Friday, October 31, 2008

Chapter 112: Eventual Release

~ As Jaden settled to the pace that Takyle was setting, he allowed himself to relax just enough that he was able to block out most of the throbbing pain radiating from various points on his body. Behind him Andrew quietly hummed unknown melodies, the stanzas interspersed with an occasional observation about their immediate surroundings. The group walked on through the day, pausing only briefly for lunch and a short break before moving on again. The path continued on a downhill trend, with brief stints upwards over smaller rises, though the scenery remained similarly uneventful.

As the hours passed, Jaden found himself slipping into a melancholy that he couldn't shake. With each step he felt himself sink a little deeper still. In the back of his mind a constant nagging voice threatened to tell him the reason for it and he continually shoved the thought away, only to have it return again and again, pressing against his defenses, pushing through the cracks.

A mantra set itself up in his mind, chanting over and over, "Just keep walking, just keep walking."

After the sun slipped behind the horizon and the slopes had faded to black Takyle finally called a halt to their long march.

"Alright, we're going to eat, sleep for a couple of hours and then head out again. I want to get off of this stupid mountain."

Jaden and Andrew both nodded and silently went about pitching their impromptu camp and fixing something nondescript for dinner. The meal was eaten for the most part in silence and in the dark each member of Team 6 crawled into their sleeping bag for a fleeting bit of rest.

Jaden lay staring up at the stars far above and the deeper blackness surrounding each point of light, wishing for sleep and lying in continual disappointment. Eventually Jaden's vision blurred and he gave into the thoughts that were screaming to be heard, until he was startled by Andrew's voice.

"Jay, why are you still awake?" he murmured. Jaden sat up and looked over to where he knew Andrew was supposed to be sleeping.

"How did you know?"

"We've been rooming together for nearly a year dude. Your breathing changes."


"So what's wrong?"

Jaden sat for a long moment in silence, staring out into the dark. Finally he spoke.

"Are you scared to be around me, Andy?"

"If I was would I be sitting here in the dark with you, knowing that you're armed?" asked Andrew, his voice carrying his smile. "But um... What would make you say something like that Jay?" The quiet that surrounded them was heavy while Jaden thought about his response.

"Well... What happened with Kathleen... I don't... I didn't really think-" Jaden's failing speech ground to a halt when Andrew interrupted his stammering.

"You mean because of the fact that you fully intended to kill that woman before I stopped you?"


"What did she do to you, Jaden?"

"How does he know?"

"Because he can read you like a book."

"I want to tell him everything."

"I don't know how."

"Just say it. Say it now."


"Just say it!"

"Kathleen tried to rape me." The words spilled out quickly and Jaden regretted them immediately. Inexplicably he felt a rush of shame.

"What's wrong with you? You didn't do anything."

Andrew was silent for a long time and for a moment Jaden imagined that his friend was judging him. Surely Andrew would think that he had brought it on himself somehow.

"Don't be such an idiot. He's on your side," Jaden reminded himself harshly.

When Andrew did finally speak his voice was edged with icy anger.

"What happened? What did she do?"

Jaden drew a deep and somewhat shaky breath, allowing himself a moment of relief over Andrew's response, and then he began to describe what had happened. He left nothing out and Andrew was silent through the entire narrative, though Jaden could feel his eyes on him through the darkness. When Jaden had finished pouring his heart out the stillness of the night settled itself around them once again. Eventually Jaden heard Andrew sigh.

"Andrew... What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking that I was an idiot for getting you into this." ~

Monday, October 27, 2008

Chapter 111: Indistinct

~ Jaden was not awake long enough to see the traps that Andrew and Takyle were discussing put into place. As soon as they were done eating Jaden cleaned up their mess kits and then, at Andrew's nod, curled up on top of his sleeping bag and passed out. Three hours later he woke, shaking in the chill air, the left side of his body slightly numb from laying in one position on the rocky ground. He fumbled around with the zipper of his bag and took a half-asleep glance around to locate Andrew and Takyle's still forms in the dark before crawling into his sleeping bag. Now that he was aware of just how uncomfortable he was, Jaden found it more difficult to fall asleep again, but it wasn't long before his exhaustion overcame even that and his thoughts slipped away. After another three hours passed, Jaden was startled awake when Andrew placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Morning Beautiful," Andrew whispered. Jaden sat up stiffly and looked around at the surrounding darkness.

"If you say so," he said, scrubbing his palms across his face.

"It will be getting light soon; we need to be moving."

"Ok. I'm on it." Jaden blearily dragged himself out of his bag and began rolling it up while Andrew moved off and fired up their camp burner again. By the time Jaden and Takyle had stowed their gear Andrew had warmed up what was left of last night's dinner and mixed some instant coffee.

Jaden scarfed down his portion of breakfast as quickly as possible, more to get it over with than to conserve time. Aging hadn't really helped the gruel at all, but the coffee wasn't bad. A quick glance around showed that Andrew was already done eating and packing up the tiny stove as Takyle finished off her coffee.

"Do you have a plan for today Takyle?" Jaden asked.

"Other than "Try to make progress," no." Takyle hoisted her pack onto her shoulder after shoving her tin cup into one of the pockets. Jaden nodded and followed suit while Andrew swallowed two of the painkillers that the medic had given him.

"Well I'm ready to go," Andrew said with a good deal more cheer than the situation merited. Takyle's mouth turned up in a smile for a moment before she silently turned and led off down the sloping mountain path. ~

Friday, October 24, 2008

Chapter 110: Too Close For Comfort

~ It didn't take long for Team 6 to cover the surrounding territory, but by the time they were finished the sun was already sinking low on the western horizon. They regrouped South of where they had scaled the cliff at Takyle's call. On that side of the mountain the grade was much more shallow and the granite was clothed with a thin layer of rocky soil. A little further down the slope the occasional scrubby tree had managed to get a toehold among the boulders. Stunted and bent to the wind, but still standing nonetheless.

Takyle stood on top of a large rock, gazing down.

"So guys, there seems to be a path here. It looks like it winds down the mountain."

"Awesome, are you thinking that's what you want us to follow?" asked Andrew.

"Well I don't see any other clues, unless one of you two found something?" Takyle said, hopping down from her vantage point. Andrew shook his head and Jaden joined in.

"Alright then. Our options seem to be to go ahead and make camp right here, or we could follow the path down for a little ways while there's still daylight. If we do that though we have no idea what we might run into."

The three people looked between one another for a second. Finally Jaden spoke.

"Listen, I am sore and exhausted and, make no mistake, I would love to collapse right here. But if you guys want to go on for a little while then I'll do it. I still want to win." Andrew nodded.

"Well Jay, I'm all about the winning side of things, but I did promise you some rest, and to be perfectly truthful I wouldn't mind a bit myself . My stomach is killing me, or at least trying damn hard. Ta?"

"Even though it doesn't feel like we've made it very far today, we've been hitting it pretty hard in the last 24 hours, so yes, let's go ahead and find somewhere to camp. I will suggest going at least down to one of those little trees so that we can have a fire though."

"I'd support that," Jaden agreed.

"Ok, let's do it then," said Andrew with over the top cheerfulness.

As it turned out, even at the base of the tiny trees there were very few fallen branches and what twigs they did find were not anything that would feed a fire for more than a couple of minutes.

"I guess maybe it's time to break out that camp burner that we've been hauling around for all this time," suggested Andrew.

"I suppose it is." Takyle found a large patch of ground that was relatively level and set her pack down. "I think I have that. Shit, I hope it still works. Remember, when we fell into that stupid dungeon thing my pack was open."

"Sit down Jay," Andrew ordered and Jaden did as he was directed without a complaint. Takyle quickly located the little burner and its tank of fuel and set them up on a flat rock.

"Ok, the moment of truth." Takyle hit the primer and auto-ignition buttons and held them down. For a moment the small contraption sputtered impotently before a small blue flame suddenly burst forth. All three team members cheered quietly and gathered around their tiny beacon.

"Fantastic. Warm food. And it will be for reals warm because I know that this fire is actually here," said Andrew.

"Yup, warm food. If you can call it food," Takyle agreed.

Jaden didn't really care if it was really warm or even really food. All he wanted was to have something in his stomach before he just gave up and let himself fall asleep. Luckily, Takyle and Andrew seemed to be similarly motivated and it wasn't long at all before there was a little pot of something nutrient rich and steaming over the flame.

"Should we take watches, or do you feel confident that we're away from danger?" asked Andrew.

"I don't know that it's possible to be away from danger in this race," Takyle answered. "At least it's beginning to look that way." She leaned over to stir the pot on the burner and then picked up Andrew and Jaden's mess kits and spooned out some of the colorless gruel for them before doing the same for herself. "I guess that means we should probably rotate watches. Unless of course you feel that you sleep light enough to hear someone sneaking up on us."

"He sleeps very lightly," Jaden contributed helpfully between bites. "If I get up he knows." Andrew shook his head.

"Yeah, but I'm not sure I'd gamble our safety on that... Unless... I could rig a couple of traps real quick. A trip wire maybe. We are surrounded by gravel, which is hard to be silent on as well. I don't want to take undue risks, but I doubt I can overstate exactly how tired I am. If I had the first watch I'd be afraid that I'd go to sleep."

"Yeah, me too... I like the idea of the traps. Let's do that," Takyle decided. "I'll help you with whatever you have to do for that after we're done eating."

"Sounds like a plan," said Andrew. ~

Monday, October 20, 2008

Chapter 109: Purely Academic

~ For a moment all three members of Team 6 stared up the ramp in disbelief. Finally Jaden spoke.

"Couldn't be that easy could it?" Andrew shook his head in response.

"Seems doubtful. But then, I've been surprised by this race before, so who am I to talk."

Takyle placed a foot on the ramp experimentally. When nothing happened she continued several steps up, and with one last look around Jaden and Andrew followed her up towards the sunlight.

"Watch yourself, Ta," Andrew directed. "There could be someone waiting."

"Yes Andrew," Takyle whispered down. "I am fully aware that I might die any second now."

"Ok, just so you're looking out for it."

