiety that she felt building up. So long as everything was fine, she could fight it. One night, when Jensen blinked awake for the second time that day, she was sure to ask him if he dreamt when he slept. She regretted asking the question the moment he looked taken aback. Because once the confusion and surprise on his face faded, she registered a hint of fear there. She didn't know what Jensen assumed was happening when he drifted away from her, but his reaction said that he wasn’t resting. That there must have been something else happening to him. She was too afraid to question him. So, when he answered, all too simply, that he didn't know the last time he had a dream, she let it go. Even though something terrifying had gripped her heart because of it. She left him to his thoughts as her stomach complained of hunger. She was beginning to miss the numbness Jensen's presence had been keeping at bay. ... Fear welled up inside her. Threatened to overwhelm her senses and the last of her mind in search of a solution.. For the first time, Cassia had followed a tether while Jensen 'slept.' She wouldn’t have known what else to name it. And regardless of what the truth was, sleeping was a gentle and calming word. Anything else would have awakened the storm of emotions she'd kept locked away somewhere else inside. Only, because of her own impatience, they would soon fight to escape her confines anyway. Following the translucent two-toned tether with the droplets of dew, had seemed like an interesting choice. She needed a distraction from her rumbling belly and it had been almost four days since the last time Jensen had been present. So, she walked off in search of another new tether. Eventually to find many to choose from. Near the outskirts of an abandoned mill, she chose a particularly beautiful one. Near the outskirts of an abandoned mill, she chose a particularly beautiful one. On the other side, she was amazed by the fresh, moist scent and the gigantic leaves and plants towering over her from every direction. Cassia saw many flowers and bright patterned plants. Heard a variet of bird calls, and saw several snakes slither up branches. She even saw bright spotted frogs leaping large distances ahead of her. For a time, she chased after them at a distance, letting them take her wherever they were going. Most, intent on hiding away from her but she enjoyed it all the same. And when she grew tired of her play, she settled on a broken branch and took a nap. When she woke, she took a nibble of a sweet smelling plant and got terrible stomach cramps most of the day. The next, she realized that the forest was quiet and bare. She didn't see the insects hanging on the edge of the leaves. The frogs had disappeared long before she chased them, and the birds never called. Then the rain fell. And fell some more. Until the drops felt heavy and almost painful to any of her exposed skin and weighed down her coat. She rewrapped her mother's dagger around her waist and tied it tightly, afraid that she wouldn't feel it slip if it fell under the fabric of her coat. Then she ripped a couple heavy leaves from an overgrown plant and used it to cover her head. Water rose around her ankles and she trudged ahead slowly, sloshing noisily through the flood. Carrying Jensen with one arm while her body was pounded with more rain proved difficult. So, she decided to take a rest. She placed Jensen down with an apology and held him between her legs against the water. It was a mistake. While she stood there under the protection of the leaves, shivering slightly with chill and looking up towards the sky, she didn't realize that the water level was rising. She took no notice of the fish slipping past her, carried away against the direction they'd been swimming. Cassia had never experienced a flash flood in the middle of a rainforest. She hadn't even known any places like that one existed and weren't there by magic. It was only when she felt Jensen slip from her legs and bob against the current that she realized something was amiss. She shrieked silently in alarm and dropped the leaves. Dark clouds rolled in. Thunder shook her ears and lightning skated across the sky. The water brushed up against her and pushed her sideways, off-balance. All too soon the water increased. It buried her shoulders and spun her in a violent crescent. She fought the upsurge, nearly hurting her neck just to keep her eye trained on Jensen's white shell getting further away from her. By the time she finally felt her hands wrap around him, his stem top was nowhere to be seen. They floated there for a few moments, Jensen as her life raft, before another dangerous current swept them over. Cassia's head dropped below the surface of the water then continued deeper against her will. Her arms were still tightly wrapped around Jensen's frame as they were jerked around in different directions. Her fear didn't fully register until a moment of reprieve when she finally felt air reach her mouth and nose. She spit up and coughed painfully. It was the first time she didn't like water. She'd almost drowned. There was no way of knowing how long they had been under. Nor how long the water had been carrying them. Cassia did her best to dump the water from his casing, amazed that the candle was still lit, though it was hardly visible now. They continued on that way all through the end of the storm and the night. Until a large, broken tree trunk caught them. Cassia climbed her way to the top, grateful for an indentation just big enough to cradle Jensen so he didn't drop back down to the floodwater below. Still, he never opened his eyes. Cassia let out a silent sob and willed herself not to cry. This was all her fault. She had to do something. The next morning, the water level dropped a little, and the next, a little more. Just enough that she could see some of what it had been hiding. Cassia carried Jensen through the sitting water. With the help of many broken trees, she snaked her way through the worst of it. Eventually, she found her way to an elevated clearing. There, the water dropped much lower and she continued in that direction. With the sun beginning to shine through the clouds, she hoped Jensen would wake soon. Though she eventually found her way to safer ground, finally near the forest floor again, the sun did not stay. Rain clouds swallowed its rays and a lighter shower than the first began. Exhausted, she tested her weight against a large canopy of leaves and brush. When she dipped but didn't fall, Cassia quickly relaxed her limbs with Jensen at her side, attacked by a variety of pains. When an tired sleep found her, the pains diminished. When she awoke, it was to the sound of Jensen's coughs. Cassia was so overwhelmed with relief that she grabbed him too quickly and the two of them slipped through their leaf bed and crashed to the ground. Most of the flood water had dissolved. It was nearly back to her ankles now. She wondered how long she slept but it seemed much less important than Jensen's consciousness. "Cassia, while you slept I watched a monstrous