"Hell, I really hope Takyle doesn't die right now," thought Jaden. "That would be damn inconvenient for any number of people. And it would suck." Jaden realized that he had begun to like Takyle. He rather saw her as more his friend now, as opposed to just his boss. He couldn't say when it had happened, but the dynamic had changed somewhere along the way, and he was fairly sure that she felt the same. That being the case, he was rather resistant to the idea of watching her get shot down in cold blood, and hurried to draw even with her on the ramp. If Kathleen had given orders to shoot someone, he figured it would probably be him.

Jaden held his breath as they rose above ground level, having half convinced himself to expect a bullet through the temple at any moment. When nothing happened he glanced around for danger, then gave a sigh of relief and hopped up and off of the ramp to one side as Takyle did the same on the other. Andrew hurried off the ramp and knelt to take the third point of the triangle.

"Clear," Takyle called quietly and both Andrew and Jaden responded in kind. Andrew pointed off in the direction of the setting sun.

"I think that's the outcropping that we tried to get out of the rain under."

"Well that's almost poetic," said Takyle with a hint of bitterness. "We're literally right back to where we started."

"Well I do love me some friggin' poetry," Andrew replied.

"Don't we all Andy, don't we all," Takyle muttered. "We should get moving. I have no idea what we're supposed to do next and it's going to be dark very soon. I'd prefer not to be stumbling around blindly on a mountain top if I have a choice in the matter."

Jaden stood and adjusted the shoulder staps of his pack.

"Maybe that map had something to do with what we're supposed to do next."

Takyle shook her head. "Well if it did it's too late now. I wasn't lying when I told them that I'd lost it. I noticed it was gone just before we fell into that dungeon."

"Can you remember what was on the map?" asked Andrew.

"Yes, quite clearly. It wasn't detailed at all. It showed the foothills and the woods and this mountain. It had a path leading from where we came out of that quiz show thing to the point where we climbed the mountain. Everything other than that was pretty vague."

"That's not very helpful. Though I am glad that you remember it or we would be left wondering just exactly how helpful it would or would not have been," said Andrew. Takyle nodded absently.

"Yes well, now a plan would be good. I really would prefer not to stand here counting dust motes. I think maybe we should take a quick look around, make sure that we didn't miss anything in the rain, and then see if we can't find somewhere relatively secure to make camp."

"Good, yes, food, rest, good," Andrew grunted.

"Well then let's hop to it," Takyle ordered. "But keep a sharp eye out."

Jaden very much intended to keep a sharp eye out. He twisted his shoulders and heard his back pop loudly. The idea of taking yet another plummet into a rocky abyss was not at all tempting at the moment. ~

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chapter 108: Stage Right

~ Team 6 jogged across the open passage spanning the marble court and back through halls towards the stairwell that they had come up from the dungeon in.

"How much time do you think we have?" asked Takyle.

"I have no clue," answered Andrew. "We may have Kathleen's entire guard tied up. On the other hand there might be an army waiting for us around the next corner. There's really no way to tell."

"Well that's reassuring."

When they reached the door to the stairwell Takyle pulled it open and waited for a second to listen. Finally she slipped through with Andrew and Jaden right behind her and they began to climb. For the most part they remained as silent as possible, but what little noise there was echoed throughout the stairwell, making Jaden very worried about who else might hear the ruckus.

After what Jaden counted to be another seven flights, the stairs simply ended with a door just off what would be the last landing. Looking wary, Takyle pushed it open and peered through cautiously. She turned back to Andrew with a scowl.

"What the hell? It's just a little room."

"Do you think it's a trap?" Andrew asked, stepping up to take a look for himself.

"I don't know, but I think I might have to kill me a woman," growled Takyle.

"Well before you go and slaughter anybody let's have a closer look inside. Maybe there's more to this." Andrew stepped into the tiny room and gazed around. Indeed there didn't seem to be any other outlets of any kind. Takyle waited impatiently on the landing and Jaden stood in the doorway watching as Andrew made a quick circuit of the room, gently tapping at the walls. Finally he shook his head.

"I don't know what the deal is, but if there is a hidden passage in here, I can't find it."

"Um, Andy, what's that?" asked Jaden, pointing up at the top of the far wall. Just barely set out from the ceiling was what appeared to be a thin handle, painted white to match everything else.

"I don't know what that is... But judging from the way the ceiling panels are arranged, it could very well be the exit. If I give you a boost up do you think you could reach it?"

"Yes, I think so, but why don't I lift Takyle up since she's lighter than me?" suggested Jaden.

"What are we doing with me now?" Takyle asked from the door. She directed her gaze toward what Jaden and Andrew were looking at. "Oh hey, a handle. I totally missed that one. Yeah, why don't one or more of you guys lift me up there."

Without further discussion, Andrew and Jaden linked their fingers together to form a place for Takyle's foot and lifted her up to grab the handle. She gave it a quick jerk and suddenly natural light flooded into the small room as one of the ceiling panels pivoted downwards. Jaden and Andrew gently lowered Takyle to the floor while she kept her fingers hooked in the handle, pulling the panel down until it formed a long ramp from floor to what had been the ceiling. The top surface of the ramp looked as if it was either covered in, or made of, stone; presumably so that it could blend into the mountain top when closed.

Takyle looked back and forth between her teammates and then up into the sunlight.

"Oh my gosh... I think we're out..." ~

Monday, October 13, 2008

Chapter 107: Conservation

~ Jaden made quick work of securing their three prisoners' hands behind their backs. As an extra safeguard he looped a zip tie through the backs of each of the guards' belts and then through their wrist bindings. Once they were all tied, Andrew slipped his knife into his belt and pulled the guards over to a set of locked cabinets that were built into one wall. He swiftly fastened the men to the metal handles with additional ties and then placed Ms. Scarlet in one of the wooden chairs.

At Andrew's nod Takyle lowered her pistol and picked up her pack, swinging it onto one shoulder.

"We have our stuff. Let's get the hell out of here."

"Do we know how?" asked Andrew. Takyle stepped over to where Ms. Scarlet was bound to the chair and pressed the cold barrel of the handgun into the side of her neck. For the first time Jaden saw fear in Kathleen's eyes. Considering the aura that Takyle was projecting, Jaden didn't blame her.

"Don't make me ask you this twice," Takyle warned in a low voice. "How do we get back to the surface?"

"Find the stairs and keep going up."

"That's it?" asked Takyle.


"If this doesn't work out for me you have my word that I will come back here and gut you alive." Takyle withdrew the gun and turned to the door. "Let's go," she ordered.

Jaden and Andrew grabbed up their packs and moved to follow Takyle as they buckled their utility belts back on. Jaden looked over at Andrew as he fastened the lower strap on his dagger's sheath around his thigh. In addition to that he also still had his own and Jaden's requisitioned knives tucked in his belt.

As soon as they were out in the hallway with the door shut behind them Andrew turned to Takyle.

"You're amazing. And where the deuce did you come by a gun?" Takyle grinned.

"It was in the desk. The drawer was open just a crack and I thought I saw something in there but I couldn't really tell what it was; when that one guy started getting all up in your grillz I thought that it was probably a good time to risk finding out."

"I'll say; well done."

Jaden was shaking slightly as he followed Andrew and Takyle back the way they had come and he suddenly felt sick to his stomach as he began to review everything that had just happened in his mind.

"Oh God, you were ready to kill someone. You were really going to do it."

"She's not real."

"That you know of! It could happen just the same in real life."

"No it couldn't. I wouldn't do that."

"Like hell you wouldn't."


A stride ahead Andrew and Takyle both turned around to look at Jaden.

"What is it?" asked Takyle. Jaden felt the moment draw out as he searched for something to say.

"I...I don't feel good."

"Well you don't look good either," Takyle answered, dryly.

"Is it very bad or can you keep going, Jay?" Andrew asked.

"I can keep going."

Takyle gave him a look that suggested she wondered why he had brought it up in the first place if that was the case. Andrew just nodded understandingly.

"As soon as we get out of here we'll see about getting some rest and food. Right, Ta?"

"Yeah, sure, but let's worry about getting out of here first." ~

Friday, October 10, 2008

Chapter 106: Where it Counts

~ Jaden stood in the middle of the room, clutching his journal and shaking with rage. One thought fought its way to the surface of his mind.

"This is ridiculous. You probably look like an idiot."

"I don't care."

In front of Jaden, Andrew held his ground, staring at the woman in the door.

"You know, I don't feel all that comfortable with the idea of dying today. I'm not sure why you've got it in for us, but I'm going to ask you to please move away from the doorway and keep your hands in sight."

"Oh, I don't think so," answered the woman. She beckoned with one finger and on either side of her a guard appeared in the wide doorway. Neither of them looked at all familiar except for in one respect. They were just as burly and dangerous looking as the ones hopefully still locked up downstairs. Jaden began to realize that they were going to have to fight again. Part of him clung vigorously to the overwhelming anger that was still inflaming his body and mind, the other part urged in a voice very reminiscent of Andrew's that it would be better to have a handle on his feelings in order to act in a more controlled and deliberate manner.

"Anyone can strike out when they're mad enough," he would say. "It takes a good fighter to know when to hold back."

In front of Jaden, Andrew had not yet wavered from his position. Jaden wondered what he was waiting for. Perhaps for one of the enemy to make the first move. If that was the case then he didn't have to wait very long. The man on the left of Ms. Scarlet began to step forward. Before the fellow's foot had touched the floor Jaden heard a drawer being jerked open behind him followed by the unmistakable, metallic sound of a round being chambered.

"I wouldn't," Takyle warned in a steely voice, and the man froze in his tracks.

Jaden turned halfway to look at Takyle, his rage suddenly lost in bafflement. Takyle stood behind the desk holding a semi-automatic handgun trained on Ms. Scarlet, her finger on the trigger. Without lowering it she spoke.

"You should know that I don't take kindly to being threatened. I also don't include coercion, manipulation, or torture in my list of fun summertime activities. Now I think you and your boys should step all of the way inside here like Andrew said, and if you try anything at all somebody will be dying today and I promise you it won't be one of my team."