amount of water sweep over the ground. Most of it was carried away elsewhere. I think there's an outlet for the water somewhere. We are in a very dangerous place." He groaned. "We..followed another tether..?" Jensen asked, unsure. He was losing too much time now. He felt weak and sick. And he knew there was something more. His consciousness hung on by a thread. Even though he spent every minute of awareness trying to understand what was happening to him. He had no answers to most of his questions. He only knew that the candle inside him was burning out. Worse, when they fell, he felt water sloshing around inside. How long until the flames stopped? What would happen to him then? The cool air brushed through his opening and he shivered. The candle was ordinary. There was something else that kept him going, some other source of magic. Only, he had no idea what it was. Nor did he know what happened to Cassia. She looked terrible. When Jensen wheezed and a puff of smoke slithered out of his mouth, top, and eyes, Cassia quickly peered inside him. She gasped a silent gasp. The candle was nearly to the wick. And when it began to rain again, she feared another flood. There was no more ignoring it now. She was terribly afraid. When she reached into her pocket and realized the candle was no longer there, a hard lump formed at the back of her throat. She didn't have any more candles and the last match that had apparently escaped being snatched away by the flood, was too soaked to spark a light. Her hands shook as more water sept into her already heavy sleeves. Even if she cut off parts of her coat with the dagger what would it do? What if the water drowned out the last of his flame? She barely registered the sound of Jensen's voice as he tried to reassure her. Watched the rain plop to the bottom of the pumpkin as the fire trembled, threatening to die. In a panic, Cassia stripped off her drenched coat, placed it over her head, and dropped over the opening on all-fours. "You mustn't! These are flames of magic! They burn hotter than the fire you know!" Jensen cried. Cassia ignored him and airily hissed in pain. The heat slowly burned through her clothes. If it was that hot, why wouldn’t it stay lit? She didn't understand anything. All she knew is that she didn't want him to disappear. He had protected her and kept her company. He was all she had. She had brought them there. What was she supposed to do without him? She cried with a brokenness and fury carrying the load of every day she outlived her father. Acutely aware of the slightly stale, yet sickeningly sweet smell wafting up towards her nose and the torment of being torched at the belly. It took a time for her to place it. It was the smell of burning flesh. Worsened by the hot pumpkin stench fusing with it. Jensen pleaded with her to stop. It hurt and she was sure she would have thrown up if there was anything at all in her stomach, but she didn't know what else to do. It was just her abdomen, and yet the pain was nearly unbearable. It took only a fraction of a second for her to realize that Drummel had suffered a much worse fate. This one was a weak, dying flame. Drummel would have been engulfed in them, just like the door after she'd made it outside. That fire burned brighter, hotter, and much longer than Jensen's. Likely charred away every inch of his features. Every ounce of her father's flesh. Burned away every tin of beer and the rest of their home along with it. And in those thoughts, she began to lose herself. Whatever and whoever she was. "Leave me. Please!" Jensen begged. Cassia heard nothing. Not that it would have changed the outcome. If she'd heard his words she would have defiantly ignored him. She would have resolved to save him no matter what he'd said. Or how much he begged her. Their situation would be the same. But at the moment, she was still drowning in fear and loss and a dozen of other emotions that rattled around her brain against her will. Luckily, it would not last. Moments later, while on the verge of succumbing to the pain from the fire, else the cracks in her mind, Cassia's subconscious recognized a ray of hope. Without thinking, she jumped to her feet. She stumbled painfully forward with Jensen in her arms and chased the fluttering in the corner of her vision. Soley focused on the thing that slipped past her a moment before. She quickened her steps, breathless but unwilling to slow her pace. Faster and faster until her nose filled with an earthy-dust scent and her hand clutched the translucent brown ribbon ahead of her. Knowing it was there somehow sealed the broken lines in her head and buried the thought of her father's sleeping form burning away to a blackness, somewhere in the recesses of her mind. As she raced along the bent line, a shimmer unfolded before her. It led them out of the rainforest and through a heavy mass of shrubbery. Their shape barely visible in the nearly black space in every corner of her vision. Cassia slowed her pace as she attempted to get a look at her surroundings. And if not for Jensen's bubble of light, the area would be permeated in something mistakable for a void. If only an illusionary one. By any way that mattered, she would have been rendered blind. "No! Not here." Jensen panicked. "You mustn't stop here, Cassia. Something is coming!" She heeded his words, though her body screamed for rest. Forced her legs forward until she found a brisk pace again and gave way to a sprint. As Cassia continued on, she made out the sound of something quickly snaking it's way through the grass. Closing in on them. Carrying with it, a moist gurgling sound she'd never heard. From her right, a crisp shuffle frightened her, as a gray squirrel jumped from the ground, glided through the air, and dropped onto her shoulder. In its mouth looked to be Jensen's stem top which they'd lost before. After a moment of slight protest, the large-eyed animal released it into her hand and Cassia placed it back over Jensen's opening. It seemed the squirrel had been making a meal out of it, but it was the same. As she began to question how the squirrel managed to find its way there if they'd been following a tether, even more to get ahold of Jensen's top knowing it, a large slippery blob with glowing eyes splashed down beside her. It broke apart and was swallowed by the ground. Seconds later, another followed suit. Until they dropped down around her like currents of a wave. Edging closer and closer to her body even as she began to dart around in different directions, still following the brown tether now slightly out of reach. From the noise the squirrel made, it too had been rushing away from that very same danger. Cassia willed herself to keep going as Jensen eyed the blobs with unease, and directed her as another wave of liquid creatures threatened to swallow them up. The tether guided them to a quaint, faintly glowing house with a large tree beside it in the distance. At some point between the open area and the tree bark, the wobbly creature stopped its pursuit. Cassia turned around to face it as she coughed oxygen back into her lungs. Unable to fight her curiosity, she held Jensen up towards the direction of its glowing orbs and his dipping light revealed a slowly moving dark shape. It's loose body rolled onto itself constantly, like semi-fluid water. Rounded shapes occasionally protruded from what seemed to be its main body, only sometimes taking the pair of eyes with it. Cassia felt a disturbed chill run down her spine and her hair stand on end. She instantly regretted her decision to look. The monster squinted its eyes at her. Almost as if it sensed her revulsion, it dived in her direction. Cassia jumped backwards with a silent yelp and tucked Jensen back between her arms when it screeched. As if struck and wounded, it abruptly ducked away and disappeared into the dark. The squirrel scurried up the tree and Cassia watched a puff of discolored smoke work its way out of Jensen's nibbled top. His light dimmed and reawakened her initial fears. Not knowing what else to do, she hurried towards the front door. "We cannot simply wander into a lone house in the middle of nowhere. There is something or someone very powerful inside. So much so that even I can feel it with ease." Jensen warned. Cassia ignored him and just as her hand was about to reach the door, a woman stepped out in front of her. Despite her gray head of hair, the woman looked considerably young and plesant. Almost like a doll. "A little old lady in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dark things--" Jensen's words were cut short by a fit of coughing. He didn't know who or what she was, but he knew she wasn't nearly as young as she appeared to be. He could feel it in his pumpkin shell. Right down to the end of his wick. "-Is probably hiding something; her true nature, perhaps." Cassia frantically leapt towards the woman. Tightly gripped the fabric of her plum-colored dress, shaking with urgency. She ignored Jensen's stifled words of protest as she pressed him towards the stranger and clasped her hands together tightly. "Pay no mind to Mr. Jensen, Cassia." The woman spoke softly. "Come inside and let me tend to your wound." Cassia's eyes widened as she was ushered inside and the door shut with a creak behind her. Jensen shouted in protest, quickly severed by another coughing fit. ... "How do you know our names?" Jensen prodded suspiciously. Just minutes ago, he was convinced the woman's words were mere trickery. He foresaw Cassia's bitter end when the woman offered her a bottle of a thick green liquid and the child downed it in seconds. He wasn’t sure if it had been the taste or her thirst that caused it. He almost wished she drank the rainwater when they'd had the chance. Surely, by some strange stroke of the girl's own luck and not his own, she didn't fall ill or lose consciousness. She wasn't poisoned. Instead, he watched as the nauseating wound on her belly healed. Completely and miraculously, as if it had never existed at all. Contrary to Jensen's relief, it only made him more apprehensive of the woman's identity and intentions. "Who are you?" He asked pointedly. The woman's brown eyes twinkled with interest as she placed Jensen back in Cassia's arms. "How exquisite. A white jack-o-lantern." She smiled. "My name is Kalla." She gestured softly to the table on the opposite side of the room to offer them a seat. "When you arrived at my home you were hit with a cloudless potion." "A potion?" Jensen questioned aloud. Kalla blinked slowly in his direction. Although he was beginning to have trouble speaking, his tone suggested intrigue rather than surprise. "How?" "You needn't be concerned with the mechanics. The potion temporarily evokes several core memories from your subconscious without your knowing. By the time it strikes you, you've already begun spilling your secrets." She sighed as she took a seat. "Why you--" Jensen started in disbelief. The woman was as sly as a fox. He almost hated her winsome smile. Seemingly unsuspicious and without pause, Cassia strode across the floor and placed him carefully atop the wood. Joining her at the table. She turned her attention towards the window as the gray squirrel from before found its way inside. It was warm inside. How many days had it been since she was so warm? This woman, Ms. Kalla, healed her with a magic potion. Would she be able to do something similar for Jensen? Every passing moment his light looked weaker and weaker. She didn't care what she had to do. Nor if Ms. Kalla was somehow an evil woman surrounded by dark things. So long as she could save him. She didn't want to lose anyone else. Cassia wondered, with a sharp pain in her chest and a heaviness in her stomach, if those were similar feelings to what Jensen's mother felt however many years ago. If so, she thought that she might be able to understand her reliance on the magic gem. Cursed and all. Though it didn't seem that she herself knew when she acquired it. "Did you think I would be without protection? Surely not. You did warn the girl, didn't you? Who would I be if I let just anyone with possible ill intent step foot near the house?" Jensen couldn't argue against it, but that didn't mean he was obligated to like it. "Well, Kalla is it? Her name is Cassia, the same as the spice." "I must say, Mr. Jensen, you're quite clueless, aren't you? You've simply been saying it wrong." Jensen quickly looked in Cassia's direction, his shell shaking as he turned. "Is this true?? Did this woman pronounce your name correctly just a moment ago?" When she gave a nod between hunched shoulders, Jensen knew that she'd somehow felt guilty. How unfortunate. It wasn’t her fault he'd gotten it wrong, despite his displeasure. He'd simply assumed. He wished she'd been able to correct him sooner. Regardless of his mistake, how could the woman have known it? Did she also know that sort of thing via a potion? It was then, as he looked about the inside of the place, that he took it in. Kalla was the embodiment of elegance and neatliness. Yet, from what he could see, her home lived its life in disorder. A dark curtain separated the sitting and eating room from what seemed to be a bedroom beyond it. There were wooden shapes in the windows, empty vials of varying shapes and sizes in boxes and littered over half the floor. Near the door were two very large showcases with liquid filled bottles behind glass. A sofa and several rugs on the floor between them, and the fireplace. The rest he made no attempt to decipher. The entirety of the place reeked with the smell of magic although he couldn't say he ever noticed a smell before. In a pot hung over the fire, Jensen heard liquid boiling. Was it another strange, magic-filled concoction in the making? Seeing him eye it from the other end of the room, Kalla raised a brow with an amused smile. "Don't let your mind run away with you. There're no more potions in creation here. That, is simply my dinner." As she spoke, she gently took a fungus from her pocket and handed it to the squirrel that had since decided his stem the perfect place for resting. "I suppose it will be our dinner