For a moment Ms. Scarlet seemed to weigh her options. Finally she stepped out of the doorway and her two guards followed her. Andrew backed up two steps and gestured to the left with the knife he'd taken from Jaden.

"Put your hands on your head and face the wall," ordered Takyle, never taking her aim off of Ms. Scarlet as she stepped around the desk. Jaden looked at her eyes and suddenly realized just how feirce and protective Takyle could be. He had the distinct impression that it was not for herself that she had stepped up.

"Jay, find some zip ties," Andrew said over his shoulder, prodding Jaden out of his reverie and into action. He quickly located the ties that were in Andrew's pack, as the last of his had been used in their own capture. He set his journal on the desk and stepped over to stand beside Andrew.

"Got 'em."

"Great, now you hold the knife and... Tell you what, I'll keep holding the knife and you tie them up," suggested Andrew. ~

Monday, October 6, 2008

Chapter 105: Simplicity of Plan

~ Jaden knew beyond the barest shadow of a doubt that this one time there was no way that he would miss. Just this once his aim was impeccable. All he had to do now was let go. He wasn't even throwing really. He was just releasing the knife. Into her throat.

Jaden remembered the rattling gurgle that the hellbeast he'd fought had made with Andrew's blade buried hilt deep in its neck. The sound of a living creature drowning in its own blood as its life fluid rushed to fill its lungs, suffocating it from the inside. A horrific and perfect way to die.

With shocking and disturbing clarity Jaden could visualize Ms. Scarlet slowly collapsing, crimson liquid spurting from her throat, spilling down to soak her breasts, painting them the color that she seemed so enamored with. Could hear her take once last gasp of air before the blood flooding into her trachea began to fill her lungs, drawn deeper with each subsequent attempt at breath.

Jaden felt his hand draw back.


From behind the desk Andrew had watched as Jaden had picked up his knife. It was with no small amount of horror that a second later he realized what was about to be done with it. In a fraction of a moment a decision had to be made. Andrew was nothing it not decisive.

With a quick heave he vaulted himself across the desk, scattering countless papers to the ground and knocking Jaden’s pack off the edge and onto the floor with a loud thud. He lurched into Jaden’s back, throwing his friend off-balance as he grabbed the knife with one hand and jerked it out of Jaden's fingers. Andrew landed squarely on both feet in front of the desk and took two strides forward, brandishing the knife at the woman in the doorway.

"Give me that book this instant!" The woman sneered but didn't resist as Andrew snatched the journal from her hands. He thrust it out behind him and Jaden, having regained his feet, quickly grabbed it. Retreating one step Andrew gestured at the woman angrily, the dagger still in his hand. "Now you better thank me for saving your freaking life!"

"For whatever it's worth," he heard Takyle mutter from behind him.

"Saving my life? Sure. If you say so." Ms. Scarlet replied with a smirk. Andrew shook his head.

"You have no idea. Now who the hell are you?"

"I'm the woman that is going to kill each one of you with my own two hands, and you," Ms. Scarlet addressed Jaden, gazing past Andrew's shoulder to meet his eye. "You are going to watch these two go." ~

Friday, October 3, 2008

Chapter 104: No Place for Contemplation

~ While Andrew fished the keyring that Takyle had given him out of his pocket and began fiddling with the lock, Jaden turned around to keep watch on the hallway. The seconds ticked by as Andrew tried each key on the door, muttering his irritation under his breath as each one successively failed to disengage the catch.

"Andrew!" Jaden hissed. "Hurry the hell up, I think I heard something." Takyle immediately lifted the hand that she held her knife in and stepped around to Andrew's other side to defend if necessary. The latch clicked quietly and Andrew slipped through the door.

"Clear," he whispered out to Takyle and Jaden, and they followed him into the room. After pulling the door shut Jaden turned to look around the room that they had broken into. A huge mahogany desk filled a good bit of the floor space, and its own surface was nearly covered with stacks of papers and files. Andrew stepped around the desk and gestured for his teammates to join him.

"Guys, I found our packs."

"Fantastic," Takyle answered, coming around to pick hers up off the floor. Andrew handed Jaden's pack across the desk to him and set his own up on the desk chair to unzip it.

"Better check and make sure that your stuff is still actually here," he advised his teammates, quickly rifling through his own supplies. Takyle nodded and knelt to do the same as Jaden lay his pack on one of the only clear spaces on the desktop. For a moment all three people were silent as they took a quick inventory, but then Jaden looked up at Andrew.

"My journal is gone."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive. It was right here in this pocket. It was the only thing in there."

Andrew looked over at Takyle and began to open his mouth to say something but whipped his head around when there was a quiet laugh from the door. Jaden spun to see the woman that he had taken to referring to as Ms. Scarlet in his mind there. She stood with her feet set wide, one fist resting on her hip, a scowl making her eyes look dark and vicious. Dried blood stained the front of her dress and all across the bridge of her nose and the undersides of her eyes was already taking on a sickly purple-green bruise. In her left hand she gripped a small leather-bound book.

"Looking for something, Sweetie?" she asked, her voice cutting the silence like an edge of steel. Jaden felt the core of his being flood with fiery heat and his vision narrowed. Of its own accord his hand moved to grip the knife that he had lain on the desk beside his pack. The fire rushed through his limbs and as a distant and ethereal thought in the very back of his mind Jaden heard himself make note of the fact that he had never in his life felt the kind of rage that was now threatening to take him.

"Give it back." To his own ears Jaden's command sounded as far away as his thoughts had and he wondered for a moment if he'd actually spoken it aloud.

"I don't think so," Ms. Scarlet responded, drawing her hand in to let the book rest against her stomach.

"Give it back to me now!" Jaden hissed, incapable of even thinking of holding the menace from his voice. Every second that she held his journal in her hand, against her body, his rage escalated further, and he did nothing to stop it.

Jaden could feel her hands on him all over again, pressing up against him, choking him, her body wrapping around him, her lips on his neck, her teeth, her fingernails biting into his skin. Trapping him, suffocating, hurting, killing. For a split second Jaden's vision went completely dark before one thing snapped into crystalline focus.

Her neck, bare and white, mere feet away. Whole. Not for long.

Jaden felt his hand lift, felt his fingers release his dagger on the upswing, flipping it in the air 180 degrees, grasping it once again, but lightly this time, barely caressing it, holding it only by the tip, only just enough pressure. His arm came up. He took aim.

Satisfying wouldn't be the word. ~

Monday, September 29, 2008

Chapter 103: A Level of Exposure

~ When they reached the top of the stairwell, Andrew paused momentarily to turn and face Jaden and Takyle.

"Do we have any kind of a game plan for this deal?" he whispered. "And am I the only one who finds it kind of strange that we haven't met anybody else on our way up here?"

"You think that they know we're out?" asked Jaden.

"I don't have any idea. Could be coincidence I suppose."

"Well whether or not they know we're out isn't really going to change what we have to do that much. At most it robs us of our element of surprise. An advantage but not integral," Takyle said. "Now let's talk about what it is that we have to do. I have two copies of a set of keys that I was told were for rooms up here. In case we get separated one of you should take a set."

"Damn," muttered Andrew. "If I'd thought about it I bet Thomas had keys on him as well."

"Yeah well, too late for that. The longer we stay here talking about it the more likely it is that someone will find us. Here." Takyle handed one of the small keyrings to Andrew. "First we have to find our packs and then we have to find a way out. We'll try to stay together and search methodically. If we run into anybody we'll hide if possible and if not, subdue. Ready?"

"Yes," said Andrew.

"Yes," Jaden echoed.

Takyle gave Andrew a nod and he edged the landing door open a crack to look out, and then pushed it just far enough to slip through with Jaden trailing him. The hinge made an almost inaudible creak as Takyle let it close behind her and the latch clicked. In the surrounding silence that one sound was like a gunshot.

Team 6 hurried down the wide hallway that they found themselves in. After having grown accustomed to moving with a full pack on, Jaden felt surprisingly light now without it.

"There's always a bright side."

Not far from the stairwell the hallway opened up to transform into a floating walkway extending out over a courtyard some twenty feet below. The walkway and white banister were supported by tall marble pillars, the stone polished to a high luster.

"Where are we?" murmured Jaden, looking out over the expansive tiled court.

"Well if I had to guess I'd say that we're still inside the mountain," answered Andrew.

On the other side of the walkway the walls closed back in and the hall continued with doors on both sides. Andrew approached the first one on the right and listened at it for a moment before trying the knob. The catch disengaged and he pushed it open, his knife raised in the other hand. He took a quick glance around the room and then shook his head.

"It's empty. On to the next." Andrew carefully pulled the door closed and on they went down to the second door on the right which turned out to be similarly devoid of anything at all. It wasn't until Andrew tried the third door on the left that they were given pause.

"This one is locked." ~

Friday, September 26, 2008

Chapter 102: Additional Information

~ "Oh hey, check it out," said Andrew, looking down at his chair as he passed it. "It has electrodes on it. Guess I did get off easy. What's the plan, Boss? Where are we going?" Takyle paused at the door.

"Good question. We need to get our packs back, but I don't know where they are."

"I think maybe I could get us back to that big room we fell into, but we don't really have a guarantee that our packs are still there," offered Jaden.

"Let's go ask What's-his-face in your cell, Jaden," Takyle decided. "Quickly now children." Jaden pulled open the door and glanced up and down the hallway twice to ensure it was clear, then strode quickly back down to the neighboring cell with Andrew and Takyle behind him. They all slipped into it and the man on the cot jerked his head up to see who was there. He looked incredibly disheartened to find that it was only Team 6. Also more than a little frightened.

"Nice going, guys," said Andrew in a tone of approval. He stepped over to the cot and bent to unfasten the gag, but before he pulled it from the man's mouth he paused.

"Ok now buddy, we have some questions for you. I'm going to take this gag out now, but if you yell or scream I'm just going to have to kill you. Am I perfectly clear?" The man nodded vigorously and Andrew lowered the gag from his mouth. Takyle moved over to stand beside the cot.

"Where are the backpacks that you all took from us back in that big room?"

"They were taken upstairs. Kathleen wanted them searched."

"Where "upstairs"? How do we get there?"

"Go left from this cell and take the first right turn you come to. There's an entrance to the stairs just around that corner. Go up three flights. I honestly don't know what room they've got your stuff in, I swear I don't."

"Very good," Andrew told him. "I hope you haven't lied to us about any of this stuff though..."

"I haven't, I swear I haven't."

"Well then I guess you don't have anything to worry about," Takyle told him cheerfully. Andrew slipped the gag back between the fellow's lips and straightened. He looked from Takyle to Jaden, who was standing at the door, keeping a watch on the hall. Andrew raised an eyebrow.

"Guess we're ready to go then."

Takyle nodded. "Onward and upward."

As they left the cell behind and moved down the hallway, leaving hostile and unknown ground for yet more hostile and unknown ground, Jaden noticed a strange feeling in himself. It wasn't trepidation; that had been a constant undercurrent throughout the entire race. Jaden recognized this new feeling to be a waning of eagerness.

Yes, he wanted to get off this level and, no, of course he didn't want to be caught, but he was terribly tired. His body ached all over, both from the various beatings it had taken and the near constant heightened state of arousal and hyper-awareness that it was being forced to maintain. At this point Jaden almost felt that any sensation at all; sight, sound, touch, even instincts and feelings, were very nearly painful in their vividness. He could feel everything around him and the sensational overload was almost staggering.

He could not shut down though. Of all places, he could not shut down here, where other people were counting on him. He felt a hand touch his shoulder and he whipped his head around. It was Andrew. He smiled at Jaden.

"Doin' alright there, Jay?" Jaden nodded quickly and began to turn back to continue on down the hall but Andrew's hand gently restrained him. "Why don't you let me take point?" Andrew asked.

Jaden glanced back at Takyle and she nodded her agreement with a concerned look in her eyes. Gratefully Jaden moved back a spot in the line, giving Andrew the lead while Takyle took up the rear.

"You just chill there for a bit," Andrew counseled him. "We've got this."

Jaden immediately felt the muscles in his shoulders relax. Never in his life had he known anyone who could make him feel as safe as Andrew could with a word. Most of his childhood and adolescent relationships had been marked by their capacity for upheaval, whether good or bad. And the trend had been mainly bad.

As they proceeded on their way Jaden did not completely zone out, but he did have total confidence in Takyle and Andrew to respond to any incidental danger. Slowly his guard relaxed and some of the ache behind his forehead began to fade.

"You're pretty lucky, Jaden," his mind told him.

"Yeah, I know," Jaden told his mind. ~

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Chapter 101: Timely Resolution - Bonus Chapter

~ This time Jaden led the way back up to Andrew's cell door. He placed himself to one side of it, and Takyle stood opposite of him. They paused for a moment and Jaden drew a deep breath. He could hear Andrew's voice faintly inside. He lifted the knife in his right hand and placed his left on the door handle. Takyle nodded as he met her eye and without further pause he flung the door inward.

As he burst into the room, time slowed for Jaden and he used that split second to take stock of his surroundings. In the center of the room Andrew sat bound to a chair. A cot was pushed against one wall and there was Thomas, perched on the edge of it, hands on knees. Jaden saw him look up, surprise sweeping over his features. His right hand began to drop, down the outside of his leg, toward the top of his boot.

By the time Takyle and Jaden had taken the two strides to reach him, he was rising to his feet, unsheathing his small dagger as he straightened. With his fist wrapped around the hilt of his knife, Jaden threw a punch into Thomas' stomach, twisting to the left as he did to place his body between Andrew and Thomas. Before Thomas could make another move Takyle delivered a kick aimed at his wrist, flinging his knife from his hand and across the room with a clatter. He recovered more quickly than they would have hoped and knocked Jaden away with two hard punches. As Takyle leapt at him, he caught her in the air, slamming his elbow into her chin and throwing her to the ground.

Jaden had scrambled to his feet and flew at Thomas again, knife poised to end this, when something happened that took them all by surprise. As Thomas came around to finish Jaden, so he thought, Andrew somehow managed to stand halfway, still bound to the chair, and whip it around, smashing its legs into the side of Thomas' knees. Thomas cried out in pain, his legs collapsing beneath him.

Andrew stumbled and fell to the ground as Thomas pitched backwards against the cot, smacking his head on the rail at the foot. Jaden jumped over Andrew and dove at Thomas, putting all of his weight behind a punch that crashed into Thomas' face. Jaden scrambled back, shoving himself off of Thomas, fist raised for another go, only to stop himself when he realized that his last punch had already put Thomas out cold. The large man lay half on the cot, half off, blood pouring from his nose, his head cocked over at a weird angle.

Jaden looked immediately to his right to locate Takyle, finding her just getting back to her feet, a hand on her jaw. Jaden fell to his knees beside Andrew on the floor.

"Andy, did he hurt you?" he gasped, only now noticing that he was out of breath.

"No, I'm ok, but I can't get up with this chair strapped to me."

"Hold still," Jaden told him, running his hands over the straps binding Andrew and finding them to be fastened with locks. Takyle knelt beside him and Jaden noticed a line of blood dripping from her mouth.

"I think I might have the keys for these locks," she said, pulling the rings from her pocket and sorting through them. In short order she had found the correct one and had managed to release Andrew. He pulled himself free of the broken chair and sat up, rubbing the shoulder he'd landed on.

"You look awful Jay, you ok there?"


Andrew gently tilted Takyle's chin up to look at her face and she quickly wiped the blood from her lips.

"And what about you, Ta?" Andrew asked softly.

"I'm fine."

"He hit you pretty hard; did you bite your lip?"

Takyle nodded. "Yeah, jaw's a little numb."

"Well thanks for saving me, guys. I was beginning to think that I might be in some real trouble there."

"You were," Takyle informed him with a smile, getting to her feet. Her teammates stood with her and Andrew turned back to Jaden.

"Thomas told me that you got out briefly and that he beat you up. Sure you're alright?"

Jaden nodded. "Yeah, still hurts like hell, but I'm getting used to that." He almost said something then about Ms. Scarlet, but stopped himself. He'd tell Andrew about that later. Maybe.

Andrew stepped over to where Thomas' knife had landed and picked it up.

"Ok, well let's get the friggin' hell outta here while we still can. Oh, and by the way, I'm very glad that both of you are still alive." ~

Monday, September 22, 2008

Chapter 100: Complications

~ Jaden followed Takyle a short distance back up the hallway as silently as possible until she stopped and gestured at a door. For a moment Jaden stood still and listened to what was happening on the other side of it. Distinctly he heard Thomas' voice, speaking in a conversational tone. Jaden beckoned to Takyle and they backed away from the door.

"That's Thomas in there," he whispered to her. "The fourth guy that was in charge of the ones that caught us." Takyle made a face that told Jaden she definitely remembered Thomas' leering attitude towards her. It also told Jaden that she probably wouldn't pass up the chance to give a little back if it were handed to her.

"Think we can take him together?" she asked in a murmur.

"Probably, if he's the only one in there."

"Let's not assume that he is," advise Takyle, passing Jaden the knife she'd taken. "Here, we're going to need to go in fast and use whatever element of surprise that we have. Keep in mind that he has Andrew in there and may be in a position to hurt him."

Jaden nodded, hefting the knife in his hand to get a feel for it. The thought that Andrew was in the middle of a possible hostage situation very much bothered him, but at the moment there was nothing for it. He startled when, off in the distance, he heard footsteps.

"Someone's coming," he hissed urgently. Takyle did not wait to hear the sound for herself.

"One? Which way?" she mouthed and he nodded, pointing back in the direction they had come from, past the room that he'd been kept in. She immediately spun and rushed back that way, Jaden imitating without question as she ducked back into his cell. She pushed the door closed but for a tiny crack, pressing her face to the frame to watch the hallway. Jaden saw her stiffen and knew that someone had come into view. She turned to him and mimed the plan. He nodded and she laid her fingers on the door handle, her improvised blade in the other hand. At the very last moment she shoved it in her pocket and pulled the gag out of her waist band instead.

Jaden didn't have time to question any move that she made as at that very moment the footsteps drew even with the cell door. Just as the heavy tread passed it, Takyle whipped the door open and they leapt out right behind the man. Without hesitating she threw the gag over his head, keeping a hold on both ends to drag him backwards. He dropped the glass of water he'd been carrying and his hands flew to his throat, a look of complete surprise on his face. The glass smashed on the concrete floor, splattering water on Jaden's legs as he leapt forward to help Takyle pull the man back through the doorway into the cell. Jaden shoved the door shut behind them and then pressed his knife into the small of the man's back.

"Hands on your head, now! And don't say a word," he ordered. Takyle let up the pressure on the man's neck enough to allow him to breath. After one more quick prod from Jaden's knife, he did as he'd been directed.

"Put him on the bed," Takyle breathed. Jaden pushed him towards the cot while Takyle kept the gag tight around his neck. "Lie face down," she directed and as soon as he was down she placed a knee in the small of his back and nodded at his legs. While she held the man's upper body down, Jaden swiftly buckled the man's ankles into the thick leather straps, and then bound his wrists as well. Takyle pulled the gag from under the man's neck and stood up. She looked over at Jaden, and drew a deep breath.

"Wow, second time that method has worked for me today. Maybe I should stick with it." She bent and gave the man that they caught a quick pat down, removing two keyrings that looked exactly like the ones she already had, and another knife, along with a small radio.

"Ok, we have another knife, so that's good. Shall we take another shot at getting Andrew?"


Takyle took a moment to slip her gag into the man's mouth and fasten it around his head. "There now, you just stay here and be a good boy." She turned back to Jaden and nodded. "Ok, let's do this." ~

Friday, September 19, 2008

Chapter 99: On the Up and Up

~ Jaden lay in his cell where Thomas had left him, bound securely to the cot; his mind persistently interrupting his desperate search for some way out with thoughts of his teammates and worry for their well being. He had just reached the point where he was beginning to think that there was absolutely no hope for escape when he heard a soft sound outside of his cell. He fell still and turned his face towards the door. After a moment's pause there was what he thought sounded like someone gently tapping twice.