now. From the sound of her rumbling, she must be famished. How inconsiderate of you. Using a little girl to find your body, Mr. Jensen. And starving her while you do it." She spoke with a slight air of distaste. "Your bad luck may just rub off on her." "She offered! And I'll have you know that I very clearly refused the child." Jensen retorted defensively. In the moment, he was too offended to question her knowledge. "Be it that you're so incredibly well informed, you must also be aware that it's been a losing battle to get her to eat anything at all. Later, there was nothing I could offer her." "Is that so? Then you simply should have refused her again." The woman scoffed. "As for the rest, you're a pumpkin. You're perfectly edible. At least, you don't seem to be rotting at all." She said, lifting his stem, sending the squirrel to the other side of the table, and peering inside. She chuckled in amusement when he shivered. "Don't just have a peek as you please! Something about your prying eyes perturbs me!" He hissed. The candlelight inside him sputtered. "Why would I offer myself?" He huffed. "J-just the thought of it is simply horrendous." A small puff of smoke spiraled out of his mouth as he sighed. Kalla knew she was pushing his buttons, but they were such a joy to push. She could hardly help herself. However, after seeing the mix of worry and disgust on Cassia's face, in addition to the weakness overwhelming Jensen's voice as he continued to oppose her, she knew enough was enough. She took care of Cassia's wound. Now, it seemed, she must do the same for her companion. After all, she protected him at detriment to her own well-being. Jensen was not a bad man. Just a jilted one. However unlucky. Still, she knew he cared for Cassia. She couldn't help but want to test it. He was, in one way or another, endangering her. She wondered what the most appropriate course of action was to take. In any case, she could save him whilst she made a decision. She did not want to witness Cassia's face when the last of his wick burned out. ... "How did you heal me?" Jensen asked the next night. Cassia was still in bed, suffering a stomachache from eating too much soup after too many days of starvation. "Considering you use magic potions, are you a witch?" "I'm no such thing. If only I were so powerful." Kalla said, amused. The two of them sat still beside each other on her messy sofa. She never bothered to toss anything to the side before she sat down, though Jensen tried to blow one of her items of clothing away. He wasn't sure he could do it without destroying things considering the spider's lair, so he stopped after the first attempt. She watched him but did not help him. He was sure she did it on purpose. "You seem plenty powerful to me. Since you healed me, I feel it twice as much as before. I've even seen a tether floating by, in the window earlier. I've not seen one for such a long time. If only I'd been like this the first trip we took through the shimmers. "Cassia was trapped by a substantially large spider. I managed to burn some of its legs away with fire but I wasn't sure we would make it out. It chased after us in spite of that, and I had been feeling so faint. I've never felt something as unnatural as that space. Or so, not since the day my mother succubmed to cursed magic. "If I'd had this candle then, perhaps I'd have gotten rid of the threat altogether. We would have stopped there. We should have stopped following the tethers then. Or, never started to begin with." "If you had, you'd never have come here." Kalla said flatly. "Yes. Cassia wouldn't have enjoyed your soup. I can't make the simplest meal as I am, but I doubt that would have been such an issue." "You are a meal, Mr. Jensen." Kalla snickered. "Is there something about me that makes you want to eat me?" His lip quivered with disgust. "Aside from the fact that someone else took a bite out of you first? I'm quite a fan of pumpkin and spice." "It was the squirrel, seems like. Cassia took what she could from it." Jensen explained, weary. "She's cute, isn't she? She's made a home in my oak tree and sometimes helps me collect the mushrooms for the soup. I think the smell of you simply attracted her." "Yes, yes. Very cute. When she isn't eating someone else's body parts. And flying through the air to hitch a free ride on Cassia's shoulder." "She's a flying squirrel. They don't exactly take flight. I'm sure she was tired of using her little pink toes. Have you seen them? They're so soft and bright. I've gotten to touch them some." She smiled again with her palms pressed together towards her face. Jensen struggled. He knew the woman was much older than she looked, but her demeanor said otherwise. "No. I paid no attention to her 'little pink toes.'" "In any case," she shrugged, "you're in one piece again. The damage is all cleared up now that you can replenish your magic. As far as your encounter is concerned, I wouldn't be surprised if the arachnid regrew its limbs already. "There are many places and creatures alike that sap magic. Stay near them long enough, especially in an depleted state and they'd suck you dry. That is likely what was afflicting you at the time. They lure their prey and trap them in silky webs to nourish themselves. You were feeding it the moment you ventured close to its habitat. "You are magic, but your form dictates your limitations as well as any power you can tap into. As a jack-o-lantern, you need to burn a candle. But just any wax stick simply won't do. You need one that burns magic, similarly to how the arachnid stole from you. That, is what I could offer you. "Mixing magic into a potion and keeping it alive is tricky business. Your candle was not nearly so much work. You've now acquired a much larger candle and a slow burning wick. Of course, with a great bit of magic woven in." "Yes. I can feel the difference. I've never felt like this since I became Cassia's jack-o-lantern. But if what you're saying is true, how did I become this at all? Furthermore, how did the last candle keep me going?" "However you managed so long on a magicless candle is a mystery in itself. If I were to guess, I'd say it could be the exact same reason your soul was channeled into a white pumpkin. Magic was responsible. Something, or someone, powerful. Enough to keep you lit even when starved for magic power." "Could Cassia have possibly...?" Jensen began. "She's a pure, beautiful soul. A work of art. A mosaic if I had to be specific. Touched by many magics. So much so, that I cannot tell where one ends and another begins." "I thought something about art myself while looking at her for the first time. She has very striking, unusually coupled features. It seems she took after her mother. But how does being touched by magic help answer my question?" "Do you believe she's responsible for your state?" "Well.. no, but--" "Tell me why." "Because she's young and has never touched magic directly until now. And she flung herself over me against my plea, to keep my candle going. Magic, at least as I understand it, responds very well to emotion and wishing. If she was willing to go so far.." Jensen sighed heavily. "It's my fault. When I came, the fire took away her father. I was also the reason she went too far." "Like you, I don't believe that she is responsible for your state. Only that I feel magic from her. Maybe one day you will know why. It is not something I can see simply from wishing into the likes of a potion. However, if you didn't cast yourself into the pumpkin then purposefully set the house to burning, it can't possibly be your fault. Cassia, too, made the choice to be with you in the end. Which is why I've decided not to test you." Kalla huffed, lightly shrugging her shoulders. "Test?" Jensen asked, genuinely curious yet with an air of caution. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. He didn't pry. Instead, he sat quietly as she stared towards the fireplace. Her eyes closed the moment that he thought he was beginning to understand the emotion swimming behind them. "Regardless, I don't think I can see it that way. The moment I became this squash in Cassia's life, I stole her father from her. I never bore a single child. Or held one in my arms. It's her luck, I'm sure, that's made sure she wasn't quite so young when I came about. I don't think there will ever be anything I can do to fix it. Meanwhile, her travels with me only expose her to more danger. Even you could see that and said as much." "Well, I'm not so different from you myself. I too, carry a guilt so unrelenting." Kalla said quietly. For the first time, with a tone heavy with grief and remembering. Jensen's mind formed more questions against his will. He was curious but still could not trust her. Even after her show of kindness. What weighed on her? And was it responsible for her little home just shy of danger? Afterall, something had to explain why she tucked herself away in such a place. He supposed, also, she could simply enjoy the solitude. Kalla stretched then gave Jensen a couple of playful slaps, listening to the slight echo of her beats and smiled as he complained of abuse. "Abuse? Again, you're quite clueless aren't you Mr. Jensen? If I wanted to abuse you, I'd simply bake you into a pie and keep the little one." She watched uncertainty and displeasure creep along his face. It was quite astonishing really-Jensen had a complex range of motion as a pumpkin. His expressions were so sharp and unmistakable. When he was human, Kalla wondered, did he also have a mustache like the vines mimicked on his face? She got the feeling he was handsome. His type usually were. "Or," Kalla continued as she dipped behind her curtain and grabbed her coat, "I could pluck the candle from your center. Easy." "You wouldn't!" Jensen hissed. A tuft of fire sprouted from his top. It disapeared soon after. She'd done so much and yet he was still so shaken by her. It was likely for the best. If he was so easily befriended, he'd pose more a danger to Cassia. Still, the way he was now.. "Of course not. Why should I waste my hard work?" She smirked. "You said the candle was much easier than your potions." Jensen retorted with a hint of annoyance. She was a strange woman. He never had any idea what she was thinking. "Work is work." She said with a proud nod. "No different for the lesser kinds. Speaking of, I've somewhere to be. Be a dear and look after the house while I'm away? I'll only be a day or two." She stifled a laugh as his mouth dropped open on her way out the door. And heard his complaints about having a stranger care for her house without letting them make a proper decision first. Jensen was so honest that he didn't do well controlling his feelings. It was one of the reasons she fully expected her home to be in one piece when she returned, but she also needed to leave. Seeing Cassia so young and full of life brought her a suffering anew. Having dinner with her at the table reminded her of the past. It felt like a wound being stitched closed yet painfully snipped open again all at once. It was true she had work to do, but she needed time to face her again. ... The next day, although Jensen told her to leave it well enough alone, Cassia cleaned what she could in the house. She couldn't sit still after all Kalla had done for them. Her pains were gone and Jensen was better than new. He'd even said that he could see tethers again. She felt invigorated. Cleaning seemed as good an idea as any. She eventually convinced Jensen to help her dust the place with his puffs of warm air. He protested and claimed that he would, with his luck, set the entire house on fire before Kalla returned. Then she'd turn him into dessert, but Cassia didn't give up until he grew tired of arguing against her silence. She'd never doubted him for a moment. As Cassia finished cleaning, she noticed a shelf in the kitchen holding seven wooden figurines. All but one-a bear with long fur-unfinished. Beside them was a small tool with a metal edge and a red handle, but she found it broken. She picked the figurines up and found her way to the table. Jensen hopped the length of the floor and noisily onto the chair beside her. It was the first time she'd seen him cross any distance by himself. He didn't seem to enjoy it. "I don't know if you should be touching her things. Notwithstanding anything else that you've already handled. Never mind it. You've practically fiddled with every corner of the house. Do you know what those are?" He asked. Cassia gave a curt nod. She couldn't explain without needing to carve a message into the table. Which hardly seemed appropriate. She could tell just by looking at them, though they only had part of their shape. A bird with a long tail, a snake, a sheep with large ears, a frog, a kitten, and a wolf. The bear was the only complete one of the set. She unsheathed the dagger from her waist and began to work away at the wood. And winced each time she cut her finger. Jensen warned her that she would be missing her thumb by the time Kalla returned if she kept it up. She sighed and placed the dagger on the table. And when it floated to the air in front of her, swiping away a clean cut of wood she'd started, Cassia's eyes shifted towards Jensen in surprise. "Are you..?" Jensen started quietly. Cassia shook her head with her hands out in front of her. She hadn't done anything at all. Had something happened? Or had her mother's dagger always had a mind of its own? Eventually, the novelty of it wore off enough that they could focus on the task at hand. Cassia motioned slowly with her fingers in this or that direction and made shapes against the table with her hands. Slowly but surely, guiding the wooden works to completion. And when they were done, as they marveled at their work, Cassia was filled with a sense of deja-vu. A feeling so strong and bittersweet, it made her weep. ... The next afternoon, Kalla strode into the house and kicked off her shoes with a sigh. She'd almost forgotten how much she hated leaving the house. She promised herself not to run away again. She was too old for it anyway. Then, she paused as she took a look around. Almost