"What the hell?" For a split second Jaden's mind scrambled to explain the noise, and he only found one answer. Heart in his throat over the thought that it was only a futile wish that it might be Andrew or Takyle, he opened his mouth. And then shut it again. What could he possibly say?

"Um, hello?" He jumped when a bolt clanged followed by some faint scrabbling and finally a lock click. The door opened a crack and a familiar face peaked around it.

"Takyle!" Jaden gasped, keeping the presence of mind to hold his voice low, even through his surprise. Takyle flashed a grin at him and slipped quickly through the door, pushing it almost to behind her after she'd pulled a key on a ring out of the lock. She was beside the cot in a blink and bent to inspect Jaden's bonds.

"How did you get loose?" whispered Jaden in amazement. At this point he wasn't completely convinced that he wasn't hallucinating.

"Good story; I'll tell you the whole thing later. Suffice is to say that it was awesome. You alright? You look like shit."

"Well I feel worse than shit, but I'll live," he answered. Takyle unbuckled the strap across his abdomen and pushed it off, before going to the ones on his ankles. "Is Andrew out too?"

"No, his cell is just up the hall. When I passed it I could hear at least one other person in there talking to him. We need to get out of here as quick as we can."

"No arguments here," murmured Jaden as she moved to release his hands from over his head.

"Happen to know where we might be able to get more weapons?"

"No idea."

"Alright, I guess we' it by ear," said Takyle as she freed Jaden's left wrist.

"Ok, whatever you say." As soon as his other hand was loose Jaden swung his feet off the cot and sat up. As he came to his feet he glanced at his wrists. They were both bloodied and lined with bruising.

"Tried to get out on your own, huh?" asked Takyle.

"Yeah, think I almost had it too, just before you came in," he groaned, flexing his shoulders gingerly. Takyle laughed quietly and moved towards the door. Jaden followed. "Thanks Takyle. I owe you a solid, that's for sure."

"Anytime; the pleasure was mine. Now let's go rescue Andrew's skinny ass and get out of this damn place."

"Ok," said Jaden as Takyle pulled the door open and slipped out into the hall after a quick look both ways. "We might as well get the rest of him too while we're at it," he added in a whisper. ~

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chapter 98: Essence of Time - Bonus Chapter

~ For the present time Takyle's main concern was that it would only take one person wandering down the hall to hear her three captives shouting and let them out of the cell. When that happened she had no doubt that the level would be immediately locked down, and she would be found. Locating her teammates and getting at least off of this "cell block" was of the most vital importance.

She kept close to the wall, as if she were ready to melt into the white paneling if someone happened upon her. Several yards up from her cell the hallway ended in a tee. She leaned out, carefully checking both ways only to find it empty, and turned left again.

When she had been blindfolded Takyle had been the last in line and just before she'd been out in her cell she remembered taking a left turn. When her blindfold had been removed neither of her teammates had been in that hall with her. Because of this she deduced that when she'd been turned, those in front of her had continued going straight. She would not describe herself as being comfortable with that logic, but for the moment it was all she had to go on.

Only a few yards from the tee in the hall, Takyle approached the door of what appeared to be another cell judging from the locks. She slipped up to it, standing a bit to the side and leaning close to catch any sound that escaped it. Faintly she heard a man's voice, speaking in a reasonable tone. There was a long pause and then a second voice answered; a voice that Takyle recognized immediately as belonging to Andrew. A glance down revealed the bolts on the door to be open. Based upon that, Takyle assumed that Andrew must be restrained. As of yet, she'd only heard the one other voice but she had no guarantee that there was no one else in the room. What she did know beyond a doubt was that the longer she lingered in the hallway, the greater the chance that someone would see her.

For a very brief moment Takyle was torn, but at least for now whoever was in the room with Andrew seemed to simply be engaged in conversation. She decided to leave Andrew, try to find Jaden and assess that situation, and then come back, hopefully with Jaden and a few more weapons. With that resolution Takyle turned swiftly from the door and continued on down the hall. She was shocked by the immediate brick that fell in her stomach at the idea of leaving Andrew. She glanced back at the door, listened to his voice for a half second longer, and then moved quickly off, swallowing any hint of trepidation that threatened to give her second thoughts.

"Girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do," she breathed. ~

Monday, September 15, 2008

Chapter 97: Necessary Actions

~ "Put your hands against that wall," Takyle ordered. "Do you have the keys for these cuffs?" The man nodded. "Unlock them. One false move and I'll slit your throat."

Takyle watched the man closely as he reached into his pocket and slowly drew out a ring of keys. He chose a small silver one and raised it to his neck. Takyle pushed her left wrist out slightly to allow him to unlock the cuff, keeping the blade in her right hand pressed to his skin. As soon as the lock clicked she transferred the blade to her left hand and the process was repeated.

"Drop the keys and put your hands behind your back," she ordered, taking a step back. Within a moment Takyle had slapped the cuffs on her former captor's wrists. "Down on the floor; lay on your stomach."

Once the man had gotten to his knees she made him pause long enough for her to quickly pat him down; removing his belt, a small knife from his boot, and another ring of keys.

"What are these for?" she asked, holding them over his shoulder for him to see.

"They're for upstairs."

"How many more people are out in the hall?"

"Just one," he said. Takyle assumed that he was lying.

"What are you supposed to do in the event one of your prisoners gets loose?"

"Subdue them. If they get off this level we sound the alarm."

"Well thank you. You've been incredibly helpful." Takyle pushed the man down on his stomach and bound his ankles with the strip of cloth she'd taken off the bed. She then looped his own belt through the chain on the cuffs and the knots on his feet, pulling it tight so that his knees were bent, leaving him quite literally hogtied. Takyle pocketed both keyrings and stood.

"Now I want you to scream like I'm killing you. And if you're not convincing, I actually will. Get my drift?" The man nodded. "I'm going to stand behind the door there and you'll do your thing," Takyle informed him, stepping away to take up her previous position. When she gave him a silent nod, the man hesitated for only a second before opening his mouth and yelling loudly for help as he'd been told. Takyle heard a scuffling outside in the hallway and then the door swung open and two men charged in.

The first one stupidly ran right over to his compatriot on the ground, while the second man recognized something to be awry and skidded to a stop just inside the door. Takyle ducked out from her hiding place and the man dove at her, just missing as she jumped out of the way. As the man turned around for another go she leapt out of the doorway, catching the handle and slamming it closed just as he reached it. She drove one of the bolts home only the barest fraction of a second before the man would have been able to jerk the door open again.

Takyle quickly whipped her head around to see if there was anyone else in the hallway and found no one. The ridiculous levels of adrenalin that had allowed her the quickness of wit and foot needed to pull off that last stage of her daring escape left her hands shaking and her heart pounding in her throat. She refused to think about how close that last man was to pulling the door open when she'd bolted it, nor what would have happened if all the locks had required keys. Faster than these men she was; stronger, not a chance.

Keeping her vent cover turned blade and the knife she'd requisitioned to hand, Takyle turned immediately to her left and moved quickly and silently off down the hall. Time to locate Jaden and Andrew. ~

Friday, September 12, 2008

Chapter 96: Planning Takes Priority

~ All things considered, Takyle had made better progress than either of her team mates. As soon as she'd been put in her cell, she'd immediately looked for windows or cameras and, finding none, set to removing herself from her bonds. She'd gotten her hands around in front of her by stepping through the loop of her arms, very nearly dislocating her shoulders in the process, and then proceeded to remove the gag that had been placed in her mouth. Once that was out she'd spent a second seeing if it would be possible to free at least one hand from the cuffs. She quickly decided that the effort was futile, and so gave up and went to planning an escape instead.

She kept the gag in her hand, in case it should come in handy later, and searched the room for any more potential weapons. The pallet against one wall didn't have any blankets or sheets, but it did have a cloth cover sewn over the thin layer of padding. Within moments Takyle's fingers had found a weak point in the fabric near one of the seams. With a quick jerk she ripped a long strip of cloth free and, hanging it around her neck, continued searching the room.

After a moment Takyle noticed the vent on one of the walls. She quickly tucked her erstwhile gag into her waistband and stepped up on the bed to take a closer look at the small metal cover. She bent and unlaced a boot, then caught one of the hooks under a lace and torqued it outward. When the small metal tab was at about a 90 degree angle she lifted it to the metal cover and used the bent lace hook as an impromptu screwdriver. Her boot did not prove to be the most efficient tool ever made, but the cover came off easily as soon as she'd loosened the four screws enough to complete the job with her fingers.

Once she had the vent cover off, Takyle hopped to the floor and stomped her boot back on. She studied the cover for a moment, considering her options, and then knelt on the ground and used the heel of her hand to begin to bend the four short sides of the vent cover down. She stood and gave the edges of the cover several good stomps to finish the job. When she picked it back up what she had was a nearly perfectly flat, sharp-edged square of metal. Almost good enough.

After several minutes spent rubbing the edges of the metal on the concrete wall, Takyle had even managed to sharpen the edges a bit more.

"Hello MacGyvered throwing star and/or knife," she murmured, studying it thoughtfully. A second later Takyle heard footsteps outside of her cell and she quickly sprang backwards to stand behind the doorway. A lock clanged.

Go time.

Takyle braced herself, placing one of her feet slightly further out to keep the door from hitting her if it swung too far inward. There was the sound of one more lock and a man's voice saying something unintelligible, and then the door opened.

As the man who had taken her prisoner stepped into the room Takyle leapt forward, simultaneously throwing the chain on her cuffs over the man's head, jerking it tight across his throat, and slamming the door behind him with a quick kick. In her right hand she held her improvised blade, it's sharp edge pressed to his skin. She reached up to whisper viciously right into his ear.

"I've got two different ways I could kill you here; I suggest you do what I say." ~

Monday, September 8, 2008

Chapter 95: When Negotiation Fails

~ A surprisingly short distance from Jaden's cell, Andrew was not having as easy a time of it as Jaden had wished for him. At the moment he was being strapped into a questionable looking chair, still gagged, and hands still cuffed. The man who seemed to be in charge of him had not forgotten that Andrew had nearly broken his nose and he was, as a consequence, a good deal less gentle than he could have been. The fact that Andrew couldn't fight back at all emboldened the man who was, like most bullies, cowardly in nature.