certain, for an instant, that she'd walked into the wrong house. Kalla let out a joyful sigh. "Oh my. I've been meaning to tidy up. Cassia did you do all of this?" She asked, quickly crossing the floor to squeeze her tight. Cassia nodded and gestured to Jensen too. He had done all the dusting. Kalla laughed. "It feels like a different place in here. Thank you both." She smiled as she dropped onto the sofa. When Jensen saw her pleased expression fade the moment Cassia placed the figurines in her hands, he immediately thought that he should have stopped her after all. Kalla wrapped her arms around them tightly and met their worried expressions. "I'd tried to finish them but I had no clue where to begin. Or I didn't understand him well enough to know what they were. Or perhaps, I simply couldn't do it." "Him?" Jensen asked softly, not wanting to pressure her but not quite understanding. Even if he didn't trust her, there was something about watching someone so strong on the verge of breaking that garnered more than a fair share of sympathy. He hadn't been able to read her. Now, there was no mistaking the familiar haunt of sadness. It had a way of chasing after you, like a nightmare. He was weak to sadness. "You're not the only one with guilt. Didn't I tell you that, Mr. Jensen? Just the other day I said so." She mumbled in a quick, broken voice. "You did." He answered back, as Cassia went to comfort her. Her shoulders shook as she bent forward, almost as if to protect the little wooden creatures between her arms. "You asked if I was a witch. If I could conjure powerful spells, I would never have lost my son." She gently as pushed a few stands of Cassia's hair behind her ear with a trembling hand. "He was about your age, Cassia. Bright and beautiful. And when he got sick he looked to me much the way you did the day you arrived on my doorstep. And I heard it as clearly as my eyes saw it. The fear. The pleading. "I took to the potions. I made everything I could think of, old and new, but I hardly knew magic then. Nor was I any good at it. I'd only known of it because he taught me to look for it. Children are good at spotting anomaly. Even the magical sort. "Winter loved to use his hands. One day he took an interest in woodwork. He helped me with the table and chairs, and even the shelves. Then he wanted to carve art pieces. That interest piqued days before his illness. "Like any afraid, desperate fool, I promised him that he could finish them. I promised to make him mushroom soup until he got better. Then, often forgot. Worse, that I would make him better and he would go on to make enough pieces to replace my potions. I wonder why I told him such a lie? Was it to give him hope? Or had it been a selfish desire for myself? "It was so long ago now, but I've faced him in every corner of the house since then. In every whisper of the wind and every item left in its place beneath the mess. Even when I told myself that I needed to let him go. He would have wanted that. But what kind of mother would that make me? "He believed I could do anything. He believed in me so much and smiled at me every morning. He smiled even when he knew he was fading away from me. Then, in a cruelty he'd never understand, asked me to do the same. I try and I try. "I smile. You've seen it. I promised that, but I promised I would save him too. And I failed. I lost him. The doctors couldn't offer a solution. I had something they didn't have; magic. Still, I wasn't good enough. My potions weren't good enough. All of that, and I couldn't save him." She sobbed. Jensen felt her heartache. He was never particularly good with consoling anyone. Not even himself. He would have to leave it to Cassia. The only thing he could offer her was a simple truth. However bittersweet. "I cannot absolve you of your troubles nor your guilt. All I can do is offer you, and Winter both, our condolences, and our thanks. If you'd never lost him to sickness, it is likely that you'd have stopped your potions and using magic. And we would not be here because of it. Or at the very least, I wouldn't be. You may not have saved your son but, in our predicament, you saved us." ... "Don't let Jensen talk you into anything strange." Kalla warned at the door on their way out. "Nonsense! You were the one who talked a child into your home in the first place!" Jensen scoffed. Cassia watched them with an amused smile. It was interesting how easily the corners of her lips upturned after so long. She had smiled at her father every day in their decrepit house and lost it when the magic fire swallowed it up. She didn't know how long it had been but it almost felt too soon. After the story of her loss, Kalla spent many days in bed with her curtains drawn. Cassia and the flying squirrel--now named Mushroom--kept her company. Every night, they'd lay with her in bed until the three of them fell asleep. It felt sad and beautiful. Sometimes, it made her remember her mother. Or being squished between her parents at an age too young to register. She hadn't known she still had such memories. She remembered her mother's hair that almost touched the floor. And the flecks of light that dotted her skin and twinkled like pale stars at night. She remembered that she smelled like sun and cinnamon-honey. As if she bathed in it simply from stepping outdoors. Cassia remembered her father's youthfulness, too. His hair, full of the luster it lacked the last she saw him. And how his eyes lit up every time the two of them passed her around between their arms. Sometimes, the memories hurt so much that she cried. A few nights, Kalla cried along with her and Cassia wondered if she also had memories, maybe of her son, filling her head and tugging at her, heart. Between then and now, Kalla became similar to the way she was their first day inside her quiet little house. Only, more beautiful and she smiled with her teeth and her eyes. Now, they were leaving. After many days, nights, and conversations. Because Jensen said they had imposed for long enough. Cassia thought he was also in favor of a break since Kalla spent a portion of everyday teasing and taunting him to no end. Kalla rubbed their cheeks together with a playful squeal then handed Cassia a small bag. "I can't send you off with nothing, now, can I? There's water with a cap, leftovers from yesterday, bread, a couple of potions you might need, and a new journal and pen. Use it well and don't be strangers. I've sewn something of mine into the pocket on the front so you two can follow it back here any time. Come visit often." Cassia gave her one last hug before she ran towards the oak tree to say her goodbyes to Mushroom as well. Jensen waited near the door. He wondered if he was the only one who saw. Cassia, these days, looked different. Even from the back, she was glowing. Her mood wasn't so bad anymore and she finished meals hungrily every day. He wondered if she felt anything like happiness. "When you look at her, what do you see?" Kalla asked at his side as she leaned against the door frame. "How do you mean?" Jensen asked, not bothering to turn towards her. He could see Mushroom on Cassia's shoulder, dropping fungi in her hands. "What will you do with that child, Mr. Jensen, after you've reached your goal?" Kalla asked. The wind whistled softly, twirling loose strands of grass and leaves. "Or what if you never reach it? Is she something you can toss aside?" "I.." Jensen tried to string the words together in his mind but was unable to do so. What did he see when he looked at her? He didn't know. She was so bright sometimes he thought it would hurt his eyes. "Clueless again, Mr. Jensen? You'll have to decide. The two of you are traveling in search of your body, aren't you? Either you will be successful or you won't. In either case, this will not last forever. "If you cannot look after her, bring her back here. If you have any intention of abandoning her, Cassia is better off with me." And with those words, she went inside and shut the door behind her. Jensen waited, and when Cassia returned and took him up into her arms, the two of them walked back into the dark. Away from the oak tree, the protection that Kalla's house provided. Off into the open in search of another tether. ... A year later, the two of them saw Drummel's image emerge from Auburn's blade. They'd run into a crazed man hunting for magic artifacts. By then, they had collected a small fortune. Not in number, but in value. With intention to take them to Kalla's for safekeeping. The hunter hid himself away under a blanket of invisibility and assumed a young girl carrying a pumpkin to be an easy mark. The man was unaware, of course, that Cassia carried a blade at the hip with a mind of its own. The Dagger unsheathed without any need for Jensen's involvement, and struck the artifact hunter's chest. And when they turned around to face the attacker, they were startled to find her father there, holding the knife. Drummel's body glistened, not altogether solid. In very much the same way as the tethers they searched for every day. It lasted only moments before it was gone, pulled back into the blade, and Cassia dropped to her knees. Drummel had been by her side ever since the day of the fire and they had never known. It was then, too, that they realized Auburn's dagger had been responsible. It was, or at least held, the powerful magic that drew Jensen to the pumpkin and trapped his soul within it. If Jensen had to guess, the blade channeled Drummel's spirit too when the fire took him. And as if by fate, something else caught his eye. When the artifact hunter fell, a sphere dropped from around his neck and rolled across the ground. When Jensen's plump, round frame and blazing eyes reflected off its surface, he believed his mind was playing tricks. He extended a vine to grab it, a recently discovered ability put to use, and nervously turned it over to inspect it. It was the very same cursed gem. The very stone that took a mother away from her son. The dark artifact that ignited his intrigue into the magic world. From it sprung a golden tether. One that smelled like warm wood, his mother's cooking and flowers. That felt like soft soil to the touch. So convincing that he'd thought for a moment he had fingers again. He was overtaken with the feeling of his bittersweet journey since becoming a jack-o-lantern and remembering his mother's garden breeze. He felt Cassia hug him tight and knew without question that it carried many loud feelings within it. A mingling of his and some of her own. Unpredictably complex and demanding of attention. "Are you alright?" He asked as he looked towards their attacker. He never stirred. Blood soaked the man's white shirt and pooled underneath it, slowly trailing off beside him. Jensen was sure Drummel wouldn't have wanted her to witness such a scene. Even though they'd seen him, there was no use thinking such things. Regardless of what anyone wanted, Cassia had seen it anyway. "I'm sorry you saw such terrible things." Cassia nodded then scooped him up. "Your father was with you all along." He spoke. She nodded again and he felt a tear slide down his shell. Jensen was convinced it became more sensitive with time. Almost like a second skin. She pointed to the gem and the tether beyond it. What were the chances that he would see that gem again? Or that he'd know without doubt, he was staring at the way to an answer? With what odds would he find his body on the other side? Kalla's words struck him anew. "What will you do with that child, Mr. Jensen, after you've reached your goal?" She asked. Cassia's small hands gently guided him forward and Kalla's voice retreated to the back of his mind. Jensen hesitated, then turned with a hop to face her. "You'll accompany me this time as well, won't you?" She took him up in her arms again as silent as always: it was an answer within itself. And with her dagger back around her waist and the hunter's blanket to render them invisible to any more prying eyes, that Jensen swiped with his vine, they followed the tether. On the other side, in a large field, covered by a layer of dust and leaves the color of fall, Jensen chuckled and made peace with his fate. He had never quite been the lucky sort. And he knew it a possibility from the start even though he couldn't face it without knowing. All that was left of him now were bones. Still dressed in the same dark sweater and brown trench coat he last remembered. Only his broken glasses and his overgrown hair differed from his memory. Cassia cried for him as they stood over it, but he did not share her grief. He didn't understand it, but the finality relieved him. He did not feel unfortunate or lost. His mind was clear. So unburdened, in fact, that Kalla's words felt like peace. "What will you do with that child, Mr. Jensen, after you've reached your goal? Or what if you never reach it?" He was convinced that he could let things be. Sure that, even if he'd found his body the same as the day his soul left it behind, he would have made the same decision. What did he see when he looked at her? The sun. Bright and unhidden. He wanted to see who Cassia would be. Although a pair of arms might have come in handy. Maybe one day magic would lead them to a different solution to his problem. Or maybe he was meant to be Cassia's magical jack-o-lantern until the end. If so, he would simply wait and see what she did with her light until the day his went out. Either way, Jensen didn't think it sounded unlucky at all. The chilly October evening that Cassia's father finally fulfilled his promise after many years of disappointment, neither of them knew their lives were about to change. There was no way to know that she would start on a journey to the unknown. They had no inkling that Drummel's promise would bring Cassia life-long companionship of the immortal, pumpkin variety. Or that they would find a way back to each other again by way of magical circumstances, and Auburn's treasured dagger. Nor could Jensen have guessed he would be free to look upon the future, untethered by the past that haunted him because of it. They hoped their mothers were watching...