Once he had Andrew firmly strapped into the chair, he pulled the gag from his mouth. Andrew coughed, glad to finally be rid of the object. His tongue was dry and his throat felt parched. His captor stepped to the door and opened it.

"He's ready," he said to someone outside. "Go tell Thomas." Andrew wondered who Thomas was and if he might be slightly more inclined to be helpful than this guy. He heard a door close not far away and in a moment a man stepped into his cell. It was the fourth man from the group that had taken them. Andrew thought a few choice expletives but kept his face neutral.

"Thank you, Chase," the fourth man said, not taking his eyes off of Andrew. "Go and get an update on Kathleen for me."

Chase nodded and slipped out of the cell, closing the door behind him. Thomas walked a slow arc to stand behind Andrew.

"You seem to be at my mercy."

"Yeah, and your point?" Before the last word was clear of Andrew's lips he felt the sharp point of a knife pricking the back of his neck.

"Well my main point was that your life is mine if the idea happens to strike my fancy."

"Fair enough." The knife withdrew and Andrew heard it being re-sheathed. Thomas circled back into his view. Andrew couldn't see where he'd put the knife. It wasn't on his belt, so probably in a boot. A quick sweeping glance revealed no other weapons on the man that were immediately obvious.

"But I don't want to be forced to kill you," Thomas continued. "I'd prefer that you just give me what I need and then maybe I'll let your little friends off in relatively good health."

"How do I know they're not dead already?" asked Andrew.

"You don't."

"May I have a drink?"

"Sure." Thomas opened the cell door and spoke a quiet word to whoever was outside, and then closed it again. "While we're waiting for that, why don't we talk?" he said, sitting down on the pallet and leaning forward, elbows on his knees.

"Alright," conceded Andrew. "How about we start with you telling me what all that noise was out in the hall just a little while ago?"

"You really want to know what that was?" asked Thomas. Andrew nodded. "That was your friend Jaden trying to make a run for it and consequently getting the shit beat out of himself. But don't worry. He's still alive, for now. Says that he might be able to draw the map that was given to that pretty young lady that you were with. What do you think about that?"

Andrew shrugged, choosing to ignore the baited way the man had mentioned Takyle. "Maybe he can. How should I know?"

"Well, if you know that he can't then you might want to speak up now. Kathleen is already awfully angry with him; I don't imagine that finding out she can't get the map from him would help his case much. If he can't, it'd be best to just get that out now, before I tell her what he said. Get me?"

Andrew nodded solemnly. "Oh yeah, sure bro, I feel ya'." He kept up his perfect poker face even though his mind was racing frantically. "Quick question: If I can draw the map for you, would you let them go?"

"Why sure! No reason to keep them here if you can supply us with the map!" agreed Thomas, just a tiny bit too enthusiastically. He was obviously lying through his teeth. Andrew sighed. He hated lose-lose situations. ~

Friday, September 5, 2008

Chapter 94: Unexpected Questions

~ Jaden frantically jerked at the restraints binding his hands above his head and when that had no effect, forced himself to calm down and try a more methodical approach. As he worked at the strap holding his right hand, he lifted his head enough to look around the tiny room. It sure looked like the same cell. The door was closed and he could hear no sounds from the hallway, but it would be stupid to assume that he was alone at this point. The ache all over his body had settled back into a dull throb with several points retaining their former glory to serve as white-hot nexuses of pain.

Several minutes later and the only headway Jaden had made was to rub both of his wrists raw in his bonds. The bolts on the door clanged and he went still. Thomas stepped inside.

"So you're still alive," the man said, conversationally. "You might wish I'd done a bit more damage later on. Kathleen is pissed."

"Yeah I guess so," Jaden answered, watching Thomas carefully. Perhaps if he played his cards right he could get another chance at this.

"Did you look at the map that the girl you're with supposedly lost?" asked Thomas. Jaden was slightly surprised at the change of subject.

"Maybe. Why?"

"Can you draw it?"

"Shit," thought Jaden. This could easily go very well, or very, very badly for him. He had done no more than glance at the map that had been given to Takyle, so there was no way he could actually duplicate it even if he wanted to. If he said yes though, maybe Thomas would at least give him one hand free. Then again maybe not.

A chance was a chance.

"Yes, probably most of it at least." That was sort of the truth. He remembered it being square with some mountains on it.

"Good. Maybe that will give you something to help convince Kathleen not to kill you quite as fast as she would have. Fast being a relative term of course."

"If she's going to kill me anyway, why would I give her information that she wants?" demanded Jaden. Thomas shrugged.

"People do strange things when they're in agony. Sometimes the shadow of a thread of a hope is enough to make them grasp."

Jaden gazed at Thomas impassively for a moment.

"Well thanks a lot for this bit of heartening conversation, Tommy. Very cheering. The message of hope you spread is invaluable to those of us in dire straights."

Thomas smiled. "I do what I can."

"That being the case, perhaps you could answer a question for me," Jaden said casually.


"Once I've died my long, undignified, and horrible death and Kathleen has what she wants, what's going to happen to my friends?" At this point Jaden was assuming that neither Takyle nor Andrew had violently rejected someone's sexual advances or, put more succinctly, rape attempts, and subsequently tried to stage an escape.

Thomas turned towards the door. "Well that might depend on whether or not you get that map right." He stepped out into the hallway. Jaden let his head roll back.

"Shit." ~

Monday, September 1, 2008

Chapter 93: Not All Fun and Games

~ Jaden was shocked at how drastically having his hands cuffed behind his back slowed him, but even so he thought he still had a fighting chance at outrunning Thomas. The man didn't exactly have a sprinter's build after all.

Jaden darted around the first corner he came to, intent on lengthening the distance between himself and his pursuer, and barreled right into the man that had captured Takyle. With surprising speed the man's fist connected with Jaden's face, knocking him to the floor with a powerful blow that left his ears ringing. Through the fog drifting across his vision Jaden saw Thomas come around the corner and skid to a stop above him, breathing hard.

"What the hell is going on here?" demanded the first man.

"The little son of a bitch kicked Kathleen! Get somebody down here to take care of her right away; I'll deal with him."

Jaden felt the man who had punched him move off and he forced his eyes open. Thomas bent over him.

"That was a stupid thing that you did, little buddy. I'm going to fuck you up so bad; but it won't be anything compared to what she's going to do to you."

Jaden closed his eyes.

"I had to try."

Thomas' first kick drove into Jaden's side and the second caught him in the stomach. By the third kick, aimed at the side of his head, Jaden's tenuous grasp on consciousness was mercifully slipping. His last coherent thought floated up from the depths of his mind in a ludicrously cheerful voice.

"Way to not kick a man when he's down there, Bucko!"

Jaden's first thought upon waking involved his mind demanding why in the hell he was here and how could he get out while he retained his life, accompanied by overwhelming pain that seemed to radiate out from his very core in angry, pulsing waves. He forced his eyes open and winced at the bright light glaring down on him. After a moment he figured out that he was staring at a concrete ceiling. On one side of him was a concrete wall with a small vent on it about halfway down.

"Ow, ow, ow, ow!" chanted one half of his mind, while the other side frantically scrambled to catch up with reality.

"How long was I out? Am I back in the same cell?" He attempted to sit up and discovered that he couldn't. His arms and legs were bound to the iron bars of the pallet he was lying on and a thick leather strap was cinched tight across his waist.

"Well this can't be a good thing," his mind contributed helpfully. ~

Friday, August 29, 2008

Chapter 92: Unwanted Techniques

~ For a brief moment Jaden considered trying to take the man Thomas when he came near; Or at least try to pickpocket a knife or something. He decided against the first option almost immediately; recognizing it as an exercise in futility. The second plan was ruled out for him, as Thomas pulled him up and grabbed most of his fingers in one hand, gripping them tightly while he removed Jaden's gag with the other. The lady in red smiled at him again.

"Now that's much better, isn't it? Tell us your name."

"Jaden McAllister," he spat at her. "What do you want with us?" Thomas' grip on his fingers tightened and he gritted his teeth.

"Why, I just want to speak with you, Jaden. You're not opposed to having a bit of light conversation, are you?"

"I am if I've been forced into it," Jaden said, jerking his chin in the direction of Thomas.

"Oh I disagree," breathed Ms. Scarlet, gliding towards him. "I've had experience with your type before and I think that you love being "forced into it"." She leaned in close to him and Jaden felt the warmth of her breath play on his neck. The subtle scent of her perfume that he had not fully registered when she'd first walked in now threatened to become overwhelming.

"You've got to be kidding," he said with a forced laugh. "I'm 18; what are you? Like 40?"

For a split second Ms. Scarlet drew away and looked slightly shocked, before that expression quickly melted back into a smile. She tilted her head back and laughed a sliver laugh that was a fair impression of real.

"You are a vicious one!" She let her right hand glide down his chest and over his stomach to finally rest on his crotch. Her fingers tightened slightly and her voice dropped to a husky whisper. "But maybe I like to take them young."

Jaden was forcefully reminded of a praying mantis as the woman's lips touched his neck. He tried to take a step back but was held firmly in place by Thomas. A wave of nausea washed through him. As Ms. Scarlet grew more insistent, he retreated into his mind.

"Well this is one of the weirdest things that has happened to me today," he thought to himself. "It might even be flattering if I weren't being molested." For a very brief moment Jaden considered his feelings. Mostly there was apprehension of what else the woman was capable of. As it stood right now, she could whip out a knife and gut him right there. She seemed the sort that wouldn't be that bothered by the prospect either. A close second was an unspeakable rage that had begun building in his gut. How dare she do this and even go so far as to act like he was suppose to enjoy it? He would not stand for it.

"I am a person; I have rights."

The fear, anger, and confusion that was forefront in his mind completely drowned out any arousal that might have been possible under slightly better circumstances.

"What now? I can't just stand here. If I act like I'm into it, will she unchain me? Probably not. Good Lord, does she plan to do... whatever it is she wants to do with Thomas here holding me still the entire time? What is she some kind of psycho? That's irrelevant. Action is needed."

Jaden was slightly cheered by the fact that this was not his first time being held down and outnumbered. If nothing else he had experience on his side.

"Use every resource given to you..."

Jaden's eyes came into focus on Ms. Scarlet's face. It really was a shame; she wasn't a bad looking woman. Jaden drove his knee up as hard as he could into her stomach and as she reflexively bent forward, caught her face with the next quick swing. She crumpled to the floor. Thomas immediately drug him backwards by his wrists, the motion of which caused Jaden to pitch forward in order to keep his shoulders from being jerked out of socket. Rather than let that pain immobilize him as was expected, he continued to roll forward, jerking his bound hands free of Thomas' grip and diving over the woman on the ground. He tucked his head in and used the forward motion to somersault back to his feet, barely making it before Thomas lurched after him.

Jaden had not yet figured out how he was going to get free of his cuffs, but he'd worry about that when the time came. For the moment he just made for the open door with all haste. As he skidded into the hallway, he could hear the pounding footsteps of Thomas right on his heels.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Chapter 91: Reminiscent

~ Jaden leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. He began to count the seconds passed in his head, having decided that if he did not hear any response within 30, he would give up and go back to trying to get his cuffs off. He could feel his jaw already going sore and stiff around the gag and he suddenly felt a wave of claustrophobic panic. As he compulsively swallowed, trying to fight back against his instincts, a faint metallic ping interrupted his personal crisis.

Jaden's eyes flew open and he bent closer to put his ear against the vent. That had been a short pause, then three long, break, two short, two long, two short.


Jaden could barely contain the feeling of relief that rushed through him. It was absolutely tangible. He quickly tapped out his response, all the while silently blessing Andrew for getting him to memorize Morse for a stupid game they had played when leaving notes for one another.


"R u ok?"


"T w/ u?"


A sudden flurry of about half a dozen taps told Jaden that something was going on and Andrew wanted him to "maintain radio silence". He held his breath again and pressed his ear to the small opening. He could hear faint voices drifting through the vent, but couldn't make out any words. One of the voices raised to a shout and then Jaden heard a louder thump, like a door slamming. A split second later there were footsteps in the hall. Jaden quickly jumped to the floor and sat down on the edge of the bed just as the locks on his cell disengaged and the door opened.

The fourth man walked in with someone else right behind him. A woman of medium height and slim build, wearing a red dress. A scarlet, backless evening gown to be specific. Her rich chocolate auburn hair was piled high on her head with several loose tresses falling elegantly down over her shoulders.

Jaden overruled his first impulse to rise and take the best defensive position he could manage. Instead he opted to remain seated and, looking past the man, fixed Ms. Scarlet with a belligerent stare with undertones of disinterest. He hoped she was getting all that.

The woman gazed back at him through heavily made-up eyes and after a moment a subtle, but obviously cruel smile drifted over her red lips.

"How very cliched," thought Jaden.

"Take the gag off of him, Tom," she ordered in a silky voice. ~

Friday, August 22, 2008

Chapter 90: Alternative Communication

~ At the bottom of the stairs the man leading Jaden pushed him around two more corners; one to the left and one to the right. He heard a door creaking and people murmuring in hushed tones and then the blindfold was jerked down off his eyes. Jaden blinked at the sudden bright light surrounding him and winced back as the fourth man approached him.

The man holding Jaden, whom he'd begun to think of fondly in his mind as "Tiny", held him firmly in place. Before the fourth man reached him Jaden took a quick, frantic scan of his surroundings, looking for his teammates. They were nowhere to be seen. He was standing in a brightly lit hallway, facing the open doorway of what was obviously a cell.

"You're going to be staying here for a while," the fourth man told him in a taunting sing-song. "We can't have you making all kind of noise though, now can we?" From behind his back he produced a gag and shoved it into Jaden's mouth while Tiny held him. After the gag was tied in place, the zip tie was cut off of Jaden's wrists and replaced by a set of cold, metal manacles. When that was done, he was shoved forward into the cell without further preamble.

He stumbled against the far wall, unable to catch his balance with his hands chained behind his back, and turned just in time to see the solid door bang shut. The sound of a bolt being slammed home resounded in the small cell and he heard the men walking away down the hall.

The very first thing that Jaden did was quickly scan his tiny cell for openings, weaknesses, cameras, anything. Meanwhile he tried to free himself of the gag and cuffs; and he was unsuccessful on both counts. After a couple of minutes of futile struggling, Jaden moved to the door and stood completely still to listen. The hall seemed to be silent.

Jaden turned back to the room and took a moment to evaluate his surroundings once more, this time being a bit more thorough. Against one wall a thin pallet stood, and above that Jaden spied a small vent. He clambered awkwardly up onto the bed and turned halfway around to run his fingertips around the edges of the vent. The cover was held on securely, but when one of Jaden's cuffs clinked against the metal, he decided to take a long shot.

With the edge of the metal cuff Jaden carefully rapped on the vent cover, with pauses between. Three short, three long, three short. The old Morse code sequence for SOS. If Andrew could somehow hear it, Jaden was sure he would understand who it was from.

He stood still on the bed, holding his breath, offering up a silent prayer that his shot in the dark would work. ~

Monday, August 18, 2008

Chapter 89: Overpowering Logic

~ "Ok, I'm not going to try anything, I swear," said Andrew, standing frozen with the barrel of a rifle jammed in his back.

"You bet you're not!" the man behind him fumed, pressing his sleeve to his nose to try and staunch the blood flow. "Just give me a reason..."

"See if they've got any cable ties on them," ordered the fourth man, though Jaden noticed that he kept his distance. He looked ready to make a break for it if Andrew went ballistic again.

Jaden heard an outer pocket of his pack being unzipped and the man holding him rummaged around in it.

"He's got some."

"Take off their packs and tie them up. All of them. Now," the fourth man said, very conspicuously not offering to help.

"Don't move unless you want to have your head blown off," Jaden's captor hissed at him as he released him momentarily in order to wrestle his pack off; dropping it to the ground and immediately slipping one of the thin strips of plastic around Jaden's wrists and pulling it tighter than was really necessary. That done he pulled Jaden with him over to Takyle and her escort to repeat the process. Once that man had Takyle's hands firmly bound, he tossed the small bundle of ties to the man behind Andrew. He caught them with one hand, still holding his gun to Andrew's back with the other.

"Here," he said, smacking Andrew's arm with the ties. "Put one of these over your wrists behind your back."

Andrew did as directed, making one of the cable ties into a loose circle and slipping his hands through it, carefully avoiding any sudden movements. Once it was on, the man grabbed the tail of the zip tie and jerked it tight. He then lowered his gun long enough to take a second tie and add it on top of the first, just for good measure.

"Alright, get them out of here and into the cells," barked the fourth man and the three others shoved the members of Team 6 out of the stone room and into a damp, narrow hallway. As they were escorted past the iron doorway the fourth man tied a thick blindfold around their eyes. Just before the strip of cloth was placed on his face, Jaden manged to shoot one more look back at Takyle. She firmly shook her head.

No more trying to fight back.

As he was shoved down the hall Jaden tried to keep track of his footsteps. It felt as if the path was curving slightly to the left, but he was fairly sure that it had to be his imagination. The brief look he'd be able to take before being blindfolded had revealed a long straight passage.

After two hundred some steps he was turned to the right and he heard a door open.

"We're going down stairs," his captor informed him gruffly, immediately shoving him forward off of the first one. Jaden felt his stomach jump at the split second sensation of falling, but quickly regained his balance and felt carefully for the next step, counting silently to himself. Ahead and behind him he could hear people moving and he hoped that he was still with Andrew and Takyle.

"I'll be ok, just as long as I'm not alone." ~

Friday, August 15, 2008

Chapter 88: Confrontational

~ Andrew sagged for a moment after the blow and then appeared to rally himself by force of will. He stood up straight and fixed the fourth man with a hard glare. The fellow smirked and drew back his fist again.

"Stop!" screamed Takyle. "Just stop! I don't have the map. I lost it, ok?"

"Is that a fact?"

"Yes! It's gone. I must have lost it while we were climbing up here."

The man was silent for a moment while he studied her, slightly less lecherously this time.

"Well if that's the story you're going to stick to, that's fine. We'll find out if you're lying soon enough. Take them!" he barked to the three other men.

Jaden found himself being hustled towards the door and for a moment put up a fight. His escort quickly brought about a change of mind in Jaden by twisting his wrist up between his shoulder blades. He gasped and stumbled over the uneven floor as the man roughly shoved him forward.

"I'm going, I'm going," Jaden protested. He shot a quick look at Andrew and Takyle to try to catch a sign; anything at all that would indicate a plan of action. He caught Andrew's eye, and his friend gave a minute shake of his head before looking away.

"Where are you taking us?" Takyle demanded as she was pushed in the direction of the hallway.

"Shut up, bitch," the fourth man responded, harshly. If Jaden hadn't been already watching Andrew, he would have missed what immediately happened. With no warning Andrew whipped around, somehow getting one arm free and using it to throw a powerful punch into the face of the man holding him. In surprise the man staggered backwards, barely keeping a hold on Andrew's other arm. Andrew grabbed the back of the man's head with his free hand and drove it down onto his raised knee to finish the job. His erstwhile captor fell backwards onto the ground, blood spurting from his nose and Andrew whirled to go for the fourth man, only to skid to a sudden halt as soon as he'd come around.

Several yards away, the man holding Takyle had one arm around her neck and was using the other one to aim his handgun at her temple. Andrew stood frozen in his tracks, breathing hard, eyes locked on Takyle's face. For a moment it felt to Jaden as if time had stopped. He was expressly aware of his heart beat thumping in his ears. Slowly Andrew raised his hands to chest level, palms out. A long moment passed in dead silence.

The man that Andrew had overpowered regained his feet and rushed up behind him, shoving his rifle into the small of Andrew's back.