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  • LP2T COMIC | ADMcreations/Lifeline: Path to Tomorrow

    To Bottom FanArt! LP2T Ep. 0 Prologue. Thank you in advance for reading! In ep. 0 we get a glimpse into Yura's head and a sense of her past.. This prologue was last UPDATED January, 2024 <3 Go LP2T Ep. 1: Beg. In Ep 1, As Yura travels home in Boa City, from an unknown starting point, she happens across an unfortunate situation between an "innocent" and Enforcers who are collecting Nair (money). ​ Go LP2T Ep. 2: Your Puppets In Ep 2, Yura has quickly put an end to the conflicts of last episode, but through her narritive thoughts, we understand that this has not come easy. Go LP2T Ep. 3: Promise. In Ep 3, Yura returns home and introduces us to Vinnie and Sami, two people who found her the night she died. Go LP2T Ep. 4: Not Enough. In Ep 4, Yura's narrative thoughts give another glimpse into her past as she heads to the next city. She plans to return "home," but only after her goals have been realized. ​ Go LP2T Ep. 5: Nair. In Ep 5, We catch a glimpse of Resin, a new character, and Yura steps in for another "innocent" who is accused of stealing Nair (money) from an Enforcer. Go LP2T Ep. 6: The Blue Guardian. In Ep 6, The lost boy Albert is reunited with his sister. Yura pays for damages and meets a new Enforcer who might not be like the rest..? Go LP2T Ep. 7: Resin. In Ep 7, Yura notices a boy following her through the crowd who introduces himself as Resin--a talkative child who quickly realizes she is the Blue Guardian. Yura senses that there's something more to him but she can't exactly put her finger on it.. ​ Go LP2T Ep. 8: Orphan. In Ep 8, Yura's journey has just begun but it seems like Resin will be tagging along. And from the looks of it, has secrets of his own. Go LP2T Ep. 9: What's Wrong. In Ep 9, Resin asks Yura questions that have unintended consequences when they tread the line of her past. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Rythe and Hazi--who also seem to be connected to Yura's past. Go LP2T Ep. 10: Chained Posessions. In Ep 10, we take our first peek into Rythe's mind and circumstances of his torment, when he wakes from a dream. A servant, Clem, brings him a communicator that sends him off on another unwelcomed mission. Go LP2T Ep. 11: Afraid of the Dark. In Ep 11, Yura wakes up in the cave surrounded by darkness. When Resin clues her in on what happened before her fall, amd she realizes another one of her secrets is out--not only has Resin found out she is the Blue Guardian, but he's even seen her face! Go LP2T Ep. 12: Perfectly Unnatural Light. In Ep 12, Resin's words bring back memories of a conversation with Sami and Vinnie wherein Yura is told the story of how a 'light' led the way to her body after her death. Go LP2T Ep. 13: Perfectly Unnatural Light Pt2. In Ep 13, Sami continues to describe what occured after finding Yura. A unique combination of mystery and an unorthodox approach makes for an interesting start to lifelong relationships..? Go LP2T Ep. 14: Shadow. In Ep 14, we are introduced to a new character, Honora, and sift through some of her thoughts. Buried beneath a smile, a secret plagues her. Go LP2T Ep. 15: A Monster's Dream. In Ep 15, Accompanied by August (who is known almost exclusively by another name), Chaos has seemingly just returned home when she is summoned by the ever-mysterious Reno. Go LP2T Ep. 16: Beautiful Incident. In Ep 16, Via another character, Ania, we discover the 'incident' Reno referenced in the previous episode. Ania struggles with how she should view Chaos: Is she an exhausted human and savior, or is she the homicidal monster that everyone says she is? Go LP2T Ep. 17: Maybe. In Ep 17, Amara, Ania's younger sister, worriedly confronts her after days of gloom. Is she right to think that her sister's mood has something to do with the girl she'd seen leaving the resturant? She recounts the 'incident' days prior from her perspective, ultimately afflicted by the memories making their way to her concious. Go LP2T Ep. 18: A Bad Feeling. In Ep 18, Yura and Resin make it out of the caves. Their relatively peaceful evening takes an eerie turn when a server explains that they've come at a less than ideal time. What's Hell Hour? Does the feeling in Yura's stomach signify trouble ahead, or had the man's talk caused unneccesary worry? Go LP2T Ep. 19: Threads. In Ep 19, Yura and Resin are off to shop for new clothes. A sullen moment turns to hope, and a conversation about motivations leads to questions about Enforcers. Are they really so different from the rest of the citizens in a corrupt world? Should she give them the benefit of the doubt? Go LP2T Ep. 20: Disappointment. In Ep 20, Yura and Resin happen across an unfortunate scene after leaving the shopkeep. Yura offers a solution to the problem to save an innocent, extending an olive branch. Go LP2T Announcement1: Moved Plus! Yura and many of the LP2T characters explain the move from webtoons to ADMCreations. You'll find a simple explanation of things coming to the website, the role that badges play in free prizes, becoming a member, the coming option for bonus episodes, and More. Go LP2T Ep. 21: You. In Ep 21, When the Enforcers aren't willing to compromise, Yura attempts to protect an innocent named Mira. Only, things quickly become hectic and Yura faces an attack to shield Resin. Go LP2T Ep. 22: Fault. In Ep 22, Yura realizes that the wound acquired from protecting Resin further endangers them and decides to get Mira out of harm's way with no time to reunite. Meanwhile, separated from Yura, Resin anxiously pieces together last events. Go LP2T Ep. 23: Why. In Ep 23, things take a turn for the worse. The Enfocers go after an already injured Yura and the innocent, Mira. Resin hurries to warn Yura about the reinforcements and a concerned Sybil is not far behind. Go LP2T Ep. 24: Counter. In Ep 24, Yura has an emotional break and her counter to the Enforcers' attack sends a dangerous whirlwind of power across the city. Sybil bears witness as one such Enforcer snatches Resin away during the distraction. Go To Top

  • LP2T #0 | ADMCreationsLLC

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  • LP2T #2 | ADMCreationsLLC

    BACK TO EP LIST TO BOTTOM Previous BACK TO TOP Next comments debug Comments (2) Fazer login Write a comment Write a comment Ordenar por: Mais recente Moon 15 de ago. de 2023 She looks cool Fu#k made him beg but stole some of the money? Cold When he kissed her hand 🫴🤲 Curtir ~Tiffany H.~ 29 de mai. de 2023 Yaassssssss!!!!! Lol, bet he will think twice about harassing people from now on. Curtir

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