"Move a muscle and I'll blow your fucking guts all over this room," he hissed. ~

Monday, August 11, 2008

Chapter 87: Visitors

~ A second resounding clang followed the first one and Andrew grabbed Takyle with one hand and Jaden with the other, pulling them back away from the door.

"Quiet!" he hissed. "I think someone's coming."

"Prepare to defend," ordered Takyle, pulling her arm loose from Andrew's grasp and laying a hand on her dagger in its sheath.

"Step away from the door!" a man's voice ordered from outside. "Face the wall and place you hands on your heads!"

"Ah hell," muttered Andrew."Boss?" Takyle shook her head.

"Stand your ground," she said quietly, eyes fixed on the door. Andrew and Jaden drew their daggers and Jaden moved around to the opposite side of the entry. There was more noise on the other side of the door and what sounded like locks being removed, followed by a moment of silence.

Out of the corner of his eye Jaden saw Takyle make a slashing movement across her neck with her torch. Jaden and Andrew nodded their understanding and switched off their flashlights, plunging them all back into darkness. Jaden held his breath.

With a bang the door flew open, flooding the chiseled room and the waiting trio with light. Four huge men stood in the opening with guns that looked capable of bringing down an elephant, and it was immediately obvious that resistance might not be the smartest option.

"Stand down," Takyle ordered as the men rushed in. Jaden's knife was quickly wrested from him and his arms were pinned behind his back by one of the unnaturally burly men.

"Hell dude, you don't have to be so rough, I'm not fighting back at all!" he heard Andrew protest. A third man grabbed Takyle's wrists and twisted them cruelly until she cried out and dropped her dagger and flashlight. Jaden thought that Andrew was going to come unglued.

The fourth man looked on silently as his three compatriots subdued Team 6 and then he stepped forward.

"Who do we have here? Team 6 is it? Scrappy bunch aren't you? Not that it did you any good."

"Who are you?" Takyle demanded.

"You just don't worry about that, missy. Now I'd like you to give me your map."

"What map?" asked Takyle, indignantly.

"I think you know what map. The only map you have. What did you do with it?"

"If you want it so bad, why don't you try to find it," she said. The man shrugged.

"Have it your way." A short distance away, the man holding Andrew wrenched his wrist up behind his back a good deal further than seemed natural. Andrew drew a quick, pained breath and closed his eyes for a moment before speaking through clenched teeth.

"Hey Takyle, you wanna consider going ahead and playing along with them before She-Hulk over here breaks my arm?"

"Yeah Takyle," taunted the fourth man, giving her a hungry leer; slowly running his eyes down her body and then back up again to her face. "A pretty little thing like you should know that you have to do what you're told, or you might get yourself in trouble with Daddy." The other three men laughed lecherously.

"Don't even think about it, you son of a bitch!" growled Andrew, with so much menace in his voice that it didn't even sound like his own. The fourth man fixed his cold gaze on Andrew and walked over to where he was being held. As Andrew struggled against the man gripping his arms, their leader drew back his fist and punched him hard in the face. ~

Friday, August 8, 2008

Chapter 86: Subterranean

~ "This is kinda freaky weird," commented Andrew as he played his flashlight beam over the chiseled granite walls. The room that they had fallen into was expansive and roughly cut from the surrounding stone. On one wall a riveted iron door was set into the rock, and it seemed to be the only access.

"I don't like the looks of this at all," he murmured.

By the light of Jaden's flashlight Takyle quickly located her backpack and pulled it close.

"Oh shit. A bunch of stuff fell out."

"It's ok; I'll help you gather it up," offered Andrew.

"And uh, I'll take a look around." Jaden got to his feet gingerly and flexed his back, wincing slightly.

"Be careful," Andrew reminded him, unnecessarily.

As Andrew and Takyle set to reassembling Takyle's pack, Jaden took a quick circuit of the room. The floor was rough and uneven, with large pieces of rock scattered here and there. It seemed more like a natural cave floor, with parts of it chiseled away so that it was for the most part vaguely level, than an artificial excavation.

"Perhaps it was a natural cave that was expanded at some point to form this chamber," mused Jaden silently. He shone his light up the walls and noted that they were almost perfectly vertical, and definitely worked, but the beam was too weak to reveal any detail on the high ceiling.

When he finally approached the large door, he did it cautiously and from an angle. He stood to the side of it and gave the handle a tug. The door didn't budge. He gave the slightly rusted iron a quick rap with the butt of his flashlight and heard a very solid thunk in return. So not a thin door either.

"Great. This is just great."

Jaden turned around to go see how his teammates were getting on and very nearly ran into Andrew.

"So the door's locked then?" Andrew asked, gazing up at it. Takyle stood next to him fiddling with her flashlight.

"Yeah. And at first inspection seems to be pretty solid."

"So what do you want to do, Boss?" asked Andrew.

"Um, well, first let's- Oh! I got it to work! And now it's not- And now it is again... Sorry. Let me see now. No other accesses, Jaden?" said Takyle, shining her now operational flashlight around the room.

"Sure don't seem to be."

Takyle opened her mouth and for the second time she was cut off. This time by a resounding clang from behind the iron door. ~

Monday, August 4, 2008

Chapter 85: Into the Unknown

~ Jaden stared out across the rocky mountaintop through the curtain of rain that poured over their ledge and couldn't help noticing that a sense of uneasiness was settling itself around him.

"How long are we going to stay here?" he asked without turning around.

"Hell Jay, you sound like you have someplace to be," said Andrew. Jaden paused before answering, listening for any signs of... well, anything really, but all that he could hear over the heavy rain was the occasional clap of thunder.

"I don't feel right here."

"Anything in particular that's bothering you?" asked Andrew, immediately attentive.

"I don't know... Just a feeling I guess." Andrew turned to Takyle.

"We should think about our next move as soon as possible then. As a general rule Jaden's feelings tend to be pretty spot on."

"Ok, Jaden, can you be any more specific at all?" asked Takyle.

"I think that part of it is I don't like the fact that we're stuck in this corner and we wouldn't be able to hear, or hardly even see anything that happened to come near. Maybe I'm just being too jumpy, but I feel damn uncomfortable about this."

Takyle opened her mouth to respond, but didn't have to chance to actually say anything before the ground dropped out from underneath them. They plummeted downward into darkness and the only thought on Jaden's mind was: "If this fall doesn't kill us, it's not going to do any favors for Andrew's stomach." And then he hit the ground hard and his breath was knocked right out of him. Above them the piece of rock that they had been sitting on under the ledge slammed shut again, leaving them in absolute night.

Before Jaden could manage to draw enough breath to say something, he heard Takyle moan quietly, and then Andrew's voice.

"Ow! Freaking hell, ow... Ow."

"Jaden, are you ok?" asked Takyle, her voice sounding faint and small in the black void.

"I think so," he gasped. He had managed to go somewhat limp before hitting the ground, and so seemed to have avoided any major injury, but when he tried to sit up, a shooting pain speared into his back. He held his breath until the wave passed, and then tried again, but slower this time. "Yeah, yeah I think I'm ok. You?"

"I'm fine, but I lost my pack in the fall. Do you still have yours on?"


"Where the hell are we?" moaned Andrew.

"Inside part of the mountain I guess. I think that my flashlight is broken. Yours?" Takyle asked. Jaden could hear her moving around, groping for her pack. A hand grabbed his leg and he yelped.

"It's just me," said Takyle. A beam of light cut through the darkness and played across Jaden's eyes.

"Oh, sorry," said Andrew, quickly directing his light elsewhere. The small torch sent very little illumination into the blackness that surrounded them. ~

Friday, August 1, 2008

Chapter 84: Rock and a Hard Place

~ Cover on the mountain top was sparse at best, but after some scouting Andrew managed to locate a small outcropping of rock that created a sheltered nook. Plenty deep to get out of the wind and most of the rain, but shallow enough that it wasn't harboring any interesting animal life.

"Guys, over here. Think I found what we're looking for."

Jaden and Takyle hurried towards his voice and found him crouching below the rock.

"What do you think? Good enough?"

"Excellent!" said Takyle, bending her head to join him, and finally get out of the downpour.

"Are you sure there's nothing...cute in there?" asked Jaden, warily.

"Well I'm in here," replied Andrew, in a hurt tone of voice.

"Oh tee hee. I'm comin' in; I better not crawl over anything exciting." Jaden bent at the waist and edged into the small space and immediately noticed something.

"This nook doesn't look exactly natural to me, guys. The rock almost looks machined."

Takyle switched on her flashlight to get a closer look. "You may be right about that. Think it means anything?"

"Dunno. Is it going to make a difference to us staying here even if it does?"

"Probably not. We won't stick around long," said Takyle. Andrew sat down and leaned back against the rock, closing his eyes for a moment.

"Wow, that climb didn't do me any favors."

"You're face doesn't do me any favors," replied Jaden, perfunctorily.

"I'd say something about your mom here, but honestly, she's so hot I just can't speak ill of her," said Andrew without opening his eyes.

"Jaden, give me some antisep will you? And you'd best clean yourself up while you have time," said Takyle. Jaden unzipped his pack and handed her a couple of packets. Takyle quickly swabbed down the deep cuts on her arm and inspected the damage.

"Well that ain't hardly nothin'," she commented, borrowing one of Andrew's phrases. She sprinkled antiseptic powder over the cuts and then reached over and tipped up Andrew's chin. "Let me clean that up for you." Andrew laughed.

"Oh, now you're nursing me back to health; that's pretty hot."

"Yeah, don't get too used to it. I'm not much of a caregiver."

"Have you told you mom that? Because last time I saw the two of you together she seemed pretty set on having grandchildren."

"You mean the only time you saw the two of us together, and yes, I have told my mother not to hold her breath. Don't know that it did any good, but I did tell her," said Takyle. Andrew flinched as she cleaned the abrasions on his jaw.

"Full disclosure: what more could a mother ask for?"

"That's what I said," Takyle agreed with a nod. "I was very nice about it."

"I've no doubt Ta. You're the soul of discretion."

"Don't I know it." ~